This week, President Joe Biden is visiting European nations — including Poland — as the war in Ukraine rages on. This follows on the heels of Biden pledging to send $800 million worth of weapons to Ukraine, on top of an additional $13.8 billion approved by Congress. This week on Intercepted: associate editor Maia Hibbett discusses the details behind the U.S. support for Ukraine with investigative reporter Ken Klippenstein and associate reporter Sara Sirota. As Klippenstein and Sirota explain, the U.S. has been sending ISR — or intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance — assistance to Ukraine, without being fully involved in the conflict. The aid, however, could be seen as an escalation to the conflict, despite major news organizations and think tanks pushing for an even more aggressive stance. Klippenstein and Sirota explain that the way out of the conflict is to assist in diplomacy between Ukraine and Russia — not add fuel to the fire.
[Intercepted theme music.]
Jeremy Scahill: This is Intercepted.
Maia Hibbett: I’m Maia Hibbett, an associate editor with The Intercept.
As the Russian invasion of Ukraine continues, President Joe Biden will travel to Brussels for a NATO summit and Warsaw for a meeting with the Polish president.
CBS News: President Biden travels to Brussels this week aiming to present a united front on the Ukraine war with European and NATO leaders. That’s just part of what’s expected to be a pivotal week for the administration.
Sky News Australia: His visit to Poland will take place a day after he meets with NATO allies, G7, and EU leaders in Brussels to discuss efforts to support Ukraine and imposing sanctions on Russia.
MH: This comes one week after Congress approved a bill for $13.6 billion in emergency assistance for Ukraine.
That same day, he announced the U.S. government would send an additional $800 million worth of weapons:
President Joseph R. Biden: We started our assistance to Ukraine before this war began, as they started to do exercises along the Ukrainian border — the Russians — starting in March of last year. We took the threat of Putin invading very seriously, and we acted on it.
We sent Ukraine more security assistance last year — $650 million in weapons, including anti-air and anti-armor equipment before the invasion — more than we had ever provided before. So when the invasion began, they already had in their hands the kinds of weapons they needed to counter Russian advances.
MH: Tensions continue to rise, with fears of a worsening conflict on the horizon. There’s the inevitable worry of a full-on war between Russia and NATO, one in which nuclear weapons could be engaged.
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MH: Since Russia began its invasion of Ukraine on February 24, journalists, think-tank experts, and members of Congress have repeatedly asked the Biden administration about supplying more military assistance and calling for a no-fly zone.
Reporter: You have noted from the podium that Putin has shown no signs of changing course. You’ve also noted that there are significant consequences that Putin could still face, even with this additional aid that you’re providing today. It seems there are still other options on the table. So hold back? Why not use every tool at your disposal now to spare additional lives?
Reporter: Would a strike in Poland on supplies or or anything really automatically be met with a military, a forceful response, or simply a conversation amongst allies about how to respond?
Reporter: President Zelenskyy in his remarks in Congress today again, made his request for a no-fly zone. He no doubt is aware of President Biden’s position. Is there any scenario in which President Biden would change his mind?
MH: Implementing a no-fly zone would bring the U.S. into direct conflict with Russia, escalating the war and worsening the human toll.
According to the United Nations’ refugee agency, ten million people — more than a quarter of Ukraine’s population — have now fled their country because of the fighting. The U.N. human rights office reported that the war has killed at least 900 civilians, but the number is likely much higher.
Ken Klippenstein, an investigative reporter with The Intercept, and Sara Sirota, an associate reporter with The Intercept, have been closely following the national security developments in Washington.
They join me now to discuss the United States’ role in the war, and how the Biden administration is skirting the line of direct involvement. I asked Sara and Ken exactly what type of military aid the U.S. has provided — and what they will continue to provide:
Ken Klippenstein: So one of the first things we did, I was told by an Army signals intelligence analyst back in February, was to provide extensive ISR — it stands for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance assets to neighboring countries. So, these are largely air assets. So for example, we have sent MQ-9 Reaper drones, Boeing Rivet Joints, and what’s called AWACS. It’s like these huge planes that can hoover up signals from radios, calls, but also peer deeply within the country to take photographs of what’s going on, and then we share that with the liaison officer to the Ukrainians. And the nature of this assistance has to be subtle, it can’t take place from within the country, because that runs the risk of putting the U.S. in direct confrontation with Russia, which carries all sorts of risks beyond just being a World War-type situation, there are nuclear risks as well.
So what the Biden administration has done, I think very cautiously, has been to try to find out what kinds of support we can provide Ukraine that doesn’t bring us into direct conflict with the Russians.
MH: So Ukraine is a U.S. ally. But could you just explain a little bit for listeners why the U.S. can’t actually surveil from within Ukraine, why the United States has to stay within the allied countries like Poland and Romania?
KK: Yeah. So once you enter into the airspace, the Russians can shoot down, whether it’s a drone, like I mentioned before, the Rivet Joints or the AWACS, and in the cases of the aircraft that aren’t drones — the so-called manned aircraft— that would be killing U.S. troops. And then that would probably precipitate a response from us. And they can just create a tit-for-tat situation where either side continues escalating until ultimate disaster.
It’s kind of interesting, you talk to people in the Pentagon: they understand this stuff very well. And they actually resemble what is called the dovish side on the part of the foreign policy community. Whereas you look at the think-tank world and some of these guys, and they have a much more, let’s say, detached from the reality [take] on the ground, then the guys actually doing the work and who themselves realize the adversary we’re up against. A point brought up to me again and again was when you’re in a situation where you could come in conflict with the Russians, this is very different from the War on Terror style engagements we’ve had after 9/11, where you’re fighting non-state actors, we are finally fighting not only a state actor, but one with nuclear weapons, a very advanced military, a huge military budget, and so this is a much different problem that you have to develop a solution for than the kinds of conflicts we faced in the past. When you’re fighting al Qaeda, you’re fighting ISIS, you don’t have to worry about them launching a tactical nuclear weapon, you don’t have to worry about them having an Air Force, because they don’t have one. And so it’s a completely different state of affairs. And I feel like in the think-tank world, or parts of certainly cable news, let’s say, I don’t think that there’s been as much appreciation for the difference that this kind of conflict presents.
Sara Sirota: I think, also, in addition, while al Qaeda and ISIS are not nuclear-powered groups, or have sophisticated air forces, like Ken was mentioning, we do have experience fighting in proximity to Russia on opposing sides, particularly in Syria. Russia has been a big supporter of the Assad regime, while we supported rebels in that civil war, some of whom turned out to be not so moderate as we’ve claimed in the past. But we do have experience sort of engaging in these deconfliction engagements with Russia trying to operate on opposing sides, but also trying to avoid direct confrontation, while supplying, whether it’s intelligence or physical assets to allies or partners of ours, engaging in hostilities.
KK: It was interesting, in talking to current and former officials in the intelligence community, hearing them describe even the kinds of intelligence that we are passing to Ukrainians has to be limited in nature. Everyone I interviewed was careful to note that we are not giving them what’s called targeting intelligence, that is intelligence that can be used in real time to target and kill or attack Russians. And I was surprised by that. Because, again, these guys in the military, these are not dovish type people generally.
And then so you ask, well, why all this caution when what you’re seeing in the cable news is like: We got to send jets in, and we got to bomb them, or we gotta hit — I mean, I saw in one case somebody was saying that we need to assassinate Putin.
You talk to the military, it’s not that they like Putin [laughs] by any means. They hate this guy, and this is their adversary. But again, there is a recognition of the reality that if there is direct confrontation, things can spin out of control very quickly.
And so in the case of intelligence-sharing, I was really surprised to hear this. It has to be maybe imagery intelligence, maybe signals intelligence that can help inform the Ukrainians about where they might get hit, how to seek refuge and trying to protect themselves. But it can’t be the kind of thing that they can use in an aggressive fashion. I was really surprised.
Sara brought up an interesting point with deconfliction. That’s the process by which you tell the Russians maybe our authorities are moving here. And then you try to give them some information about your military activities so that they don’t bump into your military. So again, a lot of appreciation for this reality, whether you like it or not, that you can’t have direct confrontation, without a whole lot of risk coming along with that.
SS: But of course, this is also a reflection of the U.S. perspective on what constitutes confrontation or engaging in support for an ally without crossing a certain threshold or line that might, in Russia’s view, justify retaliation.
So in addition to intelligence and reconnaissance support, we have been supplying weapons to Ukraine. We’ve been giving them Javelin missiles — surface-to-air missiles. And Russia has already come out and said that we will consider these convoys of weapons to be legitimate targets for us. So that’s something that we — the United States — may not directly see as provocative or amounting to U.S. direct engagement in this conflict. But that’s the U.S. perspective. And, of course, in any conflict where we have any level of engagement, there is risk and sort of managing that risk, what we’re willing to take on versus not, such as, as Ken was explaining bombing and striking Russian targets directly, which I think most people inside the Pentagon that we’ve interacted with agree would be way too hostile. These are things that the U.S. military is weighing.
KK: Something that I found extremely concerning is just this glibness with which particularly cable news is saying — we’ve got to give the MiGs to these guys and send the Air Force in here. And it’s like, the stuff that Biden is already doing is not without risk.
So to give you guys an example, a Russian drone that was operating in Ukraine drifted into Poland, it seemed accidentally, and then Poland, a NATO member said: We’re gonna have to shoot this down. Ultimately, the drone, they were able to correct it and send it back into Ukraine, where it was ultimately shot down. But this is an example of even just things that you’re using for, like I was saying before, ISR — intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance — even if these things don’t have Hellfire missiles or whatever to engage targets in a direct fashion, that still carries risks of confrontation.
So Biden is already doing quite a lot. And that was what I was trying to dispel in this story, this notion that, oh, the President isn’t doing anything, he needs to get tough and get involved in this. He’s involved. And I think, to his credit, in interviewing folks and speaking with folks in Congress, he’s been fairly cautious and restrained, because he has to be.
The downside of that kind of subtle engagement is that it might not generate the sorts of headlines that having boots on the ground would. But again, that doesn’t mean that he’s not involved, that he’s not contributing things to try to help. And that that kind of involvement doesn’t carry its own risk.
MH: I think that’s a good point. And I have a few follow up questions on this. But first, I wanted to back up a little bit, because, Sara, you raised a really interesting point about the precedent of deconfliction in the context of Syria, and the sort of proxy war that was happening there. And I was wondering if we could just revisit that quickly with a little bit more specificity for any listeners that don’t remember what the U.S. role in Syria was, and how that represents this kind of deconfliction effort.
SS: In terms of Syria, we historically have provided support to rebels that were fighting against the Assad regime, all different kinds of rebels, some of whom turned out to have ties to al Qaeda and even ISIS later on.
And so, Syria, or Assad, has had support from Russia in terms of maintaining its air superiority and other kinds of support. And here we saw Russia backing a regime that has used chemical weapons and other violent means to suppress the rebels that have been engaging in a civil war there. And I think it’s sort of that experience that has led people to be surprised, to an extent, by the Russian [tactics] in the initial phases of this Ukrainian war to be less victorious than then a lot of military experts would have assumed based on the Russian experience in Syria, and also its support for very violent force in Syria has led to worries that Russia will be willing to use very brute force, which we’ve already seen in Ukraine. And I think that’s sort of what has contributed to concerns about chemical weapons, bio warfare, and nuclear weapons.
KK: Yeah, to expand a little bit on the deconfliction point. It’s kind of counterintuitive because you think of the U.S. and Russia, not exactly friends; obviously, you know, ardent adversaries. But one thing they do is they have military-to-military communication, where they’ll say our jets are going here and we’re going to tell you this so that your jets don’t bump into them and then create an international incident. So there’s actually a lot of high-level communication between military leadership — again, not because we’re friends, but because of this recognition by folks who have the actual expertise of actually doing these things, not sitting in an air conditioned room on the set of a cable news show, but people that have actually fought wars and understand how it works, realize that you have to do these things. This is just what you do to prevent disaster.
And so that’s sort of what deconfliction is. And it’s an interesting illustration of the nature of the conflict here, because that’s absolutely going on. In any sort of potential superpower confrontation, there’s recognition of the stakes. And because of that, there’s high level communication.
And so when I first learned about that, I was kind of surprised that, wait, we’re actually telling them things? But it’s not like giving them information to hurt us, it’s giving them information to mutually prevent, and draw down the risk of some kind of crisis.
SS: This happens all the time, also, between Russia and Israel, as Israel tries to strike targets in Syria where it believes that Iran is setting up military bases, and then works with Russia to make sure — since Russia controls a lot of the Syrian airspace — that it’s OK that it does those operations.
MH: You note in your story that U.S. officials who are knowledgeable about the operations told you that they can’t share real-time intelligence, but they often will share intelligence information that they’ve kind of gathered and processed on their own, with a delay. Can you explain a little bit more how that avoids crossing these very particular lines?
KK: Yeah, well, as Sara said, to some extent, we are creating our own lines and hoping that the Russians share those lines. And that’s why diplomacy and communication are so important, because if you’re operating on different ideas of where the red lines are, you can get into a conflict very quickly.
But I think something generally agreed upon is yeah, you’re not going to share targeting stuff that can be used directly to hit somebody immediately. And so because of that, there’s a delay, I’m told, between — not always very much of one, maybe the delay is, hours, or even, in some cases, minutes — but you’re not going to give them real-time, like a video feed of exactly where the Russians are. Because, again, that can be used to — but a lot of this stuff is arbitrary, determining where these lines are. And that’s why it’s so important that you don’t get into this situation, that as awful as what Russia is doing, clearly illegal, gonna have a horrible human rights toll, you have to maintain lines of communication to understand what you might do could lead to some kind of response from them.
And, I mean, the Biden administration is in a situation where they have to figure out: How far can we go where we come right up to that line, and no farther? And so far, my impression is that they’ve done a pretty decent job of that. But it’s not easy. And, as I said before, with the case of the drone that drifted into Polish airspace, it seems to be an accident, it’s not just intentions; accidents can happen, too. So anytime you’re sharing things like this, things don’t always go according to plan.
But it’s kind of interesting, the disjunct between the circumspect and careful attitude of the U.S. in sharing these things. And then you compare that with, again, what you see on cable news from some of these think tanks, it’s like night and day difference, you know? It’s very concerning to me, because the public is getting their messaging not from the folks in the intelligence community and the military that we’ve spoken to for the story. They’re getting them from people on TV that seem to have a wildly different, how do you say, risk matrix for how they’re approaching these things. And I wish that they could reconcile those things a little bit more so people could get a more realistic picture of what’s going on, what the stakes are, what the concerns are. But unfortunately, that doesn’t seem to be the case.
SS: And of course, the lawmakers that are also very hawkish are the ones that get the most attention in the cable news. So it’s not just you know, cable news reporters, and maybe the occasional retired DoD or CIA analyst that likes to join CNN, or Fox, or whatever it is, after they retire. It’s also members of Congress like Adam Kinzinger or Lindsey Graham, who have been very provocative in their calls for how the U.S. should approach Russia, whether it’s assassinating Putin or declaring a no-fly zone that most military experts would agree would be incredibly escalatory and put the United States into direct warfare with a nuclear-armed country,
KK: Sara makes a really good point. There seems to be a lot of incentive for saying these bombastic things — political incentive. You get to seem like a tough guy, and this guy’s not afraid of anybody, that kind of thing. But the reality is, hopefully, we’re not going to act on any of that stuff, because it would mean disaster really quickly. But the scary thing is that I think when you have a political climate where they’re allowed to say these things, at some point, people start believing them, including in government.
MH: Just in case anybody’s not on the same page yet, what actually does implementing a no-fly zone entail?
KK: So a no-fly zone is a kind of brilliant term of art, because it sounds really nice. It’s like, oh, there’s no jets flying overhead. That will save civilians.
But the reality is, the unasked question embedded in that bit of language is: How is this being enforced? And the reality is, this is enforced by shooting down Russian jets, and they don’t really get into that part when they use this piece of terminology.
And what’s interesting is if you look at the polling, there’s tons of support for a no-fly zone. But if you ask the question, in a sort of realistic fashion that explains to the person what that entails, suddenly support for it drops off to a, I think, small minority. And that’s a reflection of the poor job that I think the national media has done at explicating these things and what they mean.
Again, if you just heard it, you’re an ordinary person, you think, oh, no jets in the air, that sounds great, there aren’t going to be airstrikes and the human suffering that that entails. But there’s going to be a whole lot of human suffering when you’re shooting down the Russian jets. And then the Russians respond, and Sara can speak to this, there’s a lot of analysis in the military that suggests that the Russians might use a tactical nuclear weapon in some fashion in response to something like that to try to get the get the U.S. to back off or NATO to back off, or just scare everyone into submission. And then once, under nuclear doctrine, when one party uses one, other states view it as though they have to use a nuclear weapon in response to that response.
And so I think there’s very little appreciation for how these sorts of military operations are not completely confined. Like, you might just say: OK, we’re just gonna shoot down one jet. But that’s not putting into account the web of consequences that sort of spreads out from any one of these decisions.
SS: Yeah, I think people are also used to hearing no-fly zones in the context of the Libyan intervention that we did in 2011, which is incredibly different. That’s not putting us into conflict with a nuclear-armed country. And I think there’s a lack of appreciation, because nuclear weapons have been so out of the dialogue of national security conversation in recent years that people forget that these weapons still exist and are extremely dangerous and deadly. And Russia has a massive nuclear arsenal. And it’s very much believed in U.S. national security circles, they don’t have a no-first-use policy as the U.S. does not. And so it’s assumed that they are willing to use a nuclear weapon in a conventional context.
MH: Before we talk about the nuclear weapons, let’s just discuss the conventional weapons that the U.S. will and will not supply.
For example, if you listen to some of the White House press briefings last week, you would hear reporters repeatedly calling for these things called MiGs, and saying that Zelenskyy was requesting them. What are MiGs? And why are those on the list of weapons that the United States will not supply to Ukraine?
SS: So MiGs are Soviet fighter jets. We don’t have MiGs, but our allies like Poland have MiGs. And so it was either Zelenskyy or Poland that suggested the idea of delivering Polish MiGs to the Ukrainian military and routing them through a NATO military base in Germany. And the U.S. — or the Biden administration — rejected this idea, because they thought that it would seem too hostile to have these aircraft come through a NATO military base.
There are plenty of voices in Congress and in cable media that are advocating for this, but the administration has decided that that is a line that it’s not willing to cross.
KK: That’s a good example of the way in which, like I said before, the most bombastic voices will generate the most publicity. I can tell you for a fact that I have sources in the national security community that at the time that this MiGs thing was being pushed and there was enormous coverage — you know, give them the MiGs! It’ll help them so much. The people that didn’t get voiced were the guys, particularly in the Defense Department — I know for a fact that Secretary of Defense [Lloyd] Austin was opposed to this — they were extremely worried about it. And there was a conflict between the State Department and the Joint Chiefs and the leadership of the Office of the Secretary of Defense, saying: No, this is a really dangerous idea, who knows how Russia will respond.
And sadly, the latter group, the voice for restraint, don’t get the same coverage. And there’s a number of structural reasons for that. One is that they can’t come out and say this stuff publicly because it would be politically disastrous and would make the administration look like they’re backing down and weak. And then the other thing is just this preference that the media tends to have, again, for the most vivid and exciting statements, how exciting is it for someone to come out and just be this voice of reason and say: OK, guys, we need to calm down here. Unfortunately, I think there’s just a disposition not to want to air those kinds of concerns?
SS: Yeah. And then during press briefings, you’ll hear reporters question: Well, why aren’t we sending these weapons? Why aren’t we doing this in a military way?
And then you barely get any questions: Well, why aren’t we offering this diplomatic concession?
And it seems like such a, I don’t know, like a loser attitude or something to be willing to offer some sort of diplomatic negotiation with Putin this horrible tyrant, and nobody that’s advocating that I’m aware of for diplomatic solutions believe that Putin is justified or that he shouldn’t face some sort of punishment. But we’re talking about trying to find ways to de-escalate a war that is killing innocent people. And yeah, I mean, is a willingness to, you know, swallow your pride a little bit and, and make diplomatic overtures to Russia, something that’s worthwhile in this context? I mean, that conversation doesn’t even come up. It’s always: What military support can we be sending? Why aren’t we doing more militarily?
Why aren’t we doing more diplomatically? I think that your average person would very much be questioning that. Or, at least: Why aren’t we having this conversation?
KK: Yeah. And to speak to your question a bit more about the arms support. What I found frustrating investigating this story was how much the Biden administration is doing. And when you talk to people in Congress, they have concerns that even if Biden is someone who personally favors restraint, the political climate is such that there’s so much pressure being brought to bear on hi, as we come into a midterm election and the media coverage is such that it’s going to reward any of these sort of provocative rhetoric or even actions, that he’s going to, just from that political pressure, have to bow to it, and ended up doing more.
But just looking at what he’s already done, looking at my notes here, we’ve provided tens of thousands of anti-tank weapons, the exact same shorts that they’re using on the Russians to shoot at the tanks and blow them up. And there were years prior to this of CIA paramilitary activity, wherein we were training. You have to train people how to use these weapons. That’s something that I hadn’t appreciated before doing this story was how much it’s not just air dropping supplies or sending them via logistics routes from neighboring countries, you have to show them how to use these things. It’s not trivial. It’s not like a video game where you just hold down a trigger. You have to understand how to use the technology associated with it. So we had CIA paramilitaries training people in the use of these anti-tank missiles like Javelins, sniper-rifle techniques, covert communications — this is all stuff that not only President Biden has undertaken, but happened under his predecessor administrations, like the Trump administration and the Obama administration.
What was interesting, our colleague Jim Risen, in recent story he had, said that both the Trump administration — which is perhaps not surprising — but also the administration, were so concerned at the level of covert engagement that they, under President Biden, actually sought to suspend a lot of these covert operations in Ukraine. So this notion that we’re not doing anything to help them, it’s just not true.
SS: We’ve also long had, although Ukraine is not a member of NATO, we have had NATO military trainers in Ukraine, helping to assist their defense forces for years. And a base where U.S. military personnel, up until a few weeks before the invasion, were stationed in western Ukraine just came under Russian attack a little while ago. And many people saw that as a deliberate measure to sort of warn off Western countries.
So I mean, yeah, the idea that the West or the United States has not provided sufficient military support I think comes under great scrutiny when you look at our recent history there.
MH: And since you mentioned NATO, let’s talk about NATO a little bit and how this conflict sort of seems to represent not just a conflict between Russia and Ukraine, but a conflict between Russian imperialism and Western imperialism and why Russia has been so opposed to Ukraine joining NATO; why Ukraine has requested it.
SS: After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, there were conversations that happened between the United States and Russia, where the U.S. may have informally — or formally to an extent — said that Ukraine will not join NATO. And Russia has seen NATO as an extension of Western imperialism, of trying to encroach on its borders, on its sphere of influence in Eastern Europe. And while most people would agree that Ukraine is nowhere near ready for NATO admission due to corruption and other factors and criteria that are necessary before a country can join, we’ve definitely publicly put out there that we want Ukraine — or we have Ukraine on track — to eventually join NATO, which Russia sees as extremely escalatory.
Ukraine and Russia share a very large border. And I think that there’s concerns about data weaponry being stationed in Ukraine if it were to join the organization. And so that conversation of not that NATO expansion has necessarily justified Russian invasion here, but to an extent did it lay the groundwork for the grievances that led to this invasion is a conversation that is happening across the political spectrum.
And now, right now, from what we hear, one of Putin’s biggest demands is having it confirmed that Ukraine will never join NATO in order to end the current hostilities.
MH: In terms of the current hostilities, we’ve talked about all of these ways of trying to avoid nuclear escalation. And, Sara, you’ve written a couple times now about the likelihood or the possibility of nuclear conflict? Could you tell us a little bit more about the U.S. and Russia’s nuclear postures and what the risks are here?
SS: Sure. So the U.S. and Russia both do not have no-first-use policies, which means that it is within their security doctrines that nuclear weapons can be used in a conventional context.
Russia notoriously has a very large arsenal of what’s called low-yield nuclear weapons which, to be clear, are not low-yield by any means. The bombs that the United States dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki are both considered low-yield nuclear weapons. But that just goes to show how enormous and devastating nuclear weapons can be. We have the B83 bomb that’s exponentially more deadly than those bombs that we dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
But Russia has a very large arsenal of these low-yield weapons. And it’s assumed by several U.S. military analysts that they believe it is within their doctrine to use one of these low-yield weapons for the purposes of to de-escalate, where it might drop a weapon with the hope that that will force everybody to retreat and bring it into whatever conflict is going on. And so there’s definitely a fear right now that Russia could use a low-yield nuclear weapon in Ukraine.
But also, I think that, to be clear, the main concern of Russia potentially using a low-yield nuclear weapon does exist within the context of if NATO were to get involved in this war. So it’s more that a lot of experts believe that Russia would use one if it feels that it faces some sort of existential threat which, realistically, unless Ukraine were somehow to be able to invade Russia and get close to the Kremlin, that Russia would only be pushed to use one of these types of weapons if the United States and other countries were to get involved and to pose some sort of huge threat to Russian sovereignty or to Putin’s power.
But that’s why, as Ken and I have been explaining, that the U.S. is sort of drawing these lines, and being very careful to not do anything that’s viewed as too provocative, and to get involved, is so crucial.
KK: And I think that there are attempts to cast concerns about nuclear exchange, as sort of hysterical or playing into the hands of the Russians which, to be sure, nuclear weapons do exist to, you know, coerce people and scare people with the idea that they could be used. But I don’t think that concerns over them are misplaced, or exaggerated or anything, if only because the action that President Putin has undertaken is itself pretty irrational, in the sense that he’s chosen to invade a massive country that is just, I think any sensible analyst would look at and say, how are you going to be able to occupy a country this large, and be able to put down an insurgency. It just seems very unlikely. And speaks to a mindset that is perhaps less rational, let’s say, than what one would hope of a leader of a nuclear state like that.
And so because of that, his calculus in using a low-yield tactical nuclear weapon or something like that becomes a matter of great importance and something we should consider as, unfortunately, a possibility. I mean, the invasion in itself was to say nothing of the humanitarian costs, politically reckless. I can’t imagine it’s going to be popular, certainly in the medium-to-long-term and so, because of that, I don’t know that we’re dealing with the kind of an adversary where you could count on: Oh, they’re not going to do this because that would be dangerous or maybe even suicidal.
SS: I think that also the longer that this war drags on for, which also speaks to the issue of the U.S. supplying as many weapons as it does, does create more context for greater irrationality or at least deviation from Russian traditional military doctrine. So if Putin is driven more and more into a corner and feels that there is no other way to create defeat in Ukraine than using more and more brute force, which we are seeing right now, then will he be willing to use a low-yield nuclear weapon. And I think that a lot of the concerns did stem from in the early days of the invasion that Putin put his nuclear forces on high alert. And, you know, this was sort of seen as a public gesture to remind NATO, to remind the United States: We have nuclear weapons. Don’t provoke us. But as this war drags on more and as the West or the U.S. and NATO continue to supply weapons that create the possibility of direct confrontation, or as Putin sees that the Ukrainian resistance is succeeding more than he would have expected, does that put him into a position to escalate to this type of weapon is definitely a concern.
MH: We’ve talked about the fact that nobody quite knows what Putin will do, or his thinking has been sort of unpredictable. But what about when it comes to U.S. policy? Sara, you’ve written about the fact that we’re still awaiting what’s called the nuclear posture review from the Biden administration. Could you tell us just briefly what that is and what we might expect from the policy when they do unveil it?
SS: Sure. So you know, the nuclear posture review is a document that every president since Bill Clinton has released to sort of publicly declare his viewpoint on the U.S. nuclear arsenal, policies that would guide nuclear weapons usage and specific nuclear weapons that the U.S. does maintain and may decide to develop into the future.
So Biden’s document was expected early this year. I think because of the invasion, they’ve delayed that. And I think there’s a lot of questions in the nuclear expert community about how Russia’s invasion may influence Biden’s decisions within that document. So there were always, going into this, questions about would he change to a no first-use policy or a single-use policy? Would he be willing to roll back certain low-yield nuclear weapons that were gone under the Trump administration, I think those were the biggest points that nuclear disarmament experts were hopeful for, was that he would roll back some of these low-yield nuclear weapons that Trump had started.
And, more broadly, the U.S. maintains a huge nuclear weapon arsenal, we have what’s known as a triad and there’s always been been hoped that a likely Democratic administration might be willing to revisit that, and at least roll back the ICBM force, which is considered the least necessary and also most dangerous leg of the U.S. nuclear triad.
But I think that, given the current political climate, as Ken was explaining in terms of pressure on Biden to do more in Ukraine, there’s also going to be immense pressure not to roll back some of these weapons, or not to change policy that the administration may have been considering prior to the invasion, because it just goes back to this sort of superficial view on what it means to look strong in the international community. And, unfortunately, that from countries like Russia and China might be viewed as escalatory. So, very eager to see what the administration ultimately decides when this nuclear posture review comes out.
MH: And in terms of the pressures to build up weapons arsenals, or keep the conflict going. There’s obviously a boon for weapons manufacturers here and for arms dealers, and some of those may then influence people in Congress pushing for war or think tanks, as we’ve touched on. So can we just talk a little bit about the profiteers in this conflict and who this is good for?
KK: Yeah, they’ve actually discussed this pretty openly in their investor calls. There’s been some reporting over the last couple months where they’re just talking about the bonanza of profits and revenue that they stand to make with this essentially proxy conflict. Since we’re not gonna have boots on the ground or formal military presence, a lot of that is going to look like arming partners, sending them through neighboring countries. And so the development of all these tools — and not just that, I mean, if you look at, for example, Germany, they changed their constitution to enshrine I think it was like a 3 percent or maybe 5 percent increase in military spending — so this is a huge gift, not just to American weapons contractors, but internationally.
Prior to this conflict, NATO had increasingly seemed like a sort of a historical relic because there hadn’t been this kind of conflict along those traditional lines since the collapse of the Soviet Union. I mean, that’s not to say there wasn’t tension. But I can’t think of a better gift for these guys, sadly, than this invasion. And that’s probably the case for Russian contractors as well.
And it makes me queasy to listen to the just openly excited attitude on the part of — I mean, I mentioned investor calls, too, but you could read between the lines how a lot of these trade associations, and even Congress is talking, there seems to be a lot of excitement for the effect that is going to have on the business climate.
SS: Yeah. I mean, you mentioned Germany pledging to increase its military spending. We also had Germany announce last week that it’s going to buy more F-35s. So there’s a gift to Lockheed Martin.
You’ve had, I forget which Eastern European country it was, that was saying that it wants to buy more MQ-9 Reapers, which, great for General Atomics. And you know, the U.S. defense manufacturers are some of the biggest contributors and donors to political campaigns out there.
And it just brings up very legitimate questions about motives on Capitol Hill behind, you know, wanting to send more weapons to Ukraine, when they have this sort of influence in the background over their political career.
MH: That’s a very good point. And just briefly, I think the investor calls were Lockheed Martin and Raytheon. It was on CNBC, I think, the Raytheon CEO was kind of openly discussing the fact that this would be such a good business opportunity, before the invasion, even
Gregory J. Hayes: Obviously, we had some certain defensive weapons systems that we could supply, which could be helpful, like the Patriot missile system.
MH: And as we wrap up, what do you think the kind of way forward or way out of this might be?
KK: Well, I think that we have seen begin to develop the sort of skeletal framework for some kind of an agreement. And I think people are rightly skeptical of the sincerity of the Russians when they’re discussing this. But both they and Zelenskyy are at least starting now to talk about what potentially, they might negotiate over what kinds of concessions may exist.
And so that is something that, as Sarah said earlier, we need to be able to discuss in a way that isn’t going to feel great, because, again, I would love to see Putin held to the fullest account possible for this illegal invasion and for the humanitarian crisis that is precipitated, but at the same time, the only way out is going to be some kind of arrangement, where both parties have to give up things they don’t want to, and I don’t see any way around that.
And, unfortunately, the political climate is not going to be conducive to that. We can’t have a situation where politicians are going to be able to cast anyone as favoring some kind of diplomatic solution as weak or as caving to Putin or this, that, and the other thing.
I am encouraged that some kind of framework is beginning to emerge. And hopefully, if we can encourage that to continue to develop, that could lead to an end of this horrible, horrible conflict.
SS: Yeah, I think Ryan Grim, during a White House press briefing had an important question, where he asked if Zelenskyy would be empowered during negotiations with Russia?
Ryan Grim: So, aside from the request for weapons, President Zelenskyy has also requested that the U.S. be more involved in negotiations toward a peaceful resolution to the war. What is the U.S. doing to push those negotiations forward?
SS: And I think that’s a really crucial question that hasn’t really been asked and pressed about more is because in addition to Ukraine making potential concessions in an effort to end this war, I think there are important questions to be asked about, is the U.S. and Europe doing enough to create off-ramps for Putin? To what extent can the really devastating sanctions that NATO countries and the U.S. have inflicted on Russia, could those be lifted as part of some sort of final deal?
And yet I don’t really see these kinds of questions brought up because everybody’s curious about: Are we going to authorize the sending of Polish MiGs? Are we going to provide more military weapons? What about a no-fly zone?
And, well, as Ken said, any end of a conflict has to involve some sort of diplomatic solution that’s not going to be satisfying to all sides, but that’s the way these things end. And there’s very little conversation about, since the U.S. has played a very significant role, what kind of concessions it will be willing to make.
MH: Thanks so much both of you for coming on.
KK: Thanks, guys.
SS: Thanks, Maia.
[End credits music.]
MH: And that’s it for this episode of Intercepted. Follow us on Twitter @Intercepted and on Instagram @InterceptedPodcast.
Intercepted is a production of First Look Media and The Intercept. José Olivares is lead producer. Supervising producer is Laura Flynn. Betsy Reed is editor in chief of The Intercept. And Rick Kwan mixed our show. Our theme music, as always, was composed by DJ Spooky.
And I’m Maia Hibbett.
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