As the war in Ukraine reached its two-week mark, Grid spoke with former CIA leader and Grid Special Contributor John McLaughlin about the state of the war, the NATO efforts to arm the Ukrainian resistance and why he believes Russian President Vladimir Putin is losing the fight.
He also spoke about the risks of a “collision” between NATO and Russian forces, and why a “Srebrenica moment” in the war might draw NATO into more direct engagement. We are in “the wild blue yonder,” McLaughlin said. “There is no rule book for this.”
Hear more from this conversation between Tom Nagorski and John McLaughlin:
This interview originally took place as a Twitter Spaces conversation and has been edited for length and clarity.
Grid: On the first day of the war, you said you were very concerned about circumstances that might bring NATO and the U.S. into some direct combat or, as you said, “collision.” What were you worried about then? And are you more worried or less worried now?
John McLaughlin: At the time, I was thinking of at least four different situations in which NATO and the Russians could come into some direct contact.
Maybe the most obvious one is the possibility of miscalculation or accident, you know, with NATO aircraft and NATO ships in the general vicinity, in the Black Sea and in the NATO areas adjacent to Ukraine. The possibility of an accident of some sort is always there.
The second thing — and the concern about this has only grown — is that Putin, in some kind of desperation, might do a little minor provocation in some NATO country. I think the candidates would mostly be the Baltics — Estonia or Latvia, where there are large Russian-speaking populations, particularly in the northeast corner of Estonia. And once he did that, we would be in Article Five territory [requiring a NATO response].
Then third: The distinction is rapidly disappearing between what we’re doing and what an insurgency would be. Because we are clearly funneling weapons, sophisticated weapons to Ukraine. But if the situation goes to one where Putin has been able somehow to occupy Ukraine, there would be an insurgency against Russian occupation, and presumably, we would support it and presumably with support from some adjacent territory, and that means from NATO countries. And some hotheaded Russian commander in hot pursuit, after insurgents had blown up, say, a bunch of Russian soldiers, could easily stray across the border. And bingo, we would be in direct contact.
And of course, Putin has more or less said that anyone doing that in his eyes becomes a combatant.
And then finally, the really far-out one is the idea that at some point he might start a cyber war. And while we have escalation dominance in sanctions — that is to say we can control how far it’s going to go — when it’s cyber, we don’t have the practice and the experience and the precedent to know, where does it stop? When does it become an act of war? When have we engaged in the cyber-equivalent of what we used to call in the nuclear world “mutual assured destruction”? Would that be taking down our electrical grids? We’re way out in the wild blue yonder there.
Grid: Well, this whole conflict has us in the wild blue yonder, in a lot of ways.
JM: That’s a very important point, I think. On so many of these things, we’re in new territory. You know, we haven’t had anything comparable to this experience since the Cuban missile crisis.
Grid: Let me let me pin down one thing, which I don’t think you mentioned. A no-fly zone, which is put on the table every morning by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy and others in Ukraine, and even by those who seem to know that it’s unlikely for the moment. Can you talk a little bit about why a no-fly zone has been — at least to this moment — very clearly off the table for NATO?
JM: Well, I think everyone understands that if you had NATO pilots flying in a no-fly zone, obviously the potential would be there for American pilots or NATO pilots engaging Russian pilots. And the idea of U.S.-Russian aerial combat, against a backdrop of two nuclear-armed superpowers who can destroy the world, is something that I think everyone justifiably would like to avoid.
As far as Putin’s claim that this would be an act of war by NATO, and he would consider it as such — and meanwhile, he says he’s increased the readiness of his nuclear forces — at some point, we are going to have to address this. And this is where we’re in new territory. We don’t have a rule book to turn to. And I doubt that there is a plan on the shelf in the Pentagon for how to deal with exactly this situation.
I was thinking today, I’m sitting here in my office and up on my shelf is a large foot-long fragment of a 107-millimeter rocket that almost hit me in Vietnam when I was there in the Army. And those rockets came from the Soviet Union. And they were inflicted on American forces in a war we were fighting. And no one at the time said, ‘That means we’re at war with the Soviet Union,’ and no one at that time said, ‘This means we could go nuclear.’ No one said that seriously, in any event. So we can’t treat his remark in a trivial way — anyone talking about nuclear weapons, we have to take that seriously. But I guess what I’m saying is we’re already far down this road. We’re providing them with sophisticated weapons.
Now, having said that, this is not an easy thing to do. No-fly zones are not easy to do. We have done them in Bosnia, Libya and in Iraq back long before the recent war, but back after the 1991 war to protect Iraqi civilians from Saddam Hussein. But in all those cases, we were not going against a superpower. We were going against air forces that were outdated and not very capable. So we had air superiority.
Grid: And in all those cases, fair to say that the strategic imperative that drove the U.S. and NATO to impose no-fly zones was probably not as compelling as the imperative now. And the only difference is that it’s a nuclear power that is on the other side of things.
JM: I think that’s right. In those other cases, the strategic imperative was actually not as great.
The question in my mind is, how do you take the nuclear issue off the table? Or how do you neutralize it or diminish its importance in the circumstances?
I would say it’s a situation that would require direct communication with Putin or his representatives, and with the Russian military through channels that we have for deconfliction, in which you would have to have a very serious conversation about the two of us taking the nuclear issue off the table, acknowledging we are in a conflict, and that it’s in no one’s interest to begin engaging nuclear weapons. Now, that’s heroic diplomacy I’m talking about, and what are the chances of a rational conversation succeeding in a situation like this? Probably small. But that’s one way you can go.
Another way you can go is to think of this as a deterrence situation. In other words, we both understand the concept of Mutually Assured Destruction. So while I think it would be a mistake for us to reciprocate what he has done — that is to say, we’re going to put our nuclear forces on a higher state of readiness, because that does escalate — just to remind the Russians that we do have a deterrent capability here. And essentially, you’re calling their bluff.
But let me be clear, I’m not saying that as a recommendation, or I’m not saying it as something we would do lightly. You really have to go back to the Cuban missile crisis, which was a nail-biter from hour to hour, in order to have anything roughly analogous to this.
So our government now needs to be thinking this through, and we need to be keeping all channels open to Russia. Because clearly, Putin is losing this thing. And he must have a desperate feeling about it at this point.
Grid: I want to follow up on that — that Putin is losing. Almost every hour, you can read accounts — and I’m not talking about misinformation, I’m talking about reliable information — that paint a picture that Putin is “losing this thing.” But then you can also just make the general point that the Russians have an awful lot more firepower to throw at this. And you start to feel, well, the Ukrainians are holding on valiantly, but that’s not going to last. So say a bit more about that phrase you used. What gives you that impression?
JM: The reason I say he’s losing is it’s been my observation in war — the one I was in and the ones I’ve analyzed — is that nothing really trumps will to fight. Yes, if you have no weapons, you are going to be crushed. But if you have some sophisticated weapons, and you have a force that has the will to fight, that trumps almost everything else in the sense that people will risk their lives and fight on bravely against the odds. And the Ukrainians have that if we can keep supplying them with sophisticated weapons, anti-tank weapons, anti-aircraft weapons and small arms.
They are fighting extraordinarily well. On the other side, I don’t think there is much will to fight. Putin has now acknowledged it’s a conscript army. We’re talking about people who have been sent there. And this is a Russian practice. They did this in the Cuban missile crisis — those people going to Cuba had no idea why they were going. They sent conscripts there with no idea of what they were getting into.
And on the home front, yes, if you stop a man on the street in Russia today, chances are that, you know, 7 out of 10 or more will deny that anything bad is happening in Ukraine. But it is going to get through to the Russians what’s going on there. You can’t really wall off 150 million people in today’s information environment. And so I sense that concern and unease will grow inside Russia.
And the fight on the ground in Ukraine will be extremely tough for the Russians. I mean, take individual things like going into urban combat in Kyiv. So what will they do if they can get in there? Will they bring tanks in? If the Ukrainians are well-armed, they’re going to take those tanks out. And the Russian infantry conscripts without a lot of motivation to fight are going to be wandering around in a city of 3 million people getting picked off in what has already turned into a guerrilla war. So yes, ultimately, if the Russians are willing to stay long enough, and fight hard enough, and throw enough at it, they can prevail in a raw military sense. But the attrition of their morale, and their people, and their will is occurring daily, I think.
Let’s say they persist in that. What are they left with? They’re left with a ruined country of people who will hate them for the rest of their lives and who will fight a guerrilla war. All of the elements are there for an insurgency.
So I just think [the Russians] have gotten themselves into a situation that they’re going to deeply regret. And Putin, my personal opinion is in the end, he will deeply regret it because he’s just made himself an international pariah for the rest of his life.
Grid: You have used a phrase — “a Srebrenica moment.” Our audience probably knows, but this refers to a horrific incident, a war crime committed by the Bosnian Serbs nearly three decades ago in that conflict. Others have invoked what the Russians themselves did in Chechnya and the leveling of Grozny. This week in Mariupol, in eastern Ukraine, a Russian airstrike hit a maternity hospital. At what point does the very logical, practical argument that you cannot send warplanes up change? Do you think there are going to be moments that are so visceral that it will change that conversation?
JM: It’s certainly easy to imagine that. The reason I say “Srebrenica moment” is for the reason you mentioned. Prior to Srebrenica, President Clinton didn’t want to send NATO forces into Bosnia. But when 7,000 Muslim men and boys were killed in one day in one spot, Srebrenica, that tipped the balance. So can something like that happened in Ukraine? It’s not hard to imagine. Certainly a maternity ward is in the zone of that horror. But there are reports that you know, the Russians are thinking about attacking Odessa. And more or less leveling Odessa. It’s one of the really beautiful cities of the Black Sea. And it’s a treasure.
And something on that scale or something in Kyiv, another beautiful city, if they were to level major parts of Kyiv, with massive civilian casualties. Again, we’re in unknown territory, and who can predict anything about reactions, but already the frustration and tension is building among NATO countries, and the world. In fact, the world’s reaction to this can be summarized in one sentence. That sentence is: We don’t do this anymore.
So yes, it’s not hard to imagine something that would overcome these very logical and reasonable reactions. Who wants two superpowers with nuclear weapons to be engaging each other? No one wants that. But could it change the risk versus benefit calculus in a way? I don’t know. It certainly would stoke the frustration on our side, in ways that would be, I think, unpredictable in terms of the outcome.
Grid: Let’s talk for a moment about what has been sent in to Ukraine. On the scale of, “it’s symbolic and makes the West feel better” versus “it actually is making a difference on the battlefield” — where would you rate what you’ve seen about weapons going in?
JM: The material that’s gone in is very significant. We have always thought two or three times about whether to send in anti-aircraft missiles like Stingers. Stingers aren’t going to be effective against highflying combat jet aircraft, but they are very effective against low-flying aircraft and helicopters. And the anti-tank weapons are very effective and would make tanks extremely vulnerable if they brought them into cities. So these are not feel-good weapons, these are serious weapons of war. And the Ukrainians are using them brilliantly.
Grid: You’ve reflected a little bit on how the Russian leader must be feeling about all of this. But what about influencing the man to scale down in any way or to negotiate. We were interested in the Israeli prime minister’s visit, which went on for quite some time at the Kremlin recently. Is there any glimmer of hope you see for a way out that involves talking to Putin himself?
JM: Well, these visits by people like Naftali Bennett, the Israeli prime minister, and by [French President Emmanuel] Macron, and any others who can go in and see him are very important. Because if they are able to tell him what’s going on, they’re able to say, and I assume they would: Do you understand what’s going on in Ukraine? And do you understand how the world is reacting?
Is there a way out? Well, you know, I think his exits have been closing here. Ironically, it is his firm control of the media in Russia that may offer him the best way out. Again, heroic diplomacy is called for here. If we could find some trade space where he could be given some inconsequential concession. I don’t know what it would be, leave that to the genius diplomats, but not something that sacrifices basic principles, something that he could then use his media to spin up into a meringue of victory and portray as having a mission accomplished, and we’ve protected our brethren and gotten rid of whatever the problem was there. That’s one way out for him.
There is one other factor in all of this, and that is China. It’s pretty obvious from their public statements that they’re not 100 percent comfortable with this. If you think about the model that China and Russia have sought to project to the world, as an alternative to the model that we have created and spread after World War II, a model global order, this isn’t a great advertisement for their model. So I would not give up on seeking China to use its influence with Putin. None of this would be done publicly. You know, this is one of those times where a lot of stuff has to go on behind the scenes that we may never know about or not know about until much later.
The bottom line is that there may be some trade that isn’t significant in this environment that could give him a face-saver out of this. But it’s very hard to see any other kind of exit for him that is good for Russia or good for him.