Senator Nunn’s Interview on Georgia Public Broadcasting’s Political Rewind
Senator Nunn’s Interview on Georgia Public Broadcasting’s Political Rewind
This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.
Bill Nigut: We are going to devote the show today to Ukraine, where developments grew increasingly ominous, I think it’s safe to say, over the weekend, especially because Vladimir Putin over the weekend, ordered his nuclear forces into what he called special combat readiness. It is fortunate for us that in the aftermath of that awful threat that we have joining us for the show today, former United States Senator Sam Nunn, who of course, was the chair of the Armed Services Committee, preeminent expert in the Senate on national defense.
But since those days, since he retired from the Senate, he became one of the founders of the Nuclear Threat Initiative, which is an organization that allowed Senator Nunn to follow a passion of his, which is to reduce nuclear stockpiles in countries that are capable of launching nuclear weapons. And so, Senator Nunn, thank you. It’s a coincidence of timing, but I’m awfully glad you can be with us today to discuss this. And I think the first question has to be just in general, what do you make of Putin’s threat? Is he really, when he wants his forces to go into special combat readiness, doing anything new? Or is this just more saber rattling?
Former Sen. Sam Nunn: Thank you, Bill. Good to be with you and Jim. I would say that, first of all, the invasion by Russia was unprovoked. It was illegal, and in my view, immoral. The second thing I would say is the top priority of both Russia and the United States is to identify mutual interests, and the mutual interest we have is to prevent nuclear use or nuclear war. We are in a very dangerous period. Putin’s order about alerting the nuclear forces is ominous and makes everything unpredictable. We don’t know what they’re doing on the ground, at least in unclassified circles, in terms of their nuclear forces, but I would say two steps are absolutely essential, immediately.
Number one is to stop the war, stop the killings, impose the ceasefire and basically prevent escalation up the ladder, to even possible nuclear use by Russia. The second thing is to say to Mr. Putin: take your nuclear weapons off alert. This was, I think, a reckless move. It shows some degree of fear and desperation on the part of Putin. It makes the dangers go up, not just the danger of escalation, but we are in a different era now. We are in a cyber era, where false warnings and interference in command and control is entirely possible, not just from nation states, but from third parties. So, it’s in the mutual interest of the United States and Russia, with 90 percent of the nuclear weapons in the world, as well as Great Britain and France — we have four nuclear powers involved in immediate dangers in Europe — it’s in all of our interests to de-escalate the immediate conflict and to take nuclear weapons off the table.
Jim Galloway: Senator, for the last decade, you’ve expressed worry about the lack of communication up and down the chain of command between the United States and Russia when it comes to nuclear weapons. Is there any communication going on right now? I mean, has that been completely cut off?
Former Sen. Sam Nunn: Well, the communication is not nearly as robust as it used to be. We had very robust communication during the Cuban Missile Crisis. I can’t speak to how much backchannel is going on now, Jim and Bill. But I do think those back channels are enormously important. We’ve got to be able to talk to each other.
We at NTI have two Russian board members, and they are very constructive Board members. One of them is Igor Ivanov, who is the former foreign minister of Russia. So we’re in communication with them. We also have a Euro-Atlantic Security Leadership Group that is headed by the former British Defense Minister Des Browne. We have Russian members in that and European leaders there and former leaders, and we’re in communication now, but these are all Track Two. These are all non-governmental contacts.
The important thing is for our governments to be talking, including, I think, most importantly, military to military discussions. Certainly, the military understand the dangers, and they know that when one side goes on nuclear alert, it’s awfully hard for the other side not to go on nuclear alert. We have to see what’s going on, on the ground, and a lot of that is classified, but we need our top military leaders talking to each other.
Bill Nigut: Senator, your effort, along with former Senator [Richard Lugar], the Republican, was active with you in the beginning of NTI, and this has been a passion of yours — to work on reducing nuclear stockpiles, at the same time, being willing to work with countries on modernizing their weapons programs. What do we know about the stockpiles in Russia right now?
Former Sen. Sam Nunn: Well, of course, the Russians have modernized their nuclear forces, and modernization is essential, because you have to make sure you don’t have weapons that are deteriorating and cause safety dangers. But the buildup of nuclear forces is something we want to avoid. And of course, President Biden and President Putin did extend the New START agreement. That’s the good news, and we are engaged in strategic stability talks with Russia. Now those are going to be under great strain. But even when you’re in this kind of basic disagreement and even possible confrontation, it’s important for the nuclear leaders of the world to talk to each other, and that starts with the United States and Russia, who, as I have said often, have 90 percent of the nuclear weapons and most of the nuclear materials in the world. So it’s not just the weapons that are important, it’s also protecting nuclear materials, keeping them out of dangerous hands, making sure we don’t have proliferation.
And one of the consequences of Russia invading Ukraine that is very disturbing — of course, there are many disturbing consequences — but one of them as it relates to nuclear, is unfortunately, sending a signal where a country giving up their nuclear weapons is invaded by a country that assured their security when they gave up those nuclear weapons. Now Ukraine did not have operational control of the nuclear weapons, but they had physical control, and they had the third largest nuclear arsenal in the world when they gave them up. And both the United Kingdom, the U.S. and Russia assured that we would respect their sovereignty and that is enormous, and an enormous breach, unfortunately, by Russia.
Jim Galloway: Senator, I’m interested in how this invasion by Russia is going to change the map of Europe. On Sunday, Senator Rob Portman of Ohio said that he would recommend the immediate admission of Ukraine into the NATO fold. And you’ve had President Zelensky ask for immediate membership in the European Union. Are either of those good ideas? And how would Russian troops on the Ukrainian border change the dynamics of Europe? I mean, we’ve already seen Germany finally grant itself permission to issue weapons. Sweden has kind of put aside its neutrality; Switzerland might.
Former Sen. Sam Nunn: Well, I have a lot of respect for Rob Portman, but I disagree with that suggestion. President Biden has made it clear that Ukraine is not a member of NATO. We do not have Article Five obligations to defend them. We are helping them politically. We’re helping them economically. We’re putting sanctions on, and we’re furnishing them defensive weapons. All of that is enormously important. We should step it up. But inviting them to NATO when they’re at war means, in effect, it would be taken in Russia in all likelihood as a declaration of war by NATO on Russia. And of course, nuclear escalation is a huge danger there. There are reasons that go way back in history that U.S. and Russia have tried to not come to any kind of conflict, and the reason is, because we have the power together to destroy most of the world, and we have to keep that in mind.
Bill Nigut: You know, Senator, you certainly had a front row seat during your days in office to watch the Cold War unfold and to watch the Cold War finally come to an end. What’s kind of staggering to think about is that there are a couple of generations of Americans who have no memory of what it was like to live in a world in which the Soviet Union and America were arch enemies, in which nuclear war was threatened time and time again. When you see this suddenly come rushing back at us, what are your thoughts on that? And if I could ask you a blunt question: Has Putin become a madman?
Former Sen. Sam Nunn: Well, I met with Putin on a couple of occasions with a group of five or six other people, including Henry Kissinger, George Shultz and Bill Perry, and so I’ve had several hours with him. I’m concerned that he’s displaying, in his words and appearance, a profound discontent and even hate. I think he’s also showing fear. I think the nuclear alert, which was reckless, demonstrates that. So I’m concerned about his stability and his balance.
Nuclear deterrence depends on rationality of leaders, particularly the leaders of the U.S. and Russia, but all nuclear weapons states have to have rational leaders if we’re going to avoid a catastrophe, and it also depends on accurate information. As I mentioned, the accurate information part is no longer as assured as it was in the cyber world. So, for all of those reasons, I think it’s a deep concern. It is not in the interest of anyone in the world for the leader of a major nuclear power to have any form of instability. Hopefully, we will go back to a pragmatic Putin and, hopefully, we will see a de-escalation.
Again, the most important thing is to have a cease fire to stop the killing. The Ukrainians have been enormously courageous, and I think they have won the admiration of the world, and I think Putin has lost any semblance of support in most countries of the world. So it’s time to stop what is, I think, a very reckless and very dangerous pattern here.
Jim Galloway: Senator, I know you are also an expert in conventional warfare. And I’m just interested, this has been a horrifying but yet amazing week in which we’ve seen a war unfold in real time via social media. And I’m wondering what kind of impact, I mean, we saw the beginnings of this with the Iraq War when CNN was in Baghdad. But this seems very much a compounded situation where me, sitting in my living room, can watch the siege of Kyiv in just nanoseconds after it’s begun.
Former Sen. Sam Nunn: That’s right. Of course, we’ve got a lot of problems with social media, including in this country, but social media plays a big role in warfare now. Look at the will and courage being displayed by the Ukrainian people, and you really have to say this is making a strategic difference, because one of the big things I think that is probably not realized enough, is that the Russian people don’t hate the Ukrainians, and in my opinion, vice versa. They’ve been friends and family and speak the same language. They have the same religion.
So this is not like Chechnya. Putin was a hero when he came in and crushed Chechnya in their rebellion back when he first took office. But that was because of animosity from the Russian people. But that’s not the situation now. So the stand that Ukraine is taking — of course, the tragedy is the civilian casualties, and that could escalate greatly, so that’s a real danger — but the courage they’ve displayed has stretched out this conflict to the point where public opinion in Russia is coming into play, more and more. Time works against the Russians, because of their own public opinion, and most of the propaganda being put out by the Russians is not for European belief. I don’t think they are going to get European buy-in on any of this propaganda or U.S. or indeed the world. It’s for the Russian people. And the more time goes on, the more danger there is to leadership [support] in Russia.
Bill Nigut: Senator, we only have a couple more minutes of your time, and you’ve been very gracious to give us so much time already. But I want to ask you about the conventional warfare that Jim’s talking about. We, as you said and as the world has watched, and we’re going to talk about this with our next guests, the Ukrainian people have shown just extraordinary courage. It’s been so thrilling to watch. But the fact of the matter is we’re looking on CNN at video of a three-mile long convoy of Russian armor and troops coming in. Is it inevitable that the Russian Army will eventually overcome the extraordinary resistance of the Ukrainian people and take Kyiv and decapitate the government right now in Ukraine?
Former Sen. Sam Nunn: Well, I don’t think it’s inevitable, because I hope that Russian public opinion will help begin to change that equation. Of course, they have the [military] advantage the longer it goes on. But when you look at the Stinger missiles that have been put in there – that cost the Russians what would otherwise have been total air superiority. Stinger missiles are ground-to-air missiles, and that means it’s much harder to fly and certainly it’s much harder for Russia to enjoy the dominance of the skies. We’ve also had the anti-tank weapons, which make an enormous amount of difference.
The other thing that’s happening, and I think this can have an effect on public opinion, too, the sanctions are very strong now, and the Russian people’s savings accounts may come into play. Certainly, the reserves that Russia has built up over a long period of time are under threat, because they can’t convert those reserves as they need to. Of course, I think President Biden has done a tremendous job of unifying NATO, and Germany has stepped up to the plate big time, so most of the things that President Putin feared are taking place. His invasion has been a strategic blunder and has been counterproductive to Russia’s own interests and certainly counterproductive to the interests of the Russian people.
Bill Nigut: So we’ve got one last question to get in here, Jim, before we have to go.
Jim Galloway: Yes. Let me get a little historical. Back in 1939-1940, we had a Georgia congressman named Carl Vinson who saw that Japan and Germany posed a double threat in international arenas, and a two-ocean Navy was the result. I think you’ve got some familiarity with this. [Laughter] Are we seeing a similar situation building with Vladimir Putin in Russia and Xi Jinping in China? And if so, what has to be the U.S. reaction?
Former Sen. Sam Nunn: Well, of course, we’ve got to find ways to build bridges to the Russian public and to the Chinese public. I don’t think it can be just to the leadership. We can’t bypass leadership, but if we want our children and grandchildren to live in a peaceful world, a world where we don’t have danger of catastrophic nuclear war and a world where we don’t have a tremendous effect on global warming, in a world where we don’t have battles against infectious disease that we can’t deal with, we’ve got to cooperate with both China and Russia. But to do that, I think we have to have much broader outreach in the long run directly to the people, because safety in the nuclear realm depends on rationality of leadership. And as we’re seeing, you don’t always have rational leadership in the major powers.
Bill Nigut: Senator Sam Nunn. I realized at the very beginning of the show, I should have pointed out that you are the namesake of the Sam Nunn School of International Affairs at Georgia Tech, and it’s important to point that out as we say goodbye to you, because being able to turn to the school to look for expertise, not just from you, but the others who have gathered under that umbrella, has been a truly wonderful thing for us on Political Rewind. And we’re going to continue to tap into leaders at the school in the days ahead to get more information. So I want to make sure I talk about the Sam Nunn School of International Affairs. You’ve done extraordinary work there. Senator, thank you. It’s been wonderful to have you here today, and I think we all hope and pray that you are right that we find a way to get through this and wiser heads prevail. Senator.
Former Sen. Sam Nunn: Thank you very much, Bill and Jim, and I’m proud of Adam Stulberg and Joe Bankoff and the foundation they’ve laid at the Nunn School. We have an outstanding faculty, outstanding students and outstanding visiting professors, including Phil Breedlove, the former head of NATO, including Sandy Winnefeld, the former deputy chairman of the Joint Chiefs, as well as a number of others, so tap that resource; it’s rich.
Bill Nigut: We will do that. We’re in conversation with General Breedlove right now about inviting him to do the show in the days ahead. Again, Sam Nunn, thank you so very much for being with us.
Sign up for our newsletter to get the latest on nuclear and biological threats.