At this point, I put the chances at 50-50.
Read on, and see why.
On February 22, the day after Russia recognized the independence of the Donetsk and Lugansk People’s Republics, I said a situation had now been created in which the second most likely reaction by the US/NATO would be to “Launch a military effort to take back LPR, DPR, and Crimea—using Ukrainians as cannon fodder, or, if they dare, bringing in US/NATO troops directly,” and that would result in a “loss for US/NATO, before or after a devastating, probably nuclear, world war.”
Ten days later, on March 3rd, right after the Russian army entered Ukraine, I wrote: “WWIII is not a remote possibility. We are already in it. The only question is: How much worse will it get?
At that time, I would have put the chances of nuclear war at more than 0 but less than 30%.
By mid-April, I noted that it was now clear that Ukraine was an entirely dependent ward of the U.S./NATO, which is the principal in this fight, and whose weapons, as well as military and intelligence officers—in Washington, Brussels, and personally in Kiev—are effectively waging this war. I also insisted that the notion that some shrewd, mutually face-saving compromise can be negotiated to end this conflict is wishful thinking, and that the decisive question in this battle between Russia and the U.S/NATO is not “What compromise can they negotiate?” but “Who is going to accept defeat?”
Since then, things have gotten much worse. It is now clear that U.S./NATO personnel are heavily involved in every aspect of the fighting in Ukraine. The Intercept reports of “a broad program” of:
clandestine American operations inside Ukraine are now far more extensive than they were early in the war…There is a much larger presence of both CIA and U.S. special operations personnel and resources in Ukraine than there were at the time of the Russian invasion in February….Secret U.S. operations inside Ukraine are being conducted under a presidential covert action finding…[T]he president has quietly notified certain congressional leaders.
This program is part of an “international partnership with the special operations forces of a multitude of different countries” These international—i.e., NATO—forces are there to help remedy Ukraine’s “most acute” problem: the fact that it “is losing its most battle-hardened and well-trained forces.”
The New York Times also reports on reports on the “secretive operation involving U.S. Special Operations forces hints at the scale of the effort to assist Ukraine’s still outgunned military,” including “commandos from other NATO countries, including Britain, France, Canada and Lithuania…working inside Ukraine.”
All of which is confirmed by Ukrainian POWs, like the guy below, who said “at least 100 foreign fighters, including from the USA, Poland and Great Britain, helped the Ukrainian military in Kharkiv: ‘If the foreigners had not helped us we would have disintegrated immediately.’”
This is not a matter of a few random “volunteers.” These are US/NATO personnel, directing and participating in combat, being paid directly or indirectly by their governments and seconded to the Armed Forces of Ukraine (AFU). If they are not presently on active duty, they were allowed/recruited to “retire” into more lucrative “private” legions, contracted and paid for by their governments. They are actively fighting in coordination with and under the direction of those governments, moving US/NATO participation beyond the supply of weapons and real-time targeting and intelligence.
In April, Bruce Fein, constitutional and international law specialist and former deputy attorney general, said that the “systematic and massive assistance to [Ukraine’s] military forces to defeat Russia” constitute “systematic or substantial violations of a neutral’s duties of impartiality and non-participation in the conflict,” and means that “the United States and several NATO members have become co-belligerents with Ukraine against Russia.” It’s gone way beyond that now. As Scott Ritter said in September: “Russia is no longer fighting a Ukrainian army equipped by NATO, but a NATO army manned by Ukrainians.”
The countries Russia is fighting
Indeed, a couple of weeks ago, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, echoing the “in it to win it” stance of the U.S. leadership, made it explicit that the Kiev regime is a proxy for the US/NATO: “Russia’s victory in the war against Ukraine will be a defeat of NATO. This cannot be allowed.”
As existential an imperative as it gets. So, as far as US/NATO leadership is concerned—and they are correct—this is a war between the US/NATO and Russia, the very existence of NATO is at stake, and a Russian victory over the Kiev regime cannot be allowed.
On the other side, from the beginning, Russia’s offensive in Ukraine was precisely a reaction to actions it cannot accept—the threat of de facto NATO expansion into Ukraine and the fascist-dominated Kiev regime’s ongoing attacks against the Donbass republics. Russia’s determination to end that unacceptable state of affairs has only been strengthened by the costs and achievements of its combat, and by the reactions of its Kiev/US/NATO adversary. Having seized a large swath of territory, and—after Washington and London quashed negotiations that could have limited Kiev’s loss to Donetsk, Lugansk, and Crimea—and having annexed those regions plus Kherson and Zaporizhzhia via referenda, Russia now considers that it is fighting to protect the territory of the homeland. Having seen the US/NATO pour weapons, real-time intelligence, combat and control personnel inro the fight, carry out and sanction assassination and sabotage attacks on undisputed Russian territory and Crimea (Kerch bridge) as well as on the civic infrastructure of its own members (Nord Stream), Russia is well aware of who its adversary is and how difficult and imperative the fight will be. Every day Russia does not attack Kiev’s co-belligerents is a day of Russian restraint. That will not last forever, especially if the level of direct combat participation by US/NATO increases, which it will have to in order to have any chance of defeating Russia.
When Putin, correctly, says:
The goal of that part of the West is to weaken, divide and ultimately destroy our country. … Today our armed forces…[are]fighting not only against neo-Nazi units but actually the entire military machine of the collective West…. Washington, London and Brussels are openly encouraging Kiev to move the hostilities to our territory. They openly say that Russia must be defeated on the battlefield by any means, and subsequently deprived of political, economic, cultural and any other sovereignty and ransacked.
He, too, is saying that the victory of that adversary would be an existential defeat that cannot be allowed.
Except if nuclear weapons are needed to prevent it?
It is true, as Scott Ritter and Moon of Alabama have pointed out, that—contrary to the characterizations of Western politicians and pundits—in his extraordinary September 21st speech, Vladimir Putin did not threaten the first use of nuclear weapons. In fact, he spoke in response to what he perceives—not without reason—as “nuclear blackmail” by his Kiev/US/NATO adversary:
They have even resorted to the nuclear blackmail. I am referring not only to the Western-encouraged shelling of the Zaporozhye Nuclear Power Plant, which poses a threat of a nuclear disaster, but also to the statements made by some high-ranking representatives of the leading NATO countries on the possibility and admissibility of using weapons of mass destruction – nuclear weapons – against Russia.
I would like to remind those who make such statements regarding Russia that our country has different types of weapons as well, and some of them are more modern than the weapons NATO countries have. In the event of a threat to the territorial integrity of our country and to defend Russia and our people, we will certainly make use of all weapon systems available to us. This is not a bluff.
The citizens of Russia can rest assured that the territorial integrity of our Motherland, our independence and freedom will be defended – I repeat – by all the systems available to us. Those who are using nuclear blackmail against us should know that the wind rose can turn around. [my emphases]
So, while it’s true that Putin here is not initiating, but responding to, a threat of nuclear weapons use—and suggesting a response with “different types of weapons” to boot—it’s also true that he explicitly and emphatically (“This is not a bluff”) warns that all, including nuclear, weapons systems will be used to defend the “our people” and the territory of “our Motherland”—which now includes Crimea, Donetsk, Lugansk, Kherson, and Zaporizhzhia. In that speech, Putin was neither threatening nor abjuring the use of nuclear weapons.
It is certainly true that Russia’s explicit military doctrine puts much stricter limits on nuclear weapons use than does that of the United States. Russian doctrine only allows the use of nuclear weapons in two circumstances: 1) “[I]n response to the use of nuclear and other types of weapons of mass destruction against it and/or its allies,” or 2) “in the event of aggression against the Russian Federation with the use of conventional weapons when the very existence of the state is in jeopardy.”
The U.S., on the other hand, is all about keeping its nuclear options open. In the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review (NPR), cited by Ritter—which Biden promised to revise but didn’t—the U.S. maintains a “range of flexible nuclear capabilities needed to ensure that nuclear or non-nuclear aggression against the United States, allies, and partners will fail to achieve its objectives.” This echoes the 2001 NPR: “U.S nuclear forces will continue to provide assurance to security partners, particularly in the presence of known or suspected threats of nuclear, biological, or chemical attacks or in the event of surprising military developments.” For the U. S. military, “desirable qualities for nuclear weapons in flexible, adaptable strike plans include options for variable and reduced yields” [my emphasis]. Thus, since the George W. Bush administration, the U.S. has developed dial-a-yield nuclear weapons whose “variable and reduced yields” provide a wide range of use options.
It’s important to know these doctrinal differences. They demonstrate what the current media narrative deliberately hides: that it’s not Russia, but the U.S.—which has been planning a nuclear attack on Russia since before WWII ended—that is explicitly planning and willing to use nuclear weapons to overcome battlefield “surprises.” As Mark Sleboda put it: “The Pentagon has been openly and proudly developing and deploying what they call ‘more useable’ battlefield nuclear weapons, specifically for use against Russia and China” [my emphasis].
Still, in the current context in Ukraine, given that Russia considers the battle of existential importance, and the terrain of actual combat its “homeland” territory, Russia’s use of a nuclear weapon is possible even within its more restrictive explicit policy. This is a very dangerous situation, and no “doctrine” here guarantees against the use of nuclear weapons.
Nor, I regret to inform you, does any explicit “doctrine” anywhere. The actual policy for nuclear weapons use of any state that has them, and the danger to the entire world as long as any nation does, is: We will use them when we judge that it’s absolutely necessary to do so. And we will determine what “absolutely necessary” means.
The question in this dangerous situation is: Which party is more likely to find it absolutely necessary to use nuclear weapons to stave off what it considers an existential defeat? The insistent Western political and media narrative has raised the specter of nuclear weapons use upon the assumption that it is Russia who will have to use nuclear weapons to stave off the defeat it is already suffering. Because they know no one would believe the party that’s winning would use nuclear weapons, they must get you to believe Russia is losing—so you’ll know who must be to blame in case a nuclear “surprise” happens.
With all due caution about the unpredictability of warfare, the unexpected tenacity of Ukrainian soldiers, the willingness of western leaders to pour money, weapons, personnel, and other resources into the conflict, the setbacks that Russian forces have experienced, et. al., the idea that Russia is on the verge of defeat in Ukraine is ridiculous. And they—the US/NATO/Ukrainian managers of this war—know it. If you’ve come to believe Russia is losing, it’s because they’ve lied to you, and got you to believe a narrative they know is not true. They told you they are lying about this conflict, and they are still confident you’ll believe them.
The analysis of the current situation I find persuasive is that Russia quickly captured and still holds a large swath of territory (~116,000 sq. km). Ukraine recaptured a small portion (5-8%) of that territory (~9000 sq. km. according to CNN, ~6000 sq. km., according to BBC) by throwing its best troops and equipment into two major offensives that “relied heavily on U.S. intelligence and high-tech weaponry,”. as well as larger numbers of foreign forces (without whom “we would have disintegrated immediately”). The Russians, outnumbered by 4-5 to 1, made an orderly retreat to more defensible lines, preserving their own forces while at the same time decimating the cream of the Ukrainian army—”its most battle-hardened and well-trained forces.” Ukraine’s attempts to extend their gains around Kherson and Kharkov have been repulsed.
In parallel attacks, the US/NATO/Ukraine “side” undertook the assassination of a Russian intellectual in Russia, the sabotage of the Crimea bridge and the Nord Stream pipeline, and various attacks on Russian cities close to Ukraine. In response, Russia—the largest country in the world, whose strategic depth (size and materiel of armed forces, fighting-age population, industrial capacity, etc.) dwarves that of Ukraine—has mobilized 300,000 more men, began the campaign of destroying Ukrainian electrical and other dual-use infrastructure that it had previously abjured (to the surprise of shock-and-awe American warmakers who blow all that stuff up first thing), and amassed troops and planes at multiple border sites. Russia has also set up a special council to coordinate industrial resources and military needs on a wartime scale. Russia has only just begun.
There is a major Russian air and land offensive coming and it is very unlikely that what’s left of the AFU will be able to repulse it. To have any chance for that would require the direct, massive, and quick intervention of US/NATO forces. And even that may not be enough. In this theater, it would be very difficult for anyone—and certainly for Kiev itself—to win a conventional-arms war against Russia.
While nothing is inevitable, it is not Russia but the US/NATO/Kiev that is more likely to have to use nuclear weapons to stave off defeat. For Russia to be faced with the need to use nuclear weapons to stave off an existential defeat that threatens “the very existence of the Russian state,” it would require that the Armed Forces of Ukraine push Russia out of all the territory it has gained, and be posing an imminent threat to Crimea and other Russian territory. The possibility of that happening is
on another planet many orders of magnitude less than the possibility that Russian forces will rout the AFU and put the US/NATO/Kiev regime in a position where it would have to use nuclear weapons to prevent its existential defeat and demise.
And they know it. It is exactly for that kind of possibility in that kind of theater that the U.S. developed its “flexible” nuclear weapons policy, “deploying…‘more useable’ battlefield nuclear weapons, specifically for use against Russia and China.”
Russia is not losing this war, and is in no position where it has to consider using nuclear weapons. Zelensky isn’t begging every week for more weapons and more money, and for preventative strikes on Russia, because Russia is losing. The US is not sending the 101st Airborne into Romania a few miles from the Ukraine border because Russia is losing. It is because they know that Kiev is in existential danger that they need to get you thinking that Russia is.
The idea that Russia is about to use nuclear weapons, which would only be harmful to its own forces and territory, is another fantasy scenario, along with Russia shelling its own nuclear power plant, bombing its own POW camp, sabotaging its own pipeline, or blowing up its own dam. In fact, it’s a projection of US/NATO/Kiev’s fears and plans.
The tell on that is the suggestion that Russia might explode a “demonstration” nuke in the Black Sea or somewhere, as a gesture of intimidation. Russia doesn’t do gestures. It acts. If it needs to use nuclear weapons, it will use them, without bluff, intimidation, or “demonstration.” That’s the American game, and specifically with nuclear weapons. The only nuclear weapons use in the world was by the United States, precisely as a demonstration—blowing up militarily meaningless civilian targets (cities!) in order to intimidate its present (Japan) and future (USSR) enemies, to show them what we could do. The U.S. is projecting its own nuclear strategy on Russia, revealing what it does and is thinking about.
Ditto, Russia staging a “false flag” nuclear explosion. It’s interesting that the notion of “false flag” operations is suddenly not dismissed as unthinkable “conspiracy theory,” but presented as a possibility that everyone should seriously consider. False-flag allegations are at once important to take seriously and intrinsically difficult to untangle. Anyone might do a false flag, but, again, that’s typically America’s, not Russia’s, game. You want false flags? Remember the Maine, and the Maddox (Tonkin Gulf), and Operation Northwoods, and Syrian chemical weapons attacks, and Saddam’s WMDs, etc. Sleboda again: “False flags and/or WMDs are after all the indisputable standard US MO and playbook for pretexts for military action from the Spanish American War, to Vietnam, to Iraq, to Syria.” More projection.
In this case, Western media managers are confident they can convince you that Russia is more likely than Kiev to false-flag blow up the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant and the Kakhovka dam, both of which Russia controls and Kiev has been attacking; they are confident they can persuade you that Russia is more likely to false-flag explode a nuclear weapon than is Kiev—although the White House and Pentagon say there is “there is no evidence” and “no indication” for such a senseless action on Russia’s part; and they are certainly confident they can get to dismiss the possibility of a Ukrainian “dirty bomb” false-flag, although Ukraine has the materiel, means, motive, and absolutely no doctrine of restraint, and Shoigu and Lavrov claim to have “specific information” they are willing to present to the UN. Because Western media managers are confident they can make you believe anything. And so often—just about every time it was crucial to them—they have. Really, if they can get people to believe this was a Russian false flag:
The US/NATO/Kiev punditocracy and media apparatus is positing for us a situation in which nuclear weapons use has kinda-sorta, you-can-bet-on-it, already been decided upon, by Russia, because it is losing. They hope, if you believe that, you will accept direct, overt, massive US/NATO military intervention. They know American and European publics will not accept such dangerous intervention unless they’re convinced that it’s not about some prior plan to destroy Russia and preserve U.S. hegemony, but about saving the world from the nuclear threat Russia has unleashed (as well as saving the brave Ukrainian regime which would have defeated Russia fair and square if Russia hadn’t cheated with those nukes). They will produce the evidence for that, if it’s absolutely necessary. It won’t be any harder than getting people to believe that Russia blew up Nord Stream.
Of course, overt US/NATO intervention will include the “flexible” use of nuclear weapons, if battlefield surprises make it absolutely necessary—i.e., if they are losing. Which is very likely.
Any way you cut it, the way this war is going, it is reasonable—if not optimistic—to posit a 50-50 chance of nuclear weapons use.
Here are the three scenarios, in order of likelihood:
Scenario one: Without overt, direct US/NATO intervention, with just the current level of borderline co-belligerency from NATO states, the Kiev proxy regime drives Russia back to the February 21st lines. That means Kiev is on a roll, and there is nothing in the militant, fascist, Russian-hating ideology driving that regime that will stop them from continuing on at least to Crimea. At that point, if not sometime shortly before, Russia will conclude that “the very existence of the state is in jeopardy.” Russia will not accept that existential defeat. At least a 50-50 chance Russia will use nukes to prevent it.
Fortunately, we are nowhere near this scenario. It is extremely unlikely. The chance of it occurring is less than 10%.
Scenario two: In a renewed offensive, Russian forces rout the AFU, and the US/NATO decline to intervene with countervailing military force. Combat ends without the use of nukes. Whoever’s left in Kiev capitulates on Russian terms. US/NATO try to preserve a rump regime in Kiev that can support an eventual revanchist insurgency. Because this would be exactly the clear defeat for US/NATO that Stoltenberg said cannot be allowed, I do not think they’ll just let it happen. This non-interventionist scenario can only occur if Russia routs the AFU very quickly. I put the chances at less than 50-50.
Scenario three: Under whatever pretext, US/NATO forces enter the battle as overt co-belligerents. Any way this occurs—from no-fly zone to the 101st Airborne and US-European infantry and tank brigades—it will result in US and European casualties and US and European ships, bases, and cities being destroyed. Russian targets, too, of course, but Russia will not allow this fight to be contained in its territory or neighborhood. This will be the inescapable, worldwide, fight to the finish of either NATO or Russia. For either side, defeat cannot be allowed.
At least a 50-50 chance that the losing side will use nuclear weapons to stave it off.
Please understand that this scenario—“a large scale war with Russia and joining NATO as a result of the defeat of Russia”—is what Kiev desired and planned for (“The coolest thing”), as Zelensky adviser, Oleksiy Arestovych, said in 2019, giving the date it would occur and details of how it would unfold:
“A large scale war with Russia and joining NATO as a result of the defeat of Russia. The coolest thing”
The chance of this scenario occurring is increasingly likely. I would say 50-50 and getting worse. The dynamic will only reverse if there is political upheaval in Europe that causes the internal fracture of NATO. I wouldn’t have thought this scenario so likely in March or April, but the US/NATO leadership has committed itself in every way, and talked itself into a tight box. (They have already sent the 101st Airborne and are talking up nukes!)
This scenario is made more possible by the fact that the West—especially the US—has no idea what kind of danger they face in getting into it. Americans think they can bluff, intimidate, and escalation-dominate any adversary. They do not think it’s possible that they will suffer a nuclear attack, because they think their nuclear weapons are the thing that has protected and always will protect them from that, when it’s actually been the admirable caution of Soviet submarine and early warning officers who prevented their annihilation. This time, there will be no bluff.
What will not happen, Scenario Null, is some Solomonic negotiation that stops the fighting before it gets out of hand. There will be no Minsk/Musk 3. Been there, done that. Gone, baby, gone. The military conflict that’s happening now is because those negotiations failed. The negotiations that were taking place after this military conflict started, which could have resulted in a Minsk/Musk 3, with Ukraine only losing Donetsk and Lugansk and Crimea, were nixed by the UK, under the orders of the US, with the acceptance of the EU—because they will not (permit Kiev to) give up an inch of territory, unless forced to do so by military defeat—which cannot be allowed.
The only negotiation will be over terms of surrender once things are settled on the battlefield. The result will be that one side or the other suffers a decisive, unallowable defeat. If Russia returns to its February 21st position, it is defeated. Donetsk and Lugansk will be overrun by Kiev fascists, Crimea will be under threat, and the dismemberment of Russia will begin in earnest. A rainbow of color revolutions! If US/NATO/Kiev does not irreversibly recapture Donetsk, Lugansk, Kherson, Zaporizhzhia, and maybe even Crimea, it is defeated. The Zelensky government will collapse amidst a fascist melee, Ukraine will become a neutered rump state, and NATO will be a laughingstock, on the road to dissolution.
Both sides know this. The principals on both sides have eliminated any possibility of mutually acceptable compromise and are fully invested in fighting to win a definitive victory. There’s no outside force—no international organization or group of domestic anti-war politicians (who do not exist in the US., anyway)—that is going to impose a peace. All the powers that could do so are the principal protagonists in this conflict, too heavily invested in it to accept anything less than decisive victory, and too rightfully afraid to accept the unacceptable defeat that is the only alternative.
As I said previously, (”Many more loose variables, and many more profoundly stupid actors”), we are at a greater risk of nuclear war than during Cuban Missile Crisis. Today, the two major nuclear powers are in ongoing combat. Today, the president is Joe Biden.
The only element that could bring an abbreviated end to fighting would be a political and social uprising of people in particular nations that would force their political leadership to withdraw prematurely and accept defeat. That would of course be in a country whose side in Ukraine is losing. If you want to think that means Russia, have at. We’ll see. In my understanding, the greatest possibility for that is in European countries, whose populations are being hammered by suicide sanctions, who will be the first to be devastated by the expansion of combat, and who are not fully brainwashed by the neocon/neoliberal US media apparatus. It’s only a slight chance, because it will require real street battles against a determined political leadership that knows its capitulation would bring that unallowable defeat to the side it is aligned with in Ukraine.
So, there’s at least a fifty-percent chance that a military situation will arise in which one of the parties in this conflict faces an imminent existential defeat that it cannot allow. (I think that’s most likely to be the US/NATO/Kiev. We shall see.) And there’s at least a fifty-percent chance that the party threatened with such a defeat will use every weapon in its arsenal to stave it off. Therefore, there’s a fifty-percent chance of nuclear war. If you want to argue otherwise, in this war between the US/NATO/Kiev vs. Russia, please tell me: Who will accept defeat?
We all know that such an outcome is irrational. It will not be confined to the Ukraine theater, will devastate humanity, and render any “victory” pointless. Unfortunately, war is not a rational enterprise.
Nobody will accept defeat, so everybody will lose.