US Goal to Degrade Russia’s Military Risks Dangerous Ukraine War Escalation

Interview with George Beebe, former director of CIA's Russia desk, now director of grand strategy at the Quincy Institute, conducted by Scott Harris

As the Russian invasion of Ukraine enters its third month, the United Nations warned that the civilian death toll in the war is likely thousands higher than the official number of 3,381. The UN says that an estimated 5.7 million Ukrainian war refugees have fled the country, with another 6.5 million people internally displaced.

In Russian President Vladimir Putin’s annual May 9 Victory Day address in Moscow, he defended his decision to invade Ukraine, while justifying the war as an extension of the struggle against Nazism in Europe. Putin also accused Ukraine of planning a “punitive invasion” of its Russian-controlled territory, and charged that NATO was building up troops near Russia’s borders.

Earlier on April 25, U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin declared that the U.S. hopes the war in Ukraine will result in a “weakened” Russia that no longer has the capacity to invade its neighbors. Washington’s involvement in the conflict has apparently escalated with reports that U.S. intelligence was shared with Ukraine’s military resulting in the sinking of Russia’s Black Sea naval flagship, the shooting down of a transport plane killing hundreds of Russian troops, and missile strikes that have reportedly killed 12 Russian generals on the field of battle. Between The Lines’ Scott Harris spoke with George Beebe, former director of the CIA’s Russia desk who advised then-Vice President Dick Cheney, who now serves as director of grand strategy at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. Here, he expresses concern that efforts to end this conflict could be derailed by the Biden administration’s stated goal of weakening Russia’s overall military capacity.

GEORGE BEEBE: The combination of outrage over Russia’s invasion and the brutality that the Russians have exhibited in their attacks and a belief that, “Hey, perhaps the Ukrainians could actually win this” has caused U.S. war aims to escalate. At the beginning of the war, I think our goal was to stymie the Russian attacks, to make sure that they weren’t able to succeed and capture Ukraine or the capital city. And we’ve now started talking about victory — driving Russian forces out of Ukraine, perhaps all together, including the Crimea, which the Russians annexed in 2014, when this war really started.

The danger here is that Russia could find itself feeling cornered, feeling as if the choice that it faces in Ukraine is one between defeat and humiliation on the one hand or escalation against the United States and NATO. We could find ourselves as a result in a direct military conflict with Russia, the world’s largest nuclear power.

And when you’re in that kind of direct conflict, the dangers that the war could escalate, perhaps to the nuclear level are not insignificant. What I think we need to be thinking about is, “How do we find a way out of this situation that doesn’t confront Putin with this choice between humiliation and defeat on the one hand or potential escalation to the nuclear level on the other hand?”

That is a dilemma that U.S. leaders for the entire Cold War period sought to avoid. They recognized that in these crisis situations, you need to leave your opponents with a face-saving way out. That is what makes the nuclear age different from, you know, the centuries that preceded it. And it’s something that I think we need to remind ourselves of today, because we could find ourselves in a situation that could be quite horrific if we don’t.

SCOTT HARRIS: What would be your best advice to the Biden administration to de-escalate and try to bring an end to this war, the death and destruction in Ukraine that would help us avert some kind of horrible, unpredictable and dangerous catastrophe of a U.S.-Russia confrontation?

GEORGE BEEBE: Well, the United States has some significant leverage that it can employ to help guide the situation in direction that would serve American interest. We’ve done a good job of helping the Ukrainians defend themselves. We’ve done a good job of denying Russia an ability to achieve its quite expansive war objectives at the start of this invasion. But now we need to be using that leverage to incentivize a way out of this, an early end to this war so that we’re not, you know, years from now, still looking at destruction, Ukrainian suffering, a very unstable Europe in a very depressed and unstable global economy, which is where this all could end. So that means using economic sanctions — not just to punish the Russians, but to incentivize them to compromise. And to do that, you have to give an indication that if they seek a settlement, if they agree to compromise, that we can lift those sanctions at least partially. If they see no reward, if they see only continued punishment, we’re in fact incentivizing them to keep this war going. And I don’t think that’s in the American interest.

Listen to Scott Harris’ in-depth interview with George Beebe (19:33) and see more articles and opinion pieces in the Related Links section of this page.

For more information, visit the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft at quincyinst.org.

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