Daniel Ellsberg discusses the significance of the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the growing danger of nuclear war with U.S. and NATO.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine has made the world far more dangerous, not only in the short run but in ways that may be irreversible. In a number of ways, it’s a tragic and criminal attack. In terms of criminality, that is a violation of our obligations under the UN [United Nations] Charter, and it is an aggressive war and not the first.
In fact, it’s like the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. It is like the American invasion of Iraq in 2003, or even Afghanistan earlier than that, which persisted for 20 years. All of these were, including the Russian invasion of Ukraine now, have been criminal, murderous, stupid, unsuccessful and dangerous wars. So we see here humanity at its almost worst. Not quite the worst, fortunately. To go over this whole period of what we’ve been talking about, we haven’t seen the worst. We’ve avoided the worst. I say we, I’ll give credit even to little leaders at their near worst. We haven’t seen nuclear war, and really that was unexpected.
When I was in my teens in the ’40s, ’50s, and early ’60s, I think almost nobody that I knew expected that we would go 70 years after Hiroshima and Nagasaki without another explosion on humans. That could well have happened. We’ve been very close to it, discreditably close to it. Yet, something happened that was not easily foreseeable then. Each of the superpowers, the U.S. and Russia, allowed themselves to be stalemated or defeated without reverting to nuclear weapons. I think almost nobody foresaw that possibility. Of course, it’s a possibility now.
There is this difference. In each of those cases, there was a stalemate confronting such a smaller power, whether it was Korea, Indochina, Vietnam, Laus, or the Russians in Afghanistan. Even though their opponents were supplied by their adversaries’ superpower, and it was something of a proxy war; nevertheless, we were able to accept defeat in Vietnam and defeat in Afghanistan without using nuclear weapons. Although they were considered at various points. Something of a— essentially a defeat in Iraq, politically speaking, the Russians in Afghanistan and so forth. So that could persist unless we know the history of that period and know how close— actually, there was the consideration of escalating to nuclear war. That is currently a more imminent possibility than the world has seen since the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, 60 years ago.
Actually, there was a very close, and for similar reasons, possibility of nuclear war in 1983, 20 years later that most people don’t know of. It was a time when the Russians, the Soviets then, felt under possible imminent attack and were preparing very dangerously and foolishly, but as we would have done in similar circumstances, for a preemptive attack against the United States. There were false alarms during that crisis that could well have triggered it. Except for the prudence of individuals in the system, so that the world hung on the somewhat dangerous in career terms, decisions by people like [Vasili] Arkhipov in the Cuban Missile Crisis and Colonel [Stanislav] Petrov in the 1983 crisis, not to alarm their superiors with their own belief that there might well be an imminent attack. That could occur in the current crisis and in various ways.
For example, if the Ukrainians were to use the missile systems that we’re now giving them, which have the capability of replying to Russian attacks on Ukrainian soil, with Ukrainian attacks on Russian soil, that would be a severe escalation, possibly out of our control. That happened again. If a possible defeat in Donbas of Russian forces caused [Vladimir] Putin and or his commanders, or conceivably subordinates, to attack supply points in Poland, thus implicating NATO [North Atlantic Treaty Organization] directly in this. We would get into a NATO-U.S. war, which has so far been avoided.
I’m saying that each power here, [Joe] Biden on the one hand and Putin on the other, have, as in the past, refrained from acts that would bring us into direct armed conflict together. They have shown a kind of prudence that we’ve seen before. Yet they’re gambling with a clear-cut risk by what they’re doing, and the other side is doing by the interaction of getting into something that has not happened in the 70 years. This is totally, so far, new, and that is the imminent possibility of armed conflict between the U.S. or NATO and Russia or the Soviet Union earlier.
Amazingly, in these 70 years, you might say each side has taken care, even in a proxy war, in each case against some, asymmetric, against some weaker power, has taken care to avoid direct armed conflict between the two. So something we have not seen. Yet tested is the willingness of a superpower leader to lose or be defeated or stalemated, I should say by the other superpower because that involves a loss of prestige and loss of influence in the world that has not occurred in these earlier wars. For the U.S. to withdraw from Vietnam or Afghanistan is understood by others. It’s not directly impinging on their ability to be a great power or a superpower in the world. To lose directly to Russia, or Russia to the U.S. is another matter, and that hasn’t happened. It could easily come about now.
So that’s the gamble that’s being taken by both sides at this point. Just as both sides were gambling in the Cuban Missile Crisis, in which I was involved at a high staff level, they were gambling that they would not go against their instincts not to get into armed conflict. I believe that both Khrushchev and Kennedy, I believe this after 50 years of study after I had actually participated in that crisis, neither of them, in fact, intended to carry out their threats of armed conflict. They were both bluffing, but each of them was making moves and deployments, threats, and commitments to improve the terms of a negotiated settlement which each of them expected to end with of some kind. In the course of that sparring, that deploying for better terms, they came within a hair’s breadth of subordinates leading into a direct armed conflict of American destroyers, causing a Soviet submarine to use a nuclear torpedo, which we didn’t. The destroyers didn’t even know they had a Soviet General in Cuba without the permission of Khrushchev, shooting down a [Lockheed] U-2.
One time, by the way, in 70 years, when overtly, an American or Soviet was actually killed by the other side. That was Major [Rudolf] Anderson on Saturday morning, October 27, when I was in the Pentagon. So we’ve been that close and in part because of the actions of subordinates or allies that were not under the control of the leaders. We came very close to blowing up not just the Northern hemisphere, which our Joint Chiefs already estimated as the effect of our initiating nuclear war or responding to a single attack. In fact, we now know for the last 30 years would have led to a smoke pole in the stratosphere, from burning cities, from soot from burning cities that would have cut out most sunlight and killed nearly all humans on Earth by starvation. In other words, we wouldn’t be here if Vasili Arkhipov had not overridden the decision of the Soviet Sub Commander to launch his nuclear torpedo and again in Petrov.
Now, right now, it’s not only the risk of nuclear war that we’re seeing. The Russian action here, which was hardly foreseen by anyone outside the administration, which was thought to be exaggerating the situation wrongly by many people outside; that Russian has destroyed, and attacked against their Budapest Agreements to respect the sovereignty of Ukraine if it gave up its nuclear weapons to Russia. It was already violated by taking Crimea, but those were in circumstances quite different from the present. This has destroyed, I think, the kind of trust not only in the U.S., but quite widely that could possibly lead to something like the treaty for the prevention of nuclear war, the elimination of nuclear weapons, or Article Six of the Non-Proliferation Treaty of good faith negotiations towards the elimination of nuclear weapons. The U.S. and other nuclear States have violated that in spirit and in action for half a century. Yet there was always the possibility in part by this treaty, the so-called TPNW, Treaty for the Prevention of Nuclear War, prohibition of nuclear weapons. Pardon me, the Treaty for the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. It was a possibility. Many nations have signed that. Even the U.S. could sign it. I’ve been skeptical of that for reasons we could go into. I think the idea of nuclear States signing that now is essentially dead. But more than that, I think Article Six is pretty dead and the Non-Proliferation Treaty itself. Ironically, in this situation, even if nuclear weapons don’t go off, the evident use of these weapons by threatening them and by preparations, especially in this case on the Russian side, I think will urge other countries to acquire their own deterrent forces and their own ability to exert their own influence outside their borders. I think proliferation now is very likely. It’s been predicted before, and we’ve avoided it. As I say, the worst has been avoided. I think the worst is now upon us, not certainly, and we can work against that and struggle against it. I think, in fact, we have an era of nuclear proliferation.
If the Russians are led to use a nuclear weapon, it probably would be in the way that NATO was expected to use it in the case of a Soviet attack on West Europe. And that is not immediately by an all-out use of strategic weapons or at all, or even an all-out use, large use of tactical nuclear weapons. The NATO planning, in case of a new blockade of Berlin, got us into an armed conflict was always to fire demonstration shots first or warning shots. In other words, the alleged Russian doctrine of escalating to deescalate to stop the conflict. It is not a Russian invention. It was always the NATO idea. After all, what else could it be? A large-scale use of tactical nuclear weapons in Europe has always been understood to lead to the annihilation of Europe, east and west, and probably to an all-out war. So the countries then that have relied on the so-called nuclear umbrella have always contemplated that first, you’ll try to get the other side to back off if conventional means are not adequate for that. Even France, in its own independent force de frappe, has first thought not of hitting Moscow that comes next, but for the French, but of a warning shot, a demonstration shot, to get the other side to realize the seriousness of the situation, the willingness of the launching side to take risks, to accept risks and to draw back. At the very least, to negotiate in a way that they had not been willing earlier and possibly to win, to accept the other side’s terms. That’s not impossible, though it’s likely to happen. To have, in other words, a successful effect as an alternative to a decisive failure.
For that reason, by the way, it’s extremely important, in my opinion and others, not to confront Putin and the Russians with the kind of military victory that a number of high-level members of the Biden administration have said is necessary. Nancy Pelosi in the House has said victory is essential, not defining exactly what that means. It doesn’t seem to encompass the kind of negotiated solution which is least unlikely or most likely, which would not be really satisfactory to either side, but would be tolerable by both sides and hard for either to call victory.
For Biden to have said, and even now repudiating it in words to some extent, but to have said that regime change is necessary, that Putin must not be allowed to serve, or that the war must go on, as Secretary of Defense [Lloyd] Austin has said, to weaken Russia until it can’t invade other countries the way it has invaded Ukraine. It can’t invade Moldova or Georgia; they are actually the most likely other targets on this. That’s absurd. That would not be achieved in 100 years. So they are both talking about very long wars.
As this war goes on, the possibility of escalation then continues, even grows to avoid escalation or avoid, pardon me, to avoid stalemate, a costly stalemate and escalation. So the chance of a negotiated outcome to this, which I think ideally would happen as soon as possible or at least within the next several months, and I’ll come back to that. It’s very important, but it’s not likely. As I say, the arguments I’m arguing against are at the very top of our leadership. Putin has said similar things, as had Zelenskyy changing an earlier position in which he allowed the possibility of a negotiated outcome, which would give up some sovereignty over Donbas and over for at least a long period of years, Crimea, along with neutrality and a willingness not to have any American bases or foreign basis on its soil.
Earlier, he expressed an interest in that, and then he switched that in recent times. He is now talking about what amounts to a determination to fight on until Russian soldiers have left Donbas, the Eastern Ukraine, where they’ve been for eight years, and Crimea, which they have annexed. It’s extremely unlikely that they will give up control of that. So we’re talking about a long war in which Ukrainian lives are destroyed enormously, hundreds of thousands more casualties on the Ukrainian side, as well as comparably on the Russian side.
Now I face a terrific problem here in confronting this tragic situation for Ukraine and, for that matter, for the Russian people with the sanctions and the rest of the world in terms of food supplies from Ukraine, which confronts people in Africa right now with a threat of famine and starvation as this goes on. A real obstacle to that is that there are definite benefits and preferences in favor of a long war on both sides. The fact is that a stalemated war and even a lost war, as in Vietnam or Afghanistan or significantly Iraq, has been and is very profitable for the people who provide arms, and they are not marginal corporations here. These are quite influential corporations on our side and very possibly comparably on the Russian side as well. But here, Raytheon, Lockheed, Boeing, and Northrop Grumman, making the new ICBMs, and General Dynamics are profiting hugely. Their stock has gone up, and reasonably so. If you have no scruples as to what you’re investing in, Lockheed is a very good investment at this point because— and Raytheon— supplying the stingers and the javelins and many of the other weapons of war here.
I think from their point of view, this war can’t last too long. It’s quite fine with them for it to go on indefinitely. From the U.S. government’s point of view, this Russian aggression has resuscitated NATO, which is Cosa Nostra, our thing for the American protectorate, the protection racket that we have run in NATO for a long time. It has resuscitated the U.S. role in Europe and dominance, even enlarged NATO. As I say, it created a Cold War atmosphere in which U.S. leadership, even in Asia, is now greatly enhanced, and that, again, can’t go on too long.
On the Russian side, we’re running into a very common, and this applies to the U.S. as well, but more to the Russian side. The chance of an actual prestigious loss, a humiliating loss, is what confronts Putin right now. In all our history, which I’ve been analyzing as best I could in the last half-century, having participated in some of the worst aspects of it before that tells me that rather than suffer that humiliating cost, a leader in the position of Putin is willing to raise the ante, escalate, back up previous failures, and double down in ways that are without consideration of the humans like the Ukrainians, in this case, Afghans, in the case both of the Soviet invasion and the U.S. invasion and elsewhere with very little consideration of them just doesn’t come in.
I’ve said that the Russian aggression and the understandable and supportable support resistance to that in the way of arms aid and position without direct conflict by the U.S. has some very serious impact on proliferation, on money, on starvation, right now. The worst of all, I think, is the destruction of the possibility of the kind of collaboration, cooperation, and common security that’s between the U.S., China, India, and Russia that is essential for dealing with the great existential problem facing civilization now. The climate catastrophe that’s looming before us.
Let me be very specific. This war in the last few months, I think, has ruled out the possibility of keeping a ceiling on global warming to 1.5 degrees centigrade. That was the goal of past global summits on this subject. Supposedly 1.5 then elevated possibly to 2, each of which represented very bad degradations of the world environment for humans. That’s going to happen now. I think the possible; that’s my best judgment, as I’ve tried to inform myself on this. The kind of cooperation we need with China, specifically, the two greatest emitters now in the world, the U.S. and China, seems extremely unlikely. If somehow that could change, China could change its relation to Russia on this, that would be very good, but that is not the way events are going. Without that collaboration on climate, the world is going to get hotter in ways of producing floods, hurricanes, rising sea levels, toxicity in the ocean, and disastrous effects on civilization. Not extinction, just a world much less favorable to human existence. And that, I think, is going to be very hard to change. That’s a catastrophe right now. It’s tragic, as I see.
Finally, the prospects for simply continuing at this level, even without escalation, this high level, I think, make that the most likely course of events that I see coming up and disastrously so. All experience of the past that I’ve studied and participated in says that men in power, and it’s usually men, occasionally women. It applies to them too if they’re in power, will risk and even sacrifice almost any number of humans to avoid a short run, almost certain disaster for them personally and a setback, a defeat, a humiliation which would cause them to lose office and to lose power and whatnot. And rather than do that, their incentives are to pursue possibilities of avoiding that, of staying in office, of avoiding the defeat at the cost of stalemate is the alternative or even very unlikely victory.
But either of those with the risk or high likelihood of enormous loss of life almost without limit, and I say that because of my knowledge of the nuclear plans. The risk both sides are taking of possible nuclear war now, disastrous nuclear war, even if it remained somewhat limited, still disastrous. The possibility of the ultimate catastrophe of nuclear winter is consciously being preserved, not reduced, if anything, increased by the actions of each side. It could be worse. They could be at this moment or tomorrow, attacking each side: Poland, Russia, and NATO. Tactical nuclear weapons are definitely a possibility, each of which raises still higher, to a very high point, the possibility of an all-out war between the U.S. and Russia.
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“Daniel Ellsberg is an American economist, political activist, and former United States military analyst. While employed by the RAND Corporation, Ellsberg precipitated a national political controversy in 1971 when he released the Pentagon Papers, a top-secret Pentagon study of the U.S. government decision-making in relation to the Vietnam War, to The New York Times, The Washington Post and other newspapers.”