Matthew Kroenig On NATO's Future And The UN's Failure
One international institution rises as another falls apart
This week’s podcast features a discussion with Matthew Kroenig, Deputy Director of the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. An author of seven books, he previously served in several positions at the DOD and in the intelligence community in the Bush, Obama, and Trump administrations, and is a professor at Georgetown University. It also includes a discussion with Christine Emba, a columnist for The Washington Post, about her new book Rethinking Sex: A Provocation. An excerpt of my conversation with Kroenig is transcribed below:
Matthew Kroenig: I'll say two things that sound contradictory.
One, I do think there is a real risk that Putin could use nuclear weapons in the war in Ukraine, and in a way, he's already used them. He's used the threat of nuclear weapons to backstop this invasion. And Russia has this kind of scary “escalate to de-escalate” nuclear strategy that calls for threatening nuclear use, and then conducting a limited nuclear attack to stave off defeat. So I think if Putin were losing and Ukrainian forces were pushing Russia forces out of Ukraine, and Putin became worried that he might lose office, I think to him that using a nuclear weapon to try to force the West to back down is more attractive than losing.
The second thing I'll say is that I do think that there is much more the United States and the West should be doing to dial up support to Ukraine, and that I think we can do that without greatly increasing the risk of nuclear war. So the nuclear shadow is there, but I don't think a nuclear attack is imminent.
Ben Domenech: I agree with your analysis, but the way that this tends to be framed in the media today is that any act that the United States or NATO engages in is a step toward WWIII, and that Putin could easily go shooting off nukes at any moment. And that that ought to be something that gives us pause. On the other side, at least in terms of the White House press corps, they’re asking “why haven't we declared a regime change war against Russia already?” So unpack that a little bit for me about what what's really going on.
Kroenig: Well, I think what that first perspective misses is that Putin doesn't want a nuclear war either. So yes, we're afraid of nuclear war with Russia, but he's afraid of nuclear war with us. It's essentially a game of brinkmanship, that nuclear war needs to be avoided, but also Putin's need to avoid nuclear war can be used for leverage.
I think sometimes the Biden administration and others urging caution seem to have this model in mind that Putin is a wild man or something, and that if we take one wrong step, suddenly he's nuking everyone. But that doesn't help him achieve his goals. And if he gets into a major war with NATO — a major war, a nuclear war — he's in a bad situation.
But I do think there are some things that could cause him to conduct a limited nuclear strikes in Ukraine. The regime change option the White House press corps is calling for, I think would do that. So there are real risks, but they're often exaggerated.
Domenech: This weekend, the Wall Street Journal had an extensive report about the nature of the Chinese nuclear program and the lessons that they're taking from the Ukraine experience vis a vis Taiwan. Tell me a little bit about what you what your perspective is, as someone who has paid so much attention to China over the years, about the lessons that they're taking, their understanding of the nuclear threat, and what their program really looks like in terms of what kind of Taiwan conflict could take shape in the next few years.
Kroenig: China's engaged in a breathtaking nuclear buildup right now. So for decades, China has had what we've often referred to as a minimal deterrent in the West, a couple of hundreds, nuclear weapons, not the 1000s that the Russians and the Americans have. This goes back to Mao Zedong, who basically said “I'm not going to get into a big arms race. We have enough.” And that's changing now.
The Pentagon predicts that China will increase to 1,000 nuclear warheads by 2030 — depending on how you count, quadrupling or quintupling of the size of their arsenal. Also they are building new types of delivery vehicles like hypersonic missiles.
So why is China deciding to essentially approach an arms race now with the United States and Russia and build a superpowered nuclear arsenal? Some people say, “Oh, well, well, they're just afraid of an American nuclear first strike. They just want to have a survivable arsenal.” I don't think that's the case.
I think they are taking lessons from the Ukrainian war, because what we're seeing there is Putin using nuclear weapons to backstop his conventional aggression. He's invaded Ukraine and then put nuclear weapons on high alert and said to the rest of the world “stay out or else this could go nuclear”. And I think China wants the ability to do something similar in Taiwan — to really lock the United States into more of a mutually assured destruction, mutual vulnerability situation, where a nuclear war with China would be truly catastrophic for the United States. And then I think China is calculating that that will give it a freer hand to engage in conventional aggression against Taiwan or against other neighbors, and make nuclear threats to keep the United States out.