Ukranian War, February 28, 2022: How to stop Putin, if he has become a madman with nuclear weapons? Dispatches

Draft – Developing

Dispatches and Analyses


1) Yaroslav Trofimov, “Ukraine and Russia Fail to Agree on Cease-Fire, as Moscow Shelling Kills Civilians; Negotiators make some progress and return their capitals for consultations with plans to meet again in coming days, as Ukraine holds on to Kyiv, Wall Street Journal, February 28, 2022 (Updated 2:28 pm ET);

2) Matthias Gebauer, Fritz Schaap und Konstantin von Hammerstein, “Das Schlimmste wird erst noch kommen; In der Ukraine kommen die Kreml-Truppen langsamer voran als gedacht. Militärexperten sind erstaunt über die strategischen Fehler der russischen Armee. Nun könnte sie ihre Strategie ändern, Der Spiegel, den 28. Februar 2022 (19.24 Uhr).

In this extraordinary aricle, the authors, drawing on the insights of a number of military strategists, analyze the many strategic mistakes the Russian military made in the first days of the invasion, and consider the course corrections they could now make. These include carpet bombing and much greater use of artillery against cities, as in Grozny in 1999 and Aleppo in 2016. These changes in strategy, if adopted instead of a cease-fire, would result in far greater civilian casualties and damage to civilian infrastructure. This new phase, the authors suggest, may already be underway. “The worst may be yet to come.”

3) Alexander S. Vindman, “How NATO and the West can up their game on Ukraine — right now,” Washington Post, February 28, 2022 (3:25 p.m. EST);

4) “Satellitenbilder zeigen über 60 Kilometer langen russischen Militärkonvoi vor Kiew; Einem US-Satellitendienst zufolge ist ein russischer Militärkonvoi auf dem Weg in die ukrainische Hauptstadt – und er ist offenbar deutlich länger als zunächst angenommen,” Der Spiegel, den 1. März 2022 (1:50 Uhr).

01.50 Uhr: Aktuelle Satellitenbilder zeigen einen russischen Militärkonvoi nördlich der ukrainischen Hauptstadt Kiew. Der Konvoi erstrecke sich über etwa 64 Kilometer und ist damit deutlich länger, als die zunächst berichteten 27 Kilometer, teilte das in den USA ansässigen Unternehmen Maxar Technologies zu den Aufnahmen mit.

Die Kolonne besteht laut der Nachrichtenagentur Unian aus Panzern und anderen militärischen Fahrzeugen und erstreckt sich demnach vom Flughafen Hostomel im Nordwesten Kiews bis zum Dorf Prybirsk, das zwischen Kiew und Tschernobyl liegt.

Weiter seien zusätzliche Bodentruppen und Kampfhubschraubereinheiten im südlichen Belarus weniger als 32 Kilometer nördlich der ukrainischen Grenze gesichtet worden.

The Rational Actor Fallacy

Western countries and their international allies were slow to grasp and act on the fact that Putin was massing troops and planning to invade Ukraine.

Prisoners of a “rational actor model” of Russia’s decision making, and also assuming Putin was a rational actor in the usual sense of the word “rational”, a leader who was acting on information that included at least the public information available to them, they assumed he was making analytical assessments of the benefits and also the “costs” (their favorite word) he and Russia would incur if he proceeded with the invasion of Ukraine.

They delayed imposing sanctions on Russia on the theory that if they imposed heavy sanctions on Putin before the invasion, there would be no sanctions left with which to deter him from launching the invasion. Even after Russia began its invasion, they held back on imposing the most severe sanctions, such as expulsion from the SWIFT international payments system, on the theory that
they would need further sanctions to defer him from further bad actions in the war, or what some of them conceived of as further “escalation” in the war, even after it was underway.

They ignored what political scientists, diplomatic historians, and students of government decision making have known for years about “the rational actor fallacy” and the organizational procedures and bureaucratic politics that, in addition to leaders’ decisions, actually determine government behavior in the real world, the actual actions of governments.

Due in part to this fundamental conceptual flaw in the way they thought about deterrence, they failed to deter Putin from invading Ukraine.

The most severe sanctions against Russia, now finally imposed, were put off until too late to even have a shot at deterring Putin.

The terrible question which must be asked, but which now only historians will be left to ponder, is whether if they had adopted the heavy sanctions they have now imposed, much earlier and in time for their effects to be felt by the ruble, the stock markets, the Oligarchs, and Russian society, they might have deterred Russia from launching a massive war of aggression against Ukraine.

Confusion of terms: The “rational actor fallacy” versus the “rational” actor

The “rational actor fallacy” consists in assuming that a government’s actions are the product of decisions by a unitary actor or a single calculating mind. This is the error Joe Biden and other allied decision makers fell into in thinking about how to deter Russia from invading Ukraine.

The “rational actor model” assumes that the unitary mind making the calculations has access to all relevant information.

However, organizational behavior and bureaucratic politics may determine the actions of states in many ways. One of these is to determine the information available to a given leader, such as Vladimir Putin. These factors may in turn themselves be affected by a leader’s personal emotions and prejudices, and his choice of close advisers upon whose advice–and information–he relies.

Even operating under these constraints, his own decisions–as opposed to the actual behavior of his government–may be the product of a rational calculation of costs and benefits as he understands them.

But what if, perhaps under the stress of an international crisis or of war, he has gone absolutely mad? Bonkers?

This is not only an interesting question, but also one which can become an existential question of the survival of civilization, or even humanity, if that madman has nuclear weapons and control of the machinery of government necessary to use them.

Horrors the contemporary Western mind can hardly grasp

Unless Putin is stopped, the world may be on the brink of witnessing the devastation of near all-out war on a scale and with an intensity not seen since World War II. This could start in Ukraine, to be sure, but would entail an enormous risk of escalation to nuclear conflict.

This is a horror that the Western mind, insulated from such terrors since 1945 (aided and abetted by an aversion to looking at what was going on in Syria after 2011) can hardly grasp. It doesn’t want to face this possibility.

Nonetheless the prospect of such horror is absolutely clear, and seems to be bearing down on Kviv and Kharkhov with ineluctable force.

Yet there is an even greater terror, which the Western mind, at a subconscious level, seeks with even greater determination not to see. That is the possibility of nuclear conflict, and even escalation to nuclear war–or World War III, as the Russians warn in seeking to deter any U.S. or NATO military involvement in Ukraine.

Two examples of this aversion come to mind.

In a thoughtful opinion column several days ago, Roger Cohen, the Paris bureau chief of the New York Times, observed in passing that “Nuclear Armageddon is not on the table.”


“Ukraine War, February 23, 2022: History–It all matters; blame enough to go around; cyber and collective self-defense of Ukraine against Russian aggression; conditions for a cease-fire; the long war with Russia (cold and maybe hot) that lies ahead: the failure of U.S. and NATO strategy; avoiding Armageddon,” The Trenchant Observer, February 23, 2022.

A second example comes from a CNN interview yesterday with Richard Burt, a great expert on nuclear weapons and a former ambassador to Germany. He commented on the fact that Russian conventional forces are not as strong as Soviet forces once were, which has led Russia to rely more on the use of tactical nuclear weapons, both in doctrine and in military preparedness. The Observer heard him say that he thought their use was likely in the current conflict.

The transcript of that interview edited out all of the comments referred to above.

Our minds cannot grasp it, just as they could not conceive of the evil in Hitler’s Germany that would lead to the death of six million Jews.

How can Putin be stopped?


1) suicide

The Ukrainian Representative’s suggestion at the U.N. General Assembly meeting today. His remarks suggest his awareness that a mad Putin could take the rest of us with him.

2) military coup in Moscow
–See point (4) below

3) large Russian military units in Ukraine war refuse orders
–generals refuse orders
–lower-level commanders refuse orders
–lower-level commanders refuse orders and stay in place
–or surrender

4) Russian military refuse order to use tactical nuclear weapons.

It would be important for U.S. and other Western military officials to be in contact with their Russian counterparts, now, much as they were in the last days of the Trump administration.

The U.S. and its allies should consider making public or otherwise communicating to Russian military and intelligence officials, to the extent they can consistent with safeguarding sources and methods, information they have regarding Putin’s mental stability.

5) NATO countries conduct missile or drone strikes on or bomb Russian columns approaching Kviv, and prepare for escalation by Putin.

According to latest reports based on private satellite photos, a 60 kilometer-long (36 mile-long) column of vehicles, armor, and men is currently advancing toward Kviv.

They would make excellent targets.

If NATO countries’ forces were to attack them, such actions would constitute a lawful exercise of the inherent right of collective self-defense against an “armed attack” under Article 51 of the U.N. Charter.

Of course, there would be the possibility of escalation by Putin in response. If taken, under Article 51 these actions against Russian forces should be reported to the U.N. Security Council. That could make for an interesting meeting.

At some point, as Russia kills tens of thousands of people under the umbrella of Putin’s nuclear threats, NATO countries may have to take military action in Ukraine.  As Emmanuel Macron has reminded Putin, NATO has nuclear weapons too.

The Trenchant Observer