Senator Nunn’s Interview with Patricia Murphy of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution Regarding Ukraine

Senator Nunn’s Interview with Patricia Murphy of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution Regarding Ukraine

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This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Patricia Murphy, AJC:  There are a lot of moving parts this week with the U.N. Security Council, and I know senators are going to have a briefing this week. I don’t want to be too specific to events today because I think things could change. But what are you seeing generally in the situation with the Russian build up in Ukraine and how the United States is reacting to it so far?

Sen. Sam Nunn: Well, I have not had classified briefings, so my knowledge comes from unclassified sources and a lot of years of following these events.  A Russian invasion of Ukraine would be a lose-lose-lose situation, a tremendous loss for Russia. They would basically have a permanent enemy on their border, with a population that reflects a very strong anti-Russian sentiment. They would likely have a bloody insurgency for a number of years. I think they would suffer tremendous economic damage.

And the paradox is that they fear a NATO build up on their borders. That’s exactly what they would get if they invade.  You would see a more substantial NATO military build up than you have seen for several decades. So for Russia, it’s a huge loss and a terrible mistake. For NATO, it’s a tremendous loss because of destabilization in Europe. I think it would have worldwide implications, including the Far East. I think it would [challenge] the NATO alliance, and it would require a very large NATO military build up. I think it would also emphasize to NATO that it has been expanding its military commitments without careful enough attention to the defense and military build up that is required to defend the countries that are on the border of Russia. So I think it would have a sobering effect and certainly require a substantial military build up.

And of course, for Ukraine, it would be a terrible tragedy for its economy, for its citizens, and there would be a great deal of death and destruction. So, it’s a lose-lose situation, and I would just add that there’s a great book that Barbara Tuchman wrote. She wrote several great books, but one of them was called “The March of Folly.” And she went through, historically, the number of military conflicts/wars that have occurred because of rather dramatic leadership mistakes. And I think a Russian invasion of Ukraine would be another chapter in that book “The March of Folly”.

Because when you really get right down to it, Russia basically is stating that the threat of NATO expansion is one of the biggest factors in what they’re doing. And of course, the paradox is that that’s not going to occur anytime soon. And that’s been made clear by President Biden. Of course, the NATO Alliance says that Ukraine will become a member, but they had a footnote – “no time soon” – because of all the requirements that need to be fulfilled. So I would say that it would be again a lose-lose-lose proposition and another chapter in “The March of Folly”, which is hopefully avoidable.

Patricia Murphy, AJC:  I am interested that you started off by talking about a Russian invasion.  Do you see that as a real possibility in this moment? Obviously the Pentagon thought that that was very possible. Is that something that is on your radar, that it looks like it is a real possibility?

Sen. Sam Nunn: Well, the Russians deny they’re going to invade, but clearly Putin and the leadership, they want the Ukrainians, they want the Europeans and the U.S. to believe that that kind of invasion is entirely possible, and the tremendous danger in one of these situations is that the Russians don’t control the insurgents in any kind of a disciplined fashion. You could have a blunder, there are all sorts of ways you could have a blunder from a large build up. You could get a war that no one really intended, and it could happen very quickly.

Patricia Murphy, AJC: Maybe you could elucidate the fact that Russia is a nuclear power, a huge nuclear power – what does that do to this moment? I think Americans are used to watching the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, but engaging directly with a nuclear superpower, how do you interpret that piece of it?

Sen. Sam Nunn: Well, of course, NATO membership is one of the huge factors here. And of course, Ukraine right now has, in some ways, the worst of both worlds, because they have announced their [desire to become] a member of NATO, and the NATO alliance has, most recently in 2021, said that Ukraine would become a member at some point. In my view, we’ve gotten in the habit, since the breakup of the Soviet Union, of assuming the Russians will always be weak. And I think politicians have gotten in the habit of not asking the hard questions before we expand NATO.  The hard questions really are, and this ought to be asked for every member before they become a member, and not just Ukraine and that is, can we defend that country? We being the Alliance.

When you become a member, there’s an Article 5 commitment, a sacred commitment, to defend each other. And that implies that you will have a substantial increase in military responsibility, which means you have to build up your military. And NATO has expanded its Article 5 commitments much more rapidly than it’s extended its military capabilities. So, you know, I came into the movie, so to speak, when NATO was weak conventionally and had tremendous reliance on the early use of nuclear weapons, to your nuclear weapon question.

And so the questions that NATO membership should ask of the military leaders: What’s it going to take to defend this country if they become a member? And how much are defense expenditures and what kind of equipment and manpower are we going to have to have? How do we defend? I think the basic questions should include how can we defend this country without relying on the early use of nuclear weapons? We went through the 70s and 80s where we relied on the early use of nuclear weapons – that’s an extremely risky policy. And I don’t think those questions are being treated seriously enough by the NATO Alliance and the United States.

Patricia Murphy, AJC:  The Senate is looking as though they could be voting on sanctions relatively soon. Senator Menendez said that it’s on the one-yard line in terms of package of sanctions. I don’t know if you’re in the habit of giving the Senate advice publicly, but do you feel like sanctions are an appropriate step here? And what should this look like to really be meaningful?

Sen. Sam Nunn: Well, of course, sanctions would have to be very damaging to Russia to be meaningful. It would seem to me that [NATO nations] should make the sanctions contingent, because if you go ahead and put sanctions on before an invasion, how does that deter an invasion?  If you’re Russia and you’re going to have the sanctions anyway, what have you got to lose? It seems to me they ought to be contingent, and certainly I would put very strong sanctions on, if Russia invades Ukraine. I would agree with that. But what we have to watch is in damaging Russia’s economy, how much do we damage the economy of Europe and the world? And of course, the energy supplies to Europe from Russia are crucial for their economy. So you have to look at the overall economic implications globally, and the oil and gas markets are global. Those questions have to be carefully examined, but the fundamental deterrent would be the threat of sanctions. If you’re going to do sanctions, anyway, what is the deterrent?

Patricia Murphy, AJC:  Since the last time the United States and Russia were really two superpowers, China has obviously risen in immense power and feels like a big dynamic on the world stage. But does the rise of China affect any of this right now?  Is there anything we should know or think about regarding China, or is this separate from that conversation?

Sen. Sam Nunn: No, I don’t think it’s separate; I think it’s a big factor. You’ve got the UN Security Council meeting – that will be interesting if China lines up with Russia, which would be not an encouraging sign. You know, Kissinger and Nixon, they thought strategically, let’s put it that way, they thought strategically back in the late 60s and early 70s, when they made a number of moves with China to separate Russia from China.

Today, unintentionally, inadvertently, we seem to be taking steps in dealing with each that draw them closer together. I think that is strategically a mistake.

The fact that we are in the middle of a crisis with Russia and Europe, Ukraine, particularly if an invasion occurs, I think it makes the whole situation with Taiwan much more dangerous. I would have to say that … the challenge is to think strategically about the very broad global implications.

Patricia Murphy, AJC: Just a couple more quick questions, because I know you don’t have a lot of time.  When you think about a potential Russian invasion of Ukraine, and with the United States sending troops and obviously NATO, can you imagine a shooting war happening with the United States and Russia coming out of this?  How do you see US troops’ role there?

Sen. Sam Nunn:  I think President Biden has done a good job on two things. One, that he’s pulled together the NATO alliance, at least publicly. They are more cohesive than they have been in several years. And number two, he’s made it clear that Ukraine is not a member of NATO. They’re not going to send military troops to fight Russia in Ukraine. That’s very clear, and I think that’s been very important, because they’re not a member of NATO. The big debate, and this is why I call it “The March of Folly,” – is whether Ukraine is going to become a member of NATO? Russia has demanded that we take that off the table, that we say that Ukraine will never become a member of NATO. Well, Russia doesn’t get a veto, but each NATO member does. And that’s what people forget.

Ukraine has every right to want to be a member of NATO, and NATO has every right to ask these hard questions that I posed a minute ago about military capabilities, about not getting back into the early reliance on nuclear weapons, which we did for a long time. That was extremely high risk. We were very lucky. So you don’t know where anything is going to lead if there’s a blunder – a blunder can lead to escalation, so there’s risk, but I don’t think that a war between the United States and Russia is on the front burner in this immediate crisis. And I don’t think a war between NATO and Russia is on the front burner now, but blunders and escalation are not predictable.  We should have learned that from history.

Patricia Murphy, AJC: And so for Georgians who are watching from home, I think some are increasingly concerned. How should Georgians understand this relating back to U.S. national interests, and even in their own worlds, because it does seem like a major change in the tenor of global relations right now? But how do Georgians connect to this, or how should they?

Sen. Sam Nunn: Well, I think we, particularly as citizens and our political leaders – by our, I mean those in Europe also, need to consider what an Article 5 commitment is and what NATO as a primarily military alliance really is.  It’s a pledge to go to war if any member’s sovereignty is violated with a military invasion, and it implies that we would fight with whatever weapons are required. And that included, for too many years, the early use of nuclear weapons.

Now the collapse of the Soviet Union made Russia so weak that we didn’t consider that. NATO has started being too much a social club and not a hard-nosed military alliance, and I think that needs to change.  It needs to change by asking the hard questions, not giving Russia a veto on NATO membership, but asking how do we defend the countries that we are pledging to defend [without the early use of nuclear weapons]? And, you know, I went through a period where I spent a lot of time trying to get both the United States and Europe to build up our conventional defenses in Europe for 20-25 years of my career, moving away from early use of nuclear weapons. And I don’t want us to get back in the situation, which we were in at one time, of risking America’s involvement in a nuclear war because our increasingly prosperous allies run out of ammunition in the first 10 days of a conflict that is not nuclear.

So I’ve been through that movie, and I think we were very lucky not to have had a conflict and an escalation to nuclear use, but there’s no guarantee of good fortune and divine providence forever. So we need to take all of this very seriously. NATO’s not a social club, it’s a pledge to defend. Russia must rethink its own position. They’re leading “The March of Folly.”

Patricia Murphy, AJC: Thank you so much for your time. Is there anything else that we have not touched on? I know this has not been a comprehensive conversation about Ukraine, but it certainly is plenty for my column to give our readers a good sense of your thinking. But is there anything that I have not asked you that you feel like people should know about or be watching carefully as these events unfold?

Sen. Sam Nunn: Well, I think the immediate crisis needs to be addressed by two steps and, right now, we need to buy time and space for diplomacy. And to do that, two suggestions: one is – we need to make it clear to Russia that we are willing to listen to their legitimate security concerns and take those into account as we make our own security decisions. So that’s number one.  Parallel to that, the Russians need to draw down their military forces. They need to move those forces away from the Ukrainian border.

We all need to address European security, the Euro-Atlantic security situation, including Ukraine, including Russia, including NATO. We need to address and rebuild that architecture so that we have mutual security. We have lost the architecture of security in Europe, and I won’t go into details, but that includes the Conventional Forces [in Europe] Treaty – that’s gone. The Intermediate Nuclear Forces [INF] Treaty, that’s gone, and the Open Skies Treaty, that [started] way back as Eisenhower’s dream, and that’s gone. All of those have been discarded without much public notice. I mean, it’s been covered, but people have not paid attention to it. Our leadership has not paid attention to it, and NATO, and the Russians have not paid enough heed to it. So we have to build mutual security, and that requires diplomacy, listening to each other and taking into account the legitimate concerns and military and security concerns of all the nations in the Euro-Atlantic [region], and that includes Ukraine, of course, and it includes Russia.

Patricia Murphy, AJC: OK, one final question, as the United States is moving toward a decision, how important is it for the Senate to act? Not completely in unison, but to act generally with one voice? I think that’s been a challenge lately. Is that an internal danger or is a majority vote enough?

Sen. Sam Nunn:  Yes. I think they’ve done a pretty good job.  As I mentioned, President Biden is trying to pull the NATO countries together in this immediate crisis. And certainly, the leaders of both the Democratic and Republican parties need to pull our own Congress together, and they need to work with the administration. This is not the time for partisan points. We’ve got the security of Europe and the security of the United States at stake here. And so it’s a time for leaders, Republican and Democrat, to work with each other. And this is a time for Congress to work with the Biden administration.

Patricia Murphy, AJC: OK, great. Thank you so much for your time.

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