In The Face of Putin’s Nuclear Chicken Gambit, Biden Blinked

In this great game of Super Chicken, Putin won decisively and Biden was a pigeon

Biden + Putin 1. Pic – Telegraph India

By Anil Madan

Vladimir Putin’s extended war crimes and genocide against the Ukrainian nation continue without let up and the United States, as well as its NATO and other allies, stand by helplessly. The United States, a nation that often touts itself the Leader of the Free World, the Greatest Power on Earth, and the Last Best Hope for Mankind, together with theseEuropean and NATO allies, self-proclaimed champions of freedom and democracy, are unable, or unwilling to stop the massacre.

The world has just seen a preview of what things will be like without American power responsibly exercised to maintain the rules order writ large. To be sure, there are many who will argue that US adventurism and warmongering have kept the world in turmoil and resulted in countless deaths and destruction. I concede the point and agree that the war in Vietnam, the second Iraq war and the re-entry to Afghanistan after the initial efforts to dislodge Osama bin Laden, were entirely unnecessary.

But the US has not gone in search of lands to annex or engaged in genocide. Nevertheless, what is going on in Ukraine now, is surely not the end of further aggression by Putin. As well, the specter of Chinese adventurism that it presages is alive. Nor should we have any comfort that in regions throughout the world, autocrats and dictators will be restrained from attacking their neighbors for fear of being called to account.

A charge of genocide should not issue lightly but make no mistake, Putin is conducting a genocide. As Ukrainian women, children and elderly escape the horror before them by the millions, they leave behind husbands, sons, brothers, and fathers, who are being starved to death, left without water or heat, and pummeled by artillery and bombs. The future of Ukraine as a nation is being obliterated before our eyes.

President Biden’s gambit to forestall Putin’s invasion by threatening stiff economic sanctions failed. Sadly, the failure was predictable, and this is a painful indictment to make. A review of events shows that Biden miscalculated and played his hand poorly. Biden’s approach centered on the notion that he could deter Putin by publicly threatening that the most severe economic sanctions would be levied on Russia if Ukraine were invaded. Biden and his advisers seem not to have stopped to consider two elementary points: first, whether Putin might find the sanctions tolerable, and second, perhaps more importantly, what options to keep in reserve should the threats of economic sanctions not deter Putin. This calculus should have been part of basic strategic planning.

Putin’s buildup of armed forces

As we look back at the basic information Biden had, spotting Putin’s buildup of armed forces poised to launch an invasion into Ukraine was the easy part. Satellite images from routine reconnaissance confirmed the buildup. Add to that the uncanny accuracy with whichUS Intelligence discerned Putin’s plans even as he and senior Russian officials lied about their intentions and falsely claimed that they were withdrawing forces. The significance of this is not that US Intelligence agencies should be praised for their efforts in discovering what was going on and what was to come, as they surely should be, but that Biden had plenty of time to prepare. Sadly, he booted it.

Biden spent considerable time, and altogether too much precious time, courting European support in public. Chancellor Olaf Scholz came to Washington, D.C., and rather than clearly stating that Germany was ready to cut all oil and gas imports from Russia (an impossible ask of Germany) he mouthed words that the US and Germany were in sync about something to do with the Nord Stream 2 pipeline. Mind you, the pipeline was not yet operational. This empty gesture meant nothing. The truth of the matter is that Germany was never on board with cutting off Russian oil and gas imports. The simple fact is that Germany is dependent on Russia for a huge chunk of its energy needs.

Then Biden declared quite clearly that the US would not send any troops to fight Russian troops. On one level, this may seem prudent. On another level, it told Putin that he had the upper hand. Surely, preventing a Russian invasion of Ukraine was never about US or NATO troops fighting Russian troops. It was about whether Russia would choose to engage not only Ukraine but the rest of the free world. Biden never put this choice to Putin. No one suggests that the US and NATO should have threatened nuclear war with Putin. The whole point of strategic nuclear weapons is that if they have any value at all, it is that they will never be used, and the possibility of their use will deter the aggressor. But here, Biden and NATO deterred themselves as defenders while allowing the aggressor to get the advantage.

Putin’s response was to issue a series of warnings: that European countries would be drawn into military conflict if Ukraine joins NATO; that nations imposing sanctions on Russia were declaring war; and that any attempt by “another power to impose a no-fly zone in Ukraine would be considered by Russia to be a step into the military conflict.” He said such a step “would have catastrophic consequences for Europe and the world.” These were undoubtedly veiled threats that he might resort to attacking such countries. Biden and the allies talked themselves into believing that this inevitably meant that Russia would unleash nuclear weapons.

President Biden and his NATO counterparts seem to have swallowed the idea that Putin’s threats were credible and the direct confrontation with Russia was to be avoided at all costs even while ignoring the obvious fact that they were indeed directly confronting Putin with economic sanctions.

Perhaps it should have occurred to someone that the Generals in Russia were not anxious to end their own lives in a nuclear war and that Putin himself, as crazy as he might be, was not that crazy. In short, would the Russian Generals carry out an order to launch nukes even if Putin were crazy enough to issue such an order? Would Putin, who is cold and calculating, have effectively opted for the destruction of Russia?Of course, we may never find out. Let us hope not.

The major point, however, is that the western powers were not initiating a nuclear war and rather than saying that they would essentially do nothing in the face of Russian aggression other than institute economic sanctions, perhaps all they had to do was make it clear that the US and NATO would defend every inch of Ukraine, and that any escalation was entirely up to Putin. In other words, leave the choice up to Putin whether he was willing to attack US and NATO forces supporting Ukraine. As the US and Russia’s predecessor the Soviet Union established a long time ago, there is mutual acknowledgment that there will be no winner in a nuclear war and that nuclear war is not an option. There is nothing to suggest that Putin does not believe this. Despite all his bluster, there is nothing to suggest that Putin was looking for open conflict with the US and NATO. In fact, his warnings to the US and NATO not to get involved suggested that they should not want to get into direct conflict with Russia. Note that this was not the same as saying that he, Putin, wanted such engagement.

WWII concept of deterrence

Biden had a chance to say that the US and Europe would defend Ukraine against attacks, that such assistance was purely defensive in nature and that the US and NATO stood ready to respond to any Russian aggression with a response of like kind and intensity. This is entirely consistent with the post WWII concept of deterrence.

Now, Putin has all but destroyed Ukraine. And he has stated that western sanctions are akin to a declaration of war. Most recently, he has stated that America has declared economic war against Russia and is waging that war. In other words, Putin has once again seized the initiative and almost any response he takes will be justified by him as Russia’s response to a war being waged against it. His Foreign Minister Lavrov has even suggested a severing of diplomatic relations with the West. Should we care? Clearly, diplomacy, even at the highest level, has been totally useless as Biden’s and Macron’s interactions with Putin have shown. Any severing of diplomatic relations is likely to be temporary in nature. Great powers cannot afford to be so disengaged. But without a dramatic change of attitude, extant diplomatic relations are of little use.

Biden simply lost control of the narrative. To be sure, Biden was on the right side of the moral issue and indeed on the right side of the argument. But preventing genocide and destruction of a nation involve more than just winning an argument. Sadly, the response of the US and of NATO has been one exhibiting fear of what Russia might do and of being chary of invoking the worst instincts that Putin might display. So it is that the US repeatedly declares that it has no wish to confront Russia, that it will not transfer Polish MiG jets to Ukraine, and indeed, that it will not take the initiative on many matters. Stoltenberg declares that NATO has no wish to engage Russia, will not employ a NO-FLY ZONE, and will watch as the genocide unfolds. One can understand that the Poles did not want to transfer MiGs directly to Ukraine, but there is little substantive difference in making the US an intermediary in effecting such a transfer. Perhaps the jets should have been quietly delivered to Ukraine without publicity and without Poland seeking to document that it was making a bargain to obtain American fighter aircraft in exchange. Too much information given to Putin.

No one has had the courage to say that the US and NATO will defend Ukraine, will stand up for what is right, and will repel Russian aggression.

In this great game of Super Chicken, Putin won decisively, and Biden was a pigeon.

At this point, given Biden’s feckless response, one can predict that China will invade Taiwan and Putin will attack other European countries. Whether China will resort to Putin’s playbook of issuing veiled threats of nuclear conflict remains to be seen, but nothing tells us that China has governors restraining its aggressionor curbing its disregard of moral issues. The experiences of Tibet, the Uyghurs and Hong Kong are testimony to that. As for Putin, emboldened as he is that even war crimes and genocide bring no response, what is there to act as a bar to his worst instincts and ambitions?

Let us hope that if China invades Taiwan, the president who has been a pigeon, will not be on the outside looking on, a peeking duck.



* Published in print edition on 11 March 2022

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