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Interview: Why Putin Might Prefer A Stalemate To Going Nuclear On Ukraine

Is Russian President Vladimir Putin likely to keep escalating in Ukraine, possibly even opting for nuclear weapons? (file photo)
Is Russian President Vladimir Putin likely to keep escalating in Ukraine, possibly even opting for nuclear weapons? (file photo)

Graham Allison is a Harvard professor and former U.S. defense official with expertise in nuclear weapons, Russia, China, and security planning. His 1971 book on the Cuban Missile Crisis is considered a seminal work. In the 1990s, as an assistant secretary of defense, Allison, 82, worked to coordinate U.S. strategy toward the successor states of the Soviet Union after the end of the Cold War.

In a wide-ranging interview with Vazha Tavberidze from RFE/RL's Georgian Service, the veteran former diplomat discusses why Russia's Vladimir Putin is likely to keep escalating in Ukraine, possibly even opting for nuclear weapons, breaking a decades-old "taboo," and plunging the globe into further uncertainty.

RFE/RL: Earlier this month, Putin celebrated his 70th birthday and a day later the Crimea Bridge was hit October 8 by what Moscow says was a truck bomb. After that, Russia launched what is believed to be its biggest coordinated air and missile raids on Ukraine since the start of the invasion on February 24, indicating Putin is willing to escalate. What's his next likely move?

Graham Allison: If Putin is forced to choose between humiliating defeat, on the one hand, and escalating the level of destruction…there's every reason to believe he chooses the latter. As you step up the level of destruction, the first step is bombing infrastructure. And I think that's what he's doing now, even though he doesn't have as many smart bombs as he would like to, you know, so they are not as carefully targeted, but one up that ladder of destruction is just destroying people.

A humiliating defeat for Russia in Ukraine would not, I believe, be existential for Russia...but I think it will be existential for Putin.

The Western narrative, and especially [Ukrainian President Volodymyr] Zelenskiy's, has asserted that Putin was killing a lot of civilians. Actually, he's not been killing very many, if you think about it in historical terms. If he wanted to kill children, if he wanted to kill thousands of people, he can bomb Kyiv; there's nothing preventing him from sending bombers to bomb Kyiv or striking Kyiv with hundreds of missiles. So, there's plenty of population centers.

So, I think in the first instance, he's going after infrastructure, because he wants to freeze Ukraine and make their lights go out and whatever. Yeah, but then right on up that becomes killing people. And then after that comes chemical weapons, and then after that comes nuclear strikes.

RFE/RL: You paint a very grim picture of where the conflict could be headed.

Allison: It's a very ugly picture. And even though a humiliating defeat for Russia in Ukraine would not, I believe, be existential for Russia -- Russia can survive without Ukraine -- but I think it will be existential for Putin.

RFE/RL: Are we nearing that moment when Putin feels he's cornered?

Allison: I think yes. As [U.S.] President [Joe] Biden said, in private remarks which were made public last week, that he thinks we're stumbling along the path to that point.

RFE/RL: If there indeed is a targeted nuclear strike in Ukraine, for example, as a show of decisive force, what could that mean not only for Ukraine, but also Russia, the rest of the world?

Allison: It's the question, obviously, that every thoughtful person in Washington, which are many, and certainly President Biden, and all of his national-security team have been asking. It's a question that Europeans are asking, and they should be asking. So, what is the big picture? We've had seven decades without the use of nuclear weapons in war. That's remarkable. That's not natural. That's an accomplishment. The nuclear taboo has emerged slowly, but it has emerged. And, fortunately, states have refrained from the use of nuclear weapons.

Graham Allison (file photo)
Graham Allison (file photo)

Putin certainly has the capability to conduct a nuclear strike. He would have reason, in his view, to conduct a nuclear strike if he thought there was some chance that it would allow him to come out as a victor rather than a loser. Putin doesn't think of himself as a loser and will be desperate, I believe, as CIA director [William] Burns has said, to find some way out, if he's backed into a corner.

So, I think if he should do this, we will be living, as Biden has said, in a new world. How the U.S. and its Western allies will respond is not certain. A lot would depend on what the use of the nuclear weapon, you know what would be the target. So, he could have a 'demonstration bomb,' just blow up something in the forest or in the Black Sea. He could hit a military target, he could hit a city.

So, if you listen to what he said last week, he said [former U.S. President Harry] Truman dropping the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were the precedent. That's what he said. Well, in Hiroshima, the bomb that the Americans dropped on Hiroshima, killed 140,000 people. So, a nuclear strike on Kyiv with a tactical nuclear weapon, that could deliver the same blast -- 15 kilotons as the Hiroshima bomb -- could kill quite a lot of people in here. So, you think, 'Oh, my God, what would the response be to that?' I believe, Washington had been working through the whole menu of options.

The Tavberidize Interviews

Since the beginning of Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, Vazha Tavberidze of RFE/RL's Georgian Service has been interviewing diplomats, military experts, and academics who hold a wide spectrum of opinions about the war's course, causes, and effects. To read all of his interviews, click here.

RFE/RL: Do you believe one of those options, that Washington is weighing a nuclear response?

Allison: Washington would say everything is on the table. But a nuclear response seems to me to be highly unlikely, and I would say would be ill-considered. Since the question would be then how would Putin respond to that? So, you're into an area in which you have bad options and worse options, no good options. And that's why there's such an intense effort now, to persuade Putin that this is a really bad idea, including for himself, for his country, for the world. He's got to figure this out for himself, in terms of both what the U.S. and the West would do in response, and also advice I'm hoping he's getting from some of the people he trusts more, like China.

RFE/RL: In an interview with Der Spiegel a few months ago, you said: "We will have to end a war with the demon," and the examples that you offered were how [former U.S. President Franklin Delano] Roosevelt and [former U.K. Prime Minister Winston] Churchill sat down with [former Soviet dictator Josef] Stalin, who obviously killed millions of people, or [former U.S. President Richard] Nixon with [former Chinese communist leader] Mao [Zedung], who was also no slouch when it came to killing people. So, let me ask you: How would that kind of deal with the devil look when it comes to Putin?

Allison: I have an unorthodox view about this. If you listen to President Biden, if you read his comments, they're clearly thinking about off-ramps -- that's the way that Washington thinks about this.

So, my optimistic scenario would be that in the next month or two, one gets to essentially a stalemate. Probably somewhere along the current line of control, probably with Ukraine controlling most of what's west of the Dnieper and the other river there (Inhulets River), near Kherson, and Russia controlling most of the other side; that the fighting declines to a low level, kind of like what happened between 2016 to 2020 in the so-called independent republics of Donetsk and Luhansk.

And that at that stage, Putin thinks he has enough to declare that he's been successful. He's got his land bridge to Crimea; he's taken in some additional territory. So, he says, he's being successful. And we say we are successful, because we say Ukraine survived as a free and independent country, it's not giving up any of its territory. It's claiming that it's going to recover those territories at some point, but not today. And Ukraine will focus on building a successful country, which will be extremely hard to do, but in which they have a moral claim, I think, on the West for major financial support for the undertaking.

And then my story, this is my good news story, would be [that]this continues for a year or two or five. I remember the story of East Germany and West Germany. West Germany never gave up its claim to East Germany. It just showed what a free society could do, relative to a Soviet-controlled autocracy. Or North Korea and South Korea; or more relevant for Ukraine: how about the Baltics?

Putin's playbook in Ukraine looks to me to be taken directly from the communist playbook in the Baltics, at the end of World War Two, when they held sham elections, sham referenda, they annexed Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia and called them republics of the Soviet Union. The West, the U.S. did not recognize the Soviet Union's claim to those territories, neither did people living outside, and in time, they emerged as free states.

So that can take a long time. That's unfortunate. But since the alternative would be something even worse, I would regard that is an optimistic scenario.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
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    Vazha Tavberidze

    Vazha Tavberidze is a staff writer with RFE/RL's Georgian Service. As a journalist and political analyst, he has covered issues of international security, post-Soviet conflicts, and Georgia's Euro-Atlantic aspirations. His writing has been published in various Georgian and international media outlets, including The Times, The Spectator, The Daily Beast, and IWPR.