Vladimir Putin, Dr Strangelove
Will Putin take the nuclear option? Photo credit: Adapted by WhoWhatWhy from G20 Argentina / Flickr (CC BY 2.0) and Movieclips.

According to our guest on this week’s WhoWhatWhy podcast, author Shay Khatiri, Russia’s attack on Ukraine is not unlike the fall of Afghanistan. It was obvious what was going to happen. We refused to think it would happen, and then we were shocked when it did. 

Khatiri is an author and a national security expert with a Masters Degree in strategic studies from the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International studies at Johns Hopkins University. 

According to Khatiri, the current situation in Ukraine should not be surprising. Russian president Vladimir Putin has repeatedly told the world of his goal to restore the Russian empire (different from the Soviet Union). His actions in Moldova, Estonia, Georgia, and Donbas, as well as his behavior at the 2007 Munich Security Conference, and possible involvement in the shooting down of Malaysian Airlines flight 17, are all cases where Putin’s aggression has been met by… nothing.

Khatiri talks of how the postwar European architecture was designed to keep Russia out of Europe while at the same time catering to the pacifist DNA inside Europe. “Those days may be over for good,” he says.  

Russia seems to be moving on Europe, and Europe has gotten a wake-up call that it needs to be better armed. And the US has been reminded that it has to walk and chew gum at the same time — that it must redouble its commitment to Europe, even while it pivots toward Asia.  

Khatiri discusses the various worst-case scenarios that may lie ahead, including Putin’s possible use of battlefield nuclear weapons. And if Putin succeeds in Ukraine, the Baltic states could be his next target. If so, we would have no choice — by virtue of our commitment to NATO — but to defend these states, even if it means a direct, on-the-ground confrontation with Russia. 

Considering the long-term consequences that might come from the bleeding out of both his economy and his military, is Putin “coup proof”? 

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Full Text Transcript:

(As a service to our readers, we provide transcripts with our podcasts. We try to ensure that these transcripts do not include errors. However, due to a constraint of resources, we are not always able to proofread them as closely as we would like and hope that you will excuse any errors that slipped through.)

Jeff Schechtman: Welcome to the WhoWhatWhy Podcast. I’m your host, Jeff Schechtman. It was Lenin who said that there are decades where nothing happens and there are weeks where decades happen. The past seven days may very well be one of those weeks. Beyond the events happening hour by hour on the ground, some would argue that the world has truly changed, that the global strategic order that has shaped the world since World War II will never be the same.

On Wall Street, for sure, and in politics usually, the four scariest and often most misguided words are “This time, it’s different.” Reaching beyond the day-to-day conduct on the ground, we’re going to pull back 30,000 feet and look at the broad global strategic issues surrounding current events. We’re going to do this with a guest who has been with us before, Shay Khatiri.

Shay Khatiri is a policy associate at the Renew Democracy Initiative. He was a scholar at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. He was born in Iran and writes the Substack newsletter “The Russia-Iran File.” He’s a regular contributor to The Bulwark, and his writing has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, The American Interest, National Review, The Jerusalem Post, and numerous other publications. It is my pleasure to welcome Shay Khatiri back to the WhoWhatWhy Podcast. Shay, thanks so much for joining us.

Shay Khatiri: Yes, thanks for having me.

Jeff: Well, it’s a delight to have you here, even under these circumstances. Tell me first a little bit about what you’ve been thinking about over the past several days as you’ve watched these events unfold.

Shay: I was talking to a friend and we were talking about how much this looks like the fall of Afghanistan in a very strange sense, how it was quite predictable but we just didn’t want to believe that it would happen. And now that it has happened, we’re in shock that it has happened.

In a weird way, anger about our own mistakes that brought us here, pride in how we have been responding, but even more than that — I wouldn’t say, “Pride” because I have nothing to do with it — just amazed by the extraordinary courage that the Ukrainians have been showing, and sorrow for everything that’s going on. But also, I just want to make a point about President Zelenskyy, who really is the man of the hour and already has been —  whatever the fate of Ukraine and his own fate. And we all wish that it’s a positive outcome. He deserves to be the man of the year.

Jeff: From a strategic perspective, there’s a lot of talk, as I mentioned in the introduction, that this will change the global landscape, that this will impact Europe for decades to come, that it will have a major strategic rebalancing in Europe from the whole post-World War II structure that has been in place. Is that what you’re seeing here?

Shay: The architecture of European structure has always been keeping Russia out of Europe and allowing Europe to resolve this at first through interstates councils like the European Union, and the European Council, and the European Economic Commission, and all these interstate organizations it has created to keep the US military inside Europe as a deterrent against foreign forces as well as non-European forces.

I hear you have to refer to Russia as a non-European force because it is not a participant in the European security structure. And also to keep the peace among Europeans themselves to make sure that rearmaments doesn’t happen among Europeans. We like to complain about how Germany would not spend on its own defense, how just generally Germans are too pacifist, but also other European countries who would not spend on their own defenses.

But we insert and we force that pacifist gene on the Germans, but also pretty much in Europe. And that has been the security structure of, “We will get into your peace and security, please do not arm.” [chuckles] And in a weird sense, I am still skeptical that we should rethink that structure but it is being renegotiated, the European security structure. And Germans are now considering building up their forces, obviously to extend to even Cold War measures all under [unclear] government, for instance. But certainly, not to the pre-World War II levels but we are rethinking these measures, whether it’s going to work or not. And we want to focus more on China so we want Europeans to take more care of their security.

We’ve been asking them and they are finally accepting, except that, I think, we are also realizing that even if Europeans do take more responsibility for their own security, we still need to invest more in European security as well. I think this has been a wake-up call. I think many people who thought that Russia could be managed have woken up over the past few weeks. So it’s a new world and whether we can keep Europe free and whole should no more be taken as granted.

Jeff: Besides the risk that everybody has been talking about, with respect to nuclear weapons, what do you think is the greatest strategic risk we see as things are playing out right now?

Shay: I think the biggest risk we are taking is if Russia succeeds in Ukraine because you cannot look at Russia’s actions over the past few months within a vacuum. You should look at it that shortly after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the establishment of modern Russia, they invaded and still occupy a part of Moldova. Then in 2007, the first modern-day state-sponsored cyber attack happens against Estonia in the spring of 2007.

Shortly after that, Putin essentially declared war on the West in the Munich Security Conference, February of 2007, with many Europeans foolishly nodding that “Yes, you’re right, America is too arrogant.” And then you see Putin — and these are just military questions, by the way — you see Putin going into Georgia a year after that, and the annexation of Crimea in 2014, less than six years after that. And the ongoing war in Donbas, and he’s never paid a price for that.

Even after the annexation of Crimea, Europeans refused to impose sanctions on Russia. It was weeks later, after Putin-backed separatists shot down a civilian airliner carrying many EU citizens from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur, that Europeans agreed to impose sanctions on Russia. And on top of that, you have Putin using his financial muscle, his economic muscle, to corrupt the finances and the economies of Western Europe with a very welcoming attitude on the British and German part, and that you saw Prime Minister [Boris] Johnson a month ago said, as Putin goes in, as a threat: “We will start to crack down on Russian corruption in the United Kingdom.” And I’m thinking, “Shouldn’t you be doing that anyway?”

So you’ve been seeing these aggressions that Putin has been doing as well as tightening his grip on power, restricting political and civil rights in Russia and poisoning, attempting to assassinate his opponents in Western countries, in Western Europe. And when you never face pushback, you keep going, and he’s so far succeeded. And you asked me about the biggest risk, the biggest risk is that he would succeed in Ukraine, having the confidence to think, “Okay, I can keep going.” I keep seeing that people are talking about [the fact] that President Biden keeps saying — foolishly — “We will not deploy troops to defend Ukraine.”

And listen, there is a defensible argument to be made for that. Stop telling Putin what you won’t do and how everybody is pushing back against the establishment of a no-fly zone or a blockade of Russian ships into Ukraine. And there are many measures that are worth considering, even if not adopting. And when you keep telling the Russians, “We will not go to war with you; that’s our limits,” Putin will say, “Okay, then I can do whatever I can and you still will not push back against me militarily.”

That’s the danger that we allow him to succeed. Now, to be clear, I am not saying that we should enter war with Russia right now over Ukraine. What I’m saying is: one, we should stop drawing that as a red line for ourselves, telling Putin about that; and two, we need to make sure that Putin does not succeed militarily in Ukraine, because if he does, then he has the confidence to go in further.

Jeff: People talk about going in further. What does that mean?

Shay: Putin has famously said that, “Whoever doesn’t miss the Soviet Union has no heart, whoever wants it back has no brain.” He misses the glory of the empire that the Soviet Union had. He does not miss the communist and atheist politics of the Soviet Union. And he wants to restore the empire, that’s quite obvious. He’s been telling us that he wants to do that. Believe the man, he’s telling you. And he also says that Russians believe that Russia is the patriarch of all Russian-speaking people. That includes Belarus, that’s being annexed softly. That includes Ukraine. And that also includes significant Russian-speaking populations in the Baltics.

In fact, if you go look up the title of the patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church, which has a lot of influence over Putin’s regime and vice versa, the title of Patriarch Kirill is “The Patriarch of Moscow and All Rus.” Not all Russians, all Rus. That includes all Russian ethnics who are Eastern Orthodox, and three Baltic states are former Soviet republics. He will make a move for them as well, as soon as he has the capabilities and the attention, as soon as this force succeeds. And he has time to rebuild what he’s lost. But the capabilities he’s lost during the Ukraine war, he will make a move for them.

And that would be catastrophic because we will be faced with two decisions. Defend the Baltics as we are required by US law, because those are NATO countries and NATO is codified — defending NATO is codified into US law since it’s a ratified treaty — or ignore that and that’s the end of NATO. That’s the end of NATO. That’s the beginning of a European rearmament. And that European rearmament is not just against Russia, it could be against each other.

If you go read Bob Kagan’s Foreign Affairs essay from a few years ago — I think It’s called “The Second German Question” — that should cause concerns, as populism and nativism and nationalism and anti-trade sentiments and protectionism are on the rise. Reminds you of the 1930s. And, again to some extent of the [1950s?]. But they’re still in their ascendance and you don’t want Europe to rearm itself at a time that its politics is becoming less liberal. So, suddenly, you have Europe divided into half, and the nationalists and the liberals all arming against each other. And that’s catastrophe. That’s World War III for you.

Interviewer: What’s the best possible outcome given where we are today?

Shay: The best possible outcome, I think, would be if we impose domestic political pressure on Putin so that he’s weakened from within the Kremlin. This is not a likely scenario. But it is possible that if he starts confiscating the assets of his oligarchs and pressuring people in power ministries — that’s intelligence, defense, those with political influence over the Kremlin — that you might see a coup against Putin. Because after all, this is a mafia state.

This is a mafia regime. He’s the mafia boss. And like a mafia, loyalty stops when the cash flow stops, when you begin to confiscate their yards, seize their bank accounts, deport them back into Russia, not allow them to leave Russia for anywhere other than China, Iran, and North Korea — then calculations change for them. Suddenly, they become advocates for peace. And if Putin doesn’t listen, they might turn against him.

Now, is Putin coup proof? I don’t know. He’s definitely tried to make himself so. But even if that’s true, that’s still some distraction from prosecuting the war successfully, if he’s also watching his back. Now, granted, even if you do all these things, I still wouldn’t bet the house that Putin would go down because of it tomorrow. The more likely scenario that we can do — and we should do all of these simultaneously, is to arm Ukraine to the teeth, to seriously consider a no-fly zone and blockade of Russian ship entry through the sea, and a ground blockade also into Ukraine.

We should consider those if we can implement them. That would be fantastic. Obviously, it’s very difficult and very risky. And make sure that Putin exhausts his resources in this war and make sure that he bleeds economically, he bleeds militarily. And again, you see that Russians were captured — Ukrainians are fighting for their lives — Russians who are captured are saying, “We don’t know why we are here. We were told to go there.” This is not a popular war inside Russia either.

So that has the added benefits once bodybags start returning and people see how many Russians — how many of their own compatriots are dying in this war they never asked for. They will turn against the war. And all of these are scenarios that are plausible and we should try all of them. Now, the risk of all these is if Putin keeps struggling in Ukraine and sees that this is a stalemate or it might end up in a loss for him, he might resort to the use of nuclear weapons in Ukraine to just pacify the country like we did in Japan.

Now, that is a nightmare scenario. That will be a new world. You think we are in a new world right now, watch the panic if that happens. And I don’t know if that is a non-starter for Putin. In fact, we know pretty well that he has sent signals that he’s willing to use nuclear weapons if it comes to it. So all of these are possible scenarios and we should consider them. And we should consider that if Putin struggles domestically, he could be toppled — or he could use nukes.

Jeff: Where does China fit into this equation? And what influence do they ultimately have with Putin, do you believe?

Shay: It was right before the Olympics began or maybe on day one, Putin visited Xi Jinping in Beijing and they signed an almost 5,000-word statement about the future of China-Russian cooperation. And at that point, it was quite obvious that Russia was, if not necessarily going to further invade Ukraine, was seriously considering it. So this statement was not signed by the two leaders under the impression Xi Jinping had that a war was never going to happen. He knew the risks when he signed it. In fact, he might have welcomed it, the war, because it’s distracting us from focusing on China right now — as it should, by the way. We should be able to walk and chew gum, but we cannot. So if you have to choose one issue right now, we have to focus on Ukraine.

And the statement they signed basically said that they support each other in their challenges to the current securities architectures in Europe and in Asia — that Russia supports China, China’s claim over Taiwan, and China supports Russia’s claim over Ukraine. Their relationship is going to get closer and closer. And China has been verbally supportive of Russia.

And in the UN votes it will be very interesting to see whether China abstains or votes in Russia’s favor. I don’t think that China is going to vote against Russia in the UN. And finally, one thing that’s important is that Russia is going to be more reliant on China than ever because it is under sanctions. It needs China to help it evade those sanctions. So that’s going to increase Russian reliance on China.

And I think that Russia and China have had historical disagreements over Asian security structure because after all, Russia is more in Asia than in Europe. So I do think that Russia is going to for now forego those differences to have Chinese financial and economic support, but a Nixon-to-China is not going to happen to either Russia or China to separate the two. They have learned their mistakes of the Cold War that they made. They know that if they don’t — what’s the saying? — if they don’t hang together, they will hang separately.

And this also applies to Iran and North Korea, Venezuela, Cuba, Belarus, name the bad guy. There was a very good essay a few months ago by Anne Applebaum, I believe in December for The Atlantic, “The Bad Guys Are Winning,” which I recommend reading, about how there’s a network of tyrants coming together.

Jeff: There is this sense though that China, that she doesn’t want to be in that company, that China sees itself as a much larger player on the global stage. And to the extent that Russia will depend on China to the degree, it will. It seems that she has undue influence with respect to Putin.

Shay: I don’t think that Xi has extraordinary influence on Putin. I don’t think anybody has extraordinary influence on Putin. After all, there are four or five people that Putin has ever trusted as a world leader. And those are his old KGB friends and colleagues who helped a lot to bring him to power, having been loyal to him. Nobody else really has influence over his thinking. And even then, there are reports that he is becoming a madman. And just, if you look at the ridiculous long tables that he makes people sit across. And people are speculating why he’s paranoid about that. Is he making people sit so far because he fears assassination, fears COVID? We don’t know if he’s vaccinated. And even if he is, he probably is aware of the shortcomings of the Sputnik vaccine.

And people are speculating that he might have some other illness actually that has not been reported. There was, a year ago, a report that he might have Parkinson’s disease. This information might be real. We don’t know, but what we do know, and [French] President [Emmanuel] Macron told his aides after he came back from his visit with Putin, that he doesn’t seem like a man in his right mind. He said that he looks very unhinged and you need to remember that Putin has been in almost total isolation since the beginning of COVID.

He has been avoiding people. He has been in contact with a handful, not having much social interaction; and after all, he’s human. And the isolation that drives you and me crazy drives him crazy too, except that he’s in isolation with a lot of power. So it’s even much worse because you get crazy ideas when you have a lot to do in isolation — you know, all you and I could do was Zoom calls and reading books. In isolation, he can start war too. He can think about that. So when you have too much time alone with a lot of thoughts, you get bad ideas. And I do think that he might be actually unhinged and that’s something that should terrify us.

Jeff: And finally, there is, as we saw at the State of the Union address, this tremendous outpouring of support for Ukraine in the US right now. How long do you think that’s sustainable? And to the extent that that support is there now, what should America do with it?

Shay: So [chuckles] I really want to know when the last time was when a US president received standing ovations from members — probably not every single member of both parties, I assume that Marjorie Taylor Greene didn’t stand up…

[laughter]

Shay: But I think 90% to 95%, maybe even more than that of the members of Congress stood up to cheer — I don’t even want to say, “To cheer President Biden,” but what he’s had to say about the Ukrainians. So that’s something encouraging. And I think it’s durable. I do think that it’s durable this outpouring support for Ukrainians. And are we going to six months from now — if there’s a stalemate, if Ukraine has fallen, God forbid — are we going to forget about it? Or not forget, but put it on the shelf, let’s say. Yes, probably, most people are going to, but they don’t think that it is going to be a controversial policy to keep, maintain our support for Ukraine.

I think that’s going to be a popular opinion, even if not a priority, six months from now. And as long as it is popular, you can count on the US government that it will do it. The thing with US national security is that most people want to act more often than they don’t want to act. And the difficulty is not that you don’t want to act while a majority want you to act — it’s the opposite that almost never happens. The real difficulty is when policy-makers have a policy preference in favor of action and it is unpopular, when that action is unpopular. I think that the American people and their representatives inside the government are going to both be in favor of action, which means that we can maintain support for Ukraine.

Jeff: We’ll see how it all plays out. Shay Khatiri, I thank you so much for spending time with us today.

Shay: Thank you.

Jeff: Thank you. And thank you for listening and joining us here on the WhoWhatWhy podcast. I hope you join us next week for another radio WhoWhatWhy podcast. I’m Jeff Schechtman. If you like this podcast, please feel free to share and help others find it by rating and reviewing it on iTunes. You can also support this podcast and all the work we do by going to whowhatwhy.org/donate.


Author

  • Jeff Schechtman’s career spans movies, radio stations and podcasts. After spending twenty-five years in the motion picture industry as a producer and executive, he immersed himself in journalism, radio, and more recently the world of podcasts. To date he has conducted over ten-thousand interviews with authors, journalists, and thought leaders. Since March of 2015, he has conducted over 315 podcasts for WhoWhatWhy.org

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