BRATTLEBORO — Former U.S Ambassador Peter Galbraith said Thursday he is relatively confident Russian president Vladimir Putin won’t break “the nuclear taboo of the last 77 years” and use tactical nuclear weapons on Ukraine.
Speaking to a large crowd at Brooks Memorial Library on Thursday evening as part of the Windham World Affairs Council’s annual Galbraith Lecture, the Windham County resident said the Ukraine war nonetheless poses an enormous risk to world peace.
“Putin has hinted at using a nuclear weapon and I think one has to pay attention to what he says. Leaders often do the things they say they will do,” he said in a follow-up interview.
“Overall, I think it is unlikely that Putin will use a nuclear weapon — and he recently said he wouldn’t — but it is not impossible, especially as military setbacks push him into a corner,” he said.
“If Russia did use a tactical nuclear weapon, it would have catastrophic consequences for world peace as it would break a taboo that has been in place for more than 77 years,” he said.
If Putin did so, the U.S. and NATO would have a non-nuclear response but it would carry the risk of escalating the conflict, Galbraith said.
“On the other hand, it is equally dangerous to give in to nuclear blackmail as it encourages more countries to acquire nuclear weapons, to threaten their use, and to use them,” he said. “This is why I consider the Ukraine War to be so dangerous for the entire world.”
Ultimately, there’s no way of knowing, said the former ambassador.
“Putin’s associates might intervene if he wanted to use a nuke but they also might not. They didn’t stop the invasion of Ukraine. I just don’t know. I am not sure anyone outside that circle knows,” he said.
Galbraith said he has been in Ukraine once since the war began — in September.
He’s visited neighboring Moldova, which he told the gathering Thursday was probably the most vulnerable country to further Russian aggression, in May and September for “informal discussions with the government on Ukrainian related issues.”
Galbraith has an extensive resume in international relations and peacemaking. He negotiated the 1995 agreement that ended the war in Croatia. His last diplomatic posting was assistant Secretary General of the United Nations in Afghanistan, and currently he is working with the Syrian Democratic Forces in northeast Syria on negotiation strategies.
Galbraith admitted he was wrong when he predicted last winter that the war would be short and Russia would win.
Now in its ninth month, and with shifting strategies that seem to favor Ukraine, Galbraith said Putin has no obvious end game for the war, and he could be losing the support of the Russian people.
He said that 200,000 Russian men fled the country in recent months to avoid being conscripted into the army, proof that the war did not have the support of the people.
And, he said, Russians killing Ukranians, who often have close family connections with Russians, is too close for aggression.
Galbraith said that all eyes on are on the U.S. mid-term elections on Tuesday, with the likelihood of Republicans gaining control of the U.S. House and Republican leader Kevin McCarthy becoming speaker.
McCarthy has made it plain, Galbraith said, that he doesn’t support the current level of financial support by the U.S. to Ukraine.
How the Biden administration gets around that, Galbraith said he didn’t know.
And he said Ukraine won’t escalate the war outside of its boundaries out of fear of losing the widespread Western support it has for fighting the war.
Galbraith, a former Windham County senator until he stepped down six years ago, said the attacks on the Ukrainian power grid and sources of heat and electricity were particularly cruel with winter looming.
He said that he and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi were both speakers at an international conference on Crimea in Zagreb that was hosted by the Croatian government and the Ukrainian parliament in late October.
“Speaker Pelosi was on an official mission but I came independently,” said Galbraith, who was the first U.S. ambassador to Croatia, appointed by President Bill Clinton.
“I had taken her to the frontlines of the Croatia War in 1995 when I was the U.S. ambassador and she was a more junior member of Congress,” he said.
The Galbraith Lecture is named after Peter Galbraith’s father, the late John Kenneth Galbraith, who also lived in Townshend, and was the former ambassador to India during the administration of President Kennedy. He was a world-famous author.
Peter Galbraith said Thursday night that he had delivered most of the Galbraith lectures, although his brother had also.
He noted that the Windham World Affairs Council is the smallest one of its kind in the country, and the only one run by devoted volunteers.