Graham Allison is a Harvard professor and former US defense official with expertise in nuclear weapons, Russia, China and security planning. His book on the 1971 Cuban Missile Crisis is considered a seminal work. In the 1990s, Allison, 82, worked as Deputy Secretary of Defense to coordinate US strategy toward the post-Cold War Soviet Union.
In a wide range interview With Vazha Tavberidze of RFE/RL’s Georgia Service, the veteran former diplomat discusses why Russia’s Vladimir Putin is likely to escalate further in Ukraine, possibly even opting for nuclear weapons, breaking a decades-old “taboo” and plunging the globe into further uncertainty.
RFE/RL: Earlier this month Putin celebrated his 70th birthday and a day later the Crimean Bridge was hit by a truck bomb on October 8th. After that, Russia launched what is believed to be its largest coordinated air and missile attack on Ukraine since the invasion began on Feb. 24, suggesting Putin is poised to escalate. What’s his next step?
Graham Alison: If Putin is forced to choose between a humiliating defeat and an escalation in the level of destruction… there is every reason to believe that he will choose the latter. When you increase the level of destruction, the first step is to bomb the infrastructure. And I think he does now, although he doesn’t have as many smart bombs as he’d like, you know, so they’re not aimed as carefully, but one on that ladder of destruction just destroys people.
A humiliating Russian defeat in Ukraine would not be existential for Russia in my view… but I think it will be existential for Putin.
The western narrative, and particularly [Ukrainian President Volodymyr] Zelenskyy has claimed that Putin killed many civilians. Actually he didn’t kill very many if you look at it historically. If he wanted to kill children, if he wanted to kill thousands of people, he can bomb Kyiv; nothing prevents him from sending bombers to bomb Kiev, or hitting Kyiv with hundreds of rockets. So there are many population centers.
So, I think his primary concern is infrastructure because he wants to freeze Ukraine and make their lights go out and whatever. Yes, but then that turns into killing people. And after that come chemical weapons and then nuclear strikes.
RFE/RL: You paint a very bleak picture of where the conflict could lead.
Alison: It’s a very ugly picture. And while a humiliating defeat for Russia in Ukraine would not, in my view, be existential for Russia – Russia can survive without Ukraine – I think it will be existential for Putin.
RFE/RL: Are we approaching the moment when Putin feels cornered?
Alison: I think so. As [U.S.] president [Joe] Biden said in private remarks released last week that he believes we are stumbling along the way to this point.
RFE/RL: If, for example, there is indeed a targeted nuclear strike in Ukraine, as a demonstration of decisive power, what could that mean not only for Ukraine but also for Russia, the rest of the world?
Alison: It’s obviously the question that every thoughtful person in Washington, and many of them, and certainly President Biden and his entire national security team, have been asking. This is a question Europeans are asking themselves and should be asking. So what’s the big picture? We’ve had seven decades without the use of nuclear weapons in war. That’s remarkable. That’s not natural. That’s an achievement. The nuclear taboo has been emerging slowly, but it has emerged. And fortunately, states have refrained from using nuclear weapons.
Putin certainly has the ability to carry out a nuclear strike. In his view, he would have reason to launch a nuclear strike if he believed it would result in a victor rather than a loser. Putin does not see himself as a loser and will, I believe, despair as CIA director [William] Burns has said to find a way out if he’s backed into a corner.
So I think if he does, like Biden said, we’re going to be living in a new world. How the US and its Western allies will react is uncertain. A lot would depend on what the use of the nuclear weapon is, you know what the goal would be. So he could have a ‘demonstration bomb’, just blow something up in the forest or in the Black Sea. He could hit a military target, he could hit a city.
So if you listen to what he said last week, he said [former U.S. President Harry] Truman’s bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki set the precedent. That’s what he said. Well, in Hiroshima, the bomb that the Americans dropped on Hiroshima killed 140,000 people. So, a nuclear strike on Kyiv with a tactical nuclear weapon that could set off the same explosion – 15 kilotons as the Hiroshima bomb – could kill quite a few people in here. So you’re like, “Oh my god, what would be the answer to that?” I think Washington had gone through the whole menu of options.
RFE/RL: Do you believe in any of those options that Washington is considering a nuclear response?
Alison: Washington would say everything is on the table. But a nuclear response seems highly unlikely to me, and I would say it would be imprudent. Because the question would then be how would Putin react to it? So you are in an area where you have bad options and worse options, not good options. And that’s why there are now so many attempts to convince Putin that this is a really bad idea, also for himself, for his country, for the world. He needs to figure that out for himself what the US and the West would do in response, and also advice that I hope he gets from some of the people he trusts more, like China.
RFE/RL: You said in an interview with Der Spiegel a few months ago, “We’re going to have to end a war with the demon,” and the examples you gave were like [former U.S. President Franklin Delano] Roosevelt and [former U.K. Prime Minister Winston] Churchill sat down [former Soviet dictator Josef] Stalin, who obviously killed millions of people, or [former U.S. President Richard] Nixon with [former Chinese communist leader] mao [Zedung], who was no wimp when it came to killing people either. Let me ask you: what would such a deal with the devil look like when it comes to Putin?
Alison: I have an unorthodox view on this. If you’re listening to President Biden, if you’re reading his comments, you’re clearly thinking exits — that’s how Washington thinks about it.
So my optimistic scenario would be that you essentially get to a stalemate over the next month or two. Probably somewhere along the current line of control, probably with Ukraine controlling most of it west of the Dnieper and the other river there (Inhulets River) near Kherson, and Russia controlling most of the other side; that fighting will return to low levels, similar to what happened in the so-called independent republics of Donetsk and Luhansk between 2016 and 2020.
And that at this point Putin believes he has enough to declare that he has succeeded. He has his land bridge to the Crimea; He conquered an additional territory. So, he says, he’s successful. And we say that we are successful because we say that Ukraine survived as a free and independent country and does not give up any of its territory. It claims it will regain those territories at some point, but not today. And Ukraine will focus on building a prosperous country, which will be extremely difficult to achieve, but in which I believe it has a moral claim on the West to get major financial backing for the venture.
And then there would be my story, that’s my good news story [that]that takes one, two or five years. I remember the history of East Germany and West Germany. West Germany never gave up its claim to East Germany. It just showed what a free society could do compared to a Soviet-controlled autocracy. Or North Korea and South Korea; or more relevant to Ukraine: How about the Baltics?
Putin’s playbook in Ukraine seems to me to have been taken directly from the communist playbook in the Baltics at the end of World War II, when they held sham elections and sham referendums, annexed Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia and called them republics of the US Soviet Union. The West, the US, did not recognize the Soviet Union’s claim to these territories, nor did the people living outside, and over time they became free states.
So this can take a long time. That is unfortunate. But since the alternative would be something even worse, I would consider that an optimistic scenario.