Does Putin Want an Off-Ramp? An Interview with William Wolhforth

 

Simone Gao:
Thank you, Professor Wohlforth, for joining Zooming In again.

William Wohlforth:
Happy to be here.

Simone Gao:
Um, you know, the Russians gave an ultimatum to the last remaining Ukrainian troops in Mariupol on Sunday, and they basically said either lay down your weapons and leave or die. Uh, obviously no Ukrainian soldiers have left. Ukraine’s president Zelensky said that the already difficult negotiation would end if Russian soldiers killed the remaining Ukrainian troops in Mariupol. Uh, he also said atrocities witnessed after Russian retreat from Kyiv soured the negotiations. Putin admitted that the negotiation had reached a dead end. So, what do you think will happen next?

William Wohlforth:
Everything depends on the battle over the Donbas, which is now getting underway by all accounts. The initial blows, the initial artillery barrages and attacks, are beginning to prepare for what may well be the decisive battle of this war, at least that’s what most observers think. Negotiations will not be possible, as each side thinks that it is likely to do better in this particular battle than the other side expects it to do. And so with both of them essentially unable to agree to terms until they test their strength in this sad and tragically bloody battle to come, I don’t expect much to occur on these negotiations.

Simone Gao:
Hmm. So everybody, everybody is watching the battle in Donbas. If Russia does take Donbas, would you think it will make the war more difficult or easier to end?

William Wohlforth:
It is, um…I don’t know exactly what will happen. War, as everybody who studies it will tell you, is the province of the deepest kinds of uncertainty. So, it’s not at all clear to me that Russia will succeed in taking the Donbas; however, should it succeed in essentially reliably conquering those provinces and keeping Ukraine from any significant counterattack, we could then see a situation of a kind of a stalemate where the war simmers on and no one is willing to reach an agreement, or there could be some temporary ceasefire. But it’s still hard for me to see any Ukrainian government formally acceding to the succession of those two republics and their acquisition by Russia, and have that Ukrainian government stay in power. So, I would expect–again, forecasting is difficult–that if the scenario you set forth actually occurs, we’re likely to see a kind of a stalemate and a percolating, ongoing conflict. One final point, though, is we are so uncertain about this war that we don’t even know if Putin is necessarily going to be satisfied with the acquisition of Donbas, if that’s indeed what he does. In other words, for all we know, if he succeeds in conquering this part of Ukraine, he will simply bide his time and build up his forces and attempt yet further attacks. We just do not know at this stage.

Simone Gao:
What about if Putin cannot succeed in the Donbas area? Would he just give up?

William Wohlforth:
It’s just very hard for me to see, right now, the avenue by which he would simply give up and say, “sorry we ever invaded Ukraine. I really deeply apologize for this. We’re all going to go home.” Nobody who studies Russian foreign and security policy thinks that scenario is likely. So, somehow, for the Russians to be willing to stop this, most people think there’s got to be some measurable gain. Now we don’t know exactly what that sort of line or that threshold is, what is necessary to get Russia to sort of declare victory and go home. But most people think that a minimum is some kind of arrangement under which Putin can claim to have saved or rescued or protected the residents of the Donbas, which he claims were under threat from Ukrainian authorities.

Simone Gao:
Hmm. In a situation like this, I mean, I just saw in a CNN interview with Zelensky, he was commenting on a video clip in which a Ukrainian mom discovered her son’s dead body in a well. Zelensky said as a father, he couldn’t watch it because it made him want to fight and kill. But as president of a country, he needs to do his best to stop the war. So, I mean, obviously this is a very, very difficult situation for him. If you were the advisor to president Zelensky, how would you advise him? What is the, what is the truly good thing to do right now?

William Wohlforth:
You know, I think that statement that he made is one of many that he has made to continue to project the image of a person who is willing to talk and not come across as a person who literally is sort of blood thirsty to fight to the death. He has already given way on the question of Ukraine’s international status. Namely, we have heard Zelensky suggest the possibility of a neutral Ukraine. Now that was coupled with a request for security guarantees that would look very much like NATO membership, but still it was a start. And so, I think that that is exactly how I would advise them. In other words, if I were so presumptuous as to do so, that to maintain that implacable commitment to the fundamental sovereignty of Ukraine while at the same time suggesting we’re willing to talk about Russian security concerns that are legitimate, that don’t involve the destruction of Ukraine or the subjugation of Ukraine. That’s exactly the face that he needs to show both to Moscow and to the rest of the world.

Simone Gao:
Hmm. And at this point, what do you think is the moral and truly prudent action the West should take?

William Wohlforth:
You know, I think that the West is, should the United States and its allies need to be, I think what they’re doing is completely understandable. That Russia’s clearly in the wrong here, let’s be honest. Even if you agree that it had some legitimate security concerns in the past, none of those justifies what it is doing to Ukraine, to Ukrainians, to Ukrainian people. And so, under those circumstances, it seems to me absolutely right and proper that the West should aid the government of Ukraine in defending its sovereignty up to the limit that we judge will not cross some threshold that would elicit a major Russian escalation. But we should also, I think, suggest that the punishment that we are imposing upon Russia with these sanctions is contingent. Namely, that we would remove these sanctions if Russia were to agree to a deal that could be accepted by the Ukrainian government. So, I think we need to both raise costs on Russia but also suggest a future in which Russia could live as a normal member of the international community if it only would revisit this decision to invade Ukraine and accept some sort of reasonable settlement.

Simone Gao:
Hmm. Talking about those possible settlements, a few weeks ago–from the terms the Kremlin had given–it seemed like Putin had shrunk his goals in Ukraine, at least he was not seeking regime change anymore. Now it seems, I mean, as you said, the biggest obstacles are the ownership of, you know, of course, Crimea and the status of the Donbas area. So, I mean, do you think these two sides could still reach some kind of agreement on those two issues? Or do you think it could only be decided by the outcome from the battlefield?

William Wohlforth:
Unfortunately, I think–as I said before and I’m sad to say it–but I just don’t see…the two sides are just way too far apart for any kind of agreement to emerge. And it’s possible that the distance between the two sides will be reduced depending on the outcome of this battle. If one side performs dramatically better than expected–let’s say, for example, as I hope is the case, Ukraine just really performs very, very well, as it has done so far, better than expectations and Russia literally is not in a position to continue the campaign–it could be that the trend that you’ve mentioned of Putin reducing his war aims could continue and we could imagine the two sides coming together on an agreement. But right now, before the outcome of this battle is known, it’s hard for me to see that happening.

William Wohlforth:
And finally, I have to say that I’m, I just remain a little bit uncertain about where Putin stands here. Some of his spokespeople and even he has used language that it seems to be refocusing Russian objectives on this Donbas question. As if, as you say, that the war aims have been reduced. But some of the rhetoric emanating from Moscow commentators and even some officials really sounds blood curdling as opposed to what they mean by de-Nazifying and demilitarizing Ukraine. So, are we really certain that the whole object can be, in fact, reduced to Donbas or, as I hinted at earlier, could it be that he wants a cease-fire after seizing Donbas, build up forces and keep going? We really just don’t know that yet. I hope that it’s true that his war aims are being tempered by the realities on the ground, but we’ll just have to wait and see if that’s really the case.

Simone Gao:
So, you don’t think Putin is seeking off-ramp right now at all? He wants to fight it out?

William Wohlforth:
I’m not seeing evidence of off-ramps yet by Putin. That is to say, summarily he rejected some of the key bottom line Ukrainian demands, way back when these negotiations were still going on and when the sides were leaking to the press what was being discussed in Turkey and in Belarus many weeks ago now when these negotiations were going on. At that point, I didn’t see off-ramp kind of talk. And so far from Moscow, we haven’t heard specifics as to what’s being talked about short of, as we suggested, a complete dismemberment of the country. Recognition of Donetsk and Luhansk regions. And, by the way, it’s important to recognize these are not the region that are these little separatist republics that exist, but the entire constitutional regions of Donetsk and Luhansk. And so far, I can’t quite see how a Ukrainian government could agree to that until, as I suggest, unless something quite dramatic happens on the battlefield.

Simone Gao:
Hmm. You know, many people are worried about this and they see, they are worried that if Putin is not seeking an off-ramp or does not have an off-ramp right now, they’re worried about the possibility of him using nuclear weapons. Regarding that, I have a question. I mean, if Putin only talks about nuclear weapons, it could be a effective deterrent. Once he really uses it, I mean, do you think he will be retaliated against by nuclear weapons from either the U.S. or NATO? And if so, wouldn’t that put Russia on the fate of nuclear attacks, which could lead to its total destruction? So, if that’s not Putin’s real goal, he wouldn’t really use nuclear weapons. Am I right?

William Wohlforth:
Well, it’s important for us to clarify what we’re talking about when we talk about nuclear use. If, by nuclear use, you mean some big strike, something that hits a NATO country or hits the United States with nuclear weapons, then I think you’re right. This just doesn’t seem to be in the cards. I just, I have a hard time envisioning how Putin could ever see such use as working out for Russia or even for him personally. However, the scenario that most people worry about is, let’s stipulate, for this conversation, let us suppose that Putin actually really just cannot or will not or refuses to or feels unable to reduce his war aims and be satisfied with less than total victory in Ukraine, or at least a substantial victory. Let’s suppose that’s the case. We don’t know that it’s true. Let’s suppose it’s true. And let’s suppose that Ukraine continues to do very well on the battlefield. And let’s suppose the United States and the West continue to pour weaponry into Ukraine.

William Wohlforth:
Well, in that case, people worry he could resort to a small yield tactical, so-called, nuclear weapon in Ukraine as a kind of shock and awe approach that would somehow upset the apple cart and somehow lead to some sort of quick resolution or capitulation. And so, then the question becomes how would we, the West, respond to a small yield nuclear use inside Ukraine as a kind of demonstration or a kind of, again, shock tactic to try to bring some sort of resolution to the crisis? I think it would be very hard for us to escalate to nuclear use ourselves in response to such a small nuclear use on Ukraine. I also think that it’s very unlikely that he will choose this. I’m just suggesting that it’s, of all the scenarios discussed, it seems to me the most likely of a relatively unlikely potential.

Simone Gao:
Hmm. So, I mean, that’s very, I mean, doesn’t sound very good because if Putin does use technical, I mean, if Putin does use tactical, uh, nuclear weapons and the U.S. would not retaliate with the same weapons, then what does that lead to? Ukraine just has to surrender at that time because there’s no way they can fight that way?

William Wohlforth:
I’m not sure. I think there may be ways of calling the bluff of Russia, of escalating in response to that–to potential tactical nuclear use against a non-nuclear power, namely against Ukraine–I think there are possible ways the United States and potentially its allies could escalate in response that would be much more than we’re doing today. So, for example, I believe it’s quite…so, the economic sanctions front. Believe it or not, there are economic sanctions that have not been used yet that could be pretty devastating to Russia–what is called, somewhat confusingly sometimes, the nuclear option on sanctions–which would essentially be, of course, cut entirely the cutoff of Russian gas export. So all, basically, Russia’s main revenue streams to the West would be cut off. Or cyber escalation, where the United States maintains lots of things in the back pocket that it’s not doing. Or conventional escalation where the types and nature of intervention in Ukraine would increase. Or possibly even intervention via actual troops. In other words, there are escalatory ways, there are responses to a Russian escalation to tactical nuclear use that are not themselves replying with nuclear weapons that might be very, very, very bad for Russia. And so, my hope is that that sort of escalation is sufficiently credible to deter Putin from even considering this tactical option.

Simone Gao:
Hmm. You talked about the West just totally cut off Russian oil export. You’d think in a scenario, nuclear scenario, the European countries would be on the U.S. side to do that. We can, you know, agree on that.

William Wohlforth:
I do. I think people, scholars, who study these things debate, sort of, the normative or ethical prohibition on nuclear use against a non-nuclear state. Sometimes this is referred to as the nuclear taboo, and people debate its strength. How strongly will the moral approbation of such use affect countries’ decisions. And I think that if you look at this pattern of events thus far, you can see that as Russian actions in Ukraine get more and more extreme and there’s more and more civilian casualties, more and more innocent victims, you’ve seen a ramping up of the Western response. And if Russia then moves to a nuclear use–particularly as, very likely, civilians are potentially victims–I cannot imagine German public opinion would not simply compel the German government to reverse its position on accepting Russian gas, just to name one potential response. So, I do think you’d see real solidarity on the part of the West in response to an unprovoked nuclear attack against a non-nuclear country, Ukraine, that is only trying to defend its own sovereignty. No good explanation on the part of the Russians as to why they’re doing this. So, yes, my expectation is that that would be a credible deterrent for Putin and that, therefore, he’s unlikely to do it.

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