On March 6, Vladimir Putin announced that he was putting Russian nuclear forces on high alert. What does this mean in practical terms, and how likely is it that Russia will deploy nuclear weapons?
I think that the likelihood is very, very small, but there still is a possibility. But you have to distinguish between strategic nuclear weapons and tactical nuclear weapons. When people think about a potential Russian nuclear strike in the Ukraine scenario, it is the latter, it’s the use of tactical nuclear weapons which have a fairly low payload, fly a much shorter distance, so the destruction is much smaller. Here the idea would be that Putin feels cornered, and he is unhappy about how the invasion is going to such a degree that he really thinks that escalation is the only option.
I don’t think we are there yet. In such a scenario, one can imagine that a tactical nuclear weapon then creates such a shock and fear among NATO countries, but of course also among the Ukrainians, that they are then willing to compromise. This scenario is usually called the ‘escalate to deescalate’ doctrine, a doctrine that’s been debated in Russian military circles.
It has been speculated that Putin is not a rational actor, that he has isolated himself and become paranoid. How does this factor into the risk calculations?
Right now, I think Putin’s main objective is regime survival, the survival of him as president of Russia, but also of his inner circle. So what are his options? If he just stopped the war and said I made a mistake, I miscalculated, I’m withdrawing the troops, the probability that he would survive in Russia is very, very small because then he loses all sorts of legitimacy. You could then expect an uprising against him from his inner circle and the oligarch class, or even the population. So if he wants to survive, and I think that’s his top priority, he really needs to proceed forward. He can’t lose face.
Right now, Putin’s main objective is regime survival.
How likely is a coup d’etat and the overthrow of Putin from power?
There’s a term called “coup-proofing.” Dictators and regimes threatened with being overthrown engage in all sorts of coup-proofing techniques. What we know ever since 2011-12 is that Putin got scared watching what happened in the Arab Spring and to people such as Qaddafi, and he set up an entire bunker system all across Russia where he can retreat and hide with his loyal inner circle – such as the commander of the military forces Army General Valery Gerasimov and Minister of Defence Sergei Shoigu. This is all very secret, and all that we analysts know is still fairly vague, but it tells you a coup is something that Putin has been taking into consideration for quite a while, and he has undertaken a series of coup-proofing techniques, which makes a successful coup pretty difficult to implement.
How likely do you see the possibility of reaching an end to the war through peace talks and diplomatic negotiations?
I’ve studied peace negotiations throughout modern history and the truth is that there needs to be a willingness to compromise – which I don’t see from either side at this point. On the Ukrainian side, there’s still a very strong fighting spirit among the population. Whereas before the invasion, there might have been some willingness to compromise, maybe giving up certain parts of Ukraine such as the separatist regions.
Right now, that’s a quasi impossibility because patriotism has been ignited to such a degree. But of course there is always the possibility that if Russia dramatically escalates and employs techniques used in Chechnya or in Syria, that the number of casualties, the level of human suffering is so immense, that at one point Zelenskyy accepts to give up when confronted with mass murder. Such a strategy is, unfortunately, a possibility, because the Russians have done this in the past.
Do you think there has been a failure to recognise and contain the threat Russia posed to European security?
Absolutely. For me, the Russian invasion of Ukraine constitutes a so-called “deterrence failure”. Europe and NATO did not communicate to Putin until the very last moment that there would be serious punishment if he invaded Ukraine. Just days before the invasion here in Germany the government was still kind of saying ‘yeah, we’re not actually going to put on the table what type of sanctions we might implement’. When Olaf Scholz went to Washington, he refused to even name Nord Stream 2. He talked about “strategic ambiguity” in an interview with the Washington Post and it was a complete misunderstanding of what strategic ambiguity actually means. Deterrence means crystal clarity. It means to say: if you do x, we will respond with y. But in the last two months or so, when we saw the Russian military build-up, Europeans were sending a lot of mixed messages.
Of course there were failures way before that point, but I think what is most dramatic is the last two months when we saw the build-up and there was still this mixed messaging. William Burns, the CIA chief, was in a hearing in the US Congress where he talked a little bit about what he knew about the psyche and the kind of calculations that Putin made. One of the calculations he made was that Germany and France would not respond, that Putin was assuming that, and that’s why he thought that he could actually do this and get away with it. He was right.
Should NATO establish a no fly zone over Ukraine, and if so, what’s the risk?
A no-fly zone is a very aggressive move. If Russian airplanes violate Ukrainian air space they would need to be shot down. Can NATO do it? Absolutely. The Americans have this capability, but it’s very violent, you are then entering into a direct war with Russia. What would that entail? It is unlikely that Russia would invade NATO territory. That’s at the present moment an impossibility because 75 percent of Russian ground forces are engaged now in one form or another in Ukraine, so there are no forces left. But what I could imagine is that Putin then targets NATO installations, for example with a missile strike on Poland or the Baltic states and that could be very dangerous, because what does NATO do next? A dangerous escalation spiral might ensue.
A no-fly zone is a very aggressive move. Can NATO do it? Absolutely.
What is the likelihood of the conflict spilling over into other countries and of Russia going on to invade other sovereign states?
The operation is not going as planned, so I don’t think Putin plans on invading another country any time soon. At the beginning of the war – let’s say in the first two or three days – there was uncertainty about how good the Ukrainian defence would be. There was a possibility that Putin could capture Kyiv in a few days, and since he had a large number of Russian troops already assembled, why then not move on, especially toward Moldova. Now I think there is to a certain degree a Russian reassessment of their capabilities. I don’t think the lesson that Russia draws from this invasion is to go for more. It is a shock for them that this is so hard.
In an historic shift of its defence and foreign policy, the German government announced the allocation of €100 billion for the armed forces (compared to €47 billion in 2021) and an increase in spending on defence to reach the 2 percent of GDP NATO target (up from 1.53 percent in 2021). Were you surprised? Why now?
It sounds like a lot, and in terms of policy, it’s big. Some people think Germany is rearming and going to be a massive military power, but that’s not actually the case – you don’t get much for that money. So, why and why now. The answer is a mixture of fear and guilt. The German decision came within a few days of the invasion when there still was a real possibility that Putin could go further. German Chancellor Scholz, who doesn’t have much experience in security and defence policy, was shocked when he learned that the German military had very little to offer to defend Germany.
On the other hand: many very influential SPD members had been defending Putin until the day of the invasion. Many of them had been instrumental in setting up Nord Stream 2. They were also shocked after February 24 and felt guilty for having misread Putin so badly. They wanted to make up for their mistakes – or at least they didn’t want to risk that their past behaviour would come back to haunt them. These two dynamics explain the dramatic shift in German defence spending and why I think the coalition behind this decision is still fairly strong.
The first couple of years of investment will actually just be fixing the massive holes in German military capability, for example, only 40 percent of German helicopters work. German fighter jets, the Tornados, are from the 1970s. In short, Germany is not going from a Mercedes to Ferrari. Rather it’s going from a really weak, almost non-functioning system to something functional. So we need to see things in perspective.
Marina E. Henke is professor of International Relations at Hertie School and director of the Centre for International Security in Berlin.
She researches and publishes on military interventions, peacekeeping, nuclear security, European security and defence policy.