I preface these remarks with a mea culpa: I did not oppose George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq. I was not a gung-ho supporter, but my position was that the “official intelligence” indicated hidden weapons of mass destruction. This was long before the days when the term “official intelligence” became an instant trigger for justified skepticism. If the intel was correct, I reasoned, there would be a national interest rationale for securing and destroying those weapons.
Of course, in hindsight, the invasion was a fiasco on so many levels it’s difficult to count them all. WMD? More, not less now in the region. Regional stability? Less, not more now in the region. Iranian influence in the region? More, not less now in the region. Iraqi state security? For a while, ISIS ran its own caliphate within Iraq’s borders. Situation of women in Iraq? Women lost a century of progress. Secured U.S. national interests? Ha.
So I am no longer laboring under the illusion that military force can fix big international problems. And maybe that is why I think Henry Kissinger may be right about Ukraine.
At age 99, Kissinger is an old-time realist, laser-focused on the national interest of the United States. The term “national interest” seems cold-blooded to some, but it doesn’t have to be. It doesn’t have to mean “as long as my country benefits, I’m good with this plan of action.” It can also mean, “as long as my country and other countries can avoid a needless and predictable train wreck, I’m good with this plan of action.”
The train wreck is inching closer in Ukraine. Some might say it’s already here, but I’d say you ain’t seen nothing yet. The vise of escalation is tightening. When Russia invaded in February 2022, Ukraine originally called for money and volunteers from the West. Then medium-range missiles. Then long-range missiles. And then tanks. And now advanced fighter jets. These are salami tactics, where the West is, in effect, asked to prove it is still committed to Ukraine by offering just one more slice of salami, then another when the memory of the first has worn off. But each additional slice of weaponry brings us closer to the train wreck.
And what is that train wreck? First use of tactical nuclear weapons on a Ukrainian battlefield by the Russians. First use was war-gamed to death during the Cold War, and I participated in a few of these sessions as part of the intel community’s outreach to national security academics.
The typical scenario revolved around a Soviet incursion across the Fulda Gap in Germany. In order not to lose territory, given the disadvantageous distribution of military resources on the ground favoring the Soviet Union, NATO would go to first use of tactical nukes, and then follow an escalation dominance strategy ... which in most war games ended in an exchange of strategic nuclear weapons. That is why U.S. nuclear doctrine during the Cold War was First Use, while the Soviets crowed about their more moral No First Use doctrine.
In 2023, the calculus is reversed. It’s the same scenario, though the location is now Ukraine. It’s important to note that after the Cold War ended, the Americans were finally in a position to adopt No First Use, which I’d argue the U.S. did in a de facto but not declaratory sense, while the Russians quickly dropped the old Soviet stance of No First Use in 1993. Now, with each NATO step up the escalation ladder in Ukraine, battlefield use of tactical nukes by the Russians becomes more tempting, especially since Western governments will not, I strongly believe, countenance matching use of tactical nukes. (Indeed that begs the question of whether NATO even has modern, operational tactical nuclear weapons deployed; in any case, the Russians have almost a 10:1 advantage here.)
This is the train wreck coming down the pike, and we must not be somnolent about the chances this will occur, even though it would be catastrophic for all involved, even the Russians. Similar train wrecks into which nations sleepwalked are well known to all of us, and perhaps the magisterial volume of World War I history is “The Guns of August” by Barbara Tuchman for this very reason. Similar to a century ago, leaders may not only be sanguine about the risks involved, but also out of touch with their citizens’ preferences: for example, less than half of Germans polled are in favor of giving German Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine, and a full 43% are opposed.
There is a way out, but it involves NATO being determined to define itself as an organization devoted to the collective national interest of its members, and not, as I fear it is moving toward, an organization dedicated to ensuring total Ukrainian victory. Ukraine is absolutely on the right side of this conflict, but attempting to ensure that Ukraine is completely victorious in all its goals may be a bridge that should rightly be seen as too far for NATO, given the repercussions for the national interests of those in NATO.
And that’s where Kissinger’s proposal comes in. There is a deal that can be struck, and while the aggressor is on the back foot, as Russia is now, is precisely the time to try it. There is no deal unless both sides get something important that they want, things that stabilize the situation into the future. The outline of the deal can only be, as Kissinger proposes, that Putin gets some version of the land bridge to Crimea he so desperately wants (with the caveat that anyone who wants to flee that territory is allowed to do so peacefully), and Zelenskyy gets Ukrainian membership in NATO (with forward deployment of NATO assets and personnel in Ukrainian territory).
The International Court of Justice and the International Criminal Court should be put to use in assessing accountability under international law — though these instruments are fairly toothless — so that the rationale for continuing economic sanctions against Russia and Putin can remain intact. It was a grave strategic error for Western Europe to become so dependent on Russian energy, and sanctions could be useful in making sure that degree of dependence is never reinstated. NATO will add Finland, and hopefully Sweden, to its membership, and the legacy of NATO reticence to forward-deploy assets to nations bordering Russia can and should be done away with.
Even though this is probably the only way to circumvent the train wreck to come, and even though such a deal has distasteful elements for all involved, if we are thinking about American national interests and the interests of our NATO allies, this is the path. The only question is if we will get there before or after the first use of tactical nuclear weapons in Europe. The World Health Organization, not coincidentally, has just issued a new list of what to store in case of a nuclear emergency, and families are stockpiling potassium iodide pills in European countries as we speak. I’d like to say I’m hopeful; I can’t sincerely feel that way. Dulce et decorum est, after all.
Valerie M. Hudson is a university distinguished professor at the Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M University and a Deseret News contributor. Her views are her own.