Co-Founder and Co-Chair, NTI
Senator Nunn’s Interview on Bloomberg TV Regarding Ukraine
This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.
David Westin: We welcome now a true authority on geopolitics and the risk of military conflict. Sam Nunn served as Democratic senator from Georgia for 24 years, including as chairman of the Armed Services Committee. He went on to co-found the Nuclear Threat Initiative. So, Senator Nunn, thank you so much for being with us. You are a true expert. Give us your overall appraisal of the situation in Ukraine right now.
Senator Nunn: Well, if Barbara Tuchman were still writing, she might say that if Russia invades Ukraine, that it is a continuation of “The March of Folly” because it would be a lose, lose, lose situation. Of course, Ukraine would suffer the most and the most immediate. NATO would be destabilized, and Russia would end up exactly the opposite of what they’re trying to achieve. Because the NATO forces, if Ukraine were invaded by Russia, in all the NATO countries, and Ukraine is not one of those, would build up their forces, that would include on the border of Russia. So they would get, in the long run, the exact opposite result of what they intend.
In addition, Russia would suffer tremendous economic consequences, so it is truly a lose, lose, lose proposition that should be avoided and really can be avoided, because Ukraine is not on the threshold of becoming a member of NATO. They do not qualify in many respects now, and NATO members have a veto over new membership. Every member has to support the membership, which is what Russia fears. But Russia can be given no veto itself. This is a matter for NATO to decide and for Ukraine.
So in my view, David, there ought to be some threshold questions asked by NATO. I think we’ve gotten pretty lax about that, before new countries become members. The first question is “Would the move to take in a new member help stabilize the situation? Or would it destabilize and possibly risk war?” And second “Can NATO defend that country and are the European members willing to put up enough forces to avoid having the situation we had for a long time, which was relying far too much on the early first use of nuclear weapons?” So those are the questions that NATO should be asking, because this is truly a military alliance with Article Five military guarantees of support. And it is certainly not a political club or a social club. It’s got to be taken deadly seriously.
David Westin: Senator, it occurs to me that in this sort of a crisis, and I think it is fair to call it a crisis, one of the questions is for both sides, as they come closer and closer to one another, how do they climb back down? How do they get out of this and save some face? What can we do, NATO and the United States do, to sort of back off a bit? And what can we allow President Putin to do to back off a bit?
Senator Nunn: Well, that’s the immediate question in this crisis, and I think the main signal and I think President Biden has tried to do that, as well as NATO members, is to assure Russia that we will give careful consideration to their legitimate security fears. The parallel action needs to be that Russia will move back its military forces, which is very high risk position; they should move those forces back from the border. Those two things would give us the time and space for diplomacy. Using that time and space, we have to recognize as a starting point that European security has eroded in the last 15-20 years very significantly. The architecture for European security has pretty much disappeared. The INF Treaty is terminated. The CFE Treaty, which was conventional forces, is terminated. INF was intermediate missiles, that’s terminated, as well as the Open Skies proposal, which was Eisenhower’s dream, it was in effect for a long time.
So we need to go back to the OSCE principles, which 56 countries in Europe agreed to, respecting the sovereignty of all states. And we need to devise ways so that countries will not fear a surprise attack, including basically prohibiting the build up of large forces on international borders and moving missiles and nuclear weapons, short range missiles and intermediate missiles out of the Euro-Atlantic zone, so that no country fears a surprise attack. There are things we can do, but first we have to have the time and space to do that. And Ukraine is not going to become a [NATO] member in the short term. So I think Russia really has no reason to avoid taking the time diplomatically to make the case for their legitimate fears. We need to listen to them.
David Westin: Senator, you’ve mentioned nuclear weapons a couple of times and of course, you are identified as a leader really in nuclear disarmament and control. Give us a sense of the roles that nuclear weapons play in this conflict. And specifically, I read your piece, actually, which reminded us that Ukraine had nuclear weapons. They were from the Soviet Union after the fall of the Soviet Union, and you were involved in actually a process of withdrawing them. What does it say to the rest of the world if in fact you have what was perhaps a nuclear power, give up their nuclear weapons and then be threatened by invasion?
Senator Nunn: This is a terrible precedent. The Budapest agreement, when Ukraine gave up their nuclear weapons, made sense from a security point of view, their own security. When that happened, the United Kingdom and U.S. and Russia assured that they would respect Ukraine’s sovereignty. So the signal is a very bad one for nonproliferation when one of the countries that signed is poised to potentially invade the country whose security and sovereignty they said they would respect.
On the other hand, I think Ukraine made the right decision in giving up their nuclear weapons. They had an arsenal larger than any other country, except the U.S. and Russia, even larger than China, but they did not have operational control. Some of the coverage now misses that point. They had physical control. I was in Russia at the time that dispute was going on, where Ukraine announced at one point they were going to try to get operational control. I just happened to be with the General Staff of the Russian military, and I was convinced, David, at that time and I can’t prove this, but I was convinced that there was going to be a war then, because the Russians were not going to permit Ukraine to retain that arsenal. So there’s more history here than is currently being talked about. But the bottom line is this would be a terrible precedent for nonproliferation and encouraging countries not to develop their own nuclear weapons.
David Westin: And finally, Senator, whenever we have the privilege of having you on, I like to ask this question, because you are such an authority on the threat posed by nuclear weapons. As you look around the world right now, what’s the thing that concerns you the most when it comes to nuclear weapons?
Senator Nunn: Well, what I feared for years and tried to work very hard to build up conventional forces is that there was too much reliance on the early use of nuclear weapons. I don’t want to go back to that period of time in the 1970s and 1980s. NATO’s conventional forces were not sufficient to avoid relying far too much on the early use of nuclear weapons. The conventional forces — the perception was, at least by military commanders — they would have been overwhelmed in the first part of any war. So that’s why I say NATO has to take it seriously and as new members come in, there has to be a commensurate buildup of conventional forces, so we do not go back to relying on the early use of nuclear weapons.
Of course, I think the cyber world makes everything much more risky. One of the hopes I have is that the United States and perhaps other countries would follow, will have a thorough “fail-safe” review to look at all the ways we could blunder into nuclear use, particularly with false warnings from cyber attacks and that sort of thing. This would not be a treaty; it would not be even an agreement. It would be a unilateral review, taking steps to assure that we would not have accidents, miscalculations or blunders, and then I would hope every other country that has nuclear weapons would do likewise.
Out of that, I think we would determine that we have a lot of mutual interest in drawing some red lines on cyber and making sure there’s no blunder that leads us into war. On the European situation, we need to make sure we move forces back from borders and do not have long exercises or large exercises that could lead countries to believe they are about to be attacked. All of those things can be done. Although we really do need to begin to build mutual security. Russia and Ukraine both have to be part of that overall security framework, which is badly in need of repair.
David Westin: Senator, it is always such a treat to have you with us. Thank you.
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