Since Vladimir Putin began threatening an invasion of Ukraine, the West has had to grapple with the grimmest of dilemmas: How to confront a nuclear power like Russia without risking a nuclear war.
It is not a new dilemma, however. It inspired much of modern game theory, developed by academic theorists like Thomas Schelling and studied by generals and top government officials throughout the Cold War.
The basic theory makes clear that it is possible to challenge another country with nuclear weapons. Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy and other American presidents have done so, threatening force against Soviet troops and, on a few occasions, even using it. Yet these confrontations are extremely sensitive, requiring careful measures to minimize the chances of escalation.
The Biden administration and its European allies are following a version of this strategy in Ukraine. In addition to imposing tough economic sanctions against Russia, the coalition is arming Ukraine with weapons — while also cautiously signaling it has no plans to expand the conflict by invading Russia, as Putin seems to fear.
“The balancing act informs every aspect of American policy about the war,” a recent Times analysis explained. As Andrea Kendall-Taylor of the Center for a New American Security says, President Biden and his aides “are trying to figure out how do you get right up to the line without crossing over in a way that would risk direct confrontation with Russia.”
The balance involves vexing trade-offs in which almost any step that helps Ukraine defend itself also risks offending Putin.
Some observers — including many conservatives, but not only them — believe that the U.S. and Western Europe have been too timid. (Bret Stephens, the Times columnist, has made this case.) Michael McFaul, a U.S. ambassador to Russia under Barack Obama, wrote in The Washington Post, “More Western military assistance, especially weapons that can shoot down Russian airplanes and rockets or destroy artillery, is immediately needed for ending the war.”
Other analysts believe that the U.S. and Europe have been quite confrontational. They have levied harsh sanctions, provided Ukraine with weapons and massed troops in NATO countries near Russia’s borders. Going much further, these analysts say, could lead Putin to attack a NATO country, potentially sparking a world war.
Already, a nuclear attack — while unlikely — has become more plausible than at any point since the Cuban missile crisis in 1962, my colleague Max Fisher has written. “The prospect of nuclear war,” António Guterres, the U.N. secretary general, warned last week, “is now back within the realm of possibility.”
(“To ignore it,” Thomas Friedman writes, “would be naïve in the extreme.”)
Today’s newsletter lays out both sides of the issue: How else can the U.S., E.U., Britain, Turkey and others help Ukraine? And how can these countries signal to Putin that they are not seeking a larger war?
What the U.S. is doing
The guiding principle for which weapons the U.S. is willing to send Ukraine is straightforward: weapons that can help Ukraine defend itself but that would not be useful in an invasion of Russia.
If you’re confused about why anybody is talking about an invasion of Russia, don’t feel bad. The Biden administration and its European allies are in no way considering an invasion of Russia. The problem is that Putin does not believe that.
He knows that the West wishes he were no longer Russia’s leader, and he knows that the U.S. has a recent history of fighting wars of regime change, in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Syria. Putin puts these two facts together and worries about a military campaign to remove him from power.
“It might ring crazy to you or me,” Max says, “but is seen within Moscow as highly plausible and is a point of obsession.”
For this reason, the West has been sending weapons to Ukraine that are more useful for defense than offense. The list includes shoulder-fired missiles (like Javelins, NLAWs and Stingers) and drones that can shoot guided missiles at troops inside Ukraine but that lack the range to reach Russia. The U.S. and Europe are trying to send large numbers of these weapons to Ukraine before Russia takes over so much of the country that delivery becomes difficult, Eric Schmitt, a senior writer at The Times, says.
And what it isn’t
By contrast, the Biden administration has firmly rejected requests from Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, to establish a no-fly zone over Ukraine. Doing so would probably require bombing weapons systems inside Russia that help protect its planes while they are over Ukraine.
The administration has also blocked Zelensky’s request for MiG-29 fighter planes from Poland that could help Ukraine attack Russian troops from the air. The planes would feed into Russian fears of an invasion because — as U.S. generals said during a closed-door session with Congress last week — they could reach Moscow from Ukraine within minutes.
Still, the Biden administration is discussing one new idea: whether to encourage Turkey to send S-400 antiaircraft missile systems to Ukraine. The S-400 (which happens to be Russian-made) travels on the back of a truck and can shoot down planes. U.S. officials are unsure how Putin might react if Ukraine received them.
Game theory looms over all of these questions.
Putin, of course, has an interest in making the West believe that he would be angered by almost any substantive help to Ukraine. Doing so can help maintain Russia’s military advantage. The Biden administration, in turn, would be acting naïvely — and effectively abandoning Ukraine — by taking Putin at his word.
On the other hand, confronting him so aggressively that he fears for his political life could set off a larger war. It could lead Putin to attack a NATO country on Ukraine’s border, like Poland, through which Western weapons are flowing to Ukraine.
There are no easy answers. It is a dilemma out of the Cold War, in which both timidity and aggression carry risks. “Brinkmanship,” Schelling wrote, “is thus the deliberate creation of a recognizable risk of war, a risk that one does not completely control.”
ARTS AND IDEAS
The long-running Eurovision Song Contest pits countries against one another for pop supremacy. Acts like ABBA (Sweden), Celine Dion (Switzerland) and Julio Iglesias (Spain) were all competitors once. Now, the U.S. wants to recreate some of Eurovision’s magic with “American Song Contest,” which premieres tonight on NBC.
Hosted by Kelly Clarkson and Snoop Dogg, the Americanized version features states and territories, Elisabeth Vincentelli writes in The Times. Here’s a primer.
Will I know any of the songs? Nope, they have to be new, though contestants don’t have to write their own stuff.
Who’s competing? The contest has 56 entries, ranging from Sabyu, from the Northern Mariana Islands (population 47,000), to Sweet Taboo, representing California (nearly 40 million people). Jewel (who grew up yodeling in famously tough conditions in Alaska), Michael Bolton (Connecticut) and Sisqó (Maryland) are among the famous names.
Who’s voting? Viewers will vote on songs, alongside a 56-person jury, with one member from each state or territory.
Eurovision has some crazy performances. Will this version? “One person’s cliché is another person’s truth,” an executive producer said. “Some of them are self-aware, some of them aren’t.” — Sanam Yar, a Morning writer