Doom stalks the Earth …

Lots going on, significant earthquake in Taiwan (M6.7), some damage reported as well as injuries. Impacts should be in the low hundreds of millions of USD.

Click any graphic to embiggen.

Severe weather in the US, a tornado ripped through New Orleans last night causing quite a bit of damage and at least one death. NWS Local Storm Reports are coming in across the region as the storm system moves west …

Today the much weakened system will be pushing east across Georgia/South Carolina and will be moving offshore this evening. It has lost a lot of energy but might still cause some strong thunderstorms, so keep your weather radios armed.

No convective warnings as of 10:30am ET …

And of course the Ukraine thing grinds on. Hard to know what to say about that, the level of propaganda all around is insane, and there is virtually no reliable information in the public realm. So trust no one, and stay tuned … I suspect we are in that dangerous period where things are moving to a new equilibrium, but the people who don’t want or realize that may act to blow up (literally in this case) that trend. Perhaps by early April we will know.

Flirting with Armageddon: is #Ukraine leading to nuclear war?

Yesterday a Pew Research poll was released that indicated a stunning 35% of those polled, roughly equal percentages in each political party, said that the US should intervene in Ukraine even if it risked a nuclear war (link to poll). Indeed, many politicians are advocating policies that could easily lead to a nuclear confrontation with Russia such as a “no fly” zone or even direct military intervention by NATO or NATO countries individually.

I had a short discussion with Nate Hagens about this subject on his excellent podcast, “Frankly …” (link to podcast). This post is some additional background and thoughts to support that discussion. I hope you’ll give it a listen if you have time, and read on and consider that we may well be entering, and living through, the most dangerous period in human history, on par with the Cuban Missile Crisis.

For someone who came of age in the 1980’s and studied nuclear war professionally this poll is nearly unbelievable. I am afraid that both the general public and our leadership have forgotten what the consequences of a nuclear war might be, and how one might start. Sadly this is not a uniquely American phenomena. Even the German Green Party, founded in large part as peace party opposing nuclear weapons, has essentially abandoned their opposition to nuclear weapons. Green Party co-leader (and now German Foreign Minister) Annalena Baerbock said last December “We stand by our responsibility within the framework of NATO and the EU and also for nuclear participation;” the removal of nuclear weapons from Germany is no longer a key demand.

In America I suspect three main forces are at work that have mitigated concerns over conflicts escalating into a nuclear exchange, and obscured the potential impacts of a nuclear war:

  1. Americans have been insulated from war, and are seeing the war in Ukraine as they haven’t seen recent wars, especially the impact on civilians of urban warfare. Such imagery was deliberately downplayed during US interventions in Iraq and recent wars such as Libya, Syria, Yugoslavia, or the nearly daily slaughter in Yemen taking place even today, much less the ongoing carnage of the eight year long civil war in Donbas that, according to Russia, this “Special Military Operation” is trying to bring to an end. These heartbreaking images are provoking an emotional reaction and pressure to “do something” without fully considering if that “something” is making things worse, or potentially leading to catastrophe.
  2. I suspect the leadership of this country is wrongly thinking that nuclear weapons are more manageable, and that the nuclear threshold is not a bright line, but that a nuclear exchange can be kept tactical or even limited without becoming strategic (tactical, limited, and strategic are terms of art described below). This is primarily due to the availability of lower, selectable yield weapons (even sub-kiloton devices) in concert with precision delivery systems. That, in concert with doctrines (plans) for their use, has lowered the threshold and, in the minds of US planners, created multiple thresholds that can be managed.
  3. Americans have forgotten what a nuclear war might be like. The days of movies like “The Day After” or “War Games” are 40 years ago, much less the “duck and cover” exercises of the 50’s and 60’s, and after 1991 and the “end of history” and the fall of the Soviet Union, a general nuclear war became an abstract concept. When we think of nuclear weapons at all, it is as as one-off terrorist devices or a couple from a rogue state, not a peer-on-peer conflict.

I don’t want to start another argument on how we got here, and if or how responsible the West is or isn’t for the betrayal and tragedy of Ukraine. You can read my other blog posts on that if you haven’t already, starting at this link. The first point above, that this conflict is being played up in ways comparable or worse conflicts have not, is also way too complex to delve in to here. Let’s just look at points two and three because they are the most immediate issues. I have discussed the problem of the lowering of the nuclear threshold before, and the deployment of the W-76-2 warhead on our nuclear missile submarines (link). That post also discusses the schools of thought around nuclear weapons employment (MAD and NUTS) and a critical aspect that seems to be missing from the discussion: how Russia will react. One flaw I have seen repeatedly over the last two decades of dealing with Russia (as well as other countries) is the implicit assumption that their priorities and worldview are the same as ours. Often they aren’t.

Three terms of art need to be defined here. In simple terms, a “tactical” nuclear weapon (or use of a nuclear weapon in a tactical context) means battlefield use, targeting only direct combatants. It has the potential to change the battle space fairly radically; an adversary can no longer mass forces as those become a convenient target. It also can change the geography of the battlefield with cratering and residual radiation that makes movement difficult. A “limited” nuclear exchange is generally assumed to mean somewhat wider use – strikes deeper into an adversaries territory at key logistic sites, airfields, or ports, but avoiding (as much as possible) targets where large numbers of civilians might be directly harmed, but of course “indirect” harm becomes increasingly a factor. A general or strategic exchange is what most people think of as a nuclear war – with large, 200 kiloton or greater devices employed against entire cities, with the goal of destroying the target society.

The problem is, of course, that the lines between these three general levels are pretty gray in places, especially when it comes to a theoretical US(NATO) vs Russia conflict. Very few Russian aircraft, for example, have actually entered Ukrainian airspace; they are using standoff weapons and even artillery and surface to surface missiles are firing from inside Russia itself. Consider that in order to be effective any intervention in Ukraine by the US would require striking inside Russia itself. Some of these sites would be difficult to neutralize using conventional weapons, and the temptation to use one of the new generation kiloton or smaller weapons would become enormous as US casualties mounted. Even a conventional weapons strike inside Russia would, according to Russian doctrine, trigger strikes on US bases in the US in reply (it is unreasonable to think the US could hit Russian territory without them responding in kind, yet that is what some US planners assume!). And they have a number of weapons systems capable of doing that, either conventionally or nuclear.

Shortly after becoming President, the Reagan Administration conducted a highly classified exercise that has only recently become somewhat public. Known as “Proud Prophet 1983,” it had a profound impact on President Reagan and his team. What this war game discovered was that every scenario attempting to limit a nuclear conflict ended up in a general, strategic exchange at some point. In other words, tactical use led to limited use and from there a general nuclear war ensued. It so disturbed the administration that they changed their public rhetoric around the confrontation with the Soviet Union, and ultimately help lead to the INF treaty and a stable end to the Cold War. You can read more about “Proud Prophet” and its impact here on Wikipedia. It’s a fascinating story, one that is even today not well known or told in its entirety. The point here is that it is hubris to expect we can prevent a tactical nuclear exchange from escalating into a general exchange.

Castle Bravo test, 15 Megaton thermonuclear test in March, 1954.

As for how bad a nuclear conflict might be, and why nuclear weapons are different, this summary by MIT is worth reading. Even a limited nuclear exchange would prove catastrophic for our societies, and potentially the entire planet. I fear the hard lessons of the Cold War with respect to both the impacts of nuclear wars, and how to manage conflicts in a bi-polar or multi-polar world, have been forgotten. No matter how terrible you think the situation in Ukraine has become (and make no mistake, the suffering of civilians in urban war zones is utterly horrific – I know, I’ve been in them), they pale in comparison to the impacts of even a tactical nuclear exchange. We must also consider that such an exchange would probably unravel what little stability is left in global supply chains, the financial system, international relations, and so forth. The consequences are to an extent unforeseeable – but almost certainly horrific.

In conclusion, even assuming that everything that is being said about Ukraine in the western narrative is true, our leaders should be acting in such a way as to avoid a nuclear confrontation. The consequences of even a limited nuclear exchange with Russia are just too extreme. I suspect that is why Biden has so far said a no-fly zone is off the table, but unfortunately he is playing a dangerous game by giving in to pressure (and prolonging the agony of Ukrainian civilians) by continuing to provide lower levels of weapons, support, and the hope of future intervention. If you fully accept the US version of events, or believe it is a bit more complex and nuanced doesn’t matter at this point: we have to deescalate and avoid a nuclear conflict.

Deescalation does not mean “allowing further Russian aggression”. Assuming you accept the US position and “narrative”, it makes a lot more sense to do something we never actually did in Ukraine: draw a very bright line and say “no farther,” and putting substantial US forces on the line. Of course that line already exists: the existing NATO countries, and those deployments are underway. An “Iron Curtain 2.0” will descend, with a “Cold War 2.0” along with it, and it won’t be good for either side, but strategic stability would return with it.

So as upsetting as the imagery and narrative from Ukraine is, realize a nuclear conflict is nearly infinitely worse. Make sure our leaders know that must be the priority.

Major earthquake offshore from #Japan, #Fukushima risk

A 7.3 EQ has hit just offshore Japan, with reports coming in on damage and a possible tsunami. The warnings are for the tsunami to be on the order of one meter. Here is the ground motion estimate …

click to embiggen.

The scary thing is the risk to all those rusting tanks of radioactive water that have been accumulating since 2011 from the damaged reactor at Fukushima that nobody seems to know what to do with. It’s a lot – over a million tons of the stuff in well over 1000 tanks. There are controversial plans underway to slowly release it into the ocean after additional treatment.

Hopefully none of these ruptured in the shaking.

More later as things become clearer. Impact models are all over the place, mostly under a Billion USD but a couple of the 50 options came in between $1 and $3 Billion and the highest (that also had a more significant tsunami) spiked over $5 Billion.

Strong front passing through coastal GA/SC overnight

A strong cold front will be passing through tonight. As usual, clashing air masses (cold air moving into warm/moist air) means the potential for severe weather …

Simulated Radar/Precip Type, Wind Gusts, surface pressure from GFS model, 7am ET Saturday Morning

For the coast, the main risk will be between 5 and 7am Saturday morning. Most likely it will be very windy – gusts right on the coast (Tybee, Hilton Head) may reach 50mph, inland (Savannah, Beaufort) gusts will likely reach 30mph. The discussion from the Charleston WFO mentions a small change for a tornado or severe thunderstorm (link for Savannah forecast) – check their forecast or the Jacksonville office if you live south of Darien (link to Jax) for more info, and keep your weather radio set for alerts tonight …

It will be below freezing for a couple of hours Saturday Night/Sunday Morning; if you have delicate plants outside beware.

Cyclone #Gombe and #Mozambique

Cyclone Gombe passed over northern Madagascar as a tropical storm, but has intensified over the Mozambique Channel and is now forecast to make landfall as a Category 2 hurricane (although I’m sort of skeptical, JTWC has been a big high on landfall intensity forecasts lately). Either way, potentially a billion dollar storm with 3.8 million people in the damage swath …

click to embiggen.

A big risk is rain – up to 70cm (two feet) in places …

Southeast Africa has been hit with multiple storms this season. Madagascar in particular has been hard hit, with Gombe being the 5th storm so far. There is some concern that Gombe may curve back over water, re-intensify, and hit the southern end of the Island in 7-10 days. The deep blue track is the GFS model, the red line is the official forecast (which only goes to 120 hours):

A Warning about Propaganda and the conflict in Ukraine

We’re seeing an increasing drumbeat of horrible stories out of the war zone, such as today’s “breaking news” of a bombing of a hospital in Mariupol. The stories you are seeing in the Western media blaming Russia are matched with stories in the Russian media showing atrocities being committed by the Ukrainian military and associated militias against their own people. Which are true? Probably elements of both. Which are lies? Yeah, you guessed it: probably elements of both.

There is only one truth of this: War is utterly horrific for those caught in the middle. Unfortunately, those horrors are often used as propaganda tools. Perhaps sometimes it’s justified, but you have to be very careful; in this case, it’s suicidal.

During the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, there were heart-rending stories about Iraqi soldiers removing babies from incubators and leaving them on the floor to die. Just one problem: it wasn’t true; in fact, the key “witness” was a member of the Kuwaiti Royal Family (Link to LA Times sort-of not really walkback). Now, the Iraqis did lots of horrible things during the war. But that particular story (like the WMD stories in 2003) wasn’t truthful, although it was very effective in mobilizing popular and legislative support for the war.

I’m not saying the hospital bombing story isn’t real (it certainly is, although who did it may be in some doubt), but I am about to say it doesn’t matter, because this isn’t Iraq, or even Nazi Germany in World War II. The stakes are far higher, and the situation more risky.

In short, DON’T BE STAMPEDED IN TO SUPPORTING DANGEROUS, POTENTIALLY CIVILIZATION ENDING POLICIES BASED ON HEARTBREAKING STORIES!

Even if the incident is what it appears, the harsh but vital question becomes, is intervention worth the risk of a global nuclear war? This is a massive policy failure no matter how you look at it. Despite the rhetoric, there were no red lines on our part that said to Russia “this and no further” like there are with the NATO countries. Our credibility on that isn’t on the line.

We can argue over past policy all day. It is well known that I think that had we not been interfering, pumping weapons in, and giving Ukraine reason to believe we would intervene so that they felt no need to compromise, while simultaneously creating enough strategic ambiguity that we would not intervene so that Russia made the calculation they did, things would have gone very differently (as in probably no war at all). But it’s too late for that now. All we can do is not make things worse. Given how bad it is, that’s a hard thing to say.

Was this taken yesterday, last year, five years ago? November 2014? By VO Svoboda’s photos.

We simply cannot allow this to escalate into a direct US-Russia confrontation – there is just too much danger of a nuclear war. Then none of it matters. With this incident you’re hearing even more talk of a no-fly zone. And the warheads on TV are saying we can pull it off. They are wrong: a no-fly zone would be not just a step down the road to nuclear Armageddon, it would be a full-out sprint for the cliff. Even continuing to pump in military aid is only making the situation more dangerous, inflaming tensions, and getting innocent people killed. There is really only one thing we can do. Push Ukraine to negotiate, shut off the weapons flow, and rebuild the Iron Curtain 2.0.

Yes, that means sacrificing Ukraine.

I know what that means, but the alternatives at this point are worse, not only for the people of Ukraine, but the world, with an economic system on the verge of catastrophic collapse, much less the nuclear threat. Some will say we will be betraying the people of Ukraine, but really that betrayal happened a long time ago. We also betrayed the people of Russia, starting in the mid 1990’s – but nobody seems to want to talk about that. Again, from the standpoint of what to do in the next hours, days and months, it doesn’t matter at this point. We’ve got to stabilize this situation, fast, or it’s going to end in an outright US-Russia military confrontation, and no matter how you game it, that almost always goes nuclear.

Yes, it’s that dangerous.

Is Putin Rational?

A number of people online, not to mention the media, have questioned if Putin is rational, and the push-back against those who say he is has been intense. I think there is a lot of anger, propaganda, and more importantly a failure to understand how that term is used in various contexts that clouds the issue. Unfortunately a lot of people use the term “rational” to mean “agrees with or thinks like me.” Of course that’s not what it means. It may surprise you to know it doesn’t really even mean “makes good/optimal decisions.”

OK folks, back to school …

When I and other geopolitical/intelligence analysts use the term “rational”, we are mostly using it within the context of Rational Choice Theory as meaning a Rational Actor. Some of you may be familiar with the term as it is used in Economics (the basic underlying theory goes back to Adam Smith). Parallel related theories have emerged in political science and other fields such as international relations and military analysis. What follows is simplified, but hopefully introduces some background in the context of geopolitics. To be sure it is not a perfect analysis method for various human behaviors, and there are lots of variations such as bounded rationality, and folks get in to poo throwing contests over the details, but it’s a good start.

In short, a rational actor does a benefit/cost analysis of various options and selects the option that maximizes that benefit/cost ratio. However, hidden within that simple statement are a lot of factors such as the framework and values in which the calculations of “benefit” and “cost” are made, the amount and quality of information available to the actor, and so forth.

Rational Choice Theory, and the determination if someone is a Rational Actor within that theory, is extremely important. You can predict and potentially change the behavior of a rational actor by taking actions that change the factors the actor uses in their calculation. A non-rational actor is in contrast dangerous and unpredictable. Note there is no moral judgement involved here. Hitler pre circa 1942 or so was a “rational actor” (later not so much), especially if you factored in the importance of his ideology. Repugnant to be sure, but, within the context of Rational Choice Theory, rational. Likewise, Gandhi was a rational actor – yet you could not find two different individuals or moral systems.

It should be evident that a rational actor, working in a framework different from the analyst, may decide a given course of action is rational, whereas someone who has a different framework may see it as irrational (strictly speaking, if moral values are involved, distasteful or even evil are words often used in that case). Information also plays in to this. Time frame also matters; what is “rational” in the short term may be “irrational” or sub optimal in the long term, and vice versa. So “rational decisions” can easily be bad decisions, not just because of a flawed moral framework, or bad information, especially when they depend on the “rational” decisions of other actors.

So it is vital to realize that you can’t always assume other actors are working within the same framework, time frames, and with the same information that you are. IMNSHO this has been the greatest failure in US Foreign Policy over the last 30 years, be it in the Middle East or with Russia. We take actions that would result in a certain outcome by assuming that the other actors hold to our values, and we make assumptions as to their information space that are not valid.

It is far too complex to go in to detail a lot of detail here, but when you look at Putin’s actions within the framework of modern Russia and its environment, his actions thus far are “rational”. We may not like them, but they make sense to him and those around him. And this is my frustration, that we could have worked with him, within his worldview, to prevent the tragedy unfolding in Ukraine. By discounting his actions as irrational, we absolve ourselves of the need to negotiate or compromise, and that makes the world a lot more dangerous place.

Reducing these kinds of things to mathematics and logic, be they hurricanes or wars, isn’t always popular. I have been criticized for being “emotionless” about this stuff, and sadly neutrality in this case is often seen as siding with Russia given the tremendous bias present in the Western information space. Anyone who knows me, and what I have been through in my life, knows that nothing could be further from the truth. As noted in a previous post, I feel all this very deeply – I’ve seen war firsthand. But what is also true is that I have learned to try to use a careful mix of logic and empathy when analyzing these situations, and not let either get out of control. That is essential in trying to figure out policies that minimize human suffering while maximizing human dignity. It is simply not possible to do that while angry, in a politically charged environment, saturated by propaganda. And anyone who thinks there is always a good outcome is delusional. Sometimes there are no good outcomes. Trying too hard to change complex, dangerous situations for the “better” can be very risky. Noble sometimes, selfish more often than we would like to think, but risky.

Sadly, especially in geopolitics, all we can hope to do is try to make things less worse, while laying the groundwork for a better tomorrow. That is increasingly impossible in our complex world and flawed systems of governance that rely on manipulation through emotional triggers rather than rational analysis guided by empathy – but that’s a different post.

About my position on Ukraine: what war is like

Have you ever been in a war zone?  Have you ever crossed the front lines in a major city, passing a pile of rubble with a child’s toy nearby, the decaying foot of a woman protruding, knowing from the smell and setting what lies underneath?  Have you ever visited a peaceful Christian village that may have lived under a dictatorship but was at least protected with families and a growing middle class, and later found it destroyed by a radical group our government trained, the people slaughtered, their daughters enslaved, all as part of an effort to overthrow that harsh but stable government?  Ever regain consciousness, wracked with pain, realizing you’ve been thrown through the air from a terrorist bomb that probably killed everyone around you?

I know damn well what war is like – I’ve been in them on four continents. And it haunts me.  If there is any truth in war it is that innocent people caught in the middle pay the highest price. War is something to be avoided – and that requires understanding why they start. Yes, there are circumstances where war is justified, but starting them – or triggering them by goading others in to them – should be a last resort, not just another policy option.  Avoiding wars – or properly prosecuting them if we have to – requires understanding the other side.

Understanding isn’t agreement. Understanding isn’t justification. Don’t doubt that the Russian invasion of Ukraine is catastrophically wrong.  But it is understandable when viewed from their perspective. Understanding that is essential to create good policy and solve problems.

Putin isn’t Hitler, and the comparisons to 1930’s Europe are way overblown on many levels.  It’s a dangerous and toxic analogy because once you invoke it there is no need for further discussion: the other side is evil and must be destroyed.  Make no mistake, Russia under Putin is oppressive.  But as far as I know Russia isn’t engaged in genocide, their ideology (while it does have Russian  supremacist elements) is primarily based on power and control of resources, not on some insane vision of a pure future based on the annihilation of other people.  The rhetoric has become increasingly disturbing all around, and this doesn’t help. Russia isn’t even engaging in human rights abuses and supporting dangerous ideologies that rise to the level of, say, our good friends Saudi Arabia. So stop it with the Hitler comparisons.

Russia and Putin sure as hell aren’t warm and fuzzy. My key point is had we conducted ourselves differently, I feel Russia would have evolved over time into a more open democratic society.  Putin and Russia had pursued a fairly pragmatic foreign policy until recent years – it didn’t become openly hostile and expansionist until pushed beyond red lines they stated well in advance. Again, by refusing to discuss and consider accommodations to Russia’s reasonable requests over the last 30 years, we created a situation where Russia felt it had little option but to upgrade an existing conflict (the conflict the West has been escalating against Russia actively for at least 15 of those 30  years) from an asymmetric low level conflict to a full blown kinetic shooting war.   In short, the war didn’t start last week, last year, or even in 2014. It started in 1991.

One map making the rounds … pulled from a pro-Russian site.

Some have said that I’m echoing Russian Propaganda (while themselves often echoing Western Propaganda). Well, if the Kremlin says the sky is blue that doesn’t make it wrong; If something is true, it is true, and the fact that the West is dismissive of it is potentially a reason behind the aggression. That doesn’t justify the aggression, but it makes it understandable. I probably do overplay the Russian point of view – even when I disagree with it – because I am so frustrated it is not given the attention it deserves because even if we don’t believe, they either do, or are using it as a negotiating tactic, and if we don’t address it the problems can’t be solved. As one example, reflexively saying “there are no Nazis running Ukraine” just because Russia is exaggerating their role denies the fact that Eastern Europe hasn’t ever really come to terms with that past, and in fact there are some pretty unsavory elements who need to be rooted out. That’s not justification for the invasion – but it is an indictment of our policies that supported and encouraged groups like Right Sector and Azoz.

This all boils down to understanding and developing sane policies in a very dangerous and unstable world, especially understanding why those who do things we don’t like do them. Figuring out why people they act the way they do – and realistically assessing our responsibility and role in creating conditions that contribute to those actions – is an utterly essential part of that process.