A Russian soldier with the 27th Guards Rocket Army standing in front of a Yars intercontinental ballistic missile

A Russian soldier with the 27th Guards Rocket Army standing in front of a Yars intercontinental ballistic missile

Foto: TASS / ddp

U.S. Admiral on the War in Ukraine Putin "Doesn’t Have a Tactical Reason To Use Nuclear Weapons"

As supreme allied commander from 2009 to 2013, Admiral James Stavridis held the nuclear codes for the Western alliance and implemented a no-fly zone over Libya in 2011. Today, he warns against taking a similar tack in Ukraine and insists that more arms must be provided to the country.
Interview Conducted by Bernhard Zand in New York

DER SPIEGEL: Admiral Stavridis, last year you published "2034," a novel about a local conflict in the Pacific which turns into a global nuclear confrontation between China and the United States. Have you, has the West, underestimated the danger of war in Europe?

Admiral James Stavridis: We have underestimated that danger. At this point, however, I am not primarily concerned about a nuclear exchange. Vladimir Putin can accomplish what he needs by using conventional weapons as he is doing, tragically – with bombs and missiles, all the weapons we have seen him use, particularly in Syria. So, he doesn’t have a tactical reason to use nuclear weapons.

DER SPIEGEL: What might give him reason to use such weapons anyway?

Stavridis: The only thing I can foresee that would cause him to use a tactical nuclear weapon would be if NATO attacked Russia. NATO has no interest in invading Russia. As someone who was the Supreme Allied Commander Europe for four years and knows every war plan that the alliance has, I can tell you that NATO has no such war plan. We have never had a war plan to invade Russia.

DER SPIEGEL: Does that mean that the worries many people currently have about a nuclear escalation are unfounded?

Stavridis: What I do worry about is that there could be a miscalculation at some point, in which a Russian missile flies across the Polish border, strikes a U.S. command and control center, the SACEUR responds against Russian forces, and Russia then escalates. This is really the scenario of "2034." Could that happen? It’s possible. But the reality is that we are already seeing a war, one we are going to call the "Ukraine War" 50 years from now.

DER SPIEGEL: Which historical analogy, if any, do you think is the most instructive to deal with today’s situation?

Stavridis: I think it is the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, where the Soviet Union planted missiles in Cuba which could reach the United States in a matter of minutes. The Kennedy administration demanded they be removed, and initially Moscow refused to do so. What makes this somewhat similar is that you have two nuclear superpowers with sharp disagreement involving a third country – in this case, Ukraine, in that case, Cuba. One difference is the very powerful alliance system that exists in Europe today. And what we can take away from the Cuban crisis is that communications between Washington and Moscow, between U.S. President John F. Kennedy and Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, were sufficient to allow a compromise to be worked out. The U.S. said it would withdraw some missiles from Turkey, and the Soviets ultimately withdrew their missiles.

"The Russian president is clearly someone who is isolated, who is angry and under enormous stress."

DER SPIEGEL: How good are the lines of communication between Washington and Moscow today, especially those between military leaders?

Stavridis: They are surprisingly good. And this is the result of having worked with our Russian counterparts for decades. I personally was close to the supreme commander of the Russian armed forces, Nikolai Makarov, when I was the supreme allied commander. We had very open communications, and that has continued. There have also been communications between the U.S. joint chiefs of staff and their Russian counterparts concerning Afghanistan, concerning piracy, and concerning Libya, where we had significant disagreements. And also in this crisis. I know for a fact that counterparts are in communication. We do have deconfliction lines, which we used most recently in Syria. Deconfliction is about keeping militaries apart wherever you can, and those lines are open and need to remain open.

DER SPIEGEL: Should Washington and Moscow resume such talks on the political level as well?

Stavridis: Some people say U.S. President Joe Biden should refuse to speak to his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin. I disagree with that. Given a crisis of this magnitude, whatever our disagreements, getting on the phone and talking cannot hurt. I commend President Emmanuel Macron of France for attempting to communicate with Putin. The Russian president is clearly someone who is isolated, who is angry and under enormous stress. That’s a bad combination of factors alongside 6,000 nuclear weapons. We need to be talking to Putin, not trying to close him off.

DER SPIEGEL: How do you rate Germany's role in this conflict? Berlin has suspended approval of the Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline and has announced a massive increase to its defense budget, which will bring Berlin into compliance with NATO's 2-percent defense spending target in the future.

Stavridis: I hope you can see my two thumbs up! I spent four years of my life as SACEUR. At every NATO conference, every time I was in a room with then-Chancellor Angela Merkel or with her defense minister, Ursula von der Leyen, I would be chasing them around saying: Please raise your defense spending. You can do it. You can be a leader. And I failed. Vladimir Putin managed to accomplish it in 48 hours. I say this with a smile on my face, but sincerely: Thank you. We are so happy to see it. I think it is a prudent decision, and, of course, this was a decision for Germans to make.

"I think putting NATO's jets in the skies over Ukraine is a prescription for World War III."

DER SPIEGEL: How do you interpret the course of the Russian invasion so far in military terms?

Stavridis: I’ve been surprised at several mistakes the Russians have made. Number one: They came in on too many axes; they divided their forces. Number two: They underestimated the spirit, and the fighting will of the Ukrainian people. Number three: They have not effectively used cyberattacks to degrade Ukrainian command and control. Number four: They have failed to completely gain air superiority. They are close, but they do not have air dominance.

DER SPIEGEL: Some have even said the campaign is a failure? Is that an accurate assessment?

Stavridis: No. The momentum is shifting toward Russia simply because of the mass that Putin is able to put into this. The campaign will get easier in some ways for the Russians as they destroy some of the Ukrainian forces. But it will get hard in another way, as the Ukrainian armed forces tactically retreat to the West. This will lengthen Putin's supply lines, and his military problems will become more challenging as the Ukrainians continue to fall back into the strategic depths of their enormous nation. The Russians ought to recognize that, because that’s how they defeated Napoleon and the Nazis.

DER SPIEGEL: What do you think about the call for NATO to set up a no-fly zone over Ukraine?

Stavridis: I actually instituted a no-fly zone over Libya in 2011. NATO did that at the direction of the United Nations Security Council under the international doctrine of the Responsibility to Protect. We implemented it with confidence, because we overpowered the Libyan armed forces and because, thank God, Libya had no nuclear weapons. In the current situation, I think it would be very dangerous to institute a no-fly zone, because it would put NATO fighter pilots nose to nose against Russian transport and fighter pilots. We could easily end up in a situation where NATO and Russia were exchanging missiles in the skies over Kyiv. That is not where we want to go, given that there are not two, but four nuclear powers involved.

DER SPIEGEL: What do you suggest doing instead?

Stavridis: As tempting as it would be to institute a no-fly zone, I prefer the following: Inflict massive economic sanctions; flood the zone with armaments, getting them into the hands of the Ukrainians by bringing them in from Poland to Lviv; provide advice and intelligence from outside the country; and provide cyber protection from outside the country. But I think putting NATO's jets in the skies over Ukraine is a prescription for World War III.

DER SPIEGEL: What was going through your mind when Putin put Russia’s nuclear forces on high alert on Feb. 27?

Stavridis: Even referring to nuclear weapons and threatening their use is unconscionable, inappropriate and very dangerous. It could cause people in the United States to increase our nuclear posture. And since we just talked about historical analogies: This reminds me of 1914, where various European capitals elevated their threat levels and mobilized their reserves. It was a very dangerous move by Putin, and it should be condemned universally. It has no place in this conflict, nor does it have any place in modern warfare.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy speaking on March 2.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy speaking on March 2.


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DER SPIEGEL: Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov went on to say that World War III could only be nuclear.

Stavridis: I don't have respect for anything that comes out of Foreign Minister Lavrov, frankly. He has been lying repeatedly for months, turning to cameras, saying: We have no intention of invading Ukraine. That is nonsense. He is well aware of the planning. What matters now is what the United States and NATO does. As someone who held the nuclear codes for NATO for four years, I do not think we should raise our nuclear force levels. That would only contribute to the tension, and it is not necessary. We can respond quickly in the awful event that we have to. We don't need to talk about it. We don't need to posture with it. We will quietly go about our business. We will be the adult in the room.

DER SPIEGEL: Many eyes are now turning to China. Similar to Putin's view of Ukraine, China's leadership regards the island of Taiwan as part of its territory and has stated its intention to unify it with the mainland. Do you think that the course of the war in Ukraine so far will encourage or discourage Beijing regarding this intention?

Stavridis: The Chinese are observing what is happening, and ultimately this will have a neutralizing effect. China is playing the long game in regard to the island of Taiwan. In considering whether to make a military attempt to take Taiwan under complete control, Chinese leaders will think primarily of the economy. China’s economy is vast and keeping it running is central for the stability of the leadership. Looking at the set of sanctions the West has inflicted on Russia, I don’t think the Chinese will activate such a plan. China will be patient.

"Our tactical threat is Vladimir Putin. Our strategic challenge is China."

DER SPIEGEL: Still, there has been no open criticism of Putin from China. Will Beijing actively support him?

Stavridis: China is not enthusiastic about what Vladimir Putin is doing. They are sending signals to him to try and get to a negotiated conclusion. They convinced him not to attack during the Olympics. I think it is fairly evident that China is trying to calm the situation – not because they care one way or the other about Ukraine, and not because they care about whether nations should invade other nations. It's simply bad for business, and I think China is all about the economic opportunities.

DER SPIEGEL: Do you think China is a more predictable actor than Putin?

Stavridis: Yes. The key point here, however, is the comparison. We in the West disagree with many things that are happening in China. But compared to what Vladimir Putin is doing, I think it’s pretty clear who represents the greater threat to the world order right now.

DER SPIEGEL: There are some in the U.S. who say that the focus should be on Russia and tensions with China should be reduced.

Stavridis: Here is how I would put it as a military person: Our tactical threat is Vladimir Putin. Our strategic challenge is China.

DER SPIEGEL: What does this mean in concrete terms for the coming months?

Stavridis: I think we are going to have a year of living relatively quietly with China. China does not want to participate with Russia. China is not supporting Russia's attacks other than abstaining from a few votes in the United Nations. If you look at the nations that really voted with Putin at the UN – Syria, North Korea, Belarus and Eritrea – they are all rogue states. China has no desire to be a rogue state. So, I think this will actually be a relatively good year for U.S.-China relations.

DER SPIEGEL: China’s leadership appears to be clinging to the idea that the Ukraine crisis could be resolved if Ukraine would simply declare itself to be a neutral country.

Stavridis: This is not a decision for the U.S., NATO, Russia or China. This is a decision for the Ukrainians. I believe that we in the West should support democracy so that Ukraine, as a democracy, can then make that important decision – just as Austria, Sweden and Finland have done. And by the way, I have increasingly been hearing from my friends in Helsinki and Stockholm: Gee, maybe it's time for us to obtain one of those NATO membership cards. And I always say to people in Sweden and Finland: If you want to join NATO, tell us on Wednesday and we’ll have you in by Friday. They're that good.

DER SPIEGEL: And what would you tell the people of Ukraine?

Stavridis: That it is their decision. Their country is being destroyed in front of our eyes. If I were advising Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, I would tell him that everything should be on the table – everything short of simply capitulating to the Russians. But in terms of negotiation, division, federation, all of that, I would say: You're in a tough situation, Mr. President. Look at all the options you can construct.

DER SPIEGEL: Shortly before the outbreak of war, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman quoted an interview he conducted in 1998 with George Kennan, who had shaped Washington’s containment strategy during the Cold War. Kennan considered NATO expansion to be a "tragic mistake" and predicted a massive Russian response. Did Kennan have a point?

Stavridis: In hindsight, I think he certainly had a point, and it is a point upon which reasonable people can have two different views. I will give you my view, having spent a fair amount of my life in the military, in the Cold War, and dealing with Russians. I believe that if we had followed the Kennan prescription, presumably at the end of the Cold War, we would have said to Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, Bulgaria, all those nations: Sorry, you can't join NATO. And in fact, if you follow Kennan’s argument to its conclusion, we would have dissolved NATO …

DER SPIEGEL: … because the Cold War was over, and, as Kennan said: "No one was threatening anybody else."

Stavridis: Would that have made Russia a more benign power? In my view, nothing could have stopped the unwinding of this massive communist economy and the corruption and the displacement that came out of it, offsetting all the anger, all the bitterness at losing the Cold War. If we had simply dissolved NATO, or even just refused to allow anyone else to join NATO, I think we'd be right where we are now, except in a worse position. Because by now, Putin or some parallel Putin would have already gone back into the Baltics or consolidated Ukraine a long time ago. He would be knocking on the doors not of Kyiv, but of Warsaw.

Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev with U.S. President John F. Kennedy in Vienna in June 1961

Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev with U.S. President John F. Kennedy in Vienna in June 1961

Foto: UPI / dpa

DER SPIEGEL: Which is also quite an assumption.

Stavridis: You can walk back in history at any given point and construct a "here-is-what-we-should-have-done" argument. I don't think this one is clear, and I believe with all my heart that NATO was smart to bring in the Warsaw Pact countries. I'm glad they're with us.

DER SPIEGEL: Putin says he even spoke to U.S. President Bill Clinton and the second Bush administration about Russia joining NATO. Was that ever a realistic option?

Stavridis: At the end of the Cold War, NATO membership was open to any democracy. Moscow could have applied just as every one of the former Warsaw Pact nations did. My predecessor several times removed, General George Joulwan, created the Partnership for Peace, which included Russia. A few years later we established the NATO-Russia Council …

DER SPIEGEL: … which met only sporadically after the annexation of Crimea in 2014 and whose last meeting in January ended without result.

Stavridis: Russia had many opportunities to cooperate. I do get tired of the argument that somehow NATO is a threat to Russia and that’s why Putin behaves the way he does. Open the book of history and show me the page where NATO’s tanks rolled into Russia. Because I can show you the page where Soviet tanks rolled into Budapest, into Prague and into East Berlin. We would be foolish to ignore this and indulge ourselves in magical thinking that 30 years ago, we could have acted differently and would be in a different place today. There is nothing in the history or the current circumstance of Russia that would suggest to me that such magical thinking would have joined reality.

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