Michael Morell speaks with Rolf Mowatt-Larssen, former CIA Moscow chief of station and William J. Perry Distinguished Fellow at the Nuclear Threat Initiative, about Russian President Vladimir Putin’s nuclear threats — and how American policymakers should respond. Mowatt-Larssen stresses that Western leaders must take Putin’s threats seriously. His assessment is that we’re now peaking in global nuclear risk, reaching a point not seen since the Cuban Missile Crisis 60 years ago. He also explains why, as Ukrainians are winning on the battlefield, they are not ready to sit at the negotiating table.
- Putin’s nuclear threat: ”It would be terribly irresponsible, Michael, if anyone, any Western leader thought of these threats as being bluster or saber-rattling or empty. I’m quite certain that all the Western leadership, based on at least the people I know and things I hear, are taking the threats very seriously. There’s no military reason for Vladimir Putin to do this. In other words, he can’t use tactical nuclear weapons on the battlefield to win a war he can’t win with an army. Nuclear weapons don’t take territories. They don’t hold territories. It is a way to try to strike back at an enemy you can’t stop with an asymmetric weapon of mass destruction. That’s the danger.”
- Putin’s hold on power: “No person, no leader in the world of an authoritarian country, is ever completely safe from other authoritarian minded people in that system. That’s one of the dangers of running an autocracy, that there’s always someone from within who might decide you’re more trouble than you’re worth. And that might even apply to Vladimir Putin at some point in this war. And so he’s certainly aware of it. That’s one reason he has no succession plan. It’s a reason why he limits those who are around him to a very, very small select of totally trusted people because he’s aware he wants to minimize the possibilities that he could be deposed in any way.”
- Why Ukraine isn’t negotiating: “Zelensky also understands that if the West tries to pressure Ukraine to go to the negotiating table, to settle on some basis of where we are right now, it’s capitulation for Ukraine. And he’s in no mood to do that. They fought too hard. They’ve lost too much. So that means that he’s likely to continue to defy Putin by continuing his attacks and intensifying the battle on the ground. So that puts Vladimir Putin in a very bad position because if that’s successful, his options are also dwindling.”
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TRANSCRIPT: INTELLIGENCE MATTERS WITH ROLF MOWATT-LARSSEN
PRODUCER: PAULINA SMOLINSKI
MICHAEL MORELL: Rolf, it is great to have you back on Intelligence Matters. You’ve become really our go to expert for the Russia-Ukraine war. And we really appreciate you taking time again to spend with us to talk about it. Ralph, since we had you on the show last, you joined the Nuclear Threat Initiative as the William J. Perry distinguished fellow there. That’s a real honor. So congratulations on that. Could you just let our listeners know what the Nuclear Threat Initiative does? What’s its mission?
ROLF MOWATT-LARSSEN: Yes, Michael, thanks for having me back. The Nuclear Threat Initiative is a nonprofit located in Washington, D.C., but with global connections that works on making the world a safer place. And the principal subjects we focus on are the threat of nuclear weapons, in other words, nuclear deterrence and nuclear risks, global nuclear order, and even more recently, an emphasis on bio threats, looking at existential risks of the 21st century. So it’s an organization that’s trying to do some real serious thinking and work with other people who have good ideas on how to actually implement ideas that will, we can say, will tangibly make the world a little bit safer than it is. And we all know that’s something that’s sorely needed.
MICHAEL MORELL: That’s terrific. Okay, Rolf, let’s jump into the latest on Russia-Ukraine. A lot to talk about given everything that’s happened in the last month. I don’t think we could have had you on the show again at a better time. Let’s start on the battlefield. How has the situation changed over the last month and why and where do things stand in the battlefield today? Just to give folks a starting point.
ROLF MOWATT-LARSSEN: Michael, I think we are seeing a situation that has strategically settled. It’s not the frozen war that many people thought it would be. It’s very dynamic. I think the strategic guidelines are set, meaning the Russian army has failed miserably on the ground, isn’t likely to reconstitute itself to be able to regain the initiative offensive. Even with this mobilization order that Putin called. That’s really just a call. It’s going to be very difficult to implement. Won’t have any impact, even if he does manage to implement it effectively for many, many months. Meanwhile, the Ukrainians are very much on the offensive. Their counter offensives continue. They’re taking ground, even in the areas that Vladimir Putin claimed he’s annexed into Russia, which means that that claim of annexation doesn’t really match the situation on the ground. And we can expect the Ukrainians over the next several weeks and months to continue to take towns, villages, cities and territory back from the Russians. And then on top of that, we’ve got a NATO that remains as unified as ever, even as we’re heading into what will be a difficult winter energy wise for many European countries.
And the Ukrainian army is strong, but not strong enough that in the foreseeable future it can mount a strategic offensive to, say, retake all of its territories. That remains a long term objective of the Ukrainians. But it is not going to be achievable militarily speaking any time in the next several months, in all likelihood. So that’s the general situation on the ground, which I think Vladimir Putin probably understands, which is why he made this political speech in the last week to set new conditions to try to regain control of this war he initiated, which is to say he’s essentially said, ‘I’m not giving this territory back no matter what. It’s part of Russia now. And Ukraine’s only option is to negotiate.’ But in conclusion of this or this first assessment of the situation, the Ukrainians, of course, have no interest, I wouldn’t, if I were them, have any interest in negotiating with the Russians while they’re winning on the ground and are likely to win if this war continues over the next months or even potentially years.
MICHAEL MORELL: Is Putin’s goal here now to kind of freeze where we are on the ground with negotiations and live to fight another day? Is that what he wants at the moment?
ROLF MOWATT-LARSSEN: I think when the war began, of course, we all know he had much greater ambitions. This is, in fact, setting a new set of conditions for what he would term a win. Meaning exactly what you just said. He wants to now drive negotiations. I think there are a number of Russians and various channels trying to communicate to the United States and other Western countries that it’s time for the Ukrainians to come to the table. I don’t think the Ukrainians probably feel that way because Putin has really no other options if he can’t win the war on the ground.
In other words, if he can’t somehow resuscitate his army, what other option does he have other than settle for the four regions, they are called Oblasta, Kherson, Zaporizhzhia, Luhansk, and Donetsk. If he would be happy to settle for absorbing this part of Ukraine into Russia with some sort of a cease fire followed by negotiations at which the starting point would be in Ukraine would somehow be neutral, somehow agree to disarm and he would keep that territory. I think that’s a highly unlikely outcome to the war. And that, of course, raises the risks that in the next weeks and months, we’re going to see another form of escalation to this war, as Putin realizes he won’t get what he wants.
MICHAEL MORELL: And back in Russia, there’s some significant developments as a result of what’s happened on the battlefield. Critiques of him by some of the people who have supported him the longest, the partial mobilization that you talked about and the public’s response to that which has been which has been sharp. So how does Putin think about his own politics in Russia right now? How has that changed for him?
ROLF MOWATT-LARSSEN: Well, he’s putting on a brave front. We’re seeing the celebrations in the Kremlin, and he’s calling all his key senior leaders to where he announces the annexation. And they’re all clapping wildly. I think they’re all not that delusional. They understand that saying something is part of Russia doesn’t make it so. And just like the war between the two armies, the longer the situation drags on, the more likely that it settles into the winner of an insurgency of constant knife cuts that Ukraine would impose on and taking back Russian territory that they’ve stolen. And in fact, the situation continues to deteriorate for him.
So I think the military bloggers and other people understand what’s actually happening are calling that out, which is kind of remarkable when you think about it, that military bloggers, who are themselves former retired Army officers, intelligence officers who have been very actively criticizing the Russian army, and now they’re beginning to more vocally criticize Putin’s own actions, including this annexation, which they recognize as a sham. It’s not just the West that realizes there was no real vote. There was no real choice by the Paris citizens to be absorbed into Russia. They were impressed. They were enslaved into Russia. And there would be no basis in international law to do any of this. And people understand that.
But the worse situation for Russia itself, even if one believes in Russia that Ukraine is somehow part of Russia and there’s some legitimacy to this, which again, I stress there’s not. The facts on the ground suggest otherwise. Yeah, the Ukrainians are taking territory as we speak in those areas, though none of them were completely taken over by the Russian army, to be occupied by the Russian army. And there’s going to be a contested struggle over the next weeks and months for that territory.
MICHAEL MORELL: President Zelensky’s response to the annexation has been to harden Ukraine’s position. He’s asked for accelerated NATO membership for Ukraine. He said that Ukraine will only negotiate with the Russian government, not led by Putin. So essentially calling for regime change in Russia. You talked about Putin’s got to do something here to change the equation. What are his options for trying to do that?
ROLF MOWATT-LARSSEN: And to put a fine point on your assessment, which I completely agree with, Michael. Zelensky also understands that if the West tries to pressure Ukraine to go to the negotiating table, to settle on some basis of where we are right now, it’s capitulation for Ukraine. And he’s in no mood to do that. They fought too hard. They’ve lost too much. So that means that he’s likely to continue to defy Putin by continuing his attacks and intensifying the battle on the ground. So that puts Vladimir Putin in a very bad position because if that’s successful, his options are also dwindling. And that’s where we get into the potential that he might escalate or try to compensate for the fact that the Russian army is so weak and is likely to remain weak, to compensate by using more strategic weapons, including the possibility, for example, of striking Ukraine with tactical nuclear weapons.
MICHAEL MORELL: Let’s dig into that. Everybody’s talking about it. Are his threats to use tactical nuclear weapons a bluff or are they real? How do we have to think about this?
ROLF MOWATT-LARSSEN: It would be terribly irresponsible, Michael, if anyone, any Western leader thought of these threats as being bluster or saber rattling or empty. I’m quite certain that all the Western leadership, based on at least the people I know and things I hear, are taking the threats very seriously. There’s no military reason for Vladimir Putin to do this. In other words, he can’t use tactical nuclear weapons on the battlefield to win a war he can’t win with an army. Nuclear weapons don’t take territories. They don’t hold territories. It is a way to try to strike back at an enemy you can’t stop with an asymmetric weapon of mass destruction. That’s the danger.
So as the Russian army weakens and the Ukrainian army strengthens and the situation becomes bad for Russia, because the Ukrainians refused to negotiate and agree to a cease fire, then the risks are rising that Putin may see using tactical nuclear weapons as his only good option. And that’s why when the war started we were all believing, and I think our reasoning was sound, that there was a very low probability that Putin would use these weapons because the Russian army was strong, the Ukrainians were weak, he wouldn’t need them. Now, seven months into the war, the situation is reversed as to what we thought where we would be. And now it suddenly looks as if he may feel, and I believe it’s a terrifically misguided judgment if he comes to it, that he thinks that somehow he’ll be advantaged if he uses these weapons.
MICHAEL MORELL: Do you think in his mind that if he continues to lose on the battlefield, that his political situation at home would get worse and worse and worse and maybe become existential for him and that’s why he would need to try to do anything to kind of freeze the situation on the ground there and at least be able to claim some sort of victory and live to fight another day. Is that the idea here of what he would gain from this?
ROLF MOWATT-LARSSEN: I believe that’s part of his calculation. No person, no leader in the world of an authoritarian country, is ever completely safe from other authoritarian minded people in that system. That’s one of the dangers of running an autocracy, that there’s always someone from within who might decide you’re more trouble than you’re worth. And that might even apply to Vladimir Putin at some point in this war. And so he’s certainly aware of it. That’s one reason he has no succession plan. It’s a reason why he limits those who are around him to a very, very small select of totally trusted people because he’s aware he wants to minimize the possibilities that he could be deposed in any way. Which, by the way, if you look back at Russian history, Soviet history, all the way back to the Bolshevik Revolution, there are many examples of how Soviet leaders were gone essentially in a day, or at least attempts against them, even in recent years, for example, against President Yeltsin and against Mikhail Gorbachev, there were a coup attempts to topple them. So Putin’s very well aware of the history. So, yes, he needs to keep the support of the very few people in his power base, the head of the Russian intelligence, the head of the military, a few others, only a handful of people perhaps, that he needs their completely loyal support or even he could potentially face scrutiny. And ultimately, that leads to a change within Russia by the Russians. By the way, as we talked about in a previous podcast, Michael, the West, the United States should have absolutely no influence or make any efforts whatsoever to influence who leads Russia. That’s a decision for the Russian people alone.
MICHAEL MORELL: So is the idea here, the use of these weapons on the battlefield, is it to use, one, to sort of intimidate Ukraine and the West into negotiations, or is it to use a handful in strategic locations to freeze the conflict right where it is and allow Russia to hang on to the territory that it currently has? Or is it both of those things?
ROLF MOWATT-LARSSEN: Well, what you’ve just suggested, Michael, and this is at least what I also imagine is that the U.S. administration is preparing for any number of options. The most important thing is for the United States and the Western alliance, not to be surprised first, that Putin might, we might wake up one day and this is a terrible reality that we have to confront and make decisions on how to handle. Number two is that clearly there must be very intense wargaming going on, tabletop exercise type things, we call it in the government, that would assess what would be the ways that Putin might decide to do this and what would be our response accordingly. I don’t think we should limit ourselves to thinking purely tactical nuclear weapons. It’s almost unimaginable to think of the other things, But we’ve been through at least one time in our history. Everyone alive and hopefully most students and others are aware of the Cuban Missile Crisis back in 1962, where the world was almost destroyed in a nuclear confrontation between the U.S. and Russia. And we shouldn’t at least dismiss the possibility we may end up in a similar place today. And as some experts that I really respect have recently written or stated, and I agree with them, we are at the highest point in nuclear risks than we’ve been since the Cuban Missile Crisis 60 years ago.
MICHAEL MORELL: Do you have a sense of how an order by Putin to use tactical nuclear weapons would be carried out? The process? The number of people involved and the possibility that someone along the way might say, ‘no, I’m not going to do this.’ It’s very different from strategic nuclear weapons. How that order would be carried out. Do you have a sense of how this works?
ROLF MOWATT-LARSSEN: Only a very vague sense. Not from anything I could draw on and probably wouldn’t be appropriate anyway from my time in intelligence, obviously. But I think what your listeners need to know about that is that the tactical nuclear weapons are an entirely different kind of challenge than strategic or we call thermonuclear warheads and intercontinental ballistic missiles and those types of things for which we have a very robust monitoring system. In this case, we’re talking about very small weapons launched by missile launchers, some of which are in the general area of the battlefield by airplanes, drop fired by airplanes or launched by submarines with very relatively small yields from, say, five kiloton yield to maybe 50. And that would be very, very small in comparison, for example, to any other nuclear weapons we have in our strategic arsenals.
Therefore, they are limited and can be ordered relatively quickly down to the battlefield. Commanders who would launch them by the service involved the Army, Navy and Air Force. And all of those Russian services have access potentially to receive the orders and to the weapons and then to receive the orders to potentially launch them. And I know that, of course, the Western intelligence community is very well aware of these things and monitoring it very, very closely. But it’s still a very difficult challenge. And I think we would have to assess at the outset of this a very low likelihood that someone along the chain of command might defy the order and refuse to carry it out, which was part of the Cuban Missile Crisis story on the famous Soviet submarine. But I don’t think we can certainly count on that. And I think it would be very unlikely in the launch of, say, one tactical nuclear weapon.
MICHAEL MORELL: As you know, a number of our intelligence community leadership. Head of the agency, head of the DNI, have all said publicly that they’ve not seen any indication that Putin is preparing for the use of tactical nuclear weapons. And when I hear that, my reaction is, ‘boy, that sounds like you think that you’ll actually see those preparations.’ That gives me pause. And I’m wondering how you react to that.
ROLF MOWATT-LARSSEN: Well, I think we all would have pause and should have pause. And so my instinct is the same as yours, Michael, as a veteran intelligence officer, I always respect your instincts. And so I concur. I think it also accompanies the gravity of the situation. To imagine that seven months into a war we were hoping and expecting wouldn’t maybe happen, or at least at the scale that it’s occurred, to suddenly be asking ourselves questions like the one you just posed is very scary. Scary even for me. And I’m not going to say I’m confident that we either know we would see the warning, the indicators and warnings. We used to call this foresight an early warning in the Cold War, and we got a lot away from it over 30 years since the Cold War ended. And now suddenly we’re in a situation where we’re bringing that heart of intelligence back, of analysis, of collection, of bringing those together to have the indicators. So I hope we’re totally on top of it as an intelligence community. But of course, I would have, like any citizen, a certain degree of fear about how prepared we are for this.
MICHAEL MORELL: The other thing that we’ve heard from senior U.S. officials and they’ve said this publicly, is that they have made clear to the Russians what the consequences would be of the use of nuclear weapons and that those consequences would be severe. They haven’t told us publicly exactly what they’ve said to the Russians, the specifics of it. Or they certainly haven’t told us what they might do, but they haven’t shared with the Russians. So I’m just wondering how you think about what our options would be if the Russians use tactical nuclear weapons in Ukraine, what would be our strategic objective? What kind of needle would we have to thread? How do you think about that? Which I think is absolutely critical going forward here?
ROLF MOWATT-LARSSEN: I think you hit the nail on top of the most important question in this podcast today. Not that you and I can answer it, but we can at least give our readers some idea of how our leaders are looking at it, I hope. And so the first thing I would say is their ultimate challenge is to ensure that by our response, say, for example, if the Russians do escalate and use tactical nuclear weapons, that we not raise the risk that if there will be nuclear escalation that arises from that, that could lead to obviously a world war or nuclear annihilation. That’s the number one challenge. But ensure that whatever response that the United States and its allies impose on the Russians, ensures that Putin doesn’t get away with nuclear back blackmail, which is essentially what he’s doing. He’s trying to compensate for threatening to use these weapons we hope is just a threat. That he’s not really serious. But if he were to use it, obviously that means he was serious and we can’t let him get away with it.
So the range of responses, I would say would be in three areas that the administration certainly has to work through and plan very carefully and consult with our allies. The first is a nuclear response. I think Putin needs to understand that that’s on the table. I’m not saying it’s a good idea. I don’t, I hope not, actually. But at least he has to know that that’s the essence of deterrence, mutually assured destruction. The essence of that thought is that neither side can get away with using these weapons without retaliation potentially in kind. The second range of options all relate to some sort of a kinetic response that the U.S. would carry out with, again, hopefully support from other allies to impose a heavy military cost, maybe even decimate the Russian army in Ukraine.
I’m not offering any of these, by the way, as my suggestions, because I don’t think that’s appropriate. I’m just trying to say these options have to be considered to make the Russian army incapable not only in Ukraine, but in the future to carry out wars of aggression. And then the third area is, of course, a combination of sanctions, economic price that further to pay and a political price of some sort. Now, I have to say at this juncture that there could also be, of course, a combination of some of two and some of three.
But whatever we do, I think that the most important lesson from this, if it becomes a part of world history, that Russia is regarded as a pariah state, if it escalates to nuclear weapons in what everyone in the world knows, whether they want to acknowledge it or not, as an unjust war of aggression, so that the Chinese, the Indians, the erstwhile allies, if you will, of and others of Russia and Putin, understand that he went too far.
He’s losing a war in his response to losing a war is to this unacceptable escalation that no country on earth wants to see has become a precedent in the modern times. Putin raised World War two and the U.S. bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in his speech. I thought it was frankly disgusting. Of course, it’s a tragedy that those two cities were destroyed. It didn’t set a nuclear precedent. It ended a world war that had killed millions and millions of people conducted by fascists who are trying to take over the world with a holocaust and a genocide and genocides within it over years and years of struggle. And it hastened the end of a war that seemed unending. And it was terrible nonetheless. What Putin is doing would be totally avoidable, has no military rationale to justify it, no political basis to do it. And so if he were to take the world into this, plunge the world into this darkness, Russia also descends into this darkness along with everybody. And it’s a legacy that I think Putin and his successors will have to struggle for generations to overcome.
MICHAEL MORELL: What I hear you say, Rolf, and I agree with you 100%, is there has to be a significant enough response to show Putin and the rest of the world that there’s a huge price to be paid from using such weapons and at the same time not responding with such force that we bring about a thermonuclear war. So that seems to me to be the needle that the administration has to thread here. If he were to use these weapons. And boy, I wouldn’t want to be the person to have to make that decision.
ROLF MOWATT-LARSSEN: You’ve summarized it perfectly, Michael. That’s exactly the challenge. And it’s also the art of being a leader to figure this out. And it’s going to be a test for everybody, including, I would say, Vladimir Putin, because up to now he still does have the option to refrain from this what would be a senseless escalation. There are other ways he can escalate. He has other ways to avoid being defeated, if you want to call it that in Ukraine. And this should be something that’s beyond the last resort even for him.
MICHAEL MORELL: Do you think that we would see more rhetoric before he actually uses them, or could we wake up tomorrow and be surprised?
ROLF MOWATT-LARSSEN: Well, we can always wake up and be surprised, right, Michael? That’s something we’ve experienced throughout our careers as in terms of momentous events of world history, including 9/11 and the Arab Spring, the collapse of the Soviet Union. So of course we can and I don’t want to attach a probability to it. I would just say, there are going to be surprises in the next weeks and months. One thing we cannot afford to do, I think, is shrink from,I would call it duty as democratic, liberal democratic governments to support Ukraine, to continue to supply them what they need to defend themselves, which is what they’re doing. There is not a threat from NATO to Russia. There never was a military threat from NATO to Russia. Putin has concocted all of these threats in his mind to justify a war of aggression because his autocracy is threatened by Western values, by Western liberal ideas of civil liberties and individual freedom and self-determination.
MICHAEL MORELL: It seems to me that whatever we decide that we would do in response to the use of tactical nuclear weapons, we need to make sure that he knows that, because we can’t allow him to think that we won’t respond. Because if he really believes that, then he’ll be more likely to use them. Do you agree with that?
ROLF MOWATT-LARSSEN: I do agree with it. I think just as none of us should have any illusions that he’s not serious or he should not have any illusions that we’re not serious. I think the idea of mutual deterrence has to be reestablished, and we’ve got a little away from it in the sense we were so taken aback and surprised by Putin. From the beginning, he has been making statements suggesting this might be somehow on the table. If you remember, in the first week or so of the war, he put his nuclear forces on high alert. And that shocked everyone, including me, that this would even be something that is in his sort of set of options. And here we are talking today extensively about the rising risks he might actually use it. Again, it boils down to his calculations as to what would be the outcome, whether he uses it or not, which would be the worst for him. That would mean challenging first of all, his grip on power, which he identifies as being an existential risk to Russia, whether he’s in power or not. Now, that seems almost ludicrous to most anyone listening to it that a person would think of himself as being somehow linked to the existential survival of a powerful, historically significant state country like Russia. But that’s what he’s identified himself as being in this war, which of course, raises his personal ambitions, his personal risks become somewhat synonymous with what he regards as risks to Russia.
MICHAEL MORELL: I want to put you on the spot here. How worried are you about the use of nuclear weapons by Putin?
ROLF MOWATT-LARSSEN: Well, I’m very worried. I again, I think we started the war with a very small percentage, started the war with a very low probability. And I think we’re at an unacceptably high probability. I would sort of maybe resist offering a percentage because I wouldn’t have any basis to say 50%, 25%. But I think we’re in a place where the planning has to be real. The continued efforts to deter Russia from doing this have to be ongoing and continuous. The messaging has to be extremely well thought through. We can’t send out sloppy messages that would confuse them as to how we would respond in one way or the other. Some people who I really respect are calling that to maintain a sort of strategic ambiguity that leaves all our options on the table so that Putin would have to understand that, that we might do anything. But to your point, the way you expressed it, he would have to know. He must know and we must signal him to ensure he knows that is not only unacceptable, it would result in such severe consequences that it won’t be worth escalating to these weapons, anything practically would be preferable to escalation because it does change the world and it changes the world in unpredictable ways. Tremendous uncertainty would result not just in this war, but around the world. And most of all, it would really damage Russian interests and probably Putin’s own rule if he were to take it to that level.
MICHAEL MORELL: I’m going to ask one more question on the nuclear issue. And I know you know this quote, but JFK has a famous quote that he said and that he saw is the key lesson learned from the Cuban missile crisis. And that quote goes as follows, ‘above all, while defending our own vital interests, nuclear powers must advert those confrontations which bring an adversary to a choice of either a humiliating retreat or a nuclear war.’ Can you react to the JFK quote, in terms of where we are today in Ukraine?
ROLF MOWATT-LARSSEN: My reaction is particularly, I would maybe say poignant this year because we’re we’re we’re at the 60 year anniversary of the Cuban Missile crisis. And I think we’re just still appreciating how strong Kennedy’s leadership was and how his instinctive decision making in a moment of crisis was so crucial in that affair. In other words, it’s not just thinking it all through, having all the policy options on the table. It’s your instinct. It’s your willingness to take it to the level where you know where your values sit, your principles sit in response to your adversaries and how you must respond to the situation. Having the appreciation, he could only take it so far, but he would win by doing that. And one thing that’s interesting about the Cuban Missile Crisis, of course, Nikita Khrushchev, the leader of the Soviet Union at the time, didn’t last that long after the Soviet Union because even though he got a significant concession out of this, out of the Cuban missile crisis, it contributed to his ultimate ouster.
And I think in that way, anyone who would calculate whether it’s Khrushchev, Putin, President Biden, others, that nuclear escalation is just another scale of destruction, just another form of escalation doesn’t appreciate the unique moral and ethical aspects of nuclear weapons that frankly don’t exist for any others. You could possibly say biological weapons, of course, but nuclear weapons are alone in the immoral quality of of using them. If you look purely at the effects of tactical nuclear weapons they’re not that asymmetric to extreme forms of conventional weapons. But it’s the idea of the escalation that you’re willing to essentially gamble the security of the entire planet, the globe, on the fact you can control the escalatory effects of starting off with one tactical nuclear weapon that somehow you can avoid escalation to where the entire world could be held hostage to a nuclear crisis again. That’s really the stakes here, Michael.
The stakes of this escalation may sound just like another form of escalation. Putin win, lose, but in fact, it’s that humanity itself has been placed in the scope, the sniper scope of this aggressive war. And we that should be something the entire world works on to avoid, meaning Putin’s allies. The people who can influence them with their support, whether it’s Xi Jinping, even the United States, in making sure our communication on how he would respond is clear, is taken seriously and unambiguously in terms of at least that it’s serious. Whether we specify or not is a different matter. So that that’s the way I see the Cuban Missile crisis as somehow related to this war and as a very respected analyst has said to me. I prefer not to use his name in the in the discussion. Once a single nuclear weapon is used in the war, the risks of further escalation and nuclear become very real and palpable. And I think that’s the problem we will confront if this escalates in this fashion, in this war abroad.
MICHAEL MORELL: I want to ask first about the attacks last week on both the Nord Stream one pipeline and the Nord Stream two pipelines. NATO has formally blamed the Russians. What’s the logic here for why the Russians would do this?
ROLF MOWATT-LARSSEN: I’ll confess, I don’t see a logic for doing it. I’ve been discussing it with some colleagues and analysts. As we enter the winter, the energy war, the weaponization of energy is Putin’s other set of options here. In other words, we go through the winter and Putin’s counting on, he’s counted on it since he went into Ukraine in February, that by the time we reached the fall, the late fall, that the Western alliance, the European countries who has very restive people right now. Who don’t want to make sacrifices of their own heating and energy use on behalf of Ukraine, perhaps are faced with very difficult decisions if they don’t have access to Russian energy.
So the idea the Russians would deliberately sabotage their capability to provide that if the Europeans have a change of heart. I don’t understand the logic of that. Even as a desperate move. Why? Why do it now? So I’m not accepting based on what I’m reading, that we understand what’s going on with that sabotage. I’m taking it at face value that it is sabotage by someone. But I don’t know who and I can’t understand the logic of doing it all. I’ll make one more comment on the energy and the winter which I think it’s very important. If the European alliance stays strong, if the Germans in particular, who need Russian oil more than anyone, stay strong and wean themselves off Russian energy, Putin’s in big trouble by this spring. Not only is he losing the war on the ground, he’s going to begin to suffer far more economic consequences and again lose the ability to compel the Europeans to force Ukraine to accept a negotiated settlement where they lose their territory. That’s a key to Putin. Someone has to help him force Ukraine to the negotiating table. That’s where he sits right now as we speak. And if the US won’t do it, which he knows we won’t, then it’s up to the Europeans to put pressure on Ukraine. And so they need to hold the line with the United States against Putin in this war and not succumb to the energy temptation that would give him leverage over a negotiated settlement.
MICHAEL MORELL: And one last question, we’ve been talking pretty much for the whole podcast about worst case outcomes. Give us the alternative. What’s the best case here going forward?
ROLF MOWATT-LARSSEN: I still think there is a better case. Certainly the best case would be for Vladimir Putin to realize that he started this war, he has the ability to end it. I think what could be part of that would be an ability to extract something from the Ukrainians and the West that would give them enough of a face saving way out that he could settle. I think he still has maneuver room. I’m not sure exactly what the outlines of that look are. Right now I hear too many people talking about, you know, what would be the least the Ukrainians can accept. I think a lot of our effort needs to be put into finding a way for Russia, in particular, out of this without escalation and frankly, without keeping those four regions that they’ve annexed, because I think that was a political mistake by Putin that he made out of desperation, meaning he’s boxing himself in further now.
How does he withdraw from that position that they’ll never be part of Ukraine again? So I think that’s where we are at the end of this. I think there’s time and there’s space to work out something better than these many grim options. And I do want to say at this point, Michael, because you know me very well and I have a habitual a tendency to focus on the really, really bad things, which is, I guess what I did when I was in the weapons of mass destruction or counterterrorism center in my old days living in the Soviet Union and worried about nuclear war. And now at NTI, we are worried about all the nuclear parts of this. And I have to clear my own head. And the way I do it is remember, there’s a big exciting world out there and there are many options other than the worst options we’re laying out for your listeners.
MICHAEL MORELL: Ralph, thank you so much for joining us. Great, great conversation. Thank you.
ROLF MOWATT-LARSSEN: Thank you, Michael. It’s been a pleasure.