Russia Expert Angela Stent”As Long as Russia Has 6,000 Nuclear Warheads, It Will Remain a Threat”

Former Bush administration adviser Angela Stent; a portrait of Vladimir Putin at Checkpoint Charlie in Berlin
Former Bush administration adviser Angela Stent; a portrait of Vladimir Putin at Checkpoint Charlie in Berlin Foto: BROOKINGS; Jorge Silva / REUTERS

How great is the risk for the West after the decision to send tanks to Ukraine? In an interview, Russia expert and former U.S. government adviser Angela Stent discusses German weapons deliveries to Kyiv and the mistakes made in dealing with Moscow.

Interview Conducted By René Pfister in Washington, D.C.


Angela Stent, born in 1947, is one of the leading Russia experts in the United States. She worked in the Office of Policy Planning at the U.S. State Department and served on the National Intelligence Council, the interface between security services and policymakers, during George W. Bush’s presidency. She taught as a professor for many years at Georgetown University and is currently a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, a think tank in Washington.DER SPIEGEL 5/2023

The article you are reading originally appeared in German in issue 5/2023 (January 27th, 2023) of DER SPIEGEL.SPIEGEL International

DER SPIEGEL: Ms. Stent, the war against Ukraine is entering into its second year, with hundreds of villages and towns destroyed and tens of thousands of soldiers and civilians dead or injured. How might this war end?ANZEIGE

Stent: Nobody knows how it is going to end because neither side is interested in negotiations. The Russians still think they can control all of Ukraine. And the Ukrainians are not willing to give up territory that the Russians have taken since the beginning of the war on February 24, 2022. In that sense, we are further away from a peace agreement than ever before.

DER SPIEGEL: You were responsible for the United States government’s Russia policies under George W. Bush. If you had to negotiate a peace agreement today, how would you proceed?

Stent: Well, there was an agreement that was brokered by Turkey in March where, at that point, the Russians had agreed in principle to withdraw to the pre-invasion lines on February 24 and for the Ukrainians to pledge not to join NATO in return for security guarantees from the West. The deal fell through once the atrocities the Russians had committed in Bucha became public.

“Russia has broken every agreement it had signed with Ukraine since the collapse of the Soviet Union that had to do with Ukraine’s territorial integrity and sovereignty.”

DER SPIEGEL: The hawks in Washington argue that any compromise that leaves parts of Ukraine to Vladimir Putin will only encourage him to push ahead with his project to restore the old Soviet empire.

Stent: I would agree with that in principle. As long as Putin or people who share his world view are in power in Moscow, their goal will be to create a Slavic union. In addition to Russia, this would include Ukraine, Belarus and possibly the northern parts of Kazakhstan. Russia has broken every agreement it had signed with Ukraine since the collapse of the Soviet Union that had to do with Ukraine’s territorial integrity and sovereignty. So, who is to believe that Russia will abide by a new peace agreement? That’s the dilemma.

DER SPIEGEL: The U.S. and Germany have agreed  to supply heavy battle tanks to Ukraine. Is this a turning point?

Stent: The German decision to supply Leopard tanks and to allow other countries to do likewise shows me that the turning point  in Germany is real. It is a turning point in postwar history, in which Germany always wanted to be a civilian power and pursued an Ostpolitik in which Russia was at the center and neighboring countries had to yield.

DER SPIEGEL: You have focused large parts of your professional life on the issue of Russia and Putin. Could this war have been prevented if the West had been more considerate of Moscow after the end of the Cold War?

Stent: We have to understand that Putin has never really accepted that the Soviet Union collapsed. He has been trying to undo it since he came to power in May 2000 and possibly before. The Soviet Union was never defeated in a war. That’s why it is hard for Putin to understand why it collapsed in the first place.

Kremlin chief Vladimir Putin: "We have to understand that Putin has never really accepted that the Soviet Union collapsed."

Kremlin chief Vladimir Putin: “We have to understand that Putin has never really accepted that the Soviet Union collapsed.” Foto: 

Wang Zhao / AFP

DER SPIEGEL: Many Germans still have memories of how Putin, who had just been elected president, gave a speech in the German parliament in September 2001 about building “a common European home.” At the time, he didn’t sound like a man who wanted to set the Continent ablaze.

Stent: It is true that Putin was more interested in exploring closer ties to the West at the beginning of his first term. The Bundestag speech is an example of this, but so is his support for the U.S. after the September 11, 2001, attacks. The only problem was that Putin expected the West to accept that Russia had a right to establish a sphere of influence in the post-Soviet space. Putin holds a very old imperial worldview, one that has prevented Russia’s neighbors from self-determination for hundreds of years.

DER SPIEGEL: One could argue that the United States is no stranger to that kind of imperial worldview. President John F. Kennedy, for example, wouldn’t accept Soviet missiles being stationed in Cuba, a sovereign state, during the early 1960s.

Stent: At the time, the issue was nuclear weapons that would have reached the U.S. within minutes. Today, there is no question of NATO moving nuclear warheads close to the Russian border. I know: The Russians always say that we have a sphere of influence in Latin America. That may have been true in the past. But today? Just look at Mexico, one of our closest partners. Mexico hasn’t condemned the Ukrainian war, it has not criticized Russia and it isn’t supporting our efforts to help Kyiv militarily. It doesn’t sound like the country is a vassal of Washington.

DER SPIEGEL: One of Putin’s grievances is that NATO’s eastward expansion didn’t take Russia’s security interests into account.

Stent: This is a myth that Putin is spreading. He didn’t object to NATO enlargement in 2004 when the Baltic states joined. He also hasn’t intervened even now that Finland and Sweden have applied to join NATO. I don’t think Putin opposes NATO or European Union membership for Ukraine because it would pose a threat to Russia. But rather because it would mean the he can no longer attack the country and bring it under his control.

DER SPIEGEL: At the NATO summit in 2008, then-U.S. President George W. Bush wanted to adopt a Membership Action Plan for Ukraine and Georgia that would show the two countries a clear roadmap for NATO membership. Angela Merkel, the German chancellor at the time, vetoed it. Was that the seed of the disaster we are experiencing today?

“Putin is always about intimidation.” Foto: Jorge Silva / REUTERS

Stent: It was certainly a big mistake that, as a result of Merkel’s veto, a communiqué was adopted that talked about NATO membership for Ukraine and Georgia, and no concrete action followed. It was a compromise that only made things worse. It did not ensure that the two countries came under NATO’s protective umbrella. It also riled the Russians, who invaded Georgia shortly after.

DER SPIEGEL: Following the annexation of Crimea in 2014, then-U.S. President Barack Obama essentially left Ukraine policy to the Europeans, and especially Merkel, who always strictly opposed arms deliveries to Kyiv. Was this an invitation to Putin to escalate the conflict even further?

Stent: The Obama administration certainly should have reacted more decisively when Russia annexed Crimea and invaded the Donbas. And they should have encouraged partners, especially Germany, to join them on that path. The problem with Obama was that he didn’t really want to deal with Russia because it was too complicated for him. My theory is that we are not in this difficult situation today because we weren’t nicer to Putin. On the contrary: It’s because we didn’t push back in 2014. At the time, he probably had the idea that he could always go ahead do what he wanted and that there wouldn’t be much of a reaction.

DER SPIEGEL: The U.S. is by far Ukraine’s biggest supporter. Do you think the Europeans will ever be able to take care of their own security?

Stent: The war has shown how dependent Europeans still are on the U.S. For me, the question is this: Do they even want to change that? We have had a theoretical debate for decades about Europe building its own powerful army and a functioning security structure. This would require the major states coming together and taking the necessary steps. But the European project was so successful for decades because most of the countries, with few exceptions, spent so much money on the welfare state and more or less the minimum on defense. As long as that’s the case, they will continue to depend on the U.S.

“We live in a globalized world. It is a fallacy to think we can retreat to a Fortress U.S.A. when Europe is on fire.”

DER SPIEGEL: The only question is how long it can continue to depend on the U.S. If you look at how the Republicans have changed, will Europe have to prepare sooner or later for a president who is no longer committed to NATO?

Stent: We already had that once with Donald Trump. There is a more traditional part of the Republican Party – which includes, for example, Mitch McConnell, the Senate minority leader, that is unwavering in its support for NATO. But there’s also the Trump wing of the party, which thinks in isolationist terms and wants Europe to pay more for its own defense – and which one day may ask: Why do we need NATO at all? I would also count Ron DeSantis, the governor of Florida, who likely wants to become the Republican presidential candidate, among this wing.

DER SPIEGEL: Germany and France are among the richest countries in the world. Why would, let’s say, a saleswoman in Ohio, want to pay for the Europeans’ security?

Stent: In the course of the 20th century, the U.S. twice tried to stay out of wars in Europe. And twice that did not work. We live in a globalized world. It is a fallacy to think we can retreat to a Fortress U.S.A. when Europe is on fire.

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DER SPIEGEL: Will the threat from Russia automatically wane as its economic power diminishes? Putin has failed to modernize his country’s economy.

Stent: I fear that as long as Russia has 6,000 nuclear warheads and people like Putin are in charge in the Kremlin, it will remain a threat to its neighbors.

DER SPIEGEL: Do you think Putin is capable of using nuclear weapons if he feels backed into a corner?

Stent: I think he is absolutely capable of using nuclear weapons. The question is what he would gain from it? The use of a bomb wouldn’t give him any territory gains and would result in a powerful counter reaction from the U.S. military. Not in the sense of a nuclear counterstrike, but it would still be very painful. At the same time, it would alienate his key allies, China and India, although that wouldn’t necessarily act as a deterrent to him. Putin is always about intimidation, and we see that right now with all this indiscriminate attacks on Ukrainian cities with missiles and drones and his destruction of the country’s infrastructure. 


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