Matthew Kroenig discussed the Ukraine crisis as it relates to great power rivalry, among other topics.
Welcome everybody to this evening’s talk by Providence, a journal of Christianity and American Foreign Policy. Those of you who are with us physically and those of you who are watching online, I am Mark Tooley, editor of Providence and head of the Institute on Religion and Democracy, and whose offices we are here in downtown DC with a great pleasure this evening of having as our speaker Matthew Kroenig of Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service. We’ve been honored that Matthew has been a speaker at our events several times over the years, his most recent book is on the re-emergence of a great power conflict and competition which is very pertinent to today’s situation regarding Ukraine. He also has great expertise and has published a book on nuclear strategy, which ominously also pertains to this evening’s topic. So, Matthew, thank you so much for joining us and he will speak to us for however long he would like to speak but perhaps 15 or 20 minutes and he has to leave by 10 till 7 so we’ll squeeze in as much time for questions as possible. So, Matthew thank you so much for joining us.
Well good evening, thank you very much for coming out tonight, delighted to speak with you. When Mark first invited me to speak, I think it was in response to an article I’d written in Foreign Policy magazine about how the United States needs to deal with Russia and China at the same time, and so I think that was supposed to be the topic for tonight but given what’s going on it seems to make sense to pivot to the crisis in Ukraine. And so I’ll talk about that but if people want to talk about the broader issues in Q & A, I’m happy to do that. So, I think for my opening remarks I’ll talk a little bit about what the broader picture, what I think Putin is trying to accomplish, how I think the west’s response has gone so far. And then I do also want to focus a little bit on the nuclear element of this crisis because it’s getting some attention, but I think maybe not the attention it deserves. And then perhaps finish by broadening out and considering China as well.
But you know first what is Putin doing? And I think for people like me who spend almost all day thinking about defense and national security you know to be honest I wasn’t that surprised by the invasion, when many other people this fall were saying he wouldn’t do it, doesn’t make sense, I was predicting that he would do it. And while it might seem irrational to us I think you know you need to understand Putin’s goals, I think he does see himself as this great Russian leader who after what he’s called the greatest catastrophe of the 21st century, the collapse of the Soviet Union, that he’s going to restore the Russian empire, that he’s going to go down in history as one of the great Russian leaders. And so we’ve seen him pretty systematically work to do this, the invasion of Georgia in 2008, the first invasion of Ukraine in 2014, the intervention in Syria in 2015 that reestablished Moscow as a major power broker in the Middle East for the first time since the 1970s, interventions more recently in Kazakhstan, Belarus, Armenia, Azerbaijan you know really systematically working I think to resurrect Moscow’s influence in these regions. In terms of the U.S. response as you probably know, I know everybody’s focused on this you know the Biden Administration has essentially had a three-pronged response: one is sanctions, second is providing arms to the Ukrainians so that they can defend themselves, and then third is reinforcing the eastern flank of NATO. And these are things that Biden threatened beforehand that if Putin invaded, these are the things that we would do. I think there was some hope that that would work as a deterrent if so, it clearly failed, Putin invaded anyway. And so the Biden Administration is now executing on that threat. And I think in some ways they’ve succeeded beyond what people imagined in terms of sanctions for example in the Europeans willingness to go along with sanctions I think it’s gone further than many people thought was possible probably further than what Putin thought was possible.
In other areas, my own assessment is I think the white house has been a little bit too cautious, so when it comes to providing arms to the Ukrainians, for example we just read today that they’ve rejected this polish offer to provide Russian fighter jets to the Ukrainians for fear that it would be too escalatory with Russia. And then when it comes to reinforcing the eastern flank of NATO they’ve taken some steps the French have provided sent some forces to Romania, we’ve sent some fighters to Estonia, we’ve sent a thousand or so forces to Germany, but you know what many defense experts were saying on the eve of the invasion was you know we need to imagine what happens if Putin takes Ukraine because a couple of months ago the part of NATO that was exposed directly to Russia was really Estonia and Latvia you know the two small Baltic countries in the north, but if Putin succeeds in taking all of Ukraine, looks like he’s getting more control over Belarus’s foreign and defense policy, Belarus just changed its constitution several weeks ago to allow Russia to stage nuclear forces there, so Putin’s essentially extending nuclear deterrence again for the first time since the end of the cold war. And so, wish I had a map but suddenly there are seven NATO allies directly exposed to Russian forces and so what is the defense strategy we would need to deal with that and you know and then what are the forces we need to implement that I think those are the kinds of reinforcements we should be thinking about and we’re nowhere near that currently.
Finally on the west’s response there’s been a lot of talk of a no-fly zone, the white house has said that doesn’t make sense and I think some creative thinking is required here. You know typical no-fly zone you know as the white house has suggested does mean you know shooting down Russian planes if they fly into it but I think if we look at the 2008 intervention in Georgia, George W Bush as Russia was invading Georgia said we’re conducting a humanitarian mission to help the Georgians and he sent U.S. Air Force planes and U.S. naval ships on a humanitarian mission. And the Russian forces were moving toward Tbilisi and then they stopped
Short, and so why did they stop short we’ll never know.
But many well-placed analysts think that it was George Bush is since essentially saying get out of the way we’re coming that caused Putin to stop short for fear of escalation. So, I think often it’s been you know the white house in the west worried about escalation with Russia and for good reason, but Putin should also worry about escalation. So I think if you know the Biden Administration announced today we’re conducting a humanitarian mission we’re sending naval ships or p U.S. planes to the western part of Ukraine to Levieve or other cities that could make a lot of sense both for humanitarian reasons and also for strategic reasons, it would make it much more difficult of course for Putin to conquer the entire country if you had U.S. or NATO forces and in the west of the country.
Okay, nuclear. So, Putin, so this is another area where people who focused on this weren’t surprised. So Russia has a nuclear strategy that’s been referred to as the escalate to de-escalate strategy, but essentially the idea is that the west is afraid of nuclear weapons, Putin and Russia are not, and so if they get into a conflict that they’ll make nuclear threats early on, if necessary maybe even use nuclear weapons one or two or three to convince the rest of the world to say “oh my god what are we doing, are we really going to fight a nuclear war over Ukraine” or whatever it is, let’s back down and give Putin what he wants. And so, this was essentially written into Russian strategy in the early 2000s and so you know specialists like me thought oh this is an interesting change but it didn’t seem like there was any real prospect of conflict. And then 2014 was a big wake-up call at least for me of oh this is this is real. And many people didn’t realize it at the time but 2014 invasion of Ukraine I think really was a nuclear crisis. So as Putin was invading Crimea and the eastern part of Ukraine, he was giving public statements saying things like “Russia is a major nuclear power it’s best not to mess with us.” Russian officials were giving other similar threats to European capitals essentially saying you could become the target of a nuclear strike if you don’t play your cards right. And he didn’t put nuclear weapons on high alert in that crisis but he later said that he thought about it.
And so we’re seeing a replay of that strategy right now and not that I always have so much foresight, but you know back in November I was saying this Ukraine crisis is going to become a nuclear crisis soon, this is what Russia does, and as soon as the invasion began Putin made threats like “if the west gets involved they’ll experience consequences they’ve never experienced in history.” I think it was last week he put nuclear weapons announced that he was putting nuclear weapons on high alert, so this is the first time Russia has done this since the end of the cold war. And so, putting weapons on alert essentially means getting them ready for use, so unclear if he’s actually done this yet or just saying he’s doing it, the pentagon said there’s no major muscle movements. But putting them on alert would mean sending nuclear submarines to sea, moving out mobile nuclear armed missiles from bases, loading up bombers with nuclear bombs, and you know the hope is that that would be enough, that you know the west would see that and say we don’t want a nuclear war with Russia. And I think to some degree this has been successful, you know every time the white house or NATO leaders say we have to be careful, we don’t want escalation with a nuclear Russia that that is the message that Putin wants them to take away.
So would Russia actually use nuclear weapons? And I don’t want to alarm anyone, I don’t think the probability is high, I think it’s very low, but I can imagine scenarios where Russia would use nuclear weapons in Ukraine. So, for example if Ukraine and the West are successful in pushing Russian forces out, Putin thinks that he’s on the verge of losing the war in Ukraine, that this could be a humiliating defeat, he might be ousted in a coup at home, I do think that he would use a nuclear weapon or two or three before he outright loses. And Putin has a large stockpile, 2,000 or so of so-called tactical or non-strategic nuclear weapons. So basically, any weapon you can imagine Russia puts a nuke on it; they have nuclear-armed depth charges, nuclear-armed torpedoes, nuclear-armed mines, nuclear-armed surface-to-air missiles to go after airplanes, nuclear-armed missile defense interceptors to go after incoming missiles, nuclear armed short-range missiles, nuclear gravity bombs, air nuclear air launch missiles, sea launch missiles. So, they have a wide range of options to choose from so they could use a nuclear weapon on say a NATO or Ukrainian ship, Ukrainian forces on the battlefield, a small Ukrainian city and essentially say you know lets you know sue for peace on terms favorable to Russia or else there’s more where this came from.
And unfortunately, the United States doesn’t have a great response to this. If it happened against a NATO ally, if we were at war and say Poland, I think the United States does have some off-the-shelf ideas of how we would deal with that but in Ukraine, we’ve already said military options are off the table and so you know if he used nuclear weapons, I’m not sure how we would respond, probably diplomatic protest, U.N. security council meetings, maybe more sanctions. But you know we’ve already said that we’re not going to get involved militarily and so I think that’s another reason that this could look attractive to Putin that he can use nuclear weapons and there’s not going to be a serious military response.
All right the final point I’ll make broadening out even further, and then look forward to coming to you for Q & A and discussion, is that before all this happened almost every defense expert I knew said Russia’s old news, the middle east is old news, China is the rising power we need to focus everything on China. And they have a point, China is a serious challenge. The military balance in Asia is shifting away from the United States towards China. The head of U.S. Indo-pacific command, former head of person in charge of U.S. forces in Asia predicted that China will try to invade Taiwan within the next six years. And the last national defense strategy commission report mandated by Congress said that the United States could lose that war, so that’s a serious problem.
What we see now though is that we can’t just ignore Europe, we can’t just ignore Russia. I think that was the Biden administration’s hope, that they would put relations with Russia on quote “a stable and predictable footing” as what they said they were hoping for, you know negotiate the new start arms control agreement, park the Russia problem, get back into the Iran Nuclear Deal, park the middle east and focus everything on China. And as we’re seeing now Europe and Asia are more complicated, sorry Europe and the middle east, we can’t just park those problems and focus on Asia. So I think the biggest challenge facing the defense department, really the free world, is how do you deal with Russia and China at the same time. You know two autocratic revisionist, great powers, nuclear armed, China drastically increasing its nuclear arsenal trying to become a nuclear superpower that are working together. And we Xi essentially green light Putin’s invasion just before it happened and that’s a really hard challenge. And the truth is I don’t think the pentagon can deal with both of them right now, and so figuring out a free world defense strategy to deal with Russia and China at the same time alongside our allies I think is going to be critical to maintaining peace and stability going forward. We’ve really been fortunate for the past what 80 years or so you know, zero great power wars, but I do you know unfortunately can imagine plausible scenarios where we’re in war with Russia you know by the end of the month, at war with China by the end of the month, or at war with both of them by the end of the month, and we need to strengthen our defenses and our deterrence to prevent that from happening. So maybe I’ll end my remarks there and open it up to questions and comments.
Mark Tooley: Anyone who has a question would just speak to the microphone and help those who are watching online.
Questioner: I’m pretty sure you’re familiar with Dr. Peter Pry? He’s written a few articles on this recently, would you care to give your assessment of that?
Matthew Kroenig: Yeah well, so Peter Pry is one of the leading experts on emp, electromagnetic pulse and the threat that poses. So I’m not sure if I’ve seen the most recent articles but you know one of the effects of a nuclear weapon is an electromagnetic pulse, so essentially it would send out this pulse, an electromagnetic pulse that would disable electronics. And so one of the threats people have worried about is that maybe a country like North Korea or maybe Russia you know wouldn’t directly conduct a nuclear attack on Kyiv or New York or Washington but what they could do is detonate a nuclear weapon in the atmosphere above the city to where there’s not the blast damage, there’s not the radiation damage, but you get that emp effect essentially turn out the lights you know, fry electrical grids and things like that. So that is a real threat, it’s one of the effects of nuclear weapons.
You can see how it might be attractive to countries, they could create some devastation short of you know a kinetic attack. And there are things the United States could do to harden our grid against this, but so far you know people like Dr. Pry have been making the case, but you know haven’t been, hasn’t been able to build the political will to do it because it’s expensive, but it was the main reason. But I think you know for many people I think they think of nuclear weapons as you know cold war stuff, humanity’s moved on and I don’t think that’s the case at all. I think nuclear weapons remain the ultimate intent of military force, still great powers find them useful as we’re seeing now with Putin’s nuclear threats and so as great power rivalry has returned in recent years I think the salience of nuclear weapons and international politics will resume with it and you know people may start thinking more seriously about how do we protect against emp attacks.
Questioner: China and Russia seem naturally not to have allies and so it seems that they’re going to have a larger challenge, they have each other but they don’t have a larger coalition like the free world does. Does that portend positive things in the long term for the free world or is there some other strength they do have that you think will win out?
Matthew Kroenig: Yeah good question, and Mark mentioned my 2020 book on democracies versus autocracies and so it’s called the return of great power rivalry democracies versus autocracies from the ancient world to the U.S. and China. So it started with the Greeks and the Persians 2,500 years ago all the way up through the cold war, kind of looked at the strengths and weaknesses of democracies, looked at the strengths and weaknesses of autocracies. You know found that democracies tend to do pretty well in these competitions, you know the cold war wasn’t really an exception, it was kind of the rule that the freer society often emerged on top. And so one of the weak, one of the strengths that democracies have is that they tend to be better at building alliances and partnerships, winning over allies, autocracies/dictators tend to not be so good at that. And so I think this is absolutely true in the competition today, you know the United States has 30 formal treaty allies, combined we make up around 60% of global GDP, so people talk aboutAmerican decline which isn’t really true, we’re holding steady at between 20 and 25 percent of global GDP, kind of useful share of, or measure of global power as political scientists often use,you know with our allies though 60 you know we have a really preponderance of power.
Russia and China on the other hand don’t have these kinds of formal allies. And to understand why you know I think we can just look at Russia’s history over the past hundred years. Let’s look at the way Russia treats its allies, so it aligned with you know Germany during World War II they fought a war with each other created the Warsaw Pact. The major military action the Warsaw Pact during saw during the cold war was Russia invading its own members, Czechoslovakia and Hungary. Russia and China had a previous alliance during the cold war, that ended with them fighting a war against each other in 1969, the Russians threatened a nuclear war against China. Then after the end of the cold war the Russians created the commonwealth of independent states, an alliance among the former soviet republics, then invaded two of those countries, Ukraine and Georgia.
So, Russia and China are working more closely together, and I do worry about that. They’re engaging in joint military exercises, joint weapons production, but they still have real differences and I think it’s just as likely that Russia and China fight each other as they you know as they have in the past. So that is our strength and one of their weaknesses. Still, I do think we need to worry about dealing with Russia and China at the same time, you know they could coordinate dual attacks against our alliances. China attacked Taiwan, Russia attack Poland but even if they don’t coordinate one of them could exploit the opportunity created by the other. You know if the conflict in Europe escalates and the pentagon’s tied down in Europe, I think that would be very attractive for Taiwan to think now I have a free hand in Asia or vice-versa. So yeah, I do think coming up with a strategy to deal with both of them at the same time is important, even if there are real tensions within their partnership and I do think there are real tensions
Questioner: A couple of questions, the first one nuclear deterrence. So from your research and experience from the cold war era, when you say we cannot exclude the use of a nuclear bomb, so low yield whatever yeah nuclear bomb, by Putin and Russia, but how does nuclear deterrence still work? And what’s our nuclear strategy with an enemy that is willing to use it? yeah and going to maybe to be retaliated to full extinction, so what is our cold war experience and how can we avoid it? Second question is when you state this geopolitical great power competition, what is our strategy? Our strategy was it was with the Russia and partly within China as well to slowly integrate them into the world of democratic nations, or the civilized nations into the
multilateral agreements, so be it with Russia modernization partnership, or China bringing China to the rules-based international order, world trade organization and so on. So how do we deal with geopolitical rivalry and competition right from the very beginning? Like deterrence, confrontation, containment, are they the only things that works? Or do we still have a more positive strategy which now obviously with regards to Russia, has completely failed to at least in our European German perspective.
First one is the nuclear deterrence, second is geopolitical rivalry and how do you deal with such hostile regimes when we believe we can still influence it and bring it to a more positive way. And the third one, if you analyze there the current situation here with Russia in Ukraine war with Russia, do you see looking back that we the west could have done anything better to avoid this war scenario and the war situation today in Europe?
Matthew Kroenig: Great thank you, great questions. And you know I feel like we’ve lived through 10 years of history in the past two weeks there have just been so many rapid developments and many surprises, and one of the surprises for me was Germany’s announcement to rapidly increase defense spending. I didn’t think I’d ever see this in my lifetime, and you know almost overnight you know this 100 billion dollar increase so that’s I think welcome, it’s part of what’s going to be necessary if the free world’s going to defend against Russia and China at the same time.
So, on your question, does nuclear deterrence still work? You know, so, I think often people learn kind of mutually assured destruction, they have nuclear weapons, we have nuclear weapons we deter each other and so there’s peace and stability. But I actually think that’s where kind of nuclear deterrence theory and strategy begins, not where it ends, because nuclear-armed states still have an incentive to try to use nuclear weapons to coerce their adversaries, but how do they do that when your adversary has nuclear weapons? Can you really threaten to start a suicidal nuclear war? So essentially countries have tried to figure out ways around you know nuclear deterrence, mutually assured destruction, and one of the strategies that countries have come to time and time again is limited nuclear war you know because when we think about mutually destruction we think okay I’m going to hit you with thousands of nuclear weapons you’re going to hit me with thousands of nuclear weapons, we’re both deterred, but what happens if your enemy uses you know one or two or three nuclear weapons you know what do you do? And so, this is essentially Russia’s strategy. So limited nuclear war strategy, that they would use a small number of nuclear weapons. And then how do you respond? You know imagine you’re Joe Biden or you know a western leader, they’ve just used a nuclear weapon against Mariupol you know or against Warsaw you know what do we do?
I was testifying to U.S. Congress on this exact issue and one senator, actually a Democratic senator said you’re telling me Putin thinks he can nuke us, if he nukes us, we’re going to nuke him back so hard you know Russia is going to be a you know a smoking ruin and I said okay but remember he’s only hit Warsaw, whatever so far Paris is still intact, London is you know if we launch a massive nuclear attack, he’ll retaliate. You know, do you really want to destroy the west too? And he’s like oh, that you know, that’s a good point. You know others you know I’ve talked to said well we’re not going to fight a nuclear war with Putin over Estonia or Ukraine, let’s just back down. And I said okay well you know we could do that but then what is the message you send to Putin – you tell him threaten nuclear weapons and do whatever you want, take Paris we’re not you know, if nukes are on the table we’re cowards, we’re not going to do anything.
And so the 2018 U.S. nuclear posture review essentially said that our response to Russia’s strategy in particular is going to be to threaten limited nuclear use of our own. So, Putin you use one or two, we’ll use one or two or four, and you know the hope isn’t that we fight a limited nuclear war but rather Putin says oh shoot I thought if I used a nuclear weapon, I win but now you’re telling me I just get into this messy nuclear war, never mind. So I think that’s why I said if this happened against Estonia or Poland or the United States, I think we have a strategy for it you know we’d say don’t do it or else we’ll retaliate with nukes, if he used one we could use one back but with Ukraine you know it’s not a NATO ally we’ve already said military options are on the table and so we don’t really have a good strategy for deterring nuclear attack there.
On great power competition so you’re right after the end of the cold war you know there was this hope that is the end of history everybody’s every country is becoming democratic, capitalist, peace had broken out and there really was this hope that both Russia and China would become responsible stakeholders, was one of the terms used, you know in a rules-based international system and I think the hope was that they’d become democratic they’d be integrated into the global economy, their foreign policies would be moderated, you know that China would become a kind of big Germany and Asia you know Russia would become a big Germany in Eastern Europe, and that’s not what happened. You know our assumptions were wrong instead of being incorporated into the system, both Russia and China have decided to fight back against it and you know both places are run by dictators and so they see the threat of see the spread of free Markets and political freedom as a threat. They see the spread of U.S. partnerships and alliances into their regions as a threat and so they’re you know pushing back to revise and tear down this system.
So what should be the goal? I think is another way of asking your question what do we want to achieve with Russia and China? And so this became a hobby of mine and after 2018 when the United States said great power competition is the foremost goal of the United States, so I’d ask senior U.S. officials well what is what is the goal of this competition, you know competition in and of itself isn’t a goal you know how do we win? And I got so I think the answer we don’t have a goal yet, and I got many different interesting answers from different people. So you know one senior official, I won’t name by name, said well there is no goal you know there’s always been great power competition there will always be great power competition we just have to compete but I don’t think you know competition forever with Russia and China with the threat of nuclear war hanging over us is really what we want as a long-term goal. You know another one said well we just want to avoid war and I said okay well we avoid war but you know our alliances in Europe and Asia are broken, you know the autocracy spreads across the world as
countries emulate, you know China and Russia, you know the global economy is bifurcated into these different spheres of influence you know is that is that a success? And you know this official said no you’re right I need to think about that more.
So, I don’t think we’re clear about what the goal is. My answer would be I think in the long term, we still want that responsible stakeholder I think it would be great if Russia and China became big Germany’s who were democratic capitalists played by the rules, but I don’t think the way we get there is by cooperation in in the short term I think we need confrontation in the short term. And the only theory I can see as to how we get to a cooperative relationship in the long term is if the next generation of Russian and Chinese leaders or maybe you know two generations from now of Russian and Chinese leaders look back at this moment and they say you know what Putin did what Xi did that that didn’t work, that didn’t work for Berlin that didn’t work for Moscow, we need to try something different you know confronting the west, confronting the United States it’s too difficult it’s too costly for us let’s try a more cooperative approach. So, I don’t I think it’s too late with Putin and Xi and I think they’ve made up their minds that they’re going to challenge but if we can show that this doesn’t work that this is costly for Russia this is costly for China maybe the next generation of leaders in those countries would try a different approach.
Oh, and then there was a third question, let me go to my notes. Oh, could we have done anything better or different with Russia? I think after 2008 and after 2014 we were too cautious you know
if we had admitted Ukraine into NATO earlier, I don’t think this would have happened. I think Russia knows that that’s a bright red line, that if you attack a NATO member you get into a war with NATO the United States, that’s too costly. And I think you know by leaving these countries on the periphery between NATO and Russia we’ve left them vulnerable. And I’m not the only person drawing that conclusion, you know Finland and Sweden are in a similar spot and they’ve remained you know neutral, not part of NATO for many decades and just in the past few weeks you know opinions really shifted, a majority of Finns support joining NATO now. So, there are probably other mistakes, but I think that’s maybe one that rather we should have been more ambitious not less ambitious with NATO expansion.
Questioner: Two questions, the first, many people have observed, and you sort of touched on it that maybe the only thing worse than a Putin victory is a Putin humiliating defeat. And in light of that people have talked about off-ramps right, don’t surround your enemy, give him a way out. What is the golden bridge that Putin would accept, and that the Ukraine and the west would find also acceptable? That’s the first. And the second is if there’s a lesson to be drawn from all this one of them might be bombs are good, right and so what does this do? Is there a proliferation worry, especially in light of a possible American you know retreat from hegemony or international leadership, what does this do for proliferation? Is that a concern?
Matthew Kroenig: Yeah, good questions Mark, and thanks for the work that you do. So, what does an off-ramp look like? First, I think Putin needs to want an off-ramp and I’m not sure if he does yet, I think he wants to continue to push the military campaign and see if he can just take this through brute force rather than some kind of off-ramp. And you know we are still in relatively early days, we’re two weeks into this, you know if we look back to the U.S. military campaign in Iraq, that was two or three weeks and that was quick, so we’re still in early days.
But unfortunately, I do think one way this could end, maybe the most probable way this ends now is some kind of partition of Ukraine that Russia succeeds in occupying parts of, you know large parts probably of eastern Ukraine, and then there’s some kind of peace negotiation at that point that divides the country. That that’s one of the reasons I think a humanitarian intervention in the western part of the country could make sense, if there are U.S. or NATO forces on the ground there makes it more likely that Putin doesn’t take the entire country. So that’s not what I would want, I would want to completely defend Ukrainian sovereignty and territorial integrity, push Russian forces all the way out but yeah right now I think that scenario seems less likely to me than some kind of you know partition of the country.
Are nuclear weapons you know desirable and it’s not the question you asked but I’ll answer it anyway because it’s come up a lot. You know people often say well Ukraine had nuclear weapons at the end of the cold war, maybe they should have just kept them. That’s kind of misleading though because you know it was Soviet, what became Russian military you know on Ukraine and as the Soviet Union broke apart, they suddenly had these nuclear weapons sitting there, but the Ukrainian government didn’t have operational control over them, you know not clear if they could have gotten operational control, they probably would have had to physically attack the Russian forces and take them. And you know the future they would have been looking, remember into the cold war you know the United States is the unipolar power, you know I think the United States would have treated a nuclear-armed Ukraine for the past 25 years like in North Korea or Iran you know probably sanctions, threats of military strikes, and so I think they made the right decision at the time to give up the nuclear weapons, return them to Russia in exchange for being welcomed by the west, you know economic aid from the United States, good diplomatic relations. But what lesson do other countries take from this?
You know I do think American power and American nuclear weapons are one of the most important driving forces of non-proliferation around the world, you know 30, maybe more than 30 countries rely on nuclear weapons for their security, so the 30 other members of NATO: Japan, South Korea, Australia arguably others and we essentially make a deal with them we say don’t build your own nuclear weapons, you can rely on U.S. nuclear weapons for your security. So, I think as long as that holds and people think that’s serious, I think it’s unlikely that U.S.
allies would build their own nuclear weapons. But if that started to call into question then I do think that the allies in vulnerable security environments will rethink it, in Japan, South Korea, Poland. In fact, prime minister, former prime minister Abe just in recent days has said something about how Japan should build nuclear weapons, or the U.S. should bring nuclear weapons to Japan, so I think that you know Ukraine has been a wake-up call for many of these small vulnerable countries and it’s getting them thinking. So, I think this is an important reason why the United States should maintain a credible deterrent and should strengthen our alliances and partnerships in order to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons because if we get this wrong, I think you’re right that countries might relook their options.
Mark Tooley: Matt it sounds like you think it was wrong not to have accepted Ukraine into NATO Membership, is that correct? And by implication, you would support accepting Ukraine if it survives, into NATO membership in the future?
Matthew Kroenig: Yeah, it’s a good question, I mean at the time I think you know the decision was reasonable. There was a concern by some that allowing them in would be provocative to Russia. I think there were you know, there are kind of political requirements for membership in NATO and there were concerns about corruption and reforms that needed to take place in Ukraine, so I think it was understandable at the time. But you know looking back in hindsight, I think that if we had allowed Ukraine into NATO, it’s pretty unlikely that Russia that we’d have this war today, so in that sense I think it was a mistake. If Ukraine gets out of this, I think that the case for NATO membership would be pretty strong and I think that’s one of the things that maybe we should have threatened before the invasion as a deterrent, that if you know that Ukrainian and Georgian membership is currently on hold. We promised at the 2008 NATO Bucharest Summit that one day they’d become members they just needed to make reforms first, but you know if we’d threatened if you invade then we’ll make them, you know they’ll defeat you and then we’ll make them NATO members that might have been an additional deterrent for Putin.
So, I do worry about you know the other countries in this kind of gray zone between Russia and NATO. You know Georgia is in a vulnerable position, Russia’s already invaded once, you know are they next? What about Moldova, you know between Romania and Russia? What about Finland and Sweden? I think that’s less likely, but you know I think Putin’s understood now that at least this white house isn’t going to get into a war if it’s not a formal treaty ally and so I think Putin you know I think he’s tied down his military forces are tied down in Ukraine so a lot depends on how this turns out but if he succeeds in taking all of Ukraine then I’m guessing that’s not going to be sufficient for him he’ll be thinking about what’s next.
Mark Tooley: So, are there those who would claim that if the west had firmly ruled out NATO membership for Ukraine, that would have prevented this war, if the west had done so would Putin still have invaded Ukraine?
Matthew Kroenig: I think so, I think you know there was these negotiations beforehand, and Putin was saying here are my demands you know promise that most prominently promised that Ukraine will never become part of NATO. I don’t think that was a sincere negotiating point I think that was a pretext for war. I think he knew there was no way that the United States and NATO would accept that and that would give him the excuse he needed to invade. I think he would have been happy to pocket that concession if we had given it to him, but I think he still would have invaded either, well I think he would have invaded. You know in in hindsight, well I remember, let’s see I was meeting with some Eastern European officials visiting in September visiting Washington they said you know usually when we meet with administration officials you know we’re worried about security in Eastern Europe and they say no you know we’ve got it under control nothing to worry about, you know this time you know they seemed really worried about a possible war in Ukraine and we said no that you know doesn’t seem to make sense and they said no we’re worried you know, and we saw the massive buildup over the fall I mean so in hindsight I think he made this decision some time ago and this late stage negotiation was just a pretext. I think if we’d said Ukraine’s not going to, you know and we did try in good faith to try other things what about limits on military forces, that was one of the things he’d mentioned, what about new arms control arrangements? It’s one of the things he’d mentioned they never seriously negotiated on those so I suspect if we’d said okay Ukraine will never join NATO or won’t join for 25 years I think he would have had some other you know excuse Nazis or whatever and would have invaded anyway.
Questioner: So, we’ve talked about high-end combat and nuclear weapons. There’s also a discussion of insurgency and a grinding insurgency in the Ukraine. Dr. Ben Carnival real clear defense has published some work saying just today 186,000 troops will be required for Russia to occupy Ukraine completely, that will require him to do a port and starboard rotation of forces in and out, that’s not something that is sustainable from a Russian perspective. And then you add to that an effective western supported insurgency. What are your thoughts about that as an option for bleeding Russia white?
Matthew Kroenig: Yes, well so I’ve kind of touched on all these in a way but maybe I’ll just you know systematically lay it out. So, the Atlantic Council think tank where I work published a piece about a week ago on scenarios for how the war in Ukraine might end, and it became the most read piece in the history of the Atlantic Council, 180,000 readers in a couple of days, because a lot of interest in in this subject. And they laid out five scenarios, you know one is Russia quickly wins maybe that’s still possible, although looking less likely. You know one is the miracle on the nipper, that the Ukrainians in the west push Russian forces out, you know I think that’s looking unlikely. You know third is direct Russia – NATO war, and there are a number of ways this could escalate. Fourth is some kind of partitioned settlement as we discussed. And then fifth is this one, that this becomes a long-running insurgency another Afghanistan for Russia and that does seem plausible to me. I mean you know even if Russia succeeds in taking Kyiv, putting in some kind of puppet leader, you know do the Ukrainian people just accept that? I mean I think what we’ve seen over the past few weeks is that they probably wouldn’t or at least a significant you know portion of the population would not, and so I think that could become a years or maybe even decades-long insurgency, so I think that is one of the possible outcomes of this conflict.
So, I’ll talk aboutthe book that I’m working on now, and it’s called Force For Good: How American Power Makes the World Safer, Richer, and Freer. And it’s a combination of kind of Robert Kagan if you know his work and Stephen Pinker. You know because Pinker is this radical optimist who he says look at all the data the world is getting so much better, and I think he’s right you know current headlines aside, you know the world over the past 80 years has been much safer than any time in human history no great power wars, used to be that one to two percent of the human population from the beginning of recorded human history until 1945 could expect to die in armed conflict and now that number is less than a tenth of one percent. If you look at prosperity, the world’s richer than it’s ever been, you know poverty rates in 1945 were 66 percent of the world’s population, now it’s 10 percent, you know still too high but much better. And if you look at freedom, we often forget that you know Europe and Asia was mostly autocratic up until 1945 and then now you know all of Europe is, almost all of Europe is democratic you know major powers in Asia are democratic. And so you know the world is better according to these objective measures and why is that the case?
So Pinker if you know his work has these seven complicated factors but what I argue I think it’s really American leadership in the world that the United States has made over the past 80 years. Promoting security through our alliances and extended nuclear deterrence in Europe and Asia, promoting free markets and globalization to make the world a more prosperous place, and promoting good governance, democracy, freedom, human rights, you know not perfectly and not always evenly. But you know I think it’s no coincidence that the safest, richest, freest parts of the world are those that have been most under American influence over the past 80 years Europe and East Asia. And so, I think that’s optimistic if you look at the big sweep of things the world it has been getting better and I think it has been because of a powerful and engaged United States, and despite the talk of American decline, I think the United States still is the foremost power on earth. And so if we continue to have the will to lead in the world, I think we can continue to make the world a better place.