Analyzing Russia’s views on Ukraine, NATO and the use of nuclear weapons

The carnage in Ukraine continues as Russia appears to be changing tactics. Andrew Weiss, vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, joins Judy Woodruff to discuss.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    And now for some perspective, we turn again to Andrew Weiss. He served in the George H.W. Bush and Clinton administrations on the National Security Council staff and the State Department's Policy Planning Staff. He is now vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a think tank.

    Andrew Weiss, welcome back to the "NewsHour."

    First off, I want to ask you what you made of Mr. Peskov's comments about nuclear war, about Russia's intentions when it comes to using nuclear weapons.

    Andrew Weiss, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace: Hi, Judy.

    I think the comments from Dmitry Peskov about whether or not the Ukraine war is an existential threat to the survival of the Russian state are somewhat encouraging. This is about as good as any comment from a Russian official is likely to be. And it's as close to a partial walk-back of what President Putin has said as we're likely to get.

    So, all in all, it's reassuring. The problem is, of course, that such declaratory policy is highly elastic, in that, if Putin sees what in his eyes is an existential threat coming out of the war in Ukraine, he can turn things around and come up with a justification himself.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So are you referring in part to what Mr. Peskov had to say about — he said, we see these as separate things, this so-called special operation and something that would be an existential threat to our territory?

  • Andrew Weiss:

    That's right, Judy.

    And the reason why Western leaders have been on edge about this is, in the immediate aftermath of Putin's launch of the war on February 24, he cited unfriendly actions by NATO countries, including the imposition of economic sanctions, as justification for raising the alert level of Russia's nuclear forces.

    He wasn't pointing to anything specific as providing that justification. And that, I think, sort of made people in various Western capitals nervous that Putin was getting a little bit overanxious to waive his nuclear saber.

    The problem is, is, would Russia potentially try to use either chemical, nuclear or biological weapons as a way of upending the dynamic on the battlefield? And I don't think that concern has gone away by any stretch. There's still a lot of worry about that in Western governments.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    No question. Even though he said no one is thinking about using nuclear weapons, he said even the idea of a nuclear weapon.

    Let me also ask you about what he said about NATO. Ryan Chilcote was asking him, what are your intentions about NATO? Under what circumstances would you strike a NATO country? And he said, well, if it's not a reciprocal act, so if they don't make us do that, we cannot think about that. We don't want to think about it.

    Is that reassuring as well?

  • Andrew Weiss:

    I think it is.

    There's a couple of challenges here, though. The first is that the Biden administration has tried to make clear that it does not see a direct military role for the United States in this conflict. That's a sensible and appropriate policy to be communicating publicly.

    The problem is, the longer this goes on — and my baseline assessment is that this conflict is starting to morph into something that resembles the Bosnian war of the 1990s. If this goes on, on a vaster scale for a longer period of time, the risk of some form of spillover or impact on the Western supplies of military equipment to the Ukrainians is going to be with us basically on a chronic basis.

    And so, at some point, the Russians are likely to strike those Western supplies of military equipment to the Ukrainians. The question is, how does that kind of strike unfold? Is any Westerner hit or killed, potentially, God forbid, in the process?

    It's those kinds of scenarios for escalation that, again, I think are quite concerning, and that by no means can be negated for the coming months, if not years to come.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, finally, your thoughts on what he said about, we, the Russians, are not targeting civilians. He referred to Nazis in Mariupol. I mean, clearly, the evidence is otherwise.

  • Andrew Weiss:

    Yes.

    No, it's really unconvincing. There's a lot of familiar talking points coming out of the Kremlin. The idea that this horrible humanitarian disaster that's unfolding in the city of Mariupol is somehow being inflicted by Ukrainian fighters on their own people is just not — is not credible.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Andrew Weiss with the Carnegie Endowment, we thank you so much.

  • Andrew Weiss:

    Thank you.

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