A lone madman can still bring down civilization
I see no rational solution to the nuclear dilemma. Madman Putin may use his weapons. Perhaps limited, perhaps devastating.
If Putin acts, the west will have to respond. I pray for an alternative solution, but all I have is goodwill toward my neighbors and the hope that goodwill will triumph.
It's tough - but the general solution to me seems to be a global treaty leading to dramatic reduction of nuclear weapons everywhere (enough to prevent global catastrophe) in combination with a Western-led effort to actually democratize unstable governments across the world (especially those capable of producing/with nuclear weapons). This combined with increased research towards technology designed to intercept nuclear missiles/contain radiation might help as well.
Perhaps it is almost impossible. How do we get China, or especially Russia, to reduce their nuclear arsenals? On top of that, there is good reason people are skeptical of American/Western foreign intervention, but at least on that front we can rebuild our reputation. But as you said, as of right now, letting nuclear threats win territory can set a disastrous precedent for future world peace.
To the extent there is a solution it is basically what the Ukrainians are doing now. You will notice that they haven't bent even an inch in response to the nuclear threats. This is admirably courageous but also logical. If they seemed to waver, offer talks etc then it would greatly incentive the Russians to strike to obtain a surrender. As it is one must assume that a limited nuclear strike would not stop their resistance. They are fatalistic about it in a way. It is the only proper response.
At the global level that is pretty much what we need to do as well. Disincentivise and accept the risks we must. I'm sceptical of solutions here. 'Agreements' may just as easily create the conditions for a nuclear first strike as prevent them.
People always leave China out of this Russia focused analysis.
Right now, China has nuclear weapons. South Korea and Japan do not.
If Russia were to use a low yield tactical nuke or a big nuke or a nuke of any kind, Japan and South Korea would get themselves nukes within weeks. They have the tech and the plutonium stockpiles, they just choose not to.
This is the absolute apocalypse for China.
There is no way that China hasn't communicated to Russia, in private, all of the horrible consequences for Russia that China will bring down on their heads should nukes be used.
China isn't the only one.
Israel has kept largely neutral so as not to clash with the Russians in Syria. Israel is the size of a postage stamp, they have a massive interest in not normalizing the use of nuclear weapons. If Russia uses a nuclear weapon, I think Israel ends the existence of every single Russian in Syria. They probably have communicated this to the Kremlin.
In hindsight it is very questionable whether the collapse of USSR is a good thing for world peace and human civilization or not. Yes, the Russian Federation is somewhat more free and democratic than USSR, but it also replaced an ideology that at least claims itself to be progressive with nihilism, and replaced "collective leadership" [maybe it had something to do with the Ukrainian roots of Brezhnev?] with Putin's one-man dictatorship.
"Putin has shown no willingness to negotiate any sort of peace settlement" - completely and totally untrue to the point of being misinformation. Putin was asking for negotiations before the war, negotiated one in March/April that apparently the UK told Ukraine to pull out of, and has persistently been signaling his desire for negotiations ever since.
However, he has not been saying he would agree to the terms the U.S. wants, which would presumably involve withdrawing from Crimea, no Ukraine neutrality, changes in NATO posture, etc. etc. You can say we shouldn't change our terms but it's simply not true that Putin is unwilling to negotiate on any terms.
It is a tough situation with no safe, pleasant way out. I believe that yielding to nuclear blackmail used offensively would be a fatal mistake however for a number of reasons:
1) If you allow yourself to be extorted, you yell "extort me more". What if he demands the whole of Ukraine, Kazachstan, the baltic countries? What if he demands to stop using renewables or to hand over political refugees? Where do we draw the line, if not now?
2) It would create a terrible precedent to other nuclear armed (or yet to be nuclear armed) countries with expansive ambitions. Prepare for economic sanctions, threaten with nukes, win.
3) It would undermine every attempt of non-proliferation in different ways by making nuclear weapons more attractive:
i) Nukes for offensive use, see 2)
ii) It undermines trust in security guarantees and shows that, unless you have your own nuclear weapons, nuclear powers can attack you while the rest of the world backs down.
iii) It shows that even an overwhelmingly powerful conventional military is useless if the enemy can force concessions by the threat of nuclear escalation.
Do we really want to live in a world where Iran, Saudi Arabia, Taiwan, VAE and many others develop nuclear weapons as a survival guarantee, resulting in a number of mini cold wars?
I actually made an argument to my members of Congress and the Senate, in DC, lobbying on behalf of the MN Nuclear Weapons Freeze Campaign, before the first Persian Gulf War, that, with the collapse of the Soviet Union, if the United States wields it's lone Superpower status, it could invite countries who formerly relied on their ability to play the two Superpowers against each other, may find it necessary to develop their own nuclear deterrent. I argued that this first post-Cold War conflict could serve as a model for a new way for the world to deal with renegade dictators who invaded other countries.
Then I watched as Iraq lobbed SCUD missiles at Israel, attempting a strategic response, and failing. I knew at that moment that these "non-aligned" nations would begin to seek nuclear weapons unless they wanted to at the mercy of a United States dominated foreign policy. When Bush named Iraq, Iran, and North Korea as the "Axis of Evil" then invaded Iraq, it was obvious that Iran and North Korea needed to develop nuclear weapons to deter US intimidation or invasion.
My proposal was for the United States to recognize its position and work MORE closely with international organizations, such as the UN. Now George HW Bush, did do a pretty good job in the first Gulf War of pulling together an large coalition of nations, but not the United Nations, and also kept the United States firmly in command. His son, however, in attacking Iraq in 2003, did the thing that I feared most in late 1990.
It's my understanding that most of the risks of nuclear winter are dramatically overstated. The particles in the upper atmosphere in these scenarios come from firestorms in targeted cities, not from the detonations themselves. Modern cities no longer have the density of flammable material required to sustain a firestorm.
I live in Japan and have known many people who experienced the Atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. America forbid any mention of the destruction until 1955. But two friends of mine were artists who documented everything they saw there. They had to hide their paintings for many years. If you are interested you can see their artwork and read their story here:
Maruki Gallery For The Hiroshima Panels
Iri and Toshi Maruki | Maruki Gallery For The Hiroshima Panels
They have passed away but their museum exists to remind people of the horrors of nuclear war. I used to sit in their kitchen and listen to their first hand stories - the victims screaming in agony while their skin was falling off, jumping into the river thinking it would lessen their pain - but water only intensified it. Soon the river was polluted with hundreds of rotting, bloated bodies. But now, nuclear weapons are much more powerful. What will become of us???
"...the paradox of this society is that you cannot even die in it any more since you are already dead... This is real suspense. And it is not simply an effect of living in the nuclear age, but derives from the ease with which we now live, which makes survivors of us all. If the bomb drops, we shall neither have the time to die nor any awareness of dying. But already in our hyper-protected society we no longer have any awareness of death, since we have subtly passed over into a state where life is excessively easy..."
"It seems that people have become tired of nuclear blackmail and decided not to give in to it, leaving the threat of destruction hanging in mid-air over them, perhaps with an obscure sense of how unreal it is. A fine example of a vital reaction disguised as resignation. 'If we have to die, better to die in open air than in an underground sarcophagus.' At a stroke, an end is put to survival blackmail and life can go on.
"Everyone is weary of apocalyptic visions – the great scenario of the nuclear threat, the theatrical negotiations, 'Star Wars'. In the end, they defend themselves with a lack of imagination. Even attempts to stimulate that imagination in films... have not worked. Nothing has ever been able to make this nuclear scene – or obscenity – credible. With delicate matters like this (like with cancer), imaging death has the effect of bringing the fatal event closer. The masses' silent indifference to nuclear pathos (whether it comes from nuclear powers or anti-nuclear campaigners) is therefore a sign of great hope and a political fact of the utmost importance."
– Jean Baudrillard, "America", 1988
The extreme left in democracies always used the nuclear terror as a ground for appeasement with the USSR. Many were sponsored by them or were simply allies of Marxist regimes in democratic countries.
As their last hopes for a powerful, all-conquering Marxism are still in Russia and China they will make similar noises. E.g. we must stop supporting Ukraine because nuclear terror.
The US has been playing nuclear brinksmanship with Russia for a few years now. We should stop doing that.
The Mad(wo)man Theory is certainly something to worry about.
There must be other events which might be worthy of equal attention -- for instance, a simple system failure.
Has anyone ever calculated the odds of a major / minor nuclear exchange as a function of a range of variables?
Joseph Nye has what seems to me a generally optimistic view of the problem in https://www.aspistrategist.org.au/is-nuclear-war-inevitable/
The key point here, in our current situation, was made by Obama in 2016: https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2016/04/the-obama-doctrine/471525/
"Obama’s theory here is simple: Ukraine is a core Russian interest but not an American one, so Russia will always be able to maintain escalatory dominance there.
“The fact is that Ukraine, which is a non-NATO country, is going to be vulnerable to military domination by Russia no matter what we do,” he said."
To elaborate the point vividly, imagine the reaction if Russia does resort to limited nuclear use in Ukraine. I think in the US you would see runs on supermarkets, flight from major cities and a general outcry that the American people don't want to die for Ukraine. That would not be the reaction of the Russian people.
So yes, I think you do back down in Ukraine. ("Back down" here doesn't mean you just straight-up retreat, but you retaliate mildly enough that you know there won't be further escalation and then you draw down your involvement.)
But the same reasoning doesn't apply to any (or at least not to many) more possible battlefields. As a general rule of thumb, I'd say the farthest we should go in Ukraine is a conventional proxy war like the one we're fighting now, and if we can't win without going beyond that line, we have to let it go. Also, "winning" needs to be defined as something that wouldn't trigger a Russian nuclear response--so no re-taking Crimea.
Today, North Korea shot a ballistic missile over Japan. Kim and Trump are good buddies... Putin, also Trump’s good buddy, has been threatening nuclear strikes on Ukraine. Stanley Kubrick’s black comedy about nuclear weapons, “Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb,” caused a good deal of controversy. Its plot suggested that a mentally deranged American general could order a nuclear attack on the Soviet Union, without consulting the President. But the scariest part is that Almost Everything in “Dr. Strangelove” Was True. http://www.newyorker.com/news/news-desk/almost-everything-in-dr-strangelove-was-true
Germany is celebrating German Unity Day, the official acknowledgment that the East and West were no longer divided. I remember when the Wall came down very clearly because I had many friends in East Germany and Eastern Europe. Suddenly they were free! It happened so fast and rather unexpectedly. Things can change one way or another in the blink of an eye.
What will this world be like a year from now?