Roughly two months ago, Grid Special Contributor John McLaughlin said that if it came to war in Ukraine, a major worry was the chance of a NATO-Russia collision inside Ukraine — the possibility that forces would inadvertently or otherwise come into contact, leading to a war between nuclear powers. It was this fear that would keep NATO from deploying troops to Ukraine or imposing a no-fly zone over its territory.
McLaughlin — a former top official at the CIA — also said there might be what he called “a Srebrenica moment” that would change the calculus. He was referring to massacres of civilians in the mid-1990s, perpetrated by the Bosnian Serbs, that ultimately led to a robust engagement by NATO in the Bosnian conflict.
This past weekend, as Ukrainian forces retook control of several towns and small cities just outside the capital, Kyiv, they found evidence of atrocities committed by Russian forces before they left — in particular in the town of Bucha, where the bodies of roughly 300 civilians were found, some with hands tied behind their backs and bullet wounds in the backs of their heads.
We spoke with McLaughlin in a Twitter Spaces conversation Monday — about his recent article for Grid, “‘Tectonic shifts’: How Putin’s war will change the world,” but also about the recent revelations.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Grid: I want to start with a fundamental question, back to the points you made before the war: Have we now had in Ukraine something that you think qualifies as “a Srebrenica moment”?
John McLaughlin: I think we need to know more, of course, but from what we’ve seen in Bucha, that may well be a “Srebrenica moment.” Evidence is being gathered by the Ukrainians, various Europeans have begun dispatching teams to gather evidence, but as it unfolds, it certainly seems to be that.
How will it change things is hard to say at this point, but I think we’re already seeing greater stiffening in Europe of the determination to increase the sanctions on Russia, and I think it also hardens something I talk about in the piece I wrote, which is the sense that [Russian President Vladimir] Putin and his regime are going to be pariahs when this is over. Something like this embeds that sense in the mind of not just foreign leaders but publics around the world, and so the idea of readmitting Russia to various forums or treating Putin like just any other leader, I think, is now off the table.
So where does this lead? Everyone is using the term “war crimes,” and the implication is that someone needs to be tried, but of course that is difficult. It’s complicated. But I think the bottom line here is, attitudes will harden on sanctions, people will now look into the modalities and possibility of war crimes being brought.
One other observation here: When Srebrenica occurred, that was the trigger that really brought the United States into the Balkan wars, with NATO forces. And, of course, the difference is Serbia did not have nuclear weapons. It really is the presence of Russian nuclear weapons that holds NATO back.
G: When we last spoke, it looked as if there were at least the early seeds of a diplomatic process. Now, the point has been made that on the Ukrainian side these atrocities will certainly harden things. And another question is whether calling Putin a war criminal makes it tougher to sit down at a negotiating table with him. What do these revelations do to the prospects for any sort of negotiated settlement?
JM: I think it sets that all back. One of the things that happens as a result of a “Srebrenica moment” is we all have — and, of course, the Ukrainians have — a very strong emotional reaction. And emotion does not do well in diplomatic discourse. So I think it sets all of that back. It makes it harder for the Russians to agree. It makes it harder to sit down at the table — I think it pretty much rules out a personal meeting between [Ukrainian President Volodymyr] Zelenskyy and Putin.
And add to that the fact that the Russians are kind of on the run at this point and the Ukrainians in some areas seem to have momentum. So I think they’ll go through the motions, but I’d be very surprised to see any progress there.
G: Is it a good idea or a bad one for President Joe Biden and other leaders to accuse Putin of war crimes — or does it set things back in terms of finding a way out of the war?
JM: It’s easy to second-guess people in a situation like this. With hindsight, I would have probably advised President Biden not to say that. It matters when the president of the United States says something, and a lot of people would take from what he said that we have a way to go and do that, that we have a process that he can activate in some way. This is not to say, by any stretch, that he is incorrect — substantively it makes perfect sense.
But the point is that I think it’s not helpful to the ultimate end of this to have leaders talking about war crimes and trials at this point, because it suggests it’s easier than it turns out to be.
G: We had a conversation with Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges the other day, the former commander of U.S. forces in Europe, and he said he was disappointed in terms of the NATO response and U.S. response in that it wasn’t more forceful, from the standpoint of the weapons being shipped into Ukraine. Not the volume but the type of weaponry. Is there more that NATO could be doing?
JM: As a sort of overarching point, I would say it’s probably time for NATO to take more risks. In other words, if [Zelenskyy] wants airplanes at this point, I would say — while the argument can be made that airplanes require a lot of ground maintenance, they require fuel, they require training that the Ukrainians may not have, my thought is if he wants airplanes at this point, give him airplanes. See what he can do with them. The Ukrainians have been able to bring extraordinary inventiveness to almost everything that we have provided for them, and I don’t see how it could make the situation worse. My inclination would be to call Putin’s bluff on all that.
In terms of other kinds of weaponry, tanks are reportedly being arranged, provided from some of the East European members of NATO — Russian-type tanks that the Ukrainians know how to operate.
Tanks make a great deal of sense because while tanks require maintenance, there are tanks that the Ukrainians know how to operate. They can be devastating in combat, particularly against other tanks and against Russian fixed positions, and have a sort of terror quality to them that I think would be effective against Russians because they’re not accustomed to running up against tanks these days. I think any heavy weaponry that we can get in there, that they know how to operate, I would not have any restrictions on it at this point.
I think it’s a time to really take more risks in terms of what we supply to them.
G: Since we last spoke, not one, not two, not three, but by last count, seven Russian generals have been killed in Ukraine. How unusual is that? And do you have any thoughts on why it’s happening?
JM: I think I know why it’s happening. This is a flaw in the way the Russians organize their armies. In the American army, in many ways the key figures are junior officers and noncommissioned officers — sergeants, lieutenants, captains — and in the American army, even though there is a chain of command, the rules of engagement are such that people at lower levels are given a great deal of freedom and encouragement to make decisions on the spot, to make a call and do something and respond to emergencies and basically roll with the punches or the bullets, whatever it is. In the Russian army, that kind of structure does not exist. And so generals go forward in a situation like this.
The best construction you could put on it would be “leading from the front,” but if too many generals go down — and some I’ve seen figures higher than the ones you cited — then the command structure collapses. And I suspect that’s a little bit of what’s happened here.
G: Let’s shift gears, back to the story you wrote for us the other day, about how, as you put it, the war might change the world. One thing you said, and you’ve repeated it in this conversation, is that Putin will become — or maybe already is — a pariah, in some sense. You actually went so far as to say you now doubt his ability to survive politically. Why do you think his political survival is in question?
JM: Well, first off, it’s risky as I said in the first line of that piece, to be estimating what’s going to happen a year from now, but if you make some assumptions — that is, that the war continues to go badly, that sanctions stay on, and the hurt continues and grows in Russia, then you make the assumption that Russia has less and less weight in the world, and is treated as a pariah. There are people in Russia in positions of power — and I’m not thinking of oligarchs, I’m thinking of the intelligence services and the military who don’t want to live in that kind of Russia — and to a large degree the Putin system depends on the support of these power ministries, as they call them. And at a certain point, these people will, I think, question whether it’s wise for him to continue as leader.
I could be wrong on that, but I can see that happening. And it’s the first time in the 20-plus years that he’s been in power where I would seriously envision that occurring.
And, of course, there’s the public factor. I know Russians who must be horrified by what they’re seeing — if they’re seeing it. And I know many have left, a couple of hundred thousand people, have just left the country. So will the public ever catch on to this? Will they ever revolt? It’s very hard to tell. You know what happened in Eastern Europe in that period of time when the Soviet satellite governments fell there, but Russia is another matter.
G: We have reported on the dissent in Russia, and what’s interesting is, first of all, the protests have dwindled — and, of course, there may be very obvious reasons for that. Meanwhile, just the other day we saw a new poll from Levada, perhaps the only remaining solid polling outfit in Russia, which found that approval ratings for Putin have gone from 69 to 81 percent since the war began. And beyond his borders, he still has what looks like pretty solid support from China and some other powerful countries. What do you make of all that?
JM: Well in Russia, I would explain those polling numbers a couple of ways. First, Putin does have residual support for some good reasons. When he took over from [former Russian president Boris] Yeltsin, the country was in terrible shape, to the point where, in his final speech, President Yeltsin in 1999 actually said to the public: “I’m sorry.” He apologized for the mess he was leaving. So Putin came in and he imposed a much tighter power system on the country, and he gave it some predictability. And particularly for a period of time in the early part of the last decade, when oil prices were high, the country was relatively prosperous for the average person. I remember traveling through Russia in 2007 and seeing pictures of Putin on most walls of cafes and so forth. His popularity was very high.
So there’s that residual element among people who say well, whatever you say, things used to be worse.
The second thing is that law that says you get 15 years in prison if you quarrel with the government line. That’s a powerful thing. And I think if someone is asking your opinion, and you’ve got a 15-year jail sentence hanging out there, you’re probably not going to take any chances.
And the third reason is that they are bombarded — and there’s no other word for it — with propaganda. There is no real independent channel left in Russia, and the reports coming out of there are that it’s 18 hours a day of propaganda about how terrible the Ukrainians are, and how the Russian army is rescuing civilians and so forth. So it’s almost impossible for us to understand that, because we’ve never lived in that kind of society.
Whether this holds up over time is just impossible to know, but I keep thinking that if as many soldiers have been killed as we hear, and if their bodies are coming back, people are going to start asking questions. Wounded soldiers coming back will tell tales.
I hate to make comparisons with Germany in World War II, but if you look back at that period of time, 1940-41, Germans were generally comfortable with what was going on. It’s only when you get to late 1941 and early 1942, and particularly some of the big battles like Stalingrad and Kursk, when it’s apparent the Germans are losing, and when it starts to become apparent what Hitler’s policy was on “ethnic cleansing.” It’s only then that the German public starts to sour on the whole thing. So there may be a tipping point here with the Russian public that we can’t predict now.
What I do know is that Russians are not inherently cruel people. They’re not heartless. They are not that way.
G: What is your biggest worry about how this war could turn out?
JM: Well that’s an easy one, really. I think the biggest worry really pushes back against something I said earlier, when I said that I think it’s time to take more risks. Would I say that if I was in the Situation Room, and we were fully exposed to all of the data? I don’t know. But looking from the outside, it looks like it’s time to take more risks to help the Ukrainians.
So to that question, my biggest worry would be that Putin, in some circumstance that we cannot yet foresee, decides to use tactical nuclear weapons, and we get into some sort of exchange with him where the decision has to be made about how we deal with that. I think it’s that possibility that has held NATO back, up to this point.
A tactical nuclear weapon comes in several varieties — you’re talking about weapons that can be man-portable, that is, maybe two or three people can carry one and set it off somewhere with some sort of projectile device. Tactical nuclear weapons can also be shells that are nuclear-armed and fired by artillery. They can be fired by other vehicles, aircraft, submarines and so forth. They’re smaller, they have a lower yield, but they would still kill enormous numbers of people and would have, as I understand them, radiation effects that would be disastrous.
But of course, the worst thing about them is that they are at the lower end of what might be called an escalation cycle. In other words, where do you go when you start using tactical nuclear weapons? The Russians have this wonderful phrase — “escalate to de-escalate” — the idea being that if they’re cornered conventionally, their doctrine says they could go to tactical nuclear weapons in order to stun everyone to the point where the fighting stops and we de-escalate. But that’s never been tested in practice.
So what are the chances this could happen? I guess what I would say is the chances are not zero. I would like to say there is some percentage point, but that’s kind of a feckless exercise. They’re not zero, and so long as that is the case, I think that would have to be my biggest worry here.
One could say other things — that the Russians might massively attack the civilian population to the point where they level the country, and that the Ukrainians do conventionally lose this war. Although, I think in those circumstances, we would see a very vigorous insurgency develop.
And that’s why I think the Russians ultimately cannot win this in any real sense, because there they will be dealing with an insurgency for years. I can’t see how they could avoid that.
Thanks to Alicia Benjamin for copy editing this article.