A European View on Putin’s Next Move in Ukraine

By Nick Fishwick

Nick Fishwick CMG retired after nearly thirty years in the British Foreign Service. His postings included Lagos, Istanbul and Kabul. His responsibilities in London included director of security and, after returning from Afghanistan in 2007, he served as director for counter-terrorism. His final role was as director general for international operations.

As career intelligence and diplomatic professionals look at today’s Ukraine situation, many – like Cipher Brief Expert and former Senior Member of the British Foreign Office, Nick Fishwick – remember a time when a standoff of this nature would have sparked serious concerns about nuclear conflict, given that Russia is a nuclear weapons state.

The Cipher Brief caught up with Fishwick recently to get his thoughts on Putin’s options.  You first heard our conversation on The Cipher Brief’s Open Source Podcast (available wherever you listen to podcasts.). This version has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Fishwick:   I think the fundamental problem that we’ve got is that if a crisis like this were happening 40 years ago, I would be absolutely petrified.  I’m old enough to remember 40 years ago. I would have been thinking either this crisis gets solved, or we’re facing mutually assured destruction.

Fortunately, we’re not in that position now. President Putin can pursue an aggressive policy and victimize weaker neighbors for his own purposes without the knowledge that the west will have to respond in a way that will lead to mutually assured destruction. He knows he can play these games and the west isn’t going to be forced to respond in that way because there are different ways of responding now. There are different ways that Putin has of escalating his aggression as well. He doesn’t necessarily need tanks rumbling over the border or short range and then medium range nuclear missiles whizzing westward. He’s got all sorts of tools that he can use to put pressure on us. From the point of view of the west, we are quite clear that however terrible this is, nobody wants nuclear war.

President Biden is having to go as far as he can in terms of warning Putin to stop this and that an invasion of Ukraine is absolutely not acceptable, but he can’t say the one thing that’s really going to make sure that Putin isn’t going to do anything, which is that if you invade, we are going to strike back with full military force because that would be a degree of escalation – that most people would consider – is just not something we can afford. It wouldn’t be good for Ukraine either.

I think President Biden is in quite a difficult position of trying to threaten the Russians as much as he can to get them to step back, but he can’t use the ultimate threat, which is what underlying cold war threat of mutually assured destruction. I think people in Europe will have sympathy that he’s struggling with this. It does seem to me that he’s probably been acting on intelligence about Putin’s intentions. I don’t know what that intelligence is. I certainly hope that it’s good, and I hope that it’s being looked at on both sides of the Atlantic, and by five allies as well.

But I’m sure that he’s getting good intelligence on what Putin’s intentions would be. My guess, but it’s only a guess, is that Putin doesn’t want to launch a full-blown invasion of Ukraine, because it might go horribly wrong. I think Putin’s good at taking short term winnable risks, limited risks. But an invasion of Ukraine is really risky. We’ve seen 14,000 people killed already since the Donbass invasion. There will be a lot more than 14,000 if this happens. Ukraine’s army is pretty good.

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The Cipher Brief:  Secretary of State Antony Blinken met with his European counterparts last week. He’s already said that there’s some disagreement over how NATO would respond if in fact President Putin does decide to send troops into Ukraine. What is the likelihood, do you think, given your experience and understanding of how NATO works, that NATO would be able to, or would have the will, to come up with some sort of swift reaction if in fact there is an invasion?

Fishwick:  I think NATO will do what NATO has to do. It will have to defend, I mean, obviously Ukraine is not a member of NATO, but still, it will see this as a common threat to common interests, and I think European allies would respond dramatically to that. I think where it starts getting a bit more complicated and a bit more nuanced is if Putin does secondary stepping up of pressure on the Ukraine. Whether he only nibbles away at a bit more of it, whether he increases cyberattacks on the Ukrainian authorities, things like that.

It makes it a bit harder to preserve that kind of unity. I think a full-blown invasion, I think that would be unity of response. I think we have to look back in terms of the recent history of European commitment to foreign policy areas where the United States has led. Now, we’ve just been through a period, or recently been through a period of four years when NATO allies, European allies couldn’t rely on the United States leadership, and we had some very negative signals from former President Trump and his administration. We knew this would happen at the time. It has caused some damage and a lack of confidence in Europe about American leadership. I’m hoping very much that is being recovered under the Biden administration, and I hope, under any future US administration, republican or democratic.

But the damage is there. It led some European leaders, including French President Emmanuel Macron to think harder about specific European responses to security issues. I don’t think that crisis has got very far, but it was symptomatic of confusing and often negative American leadership when Trump was president.

The Cipher Brief:  Speaking of president Macron, we reported last week that in a speech before the European parliament, the French President renewed calls for a new security framework across Europe, including a rearmament. Do you think that would see broad support and what is your sense on the EU creating a broader ability to act unilaterally with or without the US?

Fishwick:  I’m instinctively skeptical about it. I mean, there’s a debate about whether NATO should have continued to exist when the Warsaw Pact dropped down. Personally, I think it was a good thing that it did continue to exist. We’re thanking the people that took that decision in the ’90s that it’s with us now, protecting Europe and the United States and other allies. I think NATO will continue to be the main source of security for us in Europe. I can see why Macron is thinking the way that he is. He’s a very creative thinker on this, and it’s good that he’s thinking that way. But I don’t think it’s gone very far. It’s important that everybody sees the main source of defense for us in Europe has been NATO.

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