O verjetnosti jedrske vojne zaradi vojne v Ukrajini sem pred dvema tednoma že pisal tukaj. Pred dnevi je svoje razmišljanje o tem v Foreign Affairs objavil tudi ugledni profesor političnih ved John L. Mearsheimer. Mearsheimer, kot veste, zagovarja stališče, da je bila Rusija k napadu na Ukrajino sprovocirana z ameriškim širjenjem Nata (tukaj je njegov tekst v Foreign Affairs iz septembra 2014, tukaj pa njegovo predavanje iz junija letos na EUI v Firencah). Mearsheimer v tekstu razčlenjuje različne scenarije, po katerih bi bodisi ZDA bodisi Rusija lahko posegle po jedrskem orožju.
Ključna v tej zadevi so tri spoznanja. Prvič, da gre v Ukrajini dejansko za proxy vojno med ZDA in Rusijo, to je vidno že iz vojaškega angažmaja ZDA v Ukrajini (dobave orožja, usposabljanje ukrajinskih enot, servisiranje z varnostnimi informacijami in vodenje strategije). Drugič, da te vojne nobena izmed obeh strani ne sme izgubiti. Ali bolje rečeno, da si nobena izmed obeh strani ne more privoščiti, da bi izgubila vojno v Ukrajini. ZDA zaradi prestiža (izguba ugleda kot svetovnega hegemona), Rusija pa zaradi eksistenčnega problema (če Rusija izgubi, bo plačala neizmerno ceno v obliki popolne degradacije kot države in nekdanje velesile). In tretjič, konflikt med ZDA in Rusijo je šel predaleč, obe strani sta tako globoko involvirani, da je diplomatska rešitev v doglednem času zelo malo verjetna. Zelo malo verjetno v mandatu sedanjega ameriškega predsednika Bidena, kar vojno v Ukrajini podaljšuje vsaj še za dve leti in pol. Če se seveda vmes Rusija ne umakne ali pa se ne zgodi katastrofa.
Vse to pa govori o tem, da jedrske opcije ni mogoče izločiti. Mearsheimer za razliko od ostalih analitikov tukaj ne izključuje možnosti, da bi ZDA izzvale Rusijo, da bi ta odgovorila z jedrskim orožjem. To pa bi lahko bilo v primeru, če bi se ZDA neposredno angažirale v Ukrajini in s tem neformalno stopile v vojno z Rusijo. ZDA bi se denimo lahko neposredno vključile, če bi si zaradi domače politične situacije želele na hitro končati vojno v Ukrajini. Ali bolj verjetno, če bi se ukrajinska vojska sesula in bi Rusija dosegla veliko zmago. Ali v primeru, če bi Litva blokirala transportne poti do Kaliningrada in bi Rusija posredovala v Litvi, ki je članica Nata. Ali če bi Rusija neposredno raketirala Kijev. Lahko tudi v primeru slučajnih dogodkov, kot je kolizija ameriških in ruskih vojaških letal itd. Za Rusijo pa bi glavna trigerja, da načrtno uporabi jedrsko orožje, seveda bila, prvič, da se v vojno v Ukrajini neposredno vključijo ZDA in države Nata. In drugič, če bi Rusija začela izgubljati v Ukrajini, zaradi česar bi v obupu politično vodstvo poseglo po jedrskem orožju.
Zame je glavni problem seveda to, da se ta proxy vojna slonov odvija na terenu tretje države, Ukrajine, in da bodo ceno tega spopada slonov plačali najprej Ukrajinci, ki jim je vzeta sedanjost in prihodnost. Njihova država bo porušena, prihodnost pa ne obeta nič dobrega v doglednem času. In seveda, ceno bo plačala tudi Evropa. V primeru dolge vojne bomo Evropejci plačevali visoke cene za energente in hrano, kar bo politično destabiliziralo Evropo. V primeru jedrske eskalacije pa je itak konec vsega. Za ZDA je to lahko zgolj strateška igra, ki se igra tisoče kilometrov daleč stran od njih, ki nima vpliva na cene energentov in gospodarstvo ZDA in ki bi v primeru jedrske eskalacije lahko odnesle bistveno bolje kot Evropa, kjer bi se zgodil sodni dan.
Zato od začetka vojne v Ukrajini zagovarjam stališče, da je treba takoj doseči premirje in da se je treba dogovoriti glede spornih zadev (avtonomija obeh regij, neodvisnost Krima, vojaška nevtralnost Ukrajine). Tega spora z vojaškimi sredstvi ni mogoče rešiti, če pa pride do totalne (jedrske) eskalacije, pa je “rešitev” irelevantna, saj ne bo ostalo ničesar več. Tisti, ki jim je mar Ukrajine in ukrajinskega prebivalstva, bi se morali zavzeti za čim hitrejšo mirno rešitev, ne pa za spodbujanje nadaljevanja vojskovanja.
In essence, Kyiv, Washington, and Moscow are all deeply committed to winning at the expense of their adversary, which leaves little room for compromise. Neither Ukraine nor the United States, for example, is likely to accept a neutral Ukraine; in fact, Ukraine is becoming more closely tied with the West by the day. Nor is Russia likely to return all or even most of the territory it has taken from Ukraine, especially since the animosities that have fueled the conflict in the Donbas between pro-Russian separatists and the Ukrainian government for the past eight years are more intense than ever.
These conflicting interests explain why so many observers believe that a negotiated settlement will not happen any time soon and thus foresee a bloody stalemate. They are right about that. But observers are underestimating the potential for catastrophic escalation that is built into a protracted war in Ukraine.
There are three basic routes to escalation inherent in the conduct of war: one or both sides deliberately escalate to win, one or both sides deliberately escalate to prevent defeat, or the fighting escalates not by deliberate choice but inadvertently. Each pathway holds the potential to bring the United States into the fighting or lead Russia to use nuclear weapons, and possibly both.
Once the Biden administration concluded that Russia could be beaten in Ukraine, it sent more (and more powerful) arms to Kyiv. The West began increasing Ukraine’s offensive capability by sending weapons such as the HIMARS multiple launch rocket system, in addition to “defensive” ones such as the Javelin antitank missile. Over time, both the lethality and quantity of the weaponry has increased. Consider that in March, Washington vetoed a plan to transfer Poland’s MiG-29 fighter jets to Ukraine on the grounds that doing so might escalate the fight, but in July it raised no objections when Slovakia announced that it was considering sending the same planes to Kyiv. The United States is also contemplating giving its own F-15s and F-16s to Ukraine.
The United States and its allies are also training the Ukrainian military and providing it with vital intelligence that it is using to destroy key Russian targets. Moreover, as The New York Times has reported, the West has “a stealthy network of commandos and spies” on the ground inside Ukraine. Washington may not be directly engaged in the fighting, but it is deeply involved in the war. And it is now just a short step away from having its own soldiers pulling triggers and its own pilots pressing buttons.
What about the ultimate form of escalation? There are three circumstances in which Putin might use nuclear weapons. The first would be if the United States and its NATO allies entered the fight. Not only would that development markedly shift the military balance against Russia, greatly increasing the likelihood of its defeat, but it would also mean that Russia would be fighting a great-power war on its doorstep that could easily spill into its territory. Russian leaders would surely think their survival was at risk, giving them a powerful incentive to use nuclear weapons to rescue the situation. At a minimum, they would consider demonstration strikes intended to convince the West to back off. Whether such a step would end the war or lead it to escalate out of control is impossible to know in advance.
In his February 24 speech announcing the invasion, Putin strongly hinted that he would turn to nuclear weapons if the United States and its allies entered the war. Addressing “those who may be tempted to interfere,” he said, “they must know that Russia will respond immediately, and the consequences will be such as you have never seen in your entire history.” His warning was not lost on Avril Haines, the U.S. director of national intelligence, who predicted in May that Putin might use nuclear weapons if NATO “is either intervening or about to intervene,” in good part because that “would obviously contribute to a perception that he is about to lose the war in Ukraine.”
In the second nuclear scenario, Ukraine turns the tide on the battlefield by itself, without direct U.S. involvement. If Ukrainian forces were poised to defeat the Russian army and take back their country’s lost territory, there is little doubt that Moscow could easily view this outcome as an existential threat that required a nuclear response. After all, Putin and his advisers were sufficiently alarmed by Kyiv’s growing alignment with the West that they deliberately chose to attack Ukraine, despite clear warnings from the United States and its allies about the grave consequences that Russia would face. Unlike in the first scenario, Moscow would be employing nuclear weapons not in the context of a war with the United States but against Ukraine. It would do so with little fear of nuclear retaliation, since Kyiv has no nuclear weapons and since Washington would have no interest in starting a nuclear war. The absence of a clear retaliatory threat would make it easier for Putin to contemplate nuclear use.
In the third scenario, the war settles into a protracted stalemate that has no diplomatic solution and becomes exceedingly costly for Moscow. Desperate to end the conflict on favorable terms, Putin might pursue nuclear escalation to win. As with the previous scenario, where he escalates to avoid defeat, U.S. nuclear retaliation would be highly unlikely. In both scenarios, Russia is likely to use tactical nuclear weapons against a small set of military targets, at least initially. It could strike towns and cities in later attacks if necessary. Gaining a military advantage would be one aim of the strategy, but the more important one would be to deal a game-changing blow—to create such fear in the West that the United States and its allies move quickly to end the conflict on terms favorable to Moscow. No wonder William Burns, the director of the CIA, remarked in April, “None of us can take lightly the threat posed by a potential resort to tactical nuclear weapons or low-yield nuclear weapons.”
One might concede that although one of these catastrophic scenarios could theoretically happen, the chances are small and thus should be of little concern. After all, leaders on both sides have powerful incentives to keep the Americans out of the fighting and avoid even limited nuclear use, not to mention an actual nuclear war.
If only one could be so sanguine. In fact, the conventional view vastly understates the dangers of escalation in Ukraine. For starters, wars tend to have a logic of their own, which makes it difficult to predict their course. Anyone who says that they know with confidence what path the war in Ukraine will take is mistaken. The dynamics of escalation in wartime are similarly hard to predict or control, which should serve as a warning to those who are confident that events in Ukraine can be managed. Furthermore, as the Prussian military theorist Carl von Clausewitz recognized, nationalism encourages modern wars to escalate to their most extreme form, especially when the stakes are high for both sides. That is not to say that wars cannot be kept limited, but doing so is not easy. Finally, given the staggering costs of a great-power nuclear war, even a small chance of it occurring should make everyone think long and hard about where this conflict might be headed.
This perilous situation creates a powerful incentive to find a diplomatic solution to the war. Regrettably, however, there is no political settlement in sight, as both sides are firmly committed to war aims that make compromise almost impossible. The Biden administration should have worked with Russia to settle the Ukraine crisis before war broke out in February. It is too late now to strike a deal. Russia, Ukraine, and the West are stuck in a terrible situation with no obvious way out. One can only hope that leaders on both sides will manage the war in ways that avoid catastrophic escalation. For the tens of millions of people whose lives are at stake, however, that is cold comfort.
Vir: John L. Mearsheimer, Foreign Affairs