Nuclear threats are back in vogue, as is atomic unease. The West again stares down the barrel of the nuclear gun with a madman on the trigger. Elon Musk informs the public that the probability of nuclear war is rising. David Sacks, another of the PayPal Mafia, accuses a “neocon-woke alliance” of championing nuclear war. Russia’s nuclear rhetoric is intended to accomplish just this – sow division in the Western camp and trigger doubt over a long confrontation.
Foreign policy is the layman’s activity, at least in the Western political imaginary. American missteps in Iraq and Afghanistan, epitomized in the remark attributed to Barack Obama “don’t do stupid (stuff),” have justified all manner of commentators’ engagement in foreign policy debates. The intelligent financier should be equally capable—perhaps more capable—of conducting foreign affairs than the odious Washington and partisan establishment.
This assumes that foreign policy is not unique, a realm defined by contradiction and confusion, in which ethics and power are in tension, and judgment requires decades to cultivate. Arthur Vandenberg’s comment, that “politics stops at the water’s edge,” stemmed as much from a recognition of the demands international affairs impose as from genuine patriotism. In fact, politics ought to stop at the water’s edge: the international environment differs so radically from the domestic one.
Hence assessing Russian nuclear threats requires situating them in their context: both in the context of the current war and the far more crucial context of Russian strategic thought. Armed with these, it becomes clear that Russian threats are a form of manipulation targeting the West’s own proclivities and contradictions.
Nuclear use has no strategic purpose in the Ukraine War. Clear boundary conditions, stemming from Russian nuclear and Western conventional-nuclear capabilities, limit means and geography of violence, albeit predictably not its viciousness. Russia, increasingly cognizant of NATO’s overwhelming conventional superiority, wants to avoid a Russia-NATO war. NATO, recognizing that Russian nuclear weapons can cause significant damage, wants to avoid the same. Hence Russia strikes only within Ukraine and refrains from CBRN use, and NATO does not intervene directly in Ukraine despite providing the UAF with all manner of weapons and ISR/T support.
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