Putin Has the MAD Advantage

One notable aspect of the war in Ukraine is that it is being fought entirely on Ukrainian soil. Russia has attacked Ukraine, but Ukraine has not launched a counter-attack. It’s easy to understand why. Ukraine is using 100% of its military capacity to defend itself, (and asking others to contribute to that capacity) while Russia is using only a limited amount of its capacity. Suppose Ukraine were to try to attack Russia. In that case, there is little doubt that Russia would substantially escalate its attack on Ukraine.

Meanwhile, Western nations stand on the sideline, with some economic sanctions and some supplies of military hardware, cautious of getting too involved, which might provoke a Russian escalation outside Ukraine’s boundaries.

The nuclear buildup on both sides during the Cold War implemented a policy of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD). Both sides knew that if a nuclear conflict began, both sides would be destroyed. That MAD policy now protects Putin and gives him latitude to engage in pretty much any military activity he chooses within Ukraine’s boundaries.

The timid response of other nations is a reaction to the fear that Putin could attack those other nations directly. Indeed, Putin has even raised the possibility of using nuclear weapons in retaliation if other nations get too involved. That invokes a different meaning of MAD. Putin appears not to be entirely rational. He might actually push the nuclear button if he sees other nations standing in the way of his ambitions in Ukraine, and he has every incentive to present the appearance of irrationality to the rest of the world. Other nations are cautious because they are not sure just how far Putin would go to achieve his ambitions.

Russia has enough military might that it never has to lose this Ukrainian war, even though it might never win. Look at what happened when the United States used military force to try to subdue Vietnam or Afghanistan. Look at what happened when the Soviet Union tried to subdue Afghanistan. Those wars just dragged on until the invaders decided they’d had enough. Putin does not want his invasion of Ukraine to end that way.

From his past experience, it doesn’t have to. The world already has stood by and watched him take over territory in Georgia and Ukraine. If he can take Crimea, what should stop him from taking the whole country?

Ultimately, Putin has to either win a military victory or decide to pull out, perhaps declaring a victory after some diplomatic agreement. But Putin surely would view a diplomatic resolution to be a failure. Ukrainian President Zelensky has said he would agree to a neutral Ukraine that would never join NATO, addressing Putin’s stated national security justification for his invasion, but Putin’s attack continues.

Putin must believe that treaties, agreements, and promises will be broken if the opportunity arises. He broke them himself when he invaded Ukraine. After the breakup of the Soviet Union, Ukraine had the third-largest nuclear arsenal in the world, behind the United States and Russia. The Budapest Memorandum that was signed in 1994 transferred Ukraine’s nuclear arsenal to Russia in exchange for a promise by Russia (and other nations) to not use military force or coercion against Ukraine, a promise obviously violated by Putin’s invasion. If Putin doesn’t hold diplomatic agreements to be binding, why would he believe that others would? Why would he believe that a diplomatic agreement would achieve his ends in Ukraine?

As long as Ukrainians resist Russia’s invasion in this MAD world, there’s no clear end in sight for this war. We can hope that if the war drags on, the Russian population will become disenchanted with Putin, forcing him to pull out, and maybe even toppling him from power. But this is wishful thinking in an autocracy where Putin controls the media, jails dissenters, and pulls all the strings.

It’s a messy situation in which the MAD-induced timidity of the rest of the world, for the most part, just leaves us cheering for the underdog.

Randall G. Holcombe is a Senior Fellow at the Independent Institute, the DeVoe Moore Professor of Economics at Florida State University, and author of the Independent Institute book Liberty in Peril: Democracy and Power in American History.
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