The Anti-Ukraine-Aid Crowd is Using the Accidental Missile Strike in Poland to Argue, Yet Again, that Escalation is Imminent, so We should Cut Off Ukraine. This is Wrong and has been All Year.

downloadThe anti-Ukraine-aid crowd has jumped from one argument to another to get NATO to stop helping Ukraine since February. Many of these claims are inconsistent, but that makes no difference, because their real purpose is to help Putin win the war by saying anything which might convince NATO to halt aid to Ukraine.

This is why the MAGA right and ‘anti-imperial’ left keep bringing up these arguments. They want Putin to win for their own ideological reasons, but they don’t want to say that publicly, because it is embarrassing to side with a fascist imperialist who commits war crimes. So instead they jump from one disconnected argument to another, whose only commonality is the policy recommendation that we abandon Ukraine. And this week’s missile strike in Poland – likely an accident of Ukraine missile defense debris falling on that country – is being instrumentalized yet again for this purpose.

Let’s review the say-anything laundry list of reasons we should abandon Ukraine:

– First we were told that Ukraine couldn’t possibly win the war, so helping it would needlessly provoke Russia.

– Then we heard that because Russia is a ‘great power,’ there really isn’t much we can do. The Ukrainians just have to suffer like the Melians.

– Then, after Russia stumbled, we heard that aid to Ukraine would prolong the war, so we should cut it off to force a settlement.

– Then, after Russia started losing the war, we heard that aid was so expensive that we couldn’t afford it in these times of inflation and rising energy costs, despite a bill around $100 billion against a combined NATO GDP of $40 trillion.

– Then we heard that NATO aid was depleting NATO’s own weapons stocks so much that it would vulnerable to a Russian attack, the same Russia which can’t subdue Ukraine

– Then we heard that European winter heating bills would be sky high because of the Russian gas cut-off. So we should abandon Ukraine, because Germans and Italians apparently won’t wear sweaters when it is cold.

– Then we heard that aid keeps going a war which might escalate into a NATO-Russian general war, a nuclear exchange, or even World War III.

I find this so exasperating and craven. Pro-Putin MAGA righties should just be honest that they admire the Christian nationalist authoritarianism of Putin and Orban. Similarly, anti-imperial lefties should just say that a Putin victory would be a deserved defeat of Western imperialism, neocons, and the blob. Stop lying and pretending you care about peace or stability or whatever.

I wrote an essay on this for Channel News Asia. After the jump is my pre-edited version of that op-ed.

Continue reading

How will NATO Respond in the Unlikely Event Russia Uses a Nuke in Ukraine? We will Not Counter-Nuke; We have Many Other Options

Ukraine-3Russian nuclear use in Ukraine is extremely unlikely, and NATO would not hit back with a nuke even if they did.

I am fairly exhausted with the lurid alarmism that we are tumbling toward world war 3 or some kind of nuclear exchange with Russia. I have argue against this here, here, and here.

This claim mostly gets brought up my pro-Putin voices in the West whose real interest is a Russian victory in the war. They therefore stoke exaggerated fears of nuclear war to push NATO to stop aiding Ukraine. The bad faith – the manipulation of nuclear anxieties to pursue unrelated ideological goals – is transparent.

Mostly this comes from MAGA rightists, for whom Russia and Hungary are models of ‘post-liberal’ governance, plus some ‘anti-imperial’ leftists for whom US action is ipso facto bad. Both are trying to scare NATO into cutting off aid to Ukraine by threat-inflating a nuclear exchange. In fact, that event is VERY unlikely.

Further, even if Russia did use a nuke in Ukraine, there is no obvious reason for NATO to hit back in-kind. There is only a ‘slide’ toward escalation if both sides do it, and the US won’t counter-nuke, because 1) it does not want to slide toward a wider nuclear exchange, and 2) it has lots of other economic and conventional options to respond.

I cover those options in this essay for 1945.com:

Throughout his war in Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin has obliquely hinted that he might use nuclear weapons. I have argued in these pages that this is unlikely. There is no obvious Ukrainian military or infrastructural target of a size commensurate with a nuclear weapon’s power. Russia would be badly isolated by the rest of the world if it took this step, so any target would need to be worth the huge geopolitical blowback. Ukraine does not appear to have one. Its army is spread out across a thousand-mile front. None of its important infrastructure is so massive that it needs a nuke to disable. Much of the nuke-talk in the West is overwrought.

Nevertheless, it is wise to consider how NATO and the wider world of democracies will and should respond if Putin nonetheless takes this step. If Putin is losing badly in Ukraine and his rule at home is threatened by widespread unrest over the course of the war– a somewhat credible scenario for next year – perhaps he will take this gamble to turn things around. So what will the West do?

We Won’t Counter-Nuke Russia

So long as a Russia nuclear strike was limited to Ukraine, NATO would almost certainly not respond in kind. To do so would risk a further Russian nuclear response and a spiral of nuclear exchanges. The Ukrainians might be so shocked and horrified by the extraordinary damage, that they would demand this. But the West will almost reject that request, just as it rejected Ukrainian demands for a no-fly zone back in March.

But the West also need not escalate like that. NATO is conventionally superior to Russia, and that lead has widened considerably because of Russian losses in Ukraine. If Russia cannot defeat Ukraine, then it is very vulnerable to NATO conventional retaliation. The West will almost certainly start there, if only to prevent nuclear escalation.

Read the rest here.

Russia Won’t Use Nuclear Weapons in Ukraine – Enough with Your Creepy Dr. Strangelove Fantasies

Russia-Nuclear-WarThere is no obvious Ukrainian target worth the massive geopolitical blowback of a nuclear strike, so I think it is extremely unlikely.

This is a re-post of an op-ed I wrote for 1945.com.

So much of the debate around nukes is lurid apocalypticism, what Cheryl Rofer rightly calls ‘nukeporn.’ Nukes fascinate people, in a creepy strangelovian way. We get carried away with dark fantasies of mass death and Mad Max. It’s all very Freudian Thanatos weirdness. So the good news is that Putin probably won’t use them, because they won’t help him win, because:

1. There’s no military or infrastructural target in Ukraine remotely commensurate with that much force.

2. The global backlash would vastly outweigh whatever middling target was chosen.

3. The Russian army in Ukraine would likely be hit by it too.

4. Ukraine wouldn’t give up anyway.

I suppose Putin might drop a strategic nuke on a city and kill 200,000 people. But the global blowback from that nuclear genocide would be even more extreme. NATO would likely enter the war directly; even China might.

Here is the full essay at 1945:

In the last few weeks, there has been widespread speculation that Russian President Vladimir Putin might use a nuclear weapon in his war against Ukraine. This has generated speculation on how the West might react, including the use of nuclear weapons in response. As Cheryl Rofer notes, much of this commentary has been irresponsible, trading on the lurid, apocalyptic possibilities of nuclear weapons to throw out alarmist scenarios. Her trenchant term for this is ‘nukeporn.’ She is almost certainly right.

Putin’s Nuclear War? Not Likely to Happen

Putin is highly unlikely to use nuclear weapons. He even had to say he is not bluffing, because he has been, with nukes, since the start of the war. And given that Putin supporters in the West have been the ones talking up this contingency, one strongly suspects bad faith. That is, Putin’s Western flunkies are hyping nuclear war to scare the West into ceasing aid to Ukraine, in order to help Russia win the war, which is their real goal.

There are at least four major reasons why Russian nuclear escalation is a huge gamble, with such a low upside probability, that use is unlikely:

Read the rest here.

And if you really want to know what NATO would do if Putin did drop a nuke, here are my thoughts on that. But it’s not gonna happen, so relax.

Russian Nuclear Scenarios in the Ukraine War: Unlikely, but if Putin is Facing Strategic Defeat and National & Personal Humiliation, Maybe

_126834848_342d3270-42f1-445b-9b20-3a0f4c541ec2If the Russian reservist mobilization fails to stop Ukrainian counter-offensives, then Putin might consider nuclear escalation.

This is a re-post of an op-ed I wrote for Channel News Asia on possible Russian nuclear use scenarios in the Ukraine war.

I continue to be pretty skeptical of this, at least at the moment. As I argued on Twitter, it is just not clear to me what target in Ukraine is so valuable and big that it merits the huge geopolitical blowback risk of this dramatic step. For example, is the Ukrainian army so massed together that it would be justify this much force? Not that I know of. Is there an infrastructure target in Ukraine which is so large and so strategically significant that a nuke would be worth the risk? Again, I don’t think so. Most of what Ukraine has which is worth striking can be attacked with conventional weapons.

The one possible option is a ‘counter-value’ nuking of a Ukrainian city – to shock Ukraine into surrender, and even wipe out the Ukrainian leadership in one stroke if the target were Kiev. But this would kill so many people that it would look like nuclear genocide. Russia’s friends would all abandon it, and NATO might well openly enter the war.

I cover a lot of this in the CNA essay. Here is the original, pre-edited version:

Russian President Vladimir Putin is in a tight spot. His invasion of Ukraine is flailing. He expected a quick victory when he launched his February attack. A blitzkrieg would allow him to replace Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky with a Russian stooge. This puppet would block Ukraine’s drift toward the West and allow the Russian army to withdraw. Similar to Putin’s rapid absorption of Crimea in 2014, the Ukraine war would be over before the West had a chance to respond.

Instead, the war degenerated into an expensive stalemate. The Russian army took territory in the south and east early on but has been unable to make major gains since then. Putin’s best units have already been committed to the war and are degraded after months of combat. Ukraine has fought back ferociously and launched a counter-offensive earlier this month which retrieved about 20% of Putin’s initial gains.

Putin has panicked, declaring a massive mobilization of Russian reservists. But there is widespread suspicion in the analyst community that these forces will not win the war, just drag it out. Russia does not have the logistical capability to deploy, train, or kit these new forces properly. Stories are already emerging of these newly impressed reservists being sent to Ukraine with no training. The sheer size of Russia’s mobilized army may slow down Ukraine, but it is unlikely to change the long-term outcome – Russian exhaustion and withdrawal.

Please read the rest here.

My Extended Comments on Potential South Korean/Japanese Nuclearization for the Asian Leadership Conference and Foreign Policy Magazine

imageI spoke at the Asian Leadership Conference in Seoul a few weeks ago on S Korean/Japanese indigenous nuclearization and then published my basic thinking with Foreign Policy magazine on the topic a few days later.

Both of the venues required a more abbreviated presentation for time/space constraints, so I thought I would put up my full remarks here, at my own site. Here is the 2022 ALC site, and here is my original article for FP.

In brief, my argument is that the US should get out of the way to let Seoul and Tokyo make up their own mind. The US has long opposed ROK/Jpn nuclearization, but increasingly that strikes me as inappropriately hegemonic or strong-arming of them. There is a pretty strong case for SK and Japan to counter-nuclearize against China, Russia, and especially NK. I sketch that in detail after the jump, but the short version is:

1. The US is not going to exchange LA for Seoul/Tokyo. In 1961, de Gaulle asked JFK would he exchange NY for Paris. JFK waffled; de Gaulle was no idiot; he built French nukes shortly afterwards. The logic is the same here. The US is not going to fight a nuclear war solely for non-Americans. This will raise endless, irresolvable credibility debates between the US and its Asian allies. The best way to resolve that is to do what our European allies did – self-insure through indigenous nuclearization.

2. Trump will likely get elected – or ‘elected’ – in 2024, and he will ‘blow up’ the ROK alliance as he promised he would. So ROK nuclearization may happen no matter what we think. And a US retrenchment from SK would probably scare Japan so much that the whole nuclear debate there would shift substantially to the right.

There is a lot of anxiety about this step, and I share it too. So I don’t endorse SK/J nuclearization. But there is SK polling showing high interest in this, and SK is terribly exposed to NK nuclear devastation with few good options as the NKs continue to build relentlessly. (All this I cover below.) So the least we Americans can do is get out of the way and let them debate it themselves.

The original, pre-edited FP essay on this follows below the jump:

Continue reading

US Foreign Policy Restraint Does Not Mean Abandoning Ukraine, per Kissinger (nor Taiwan); Proxy Wars are Not Direct Wars

M1A2 Live-FirePursuing a restrained US foreign policy is compatible with helping Ukraine, because restraint still takes threats seriously and Putin is pretty obviously one.

This is a re-post of an essay I just wrote for 1945.com.

I am pretty shocked at how quickly Western opinion gravitated toward abandoning Ukraine just because gas prices and inflation went up.Good grief, people. Ukraine is getting taken apart piece by piece by a quasi-fascist aggressor deploying something like death squads behind the lines, and we can’t tolerate some minor lifestyle pain? Are we seriously that decadent?

More broadly, everybody knows the US needs to follow a more restrained foreign policy. I supported the Afghan withdrawal, even as people we losing their mind that is meant the end of the Western alliance. Helping Ukraine as a proxy does not violate that.

And Kissinger’s schtick that we should arm-twist the victim of the war into giving up tells you more about how Kissinger’s creepy fascination with power and might than it does about US or Western interests. (It’s the same reason he’s been sucking up to China under Xi.)

The war is breaking Russia’s claim to be a great power; we don’t need to treat Putin like he has some realist ‘right’ to stomp on his neighbors. And its pretty clear that Putin is a threat. He’s built a quasi-fascist regime at home and his meddled in his neighbors’ sovereignty for decades. Aren’t we supposed to balance power and threat, not fetishize it?

So yes, the US itself should not march into more quagmires. And yes, the US should not be directly militarily involved in Ukraine. But it is a proxy war pretty obviously in Western national interest, because Putin is pretty obviously a threat. And don’t wave Putin’s nukes around in bad faith. He’s not going to go nuclear against the West, nor does he anticipate a war with the West. If he did, he wouldn’t be allowing his army to be ground up just to take the Donbas. This nuclear scare-mongering is just deflection by pro-Russian MAGA pundits like Rod Dreher, Michael Tracey, or Tucker Carlson to undercut Ukraine, whom they want to lose.

Here is that 1945.com essay:

As the war on terror went off the rails in the last two decades, calls for the US to show greater restraint in its foreign policy grew. One hears such language regularly now from both US political parties. Crucially however, greater caution in US foreign policy need not translate into abandoning Ukraine to be slowly taken apart by Russia. Greater ‘realism’ in US – and Western – foreign policy is not the same thing as cynicism. There is a clear prudential case for helping Ukraine.

Greater Restraint

By now the case for greater restraint in US foreign policy is well understood. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the United States emerged as the sole superpower, far ahead of any potential rivals. While the administration of President Bill Clinton did not fully grasp just how distinct the US had become, the next administration of President George W. Bush did. And in the wake of the 9/11 terror strike, it launched a massive effort to re-make the Middle East, something only a state with the extraordinary leverage the US had would even contemplate. This led to exorbitant claims fifteen years ago that the US was an ‘empire.’

Read the rest here.

Does South Korea Need a Aircraft Carrier? Creeping Chinese Control of the South China Sea’s Oil Sea Lane is the Best Argument for It

South Korea's new CVX Aircraft Carrier project: An overview - Naval NewsThere has a been a pretty vibrant debate in South Korea over building an indigenous aircraft carrier. That debate has been especially resonant where I live – Busan – because it would probably be built here.

This post is a re-up of an op-ed I wrote for the Japan Times this week. I also wrote on this once before for a ROK navy-adjacent think-tank.

IMO, the best argument for a ROK carrier is China’s creeping, long-term effort to dominate the South China Sea. Oil from the Persian Gulf traverses the SCS on its way to East Asia’s democracies – Japan, South Korea, Taiwan. Chinese control of the SCS oil sea lane would allow the PLAN to embargo carbon imports for whatever bogus reason Beijing could think of.

We can be sure that Chinese bullying in the region will use this tool as soon as China consolidates control of the SCS and puts up enough bases to launch blockades. Indeed, I have long thought that this is the primary reason China wants to control the SCS so badly. It’s not clear that there are a lot of natural resources in the seabed there or that they can be cost-effectively extracted. And all the little islands and sandbars in the SCS aren’t valuable in themselves.

But this would require SK to start seriously thinking about 1) power projection southward, 2) contesting Chinese sea control inside the first island chain, and 3) cooperating with Japan which is also threatened by this and which has a larger navy. That would all be great but is a big ask for a country not used to thinking about foreign policy much beyond the peninsula. And that is my big concern: that the previous Moon administration really wanted to build this because Japan is building an aircraft carrier, and wants to park it next to Dokdo. That is the wrong reason to build one.

Here is the original, pre-edited version of my essay from the Japan Times:

South Korean has considered, in the last year, constructing a light aircraft carrier. This has provoked controversy. The decision to build it or not has swung back and forth. The South Korean navy very much wants it and has made a public push for it. The South Korean legislature, the National Assembly, ultimately decided to fund it last year. But the government of new President Yoon Seok Yeol is apparently re-considering.

South Korea the Land Power

Most countries in the world lean into either land or sea power, as dictated by their geography. Unsurprisingly, island states develop ‘blue water’ (i.e., ocean-going) navies. Japanese modernization, for example, lead to maritime power in the last century and half. Britain too had a large navy at its peak.

South Korea would appear to fit into this box. It is an island of sorts. It has just one land border, but that is tightly sealed. So strategically, South Korea is nearly an island.

But necessity has made South Korean a land power nonetheless. Its border with North Korea is the most militarized place on the planet. The North Korean army numbers over one million active-duty soldiers, with millions more in reserve. North Korea’s air and naval power are small in comparison. A second Korean war, like the first one, would mostly be fought on the ground. Continue reading

Teaching the American Gun Debate in a Foreign Country: No Matter What You Say, They Think We’re Bananas

Officers stand near a memorial of flowers at the scene of the mass shooting at the Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas on 25 MayUS politics is part of my teaching load here in Korea. And part of that is, inevitably, the US gun debate. Foreigners just don’t get the US fascination with guns at all, and that is putting it mildly.

I have lived outside the US for almost 18 years – in East Asia and Western Europe – and I have discussed guns in America with non-Americans countless times given that my area is political science. Non-Americans are genuinely curious why we allow private fire arm ownership, especially when it so obviously correlates with gun violence. I can say that I have never had a non-American ever tell me they wished their country had US gun laws. Not one.

I have written a lot on foreign perceptions of US gun ownership on Twitter in the last two days. Try this, this, this, this, and especially this.

In short, there is no other country in the world which approaches guns with the laxity we do. No other conservative party in a democracy approaches guns as the GOP does. Often my students here often don’t even understand how gun ownership is a ‘conservative’ or partisan issue, which is something Americans should know. Righties in other countries are not gun fetishists. Even other societies with a frontier tradition – Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Russia – don’t have the gun culture we do.

No one else thinks about Mad Max government collapse scenarios which would require you to be armed. (Trying to explain that one to non-Americans is almost impossible.)

No one else talks about an ‘armed citizenry’ resisting tyranny. When you try to explain this one, my students often can’t even figure out why they would battling their own democratic government. Good question! And then they wonder how regular Americans with guns could outshoot the cops or the military. They can’t, of course. Another good question!

And very definitely, no one wants armed teachers, metal detectors in schools, open carry, concealed carry, and so on. Hardening schools and letting regular people walk around packing strikes them as insanely dangerous.

Inevitably then, I get three or four papers a year in my US politics class on guns, and they’re uniformly negative and incredulous. One particular title I remember from years back: ‘The US is a Gun-ocracy.’ That just about sums it up.

Support for Ukraine is Not ‘Pro-War’, because Some Things, like Sovereignty and Freedom, are More Important than Peace

Sniper RifleCalling Western support for Ukraine ‘pro-war’ is grossly manipulative and deceptive with its implication that Western elites ‘like’ war. That is obviously not the case. Does Ursula von der Leyen strike anyone as ‘pro-war’? Gimme a break.

The following is a re-post of an essay I wrote for 1945.com.

The most nauseating part of the Ukraine war in the West has been the pro-Kremlin ‘anti-war’ set – Tucker Carlson, Tulsi Gabbard, Glenn Greenwald, Michael Brendan Daugherty, and so on. To be ‘anti-anti-Putin’, at this point, is to be effectively pro-Putin and pro-fascist, just as being anti-anti-Trump at this point basically means your MAGA. You’d think the left would not go to the lengths of supporting Russian fascism in order to oppose US imperialism, but that’s where Michael Tracey, who denies the Bucha massacre, has landed.

The usual anti-imperial leftist tropes are meaningless here: Ukraine is not Iraq; this is not a US foreign policy issue; the military-industrial complex is not profiteering off the war; Hillary Clinton, the CIA, Goldman Sachs, the IMF, Davos, and all your favorite neoliberal shills are just irrelevant. Putin has built a semi-fascist regime at home, launched an aggressive war against a weak, democratic neighbor, and tolerated, if not endorsed, war crimes. That’s what matters, not relitigating the American empire debate of 20 years ago.

It is ironic that the anti-imperialist left, which wants to bemoan American empire, makes the same Amero-centric error as the neocons they hate so much: both read US choices as the only thing that matters in world politics. Foreigners have no agency; the Ukraine war is apparently about the US, not Ukraine and Russia. So the war in Ukraine becomes about NATO expansion rather than Putin’s own bluntly stated explanation that it’s because Ukraine is a fake country and really part of Russia. Good grief.

Here is that essay for 1945.com:

“Western Support for Ukraine is Not ‘Pro-War’” – Since the start of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, a small but vocal clutch of Twitter and television personalities have argued that Western support for Ukrainian resistance is ‘pro-war,’ a worsening of the conflict via the provision of aid which prolongs the fighting. This posture might be best described as ‘anti-anti-Putin.’ That is, these voices read Western dislike for Russian President Vladimir Putin since February as overwrought and exaggerated, thereby deepening the war.

To critics, this position is nearly indistinguishable from a pro-Kremlin posture that refuses to admit Putin’s apparent agency in launching the war.

The most prominent voices in the group are Tucker Carlson, the highly-rated Fox News host, and his frequent guest Glenn Greenwald. Others include former Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard, and Substack gadflies Michael Tracey, Michael Brendon Dougherty, and Matt Taibbi. All seem to suggest that the West should cut off aid to Ukraine, on the premise that the war would end sooner.

Please read the rest here.

South Korea’s New President is Probably a Bland Centrist – and That’s Fine

South Korea's new president, Yoon Suk-yeol (right), greets the country's outgoing leader, Moon Jae-in, at his inauguration ceremony in Seoul on Tuesday. | REUTERSThis is what a peaceful transition of power looks like, American Republicans! Moon and Yoon follow the rules. That’s good. Learn from that.

This is a repost of an article I wrote for The Japan Times.

My impression from teaching my student is that the new South Korean president, Yoon Seok-Yeol, ignites no enthusiasm. He reminds them of their grandfather – old, kinda out-of-touch, lacking charisma. But honestly, after 5 year of Moon Jae-In’s rollercoaster with Donald Trump and Kim Jong-Un, I’ll take some bland boredom.

Yoon jumped into the race last year and does not have deep roots on the right here. Most importantly, he does not (seem to) share SK right’s fatiguing obsession with vindicating impeached former conservative president Park Geun-Hye. Park was guilty already! Get over it. I am hopeful that means he won’t prosecute Moon in his post-presidency solely for revenge, which I think almost any other traditional right-wing POTROK would do.

On policy, Yoon will lean to the right. He’ll be conservative on social mores – no gay marriage, no anti-discrimination law (sigh) – but he won’t be Trump. On economic issues – chaebol power, overlong work hours – he’ll do nothing, unfortunately. But at least on NK, we won’t have to hear anymore about what a misunderstood great guy Kim Jong-Un is. Enough of that. Those calling him the Donald Trump of Korea are probably just casting around for a label. Yoon doesn’t behave like Trump at all, thankfully.

Here is my essay for The Japan Times:

Yoon Seok-Yeol was inaugurated president of South Korea this week. He is a former prosecutor who only entered politics in the last year. He is from the conservative People Power Party. But he has no roots in that party or its various factions. Nor does he seem particularly ideological. He channels the basic anti-communism – aimed at North Korea – of the South Korean right. That has long been the core motivator of South Korean conservativism. But beyond that, he seems like a bland centrist.

This is a surprising turn. There is no obvious reason why South Korean conservatives would want him as their candidate, beyond simply defeating the left in the election. Yoon has no particularly programmatic interest in domestic politics. He is not a libertarian or religious social conservative, for example.

He has been called the ‘Donald Trump of Korea,’ but that feels mostly like foreign journalists grasping for an ideological handle for him. If he is a Trumpian populist, he has not talked that way. Trump’s signature mix of bombast, racism, tariffs, and loud nationalism is not how Yoon campaigned.

Please read the rest here.