Will Putin Use Nuclear Weapons in Ukraine?

Will Putin Use Nuclear Weapons in Ukraine?

As CIA director William J. Burns warns Americans not to take the Russian nuclear threat "lightly," George F. Kennan’s reflections have acquired a new relevance.

IN 1994, George F. Kennan spoke at the Council on Foreign Relations on the occasion of his ninetieth birthday. His remarks, which were excerpted in the New York Times, continue to make for fascinating reading. They focused on the abiding preoccupation of his career—American relations with Russia. He recalled that he had originally argued for a containment policy of the Soviet Union after World War II, which the Truman administration largely implemented. But Kennan also observed that after the West had made it clear that it would not permit Stalin to make any further inroads into Europe, he was disappointed to discover that neither Washington nor the Western allies had any real interest in entering into discussions with Moscow. “What they and the others wanted,” Kennan said, “from Moscow, with respect to the future of Europe, was essentially ‘unconditional surrender.’ They were prepared to wait for it. And this was the beginning of the forty years of cold war.”

Kennan’s lifelong apprehensions about what he liked to call America’s legalistic-moralistic approach to foreign affairs centered around the notion of unconditional surrender. In his book American Diplomacy 1900-1950, for instance, Kennan criticized American diplomats at the turn of the twentieth century for what he saw as their proclivity for elevating morality above political realism about current events. Kennan was also dubious about Woodrow Wilson and his intervention in the Russian Civil War—for over eighteen months, starting in August 1918, more than 7,000 American doughboys were dispatched to Siberia. Kennan’s reservations, however, about Franklin D. Roosevelt’s endorsement of a policy of unconditional surrender at the 1943 Casablanca Conference toward the Axis powers proved unwarranted.

Kennan perceived American foreign policy, more often than not, as an exercise in idealism run amok. Always somewhat skeptical of democratic regimes, which were susceptible to the impulsive passions of crowds, Kennan lived, or sought to live, in the lofty world of statesmen such as Castlereagh, Metternich, and Bismarck. The preeminent catastrophe for Kennan was World War I. One of his last books was called The Decline of Bismarck’s European Order. In it, Kennan explained, “I came to see World War I … as the great event which … lay at the heart of the failure and decline of this Western civilization.” What he called the “delirious euphoria” of the crowds in Germany and France and Great Britain helped catapult them into an apocalyptic inferno that shaped the twentieth century, leading to the collapse of the Hohenzollern, Habsburg, and Romanov dynasties and to the rise of Bolshevism and Nazism. During the Cold War, Kennan was troubled by the notion that a moralistic quest for victory over communism could result in the democracies plunging into a fresh cataclysm, only this time with nuclear weapons. The result would be the destruction of humanity itself.

Perhaps, then, it should not come as a complete surprise that Kennan failed to share the triumphalism—the conviction that history had come to a terminus, that nationalism was a relic of the past, and that liberal democracy would prevail in every nook and cranny of the globe—that emerged in America after the red flag came down for the final time over the Kremlin in December 1991. Instead, in his 1994 remarks, he noted that a new and turbulent era—one that he believed America was ill-equipped to confront—was emerging. Three years later, in a letter to the former editor of this magazine, Owen Harries, Kennan voiced his disquiet about the expansion of NATO in 1997: “We did not, I am sure, intend to trick the Russians; but the actual determinants of our later behavior—lack of coordination of political with military policy, and the amateurism of later White House diplomacy—would scarcely have been more creditable on our part than a real intention to deceive.”

AS AMERICA, Europe, and Russia engage in a tense stand-off over Ukraine, Kennan’s reflections have acquired a new relevance. Russian president Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine is provoking a fresh debate about America’s purpose abroad. Should it function as a world policeman, as President Volodymyr Zelenskyy suggested in his address to Congress? Or might overreach result in the kind of global disaster that Kennan feared during the Cold War?

Until recently, the realists have largely had the upper hand in defining American national interests more narrowly than liberal internationalists would prefer. The dismal outcomes of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars seemed to provide the former camp with a solid footing. Their cause was advanced by Donald Trump’s push for an “America First” doctrine, which he first enunciated in a speech at the Mayflower Hotel in April 2016. His adjurations had the effect, among other things, of reorienting American foreign policy away from a staunch embrace of NATO and toward a preoccupation with domestic affairs. Indeed, in a second term, Trump, as his former national security advisor John Bolton has indicated, might well have withdrawn from NATO, or at a minimum declared that Article V, guaranteeing a common defense, was now defunct and inutile. While Joe Biden entered office vowing to restore America’s ties to NATO, he essentially adhered to Trump’s Doha Accords with the Taliban, exiting Afghanistan in August, much to the dismay of Washington’s foreign policy elite. With European allies left discountenanced by Biden’s Afghan decision and worried about an American pivot to Asia, the portents for a special relationship with Europe seemed equivocal at best.

That was then. Putin’s flagitious Ukraine venture has turned the discussion of foreign policy on its head. The GOP has largely returned to its comfort zone of attacking Russia and depicting Democrats as soft in confronting the menace it represents. The claim of MAGA legislators such as Rep. Madison Cawthorn that Zelenskyy is a “thug,” or former President Donald Trump’s contention that Putin invaded “out of love” for Ukraine, are meeting with a frosty reception. In an interview with the Washington Examiner, Trump himself attempted something of a course correction, averring that he was “surprised” that Putin wasn’t simply bluffing. Putin, he said, has “changed. It’s a very sad thing for the world. He’s very much changed.”

Change is coming to Europe as well. Where the Federal Republic of Germany was once a notorious laggard when it came to its military expenditures, it is now committing to spending over $100 billion extra on defense in the coming year. Finland and Sweden are contemplating joining NATO. French president Emmanuel Macron has jettisoned his talk of NATO being “brain-dead.” Had Putin’s plan for a blitzkrieg invasion worked, he might have divided the West. The reverse has occurred. He seems to have reunited it. Then there is the renascence of the old liberal hawk and neoconservative coalition that formed after 1989 to push for American intervention in the Balkans and the Middle East. It was based less on a belief in Cold War orthodoxies than in the conviction that American primacy abroad, manifested in the triumph over the Soviet Union, could lead to a new wave of democractization, based on global free trade, that would issue in a new eirenic age. The idea, as Kennan put it in his 1994 address, was that the West had it right during the Cold War—unconditional surrender had worked. Now it was time to go on the offensive once more to create nothing less than regime change. Emblematic of this truculent mindset is Sen. Lindsey Graham, who demanded the assassination of Putin on Fox News in early March. He also tweeted, “Is there a Brutus in Russia? Is there a more successful Colonel Stauffenberg in the Russian military? The only way this ends is for somebody in Russia to take this guy out.” But this is decidedly not the only way in which this conflict can end. Quite the contrary. Putin’s march into Ukraine has ruthlessly exposed the debility of his army as it fails to achieve its initial aims. The West may well face a choice: bleed Russia white or push for a truce? A negotiated peace that creates an equilibrium of power in the region—and that avoids further bloodshed—seems manifestly preferable to protracted combat, unless the object of Western policy is nothing less than unconditional surrender—the ouster of the Putin regime itself and the collapse of Russia as a unitary state. 

DURING THE Cold War, American presidents were careful not to transform the disputes between America and Russia, whether it was Nikita Khrushchev’s emplacement of nuclear missiles in Cuba or Leonid Brezhnev’s invasion of Afghanistan, into a mano-a-mano duel. Dwight Eisenhower’s Secretary of State John Foster Dulles may have championed the rollback of the Soviet Empire, but his rhetoric proved to be hollow. Even Ronald Reagan was careful to confine his use of the term “evil” in a speech in 1983 to evangelical broadcasters to the Soviet empire itself rather than any specific leader. In an ironic turnabout, Reagan himself was denounced by a number of neocons for appeasing the Kremlin as he wound down the Cold War by reaching out to Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev and concluding sweeping arms-control treaties with him.