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“I don’t see Putin using nuclear weapons” – military strategist Lawrence Freedman

Russia nuclear strike
Russia test launches a ground-based intercontinental ballistic missile as part of exercises involving the country’s strategic nuclear forces. (file photo)
“I don’t see Putin using nuclear weapons” – military strategist Lawrence Freedman
Article by: Interview by Alya Shandra

British military strategist Sir Lawrence Freedman has been described as the “dean of British strategic studies.” In an interview with Euromaidan Press, the Emeritus Professor of War Studies at King’s College London and expert on nuclear strategy in the Cold War era tells how Ukraine could win, what has been a game changer in the Russo-Ukrainian war so far, whether the West gives Ukraine just enough not to lose, and how likely Putin is to push the nuclear button.

What do you think about Ukraine’s offensive in Kharkiv? Before it, many, including yourself, were skeptical that Ukraine will be able to retake large territory. 

The Kharkiv offensive has caught many people — including myself — by surprise. This is not because I did not expect Ukraine to take advantage of the fact that the Russians had left some areas vulnerable by reinforcing Kherson. I saw that possibility. But I was also skeptical that Ukraine could take territory the way that the Russians did — by large armored maneuvers with infantry and firepower battles because it’s just very difficult to do.

Credit: Twitter/War_Mapper

The Kherson offensive, therefore, fitted my expectations. The offensive here was about finding ways to attack Russian capabilities and make it harder and harder for the Russians to maintain their position. I thought Ukraine would retake some territory, but I was not expecting a big sweep across the south, and I’m still not sure if that will happen. The objective is to make the position of individual Russian units — and the Russian armed forces as a whole — untenable. The aim is to persuade the Russians to doubt their ability to stay in this territory.

Kharkiv is different. By exploiting surprise in an area where Russian defenses were weak and unprepared, Ukraine has managed a fast, impressive, and quite classical offensive that has seen rapid movement, avoiding getting bogged down in unnecessary fighting.

With the Crimea strikes, Ukraine has also moved the conflict to a new stage because for the Russians these strikes in what they considered to be their territory pose a long-term security problem that they don’t know how to deal with.

Ukraine’s counteroffensive near Kharkiv: what enabled the Balakliia blitzkrieg

So you still believe, as you wrote in August, that Ukraine has a chance to win a war of attrition by making it unbearable for Russia to stay.

The Russians have got one instrument, which is artillery barrages. That’s all they do whenever they’ve got a problem — they send artillery barrages in one direction or another to either pin Ukrainian forces down or push them back. This is taking a toll on Ukrainian forces; therefore, it’s not in Ukrainian interests to fight in the same sort of way because they don’t have the same quantity of artillery pieces. What they have are smaller numbers of much more accurate and effective pieces.

So, all Russia can do is hit and hurt, but it can’t render military operations impossible like the Ukrainians are doing by attacking logistics and command posts. These attacks are very serious. Russian commanders must have been worried about where they were heading, and now they must cope with Ukrainian offensives without adequate logistics, command structures, and air defenses.

But do you think it’s really possible for Ukraine to win with this strategy without really embarking on a large-scale offensive?

With attritional strategies, you’re not just taking what’s yours. At some point, you’re trying to influence the decision-making in the enemy capital.
The problem with attritional strategies is you’re not just taking what’s yours. At some point, you’re trying to influence the decision-making in the enemy capital.

You don’t have the certainty that comes with a successful ground offensive when you can say this territory was theirs and it now is ours, and in the next couple of weeks this territory will also probably become ours. But this method of attacking logistics brings home to Moscow the problems they have in staying there and threatens the Russian military as an institution.

When you consider how much Russia has already lost, even with the lower estimates of personnel and equipment losses — this is going to take years to rebuild.

And the Russian Army’s main job is to defend Russia and its great power aspirations and interests. Russia has large borders to defend. Over time, I believe, this will eat away at Russian confidence and may lead them to the way out. Attrition isn’t easy to conclude as a straightforward offensive operation, but it doesn’t mean to say you can’t win that way, it’s just less under your control.

Russia suffers over 1000 visually confirmed tank losses in Ukraine

But how long would it take for Ukraine to win, basically? Right now, we’re quite in a precarious situation: the economy is teetering on default, we have a massive exodus of Ukrainian refugees, we don’t know if they will be coming back. It’s taking a huge toll. How long can we actually survive pursuing this strategy?

I think there are a couple of things at work here. Obviously, this is all awful and part of Russian strategy from quite early on — to dismantle Ukraine’s economy — and to a degree, they’ve succeeded. Ukraine is on western financial support and it’s not going to be viable without it for some time. So, if western support erodes, there’s trouble.

Secondly, they’re putting pressure that can be felt throughout Europe on energy, gas supplies, and that’s creating a cost-of-living crisis. What we don’t see yet is blame on Ukraine for that situation or any mechanism whereby the West would abandon Ukraine. I can imagine situations if we have a very bad winter, where Russia’s proposals about some peace deal would be to Ukraine’s disadvantage. But I don’t see it at the moment.

The idea that this can go on for years is untenable, as neither Ukraine nor Russia can go on like this for years. So, I think it will come to an end at some point relatively soon, but there are going to be some tough times. And the key thing for Ukraine, which is again why the strikes on Crimea are important, is to demonstrate to its western backers that it does know how to use what is being given and that it’s being effective.

A lot of people did think in the first half of June that Ukraine was losing militarily (I personally never believed in this). If that became a widespread view it would be much harder for Ukraine to secure the support it needs. But as long as things seem to be shifting to Ukraine’s favor at the moment when it’s taking the initiative and not Russia, this can go on. But of course, this is not easy, it’s a very painful period and the recovery period will also be painful.

One thing is clear- Ukraine still needs more weapons than it has now. Our president is repeating calls to Ukraine’s partners to provide weapons before winter comes because otherwise, it will be much harder for Ukraine to stage a big counter-offensive later. And we have an opinion here in Ukraine that the number of weapons that Ukraine needs is pretty large — 1400 tanks, 50-60 MLRS, according to one estimate. Now, we’re very grateful for the weapons that we’re getting, but why do you think that the weapons deliveries are a lot smaller than what is required to stage a large-scale offensive?

First, there were delays in getting the process going. I think it took a while for some of the bigger donors in the US to realize what needed to be done in the long term. There were initially concerns that what would be sent to Ukraine would eventually fall into Russian hands. Then there were concerns about Ukrainian offensive operations. At the end of March-early April, Ukraine appeared to be doing rather well, and somehow there existed people who were worried that we would put Russia on the spot. But again, there was also the question of how well could Ukraine absorb the weapons. As we’re seeing with HIMARS and other systems, it’s using them rather effectively.

I think in practice Ukraine is going to continue to feel disappointed, it’s not going to ever feel that it’s got quite enough, and that’s another reason why I would not be putting the same emphasis on a classic offensive and would be continuing the pounding away of logistics and command and so on, which is less costly in terms of people and wears away Russian morale and confidence. If you keep on arguing “unless you give us more weapons we’ll lose,” this could become self-fulfilling.

So, I think you have to work with the capabilities you’ve got and would be getting. Even if you’re getting lots, it will still never seem enough just because war is very greedy on materiel. But you can do well working with what you’re getting. However, to my mind, I would like to see more aircraft getting to Ukraine. Unfortunately, there is a nervousness about bombing Moscow or something. Even though, I really do think Ukraine has done a great job of limiting the impact of Russian airpower.

Regarding the quantity that we’re getting, there’s a popular opinion in Ukraine that we’re getting just enough not to lose, and that’s a deliberate strategy on the part of the West. What do you think about that?

I don’t think that’s true. The West really wants Ukraine to win. The war doesn’t do the West any good at all — it’s harmful economically, and it creates tensions.

I think there was this question of defensive vs offensive weapons which hasn’t quite gone away. as we see in some French and German comments.

But if you talk as I did to western militaries, they are actually quite concerned about capacities. We don’t have defense industries churning this stuff out at the moment. We need to reengage with producers because the relevant production lines have closed down. The UK military will need a long time to replenish the stocks that have been handed over and that’s true for others, too. So there just isn’t that much spare capacity around. Even the Americans are concerned about making sure there’s enough ammunition for HIMARS.

I think it’s wrong to look for ulterior motives. The Western interest it seems is very clear that Ukraine should win and Russia should lose. I haven’t seen any other outcome wishes. But there are constraints all around. If I was a Ukrainian, I would be very frustrated that the West provides the weapons but doesn’t do the fighting. But I think it would be a shame to get into a situation to assume there are some unpleasant motives that are holding us back.

What would that Ukrainian victory look like? Often there is a question of whether Russia can be defeated if it’s so huge. We regularly hear that Ukraine should just stop fighting because it’s a hopeless case. What do you think?

It should probably not be defeated in the sense that you should march to Moscow but so it has to make a decision to withdraw from Ukraine.

An August poll by IRI found that a minuscule number of Ukrainians found territorial concessions to Russia appropriate: 6% approved of recognizing the “LNR” and “DNR” as independent states and 5% approved of surrendering occupied Crimea.
A peace agreement that handed over even the “LNR” and “DNR” [Russia’s proxy Luhansk and Donetsk “People’s Republics” – Ed.]  to Russia will probably be unacceptable to Ukraine now, after what Russia has done in Ukraine. Crimea is in play; it wasn’t before.

So, while the Russians have also from that perspective invested people and materiel, it will be a blow to Putin, but in the end, the Ukrainians don’t seem to have much choice. The partisans blowing things up in the occupied territory — this is just not going to stop, the Russians need to factor that into their thinking.

Growing partisan movement of Kherson Oblast now bombs collaborators

Early on, my view was that there could be direct negotiations as they were in the first weeks and lasted into mid-March; you could have imagined some sort of deal: that there would be a new security order in Europe, Ukraine would be neutral but would have guarantees of some sort, some sort of international referendums on Donetsk and Luhansk, maybe even Crimea. Not anymore.

So, I think this starts with a Russian decision that over the long term their position is untenable. I think in the end, Crimea is probably the key, which is why the attacks on Crimea are probably as politically important as anything else that is going on. Crimea is a huge deal for Putin and those around him.

We also have an opinion here that the war would end the moment NATO enters it, because the forces are so uneven in NATO’s favor, and Russia knows it. What do you think about that?

I don’t think NATO as an alliance will. Looking back, it was a shame that the NATO issue came up in this way.

For comparison, when Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990, the situation was similar in many ways: it sought to annex Kuwait. Kuwait declared self-defense under article 51 of the UN Charter, the right to self-defense. And those nations that intervened to support Kuwait — US, UK, France, and others — didn’t do so as members of an alliance, but as members of the UN respecting the right of a country to self-defense.

It would actually have been easier if we as members of the UN had supported Ukraine rather than members of the Alliance early on, but we didn’t. But that could happen in the future, I wouldn’t preclude that.

It’s got this overlay of World War III around it, because once it’s NATO against Russia, then you’re into this thing that you’ve been trying to avoid for the last 80 years.

I don’t think NATO as an Alliance will get involved in the fight, though I don’t preclude individual countries doing more at some point. I think we can also imagine Poland getting involved, for example. But the moment NATO gets in, the political tensions that will be generated will probably outweigh the military gains, with the exception of air power. The real difference would be air power; that’s why Zelenskyy asked for a no-fly zone so early on.

In a way that’s a shame, these are things that should have been announced before the war, and they would have had a deterrent effect. Now it’s much harder with the implications that this gets us into nuclear exchanges; I don’t think that’s particularly likely, but that’s the mindset that reigns. The Russians have gone on about the NATO thing so much before the war; the nature of NATO’s engagement inevitably is seen as risking escalation.

The West is running out of weapons it can supply Ukraine. NATO or a coalition of the willing needs to intervene

Well, would anything on the battleground chance this disposition? Would countries feel compelled to interfere if there was, for instance, a tactical nuclear strike?

I think using tactical nuclear weapons is pointless from the Russian point of view; however, they made a number of stupid decisions and they can make more. This indeed would be the sort of situation where we can see attitudes changing, and NATO would be compelled to intervene to get this thing over and done with quickly before matters got worse.

How reasonable do you think this strategy of avoiding escalation and direct engagement with Russia is? It has been framing this entire conflict. A recent article in Washington Post described Biden’s four priorities when he learned that Russia would invade Ukraine. The first three were to prevent entering the conflict with Russia and only #4 was to arm Ukraine. How reasonable is it for NATO countries to fear this so much? Do you think that Putin would really use nuclear weapons and start a nuclear war?

I don’t, but a lot of people do.

If Russia uses nuclear weapons, it risks nuclear war in both directions. However, it hasn’t even declared this a full war yet, it calls it a special military operation. One of the reasons I am skeptical Putin could push the nuclear button is that he had calculated and been quite successful in using military force up till now. He had calculated the risk with Georgia, Syria, and Crimea. I don’t think Putin is impulsive; I think he just got the calculations wrong this time. He thought it was a limited military operation and it turned out it was not, and it dragged his country into a horrible war.

I don’t think the Russians take seriously this absurd rhetoric that we see on Russian television about going on Warsaw, going on London — this is fantastical talk. But I think he’s well aware of what he’s unleashing if we move to a nuclear war.

We spent a period since 1945 worrying about World War III, and it’s not surprising that people don’t want to take the risk. You’ve got to have strong nerves to say “we could escalate to this point, and then we stop.” Where does the red line run? That’s why Crimea is interesting because lots of people say that attacking Crimea would trigger Russian nuclear use. Now it’s being attacked, in a way that actually makes it very hard for Russia to work out how it’s being attacked, whether it’s some internal sabotage or some clever tricks the Ukrainians are using. And it doesn’t lead to escalation. So, what seems high risk when they start seems modest risk later on.

So, being realistic, you shouldn’t be surprised that leaders of western countries don’t want to take the risk that seems to involve a nuclear war. They’ve already gone further than many thought it would be wise already in supporting Ukraine.

You have researched the nuclear strategy of the Cold War Era extensively. What lessons are applicable today to the situation with the nuclear threat?

It’s really interesting how different this seems from many of the crises that were envisaged. I think the nature of the Russian regime is such a big part of the problem; the Soviet regime in Moscow was still a collective leadership: there was a strong General Staff influencing decision-making. And you could see delusions at play, but by and large, it was a pretty cautious leadership and when it took military action, it was often doing so for defensive purposes, because its position was weakening. This was true in Berlin in 1961, Czechoslovakia in 1968, Afghanistan in 1980, and so on.

Now we have a personalized dictatorship, where everything is under Putin’s control. We have no idea about the quality of information getting to him, whether anybody is challenging him, or warning him about where things are going. And we’ve got virtually no dialog now between Russia and the rest of the world, Russia and the West, and no obvious intermediaries.

Russia’s objectives are a conquest. This is not a dispute over contested territory, this is conquest. It’s a much harder scenario than most of those that looked bad enough during the Cold War, and certainly after the end of the Cold War. The lessons of the nuclear age were about dialog and communication, and accepting even while you have differences, and differences with an antagonist, you also have some shared interests like avoiding nuclear war.

I think that shared interest is still there but we don’t have the communication. And it would be quite difficult for a western leader to have direct talks with Putin to not be seen as leading to a deal over Zelenskyy’s head. And Zelenskyy said he is ready to talk to Putin but I can’t imagine anything that Putin would like less than to treat Zelenskyy as an equal.

This is why it’s difficult. Nothing has changed: the basic reluctance to take risks to go into a nuclear war is still there. But as a conflict itself, it’s much harsher.

In the language of game theory, it’s much more zero-sum. It’s hard to see where the shared interest upon which you could find a settlement exists. If you look back at the crises of the Cold War, the world stopped the Berlin crisis from getting out of hand. Kennedy promised not to invade Cuba to get the missiles out. It’s not obvious what the deals could be from the western side and Ukraine’s interest is to get Russians out of their territory. So, it’s a much harder conflict to resolve than the Cold War conflict.

US chief of intelligence Avril Haines is convinced that Putin will use nuclear weapons if he feels threatened, while you say this is unlikely. Why the difference in the assessment?

Well, it’s silly to say “under no circumstances will nuclear weapons be used,” because I don’t know, and I doubt if Putin knows, I doubt if Biden knows because you find yourself in situations different from what you anticipated and you’ve got certain choices. Nuclear weapons could be used after an afternoon’s decision. I can’t see the circumstances; but I think if it was the case that Russia as a state was directly under threat, say if Ukraine was really going to march on Moscow, then you would say that’s a situation that would bring nuclear weapons in. This is why Crimea appeared to many as a potential red line. But the way that Crimea is being struck at the moment complicates any sort of threats of that sort for Russia.

My view is that this is such a momentous step for somebody that they need a pretty good reason for doing so. You don’t just do it because you’re cross, because you’re having a tantrum of some sort. You do it because you think the whole security of your country, or everything you believe in, depends on taking this risk and I don’t see it.

As I said before, as Putin has not made great decisions so far, you can’t preclude him from making a really stupid one. But I don’t see it. I think they’ve got that red line, and that red line is that NATO doesn’t get involved. And as long as we are respecting that, I don’t think they will use nuclear weapons. But if they did, then they know that the consequence will be that NATO does get directly involved. So that’s why I don’t think they will.

I still can’t see the logic behind somebody who’s claiming that this is a special military operation, not a war, and won’t mobilize his whole society, and does not have his own country under direct threat would suddenly use nuclear weapons. Defeat in Ukraine is not a threat to Russia, they will just withdraw their troops.

We can see that this threat is convincing many people, not only the director of US intelligence. In your recent essay, you wrote about how nuclear deterrence helped preserve peace between major powers and that the presence of nuclear weapons actually discouraged countries from entering conflicts, because of the potentially devastating consequences. Can we say now that this nuclear deterrence is working only one way, with the West being deterred from getting engaged?

No, I think that under the present circumstances if I was Russia, I’d be looking for ways to interdict supplies of weapons coming in from Poland and Romania to Ukraine. I’d be threatening direct attacks on these countries. But I am not, because these countries are part of a nuclear alliance. I think nuclear deterrence works both ways, and it has contained this conflict. Nuclear deterrence has worked for Putin in the way that he felt emboldened enough to attack Ukraine. The fact that Poland and other countries have not been attacked in the process means that it works for NATO. But, unfortunately, nuclear deterrence doesn’t work for Ukraine.

What would you say to people arguing to not get engaged in Ukraine because of the threat of a nuclear conflict with Russia?

It’s too late for that. We’ve made active movements to support Ukraine and I think we’ll stick to that. It would be an enormous blow to the West, far greater than what happened in Afghanistan if we betray Ukraine now. I think that’s the general view.

And as I’ve mentioned before, there are a lot of constraints on our ability to support Ukraine but within those constraints, we’ll carry on supporting Ukraine. There are lots of things being done for Ukraine without which Ukraine would have been defeated or at least would be under occupation by now.

I wrote on day one that Russia couldn’t win because it could never occupy or subdue Ukraine, but it could have a presence throughout Ukraine. Russia will lose, it can’t win, but it’s not easy, for those of us who have been supporting Ukraine from the start, we feel frustrated we can’t do more. And it’s easy for us in London or Washington or wherever to urge you on, but you’re the ones who feel the pain and make the sacrifices. Realistically this is where we are. Ukraine, with Western support, will prevail in the end.

NATO has declared Russia its most significant threat. But does it really have a plan to act on that threat? Is it possible that the Iron Curtain strategy of the USSR can be resurrected again?

I don’t think NATO or the EU or any other organization knows what to do with Russia. It’s a problem because it’s got a leadership that has isolated itself, because it’s suffering from delusions about its own position in the world, and at some point, there’s going to be a reckoning. I don’t know when, or how it will take place, or what will take Putin’s place, but it will happen at some point. So, all NATO can do at the moment is build up its defense again and support Ukraine and if there are chances to help Russia turn itself around then maybe at some point we’ll look to that.

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