- Interview by
- Branko Marcetic
The war in Ukraine increasingly poses dangers for the entire world. Vladimir Putin’s threats of nuclear blackmail last week were met by hawkish Western media commentators and NATO leaders who have been insisting that the pursuit of anything less than total victory in Ukraine would mean giving in to nuclear blackmail.
For insight on the logic of past nuclear confrontations and the lessons for Ukraine today, Jacobin’s Branko Marcetic spoke to George Beebe, a longtime US intelligence analyst, diplomat, and policy advisor on Russia who today serves as director of grand strategy for the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft.
Beebe spoke about the growing danger that mistakes and miscalculations by leaders on either side could unleash an escalatory spiral, and explained how in the Cold War, each side routinely “gave in” to the other side’s “nuclear blackmail,” but in doing so actually helped establish important norms that prevented subsequent crises from going nuclear.
How alarmed should we be at what’s happening? Is there enough concern among the public, among lawmakers and officials, and other relevant stakeholders?
I am quite alarmed, and I think that the American people and the world are quite alarmed at the situation as it’s been evolving. To a great degree I think Americans have lost their fear of nuclear war in the post–Cold War period. I think at least subconsciously we’ve come to believe that’s an old problem, that that’s something we overcame with the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union. People have moved on and we don’t need to worry about that. It seems very much a thing of the past.
But in fact, the dangers of escalation to nuclear levels have gone up, not down, over the past several years. In part, that’s because we’ve become cavalier about these dangers. In part, it’s because a number of the guardrails we established in the Cold War period to manage the dangers of that kind of escalation have gone away. And finally, the most important thing, in times of crisis during that Cold War period there was direct communication between Washington and Moscow to make sure things didn’t get out of hand, to minimize dangers of misperception. We don’t have that dialogue right now. Essentially, the two sides are almost not talking to one another at all. We don’t have the kind of back channel communication that allowed [John F.] Kennedy and [Nikita] Khrushchev to find a way out of the Cuban missile crisis.
The counterpart to Anatoly Dobrynin, the Soviet ambassador during the Cuban missile crisis, is Anatoly Antonov, the Russian ambassador to Washington, and he is almost persona non grata in Washington. We have a serious problem right now, the kinds of things that are necessary to prevent escalation are not in place.
Why is this dialogue not happening? Is it political pressures or something else?
There have been a lot of reasons that have combined to produce this situation that we’re in. One of them is that the United States fell out of the habit of diplomatic give-and-take during the post–Cold War period. There was no peer power we faced in the world. We were not just a unipolar power, but no one else even approached the degree of military and economic might the United States had in the aftermath of the Soviet demise. We didn’t think we really had to strike bargains, we didn’t think we had to compromise with other countries. What we tended to do was to tell them what they were going to do and when they balked, our response was, “or else.” As a result, we lost the diplomatic skills that would normally be required in a world order where there is more of a balance.
Another factor is that Russia became a domestic political issue, not a foreign policy issue, in the United States. I don’t need to go into all the particulars of why that happened, I’ll just simply state that as a fact. That’s hindered our ability and willingness to engage in dialogue with Russia.
The third factor is a belief that the problem that we’re dealing with is a deterrence problem. It’s like dealing with [Adolf] Hitler and Nazi Germany in the 1930s and we’ve all become convinced that the best way to deal with Russia is not to appease, but to stand up, to show them we’ll fight, that we’re going to stand tall and tough, and that when Russia understands what it’s up against it will back down.
I don’t think that’s the nature of the problem we’re dealing with, honestly. We’re dealing with much more of an escalatory spiral problem, and when you deal with a spiral in that way, it actually exacerbates the situation. And that’s what I think has been going on for several years now, and it’s now reached the point where it’s acutely dangerous.
What are the dangers currently? Both sides seem like they’re keen to avoid a nuclear war, but does that actually matter?
I do think you’re right, both sides do want to avoid nuclear war. Any sane actor would, and I still think both the United States and Russia are rational actors, more or less, in all this.
But the situation has escalated and can continue to escalate even though both sides don’t want to see this reach a crisis. And there are several ways that can happen. One is by accident, and the longer the war goes on, and the more deeply entangled the United States becomes in all of this, and it’s essentially a combatant in every way but having large numbers of troops on the ground in Ukraine right now — when you’re in that situation, the chances of accident are quite high.
The other ways that this could escalate would be through the logic of what’s going on on the battlefield. Putin could come to believe that Western intelligence and military support to Ukraine has become so instrumental in Ukraine’s battlefield successes that he could decide he has no choice but to attack that support. So far he has refrained from doing that. He has attempted on a relatively limited scale to interdict the Western military supplies going to the Ukrainian front lines. He’s not really done so on a large scale. He has certainly not attacked the sources of that support inside NATO states themselves. So that’s a step he could feel compelled to take, not because he wants escalation to some sort of nuclear confrontation, but because he might feel the alternative to that might be defeat, and I don’t think he’s at all willing to contemplate defeat in this situation.
Another possibility is that he also could become convinced that NATO plans to attack Russia, and he could act preemptively. The other possibility is that as things go bad on the battlefield for the Russians, this translates into greater and greater domestic instability inside Russia itself. Putin has long been primed to believe that sort of instability is what the United States wants to see and is in fact stoking, and that could result in a perception on Putin’s part that this instability is inspired by and fueled by the United States, and that could lead him to retaliate in what he sees as self-defense.
Let’s say that the United States and Russia got into a direct conflict — for example, if the United States responded to some Russian escalation by launching a conventional strike inside Russia or by trying to assassinate Putin. How long would a conflict like this stay nonnuclear?
I think if that sort of scenario started to unfold in the way you describe, that would quickly escalate into strategic nuclear levels, the reason being, the Russian nuclear deterrent is meant to deter existential threats to the Russian federation, regardless of whether those are nuclear or conventional threats. And unlike the Cold War period, when really the only weapons that could pose some sort of strategic threat to the survival of either the United States or the Soviet Union — in that era it was only nuclear weapons that could do that sort of thing — that’s not true today. Today, conventional weapons can, through their precision targeting and their explosive potential, pose the kinds of threats that only nuclear missiles used to pose.
So if the United States mounts the kind of attack you’re talking about, I think the Russians would have no choice from their perspective to retaliate, and since they don’t have the arsenal of conventional weapons to match ours, I think they’d have to go nuclear to retaliate. What you’re describing is a formula for rapid escalation to a strategic nuclear conflict.
What would that actually mean in practice, a nuclear war between the United States and Russia?
It would be very hard to keep it limited. Each side would quickly believe that it was in some sort of use-it-or-lose-it scenario. When you see an attack on the way, strikes are being detected by your strategic warning system, most likely each of the leaders involved, the US and Russian presidents, would not be content to wait to see whether those strikes would take out our retaliatory capability. What each side would very quickly believe, is that the best way to limit the damage to its side is to try to take out as many of the other missiles as possible as quickly as possible, so they can’t be used. So your incentives at that point are to go big, not to sit and wait and hope that the other side is conducting some sort of demonstration strike.
It would be a very difficult thing to handle, and with very little time to make decisions. These weapons can reach the other side in a matter of minutes. You’ve got maybe half an hour, forty-five minutes, maybe less depending on what systems are being used to make fundamental decisions. It’s just an extremely unstable crisis situation. The amount of damage something like that could cause is almost unimaginable for people. It would certainly destroy most of the United States and Russia, and almost certainly all of Europe, and it would cause grave secondary effects on the rest of the world in terms of weather, food supply, and all kinds of things. It would absolutely merit the term catastrophe.
You’ve written about the danger of misreading the motivations and intentions of foreign leadership, and you’ve pointed to how the United States did so regarding Imperial Japan in World War II. Can you elaborate on that and explain how it applies to today?
What happened with Imperial Japan in the run-up to World War II is the United States was quite concerned by Japanese expansion in Asia during the 1930s. We became convinced this posed a grave threat to US security, and I think quite rightly, but what we attempted to do was use economic sanctions that were quite draconian, that essentially cut Japan off from its ability to have vital supplies of strategic resources, including oil, in the belief that that sort of coercion could cause the Japanese to reconsider the costs and benefits of their aggression in Asia.
What happened instead was the Japanese came to believe they were in an untenable situation, that this kind of pressure economically coupled with the potential of being encircled by hostile states, including the United States, the Soviet Union, and a revived China, was simply an unacceptable situation. They thought Japan’s survival was at stake. The United States believed in that period that Japan would retaliate in some way, but they expected it to be a somewhat limited retaliation, probably in Southeast Asia. They didn’t expect a surprise attack on Pearl Harbor. That was simply too much of a roll of the dice to believe a rational actor would undertake.
One of the lessons we ultimately drew from all this was that we didn’t realize the degree to which the Japanese regarded their situation as a life-and-death matter, that they felt pressed against the wall and had no choice but to retaliate in a way the United States thought was highly risky.
I think the analogy for us today with the Russians is that, like Japan in the lead-up to the attack on Pearl Harbor, the Russians think that what they have at stake in Ukraine is existential, that unless they defend what they perceive as a vital redline there, that Russia’s existence is at stake. And when states feel that way, they can do things that appear quite reckless to outsiders. I think that’s what we’re dealing with here with Russia. It’s a state that increasingly feels cornered and desperate, and so is doing things that appear to outsiders as enormously reckless and quite aggressive.
How you deal with that is different to the way you deal with a Nazi Germany. You’re going to have to find some way of compromising. There has to be a diplomatic exit to all this, because the alternative is you’re going to be in a direct war with a nuclear power. Had Japan or Nazi Germany had nuclear weapons in World War II, those conflicts would’ve ended in a much different way than they did.
Are there enough voices, or enough pressure, in the United States and other NATO states calling for diplomacy and making that a viable political option — at least some sort of dialogue with Russia in the direction of de-escalation?
I think there is very little political pressure in the West right now on any of the governments involved to find some sort of diplomatic solution to this problem. That does not mean the general publics in Western states don’t favor it. Quincy sponsored a poll that suggests very strongly that American people on balance believe the United States should be supporting Ukraine’s legitimate self-defense, but also, we need diplomatic efforts to find our way out of this war. The two are not incompatible, and in fact, I would argue that both of those elements have to be present and working together in a complementary way to produce a successful resolution to this war.
But I think there is a gap, and has been, between foreign policy elites in the United States and the American people more broadly, and increasingly, the interests of the American people and the desires of the majority of voters have been having very little effect on the foreign policy behavior of the Washington establishment, and I think that’s going to have to change.
The counterargument right now is that Putin won’t negotiate, and that all the sides are now too dug in anyway, so it’s useless to call for negotiations. What would you say to that?
I think to some degree that’s true. It wasn’t true at the beginning of this war or the early stages, but increasingly it’s accurate to say Putin is more or less giving up on the possibility of a negotiated settlement, not because he doesn’t want one, but because he believes primarily the United States is opposed to one.
I think we had opportunities before this war to find a compromise, but the United States refused to explore those opportunities. There was I think a serious negotiation effort that took place under Turkish mediation in the early weeks of this war, and it in fact made some substantial progress. The Ukrainians broke off those negotiations. The Russians have accused the United States and Great Britain of having essentially discouraged the Ukrainians from pursuing that peace settlement effort at the time. To a great degree, those opportunities have been lost. It’s going to be very hard right now to negotiate a peace settlement in Ukraine.
That does not mean, however, that crisis management diplomacy between the United States and Russia is impossible. I think the Russians would like that kind of dialogue to go on. That wouldn’t be about finding some sort of permanent peace settlement in Ukraine that would delineate Ukraine’s borders and all of that, but it would and could focus on preventing further escalation and moving ultimately toward some kind of cease-fire. That kind of effort is both possible and quite necessary right now. It doesn’t depend on Russia and Ukraine trying to work out their differences. It depends on the United States and Russia talking about the larger strategic context for this war, and attempting to put in place some guardrails that prevent this situation from spiraling completely out of control.
And what about the issue of giving in to nuclear blackmail? Won’t that, as Timothy Snyder recently argued, create a precedent that makes future war and future nuclear war more likely?
In short, I think that’s nonsense. The history of the Cold War puts the lie to that belief. The United States and the Soviet Union recognized they were essentially co-hostages with each other in the nuclear era, that the security of one depended on ensuring a degree of security in the other. That you could not have circumstances in which one side clearly triumphed unconditionally over the other side. “Giving in to nuclear blackmail” did not in fact encourage new crises. It helped establish some norms, some of which were formalized, some of which were tacit about what was permissible and what wasn’t.
I’ll give you an example that’s appropriate today: the Yom Kippur War in 1973. This was a situation in which the United States and the Soviet Union were engaged in a proxy conflict in the Middle East, one that initially had the Israelis on their back foot — they were taken by surprise by the Egyptian and Arab attacks, and the United States put its nuclear forces on alert, in part as a signal to the Soviet Union that should Soviet proxies go too far, the United States was willing to escalate this into a genuine crisis with the Soviet Union.
Then things changed. The Israelis gained the momentum, and threatened to completely rout the Arab and Egyptian forces, and the Soviet Union signaled that they were willing to use nuclear force if things went too far. What happened was both parties, the United States and Soviet Union, restrained their allies in the region. We insisted that the Israelis not proceed with attacks and forego the opportunity to rout the Egyptian forces altogether.
That wasn’t giving in to nuclear blackmail and it did not encourage the Soviet Union to push the boundaries in future crises. In fact it established norms that ensured stability over time. That’s the kind of thing I think we need right now. This belief that the Ukrainians should press on as far and fast as they can, in the hope of not only defeating Russian forces on the battlefield completely, but also creating some sort of cascade effect that’ll result in regime change in Russia is an extremely dangerous belief. It’s likely to provoke retaliation on the Russian part that could in fact escalate to nuclear levels.
Anatol Lieven has said that just as the United States has drawn red lines for Russia, we need to do so for Ukraine too. What do you think about that?
I don’t think the US government should put the security of the American people in the hands of the Ukrainian government. These are decisions about our security that should be made in Washington by Americans. That’s the fundamental point. We shouldn’t surrender agency to the [Volodymyr] Zelensky government on this.
As a matter of simply smart negotiating tactics, we should not threaten preemptively to cut the Ukrainians off, because that would disincentivize the Russians from making the concessions it will be necessary for them to make in any kind of negotiated settlement. Ideally, we should be talking privately to the Ukrainians, saying that we believe we need to find a negotiated settlement. And we should be warning them privately that any attempt to reconquer Crimea — as morally justified as that may be — would very likely spark a nuclear response from Russia and therefore is something the United States government strongly opposes.