Elbridge Colby’s Take on Nuclear Armageddon Won’t Make You Feel Better

CLAY: We are joined now by Elbridge Colby. He’s the co-founder and principal of The Marathon Initiative, formerly U.S. assistant deputy secretary of Defense for Strategy and Force Development. His newest book is The Strategy of Denial: American Defense in an Age of Great Power Conflict. Bridge, we appreciate you coming on. You’ve been on before. Timing on this very apropos. Last night, Joe Biden said that we are the closest to nuclear Armageddon that we have been since 1962. Do you agree with that characterization? And how much danger is there of strategic nukes being used by Russia?

COLBY: Well, great to be with you guys always on the show. That got my attention. I mean, I think that’s pretty real. Obviously, the president is prone to making off-the-cuff statements, but I don’t think he’s wrong about that. I mean, there have been some incidents in the later part of the Cold War — the 1973 war, and the Able Archer exercise, 1983 — but I don’t think we were really ever as close as it appears we might be towards the Russians actually using nuclear weapons now.

End of the world, God forbid, Armageddon? I think that’s probably an exaggeration. But once nukes start getting thrown around, you don’t know how that’s going to end. So, I think — and the thing is, it could happen very rapidly. So, look, a lot of people are saying it’s a low-probability event. I don’t know how they know that. It may be, but even if it’s a low-probability event, it’s very, very high impact.

BUCK: Can I ask you, Bridge…?

CLAY: Yeah, a “low-probability event” that could destroy the world is kind of a significant factor.

COLBY: Yeah. Right.

BUCK: Yeah. That’s not a that’s not a fat-tail situation you want to play around with. Bridge, what do you think…? I mean, I don’t think anybody knows, and Putin might even be pretty mercurial on this one himself. What is a probable red line in your mind for where Putin would decide, “You know what? I got to ‘escalate to de-escalate;’ I’m firing I’m firing off a tactical nuke.”

COLBY: Well, I don’t exactly know what his red line is. I’m not sure anybody really does. Maybe he doesn’t even really know. What I’ll say is this. I mean, you know, if you were doing a scenario where the Russians might use nuclear weapons, this is pretty close to what it’s like. I mean, the collapse of his military, political humiliation, strategic isolation, the collapse of the position in eastern Ukraine and influence even in other places like Armenia and Azerbaijan. So politically, it’s really bad, A.

B, look, we know he’s a nasty guy. That’s not the issue. Right? But if he’s such a nasty guy, shouldn’t we be worried that he’d be nasty enough to use a nuclear weapon? And then the third point is he spent they spent a lot of money and time on recapitalizing their nuclear infrastructure. So this is not like a cheap threat. It’s not like something they’ve forgotten about for 30 years and they’re just getting around to that — including on tactical nuclear weapons. And by the way, he’s saying he literally saying, “It’s not a bluff.”

He could be bluffing. But, you know, I mean, he’s increasing the cost of backing down. So what’s his red line? I don’t know what his red line is, but I would say, “Look, in the world of nuke — you know, in a nuclear world where you can’t decisively defeat even a nasty, evil guy like Putin,” it’s just off the cards, and I think something that puts him in a situation where it’s really that’s not his worst option, I would expect I would expect there’s going to be a strong impetus in Moscow to use a nuclear weapon, probably locally, like on the battlefield — perhaps more than one — designed to both shock, but also maybe to affect the battlefield. And I think it would have a significant impact. And I think we have to be very clear in our heads what we will — or more probably should not — do in response to that.

BUCK: What do we do in…?

CLAY: That was the question. What can (crosstalk) it, right?

BUCK: Yeah, that is the obvious question, right? What should be done in response if they do that?

COLBY: Look, I’ll be honest with you, I don’t think we should get into a nuclear war with the Russians over Ukraine. I support supporting the Ukrainians, although I think the Europeans need to take a lead. It’s both unfair and also it inhibits our ability to focus on Asia. But I do think we should be supporting them. But we rightly decided that Ukraine is not a NATO member state; it’s not worth war. And the fact is, if you’re in our security umbrella, if we get in a fight with the Russians or the Chinese, we have to assume that it’s possibly going to go nuclear.

And if we’re fighting on their doorstep in areas they’ve repeatedly expressed as a core interest — I mean, Barack Obama said this, repeatedly expresses a core interest of theirs — we have to assume that. And I why do we think that we’re more resolute over that than they are? Yes, you know, people like David Petraeus going out there and saying that we should blow up their military in Ukraine, what do you think? I mean, even if we respond conventionally, they can’t fight us conventionally, especially now that their army is wasted. So, they’re going to have to go nuclear if they’re going to be able to fight us. I just don’t think the stakes are worth it. Like, again, Ukraine to me is, “We want to support them. We want an independent, strong, you know, secure-enough Ukraine. But there are limits to how far we should go.”

CLAY: Okay. So, Bridge, how do we in this? Okay. Obviously, everybody out there is like, “We’d prefer there not be nuclear weapons involved.” Putin is being humiliated right now.

COLBY: Not everybody! Most people, hopefully. (chuckles)

CLAY: Yeah, yeah, most people, hopefully. We got advances going on with Ukraine, but soon we’re going to be into the full-on winter over there, in which case it seems very difficult for the armies to move that much. And so you kind of have a hunker down situation where everybody defends their lines and theoretically that could go on for a long time. How do we end this? What is an end to the war look alike and what are the probabilities — when are the probabilities — that that might occur from your analysis?

COLBY: It’s hard to see. I mean, I think neither the Ukrainians nor the Russians appear to want to settle at this point. So, I mean, I think if we got into the situation where it’s stalemated, sadly, it would probably be bleeding on both sides along the lines of Korea, sort of 1951 to 1953, and then eventually a settlement. I mean, look, there’s going to have to be some kind of even an implicit settlement. There doesn’t need to be a formal trumpets of a peace treaty. But there… You know, I mean, there hasn’t been a peace treaty on the Korean Peninsula, but there hasn’t been a war since 1953.

So I think some kind of negotiated settlement is going to be, and that may not be… I mean, the Russians may try again in ten years, you know, and that’s why it’s going to be important, especially for the Europeans to support the Ukrainians. But look, I think, again, you know, in the nuclear era, you cannot just wipe out a country with nuclear weapons. And so I think we’re going to have to… I mean, what I hope we’re thinking about is, if you will, a theory of victory, which is to say:

“How does this end in a way that the Kremlin doesn’t have a better option, and particularly doesn’t have a better option to escalate by using nuclear weapons, which puts us in a terrible position. So I don’t exactly know. I mean, what you’re saying might actually kind of solve the problem if there’s sort of a culmination, if you will, of the of the Ukrainian counteroffensive. Obviously, I think we all hope, you know, wish them success. But I think, you know, if it goes too far, that is going to up the dilemma that we all face in terms of Russian nuclear use.

BUCK: Speaking of Bridge Colby. Bridge, what happens with Crimea and all this? That’s something that hangs out there. We usually focus just on the regaining of territory the Russians have seized in the eastern part of Ukraine. Then there’s the Donbas region where they annexed and have these they had this referendum recently, but Crimea was annexed by the Russian Federation years ago. Is that just…? Is that going to be accepted at the end of this?

COLBY: I think I think Crimea is probably a whole ‘nother level. I mean, it was Ukrainian territory; we haven’t recognized it. But, you know, Medvedev said months ago that that was even a greater red line and that would be sort of… He connected to nuclear use. So I think, I mean, again, we don’t know that’s part of what’s so dangerous here. And I mean, the situation, the way it reminds me a little bit right now is, you know, right around Thanksgiving of 1950, when American-U.N. forces were going north to the Yalu.

And we dismissed the warnings from the Chinese to intervene, which in retrospect look very clear. But if Putin use a nuclear weapon at this point, I don’t think we would have any right to say that we were that we were surprised. So, I mean, I don’t know. I mean, again, I think this is got to be… There’s going to have to be some negotiation at some point, which is going to be, you know, the only way out of the only way to is sort of a settlement.

CLAY: Bridge, there was talk early on about Vladimir Putin’s potential perceived weakness, maybe even health-related concerns that he could have. He just turned 70. I know it’s always hard to assess, but it appears that some of his allies inside of the military are finally speaking out and challenging him publicly on how this war so far has gone. Do we get any sense internally whether Putin might be under any strife or turmoil and how that aspect of this could resolve itself, whether internal divisions in Russia could play a role in a resolution?

COLBY: Yeah, I mean, I think there was an article in The Washington Post today saying that there was a very senior and kind of close guy in Putin’s circle who’s now speaking up against him and that got a lot of attention in Washington, apparently. And there’s been more open criticisms even from this sort of the kind of hawkish, you know, Russian community. There was a guy, one of the regional governors that installed — you know, one of these sort of occupation-authority guys — said that Shoigu, the defense minister, should have the decency to shoot himself for the absolute failure of the Russian military.

So I think… I mean, you have to infer that there’s pressure and some of and Putin’s increasing sort of desperation suggests that he is aware, I mean, or feeling pressure. I mean, I think we’ll sort of, I mean, at least us on the outside, but I would imagine even our — I would wonder about our intelligence capabilities, given the Russian system. But I don’t think we would have a huge amount of warning if something were to happen. Right? If we hear about it, Putin’s probably heard about it and had the plotters shot. Right? So I think it’s very possible that that he’s unseated. But what I… You know, I think it’s… I don’t think that solves our problem.

I think we could get I mean, if you can look historically at the Cuban Missile Crisis, a couple of years afterwards, Khrushchev was kicked out, partially because they thought he’d mishandled the Cuban crisis and the Berlin crisis, you know, and… But he was replaced by Brezhnev, who initially was kind of more, you know, was into Detente, but eventually started pushing on the West. So, I mean — and the plausible contenders in the Russian system don’t necessarily seem different in degree. I do think it would probably help because presumably the Ukraine war, somebody’s going to hang that like an albatross on Putin and say, “I’m a new guy.” But I wouldn’t expect Russia to, like, dramatically turn like a Yeltsin kind of situation.

BUCK: Bridge, thanks so much for being with us, man. Appreciate it. What’s your book again?

COLBY: The Strategy of Denial: American Defense in an Age of Great Power Conflict, just came out in paperback. So thanks for having me on, guys. Always a pleasure.

BUCK: Appreciate you, buddy.