Pursuing peace in Ukraine, new nuke risks and more


On this horrific one-year anniversary of Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine, most Western analysts foresee a continued “war of attrition” with no end in sight.

See, for example, Domestic Politics Encourage Continued War of Attrition in Ukraine in 2023 (Thomas Graham, russiamatters.org, 22 February 2023).

Thomas Graham, former diplomat and now distinguished fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, summarizes his main conclusions:

Moscow and Kyiv are each aiming for a decisive breakthrough that will put their country on the path to victory. Most military analysts, however, see little chance for a dramatic turn in events.

If they are right, the war of attrition will continue, reinforced by the politics of Russia, Ukraine and the West, which rule out any near-term push for a negotiated settlement.

Impact of 2024 elections in Ukraine, Russia and US

In Graham’s view, the prospect of presidential elections in both Ukraine and Russia in March of 2024 will only bolster their leaders’ aversion to negotiations:

The Ukrainian leader cannot trade land for peace and hope to survive politically.

As for Putin, Graham argues he will

double down in the face of adversity on the battlefield as he has in the past, rather than back down in the run-up to the election.

Likewise, in his view, US presidential elections next November will probably serve to prolong the war:

Land for peace is no more appealing to [President Biden] than it is to Zelensky, while perversely a continuing war of attrition serves his political purposes.

Russian capacity to continue the war

After noting that sanctions have not crippled the Russian economy — with IMF predictions for better growth in 2023 than in Germany and the UK — Graham writes:

There is little danger that Russia will run out of the supplies it needs to continue intense fighting for the rest of this year with or without military assistance from China.

He also predicts that the West will supply advanced warplanes for Kyiv’s major offensive.

This leads him to the following grim conclusion:

In this light, the question for 2023 is not whether the war will continue. Rather it is how far the escalation will proceed. Will the conflict extend beyond Ukraine…? …Will Moscow move beyond periodic nuclear saber-rattling to actual use?

Or will the obvious risks of escalation finally overturn the political imperatives and open up a path toward peace?

The stakes could not be higher.

It is hard not to see the jarring contradiction between the statement that the “stakes could not be higher” and the absence of any serious examination of HOW to open up a path toward peace.

“Political imperatives” in support of continued war are not immutable conditions but entirely dependent on a range of factors, including public opinion, which in turn is manifestly capable of being influenced.

Similarly, the pursuit of military advantage is not in principle an impediment to simultaneously actively considering the possibility of a negotiated end to the war. But it is a deadly obstacle when the military strategy itself is designed to foreclose any possibility of seriously pursuing negotiations.

What is the point if Putin is not open to negotiations?

Graham asserts, like many others, that Putin

has shown no interest in negotiating anything other than Ukraine’s capitulation.

This is quite a conclusion to reach in the absence of any meaningful attempts by the West to facilitate negotiations between Ukraine and Russia, and it flies in the face of peace talks early on in the conflict which foresaw compromises on both sides.

So what would happen if Putin did signal a desire to negotiate?

Based on all available evidence the likely Western response would be to reject his overtures on the grounds that:

  • Russia is seeking to undermine Western cohesion vital to the war effort, and/or
  • Russia is seeking to buy time to gain further military advantage on the battlefield, or
  • This is proof positive that the Western military strategy is working, so there is no need to negotiate as eventually Ukraine will “win”.

What would constitute a Ukrainian victory?

But even on the military front, as we have discussed in previous blog posts, there is a  lack of Western clarity on what would or should constitute a Ukrainian “victory”.

Indeed, as Anatol Lieven points out, there is not even agreement on this basic point within the American administration.

In an article entitled What a Victory for Ukraine Should Look Like  (quincyinst.org, 22 February 2023 in abbreviated form), Anatol Lieven writes:

Differences are growing within the Biden Administration over what kind of victory for Ukraine the United States should support.

On one side is Secretary of State Blinken arguing that Crimea is a “red line” for Russia, while US Under Secretary of State Nuland has

identified herself with the Ukrainian government position that Ukraine must regain all its territory and will not compromise on this.

In Lieven’s view:

President Biden himself appears not yet to have decided what the territorial goal of U.S. support to Ukraine should be… [and] has stopped short of endorsing their aim to recover Crimea.

Peace without Crimea in Ukraine

Lieven summarizes what the first option — Russia keeps Crimea — would mean in terms of Russian war objectives:

  • Failure to capture Kyiv and topple the Ukrainian government
  • Failure to take the whole of the Donbas
  • Failure to take Ukraine’s second city, Kharkiv
  • Failure to take the Ukrainian Black Sea coast.

The only significant new military goal that Russia would have achieved is to conquer the land bridge between Russia and Crimea, and restore Crimea’s water supply from the Dnieper River, previously blocked by Ukraine.

He summarizes:

These Russian defeats mean that … the great majority of Ukraine, including four out of its five main cities, will in the future be fully independent of Russia and closely aligned with the West.

This cancels out not just Moscow’s aims of a year ago, but more than 300 years of Russian and Ukrainian history.

What about Ukraine reclaiming Crimea too?

While understanding the Ukrainian desire for the full restoration of their territorial integrity, Lieven warns that this aim

should however be qualified in the case of Crimea and the Donbas both by the legally complex status of Crimea and Sevastopol, and by the extreme difficulty of reintegrating the Russian-speaking populations of these areas into a Ukraine that is increasingly defined by ethnic nationalism.

Lieven next addresses an argument — heard frequently in Western media — that the complete defeat of Russia and loss of Crimea are necessary if Russia is to be prevented from regrouping and threatening Ukraine again “six months or six years from now.”

In Lieven’s view:

This argument as it stands is deeply flawed.

He elaborates:

Russian capacity to attack Ukraine does not depend on its holding Crimea. If Russia survives as a state, it will retain a 1200-mile-long border with Ukraine. Nor could one defeat, however severe, destroy Russia’s underlying military capacity, which depends on the still significant Russian economy and population, and the state’s ability to motivate the population to fight.

Reminding us that the great majority of Russians regard Crimea (which was part of the Russian Soviet Republic until it was transferred to Ukraine by Soviet decree in 1954) as a historic part of Russia, Lieven warns:

while many Russians might accommodate themselves to the loss of Ukraine (given the defeats and the appalling losses that Russia has experienced in this war), the loss of Crimea would create a permanent desire for territorial revanche, as soon as an opportunity for this seemed to appear.

And what of the views of the Crimeans themselves?

Lieven writes:

At the moment most Crimeans still appear to want to be part of Russia, leading to the question of how Ukraine could rule Crimea in future, without repression or ethnic cleansing.

Extreme risk of war escalation

Lieven also reminds us that, in the view of US Secretary of State Blinken,

by far the greatest threat of extreme Russian escalation would stem from a Ukrainian move to take Crimea.

Sevastopol and regional instability

Lieven also questions the supposed Western military benefits that would accrue from Russia’s loss of its only deep water port on the Black Sea, writing in part:

Turkey would be left as the only major power in the Black Sea; and without Russian forces in Syria, Ankara and the Islamists would be in a much stronger position to take much of that country.

What about Putin losing power?

There is also the Western and Ukrainian government view that a loss of Crimea could see Putin toppled and result in a radically weakened Russian Federation.

Lieven reminds us of Iraq and Libya, as examples of “multi-ethnic authoritarian states” where the destruction of the regime can lead to the collapse of the state, and then warns:

For the U.S. to aim at the crippling of a nuclear-armed state would be the most dangerous enterprise ever embarked on by a U.S. administration.

He ends with this question:

Is this a risk that Americans should take, when this is not an existential issue for America, and when Ukraine has already won a great and irreversible victory?

[Note that the full article is available here in time.com, without a paywall if the free article limit has not been reached.]

China’s Ukraine peace plan

Following talks in Moscow on 22 February 2023 between President Putin and China’s top diplomat, Wang Yi, China released a 12-point peace plan entitled China’s Position on the Political Settlement of the Ukraine Crisis.

Beginning with “respecting the sovereignty of all countries,” the Chinese document outlines key principles, including the fundamental role of “dialogue and negotiation” as the only “viable” solution to the Ukraine conflict.

It also highlights the role of the international community, including China, in “promoting talks for peace” and creating the “conditions and platforms for the resumption of negotiation.”

Western response largely dismisses China’s peace plan

Helen Davidson and Amy Hawkins, in an article entitled Western leaders give cool response to China’s plan for Ukraine peace talks (theguardian.com, 24 February 2023), sum up the general Western response to China’s peace plan:

Western leaders have largely dismissed a peace plan for Ukraine laid out by China’s government, arguing that Beijing does not have the international credibility to act as a mediator in the Russia-Ukraine.

Ukraine welcomes Chinese mediation

In stark contrast to NATO and American uninterest, Reuters reports that President Zelensky found it “encouraging” that China was considering brokering peace and added:

We would like to meet with China….

Ceasefire.ca comments:

President Zelensky has said he will meet with China to discuss its peace plan. Now is the time for NATO members to get serious about adding a peace negotiation track to their military support for Ukraine.

Latest Canadian polling on Ukraine war

For an in-depth look at the latest views of Canadians on the Ukraine war, see the Angus Reid Institute polling and analysis HERE.

Key findings include:

  • 55% support continued fighting by Ukraine until:
    • ALL territory reclaimed (32%) or
    • Eastern provinces reclaimed (23%).
  • 23% want to negotiate peace with Russia

Regarding Canadian military support for Ukraine:

  • 52% support Canada providing Ukraine with defensive weapons and gear and intelligence and cybersecurity (50%), down by 9 points since March 2022.
  • Two in five (37%) are on board with sending more lethal aid to support Ukraine, down by 11 points since the early days of the war.

Ceasefire.ca comments:

This polling of Canadian attitudes to the war in Ukraine is taking place against a backdrop of relentless official Western hostility to the very notion of peace negotiations. Yet even under these circumstances, Canadians are increasingly nervous about lethal and even defensive military support. A wiser Canadian government would see that balancing that military aid with peace efforts could enhance support for both tracks.

Nord Stream pipeline update

For a robust rebuttal of the Seymour Hersh article titled How America Took Out The Nord Stream Pipeline, which we discussed in our 10 February 2023 blog post, see Blowing Holes in Seymour Hersh’s Pipe Dream (Oliver Alexander, substack.com, 10 February 2023).

Notably, the article begins:

I would like to preface this post by stating that I will not be making any conclusions on who is responsible for the Nord Stream pipeline explosions in this piece. While I have my suspects, all publicly available information regarding the explosions is circumstantial and there is none that conclusively points to a specific culprit.

This brings us back to the Russian call for an independent international investigation of the explosions under UN auspices, a matter discussed in the UN Security Council on 21 and 22 February 2023, with the US opposing the Russian proposal as a “distraction” from the war.

For the testimony of Professor Jeffrey D. Sachs in support of a UN investigation into the Nord Stream explosions as a “high global priority,” click HERE.

Reducing nuclear risks in Ukraine

In his state of the nation address on 21 February 2023, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced his decision to suspend implementation of the last remaining treaty limiting the world’s two largest nuclear arsenals, the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START).

However, as Daryl G. Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association, makes clear in a press statement the same day, it is important to note what this does and does not mean.

He writes:

[Putin’s] comments suggest Russia will not engage in talks to resume New START’s on-site inspections, participate in meetings of the treaty’s Bilateral Consultative Commission, nor share data on strategic nuclear stockpiles as required by the treaty.

These are “major violations of the treaty,” but, as confirmed in a separate statement by the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Russia will

continue to observe [the] limits on the number of nuclear warheads it can deploy under the treaty.

That being said, suspension of the inspection and data sharing aspects of the treaty makes it “far more likely” that

after New START expires, there will be no agreement limiting U.S. and Russian strategic nuclear arsenals for the first time since 1972.

It is hard not to see this action by Putin as akin to the old adage about “cutting off one’s nose to spite one’s face,” for which Wikipedia has a most apt definition:

Cutting off one’s nose to spite one’s face” is an expression used to describe a needlessly self-destructive overreaction to a problem: “Don’t cut off your nose to spite your face” is a warning against acting out of pique, or against pursuing revenge in a way that would damage oneself more than the object of one’s anger.[1]

As Kimball trenchantly observes:

Putin’s “suspension” of New START harms Russia’s own security interests. Absent full implementation of treaty provisions, Moscow (and Washington) gains less insight and information regarding the U.S. strategic nuclear arsenal.

Biden administration stands ready to engage in new strategic arms limitation talks

Kimball ends the press statement with three important ACA positions with which we fully concur:

  • Strong support for American readiness to engage in new nuclear arms control talks;
  • A call for Russia to comply with existing obligations and follow on talks; and
  • A call on all states-parties to support a positive Russian response.

Ukraine and strengthening the nuclear taboo

For a comprehensive new review of the risk of nuclear weapons use inherent in the Ukraine war and ways to help minimize those risks, see the new Arms Control Association (ACA) Issue Brief entitled Strengthening the Nuclear Taboo in the Midst of Russia’s War on Ukraine (Volume 15, Issue 1, armscontrol.org, 22 February 2023).

The ACA outlines the following key objectives:

  • Continued government and civil society condemnations of potential nuclear weapons use
  • Re-establishing a regular, high-level US-Russian nuclear risk reduction dialogue
  • Continuing to calibrate US and European military support for Ukraine to avoid escalation
  • Continuing to refrain from making threats of nuclear retaliation and
  • Preparing a strong global diplomatic response to further threats of nuclear weapons use.

The brief concludes:

The nuclear dimensions of the war on Ukraine underscore the fact that outdated nuclear deterrence policies create unacceptable risks.

To eliminate the danger, we must actively reinforce the legal prohibitions and norms against nuclear weapons use and threats of use — as well as their development, testing, possession, and proliferation — and press for effective disarmament diplomacy that leads to concrete action that puts us on the path toward the complete, irreversible, and verifiable elimination of all nuclear weapons.

RI President Peggy Mason comments:

Yes, the elimination of nuclear weapons is the only way to definitively remove the threat of nuclear weapons use writ large. But in the context of the war in Ukraine, there is a much more immediate way to remove the dire threat of nuclear weapons use and that is to get serious about ending the war itself.


If there were not enough sleep-undermining elements in this blog post, we turn now to an article chillingly entitled Keeping humans in the loop is not enough to make AI safe for nuclear weapons (Peter Rautenbach, thebulletin.org, 16 February 2023).

The opening paragraph merits inclusion in its entirety:

Artificial Intelligence (AI) systems suffer from a myriad of unique technical problems that could directly raise the risk of inadvertent nuclear weapons use. To control these issues, the United States and the United Kingdom have committed to keeping humans in the decision-making loop. However, the greatest danger may not lie in the technology itself, but rather in its impact on the humans interacting with it.

In short:

Keeping humans in the loop is not enough to make AI systems safe. In fact, relying on this safeguard could result in a hidden increase of risk.

The article provides the ‘good, bad and ugly’ sides of integrating AI into nuclear weapons command systems.

Role of AI in nuclear command systems

In the near future, experts foresee AI integration being used to improve the capabilities of early-warning and surveillance systems, to comb through large data sets, make predictions about enemy behaviour, enhance protection against cyberattacks, and improve communications infrastructure throughout nuclear command systems.

The bad side of AI integration

Rautenbach summarizes the  “significant and unique technical flaws and risks” inherent in AI:

  • The sheer volume of code required in AI systems used for nuclear command and control makes errors and technical challenges inevitable.
  • AI systems program themselves in ways that make them innately opaque to humans.
  • AI systems are “brittle”, and could break down, when in unfamiliar territory for which they were not trained.
  • AI systems will take on human biases in the training process.

All these technical issues need to be “anticipated and accounted for” and keeping humans in the loop will help increase safety but not definitively remove risk.

And now for the ugly: confirmation bias

Integrating AI into nuclear weapons command systems also affects the humans involved in ways that make them “less effective than needed to ensure safety.”

Peter Rautenbach writes:

One key issue is the development of automation bias, by which humans become overly reliant on AI and unconsciously assume that the system is correct.

This bias has been found in multiple AI applications, including medical decision-support systems, flight simulators, air traffic control, and targeting assistance systems.

In the author’s view, this amounts to

a “subconscious pre-delegation of authority” to the machine intelligence based on an “inherent trust” in the system.

Speed over any human involvement

Recalling first that states often “stumble into [war] out of misperception, miscalculation and fear of losing if they fail to strike first,” Rautenbach warns:

Military AI designed to rapidly act on advantages could miss de-escalatory opportunities or function too fast for human decision makers to intervene and signal their de-escalatory intent.

While no state is currently advocating for the complete removal of humans from the decision-making process, Rautenbach notes:

Nonetheless, key aspects of the decision-making process, or its supporting elements, could be increasingly automated. To fully take advantage of machine speed, states could purposefully remove humans from the loop at key junctions.

Factors influencing the move to fully automated nuclear systems

Rautenbach outlines other pressures for fully automated nuclear systems, including:

  • Use by a smaller, less capable nuclear weapons state as their only opportunity for an effective first-strike deterrent; and
  • A response by leading nuclear powers to new hypersonic delivery systems that can bypass early warning altogether.

Concluding thoughts

Warning that the issue is “perhaps less whether nuclear-armed states will adopt AI technology into the nuclear enterprise, but rather by whom, when, and to what degree,” Rautenbach concludes:

Changes to nuclear doctrine, policy, and training—alongside workable technical solutions and heavy vetting—will be required to prevent the inadvertent use of nuclear weapons in the age of intelligent machines.


For a thoughtful analysis and a reminder of the public’s role, see Emergencies Act inquiry final report is a reminder that we all have a role in upholding the rule of law (Jocelyn Stacey & Nomi Claire Lazar, the conversation.com, 21 February 2023).

The article concludes:

Now it’s our turn to take responsibility: how will we use these findings? What will we demand of leaders? How will we hold them to account at the polls? This is how we show our commitment to the rule of law project, a project for which we are all — every one — responsible.

Photo credit: CAF photos (Operation Unifier)

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Tags: Anatol Lieven, Arms Control Association, Artificial Intelligence (AI), nuclear risks, peace negotiations, Ukraine