Skip to main content

What Are the Odds Putin is Bluffing About Using Nuclear Weapons?

Is Putin bluffing? How would anyone know?
  • Author:
  • Publish date:
Image courtesy of Eurointelligence

Image courtesy of Eurointelligence

Eurointelligence founder Wolfgang Münchau has a thoughtful article on what Putin may or may not do. 

Please consider What are the Odds?, emphasis mine.

I have received a number of emails over the last few days from correspondents who assert that the risk of a nuclear war was small, or that it was unlikely. It is worth reflecting on the meaning of these predictions in detail. What does unlikely mean when we are talking about a nuclear war?

I can translate it for you. It means: “I have no clue. But I have a feeling.” That feeling is based on assumptions that may sound plausible, but that we cannot be sure of. We think we know what Vladimir Putin considers to be in his strategic interest. We think some brave soul in the Russian command structure would heroically refuse to comply with a presidential nuclear launch order. We may think that these weapons are as dysfunctional as Russia's tanks, that they explode at launch or mid-air. Or we think that there might be a coup against him before he has the opportunity to pull the trigger. 

We can assert the probability of an earthquake, and attach a number to it. But there is no way we can do this here. We have no data and no probability distribution, and the usual weasel words are not helping us either.

All we have is intelligence from public sources and from our security services. They may have information about whether somebody is plotting against Putin. Or whether Putin faces internal opposition. But we have to treat such information professionally. Remember the weapons of mass destruction debacle? Back then, many western governments did not apply the highest standards of verification. We must ask ourselves: Is the source reliable? Is there a second source? Is there further corroboration? Do the sources have an agenda that may cause them to distort the truth, or lie?

Our western thinking about risk is rooted in the modern concept of probability, developed by the great Russian mathematician, Andrey Kolmogorov, in the 1930s. Probability and statistics allow us to calculate the numeric probability of an earthquake or help us with economic forecasts.

But this framework is not useful here. Right now, it is best to think not of quantifiable risk, but of unquantifiable uncertainty. 

There are clearly scenarios that speak against Russia’s use of nuclear weapons. But I can think of two where the bomb goes off in the end. The first is one where Putin realises that he lost the war, where he knows he will not personally survive, and where he decides to take the western European enemy down with him. What speaks against this scenario is that Russia’s elite might frustrate this. They clearly have no desire to perish in a nuclear holocaust. It is possible that my scenario won’t happen. Then again, a last-minute intervention by the generals and the oligarchs may not happen, or it happens and fails, or happens, succeeds but comes too late. Let’s us not pretend that we are in a position to write the ending of this particular Hollywood script.

In my second scenario, Putin calculates that the launch of a smallish tactical nuclear weapon in Ukraine would split the western alliance. In particular, it would break the Biden-Scholz axis. I have been arguing from the start of the war that the Germans are the weak link in the western alliance. Putin knows that too, and he might conclude that this is his most effective weapon.

Münchau says he cannot assign a probability to his scenarios. But no one else can either. And that is his point.

I can't help but fixate on  "Do the sources have an agenda that may cause them to distort the truth, or lie?"

There is no reason to trust what anyone says. The US state department lost whatever trust it had in the weapons of mass destruction fiasco.

Colin Powel aided President Bush's agenda with a remarkable speech to the UN that anyone with an ounce of common sense knew was a lie. 

It is a history of lies that caused considerable debate, even in this corner, about whether Putin would invade Ukraine or how far he might go if he did. 

Scroll to Continue

RECOMMENDED ARTICLES

What is the agenda of the US this time? Of Putin? 

Even if we knew the agenda of Putin or the US, and knew that Putin wanted to use nukes, what are the odds of a last-minute intervention by the Russian generals?

People want to believe US leaders and they want us to not worry. That's one possible agenda item. But what does anyone really know and is anyone really saying what they do know. 

But since we do not know, and since there is nothing anyone can do about it anyway, we may as well believe the odds are low, even if we have no idea.

This post originated at MishTalk.Com

Please Subscribe!

Like these reports? I hope so, and if you do, please Subscribe to MishTalk Email Alerts.

Subscribers get an email alert of each post as they happen. Read the ones you like and you can unsubscribe at any time.

If you have subscribed and do not get email alerts, please check your spam folder.

Mish