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Why Elon Musk is right

Don't kill the messenger, but listen: America’s approach to this tragic war in Ukraine requires an urgent if not creative adjustment.

Analysis | Europe

Elon Musk is right.  

Perhaps not in the particulars of the peace settlement for Ukraine that he recently proposed for his millions of Twitter followers — and which is drawing much the same venomous reaction online that has been directed at other advocates of peace, including the Pope and Representative Ro Khanna.  

Such a settlement can only be determined over the course of multi-dimensional diplomatic negotiations involving Russia, Ukraine, the United States, and Europe that would almost certainly require months, if not years, of high-stakes engagement. The specific terms that might form the basis of any agreement are impossible to know in advance.  

But Musk is right that if things in Ukraine continue along their present course, the United States and Russia are headed toward a collision that could have catastrophic consequences for all parties to the conflict and for the world. And he is right that America’s approach to this mounting problem requires an urgent adjustment. 

Musk appears to grasp what the Biden administration does not: that Putin is not following the script we have written for him in Ukraine. That script involves a calculation of costs and benefits that will lead him to back away from a confrontation with the United States and NATO that he cannot win. When we make those costs plain, we reason, he will realize that they far outweigh any potential benefits of aggression for him and for Russia. 

But, again and again, as we have forced him to reckon with these costs, he has not reacted in the ways we have expected. Faced early this year with the explicit warning of draconian U.S. and European economic sanctions and military countermoves if Russia were to invade Ukraine, he followed through on his threats rather than backing off. Then, when the combination of Ukrainian courage and Western military technology blocked his bid to capture Kyiv, he upped the ante by unleashing a brutal torrent of artillery and rocket strikes on Ukrainian defenses in the Donbas region, betting that Russia’s vast stockpiles of munitions could outlast those of Ukraine and the West.  

Now, in response to the successful Ukrainian counter-offensive in the Donbas, he is once again doubling down rather than backing off. In opting to mobilize Russia’s military reservists, ramp up Russia’s defense industry, annex more Ukrainian territory, and threaten a nuclear response if Russia is attacked, he is intensifying rather than defusing the war. 

Why? Conventional wisdom cites Putin’s own aggression. And there are some merits to this explanation. The awkward pre-invasion spectacle in which Putin dressed down key Russian government officials on national television while they cowered before him suggests that he has grown disdainful of aides and unreceptive to alternative policy views. A different leader might well have handled matters differently, even if he – like much of Russia’s political elite – shared Putin’s views of Ukraine and mistrust of the West.  

But the fact that so many in Russia have grave concerns about the prospect of encirclement by the United States and NATO suggests that Russian conduct in Ukraine has sources beyond Putin himself. When states fear their survival is at stake, they can engage in shockingly reckless behavior. Former American Secretary of State Dean Acheson alluded to this phenomenon in describing how the United States misread Imperial Japan’s intentions in the months prior to the attack on Pearl Harbor: 

This misreading was not of what the Japanese military government proposed to do in Asia, not of the hostility our embargo would excite, but of the incredibly high risks General Tojo would assume to accomplish his ends. No one in Washington realized that he and his regime regarded the conquest of Asia not as an accomplishment of an ambition but as the survival of the regime. It was a life-and-death matter to them. They were absolutely unwilling to continue in what they regarded as Japan’s precarious position surrounded by great and hostile powers—the United States, the Soviet Union, and a possibly revived and restored China.

Each of these diagnoses of our Russia malady — Putin’s misguided ambition versus Russia’s existential fear of Western encirclement — points in a contrasting policy direction. The classic prescription for dealing with an offensive-minded foe is to confront it with overwhelming counter-pressure while avoiding Munich-style appeasement. But just as with Japan in the period leading to World War II, such an approach fuels risk-taking when dealing with a state that feels increasingly cornered and desperate, and it can be particularly dangerous when that state has nuclear weapons. 

The problem is that Russia fits both these descriptions. To a significant degree, Putin’s bellicosity reflects the rise of Russian nationalists, whose influence has been growing not only in the military and security services but also in grassroots society. Aggrieved and combative, they are pressing the Kremlin to regather traditional Russian lands, including Belarus and parts of Ukraine. They have long viewed Putin as too eager to make deals with the West and too hesitant to defend compatriots abroad. 

But paradoxically, these aspirations are also rooted in a sense of vulnerability and weakness. Russia’s vast open plains and long history of foreign invasions have prompted its leaders for centuries to seek safety by putting geographic distance between its heartland and potential invaders. They see Russia’s greatness as a vital source of security, not just prestige. Many are convinced the West is intent on Russia’s demise rather than its democratic revival, and they are far from complacent about the stability of their present federation.  

Managing this peculiar mix of ambition and fear poses a formidable challenge. It requires a delicate balance between pushing back against Russian belligerence – as we have been doing quite effectively in Ukraine – and engaging diplomatically to prevent a descent toward a direct conflict – which we have largely neglected. The resolution of the Cuban missile crisis, which involved both an American ultimatum threatening a military attack and a parallel offer to trade the removal of Soviet missiles from Cuba for the removal of American missiles from Italy and Turkey, provides an example of how that balance can work.

Musk has done much to help Ukraine defend itself against Russia’s invasion. Now he is doing Ukraine, the United States, and the world a service in highlighting the need for a diplomatic track to accompany the military pushback we have employed so far against Russia in Ukraine. Confronting Putin with a choice between humiliation and nuclear escalation is a formula for disaster.  

Tesla Motors CEO Elon Musk. (REUTERS/Stephen Lam/File Photo)
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