Matthew Kroenig: Hi, Emma! I just returned from the Atlantic Council’s Global Citizen Awards on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly meetings in New York. We honored world leaders, like those from Finland and Sweden, for their contributions to global peace, but somehow Russia’s Vladimir Putin missed out on an award this year.
How have you been?
Emma Ashford: You could have awarded him the prize for “biggest strategic blunder of the year,” or perhaps “most unwilling to back down,” or even just “least popular world leader.” After all, everyone just saw him being treated like he had a communicable disease by his fellow leaders at the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation meetings in Samarkand, Uzbekistan. Even China’s Xi Jinping gave him a hard time about the war in Ukraine.
MK: He clearly deserves those awards. We should add those categories next year!
The SCO meetings were interesting. Some doubted whether—in a reverse from the Cold War era—Putin would play the junior partner to Xi’s China. But, in Samarkand, he seemed willing, even eager, to play the supplicant to Xi.
China hasn’t yet provided military aid for Putin’s war in Ukraine, but it has supported Russia economically and diplomatically. In the past week, it seemed that even its diplomatic support may be wavering.
EA: This was the first time that Xi and Putin had met in person since their prewar meeting in February. And I do think it was notable how firm every leader at the SCO meeting was with Putin. The Indians, who have been buying vast quantities of Russian oil, were quite explicit in telling him he needs to end the war, with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi openly telling Putin, “Today’s era is not an era of war, and I have spoken to you on the phone about this.” Meanwhile, the Central Asian leaders were far less deferential to Putin than usual, and even Xi publicly suggested that Putin needs to get his house in order.
That said, the Chinese have been treading a really careful middle ground on the conflict, supporting Russia rhetorically but scrupulously avoiding the prospect of Western sanctions for providing actual material support to Russia’s war effort. I don’t think this was a shift in policy but rather a shift in their willingness to publicly acknowledge that there are gaps between Beijing and Moscow, perhaps as part of an effort to pressure Putin to think about a settlement.
MK: I think that is right. And I also agree that while Xi is partly concerned that Putin’s bloody war will stain China’s image and its pretensions at global leadership, he is much more worried about finding Beijing in the crosshairs of Western sanctions, which could further throttle China’s already slowing economy.
The even bigger news this week was Putin’s highly anticipated speech on Ukraine. The Ukrainian counteroffensive has begun to back Putin into a corner, and many analysts have been expecting some sort of Russian escalation. Putin responded this week, announcing a mobilization of reserve forces, issuing new nuclear threats, and promising a series of referendums in Russian-controlled territories, including occupied Kherson and Zaporizhzhia.
What is your take on these developments?
EA: Well, it’s not entirely surprising. The background to this move is the recent stunning Ukrainian gains on the ground in eastern Ukraine. The Ukrainian army was able to employ new Western weapons, along with some well-planned subterfuge to draw Russian forces away from the occupied northern areas of Luhansk province. This allowed it to stage a successful offensive to retake territory. The operation ended up being far more successful than I think anyone—even the Ukrainians themselves—expected, putting Russia on the back foot.
But, as many of us have warned for some time, Putin was never going to simply concede when faced with the prospect of publicly losing a war on something he sees as a core national interest. He faced increasing criticism in Russia from nationalist hawks who wanted him to escalate, and he was effectively stuck with a choice to back down or escalate. He chose to escalate, in a relatively spectacular fashion.
MK: But these were not easy moves for Putin. If so, he would have taken these actions weeks or months ago. He is worried that calling up reservists is going to undermine his political position at home. It undermines his narrative that this is a limited “special military operation.” And it could cause a larger portion of the Russian population to turn against the war. After all, look at all the young Russian men lining up at borders, selling out flights, and (reportedly) breaking their own arms to get out of military service.
And more nuclear threats? He has been talking a big game since February. Why doesn’t he do it already? The reason is: He is deterred. He is worried about the potential consequences, such as provoking a major war with the United States and NATO.
This week’s speech shows that he is desperate and running out of options. So, I think the takeaway for Western governments should be to double down, not back down, in helping Ukraine win the war.
EA: I take the exact opposite lesson from this move. This is an incredibly costly signal for Putin to take domestically. As you say, it could quite easily cause the large group of Russians who are pretty apathetic about the war—which doesn’t really cost them anything at the moment—to turn against it. It is already causing protests in Moscow and the regions. But it seems to me that if Putin is willing to take this step, then he views losing the war as far more costly, making him less likely to back down in future. Maybe he thinks it will imperil his domestic hold on power, or maybe he views keeping parts of Ukraine as a core Russian national security interest, but it hardly matters. He made the choice to escalate, and that suggests to me that he will be less willing to concede, and the stakes of the conflict are now higher for both sides.
MK: Political scientists sometimes assess threats according to capability and resolve. I agree this speech shows that Putin is highly resolved to avoid losing this war. But that was never in doubt. The speech also shows, however, that he is running out of options with regard to his capabilities. With his conventional forces mangled in Ukraine, he is reduced to relying on low-quality reservists and nuclear saber rattling.
If Ukraine and the West continue to press, they can win the war.
EA: It depends what you mean. I am all for continuing to arm Ukraine so it can achieve enough battlefield victories to land in a better position at the negotiating table. But I worry that what you’re suggesting is more than that: getting directly involved in the conflict. What exactly are you proposing?
MK: I would recommend continuing to provide Ukraine with the arms it needs to win, including more advanced weapons, such as the Army Tactical Missile System, which would roughly quadruple the range of Ukrainian strikes, giving them the ability to hit targets deeper in Russian-held territory.
But my fear is that some (perhaps you, the Western Europeans, or the Biden administration?) would respond to Putin’s speech with a more cautious approach, arguing that Washington should provide Ukraine weapons to keep fighting, but not enough to actually win for fear of Russian escalation. I think this would be the wrong approach. It would prolong the war, rather than help Kyiv win a swift victory.
EA: OK, so there are two problems here. One is the assumption that Ukraine can roll back Russian gains if the West simply arms it with enough advanced weapons. The Ukrainians have done a good job in making some early advances using Western aid, but I think the jury is still out on whether that will portend a long-term ability to push the Russians back consistently, particularly in areas where they’re stronger and better entrenched. And while it doesn’t seem likely that the Russian mobilization will make much of a difference in the short term, it’s possible that it will have more of an impact next year.
But that’s not the big problem. The big problem is the potential for escalation in the conflict, something that Ukrainian gains are probably going to make more, not less, likely. We’ve already seen Putin escalate by declaring a partial mobilization in response to these gains in one region of Ukraine. He’s also declared that they’ll hold referendums in the occupied regions about whether to absorb them into Russia, along with a sizable dose of nuclear bluster. What happens if Ukraine manages to roll the Russians back, threatens Crimea, and the Russians choose to escalate into the nuclear realm?
Washington should continue to support Ukraine, but in doing so, U.S. officials should have a clear idea of where they’re trying to go. It’s not enough simply to say, “We’ll support Ukraine until it wins.” There needs to be a much clearer idea of what a probable diplomatic settlement would look like and what Washington’s limits are in terms of the risks it’s willing to run.
MK: Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has stated his goal: to reclaim all Ukrainian territory, including Crimea. This is a legitimate goal under international law, and it is an outcome advantageous for U.S. strategic interests. Washington should support it. Negotiating a final settlement along those lines will be fairly easy after Ukraine’s military controls that territory.
To your question of Russian nuclear escalation, the goal is to achieve U.S. political-military goals, not to avoid Russian nuclear use. Washington should deter Putin from using nuclear weapons even as it helps Ukraine advance on the battlefield. I really liked the White House’s statement threatening “severe consequences” if Putin uses nukes. It reflects recommendations I made in a publication.
And, if deterrence fails and Putin uses nuclear weapons in Ukraine, then the goal doesn’t change. Washington should follow through on and execute its deterrent threat. And, if Kyiv is still willing, it should fight through and continue to win the war.
EA: You want Washington to call Putin’s nuclear bluff and escalate the war in the case of nuclear use? Wow.
I have a hard time understanding the logic here. What national security interest does the United States have in Ukraine that is serious enough to warrant a potential nuclear exchange with Russia?
I certainly agree with your earlier point that Putin’s nuclear threats are increasingly hard to take seriously. He’s basically the boy who cried nuclear wolf at this point. But in many ways that just makes it more dangerous going forward. How would U.S. President Joe Biden know when Putin has crossed the line from him bluffing about nuclear use to seriously threatening it?
MK: We won’t know until he has used them. And what is your alternative recommendation to my proposal? Back down and give Putin whatever he wants as soon as he uses a nuke? It would most likely be a small number of low-yield battlefield nuclear weapons against Ukrainian forces. It would be a meaningful military move, but it would not automatically win the war. What if the Ukrainians want to keep fighting? You would reward Putin for crossing the nuclear red line by cutting Ukraine off at that point?
I have a hard time understanding the logic there.
EA: Your approach seems to be an escalation ladder that is entirely untethered from the notion of national interests. The United States has an interest in preventing Ukraine from being conquered by Russia, but that interest certainly doesn’t rise to the level of risking a nuclear exchange with Russia. Indeed, the U.S. government already made it clear that its interests in Ukraine don’t even rise to the level of getting involved with U.S. troops!
If the Ukrainians want to risk nuclear war, then that is their choice, but the Ukrainian national interest is not the same as the U.S. or French or British national interest. Let’s not forget that.
MK: Let’s tease this out. Let’s say Putin uses tactical nuclear weapons in Ukraine. Kyiv continues to fight, with U.S. and Western support. The United States follows through on its threat and ensures Russia pays a real cost for breaking the nuclear taboo and using nuclear weapons for the first time since World War II. This could mean…
EA: Hold your horses. How does Washington “follow through” and “ensure Russia pays a real cost”?
MK: First, as I recommend in my recent “Memo to the President,” if Washington issues a clear deterrent threat and is prepared to back it up, Putin will likely be deterred from using nukes in Ukraine. He does not want a nuclear war either! Second, if for some reason deterrence fails, Washington needs to follow through with conventional military strikes on the Russian forces that launched the attack, tougher sanctions on Russia, more advanced weapons transfers to Ukraine, and NATO nuclear weapons deployments to Poland or Romania.
So, yes, if Putin chooses to break the nuclear taboo, it would be a big escalation of the conflict. But it seems that you are making a logical leap from Putin’s nuclear saber-rattling to immediate U.S.-Russian strategic nuclear exchange. I don’t see that as a likely outcome at all. There are many steps that would have to happen before getting to that point, even after Putin uses the first nuke. And one should remember that Putin is afraid of nuclear war, too.
EA: You’ve never met a nuclear escalation ladder you didn’t want to climb, have you? But I’m not sure how a U.S. deterrent threat is particularly credible here. The United States has already committed not to engage directly in the fighting in Ukraine. Why would a threat to suddenly do so in the context of nuclear escalation suddenly become more believable?
Ultimately, the problem with your approach is this: Maybe Putin would back down. But if he doesn’t, the costs of your strategy could be literally existential for Americans.
As much as I hate to break up a good argument, I need to run. We didn’t even have time to get to Taiwan this week! America is flirting with nuclear-armed great-power conflict in more than one region, after Biden announced on television that the United States would commit troops to defend Taiwan in case of a Chinese invasion, a complete reversal of the current U.S. position. Do you think you could refrain from trying to get us all killed until next time so we can discuss it?
MK: If you need to go, I will let you go in peace, so long as we can make it peace through strength.
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