Russia’s invasion of neighboring Ukraine has radically changed the geopolitical and homeland security landscape. In April, AGX sat down with long time foreign service officer Seamus Tucker to hear his perspective on the conflict and help us make sense of the war.
Tucker brings a wealth of security knowledge to the conversation. He worked for the Foreign Office of the British government for multiple decades and was posted in Eastern Europe during the 1990’s. There, he witnessed the aftermath of the fall of the Soviet Union firsthand. He later held positions in Indonesia, Afghanistan, and Washington, DC, focusing on national security issues.
Today he works for the private firm Othrys, a strategic security and risk advisory company.
Below is our full interview with Tucker from earlier this year, condensed and edited for clarity.
AGX: Big picture — how has Ukraine changed the political and security landscape?
Seamus Tucker: This is a massive change. This is like 9/11 or 1989. It’s a major shift in the political landscape in Europe. We’ve got a war in Europe — a land war, when no one was realling expecting to see that, although we probably should have been expecting to see it. We’ve got a completely changed security landscape in Europe and it’s changed in a number of very significant ways.
Firstly, NATO has grown a backbone. It’s actually very unified right now. For example, Germany announced just three weeks ago that an additional 100 billion euros will go into their defense budget. Successive U.S. presidents have come to Germany and asked why they aren’t spending two percent of GDP (NATO members have pledged to devote two percent of their GDP to defence spending, though only a few countries have done so). Germany never agreed to do it, but Putin has persuaded the Germans to do it. Suddenly, Germany has gotten very serious about European defense. And it’s not only Germany. Other NATO countries will all be investing in their national security capabilities. I guarantee you they will be investing in cyber, and cyber offense – and we can talk about that a bit.
So, Europe has taken a seismic shock from what Putin has done, but we shouldn’t be surprised by what Putin has done. He’s not suddenly had a breakdown of some kind. He’s been totally consistent of his messaging to us.
AGX: So you don’t subscribe to the argument that Putin suddenly became this unhinged, lunatic who’s out to start World War 3?
ST: No. Everything he’s done and everything he’s said has been entirely consistent since 2000 when he became president. In 2007, he made a speech essentially saying: Our near abroad is our national security priority for Russia, the United States must recognize that as our sphere of influence. Then, in 2008, he invaded Georgia because they were not looking pro-Russian. He’s also interfered in elections in the near abroad. He supports countries that are pro-Russian — for example, neighboring Belarus — and he undermines anyone that looks pro-western. You must be pro-Russian or unstable if you’re in his near abroad, but you cannot be a member of NATO, pro-western, and democratic.
I do think Putin has miscalculated on a number of points. One, he underestimated the strength of Ukrainian resistance, which is has been phenomenal, and the strength of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in particular. He also overestimated the ability of his own armed forces. They have not performed particularly well.
Putin underestimated how forcefully the West would respond. I think he calculated that the United States just got kicked out of Afghanistan and that the United States had no appetite for a fight. He looked back at his campaign to support President Bashar al-Assad in Syria during the Syrian Civil War. In that conflict, the West lost out to him. In 2014, he took Crimea and the West didn’t really do anything to stop him.
Taking both these things into account, he likely thought that the West would not respond forcefully. But the West has responded very very firmly. So I think he’s made a few miscalculations, maybe through poor advice. But you can see how he might have made those miscalculations when you look at the recent history.
I do think he’s a bit isolated at the moment because of Covid, but I don’t think his judgement has gone wrong. His actions are in line with what he’s said his intentions are.
AGX: Let’s imagine that Ukraine is able to preserve some level of sovereignty. If Putin isn’t able to completely win in Ukraine, does that leave him more dangerous to the rest of the world?
ST: Two or three weeks ago no one would have necessarily bet against him winning, just because of the scale of the military force he had lined up. Now, I don’t think anyone is betting on the government in Ukraine falling. The Russians are pulling out. They’re pulling back to the east, and he’s resetting the military goals of this campaign. Originally his goal was to take Kiev and oversee regime change there. That’s not in the cards now. He can’t do that with military force.
He’s pivoted now to taking territory in the east. He needs a win. He needs Donetsk and the Donbass, and he needs the land corridor through to Crimea. If he took these areas he could claim that as outcome of his special operation, he could claim victory.
He’s not actually under significant threat domestically. He’s got popular support, the Russians are getting fed the Russian side of the story. There have been a handful of demonstrations in Russia, but they’ve not been large scale and they certainly haven’t threatened him. There’s no real opposition because the opposition is locked up and there’s no media speaking out. So he’s not in danger of losing his position unless something very odd goes on in the senior leadership, but there’s actually no one who looks strong enough to take him on.
Even western sanctions, which are pretty draconian and hitting the ruble very hard, aren’t going to make him lose his grip on power. He won’t get voted out because of it.
Whereas western governments will not survive the severity of these sanctions because elections are won and lost on the economy, and sanctions are hitting western economies quite hard too. Inflation is going up, no one can afford the gas, petrol, there’s damage to supply chains. We’re going to go into a recession in some places and election-time people are going to go: enough is enough.
So he can probably outlast us on sanctions. I don’t think he’s going anywhere. The question will be, is there a peace deal to be had. And Zelensky is being very firm. He’s not planning to give up any territory. Why would he give up chunks of Ukraine? He’s willing to give up NATO membership, but then they had very little chance of becoming a NATO member anyway.
AGX: And if he gets a lot of military aid and can build up a first class military, he probably doesn’t need NATO membership.
ST: Yes, and that’s another thing that Putin missed: In 2014, he took Crimea quite easily and the Ukrainian military didn’t perform very well, but since 2014, the West has helped Ukraine rebuild and retrain their military. It’s performing much better and he wasn’t ready for that.
AGX: What sort of a role is cyber playing in this war?
ST: The Russians used cyberattacks a lot in Georgia and they used it in Crimea. They’ve mounted a lot of cyber attacks against the Ukrainian government facilities over the last couple of years. But, cyber wasn’t a major factor at the beginning of the invasion back in February. That’s because you don’t really take territory with cyber. You take territory with troops and tanks. You shape the environment with cyber. During Russia’s troop build up on the border, before the conflict broke out, the West poured personnel to help the Ukrainian government shore up their critical national infrastructure against cyber attacks. So a lot of the cyber attacks from Russia were fought off.
Ukraine also created a cyber army, out of almost thin air. They had a small group of effective cyber military personnel, but they recruited hackers – over 400,000 hackers. The Ukrainian government told these hackers: “really have a go at Russia.” So, you saw a completely different game playing out, with lots of entities in Russia getting hacked.
I think this will drive a realization among a number of European countries that cyber is a part of the military arsenal you require in a theater of war. You can’t just rely on Anonymous to join up and fight for you, though, they happened to have done it in this particular war. But if you haven’t invested in your cyber capabilities as a country, you probably need to.
I think they will realize they need to invest in both offensive cyber, the ability to attack the enemies, and defensive cyber side. There’s no point having an offensive tool if you’re wide open at home for attackers. I think there will be a significant increase on spending cyber security and on offensive cyber in a military context.
AGX: Talk about the relationships between Russia and China.
ST: Let’s first acknowledge we have a western perspective on this relationship. It’s easy to see China as aligned with Russia and assume that Russian actions have emboldened China when it comes to Taiwan (Beijing views neighboring Taiwan as a part of China, and has vowed to unify it with mainland China). China may think that if Russia can take bits of Ukraine, it can probably take bits of Taiwan. But that’s a western perspective on the relationship. I think China is playing a long game. It’s unclear who is winning in Ukraine, this week it looks like Ukrainians are getting the upper hand and the Russians are pulling back. In a months time it might look different. The winner won’t be clear for a long time – if there is a winner. China will not make a decision about where it stands and what its learnt from this until the dust settles. China always takes the long view.
Some people have said this will deter the Chinese from having a go at Taiwan in the next 10 years — maybe. But they weren’t planning to in the next 10 years anyways. They have a longer term plan for Taiwan. They will look a this, and they will analyze it. They will look at the defense or the military errors that the Russian military has made and learn from them.
So yes, China is aligned with Putin because the two countries are in a war with the West, Putin is an ally in many respects, but they’re not fully aligned. Ukraine is not as strategically important country for China and the China will not go to war with Russia in Ukraine. They’ll buy Russian gas and oil and they won’t vote against him in the UN, but they won’t fight.
AGX: One challenge for the West is transitioning to a world where they don’t rely on Russian energy. As long as the West relies on Russian energy, politically it will be difficult to engage in a long term containment strategy. Can you talk about the energy component of this conflict?
ST: The energy issue will either positively impact the climate change agenda, as countries invest heavily in renewables, or negatively, as countries turn to buying coal and gas and oil, meaning they won’t meet their climate change targets. I don’t know exactly how it’s going to play out in the energy sector. What I say to energy suppliers in Europe—and I talk to a number of them—is, you will be attacked by Russian hackers. That’s because it’s in Putin’s interest for these energy suppliers to have problems right now, because he wants to force the West to back down when it comes to energy tariffs. If you’re in the energy sector, you’re going to be under attack from cyber hackers.
AGX: Do you think Putin will order cyber attacks against the Untied States? Or will he restrict himself to the near abroad?
ST: When it comes to cyber, I think Putin has been quite active in the United States for awhile. That’s a long term issue, it’s not unique to the Ukraine situation. However, I don’t think he’s going to put more resources towards that right now. He has things closer to home that he needs to worry about. I expect he will focus his resources on the war. His priorities include dividing the EU, damaging the energy sector, forcing us back into a negotiation with him so that he’s part of the international community. Like I said before, he needs a win.
AGX: Could you see a scenario where Putin gets completely driven out of Ukraine?
ST: Not unless there is a huge amount of additional military support from the West to enable that. That would push Putin into a corner. I can’t see Ukrainains being able to recover Crimea or the Donbass at the moment, militarily I don’t think they could do it. I mean Zelensky isn’t giving up on it, but I think it’s unlikely.
There are risks with pushing Putin that far. If you study Russian war games, of which they do quite a few, the simulations show that when Russia gets bogged down or starts to lose, the Russians go tactical nuclear. These war games may be part of a deterrent strategy to let the world know that they are willing to go tactical nuclear if they get into trouble, but it’s important to note that in these scenarios they win the war game. The moment when it looks like they are losing is a turning point, the Russians go tactical nuclear and they win. These war games essentially say: if the West pushes Putin too far and it looks like he’s going to lose, there’s still a way of winning. That’s a problem. That’s why NATO isn’t doing a no fly zone, that’s why there aren’t NATO troops on the ground. No one is interested in pushing Putin over that line.
AGX: I hear you. This has been a great conversation, thanks for all your insights, Seamus.