Michael KreponHold Steady

Verse of the week:

“Who has invented our enmity? Who prescribed us/ hatred of each other? Who has armed us against each other/ with the death of the world? Who has appointed me such anger/ that I should desire the burning of your house or the/ destruction of your children?”

— Wendell Berry, “To A Siberian Woodsman”

Lyrics of the week:

“There ain’t no room
For the hopeless sinner
Who would hurt all mankind
Just to save his own
Have pity on those whose
Chances grow thinner
There’s no hiding place
Against the Kingdom’s throne”

— The Impressions, “People Get Ready”

“All the pain
Always rain
Around my eyes
It’ll never happen again
It’ll never happen again
It’ll never happen again”

— Lady Blackbird, “It’ll Never Happen Again”

As horrific as Vladimir Putin’s war of choice against Ukraine is — as heinous the war crimes already committed (now including warfare at nuclear power plants), and as grievous the suffering he has imposed on the Ukrainian people – it’s possible to foresee positive outcomes resulting from this tragedy. To achieve them, three things must happen: Putin must not only lose, but face international repudiation. Nuclear weapons must not be used. And Putin’s feints to use them must be revealed as hollow threats.

I maintain that all of this is possible, and that we can contribute in our varied ways to these outcomes. First, by rejecting the intention behind Putin’s nuclear threats. He wants the West to back off. Instead, we double down to provide military, economic, and humanitarian support for Ukraine. We also reject those who advocate a direct confrontation with Russia, thereby inviting nuclear war. An indirect approach by the West is the best strategy, and Putin will lose because of it and primarily because of Ukrainian resistance.

Putin’s threats to use nuclear weapons pose a real danger only if he has traveled far past poor judgement and paranoia into the realm of fantasy. My preferred tactic in this regard is to note — without reinforcing — the nuclear danger that he seeks to manipulate for his own benefit. One way to raise barriers against Putin’s mad man gambits is by stigmatizing his threats: If a single mushroom cloud happens in Ukraine, he would link himself forever to Hitler and history’s worst aggressors.

Putin’s repudiation can take many forms. One is at the International Criminal Court in The Hague. You know, the place that John Bolton excoriated for being hopelessly anti-American. George W. Bush followed Bolton’s advice by withdrawing from the ICC’s founding statute in 2002. This decision hasn’t aged well.

If, as I expect, Putin loses twice — first in the Pyrrhic advance of Russian forces and then in their eventual retreat — and if this horrific war does not add the use of nuclear weapons to Putin’s other war crimes, much of significance can be accomplished. Aggressive war will again be repudiated as a crime against humanity and arms control will have a more certain future. The two go together since arms control requires respect for the territorial integrity and national sovereignty of others.

Prospects for global well-being and arms control will be advanced if, in this tragic war, like others before it, nuclear weapons have no evident military utility. No Use. This has been true not just in previous limited conventional wars between nuclear-armed states, but also in wars between possessors and abstainers.

There’s already a decades-long history of wars in which a nuclear-armed state has lost to a state that hasn’t been comparably armed. Vietnam. Afghanistan, more than once. The United States in Iraq, the second time around. The nuclear-armed combatant will lose this war, as well.

Prospects for global well-being and arms control will also be advanced if threats to use nuclear weapons do not pay dividends. Our objective in this war and in the crises to come is to diminish rather than empower the threatener.

This is probably the most dangerous time since 1983, when paranoid Politburo members, acutely aware of national vulnerabilities, expected a U.S. nuclear attack. Meanwhile, Hawkish Reagan administration officials and Kremlin watchers in the U.S. Intelligence Community warned about the advent of Soviet strategic superiority.

Our circumstances are not as dangerous as 1983 because Kremlin watchers in the administration and in the intelligence community do not have blinders on. They are aware that the challenge we face isn’t Moscow’s victory; it’s having a nuclear power led by someone with terrible judgment and surrounded by yes men that seeks to change the post-Cold War status quo in Europe. The challenge at hand is convincing Putin not to authorize mushroom clouds while losing.

If Putin hasn’t lost his marbles, he’ll recognize that he has nothing to gain from a mushroom cloud. He’s gotten this far by calculation. His calculations have failed him in Ukraine, but poor judgment doesn’t mean he’s gone mad.

We’re not out of the woods, not by a long shot. But we can achieve significant gains if we hold steady. During these dark days, there is reason to take heart. After Russia’s loss, much can be accomplished — if, if, and if. Holding on to an inextinguishable sense of optimism is good for the soul, good for others, and good for the cause, too.

Note to readers: For a bigger dose of optimism, consider reading my magnum opus/door stop whose subtitle is “The Rise, Demise, and Revival of Arms Control.”


  1. John Chick (History)

    Regarding war crimes in general, I believe it’s a mistake for the West to speak about possible war crimes until the conflict ends. Putin has boxed himself in, apparently unexpectedly, and talk of war crimes will only add to his belief that he has more to lose by stopping the war than by continuing. Aka the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Russian leader must be provided a face-saving way out. Calling him a war criminal achieves the opposite.

  2. Patrick Moore (@PatrickDallas) (History)

    I agree. And there is a legitimate question if it’s a good idea to call him a war criminal even after the war. In Brian Klass’s podcast, Power Corrupts, he asks that question (not about Putin specifically, but about other murderous dictators). I started listening saying to my self “Of course he should be tried in The Hague!” But by the end of the podcast I was not quite so sure. For Putin, I think the answer is still yes. Put him on trial. But it’s still an interesting intellectual exercise.

  3. Jon (History)

    I agree entirely. Russia must pay a substantial price for this war of choice. I think their lease on the Sevastapol port should be in question – at minimum. After full pull back from all occupied territories and reparations for damages. What Russia has done is not limited to rash threats of nuclear weapons, but undercuts 150 years of international relations and treaties, and would leave us with seizure by force as the baseline for international relations.