No, Russia isn’t likely to use nuclear weapons during its hideous war against Ukraine, and no, China is not likely to leave Taiwan in ruins.
Those were the two key assessments from former national security adviser John Bolton during a Friday interview in his Washington, D.C., office. Bolton, the famously tough-talking foreign policy maven, is often falsely portrayed as an advocate of warfare rather than an advocate of deterrence. The difference is large, and it is key to understanding his analyses.
Repeatedly referring back to former President Ronald Reagan’s credo of “peace through strength,” Bolton said nations are “more likely to succeed through diplomacy if people know that your strength is unquestioned.” On the other hand, “to the extent that America is perceived as weak around the world — this gets us to China — you are going to face more threats. ... The centerpiece is to protect American interests without having military conflict. Remember Donald Rumsfeld’s famous phrase that it’s not America’s strength that is provocative; it’s America’s weakness that is provocative.”
For example, Bolton criticized President Joe Biden for doling out sanctions against Russia in dribs and drabs before and in the early weeks of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, while contradicting his own officials by saying the sanctions he threatened before the invasion were “not intended to deter [dictator Vladimir] Putin. ... What was the man talking about? What could he have possibly meant by that?” Listing a series of failures of the Obama, Trump, and Biden administrations to use effective deterrence in previous circumstances, Bolton said that “our credibility was shredded” already and that Biden’s halting messages and actions resulted in the failure of the key imperative “to stop the war to begin with.”
Bolton also said Biden has not adequately “define[d] what we want our objectives to be” in Ukraine. Until the president does so, the former national security adviser said, confusion will feed Putin’s determination to continue the war.
Nonetheless, Bolton said that with regard to Putin possibly using nuclear weapons, “I don’t see at this point that that’s really in the cards.” Even though it was six full weeks ago that Putin talked about “raising the alert status” of his nukes, Bolton said, defense and intelligence officials since then have testified on Capitol Hill that they have seen “no indication of any operational change in Russia’s nuclear forces. ... That [lack of any actual change in the Russian weapons status] was a pretty good indication that was a bluff” when Putin made that threat. “And I think that other remarks he has made [threatening nuke use] fall in that category,” too.
Continuing, Bolton said: “I don’t think his resort to nuclear weapons comes until he’s in an existential threat position, which I would define as Russian forces in full and complete retreat out of Ukraine, maybe even Ukraine entering into Russian territory.” Bolton also said he doesn’t believe Russia will attack if Finland or Sweden join NATO because “neither the Soviets nor the Russians have ever crossed a NATO border.” He said NATO and U.S. nuclear deterrents are too strong for Russia to take such risks.
Again, the existence of strength serves as a deterrent, not as a catalyst for war.
Likewise, Bolton said recent U.S. moves with Pacific Rim nations to bolster collective defense capabilities are more likely to keep the peace, rather than invite war, with China — the nation that, he said, “is the existential threat in the 21st century for us and for our allies.”
“China is obviously watching Ukraine very carefully,” he said. “What China doesn’t like, though, is failure, and I think they are looking at Russia’s strategic failures, tactical failures, logistical failures in Ukraine. ... I think [China] can be deterred when it comes to Taiwan because, again, I think watching what has happened in Ukraine, they don’t want to inherit a heap of smoke and rubble. They want Taiwan with its full productive capacity.”
He continued: “So I think what China wants is not to win it militarily, but to provoke a confrontation where the U.S. doesn’t react, so in that scenario, Taiwan falls into their lap like a piece of ripe fruit. And I think there are a lot of things we can do to prevent that.”
Since 2000, Bolton has advocated granting full diplomatic recognition to Taiwan and removing “strategic ambiguity” about whether the United States would actively defend Taiwan. And he does credit Biden for working to help Australia acquire nuclear submarines and for bolstering joint cooperation with Australia, Japan, and South Korea as counterweights to China.
“I think China can be deterred on Taiwan," he said.
As always, Bolton’s point is not to send American troops all over the world to fight bad guys. The point is to have forces large and strong enough that the bad guys won’t challenge them.