Ukraine War, March 21, 2022 (I): This war is not a football game; What the media are not covering–strategy and goals, strategic nuclear doctrine, and the steps in nuclear escalation


Due to rapidly-breaking developments and in order to facilitate readers’ access to the latest dispatches, we are publishing this article as it is being written. please check back for updates and additions.

To see a list of previous articles, enter “Ukraine” in the Search Box on the upper right, on The Trenchant Observer web site, and you will see a list in chronological order.


1) William J. Broad, “The Smaller Bombs That Could Turn Ukraine Into a Nuclear War Zone,” New York Times ” March 21, 2022 (2:53 p.m, EDT);


Watching the Ukraine war on the TV cable channels in the U.S., it is hard to avoid the impression that Americans are increasingly viewing the war as if it were a football game.  With play-by-play descriptions of the latest advances, the latest battles, and the latest Russian atrocities, American armchair spectators, almost without exception fans of Ukraine, cheer their team on and are besides themselves with the heroic action of the Ukrainian players.

Each failure by the Russian team is celebrated with cheers, as if the score were tilting in favor of the Ukrainians.

The armchair warriors participate in the drama of the war through live television, with video clips of horrendous damage to cities and populations caused by Russian bombing and artillery, and heart-wrenching interviews of victims and refugees. All from the safety of their own homes.

Cheers from the armchair warriors, the passionate fans of the yellow and blue team, rise up in a deafening roar every time the Ukrainian team’s star player, Volodymyr Zalenski, makes a play. Whenever he makes a pass, pleading for the West to “close the skies”, fans stand and shout, even if his passes are incomplete.

Fans deck themselves out in blue and yellow sports apparel, putting Ukrainian team flags on their Twitter and other social media accounts and now, as the sports apparel industry begins to catch up with an unanticipated surge in demand, fans are beginning to wear T-shirts and wave the flags of the courageous blue-and-yellow team.

TV coverage of the game includes variants of the cable channels’ standard reporting on election results, with the top new sportscasters, retired generals (when available) standing before large electronic maps on the wall. These are like the electoral maps that can switch from state to precinct results at the touch of a button. In this football game, generals can switch from the score at the national level to the status of the race at more local levels like Mariupol, Kviv, Kherson, khartiv, or Lviv.

This a kind of a mixed metaphor, of course. More than switching from state to precinct results in reporting on electoral results, perhaps the generals at the maps are pushing buttons that show instant replays, like an instant replay of a good block, a good tackle, or a good quarterback sack.

Whatever the most appropriate analogies, the armchair fans cheer the blue-and-yellow team and its Churchillian star player on, if not to victory at least to stalemate and a tie ballgame.

What fans of the blue-and-yellow team are missing

While the fans of the Ukrainian team cheer their players on, there are several aspects of the larger war Russia has launched against Ukraine which receive scant television or even newspaper coverage.

1. The most obvious omission is the lack of analysis of the assumptions, cognitive models (e.g., the “rational actor model”) and decisions of the Biden administration. To date, these have failed to deter Putin from invading Ukraine, and are currently failing to stop Russia from killing tens of thousands of Ukrainians, forcibly transferring populations to Russia, and starving cities like Mariupol into capitulation.

Similarly, there is very little coverage of decision making in other NATO countries.

2. A second omission is the failure to cover U.S. and Allied thinking about and decisions regarding the strategy and goals of the West.

No goals have been articulated aside from the goal of not provoking Putin and causing “World War III”.

The media have even failed to clarify the difference between “World War III” as the Russians have taught Biden to say (“You fight me, One, Two, Three, World War III”), and a full nuclear exchange or Armageddon.

The Russians have obviously succeeded in implanting in Biden’s subconscious the idea that the two are one and the same thing.

Yet in another sense the U.S., NATO, and Europe are already engaged in a kind of economic World War III, pitting many nations of the world against Russia, whose economy will implode as a result of the harsh economic sanctions imposed on the country.

The media should stop referring to strategic nuclear war as World War III, and start to explore the Allies’ goals and strategy for winning the economic World War III that is currently underway.

3. A third omission has been a failure of the nedia to effectively communicate to their audiences the dimensions of the deaths that are being caused by Russian war crimes and crimes against humanity.

The Russians apparently have control of the organizational machinery of the U.N. Human Rights Council, which has been reporting ridiculously low numbers of deaths in the war. The Observer has yet to see a story on this abomination, which should be urgently addressed by Secretary General Antonio Guterres and member states of the United Nations.

The one set of facts the media should be providing, on the basis of the best information available, from multiple sources, is the number of deaths each day, boken down by category and location, with updated cumulative totals.

This they are not doing.

4. A fourth omission, and perhaps the most glaring one, has been a near total absence of reporting on current U.S. nuclear strategy and doctrine, and in particular on what could be involved in nuclear escalation, each step of the way.

The article by William J. Broad, above, is a rare exception, and an excellent piece of journalism. Hopefully, as psychological defenses begin to give away in the face of imminent peril, coverage of this issue will pick up.

There is a deep subconscious aversion to thinking about nuclear escalation and nuclear war. Vladimir Putin understands this fact. He has used it to great advantage in psychologically neutralizing, on a subconscious level, first Barack Obama and now Joe Biden.

As human beings, we find it enormously difficult to think about our own individual deaths, about our current consciousness and experience of life coming to an end. It us even more difficult to contemplate our own lives suddenly ending in a nuclear war.

But despite our aversion to thinking about the issue, with his massive invasion of Ukraine Putin has forced us to think about it once again.

The media has utterly failed to take on this issue to date.

But now it must.

The Trenchant Observer

About the Author

James Rowles
"The Trenchant Observer" is edited and published by James Rowles (aka "The Observer"), an author and international lawyer who has taught International Law, Human Rights, and Comparative Law at major U.S. universities, including Harvard, Brandeis, the University of Pittsburgh, and the University of Kansas. Dr. Rowles is a former staff attorney at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) of the Organization of American States OAS), in Wasington, D.C., , where he was in charge of Brazil, Haiti, Mexico and the United States, and also worked on complaints from and reports on other countries including Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Guatemala. As an international development expert, he has worked on Rule of Law, Human Rights, and Judicial Reform in a number of countries in Latin America, the Caribbean, Africa, the Middle East, South Asia, and the Russian Federation. In the private sector, Dr. Rowles has worked as an international attorney for a leading national law firm and major global companies, on joint ventures and other matters in a number of countries in Europe (including Russia and the Ukraine), throughout Latin America and the Caribbean, and in Australia, Indonesia, Vietnam, China and Japan. The Trenchant Observer blog provides an unfiltered international perspective for news and opinion on current events, in their historical context, drawing on a daily review of leading German, French, Spanish and English newspapers as well as the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, and other American newspapers, and on sources in other countries relevant to issues being analyzed. Dr. Rowles speaks fluent English, French, German, Portuguese and Spanish, and also knows other languages. He holds an S.J.D. or Doctor of Juridical Science in International Law from Harvard University, and a Doctor of Law (J.D.) and a Master of the Science of Law (J.S.M.=LL.M.), from Stanford University. As an undergraduate, he received a Bachelor of Arts degree, also from Stanford, where he graduated “With Great Distinction” (summa cum laude) and received the James Birdsall Weter Prize for the best Senior Honors Thesis in History. In addition to having taught as a Lecturer on Law at Harvard Law School, Dr. Rowles has been a Visiting Scholar at Harvard University's Center for International Affairs (CFIA). His fellowships include a Stanford Postdoctoral Fellowship in Law and Development, the Rómulo Gallegos Fellowship in International Human Rights awarded by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, and a Harvard MacArthur Fellowship in International Peace and Security. Beyond his articles in The Trenchant Observer, he is the author of two books and numerous scholarly articles on subjects of international and comparative law. Currently he is working on a manuscript drawing on some the best articles that have appeared in the blog.