The House

Russia unlikely to deploy nukes in Ukraine conflict, says ex-NATO deputy

A former top NATO diplomat says she doesn't believe Russian President Vladimir Putin would use nuclear weapons if western countries intervene to stop his invasion of neighbouring Ukraine.

Rose Gottemoeller says President Putin has cried 'wolf' more than once

A protestor holds a banner depicting Russian President Vladimir Putin during a demonstration in front of the Russian Embassy in Madrid, Spain on Feb. 24, 2022. (Manu Fernandez/AP)

A former top NATO diplomat says she doesn't believe Russian President Vladimir Putin would use nuclear weapons if western countries intervene to stop his invasion of neighbouring Ukraine.

Putin warned this week that members of the western military alliance would face "consequences that you have never encountered in your history" — a warning that many observers interpreted as a threat to use the nuclear option.

But Rose Gottemoeller, who served as NATO's deputy secretary general from 2016 to 2019, said that while the warning was "stark," it's a threat the Russian leader has used before.

"In fact, I think he's been very careless in that regard, because if you're crying wolf all the time with your ultimate weapon it leads, in fact, to a weakening of your deterrent," she said in an interview airing this weekend on CBC's The House.

Former NATO deputy secretary general Rose Gottemoeller sits down with host Chris Hall to discuss the role of NATO in the conflict in Ukraine, and Defence Minister Anita Anand answers questions about Canada’s role and how this country’s actions fit in with the broader alliance.

"But I do note on this occasion he did not specifically rattle his nuclear sabre. So, at the end of the day, I am thinking that although he was trying to act tough and very threatening ... he has said worse in the past."

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Canada joined other NATO countries this week in imposing economic sanctions on Putin, members of his cabinet and other Russians who have made their fortunes through personal or business connections with the Russian president.

Putin's decision to send troops into Ukraine follows weeks of Russian military buildup along the border — and his repeated claims that he was not preparing an invasion.

News reports from Ukraine say the Russian advance has met stiff resistance. Fighting remains intense in and around the capital Kyiv, forcing thousands to flee to the west while others take shelter in the city's deep underground metro stations.

Ukrainian soldiers take position under a bridge during crossfire inside the city of Kyiv on Friday, Feb. 25, 2022. (Emilio Morenatti/AP)

Ukraine is not a member of NATO and U.S. President Joe Biden and other NATO leaders have ruled out direct military intervention.

But the alliance is providing military equipment and weapons. And on Friday, NATO leaders agreed to send parts of its 40,000-troop response force to Eastern Europe to help protect allies who feel threatened by the invasion.

Canada has put 3,400 troops on standby. It's also sending another 460 troops to bolster the 900 Canadian Forces members already in Latvia.

'I don't think anything was going to deter Vladimir Putin'

The question now is whether these measures will help. Could NATO have done more to deter Russian aggression as Putin moved more and more troops to the border?

"Well, one can always look back and say perhaps more Javelin [missile systems] could have been sent, more defensive weapons could have been sent. More joint training. More exercises," Gottemoeller said.

"I suppose there could have been more done, but to be honest with you, I don't think anything was going to deter Vladimir Putin from this course, as dangerous and destructive as it is for the Russian military."

Marcus Kolga is one analyst who believes Putin is taking a big risk at home. Thousands of Russians have staged protests against the invasion in cities across the country, including Moscow and St. Petersburg.

A person carries a banner during an anti-war protest in Moscow on February 24, 2022. The banner reads, "No war. Freedom for political prisoners." (Evgenia Novozhenina/Reuters)

Kolga is a senior fellow with the Ottawa-based Macdonald-Laurier Institute and an expert on eastern European politics. He told The House the protests are a reflection of Putin's declining public support.

"He cannot afford to have young dead soldiers coming back to Russia at this point," he said. "It's entirely likely that if this is a protracted conflict ... that will jeopardize his own position."

In the meantime, western nations continue to ramp up the financial pressure in the hopes of destabilizing Russia's economy, just as Putin is trying to destabilize Europe and the NATO alliance.

WATCH: Prime Minister Justin Trudeau details sanctions on Putin and his associates

Trudeau explains how new sanctions will affect Russian President Vladimir Putin and his associates

4 months ago
Duration 1:33
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says this is the first time the West has imposed sanctions affecting Putin personally.

At a news conference Friday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Putin made a grave mistake by invading Ukraine.

"He has underestimated the resolve and the ability of the western democracies to stand up to defend not just our friends, but our values, our principles and indeed the unprecedented period of peace and stability that has lasted over 75 years," he said.

On Friday, Canada joined other western nations in adding Putin, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and other architects of the invasion to the growing list of Russians facing sanctions.

SWIFT justice

But those same western leaders have been unable to agree on whether to block Russian banks from the SWIFT communications system that connects thousands of banks around the world.

Proponents of the move — including Canada — say banning Russia from SWIFT would have an immediate and severe impact on Russia's ability to do business in international markets and finance the invasion.

Opponents — including Germany — argue that kicking Russia out of SWIFT would provoke an even deeper economic crisis for markets already grappling with the impact of the invasion itself.

Germany's Ambassador to Canada Sabine Sparwasser told The House in a separate interview airing this weekend that the move could damage countries other than Russia.

"When you roll out the sanctions, you should look for the sanctions that hit the responsible people and the people who can affect truly change in Russian policy the most," she said. "So Germany, for example, has been pushing for individual sanctions against Putin directly."

War by other means

Bill Browder, the British financier who has been the driving force behind the use of sanctions to punish corrupt regimes, said banning Russian banks from SWIFT would have a more profound impact than sanctioning Putin directly.

"It would knock them back to the Dark Ages economically, and it would be such a powerful and important reaction," he said. "This would be the financial equivalent of what he's done militarily."

Sanctions and soldiers. That's where the international battle lines have been drawn in this war for Ukraine.

"I think now we are punishing [Putin] and we must continue to punish him with the sanctions that are being meted out and they will continue," Gottemoeller said. "And I think that that will begin to have an effect. I know on business, the economy of Russia, perhaps the pressure will build from that direction."

But she conceded Putin and his inner circle have resisted economic pressure before.

"He seems at the moment quite resolved."


Chris Hall

National Affairs Editor

Chris Hall is the CBC's National Affairs Editor and host of The House on CBC Radio, based in the Parliamentary Bureau in Ottawa. He began his reporting career with the Ottawa Citizen, before moving to CBC Radio in 1992, where he worked as a national radio reporter in Toronto, Halifax and St. John's. He returned to Ottawa and the Hill in 1998. Follow him on Twitter: @chrishallcbc

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