Ukraine War, May 19, 2022: Putin assumes defeat will cost him his life (Interview with Graham Allison); West must find way to live with Putin, carefully weigh risk of nuclear escalation with every decision (Updated May 20, 2022)

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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) Bernhard Zand, “Putin geht davon aus, dass er bei einer Niederlage sein Leben verliert”; Der Kremlchef kenne keine Hemmungen und könnte auch Atomwaffen einsetzen, sagt Harvard-Politologe Graham Allison. Wie man das Morden in der Ukraine stoppt? Indem man Putin ein Angebot mache,” (Berhard Zand interview mit Graham Allison), Der Spiegel, den 19. Mai 2022 (13:57 Uhr);


2) Bernhard Zand, “‘Dealing with Horrible Leaders Is Part of the History of International Relations’; Harvard University political scientist Graham Allison argues that Vladimir Putin has no inhibitions and could even resort to the use of a tactical nuclear weapon. He believes we will ultimately have to negotiate with the Russian president in the end, just as we did with Stalin and Mao,” (Interview Conducted By Bernhard Zand in New York), Der Spiegel in English, May 20, 2022 (17:52 Uhr).


Zand, in an interview with Graham Allison of Harvard, evokes responses regarding the critical issues at the heart of the current war and its eventual resolution, including the risk of nuclear escalation.

Graham Allison underlines an important but iften overlooked aspect of the current war in Ukraine:

DER SPIEGEL: What can we learn from (the history of the Cold War and MAD) for living with Putin’s Russia?

Allison: That we will have to find a way to coexist. That was the challenge that we ultimately met in the Cold War. As uncomfortable, even unbearable as it may seem: Unless God helps us, lightning strikes and Putin dies – which would be great as far as I’m concerned – we’ll have to be ending a war with a demon. And that will remind us of how Roosevelt and Churchill sat down with Stalin who had killed 30 million people, or of Nixon’s meeting with Mao, who may have had killed even more. Dealing with really horrible leaders, even mass murderers to the extreme, is part of the history of international relations.

Zund quotes Allison as saying that he beieves that Putin is a “rational actor” if indeed a woefully misinformed one. He’s a rational actor in the sense that he makes rational calculations based on his assumptions and objectives.

What is meant by “the Rational-Actor Model”–the subject of Allison’s classic study of the Cuban Missile Crisis, Essence of Decision (1971)–refers to something entirely different. “The Rational Actor Model” or paradigm is the “conceptual lens” through which analysts of the behavior of states or governments view the actions and decisions that are being analyzed.

The “Rational Actor Fallacy” is the very common practice of analyzing state behavior, in all of its complexity, as if it were the rational choice of a single calculating mind. Allison in Essence of Decision demonstrated that this is clearly not the case.

Actions by the state (government)–or actually by a subunit of the government
–are commonly the product of organizational processes and routines, and not the rational choice of a government’s leader. Often, moreover, actions and decisions are the result of bureaucratic jostling and competition among the leaders of different departments or agencies.

Dand asks Allison what scenarios he thinks are currently playing out.His answer is not reassuring:

Allison: Our people at the highest levels of the U.S. government, including at the Pentagon and the White House, have been thinking about the question: Can Putin lose this war, and can he survive if it is an unambiguous loss? I don’t know what their answer is. My answer is no. He believes, accurately, that if he were to suffer an unambiguous loss, he would lose his position and likely be killed…

So the main analytic point is: If he is forced to choose between losing and escalating the level of violence and destruction, then, if he’s a rational actor, he’s going to choose the latter.

Then the following exchange occurs:

DER SPIEGEL: And do what?

Allison: Putin has shown no compunction about killing people, even in massive numbers. We saw that in Grozny, and we are seeing it in Mariupol today. If we present him with an unambiguous choice between losing everything and taking a chance, we’ll have to reckon with the use of a tactical nuclear weapon.

Allison points out that this is a nightmare scenario. Even a 15 or 20 kiloton bomb, roughly the size of the Hiroshima bonb, “could kill 20,000 to 50,000 people in one single act.” This would break the nuclear taboo, “and we would be in a new reality.”

In response to a question about war aims, Allison declared:

Allison: The Biden administration isn’t very good at explaining its policies, but it does have a fairly coherent view. My interpretation is that we have four interrelated war aims. Point one: Ukraine survives. Point two: No third world war. Point three: a decisive strategic defeat for Putin’s Russia. And point four: strengthening the international security order.

Point two, he explains, means “that no U.S. or NATO soldier kills a Russian – and vice versa.”

Point four is shaped by and largely consistent with international law and the U.N. Charter:

Allison: This may sound a little polyannish, but in the end the international community will have shown that there are crimes under international law that simply cannot be accepted. And one of those is invading your neighbor in order to redraw boundaries or, in any case, doing it in such a brutal way.

Putin and his people will become pariahs. We may still have to deal with them, but “these people will no longer go shopping in Paris, own apartments in London or a yacht in Nice.”

Allison’s view is sobering but ultimately optimistic.

Nonetheless, the extraordinarily critical point will continue to be:

How can the U.S. and NATO, while exercising great caution in stiffening their opposition to Putin, e.g., by sending increasingly sophisticated heavy weapons to Ukraine, successfully navigate through a nuclear showdown with the Russian leader?

If Putin feels he faces a defeat that might cost him not only power but also his life, and he uses a tactical nuclear weapon, how can the U.S. and NATO respond without caving in to his further nuclear threats?

The Trenchant Observer