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Ukraine Series: The Risk of Nuclear Confrontation

March 18, 2022
Michael Nacht

Talking Policy Podcast

In the latest from Talking Policy’s series on Ukraine, host Lindsay Morgan talks with Michael Nacht, who holds the Thomas and Allison Schneider chair in public policy at UC Berkeley and is a specialist in U.S. national security policy, nuclear weapons, and regional security issues affecting Russia and China. Nacht shares candid thoughts on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Putin’s strategy, and the risk of nuclear confrontation. This interview was conducted on March 8, 2022.

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On February 24, after weeks of headlines warning that Russia might invade, Russian troops crossed the border into Ukraine. Why didn’t—and why couldn’t—the West stop Putin from invading Ukraine?

Well, of course, Ukraine is directly adjacent to Russia, so they have a tremendous geographical advantage. We have NATO forces in Western and Eastern Europe, but in smaller numbers. It was a totally asymmetric situation in terms of the U.S. physically preventing Russia from invading Ukraine.

Why is Russia doing this now?

It goes back to when Putin became the President of Russia in 2000. He said at the time that the collapse of the Soviet Union was the greatest tragedy of the 20th century. Putin was deeply aggrieved, as were many Russians. Putin’s [also] got a totally authoritarian personality and background; he’s spent his whole life in the KGB. He was in counterintelligence in East Germany—among the most challenging positions for Soviet intelligence. His whole instinct is to rollback that terrible defeat from 1991, when Russia became independent and the Soviet Union collapsed.

He’s tried different things. He invaded and attacked part of Georgia. He seized Crimea, a part of Ukraine, in 2014. This was largely unnoticed by most of the American people. And then he invaded the so-called Donbas region of Ukraine, which is Russian speaking. This was a precursor to what happened a few weeks ago.

Russia had guaranteed Ukrainian sovereignty in 1994, in order for Ukraine to relinquish its nuclear weapons. Ukraine agreed as long as they received assurances about sovereignty being respected, and by getting energy assistance, which was endorsed by Russia, the United States, and England. That’s how we’ve got to the start of the war.

You worked with the Obama administration as Assistant Secretary of Defense for Global Strategic Affairs. How have different presidential administrations impacted Putin’s calculations and sense of how he can maneuver?

They are very, very different. Obama thought he could possibly deal with Putin. But that collapsed in 2014, when Putin seized Crimea. Under Trump, it was a totally different situation. Trump has been a supporter and an apologist for Putin and Russia from the beginning. Trump never criticized Putin once, [about] any activity. On the contrary, he talked about withdrawing from NATO, which gave Putin tremendous encouragement. Biden, however, returned to traditional aspects of American foreign policy. He warned Putin not to invade Ukraine. He supported the transfer of defensive weapons to Ukraine. But I think Putin felt that the West was divided. You have senior figures of the Republican Party, like Trump, like Pompeo and others, who praised Putin, who say what a genius he is.

I think Putin fundamentally miscalculated about the response to the invasion. He also miscalculated in two other key respects: the tenacity of the Ukrainians to defend their territory and opposition to the invasion in Russia itself.

Putin has put his nuclear forces on high alert, escalating tensions and raising fears that this could lead to a nuclear confrontation. Do you think that’s a real possibility?

I actually unfortunately do think it is a possibility. I put it at maybe at 20 percent. But it’s not zero. I think this is the most serious danger of a nuclear crisis since the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962.

Russia has a military doctrine called “escalate to deescalate,” which was developed by the Russian chief of the military, General Gerasimov. It calls for, after a Russian conventional attack on a sovereign state and the threat of retaliation by NATO to that attack, limited use of low-yield nuclear weapons by the Russians to deter conventional retaliation by NATO. The original scenario that the West envisaged [for this scenario] is in the Baltics—in Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia. You may have seen just yesterday that the Lithuanian president met with senior U.S. officials, and warned them that Putin will not stop at Ukraine, and that security of the Baltic States must be enhanced.

Last year, I interviewed Brad Roberts at the Center for Global Security Research at Lawrence Livermore National Lab. He said that the stockpile of U.S. nuclear weapons has come down from about 30,000 in the mid-1980s to 5,000 today, and that the newest intercontinental ballistic missile went into service in 1971. The newest nuclear weapon dates to 1991. Russia, by contrast, has replaced 80 percent of its delivery system and every single warhead over the last decade. Should we be worried about our position relative to Russia?

The only way to deter this threat is to have a very credible retaliatory capability against it. No words mean anything to Putin. It’s only about the guns and the bullets. Now at the strategic nuclear level Brad is completely right. In terms of long-range nuclear weapons, intercontinental ballistic missiles, long-range bombers and submarines that could attack the Soviet Union and can attack the United States, Russia has a slight advantage in the total numbers. But I think most observers believe that there is stable strategic nuclear deterrence between the U.S. and Russia. Neither side believes that they could strike the other side with impunity, because the retaliatory attack would be devastating to society, and both societies would be destroyed.

But that’s not true at the tactical level, where Russia has about 2,000 short-range, low-yield weapons, some in the Western military districts of Russia, compared to no more than 200 short-range tactical systems that the U.S. has on five NATO bases in Western Europe. I think Russia believes that they could perhaps get away with an attack with a short-range system without the U.S. and NATO retaliating, which would be a hyper dangerous mistake on their part.

You have been a Russia watcher for a long time. As you’ve watched this unfold over the past several weeks and months, I’m curious what you have been seeing that other people might miss?

Let’s talk about Putin’s strategy. Of course they said they [wouldn’t] invade Ukraine. The Russians lie all the time on all subjects. Nothing can be believed by any Russian spokesman on any subject at any time. They say what they think the opponent wants to hear. Just like now they say they’re not shelling citizens. And you see tens of thousands of Ukrainians being attacked and many killed. They have no compunction at all about saying black is white and green is yellow. That’s been a constant, and that was not unexpected.

What was unexpected was that he encircled the country with forces and then invaded from the north, the east and the south. But he did it somewhat gradually. And it took quite a while for the troops to penetrate into Ukrainian territory. I think he thought that just the sheer shock of the invasion would lead Ukrainians to surrender, which of course didn’t happen. They became tremendously resilient and deeply nationalistic, deeply anti-Russian.

There’s been a lack of coordination of the artillery and the armor capability with the Air Force and missiles; they don’t seem to be doing a very good job of coordinating what they’re doing. They have this huge convoy that’s been stuck on the way to Kyiv for over a week now. The Ukrainians have been attacking their supply lines. It’s alleged that Russian forces there have low morale—many of them had no idea what they were getting into. The Russians not only don’t tell us, they don’t tell themselves what’s going on. The media has finally been totally locked down in Russia. So there’s absolutely no Western information getting in. All the Russian people are being told on television is that Russia is de-nazifying the Ukrainian government—Ukraine, which is the only country in the world besides Israel that has a Jewish president and a Jewish prime minister. And he’s saying that there is a Nazi threat in Ukraine. It’s total fabrication.

What have we learned about NATO through this conflict over the last month?

NATO has been amazingly resilient and unified. And President Biden gets a tremendous amount of the credit for that. Because under Trump, NATO was on the brink of collapse. It was widely held, and I certainly believe it, that if Trump [had been] reelected in 2020, the U.S. would have withdrawn from NATO and NATO would have collapsed. His entire policy in Europe was pro-Russian. It was unprecedented in American history. From Harry Truman in 1947 to Obama in 2017, we’ve always had a super supportive U.S. policy towards NATO. I had an opportunity to chair the NATO high-level group for two years, which is the group that reviews NATO nuclear policy. I’ve met many times in Belgium and elsewhere with NATO officials. And it was a very cordial positive relationship.

Trump made every effort to destroy NATO. Now NATO is totally revived under Biden. Biden made tremendous efforts to coordinate every single step and be totally clear on what he was going to do. There is a disagreement on one issue that had just come up this morning, which is that Biden has agreed to turn off all U.S. imports of Russian oil. Germany said that’s not feasible, because they depend on Russian natural gas for heating and other elements of German society.

What percentage of U.S. oil or gas imports come from Russia?

Three percent.

So, a tiny amount.

Tiny. It’s trivial. There’s nothing that Russia produces that Americans want. Nothing. Zero.

What should the U.S. be doing right now to help Ukraine?

I think we’re approaching a very important decision, which is: Ukraine wants aircrafts that Poland has, that were Russian built, which Ukrainian pilots can fly. The U.S. would then replace them in Poland with modern U.S. aircraft. Poland has said that they’re willing to do it. But the U.S. was still considering it. I believe it’s risky, but it’s worth doing.

Now Russia has said that any country that supplies weapons to Ukraine is combatant in the conflict. But we’ve been supplying all kinds of weapons to them already. The Stinger and Javelin missiles, and many advanced defensive weapon systems, measured in a couple of billions of dollars of aid. So, this isn’t about Americans flying them. It’s about Ukrainians flying them, after they’re obtained from Poland. I think that’s a bluff that we can call on Putin. But it’s dangerous. I’m not saying any of this without risk.

We know from biographical assessments of Putin that he’s in tremendous isolation, that he hasn’t been speaking to people, really since the COVID-19 pandemic. He’s a germaphobe. He’s very afraid of the virus. You see in all these photos that he’s at one end of a long table. And even his top generals are at the other end, so he has nobody to speak to. And those who speak to him are primarily the intelligence and military personnel who are hyper hawkish on this. So, he’s got no one to counter these instinctive hawkish views.

I think he’s committed to the destruction of Ukraine, and thinks that if he keeps bombing them into submission, they will ultimately surrender. This is what he did in Grozny in the Chechen war, and it’s what he did it in Aleppo in the Syrian war. He bombs hospitals, churches, and schools—those are his favorite targets. He’s a ruthless, deeply paranoid individual.

We’ve been reading more and more about waning democratic norms and the rise of authoritarianism globally. To what extent is what’s happening between Russia, Ukraine, and the West about that bigger conflict?

The tendencies toward authoritarianism in various countries—Turkey, Egypt, China, Belarus, and in many other countries—only reinforces Putin’s aggressiveness. It’s especially important to the U.S. that he’s made very close relations with Xi Jinping and China. The early Cold War was initially a Soviet-Chinese alliance against the U.S. Nixon’s visit to China back in 1972 broke that. It wasn’t that we were pro-Mao, or pro-Communist China. But China had already had a border war with the Soviet Union in 1969, and had been denied weapons by the Soviets. So it was a ripe time for China to be wooed away by the United States from the Soviet Union. And that lasted well into the Deng Xiaoping era of the 1980s and into the 1990s, when China began to assert itself economically. When I was in government in the early Obama years, Jiang Zemin was the president of China. And he was rather cordial with the United States.

This has changed dramatically after Xi Jinping. Xi Jinping is now the key authoritarian figure in China, the most powerful figure in China since Mao Zedong, who died in the 1970s. Putin and Xi Jinping have made very close ties. Putin just came back for the Chinese Olympics just a few weeks ago, and they have signed all kinds of military cooperation and intelligence cooperation agreements. They’re working hand in glove, which means, among other things, that it’s not impossible for China, seeing the U.S. embroiled in the NATO nuclear problem in Russia, could move against Taiwan. And we can have a two-front war.

So I do think that the global trends with more authoritarian regimes have emboldened Putin and Xi Jinping.

As someone who has spent your career focusing on issues of conflict, Russia, and nuclear weapons policy, what has it been like, personally, watching this unfold?

It’s been very disturbing and very alarming and very concerning. We had hopes at the end of the Cold War; there was talk about even Russia becoming part of NATO, and even Russia making all kinds of new deals aimed at coming into the modern world. Boris Yeltsin and [Bill] Clinton had very good relations. I was at several summits between them, and they used to get drunk together. But that was then, and this is now. Since 2000 with the expansion of NATO to the east and the rise of Putin, things have totally changed.

I am now very disappointed, but I am more concerned than I am disappointed. I am very concerned that this conflict could spread, that it could lead to new conflict, and that it could lead to a third world war. And then you have the possible play of nuclear weapons, which could threaten the lives of all of us.

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