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It is clear at the moment that no Western countries will send troops to Ukraine or set up a non-fly zone in Ukraine because they worry that will lead to a WWIII.

But Putin already said Western sanctions are akin to declaration of war. If Western countries keep adding harsh economic sanctions on Russia, which will destroy the economy of Russia (and Putin's administration hopefully) eventually, there is a possibility that they push Russia to a corner for no choice but fighting back with something and that something could be nuclear weapons.

What is the basis for the Western leaders to believe that emphasizing on harsh sanctions will not lead to a nuclear war with Russia eventually?

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    What is there to believe that will lead to nuclear war? Just because Putin says it is a declaration of war doesn't mean it will lead to nuclear war.
    – Joe W
    Mar 8 at 0:21
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    That doesn't answer my question about what is there to believe that it will escalate to nuclear weapons. Putin has just as much to lose as anyone else if it comes to that. You can't use the word "may lead to" as a reason for someone else to explain "why it won't". You still need to explain why you think it would so that people can properly answer you
    – Joe W
    Mar 8 at 0:23
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    @JoeW If you keep pushing a dictator to the corner that might be a consequence.
    – No One
    Mar 8 at 0:27
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    Well Germany didn't develop nuclear weapons so what they might have done with them isn't an issue. And from what I have seen there is no hint that Russia would want to use nuclear weapons as it would mean there is no Russia afterwards which isn't something Putin wants.
    – Joe W
    Mar 8 at 0:36
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    @user24711 it isn't so much about the sanctions preventing nuclear war. I think it's more about trying to get Russia to the point where they don't have enough resources for a sustained war effort (realistically, I suspect Ukraine will fall by the time Russia reaches that point). The basis to support the whole "he won't launch nukes" argument is more just hope that he (or someone close enough to him) is sane enough to prevent that outcome. Mar 9 at 12:45

7 Answers 7

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That's not necessarily the belief. When trying to make arrangements for future outcomes, anything can go wrong. The best that people can do is try to maximize probabilities of good outcomes and minimize probabilities of bad outcomes.

If it is estimated that the chain of possible escalations which would result from imposing sanctions is less likely to cause an all-out war than the chain of possible outcomes which would result from not imposing sanctions, then it is a better bet to impose sanctions.

Given that looking the other way has resulted in Putin escalating every time, and given that historically aggressors have not curtailed their own trajectory of escalations until they have been stopped by others, imposing a cost on an escalation seems to be a less risky medium-term strategy. Sanctions impose a cost without themself starting an all-out war. If the escalation continues, sanctions and other means will be used to impose further cost until the trajectory of escalations is stopped, and probably until it is reversed.

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Western leaders are operating under the presumption that no leader will initiate the doomsday scenario of launching a nuclear attack unless there is a direct and personal threat against them. Direct military confrontation can easily produce such a threat: if, say, the leader comes to believe his conventional forces are failing and opponents are closing in on the capital. But economic sanctions don't pose a direct threat to a leader's life or position of power, and can always be rescinded as the conflict resolves. Further, the real threat from economic sanctions is from the Russian people themselves as they absorb the brunt of the sanctions. Whether that amounts to insurrection, coup plots, or attempts at assassination, Putin will be facing internal struggles in which nuclear attacks on foreign nations would be meaningless and impotent.

In short, economic sanctions are unlikely to produce the condition of existential threat that might provoke a leader to take extreme and likely suicidal measures against other nations. There's still a potential for it, if, say, Putin is megalomaniacal enough to try destroying the entire world rather than be deposed. But that would represent a level of cognitive disfunction that I have no reason to believe Putin has reached.

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    "Putin is megalomaniacal enough to try destroying the entire world rather than be deposed." Why should he care about the world, if he going to be killed?
    – convert
    Mar 8 at 11:08
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    @Trilarion: It is important to remember that, while Putin might superficially appear to be the only guy in charge, he is dependent on a variety of supporters (the oligarchs, mostly) to stay in power. If they think he's about to end the world, or even just start World War III, it is in their best interest to depose him before he actually presses the button.
    – Kevin
    Mar 8 at 21:43
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    @convert: That's not just Russian: a suicidal charge into the teeth of the enemy is a fairly typical heroic trope in every culture from American to Zulu. But — and it's a big 'but' — it's one thing to kill as many enemies as you can. It's quite another thing to throw friends, enemies, strangers, entire nations, loved ones, etc into the fire at the same time. Expending your own life to kill enemies is what a hero does; expending everyone's life is what a malevolent cult leader does. It takes malignant narcissism, a deranged God complex, or paranoid schizophrenia to want to destroy everything. Mar 9 at 2:21
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    @ErelSegal-Halevi: Imposing a no-fly zone would mean that NATO aircraft would have to patrol Ukrainian airspace and confront Russian jets that enter it. They would have to be willing to shoot down Russian jets that violated the no-fly zone and refused to turn back. Do you think Putin will think: "Oh golly gee, they made a no-fly zone; guess we can't fly there!" Nonsense. Putin will defy the no-fly zone in the expectation that NATO will blink and retreat. If NATO blinks, the no-fly zone is useless; if they don't blink, Russian planes will be attacked, and that's war. Mar 9 at 18:44
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    This might be war, but its not a russia vs nato war. Thats what the west does not want. An air fight between nato and russian aircraft would be a trigger for a much larger war than current Mar 9 at 20:46
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There is no basis whatsoever, except that that kind of lunacy wasn't seen during the entire duration of the Cold War, where the stakes were much higher and where the West was actively looking for an edge to take out the Soviet Union. And vice versa.

Chances are largely that he's bluffing, but there is no way to be 100% certain. What he wants to happen is 100% clear however: the West should lose its nerve and allow him to have his way.

Mind you, China would probably not take kindly either to him lobbing a bomb somewhere so would drop their so far limited support like a hot potato. No one gains if the planet gets reduced to cinders.

On the other hand, those threats also make it clear that both sides have to go back to their much more circumspect dance moves during said Cold War: NATO-on-Russia combat can't be allowed to happen.

You are also taking the "declaration of war" a bit out of context.

Putin was out doing a photo op with some stewardess trainees and speaking to his domestic audience. My bolding

Russian President Vladimir Putin has described sanctions imposed by Western nations over his invasion of Ukraine as "akin to a declaration of war".

"But thank God it has not come to that," he added.

Mr Putin also warned that any attempt to impose a no-fly zone over Ukraine would be seen as participation in the armed conflict.

Reminding us that a no-fly zone means war, on the other hand, is only reminding us of what we should already know.

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  • "...Mind you, China would probably not take kindly either to him lobbing a bomb somewhere so would drop their so far limited support like a hot potato. No one gains if the planet gets reduced to cinders..." Why would China drop support??Isn't the West largely anti-China and therefore wouldn't it benfited by the West being destroyed without the blame coming on them??I would like to give an example to explain this ..India is largely anti-China,thus China gives arms to Pakistan to drain India's resources with frequent border disputes.
    – user42212
    Mar 8 at 3:23
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    A full on nuclear war is an existential risk to everyone, at a planetary level. So I doubt they would go along with it, unless they were in on the escalation bit from the beginning, which I doubt. That's a guess, granted. Mar 8 at 4:27
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    The West and China have a complex relationship; if you destroyed the West, China would be economically devastated. If the West was as anti-China as they were anti-Soviet Union, they would drop sanctions on China like they have on Russia... but it would economically devastate both the West and China. China wants to win over the West, not physically annihilate it.
    – prosfilaes
    Mar 8 at 16:28
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    I'm pretty sure that if Russia decided to nuke Europe & NA then it would not care what opinion any other country had about it, so I don't understand that passage about China. The world after the nukes would be so much different that any opinion prior to such event would be completely irrelevant.
    – ixSci
    Mar 9 at 5:52
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    @ixSci Russia does have vastly more “smaller” tactical nukes than anyone else. In a limited-nuclear war, they might have a significant advantage, since fairly quickly the West’s only answers to a tactical nuke would be “escalate to a strategic nuke,” or “back down.” But China isn’t (likely) going to be on board for rolling that particular die, which is why their position matters. China is going to be Russia’s economic lifeline if sanctions escalate; they cannot afford for China to join the sanctions. To say nothing of the military problems of having literally the entire world against you.
    – KRyan
    Mar 9 at 16:08
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But Putin already said Western sanctions are akin to declaration of war. If Western countries keep adding harsh economic sanctions on Russia, which will destroy the economy of Russia (and Putin's administration hopefully) eventually, there is a possibility that they push Russia to a corner for no choice but fighting back with something and that something could be nuclear weapons.

I believe the key point is that sanctions are not aimed at defeating or destroying Russia. They are merely aimed at making Russia uncomfortable, with the promise that the sanctions will ease or stop if Russia changes course. The sanctions aren't really an existential threat to Russia (or to Putin personally), so they don't put Russia in a position where it has nothing to lose and thus would really initiate a "doomsday" scenario like a nuclear exchange or even a widespread non-nuclear war. In such a scenario everyone loses; it's only value is deterring other actions before it actually comes to that point.

Putin is stating that he considers sanctions akin to a declaration of war in the hope of deterring some countries from imposing sanctions. But he cannot change the reality that for there to actually be war between Russia and the west somebody has to order their troops into a position where the other side will fight them (or launch missiles or bombers, etc). If he is really wants a state of war to exist if Russia is heavily sanctioned (as a way of deterring those sanctions being imposed in the first place), then that means he is going to have to invade or bomb the sanctioning countries, since they are unwilling to send their troops into Ukrainian or Russian territory. He can say that the sanctions are the declaration of war and he is just fighting the war to claim moral justification, but the state of war still will not exist without Putin actually making it happen.

The sanctioning countries do not believe Putin will actually do that, because they believe that Putin believes he (and Russia) will lose far more from such an action than he loses from the sanctions. That will remain so as long as Putin and Russia are not actually facing a real threat of destruction.

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    I agree with this answer; had Britain not had a treaty with Belgium in the leadup to WW1, if Germany had claimed Britain declared war against Germany, but then Germany invaded Belgium, Britain would've been confused, but may have done different actions like NATO has done in response to the invasion of Ukraine by Russia - or similar to WW2 Britain who practiced appeasement as their response to Germany invading a few countries. Mar 11 at 9:43
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It's also important to understand that Russia starting a nuclear war, even on a small scale, would have dire consequences... for Russia. Some scientists war-gamed a Pakistan vs India nuclear war and while that war would only immediately affect that region, the after-effects would not be limited to just that area

The smoke would be heated by sun-light and lofted high into the stratosphere, where it could remain for years, since it doesn’t rain in the stratosphere.

And

A nuclear winter would halt agriculture around the world and produce famine for billions of people. Though not of the scale of the US-Russia nuclear war referenced earlier, all of the three scenarios described in the hypothetical India-Pakistan nuclear war just described would produce severe effects for periods of years

It's not hard to see an Eastern European limited-nuke war on this scale producing the same effects. The big difference here is ICBM warheads, which can reach anywhere in the world. The calculus of nuclear war here is unchanged: you can wipe anyone off the map, but it will be paid back in kind, and anyone who survives the initial strikes may find themselves in a bleak wasteland struggling to survive afterward. Even if it were only limited to one region of the Earth, the effects would be global.

Is it beyond Putin to still do this? No. But he wouldn't be able to use propaganda to escape its consequences either. This is the equivalent of a bloody nose to Putin, however. He knows the West is trying desperately to avoid a shooting war with him for that reason.

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they push Russia to a corner for no choice but fighting back

There's always the choice of pulling the Russian army out of Ukraine, at which point we may expect that some of the sanctions against Russia will be lifted or replaced by some sort of oil-for-food programme.

Trying to completely destroy the economy of a country which owns nuclear weapons is indeed not reasonable. At the point where hunger riots start in Moscow there will be effectively little to lose for Putin in using nuclear weapons.

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    short of severe repressions, of course. North Korea continued its nuclear research despite 2 million of its people starving. A dictator always has the option of closing the ranks by executing anyone who is not a complete sycophant. Even if it seems like there aren't many among the military brass who would put up with it, a dictator can always make sure that the only ones left alive are the ones who do put up with it.
    – wrod
    Mar 9 at 23:51
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    @wrod I think there is a difference between starving people who know famine from their childhood and starving people who used to buy iPhones and fly to Egypt for their summer holiday. Mar 10 at 11:52
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    Except that at the point where riots start in Moscow, that's the point where Putin is likely to be deposed.
    – Graham
    Mar 10 at 13:36
  • @Graham Sure, but let's not forget that the evil in Russia doesn't come exclusively from Putin, and deposing him would not immediately turn Russia into a decent country. Mar 21 at 13:23
  • @DmitryGrigoryev True, but deposing the current dictator is a message to the next potential dictator too.
    – Graham
    Mar 21 at 13:36
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You claim that Putin might have nothing to lose. Wrong. Putin has an estimated $180-$200 billion stashed away in bank accounts, that's a lot to lose. And to be frank, if he uses nuclear weapons, my best advice to him would be to kill himself immediately. Otherwise consequences might be a lot worse.

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  • But the OP's premise was "Western countries keep adding harsh economic sanctions". Conceivably, this could include targetting Putin's wealth directly. Another issue is the (highly speculative) rumors of Putin's poor health (cancer and/or Parkinsons). Money can seem less important when you aren't going to be around much longer anyway.
    – JBentley
    Mar 11 at 20:01

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