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This is an audio transcript of the Rachman Review podcast episode: ‘Russia’s nuclear threat’

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Gideon Rachman
Hello and welcome to the Rachman Review. I’m Gideon Rachman, chief foreign affairs commentator of the Financial Times. This week’s edition is about the war in Ukraine and the threat of nuclear escalation. My guest is Alexander Gabuev, who, until the war broke out, was a senior fellow at the Carnegie Moscow Centre. He left Russia shortly after its invasion of Ukraine and is still working as a senior fellow for the Carnegie Endowment think-tank. Vladimir Putin has frequently made threatening references to Russia’s nuclear weapons. But would he really use them?

News clip
The rail bridge connecting occupied Crimea to Russia is on fire. The road bridge next to it has collapsed. Images widely shared on social media show a train on the Kerch rail bridge engulfed in flames. Of course, the damage is still unclear.

Gideon Rachman
This week has seen another step up the escalation ladder in Ukraine. An attack on the Kerch bridge threatened to sever Russia’s main link to the Crimean peninsula. A couple of days later, the Russian military launched brutal missile attacks on Ukrainian cities.

News clip
This is what escalation looks like — a gaping hole where once there were homes. Rescue workers searching for the dead and the living. Moments after the blast in the middle of the night, stunned, furious reactions.

Gideon Rachman
Even before this latest intensification of fighting, there’s been plenty of talk on all sides of the dangers of nuclear war. In the US, President Biden recently said that the world was closer to the threat of nuclear Armageddon than at any time since the Cuban missile crisis of 60 years ago. And President Volodymyr Zelenskyy of Ukraine recently told the BBC’s John Simpson that Russian officials have begun to prepare their society for the possible use of nuclear weapons.

Volodymyr Zelenskyy
They begin to prepare their society. That is very dangerous. They are not ready to do it, to use it. But they begin to communicate . . . 

John Simpson
What do you mean? Prepare society for using a nuclear weapon?

Volodymyr Zelenskyy
It’s, you know, it’s... They don’t know if they will use or they will not use. I think that is dangerous even to speak about it.

Gideon Rachman
One of Zelenskyy’s senior advisers, Andrei Yermak, wrote recently that Ukraine’s intelligence agencies believe there is a very high risk that Russia will use a tactical nuclear weapon on the battlefield. Alexander Gabuev is in an unusually good position to understand the thinking on all sides. Before he left Russia, he was a member of the country’s foreign policy elite as one of Russia’s leading experts on China. But the Carnegie Endowment, where he works, was until recently run by Bill Burns, who’s the current head of the CIA. And Sasha, as his friends call him, remains well-connected in Washington. Attentive listeners may remember that I spoke to him in July, a few months after the invasion. We met each other again last weekend at a conference in Turkey run by two foreign affairs think-tanks, Edam from Turkey and the Centre for European Reform in London. When I sat down to talk with Alexander Gabuev, news was just coming in of the successful attack on the Kerch bridge. The Russian counter strikes had not yet begun. But as you’ll hear, Sasha believes strongly that we are entering a period of heightened danger in this war. He began our conversation by explaining why, in his view, Putin’s failed strategy is leading him down the path to potential nuclear escalation.

Alexander Gabuev
I think that there is a certain delay between the terrible events for Russia happening on the ground and the way Putin reacts. And here, attack on the Crimea bridge is very close to one of the red lines. I think there are more bad events for Russia in store. I’m not a military expert, but it looks like the Russian group in Kherson is in danger. And then going forward, the force that Putin has available and that he recruits is not really able to change the situation on the ground. And then the time is more on the Ukrainian side, if we stay conventional. In order to change the tide he needs to escalate. And I think that’s very likely to happen. It’s not necessarily will happen tomorrow, but I think that he needs to escalate and there are several steps where he can escalate.

Gideon Rachman
And indeed Biden has put this on the table explicitly by saying this is the most dangerous nuclear threat or threat of nuclear war since the Cuban missile crisis of 1962. So is it your view that Putin would escalate all the way up until and including nuclear weapons?

Alexander Gabuev
Yes, I do believe that he will escalate up until the use of nuclear weapons, because he may try to use the remaining air force and high-precision calibre class missiles to destroy Ukrainian infrastructure or to destroy the government quarter in Kyiv. Will that stop the Ukrainians and stop the flow of Western support to Ukraine? Very unlikely. He might use the chemical weapons on the battlefield to stop Ukrainian advance. That’s not what will stop Ukrainians because Ukrainians seem to be very determined to go after the war aims as they define it and the whole society is mobilised around this. So the way to stop it is to put the most powerful tool on the table, and if the west is not afraid, actually use it.

Gideon Rachman
And do you think we would see that in the west coming? I mean, would he, in fact, want us to see it as a signalling device to try to force this negotiation or whatever he wants?

Alexander Gabuev
I think that Russia is very active in signalling right now. So we see the verbal signalling that was part of his annexation speech. That was part of the speech announcing the mobilisation. And then we also see the trains with nuclear materials going, Russian submarine that is capable to carry this Poseidon underwater drones. There are Russian nuclear exercises that are happening right now. So there is a lot of signalling. But I think that if he believes that he’s losing this war and this war is existential for his understanding of his role in Russian history, we will see real-time preparations. So he will try not to hide this. And it’s gonna be nuclear warhead-driven direction missile or whatever or artillery shells being unloaded. He will make it visible to give the west time to call him and start negotiation and avoid the nuclear escalation scenario, the way Cuban missile crisis was resolved.

Gideon Rachman
So there are some people, including here at this conference I’ve spoken to who say, “Nah, he won’t do that. Yes, this was existential for him, but he’s not on a suicide mission. He takes enormous pains to protect himself. So that would be a risk too far. He won’t go this far”. What do you say to that?

Alexander Gabuev
I think that it’s very important to understand that he sees this war as really existential. It’s life and death for Russia. And he also said that we don’t need this world without Russia. It’s a very anti-Russian saying, by the way. I think that our national identity, for at least the educated class, is built on the idea that Russia sacrificed itself and stood in the way of Mongolian hordes, and that allowed European culture to thrive and have a renaissance. And then in World War II, we also sacrificed up to 30 million people. And then the idea is based on self-sacrifice. So to say that we are ready to destroy the world and go down . . . 

Gideon Rachman
When did he say that?

Alexander Gabuev
He said that in one of the Valdai meetings, I think.

Gideon Rachman
Right. A couple of years ago.

Alexander Gabuev
A couple of years ago. And he was, I think, very clear-cut on this. And then he was once asked, “What happens if there is nuclear war?” And you say, we all go to heaven, and then the foreigners, the evil Americans, will just die. And I think that he is not somebody who is not communicating his mind openly, like a lot of grievances going back to the Munich speech and like all of the red lines were proclaimed by him in a broad daylight. It’s just people don’t listen attentively or there is this dysfunctional policy process where some do, some don’t, and then they are not taken seriously and not plan accordingly or how to deal with that threat. So, yes, I do believe that he’s dead serious about nuclear weapons and it’s not necessarily suicidal that he will die. There are multiple bunkers. Soviet experience was to planning for the day after the doomsday, and there are multiple preparations for this as well.

Gideon Rachman
As far as you know, and obviously you still talk to a lot of people in Moscow, are those preparations going underway for a possible nuclear war?

Alexander Gabuev
I’ve heard about that. I’ve heard that the bunker system is refurbished and then people are prepared to kind of go and hide in nuclear bunkers. That’s also something to watch if people start to disappear in these bunkers and probably the US intelligence has these satellites. But it’s very chilling. I think that the talk in Moscow about this is very, very serious, it’s much more serious than the public debate in the US. I’m relieved to hear President Biden sounding very serious. He said that this is the closest we got to the Cuban missile crisis.

Gideon Rachman
Okay. So if Putin himself doesn’t have a break, others say, well, actually, either Russian society or the Russian power elite won’t allow this to happen, that at some point there will be a revolt. Take it one by one. First of all, the power elite in Russia is there. A possibility that they would come together and say, “We’re not gonna do this” or that one group would take control.

Alexander Gabuev
I think that people who are in charge of large armed bureaucracies, minister of defence, head of the National Guard, half of the FSB, they are all much more part of the problem than part of the solution. They are all in the same mentality that we are in existential struggle against the west. The west is out to get us. We are fighting a proxy war with Ukraine where the real puppet master is the evil America. And then we have no chance to back down because the regime is under danger of collapse. And then Putin is probably even more messianic and ideological about his role as the Russian leader. So I don’t see any meaningful cracks amongst this most important people. And then we see some criticism towards Shoigu or Chief of General Staff General Gerasimov, by somebody like Ramzan Kadyrov, the Chechen leader, or Evgeny Prigozhin, head of Wagner Group. But this is much more about criticism from the hawks saying that these guys have been too incompetent for us to win the war. Let us do the right thing. And it’s more fighting for resources in order to push yourself inside the system. These are not somebody who says this war and threat of nuclear annihilation is total madness. We need to stop that. And for that, we need to take Mr Putin. The civilians, the head of the central bank, the oligarchs are unimportant. They don’t have the voice. They don’t have the resources to orchestrate anything. And they are also very afraid. So I think that on the elite level, we don’t see the constellation of people really taking Mr Putin out. He’s fully in charge for now.

Gideon Rachman
And what about the public? I mean, you hear a lot, particularly from Ukrainians in boats who say, “You know, one shouldn’t let the Russian public off. They’re not victims in this process”. This is Russia’s war and that really, we need another Russian revolution and that maybe that will happen if things get bad enough, dangerous enough, you know, there’ll be a mutiny in the army, something like that. What about that line of thinking?

Alexander Gabuev
First, I think that if we look at comparable cases in Belarus, up to 20 per cent of the population was on the streets and was about to storm the presidential palace. In Venezuela, we have the splits in the society, nearly 50-50, and then we saw some army units switching to the protesters. We have internationally recognised President Juan Guaidó. In Iran we’ve seen the Green Revolution and the current events. These regimes most of the time unfortunately can toughen it out. And if Putin has learned some lessons -- and he did -- is that I need to toughen it out. The last people who go to the frontlines in Russia are the riot police, the FSB and everybody who is involved in securing domestic law and order and control of the regime. And I think that so far the Kremlin has used tactics of gradually unpacking the toolkit of violence to put pressure on the civil society and if there is any competence in the Russian regime. This is one of the very competent and successful parts, unfortunately, and at the other might be the central bank. I think that the Ukrainian experience is coloured by the success of Maidan and then Ukrainians did it in 2004 during the Orange Revolution and in Maidan, and then they believe that the Russians should do the same. My answer to this is that it takes a split in the elite for this type of revolutions to be successful. It was very much there in 2004 and 2014 in Ukraine. I don’t see the splits now. Final point, the Kremlin really taps into wells of apathy, atomisation of the Russian society and total distrust towards each other. So the polling data that we did at Carnegie in September with my colleague Andrei Kolesnikov teaming up with Levada, the independent pollster -- they not only did the polls, but they also did some focus groups -- shows a very predictable distribution of support for this war. There is about 20 per cent strong hardcore nationalists who want this war to really annihilate Ukraine. There is 20 per cent very strong anti-war minority, far less visible and vocal because criticising the war has been criminalised. And then 60 per cent prefer to look away and pretend that this war doesn’t exist. Once their life or well-being is threatened by mobilisation, these people flee. And then it also removes the pressure from the capital. That’s been Putin’s strategy from day one.

Gideon Rachman
So you’re saying he might even be welcoming the fact that, is it hundreds of thousands of people have now left the country to avoid mobilisation?

Alexander Gabuev
He’s definitely not doing anything meaningful to prevent this. He’s sending the signals that, oh, we might be in full mobilisation, the borders might be shut tomorrow. So, rush! Run the Russians. And I think that these are the Russians who are not necessarily anti-war, not liberal, although they are, some like it’s a very mixed crowd. But these are definitely people who have agency who can take risks and responsibility. And he wants these people out of Russia.

Gideon Rachman
Okay. Final search for a get-out-of-jail card that doesn’t end a nuclear war. Another argument here is, “Yeah, but Russia’s becoming more and more isolated”. It’s, as you know, because you’re actually an expert on China, very dependent on China. And we’ve seen signs the Chinese are not happy with the way things are going. And the Indians actually directly confronted Putin at the SCO summit in Uzbekistan. So, even if he won’t listen to the west, he might listen to the Chinese and the Indians saying, you know, don’t do this.

Alexander Gabuev
I think that’s yet another example of magical thinking that somebody will parachute and fix the Putin problem for the west and it won’t. The way for China to exert pressure on Putin would be to say, if you go nuclear in Ukraine, not a single drop of Russian oil will enter China’s market. So to put real pressure on Putin, you need to use your economic leverage. China doesn’t do that because China thinks that looking at Russian foreign policy is a natural disaster. It’s like a typhoon. We cannot control it, we can only adapt to it. It’s also seen a lot of benefits from Russia becoming a dependent junior partner of China, and it sees many downsides if Putin’s regime collapses because it believes, okay, our little partner will be destroyed and then the west will go after us. And when they have these discussions with the Americans, they ask, okay, what’s in for us? Does it mean any improvement of US-China relationship and the US, in a very American way, wants to compartmentalise it and to say, “No, it’s your national interest China to do something about Russia breaking the nuclear taboo, do something about it”. And then China says, “Oh no, our relationship with you guys goes in a direction that we cannot really put pressure on our friend”. Without give and take, that doesn’t happen.

Gideon Rachman
Right. Okay. So we come back now to Washington. And I know you just spent 10 days there. You know the place very well indeed. Your former boss at Carnegie, Bill Burns, is now the head of the CIA. Do you think the key decision makers in Washington, who you’ve been speaking to, have they succumbed to magical thinking or do they take the nuclear thing seriously?

Alexander Gabuev
Judging by what the president said just recently, and also that’s my experience talking to people in DC, there is no magical thinking in the administration, which is a very, very good news. Everybody is very clear-eyed about the risk. And then the president, in his recent public remarks, started to lay the real level of threat out for the American people to say that we are as close to the nuclear showdown as we have ever been since the Cuban missile crisis. And then once the escalation starts, it’s very difficult to contain it. And we need to do everything we should to prevent it. So the way the administration tries to prevent it, I think, is sending some signals in the public domain. We don’t have very clear articulation of what the US will do should Russia use nuclear weapons in whatever form in Ukraine against Ukraine, not the high-altitude, low-yield device explosion somewhere in the Arctic. So tactical nuclear use in the battlefield or a missile attack on whatever, Snake Island, something like that, I think crosses the red line. So there will be a response that will be not only sanctions or condemnation, but something more serious.

Gideon Rachman
Probably a military response?

Alexander Gabuev
Most likely military response. And these are what retired four-star generals are saying out. And these are people who are usually very careful in the words they use. And it envisages a conventional response in the internationally recognised territory of Ukraine, including Crimea, against Russian military assets. But I think that the Americans are very clear that this is a step into an escalation.

Gideon Rachman
Absolutely. Because it’s bad enough that obviously, terrible that Russia uses a nuclear weapon, America responds. But then you’re at what they call an escalation and it’s likely that Russia would respond, yeah?

Alexander Gabuev
This is a very likely scenario if Russia uses nukes. So all of this signalling and the signals that most likely the Americans are transmitting in the channels that they still have with the Russians is that they lay out options and they want to be credible. So the real moment of truth will be then if Putin believes that he’s losing this war, he’s cornered. There is an event which triggers his erratic reaction, an emotional reaction. And then we shouldn’t expect a dispassionate discussion right now where he clearly outlines the red lines, communicates them to Americans. He wants to be ambiguous in order to win more. So if something happens that triggers his reaction, he will most likely be very visible about preparing for a nuclear strike. And it will give some lead time for diplomacy. And for now, it’s understandable why President Biden doesn’t want to have direct negotiations. The Ukrainians are on offensive. They’re very successful. Nobody wants to stop this and nobody wants to keep Ukrainians from liberating their land, which are totally rightful to do. And then it’s also a very frustrating experience of talking to Putin before the war and the current exchange in the channels that the west still has with the Kremlin is also very frustrating.

Gideon Rachman
So you’re thinking of like Macron, who does talk to Putin fairly regularly, doesn’t get very far.

Alexander Gabuev
Yeah. And Chancellor Scholz and we know that some senior American officials are still talking to their Russian counterparts.

Gideon Rachman
That’s interesting. So, when you say senior American officials, so we know that before the war, people like Jake Sullivan, the national security adviser, and Bill Burns of the CIA would talk to their Russian counterparts. I mean, obviously, that’s a secret whether they still do. But would your best guess be that they’re still occasionally talking to them?

Alexander Gabuev
The American government gives us to know, talking to the media, like the FT, that some conversation of these likes are still happening and the lines of communication are still open.

Gideon Rachman
And this would be when? I mean, Sullivan has said without saying explicitly how it was laid out, that the Americans have said in terms what they would do.

Alexander Gabuev
To the most senior levels of the Russian establishment. So I believe that he refers to this channels that most likely looks similar, like the channels that have been public before the war. The problem, for example, with the Crimea bridge attack is that the Russians again believe that Ukrainians have no agency and that whatever there is a success that Ukrainians have either in the battlefield, or in special intelligence operations, like blowing up the Crimea bridge, it’s always the CIA there. So my ex-boss, Bill Burns, used to be one of the major interlocutors. Biden sent him on the special mission to Moscow when it was established that Putin is about to attack Ukraine. And then the US intelligence community played a role in shaping the western response. But also, Bill was instrumental in keeping some of these channels open. Now I think that his credibility looking for Moscow’s eyes might be diminished because it’s very hard to explain that the CIA was not behind any of these successes. And I interpret the publications in western media about the US intelligence community disowning killing of Daria Dugina, the daughter of the ultranationalist philosopher Alexander Dugin, and saying that this was done by the Ukrainians on their own as this attempt to restore the credibility. But unfortunately, these channels become less and less productive. We don’t see them being productive.

Gideon Rachman
Yeah, I mean, that was an interesting leak where, you know, obviously it came from the American intelligence people saying, “We think the Ukrainians killed Daria Dugina”. Was that also a sign that there are, beneath the surface, some tensions between the Ukrainian government and Washington?

Alexander Gabuev
I think I’m reading about this in the press. I’m hearing something about this. And I think that it’s an open secret that some tensions are there. The American government is a friend of Ukraine. It supports Ukrainians’ fight for survival, independence, restoration of their territorial integrity. But there are certain limits because the Americans are clear-eyed about the dangerous risks out there. The Ukrainian society, I think, is very much set on this course of total victory, which includes restoration of territorial integrity of Ukraine, including Crimea. And then there is not enough discussion of what that actually entails and what kind of reaction the Ukraine might face and whether a risk of losing a major Ukrainian city to a Russian nuclear attack is worth fighting for Crimea. It’s not the time for Ukraine to discuss this, but unfortunately once this risk might materialise, it will be very, very much needed because it will be only a matter of couple of days where there will be this window of opportunity where Russians are preparing very visibly for nuclear attack that President Biden can call President Putin, or they meet at the G20 summit and then they have a chance to discuss it and frame it that we need to do Khrushchev and Kennedy. So here, Ukraine and President Zelenskyy have a voice and then any type of formula do not resolve, but freeze this conflict and avoid the nuclear confrontation. And my ideal scenario would envisage something like North and South Korea. So the Ukrainian army stop where it is. It doesn’t need to vacate any of the territory it has liberated. And then the Russians accept it. They can pitch whatever is left as a victory at home and then Ukraine territory will be secured. The territorial conflict will be unresolved, of course, and there is no peace, there is no resolution. But then Ukrainian territory will be secured. It will be provided with weapons to defend itself and the reconstruction effort can finally begin. And then there will be long waiting time till there is a formula that can accommodate all of the parties. But things can go wrong because it’s gonna be one conversation with two people distrusting each other and then Zelenskyy having a vote in this conversation.

Gideon Rachman
Yeah. Okay. So just to finish off, that’s a very striking scenario that you paint. So let’s just underline what you’re saying, that we’re moving up the escalation ladder the worse it goes for Russia, and that the key point will be that some time in the coming weeks or coming months, Biden and Putin will talk directly and everything will hinge on that. Is that essentially what you’re saying?

Alexander Gabuev
I think that if we are there and I hope we are not, but if we are there, nothing gets resolved and stopped without two leaders talking to each other. And it’s not gonna be President Zelenskyy and President Putin. But President Putin believes that the opponent is President Biden and it takes President Biden to talk to President Putin. And we all should hope that this conversation will produce a result that will stop us on the brink of nuclear confrontation.

Gideon Rachman
And as far as you’re aware, are both sides in Moscow and Washington already preparing for that conversation?

Alexander Gabuev
It’s hard to tell. I think that judging by what President Biden says in public, he understands the gravity of the situation and he might be having various options. The Russians are much less transparent about it because there are no signals that they want to have this conversation. They want to escalate to the point where the west comes to them. The risk here is that President Putin might perceive this call as a sign of weakness, put some maximalist demands, for example, that Ukraine should vacate the territory that he now claims as Russia. And that would be, I think, unattainable. It’s not that somebody can swallow that. So here is a very risky and challenging situation still.

Gideon Rachman
Okay. Well, Sasha, you did warn me this would be a depressing conversation, but thank you so much for sharing your ideas and your knowledge.

Alexander Gabuev
That’s my usual disclaimer that when I enter any briefing room, I say, like most likely we are all going to leave this room more depressed than we entered this room. I’m very sorry that it happened to you again.

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Gideon Rachman

That was Alexander Gabuev of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, ending this edition of the Rachman Review. Thanks for joining me and please listen again next week.

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