U.S. shifts goals on war in Ukraine amid concerns over Russia’s nuclear capabilities

During the past few months the Biden administration's rhetoric about its ultimate goals for Ukraine appears to have shifted, with more talk about winning the war against Russia. Evelyn Farkas, executive director of the McCain Institute at Arizona State University, and John Mearsheimer, political science professor at the University of Chicago, join Judy Woodruff to discuss.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Over the past few months, the Biden administration's rhetoric about its ultimate goals for Ukraine appears to have shifted. Officials are talking more about winning the war against Russia.

    At the same time, the White House has increased military support for Ukraine, raising concerns that it could provoke Russia to use weapons of mass destruction.

    For a closer look at the questions raised by this, we get two views.

    Evelyn Farkas is the executive director of the McCain Institute at Arizona State University. During the Obama administration, she served as deputy assistant secretary of defense for Eurasia. And John Mearsheimer is a political science professor at the University of Chicago. He has written extensively about U.S. national security. His latest book is "The Great Delusion: Liberal Dreams and International Realities."

    And we welcome you both back to the "NewsHour."

    John Mearsheimer, I'm going to start with you.

    Do you believe U.S. goals for Ukraine have changed, and, if so, how?

    John Mearsheimer, University of Chicago: Well, I think, initially, the Biden administration thought the best we could do in Ukraine was to stymie the Russian offensive by assisting the Ukrainians.

    But when it became clear that the Ukrainians were doing very well on the battlefield against the Russians, we escalated and eventually greatly escalated our goals. And we are now bent on inflicting a decisive defeat on Russian forces in Ukraine, in other words, beating them decisively on the battlefield, and, in addition, wrecking the Russian economy with sanctions.

    And all of this is designed to greatly weaken Russian power. Secretary of Defense Austin has made this very clear. And, in fact, one could argue what he and his colleagues in the Biden administration are interested in doing is knocking Russia out of the great power ranks.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Evelyn Farkas, do you see the same thing going on that John Mearsheimer does?

  • Evelyn Farkas, Former Defense Department Official:

    Some of it, but not exactly.

    So, the underlying objective — and this runs from the Obama administration through the Trump administration, actually. Despite what President Trump said himself, his Cabinet kept the same policy vis-a-vis Ukraine and all the way to today.

    Our objective has been to protect Ukraine's right to its sovereignty, the borders as they exist, and, of course, their right to associate with NATO or the European Union. So, that is steady going.

    But I would agree with Professor Mearsheimer that there has been a change in the Biden administration. They have recognized that the only way to stop Vladimir Putin is not through sanctions, not through trying to appeal to the Russian people, but it's actually by defeating Ukraine on the battlefield as fast as possible.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And just continuing…

  • Evelyn Farkas:

    Sorry, defeating Russia, not Ukraine.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And concerning with that point, Evelyn Farkas, I mean, we hear — I hear John Mearsheimer saying it looks — what it looks like the U.S. is now saying is they want to not just degrade the Russian military, but almost wipe it out, and do the same thing to the Russian economy.

  • Evelyn Farkas:

    Well, here's where I disagree.

    I don't think that this administration, the Biden administration, cares whether Russia maintains its economic power in principle, whether it maintains its military power in principle. But this aggressive foreign policy being conducted by Vladimir Putin essentially since 2008, when they invaded Georgia, the first neighbor they invaded and occupied, is not going to stop while Vladimir Putin is in the Kremlin, while he has the money to support this foreign policy, this military aggression.

    And so the administration has decided that now they must weaken Russia as much as possible to put an end to this current foreign policy adopted by the Kremlin. But it's not something that they wish permanently. That is not a policy decision that I see coming out of the White House at all.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But what I hear you describing, John Mearsheimer, is something that you think, that you believe is dangerous, that it could get the U.S. into a situation where the Russians are retaliating in ways that the U.S. isn't prepared to deal with.

  • John Mearsheimer:

    I think, Judy, this policy that the Biden administration is following is remarkably dangerous and foolish.

    We know that the one circumstance in which a great power is likely to use nuclear weapons is when its survival is threatened, when it thinks a decisive defeat is being inflicted on it.

    And what the Biden administration is bent on doing is inflicting a decisive defeat on Russia. We are threatening its survival. We are presenting the Russians with an existential threat. And this, again, is the one circumstance where they might use nuclear weapons.

    And I think we should be going to enormous lengths to make sure that we don't put them into a position where they even countenance using nuclear weapons, much less use them.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Evelyn Farkas, is that the risk here that the U.S. confronts by changing the goal?

  • Evelyn Farkas:

    Well, Russia's nuclear policy does allow for the use of nuclear weapons first against an adversary if it feels that the existence of the state is in question, that it's in jeopardy.

    And I think that leaves a lot of room for subjective interpretation. And, of course, that will be Vladimir Putin's interpretation.

    But I think what we cannot forget right now is that we are also a nuclear power. We have deterrence in place. Vladimir Putin does not want a nuclear war with the United States or NATO. And, for that matter, he doesn't want a conventional war with us either, because he can barely win the one he's waging right now in Ukraine.

    So I don't think we should be deterred by this fear that he's going to reach for nuclear weapons. We cannot rule it out. I'm not dismissing it. But I also think that the objective that we have right now, the stakes are so high. It's nothing less — it's not just about Ukraine. It's about the international order.

    And we're fighting here to stop Vladimir Putin from turning after Ukraine to Georgia and Moldova, to destroying NATO, to essentially reasserting a sphere of influence system, which is what we put to bed after the end of World War II, when we set up the United Nations and the rules-based order.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    John Mearsheimer, I hear you saying you fear that Russia cannot be deterred, that it may — there may be a decision made by Vladimir Putin to use weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear weapons, and that — what, that the U.S. is moving inexorably toward — in that direction?

  • John Mearsheimer:

    Well, I think it's very important to understand that, if he were to use nuclear weapons, he would use them, in all likelihood, in Western Ukraine.

    And there are no NATO or American forces in Western Ukraine. So he would not be attacking us. He would be using those weapons in Ukraine. And the question is, what do we do then? And I'm not sure what we would do then. Would we use nuclear weapons? Would we then get dragged into the war?

    When Professor Farkas talks about the consequences of this for the world order, I'm more worried about the consequences if we ended up getting hit with nuclear weapons. I mean, we want to remember what President Kennedy did during the Cuban Missile Crisis. He was in a similar situation. What he did was, he tried to dampen the conflict. He tried to work out some sort of deal with Khrushchev, so we could both avoid getting vaporized.

    What the Biden administration is doing is exactly the opposite. It's upping the ante. It's putting Putin in a position where he might very well use nuclear weapons. Again, I think this is remarkably foolish.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Evelyn Farkas, what do you see happening if Vladimir Putin were to resort to tactical nuclear weapons? What do you see the U.S. response?

  • Evelyn Farkas:

    Again, I think he's most likely to use them, Judy, if he feels that there will be no consequences for him, if he thinks that we will not counter with a nuclear use — I know it's a horrible thing to contemplate, but that is how deterrence works — or if he thinks that we will not enter the war directly.

    And, actually, I think that I'm not sure whether our government would actually use nuclear force in response, though we have to say that because that's part of deterrence. But what I do think is that, if there's a nuclear use, if the nuclear taboo comes off, if nuclear weapons are used for the first time since World War II — and Vladimir Putin may well do that if he thinks we won't respond — I think President Biden will then enter the war directly.

    That doesn't mean troops on the ground, but it means that Russia will lose.

    So, I think that Vladimir Putin is likely smart enough to understand the danger for himself. He's not going to reach for a nuclear weapon right now. He is already proceeding, I think, a little bit more cautiously, from what we can see. Of course, it remains to be seen how this all ends, but he's not interested in taking on the United States and NATO.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, these are enormous questions. And we are going to be coming back to them. But it is so important to begin to explore this tonight, as we have with both of you.

    John Mearsheimer, Evelyn Farkas, we thank you.

  • Evelyn Farkas:

    Thanks, Judy.

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