A Few Russia Questions with U.S. Naval War College Prof. Tom Nichols

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A vocal critic of Edward Snowden, Prof. Tom Nichols has a higher profile on social media than your average national security and strategy professor. He is a professor at the U.S. Naval War College, a senior associate of the Carnegie Council on Ethics and International Affairs, and a fellow of Boston University’s International History Institute. Nichols has led a long and distinguished career in academia, specifically in the studies of strategy, nuclear policy, and Russia. Before moving to academia Nichols served as a defense and foreign affairs policy aide on the personal staff of the late Sen. John Heinz (R-PA).

He can be found on Twitter @TheWarRoom_Tom or on his personal blog The War Room. The views expressed in this interview are his own personal opinion, and not those of the Naval War College or U.S. government.

Reset Russia: What’s your general assessment of the situation in Ukraine right now?

Tom Nichols: My guess is that a lot of what’s happening right now is a result of Putin improvising this crisis right from the beginning. I don’t think there was a master plan to capture Ukraine. I think he reacted to the Maidan movement emotionally, with a lot of anger. I think he was humiliated by Yanukovych’s ouster and he decided to teach the Ukrainians a lesson, and when he kept rolling the dice and winning he decided to keep playing, like any gambler.

So now he finds himself actually much further ahead, he’s actually gotten Crimea, which may have been part of the plan but I don’t think this whole destabilization of Ukraine I think that just grew as he found he had no real opposition to anything he was doing. I think he caught the United States completely unawares—the United States and the European Union—and for the past month and a half he’s pretty much been running the show.

RR: Do you think there’s anything that could have been done to prevent what happened in Crimea?

TN: I don’t know that there was any way to stop what happened in Crimea once that began. For quite a while I’ve been saying that our [U.S.] passive diplomacy in the face of very active Russian foreign policy was inviting trouble down the line.

On my blog I kind of quipped that may answer to this crisis is that, y’know, whoever’s been running our Russia policy should’ve been listening to me three or four years ago. [Laughs] But this is the product of several years, I think, of neglect of foreign policy, including I think, and this is a more controversial statement, but I think the way we took a powder on the Syria question definitely emboldened the Russians to think that they’d have a lot more room to maneuver. And the fact of the matter is they did.

RR: What do you think Putin’s end goal is right now?

TN: Well, deep down Putin doesn’t believe that Ukraine is an actual state and if he can establish that Ukraine really isn’t a state, that it’s merely a satellite of the Russian Federation, I would say he’s achieved his goal.

RR: Do you think he’ll try to do that with other countries as well?

TN: Yes. I think Moldova, Kazakhstan, Belarus—although Belarus, I think Belarus is an interesting case, Belarus has always wanted a closer union with Russia but even their president, who is a thuggish dictator himself, has backpedaled away from this a bit because I think he was surprised by the speed and the aggressiveness of the Russians in Ukraine.

You know, when you’ve scared the leader of Belarus you really have become—you’re probably going too far [laughs].

RR: Is there anything that you think the U.S. government, or maybe the E.U. as well, could be doing right now that it’s not?

TN: I just did a blog post…with five things I think we could be doing.

I think one thing that has to change is the messaging from Washington. It’s almost like we’re reluctant to treat this as a real crisis and I find that astonishing because this is the most important crisis in international affairs in 25 years and that includes the Gulf War.

This is potentially a world-changing event. Putin has called off all of the post-Cold War rules in Europe and wants to renegotiate the post-Cold War settlement. That’s huge.

It seems to me we’re acting, Americans are acting, like it’s another day at the office.

RR: Yeah, it’s been interesting to see the—and maybe it parallels Afghanistan and Iraq too, but a foreign policy fatigue? But there seems to be just kind of a disconnect with a lot of [average Americans] and the situation over there right now.

TN: I have never bought into the argument about foreign policy fatigue, or war weariness. The only people that have the right to be war weary are people that have been fighting our wars.

When most people can’t find Ukraine on a map they don’t get to claim they’re tired of foreign policy.

RR: Did you see…

TN: Yes, I know the study you’re going to talk about. That 16% of people knew where [Ukraine] was and the less you knew about Ukraine the more willing you were to intervene?

RR: Right

TN: Yeah. Well only in America could people claim that they’re so tired of foreign policy, but also think that Ukraine is in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. 

RR: Switching gears a little bit, did you have the chance to see Putin’s “Direct Line” talk?

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(Russian president Vladimir Putin during the national Q & A session last week. Photo courtesy: AP)

TN: Yes.

RR: What were your thoughts on that, and in particular, [Edward] Snowden’s appearance?

TN: I think Snowden’s appearance was yet again testimony to that young man’s massive narcissism and vanity. At the very outset of this Snowden said, ‘I don’t want this story to be about me,’ and yet he’s turned this into a continuing moment of international celebrity. He has no idea what he’s doing, he has no idea the damage he’s doing, and I’m sure the Russians got him on TV by appealing to his ego and his vanity. I’m sure Snowden thinks he’s helping, and making the world a better place, but that’s what the Russians are probably telling him once a day. 

The people who think Snowden is doing this stuff with a gun to his head don’t understand how the naiveté of an adolescent can create this kind of behavior all on its own.

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(Edward Snowden, photo courtesy: AP)

RR: Did you have any other takeaways from the Direct Line talk?

TN: I think would hope, but I’m not optimistic, that it would convince the last few people who support Snowden and what he did, that it would convince them that he didn’t do this for the public good for the United States. He did this for his own screwed up personal reasons. What we’ve been witnessing for the past year is the ongoing psychological drama of a disturbed young man, who has been used by the Russians very adeptly.

RR: Did you have any takeaways from Putin’s comments?

 TN: They were perfect! It was a setup question, and he had an answer ready, and he said exactly what you would expect him to say.

‘No, no no, course not, thank God we don’t do that! No only the Americans do that kind of stuff.’ It was a perfect setup and a perfect answer.