The Grimmest Dilemma – The New York Times

Ever since Vladimir Putin began threatening an invasion of Ukraine, the West has faced the most stark dilemmas: how to cope with a nuclear power like Russia without risking nuclear war.

However, it is not a new dilemma. It inspired much of modern game theory, developed by academic theorists such as Thomas Schelling and studied by generals and top officials during the Cold War.

The basic theory makes it clear that it is possible to challenge another country with nuclear weapons. Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy and other US presidents have done this, using force against Soviet troops and, on a few occasions, even if you use it† Yet these confrontations are extremely sensitive and require careful measures to minimize the chance of escalation.

The Biden administration and its European allies are pursuing a version of this strategy in Ukraine. In addition to imposing harsh economic sanctions on Russia, the coalition is arming Ukraine with weapons — while also cautiously indicating that it has no plans to expand the conflict by invading Russia, as Putin appears to fear.

“The balancing act informs every aspect of US policy on the war,” stated a recent analysis by the Times. As Andrea Kendall-Taylor of the Center for a New American Security puts it, President Biden and his aides are “trying to figure out how to get to the border without crossing in a way that would risk a direct confrontation with Russia.”

The balance involves tricky trade-offs, with nearly every step that helps Ukraine defend itself also threatens to offend Putin.

Some observers — including many conservatives, but not just them — believe the US and Western Europe have been too timid. (The Times columnist Bret Stephens has raised the matter.) Michael McFaul, a US ambassador to Russia under Barack Obama, wrote in The Washington Post“More Western military aid, especially weapons that can shoot down Russian planes and missiles or destroy artillery, is needed immediately to end the war.”

Other analysts believe that the US and Europe have been quite confrontational. They have imposed severe sanctions, provided Ukraine with weapons and massive troops in NATO countries near Russia’s borders. Going much further, these analysts say, could lead Putin to attack a NATO country and possibly unleash a world war.

A nuclear attack – though unlikely – has become more likely now than at any time since the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, wrote my colleague Max Fisher. “The prospect of nuclear war,” UN Secretary-General António Guterres warned last week, “is now once again within the realm of possibility.”

(“Ignoring,” writes Thomas Friedman, “would be extremely naive.”)

Today’s newsletter highlights both sides of the issue: how else can the US, EU, Britain, Turkey and others help Ukraine? And how can these countries signal to Putin that they are not looking for a bigger war?

The guiding principle for what weapons the US wants to send Ukraine is clear: weapons that could help Ukraine defend itself, but would be of no use in invading Russia.

If you don’t know why someone 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, Putin doesn’t believe that.

He knows the West wishes he were no longer Russia’s leader, and he knows the US has a recent history of fighting wars of regime change, in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Syria. Putin merges these two facts and worries about a military campaign to remove him from power.

“It may sound crazy to you or me,” Max says, “but it’s seen as highly plausible within Moscow and is a point of obsession.”

For this reason, the West has sent weapons to Ukraine that are more useful for defense than for attack. The list includes shoulder-fired missiles (such as Javelins, NLAWs and Stingers) and drones that can fire guided missiles at troops in Ukraine, but don’t have the range to reach Russia. The US and Europe are trying to send large numbers of these weapons to Ukraine before Russia takes over so much of the country that delivery will be difficult, said Eric Schmitt, a senior writer at The Times.

By contrast, the Biden administration has firmly rejected Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s requests to establish a no-fly zone over Ukraine. To do that would likely require the bombing of weapons systems in Russia that help protect its planes while over Ukraine.

The government has also blocked Zelensky’s request for MiG-29 fighter jets from Poland that could help Ukraine attack Russian forces from the air. The planes would fuel Russian fears of invasion because — as US generals said in a closed session with Congress last week — they could reach Moscow from Ukraine in minutes.

Still, the Biden administration is discussing one new idea: whether Turkey should be encouraged to send S-400 anti-aircraft missile systems to Ukraine. The S-400 (which happens to be Russian-made) rides on the back of a truck and can shoot down planes. US officials are unsure how Putin would react if Ukraine received them.

Game theory looms over all these questions.

Putin, of course, has an interest in leading the West to believe that he would be angered by almost any substantial aid to Ukraine. This can help maintain Russia’s military advantage. The Biden administration, in turn, would act naively — 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 spark a bigger war. It could lead Putin to attack a NATO country on the Ukrainian border, such as Poland, causing Western weapons to flow into Ukraine.

There are no easy answers. It’s a Cold War dilemma, in which both shyness and aggression carry risks. “Brinkmanship”, Schelling wrote:“So is the conscious creation of a recognizable war risk, a risk that is not completely under control.”

The long-running Eurovision Song Contest pits countries against each other for pop supremacy. Acts like ABBA (Sweden), Celine Dion (Switzerland) and Julio Iglesias (Spain) were once competitors. Now the US wants to recreate some of the Eurovision magic with ‘American Song Contest’, which premieres tonight on NBC.

Hosted by Kelly Clarkson and Snoop Dogg, the Americanized version includes states and territories, writes Elisabeth Vincentelli in The Times. Here’s an introduction.

Do I know one of the songs? No, they must be new, although participants do not have to write their own stuff.

Who competes? The contest has 56 entries ranging from Sabyuof the Northern Mariana Islands (47,000 inhabitants), up to sweet taboo, which represents California (nearly 40 million people). Jewel (who grew up yodeling in the famously harsh conditions in Alaska), Michael Bolton (Connecticut), and Sisqó (Maryland) are among the famous names.

Who votes? Viewers vote for songs, along with a 56-member jury, with one member from each state or territory.

Eurovision has some crazy performances† Will this version? “The cliché of one is the truth of another,” said an executive producer. “Some of them are self-conscious, some are not.” — Sanam Yar, a morning writer


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