“He Sounds Increasingly Unhinged” — A Former Diplomat on Putin, and the Threat of Nuclear War

Russian and Ukraine flags torn in the middle

“People fear Putin, and they should.”

So many of us are worried about the threat of nuclear escalation by Vladimir Putin, especially as the Russia-Ukraine invasion looks increasingly violent and chaotic. But just how likely is Putin to push this threat into reality? To find out, Katie reached out to a true expert on the subject and the region.

Michael McFaul was the U.S. Ambassador to Russia from 2012 to 2014, and is currently a political science professor at Stanford and a columnist for the Washington Post. McFaul also worked for the U.S. National Security Council as the senior director of Russian and Eurasian affairs. And even he’s shocked by what he’s witnessed from Putin over the last week.

This is unprecedented,” says McFaul. “I cannot recall a Soviet Russian or American leader whoever said things that were so starkly threatening, even during the Cuban Missile crisis. He has broken a taboo.” Watch he and Katie’s conversation about the state of the Russia-Ukraine invasion — and what U.S. leaders can and should do to stop this crisis from worsening even further:

Or read their Q&A right here:

Katie Couric: Mike, you know more about Russia than just about anyone, so set the scene for us. It’s day six of the invasion of Ukraine by Russia. What is happening now?

Michael McFaul: Right now, we’re witnessing a change in tactics by Vladimir Putin and his army. The original strategy was kind of “shock and awe” — to try to bomb a few cities, threaten a few places, and hope that the Ukrainian army would run. Then this could be all over. That didn’t happen. The Russian army has sustained an amazing number of casualties — 6,000 soldiers have already died. So now they’ve shifted to an old tactic, which we seen in Syria, where they are, are going to bomb and occupy major cities. And that’s what’s happening right now. I think it will be a major escalation in the number of people that will die. And first and foremost, that’s Ukrainian civilians.

Let’s talk about the Ukrainian army. All the citizens that are joining the ranks of the military to defend their country are incredibly inspiring. And yet, that’s no match for the Russian military’s full-throttle attack.

That’s right. The Russian military is more modernized. Putin’s been modernizing his army for 15 or 20 years. I think people need to understand that he’s put tremendous resources into increasing their capabilities, and the Ukrainian military doesn’t have certain resources. First and foremost, they lack air power — the ability to bomb and attack Russian forces on the ground. Right now, there’s a Russian convoy 40 miles long on a road going into Kiev. If they had air capability, they would be bombing that convoy. These are easy targets if you have sophisticated aircraft, but the Ukrainians don’t.

I think it’s important to understand that in the long run, I don’t see how Putin wins this long war. I just watched videos last night of three dozen Russian soldiers that have been captured. I speak Russian so I can stand what they’re saying, and these young men have no idea why they’re fighting or why they’re in Ukraine. The hour-long rambling speech that Putin gave — I listened to the whole thing and I could barely follow it in terms of logic. So over time, that asymmetry of will does play a huge role. It doesn’t mean they’re gonna win the fight initially, but Putin doesn’t have an end game. Like once he takes Kiev, then what? He’s gonna install a puppet government and then they’ll be under siege either physically or with passive civic resistance for the rest of time?

You have spent a time with Putin, and you say he has become increasingly unhinged. What is going on with Vladimir Putin?

I met Putin in 1991 and I’ve written about him for 20 years. In Moscow, I was in every major meeting he had with then-Vice President Biden, secretaries of state, the National Security Council, world leaders. And I would say a couple of things: One, we have been two slow to realize and understand his evilness. I wrote a column for the Washington Post a couple of years ago saying that he was evil in response to what he did — to try to kill the opposition leader, Alexei Navalny. And I was flooded with hate mail from America saying, “How dare you call this leader evil?” So I think the first thing we need to do is understand who he is. He doesn’t care about lives, he’s made that clear. This is his fifth war, not his first. And that when he says crazy things, we need to listen to him carefully. Just a month ago, I was debating among other national security experts, and many were saying he could never march all the way to Kiev. There would be too many lives lost. Now we see where we’re at today. So when he threatens to use nuclear weapons, we should listen to that carefully, and respond. 

I don’t wanna sound alarmist. I think it’s a very low probability event. I think he does understand what mutual assured destruction means — that is, nobody can win a nuclear war. But you don’t say things like that if you’re a rational actor, if you feel like you’re in control of things. You say things like that when you’re feeling desperate. And as I listen to Putin, I listen to every single speech and word that he says. He sounds increasingly desperate. Increasingly unhinged.

Let’s play out that nuclear threat. That scared the bejeesus out of me, when I heard that nuclear weapons were being put on high alert. Tell us what that means.

Well, I’d say a couple of things: First of all, this is unprecedented. I cannot recall a Soviet Russian or American leader who ever said things that were so starkly threatening, even during the Cuban Missile crisis. He has broken a taboo. For decades, we have all said there can never be the use of nuclear weapons and just in January, literally the five recognized nuclear powers signed a new resolution saying “We’ll never use nuclear weapons.” So this is different. 

I used to read a lot of secret intelligence when I worked in the government. Putin knows our capabilities. He knows exactly what we have. But let’s say the probability [of him using a nuclear weapon] is, you know, 0.5%. The job of the policymakers then is to move that number down to 0.3, 0.2, or 0.1%. I think right now, it’s incumbent upon President Biden and his team and other powers to do that. A nuclear war doesn’t just affect the United States and Russia. It affects the entire world. I think the most important leader in the world today who still has some authority with Vladimir Putin is Chinese president Xi Jinping. I would hope that we, despite our differences, would be in touch with him directly to plead with Putin and to clarify that he is not in the state of mind where he would contemplate using nuclear weapons.

You mentioned Putin being increasingly unhinged and reports about Zelensky’s heroism making him crazy. Why do you say that?

Well, remember that this war is about democracy in Ukraine. It’s not about NATO. Ukraine was not threatening Russia — that’s complete nonsense. This war actually starts with 2014, which the Ukrainians called the Revolution of Dignity. Putin calls it a neo-Nazi coup orchestrated by the United States. When his puppet a guy named Yanokovich fled Ukraine and ran to Russia, and Putin struck back. That’s when the first war started. And well before this escalation, already 14,000 people had died. But after eight years of pressure and another free and fair democratic election in 2019 that brought Mr. Zelensky to power. Putin’s strategy of undermining this regime was not working.

And just so you know, Mr. Zelensky is from the Eastern part of Ukraine. His first language is Russian, not Ukrainian. He’s Jewish — he is not a Nazi. He is lost family members in the Holocaust. Zelensky initially tried to negotiate with Putin. But when he decided that he could not negotiate with him, that’s when I think Putin decided to try to remove him. Putin’s never considered him a formidable leader. So it’s most certainly driving him nuts that Zelensky is demonstrating just an unbelievable, heroic, performance right now — the way he’s standing firm.

The open defiance of Putin is driving him nuts, compounded with how poorly the Russian military has performed so far. Putin’s watching the same videos we are. The Ukrainians are putting a phone in front of crying Russian soldiers’ faces and saying, “Call your mama right now.” And they do, and it’s a pretty humiliating experience. You can believe that Putin is seeing those, too.

I was worried when I heard those reports, because I worried, “Is this gonna piss Putin off even more?” His ego is not gonna be able to sustain this and he’s going to escalate the military strategy. I think he doesn’t wanna be humiliated on a world stage.

Well it’s complicated. I think we need to bring in maybe some intermediaries that Putin actually listens to, because he doesn’t really listen to President Biden. They don’t have a rapport. Henry Kissinger, even though he’s 98 years old, is one of the few people in the West that Mr. Putin respects. I do think that privately we should be looking to make arguments for deescalation and for off-ramps for ending the war. It might seem dishonorable, but the trade-off is thousands and maybe tens of thousands of innocent Ukrainian people losing their lives.

I guess a lot of people want to know why more hasn’t been done to support the people of Ukraine. Why haven’t the NATO countries done more, and now that they are doing something, is it too little too late?

It depends on where we pick up the story. It’s important for everybody to understand that 30 years of a very close relationship with Ukraine was interrupted in the Trump era, because he withheld military assistance to Mr. Zelensky because he wanted alleged dirt, as a quid pro quo. As a result of that, our relationship with Mr Zelensky and the Ukrainian government was damaged. It was in the worst place it had ever been at the beginning of the Biden administration. Now, the Biden administration changed that, but in my view, it was too slow.

Still, I sincerely applaud what the Biden administration has done over the last several weeks: increasing military assistance, putting sanctions in place, and supporting and bolstering our NATO allies with American soldiers on the borders. But the overwhelming message from Ukrainian officials is that they need more stingers to shoot down aircraft, more javelins to shoot down tanks. When you look at those Russian convoys that are 40 miles long, they need weapons to attack that convoy now, and they do not have sufficient weapons to do it.

This might sound uninformed, but why can’t some of these NATO countries send actual personnel and aircraft, etc, into Ukraine?

It’s not a naive question at all. It’s exactly the question that every Ukrainian is asking right now. In particular, they are asking for the West and NATO to implement a no-fly zone in Ukraine. But I know the response from the Biden administration is that it’s tantamount to a declaration of war against Russia. Because you can’t enforce a no-fly zone if you’re not willing to shoot down planes that violate it. And if an American plane shoots down a Russian plane, that means we’re at war with Russia, and President Biden does not want to go to war with Russia. I actually support his decision on that. The risk of fighting a war with Russia today, in Ukraine, is beyond what we should do now. So if we’re not gonna do that, we have to do everything else possible to help the Ukrainians prevail in this war.

Let me ask you about sanctions: I read that some Russian oligarchs are putting pressure on Putin because the sanctions are having an effect on their wealth. And could internal dissent against Putin possibly have a negative impact on his ambitions?

So that’s a complicated question for a number of reasons. First, everybody needs to remember that Russia’s a dictatorship, so the oligarchs can’t get their friendly parliamentarians to pass a resolution denouncing the war. It doesn’t work that way. Second, nI think there’s this misconception that oligarchs are business people trying to put pressure on Putin. In fact, most of ’em are rich because Putin gave them their companies and gave them their property rights. So they don’t have any way to lobby him and say, “Lift these sanctions.” 

I talk to Russian friends and elites every single day. And that society is completely shocked that Putin launched this scale of military invasion. The Moscow elites, middle-class people, educated people…nobody thinks this is a good idea, and they’re feeling the pressure of sanctions. They’re shocked at how it has affected their bank accounts. They’re in a panic right now. They understand that their comfortable lives from before have been shattered. Two things need to happen going forward: One, we need to keep putting that pressure on. I used to say I disagreed with targeted sanctions. But the passivity of Russian people has given Putin the ability to do this. So I think there’s no more pretending there’s innocence in Russia today.

Disrupting those transactions would have a giant impact on people inside Russia. I’ve been in touch with lots of companies over the last several days, in terms of changing their policies. I understand that there’s a fine line sometimes in terms of ethics, there’s never been a more obvious moment of clarity between good and evil than right now. So if you’re making money off of Russia today, I hope you’re thinking, Is this a moral, ethical position to take? Because there’s no neutral space.

But people fear Putin and they should, because he’s a killer. He’s already arrested thousands of people just in the last several days. Still one thing we know to be true in history is that if there’s a thousand people, yes, they can arrest and beat you. But if there’s hundreds of thousands of people, they can’t arrest everybody. I think that has to be the mentality of Russians: Stop this war. I hope that Russians understand that this is a moment of truth. Aside from stopping the war, it’s also about saving their own economy, and the future of their children and grandchildren, because otherwise this will be devastating for Russia as well.

Absent of that uprising internally, do you see Putin’s ambitions reaching beyond some of the former Soviet republics?

Yes and no. Putin has overreached in Ukraine. He underestimated the resistance, and overestimated his power. And therefore I don’t yet see Putin’s pretensions to those countries, in part because of a very controversial, but I think very just and brilliant policy decision, that started under president Clinton and was extended under President Bush. And that was NATO expansion. Think about where we would be right now if Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, weren’t in NATO. Think about where we would be if Poland wasn’t in NATO and that border where we see so many people getting out, they know when they get to the other side, they’re safe. Without NATO, it would be a very different world. It would feel a lot more like the interwar period between World War I and World War II. And so, and I think Putin understands that and I would be very, very surprised if he launched a conscious attack against any one of our NATO allies. Thankfully, leaders had the wisdom to make that move when they did.

Because if the full power of NATO is unleashed, I guess that would be another world war?

Yes. You know, article five of the NATO treaty is that an attack on one member is an attack on all, and we are obligated by that treaty to defend our allies. There’s no doubt in my mind that President Biden would. And I hope there’s no doubt in president Putin’s mind.