Remember, I am not a political pundit. All I can do is express an average liberal American’s worry about politics. So this average liberal was concerned by the NYT headline below (click on screenshot):
The normal first reaction would be “What the hell? First Biden threatens, and implements, in cooperation with other European and First World nations, extremely strict sanctions designed to make life very uncomfortable for Putin. Now, however, they’re worried that the imposition of those very sanctions will anger Putin even more, so that he’ll lash out like a fighting bull stabbed by a picador. Who’s in charge here?” From the NYT:
Senior White House officials designing the strategy to confront Russia have begun quietly debating a new concern: that the avalanche of sanctions directed at Moscow, which have gained speed faster than they imagined, is cornering President Vladimir V. Putin and may prompt him to lash out, perhaps expanding the conflict beyond Ukraine.
In Situation Room meetings in recent days, the issue has come up repeatedly, according to three officials. Mr. Putin’s tendency, American intelligence officials have told the White House and Congress, is to double down when he feels trapped by his own overreach. So they have described a series of possible reactions, ranging from indiscriminate shelling of Ukrainian cities to compensate for the early mistakes made by his invading force, to cyberattacks directed at the American financial system, to more nuclear threats and perhaps moves to take the war beyond Ukraine’s borders.
The debate over Mr. Putin’s next moves is linked to an urgent re-examination by intelligence agencies of the Russian leader’s mental state, and whether his ambitions and appetite for risk have been altered by two years of Covid isolation.
. . .Nonetheless, Mr. Putin’s reaction to the initial wave of sanctions has provoked a range of concerns that one senior official called the “Cornered Putin Problem.” Those concerns center on a series of recent announcements: the pullout of oil companies like Exxon and Shell from developing Russia’s oil fields, the moves against Russia’s central bank that sent the ruble plunging, and Germany’s surprise announcement that it would drop its ban on sending lethal weapons to the Ukrainian forces and ramp up its defense spending.
But beyond canceling the missile test, there is no evidence that the United States is considering steps to reduce tensions, and a senior official said there was no interest in backing off sanctions.
And indeed, from what I hear, the sanctions are playing hob with the Russian economy, exactly as intended. The Ukrainians, though doomed, are fighting back gallantly, earning the admiration of all lovers of democracy. So why are people worried even more now? Well, the nervous Nellies have three concerns:
1.) More hacking. From the NYT:
“If the situation escalates further, I think we are going to see Russian cyberattacks against our critical infrastructure,” said Representative Mike Gallagher, Republican of Wisconsin, a member of the House Intelligence Committee who served as co-chairman of an influential cyberspace commission.
I’m sure the Russians are already hacking the U.S. and our allies as hard as they can. But of course we can do the same to them.
2.) Further expansion by Putin.
Another possibility is that Mr. Putin will threaten to push further into Moldova or Georgia, which, like Ukraine, are not members of NATO — and thus territory that the American and NATO forces would not enter. Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken is making Moldova one of his stops on a reassurance tour that began on Thursday.
There’s not much more escalation we can use to deter Putin from expanding into other non-Nato countries—or even NATO ones. Will the U.S. be willing to start WW III if Putin decides to take over the Baltic countries, which are NATO members? I doubt it.
There are larger worries, involving potential nuclear threats. Last Sunday, as the fighting accelerated, Belarus passed a referendum that amended its constitution to allow for nuclear weapons to be based, once again, on its territory. American officials are expecting that President Aleksandr G. Lukashenko may well ask Mr. Putin to place tactical weapons in his country, where they would be closer to European capitals. And Mr. Putin has shown, twice this week, that he is ready to remind the world of the powers of his arsenal.
Don’t forget that tactical nuclear weapons are not huge A-bombs like those used in WWII (or the later H-bombs). They are smaller, less powerful, and yes, tactical. They are battlefield weapons, not meant to vaporize cities.
The thing is, Russia doesn’t need them to conquer any of the non-NATO countries in Europe. Though Russian forces advanced more slowly than anyone expected, Putin won’t need nukes to take the entire Ukraine. It’s anyone’s guess what would happen if the Russians used tactical nukes, but it is unnecessary for them to get what they want. They are really threatening the use of major nukes, I think, as a form of psychological warfare.
All bets are off, of course, if NATO declares a U.S. no-fly zone over Ukraine. That would mean allied planes shooting at Russian ones, and that’s a huge escalation of the hostilities—something I would worry about. But we should give Zelenskyy all the damn planes he wants, up until the point where the war is clearly lost. He wants a no-fly zone, and NATO has properly said “no.”
As I’ve said repeatedly, trying to suss out Putin’s mentality reminds me of Tom Nagel’s famous article, “What is it like to be a bat?” (See original paper here.) All I can think of when I try to psychologize Putin are these two lines from the Doors’ song “Riders on the Storm.”
There’s a killer on the road
His brain is squirming like a toad
We don’t know what he’s thinking or what he’s capable of doing. But when you see headlines like the one above, which implies that U.S. defense strategists are second-guessing the Biden administration’s actions, it worries me. Good therapists will not diagnose patients they haven’t met, and even if they do, they cannot predict what a maniac like Putin will do.
And don’t get me started about those liberals who blame Putin’s invasion on the “expansionism” of the U.S. and NATO.