The panel was moderated by RAND Corporation senior political scientist Michael Mazarr and featured speakers Kori Schake, senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute; Patrick Porter, professor of international security and strategy at the University of Birmingham; and Polina Sinovets, head of the Odessa Center for Nonproliferation.
Michael Mazarr: What do you see happening from now through the winter and into next year, particularly around these issues of nuclear risks?
Kori Schake: This is legitimately an incredibly tense, worrisome situation, because Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is failing. And as they continue to be pushed out of Ukrainian territory, there are enormous incentives for escalation. . . . It looks to me like Russian strategy is that they have acknowledged they can’t defeat Ukraine’s army, so they are looking to split off Western support and corrode the Ukrainian population’s willingness to continue to resist Russian occupation.
My expectation of what’s going to happen is that by next summer, Russia will have been pushed out of the entirety of the territory of Ukraine, including Crimea. It is so shocking how fundamentally bad the Russian military is at warfare. That’s going to give enormous incentives to escalation. So there will be a premium in the coming three months to signal very clearly and very concretely to the Russian government the consequences of crossing the nuclear threshold.
I don’t see meaningful military targets for nuclear use in Ukraine. There isn’t a port or an airfield or massing of large numbers of troops that would be a traditional battlefield nuclear target. What I have nightmares about is President Vladimir Putin concluding that he may be able to cover this humiliating defeat by launching a nuclear strike on Kyiv to affect regime change by killing the Ukrainian government.
Patrick Porter: You don’t have to be fixated on the peculiarities of Vladimir Putin to conclude that nuclear use is possible because it’s a much more mainstream nuclear doctrine among nuclear-armed powers when they’re facing the prospect of conventional defeat and where the stakes are high, to be tempted to use them. This was NATO’s doctrine in the European theater from 1965, to offset and forestall conventional defeat with a threat of nuclear use. Similar story you can tell about Pakistan, India, even North Korea.
I agree that there may not be a meaningful military target, but I think the purpose would be to make Ukraine back off and at least divide the West—an attempt at psychological terror. So whatever strategy we are going to form, if we’re going to have a strategy of least regret, it can’t be one that bets the farm on this being a bluff. This is very real.
As if this wasn’t depressing enough, I don’t see the scope now or in the near future for there to be any kind of diplomatic settlement here. I don’t think there’s scope even for bargaining. I don’t think there’s even a table actually, as much as we might like there to be one.
Polina Sinovets: For Putin, this war is a game of a chicken, and he just closed the door for himself for any kind of defeat. This is the most concerning thing for me because I still don’t think that he wants to use nuclear weapons. However, at some point, if he will feel himself trapped, then he can do it.
If Russia would succeed in Ukraine with this nuclear blackmail—with the coercive threats or using nuclear weapons—then it goes further. Then Georgia will be the next.
Michael Mazarr: It seems like one of the central dilemmas here is that we need Putin to lose. On the other hand, when he begins to lose, the risk of escalation goes up. What’s the way around that dilemma?
Polina Sinovets: I still believe that Putin is rational. He has a fear. He may lose Russia. The costs and benefits are still on the table, because having Ukraine is not worth losing Russia.
On the other hand, he can still say that the special operation was successful—in Russia, everything depends on the interpretation. Of course it would be a very hard moment now, because he had proclaimed the annexation of the regions of Ukraine, so he can’t back off. As I understand it, Russian elites have already started to think over how they can leave the war without that devastating loss.
So this is a big dilemma. But this is what I am afraid that Putin should receive some reward for backing off.
Michael Mazarr: So you think it’s important that we do offer him some kind of reward for backing off?
Polina Sinovets: Yes, but not for the sake of Ukraine. It could be some kind of arms control development, which I don’t really see now, but there should be something that he would interpret as a big victory worthy of leaving Ukraine.
Michael Mazarr: Do you see Putin willing to lose Crimea and not go to nuclear weapons?
Kori Schake: I don’t know how to answer that, to be honest. I do think the more Ukraine wins, the dicier the escalation calculus becomes. . . . I don’t think there’s a face-saving way for Russia to lose this. And I think us beginning to penalize Ukraine for their success in reclaiming their territory would be a damaging policy choice for the stability of postwar Europe.
Michael Mazarr: Is this a war for the entire international order, and have the U.S. stakes changed?
Patrick Porter: No and no.
I’ll set out an alternative way of looking at this whole crisis. I broadly support the Biden administration’s position that the U.S. has real but limited interests, that NATO has real and limited interests in Ukraine—namely to help blunt Russia’s aggression to protect NATO’s flank so that there is not an emboldened predatory power on its doorstep, ready to devour more. It has been very successful in blunting this offensive, in depleting Russia significantly, and hugely reducing Russia’s capacity to threaten NATO’s eastern flank.
I think we need to hold on to that basic assumption: that this is important for the West, but it’s not all important. It’s all important for Ukraine, absolutely. But this is part of the tragedy here. We have overlapping but at times divergent interests.
I’d like to further suggest that the statements here are not the domino ones that we are hearing. Were Russia to use a nuclear weapon, it would be an appalling event, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that predators can use nuclear weapons to take territory against our vital interests. North Korea cannot easily do that to South Korea without it going to war against the United States.
Michael Mazarr: Do you agree that in order to avoid escalation there ought to be some U.S. policy designed to empower Putin to get out of this and convince his people that he hasn’t completely surrendered?
Kori Schake: I think a lot of the conversation mistakes how strong a position we are in and how weak and faltering a position Russia is in. We do not have to intervene directly in Ukraine for Ukraine to win this war. Even if Russia crosses the nuclear threshold, I think the right response, both from a nonproliferation perspective and from a support for Ukraine perspective, is for us to give the same answer the people of Ukraine are giving.
When I was there about a month ago, across the board from civil society leaders, business leaders, President [Volodymyr] Zelenskyy, their response to a Russian nuclear threat was, “It won’t change the outcome of this war.” I think that’s the way you diminish the currency of nuclear blackmail: by taking away its political cache. We can do that without direct involvement.
Given the colossal failure of the Russian army in Ukraine, this might be a good time to talk to the Russians about a CFE [Conventional Armed Forces in Europe] treaty that limits deployments of conventional forces across all of Europe. It would require enormous verification protocols for us to trust anything that the Russians say, but that could perhaps help stabilize the European conventional order.
A second possibility is we have long wanted a tactical nuclear weapons arms control arrangement. That seems to be the only thing Russia still thinks might be useful in its military. We reduced NATO nonstrategic nuclear forces by an enormous amount at the end of the Cold War. Russia didn’t. Perhaps the asymmetry of that advantage on their part might make them feel important enough to enter into those negotiations.
Michael Mazarr: Over the next three months, where would you rate the risk of use of nuclear weapons by Russia?
Polina Sinovets: I would say it would be very high.
It would be the highest because this is the moment when they started to speculate over the dirty bomb, which can be used as a pretext of using a tactical nuclear weapon. . . . The fact that China and India just asked their citizens to leave Ukraine, which [doesn’t happen] that often, means that something is going to happen. And this is my biggest concern.
Kori Schake: I think the risk is medium for the next three months and higher subsequently. It’ll be harder to tell that Ukraine is succeeding in the next three months because of the change of the weather and reporting on the ground. But once they push Russia out of the Donbas and can focus on Crimea, I think that’ll be the point of maximum danger.
Patrick Porter: I agree with Kori. I think it’s medium to getting higher. . . . This is a weakened enemy with a large nuclear arsenal that perceives higher stakes in the conflict and that, rightly or wrongly, fears that defeat in Ukraine is the prelude to the structure of the regime and or Russia itself. And it’s very hard for us to actually alter that calculus.
My main pessimism here is that this is not a regime that’s going to be satiated with verified deployment promises. It’s about the fearing of its own destruction. . . . Because it won’t accept defeat, the temptation to do the unthinkable will rise. I still don’t think it’s probable, but I think it’s going to get worse. We need cool heads here.
Michael Mazarr: I’m turning now to the questions from the audience. . . . With NATO experiencing difficulty in maintaining a unified stance on how to respond to nuclear use, how probable is it that responses will be more unilateral than collective?
Kori Schake: It will be hard to maintain NATO unity. It’s always hard to maintain NATO unity. First, the political science data is pretty strong on the fact that free societies are slow to commit to common policies, but [they’re] incredibly enduring once committed because you have to win the domestic political argument. And I do think NATO countries have won the domestic political argument on assistance to Ukraine. In fact, 97 percent of German Greens want to [support] Ukraine unlimitedly. Those people are pacifists. They are pushing the German government to a stronger stance more closely in alignment with the United States and the frontline states in NATO.
When I’m in government, I always gets stuck with alliance management jobs, [and what I notice] is that unity increases in direct proportion to how frightened we are. And Russian nuclear use would scare the hell out of all of us, and I think is likely to have everybody want to hold hands and stand close together. So it’ll be hard to figure out what to do, but I don’t actually doubt that we would have NATO unity in those circumstances.
Michael Mazarr: Do you think what comes out of the U.S. and NATO response to potential Russian nuclear use is critical in shaping Chinese potential actions?
Patrick Porter: I don’t think it’s critical. If I’ve climbed to the top of Chinese politics and am commanding the other pole in the world, I’m not stupid, and I’m not going to assume that what the West does in Ukraine is necessarily a commentary on whether it’s willing to fight me over Taiwan. After all, the West is waging a proxy war in Ukraine. And what China’s more interested in is whether the West is willing to fight a direct hot war over Taiwan. These are not directly analogous. And if I do successfully take Taiwan, I can then use nuclear threats to ward others off, and that it doesn’t necessarily have to be a precedent set in Ukraine for me to make that judgment.
This would not be the first time that a nuclear-armed state has taken territory from a non-nuclear armed state, rightly or wrongly. . . . We should not be reacting to this as though we are innocence suddenly confronted with the first intrusion into paradise. We’ve lived in a world before of nuclear blackmail. We coexist in a world of nuclear blackmail. The risk is not zero.
Michael Mazarr: If we begin to anticipate Russian potential nuclear use, what do we do? Do we think about preemption?
Kori Schake: I wouldn’t want the United States to preempt use because I think it would be very difficult after the mistakes of earlier preemptions, in particular the Iraq war in 2003. It would be very difficult, even with the successes of intelligence in this war. The threshold can and should be very high for American preemption, even of potential nuclear use.
Michael Mazarr: As you’ve been watching this, do you have any sense of the role that particularly big outside powers could play that’s any different to help resolve this?
Polina Sinovets: The positions of China and India are quite important, but in this regard I don’t think it would be decisive regarding Putin’s behavior. He has a clear view that Ukraine belongs to Russia. . . . This is why they’re so invested and somehow surprised why the West and anybody else are caring so much about Ukraine, because it’s a part of Russia for them. Of course if China and India would impose all sanctions on Russia and join the international functions, it would affect the Russian economy, but it would not probably affect Russian decisionmaking directly, because this is something internal for them. I think that they just want to finish it somehow with a positive outcome for Russia.
Kori Schake: It’s actually surprising to me how little assistance China is willing to give Russia in this, given that they have a treaty of unlimited friendship. Russia is having to buy ammunition from North Korea and body armor from Iran. So that’s the level of Russian failure. But it’s also the level of Chinese denial of assistance.
Michael Mazarr: What’s the future world we’re going to be in because of this conflict?
Patrick Porter: I think we are going to still live in a world where the nuclear revolution is the most important fact of international relations. I don’t necessarily see there being a wave of proliferation activity, but at the same time I’d like to make a normative case that there are some countries in the world that have a legitimate and reasonable basis to consider proliferating because they are living also in dangerous neighborhoods. And the general antiproliferation bias that we see here needs to be counted. Countries like Australia have to face the profound power shift going on in Asia, and they ought to be thinking about this kind of question now. So not only does the nuclear revolution retain its power, but some countries need to be thinking harder about it and maybe moving to the other side of it.
Kori Schake: A non-nuclear power winning a war against a nuclear power will diminish proliferation, although it may increase defense spending and arsenals, not of Russian weapons though, around the world. But it will be fabulous for the nonproliferation cause for Ukraine to win this war.