IVO DAALDER

Like 1939, but with nuclear weapons

President of Chicago Council on Global Affairs describes Russia as a ‘single-headed autocracy’

Like 1939, but with nuclear weapons

“In the post-Stalinist period there was the Politburo around the Soviet leader. Russia was a collective autocracy. Now it is a single-headed autocracy.” This is one of the insights on Russia of Ivo Daalder, US ambassador to NATO during the Obama years and today president of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs.

In this interview with Kathimerini, Daalder points out that the power structure in Moscow, where the leader is too powerful and largely unchecked by institutions, makes things more dangerous for the world, but he suggests that NATO should insist on clear red lines.

Do you have any hopes of a ceasefire?

No. Putin gambled and is much more likely to double down. I don’t see him ending the fighting for quite a long time. Moscow is a single-headed autocracy. There is no contrary information and no real debate. There is no Politburo that could oust the leader as it did with Khrushchev in 1964. Back then Russia was a collective autocracy. Now it’s only Putin. And we’re only three weeks into the war. It’s a short time in a historical perspective for warfare. It seems long because people thought this was going to be over very quickly. But it’s not going to be over quickly.

You have suggested that the situation in Europe looks like it was in 1939. Do you really think so?

I guess it’s possible. It depends on how we respond. I worry about an escalation. I worry about him thinking that he can do whatever he wants to do in Ukraine and get away with it. I think the time has come for us to be very clear that there are limits to our tolerance. We help the Ukrainians defend themselves but there are certain actions that would change our calculation. We’re already sending those messages quietly. [US National Security Adviser] Jake Sullivan has underscored that there will be serious consequences for chemical or biological weapons use. I do worry that if we stand back and we only care about NATO and NATO territory, we will have a problem and the situation will escalate. We need to find a way to retake the initiative in one form or another.

‘I think for him his way out is only victory. If he wants to get out, he knows how to do it. But he’s stuck in his own ways’

President Putin has suggested that nuclear weapons are on the table. Do you believe him?

Yes, I think nuclear weapons are on the table. So we need to be clear about how we would respond to it. We can’t respond by saying, “Well, that’s too bad, too bad for the people in Ukraine.” If that happens we ought to come to Ukraine’s defense as NATO.

Many people fear that if the conventional war fails, Putin will deploy a nuclear weapon to achieve victory.

Bear in mind that he’s not alone in this. The decision can be made by him alone, but the execution can’t. One of the reasons the situation in Ukraine is so dire for him is because not everyone in the Russian military forces is executing orders in the way that he would like them to execute orders. As the situation evolves, many people will think, “Are they going to shoot at their own people?” So a leader is in control until he is no longer in control.

It has been said that the West needs to offer Putin an out, but instead we have been observing a constant escalation. US President Joe Biden called him a war criminal.

I think for him his way out is only victory. If he wants to get out, he knows how to do it. But he’s stuck in his own ways.

President Putin is a very religious person. He’s at the center of a close circle of Russian Orthodox Christian monks and intellectuals like Aleksandr Dugin. They believe that Moscow is the Third Rome and Russia should rise in Europe and Eurasia. Is it plausible that Putin might believe that he has a holy mission and that therefore this war is in fact a holy war?

I think there’s something to that. He seems closely aligned with the Russian Orthodox Church and indeed the Church has supported him in this quest. There is an animating force emanating from a deep conservative Christian tradition. He is trying to use this tradition to gain support in parts of Europe and this is one of the reasons he’s been able to align himself with parts of the right in Europe. If that’s his perspective, then it makes it even less likely that we’re going to be able to negotiate an off-ramp with him. And clearly, we cannot be in a position where a country succeeds in using force to effectuate such a situation. We didn’t do that in 1945. We shouldn’t do it in 2022. That’s another reason why this looks like 1938 or 1939.