How Putin Thinks

A conversation with Jeffrey Goldberg, Anne Applebaum, and Tom Nichols about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Vladimir Putin’s animating worldview, and what the coming days might hold

Jeffrey Goldberg, Anne Applebaum, and Tom Nichols with Radio Atlantic logo
The Atlantic

Listen and subscribe to Radio Atlantic: Apple Podcasts | Spotify | Stitcher

After years of threats, Russian forces invaded Ukraine—culminating in the largest attack against one European state by another since the Second World War. Global leaders, including U.S. President Joe Biden, widely condemned Russia’s actions and announced unprecedented sanctions aimed at a number of the country’s financial institutions and the Russian elite. What happens now?

The Atlantic’s editor in chief, Jeffrey Goldberg, talks with staff writer Anne Applebaum and contributing writer Tom Nichols about the global reaction to Russia’s military campaign, the effectiveness of sanctions, and how the free world should address the rise of authoritarianism and ongoing threats to democracy.



This transcript has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Jeffrey Goldberg: It’s been five days since Russia launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine. We’re here to try to make sense of the crisis, and to understand what might happen next. In this bonus episode of Radio Atlantic, I’m joined by two of our writers—Anne Applebaum and Tom Nichols—who also happen to be two of the world’s preeminent experts on Russia, autocracy, and nuclear weapons.

We spoke Monday afternoon at a live event.


Goldberg: We have a very serious subject to talk about today—Russia’s war against Ukraine—and we’re going to jump right in. Tell me where we are—what the situation looks like from your perspective—and give us something that has surprised you so far about the course of events.

Anne Applebaum: I think almost everything has been surprising about the last five days, at least if you were listening to the prognosis, particularly from experts in the Russian military. What most people expected was going to happen was that the assault on Kyiv would take a day or two. Within 48 hours, the country would be pacified. We now know that [Vladimir] Putin had a very clear plan. He sent saboteurs into the capital city with the goal of creating a kind of fake coup d’état and taking over the government.

Instead, what’s happened is that the Ukrainians, who were almost not part of the conversation in the run-up to the war—we were talking about Russia and America and Biden and Putin, and NATO and NATO expansion, and so on—Ukrainians suddenly appeared as the main actors. President [Volodymyr] Zelensky did not have much fame or reputation abroad. He spent his career as a comic actor before being elected president—[and] has made a series of incredibly brave and impressive videos, telling Ukrainians: I am here, my colleagues are here, the prime minister is here, and we’re going to fight for Ukraine.

The Ukrainian army and the Ukrainian territorial army, which is civilians, have blocked the invasion of most of the cities. They’ve stopped tanks on country roads. At the same time, the Russian army has not been what people expected. We thought we were dealing with the most professional troops. Instead, it’s clear that there are a lot of conscripts. They don’t quite have the right logistics. The tanks are running out of petrol, and the invasion is not going the way that Putin expected.

As the result of this incredible show of bravery on the part of Ukraine, we’ve had an amazing, almost ... it feels almost as if history is speeding up. The rapid transformation of German foreign policy, as the Germans turned on a dime and—having refused to send weapons to Ukraine in the run-up to the war—suddenly said, “Yes, we will.” The European Union, which, I mean—who knew that they even had the ability to do this—is sending fighter jets, which, as far as I know, have already arrived. They’re either on their way or already in Ukraine. They come from former eastern states that still have some ex-Soviet planes that can be immediately flown by Ukrainian fighter pilots.

The mood has turned to the international community and in the transatlantic community so fast that we have the harshest sanctions on Russia that I could have imagined. There are some people—and maybe we’ll get into those—who think they’re not enough. But we have blocked the Russian central bank from accessing foreign reserves. Russian markets are crashing. All kinds of companies are bailing out of Russia, including BP—British Petroleum—and Shell. And so we have accelerating different kinds of sanctions, and different reactions from companies all over the world. And very rapidly, Russia’s being made into a pariah state. And that was not the expectation a week ago.

Goldberg: Tom, I want to turn as quickly as we can to this subject of nuclear threats, because Putin has not been shy about invoking the existence of Russia’s nuclear arsenal. But before I do that, just if you could add on to something to what Anne has been talking about. Things have not gone the way Putin would have wanted them to go. Do you anticipate that they will continue to go in Ukraine’s favor? Or are we actually motivated in our reasoning to think that Ukraine is doing better than we expected—but not doing all that well, considering. I mean, where do you think we’re heading in terms of Ukraine’s ability to keep withstanding Russian military force?

Tom Nichols: I want to believe that. But from a military standpoint, it’s so counterintuitive to believe that Ukrainians can keep holding out if the Russians decide to come in heavy.

Goldberg: And they haven’t come in heavy yet, in your mind?

Nichols: No; they have not gone full Grozny or Aleppo yet, and I think that was part of Putin’s miscalculation. He thought—I mean, I think first of all, I think Putin made the “We’ll be greeted as liberators” miscalculation. And that, you know, “Our opponents are corrupt and weak and decadent, and they will simply flee the capital.” You know, to avoid this make-believe coup that Anne was talking about.

I mean, there was a lot of script writing. I was talking with a colleague the other day saying that this is almost a case study in making every possible strategic mistake you can make—script writing your opponent’s reactions, believing that your opponent will only do things that are congenial to your planning, believing that your opponent is not as motivated as you are. I mean, it’s just a whole laundry list of really bad strategic errors. But with all that said, at some point, if the Russians wanted to do the full World War II and roll through Ukrainian streets, they can, but—Putin is now in a trap. Because the one thing he didn’t want—he didn’t expect—is to have all of this footage of Russian atrocities and, you know, crying fellow Slavs. I mean, this is a really important thing. These aren’t Georgians. These aren’t Syrians. These aren’t Chechens. These are brothers and sisters. And you know, that’s what’s making this different.

And so this initial miscalculation has led to a situation where from a military point of view, we can say yes–if the Russians really want to do this, and kind of flatten everything in their path, they still have that ability to do that. The question is: What would they do at this point because they didn’t count on having to do it? So it leads me to, you know, the other counterintuitive thing to say. Which is that if you’d asked me three days ago, I wouldn’t think we’d be sitting here on day five saying, Wow, they’re still alive. And, you know, Kyiv’s holding, and Zelensky is still, you know, putting out statements. So this can go on for a while. If the Russians are loath to level whatever is in their path now. This actually links back to the problem of nuclear threats. Because I’m wondering now, if Putin makes nuclear threats, I don’t want to minimize it and say, “Oh, you know, it’s just what he does.” Any time a Russian leader—somebody with thousands of weapons pointed at the United States—makes that kind of baring of his teeth, you have to pay attention. But I wonder, too, if that’s a shield that he’s trying to put in front of himself in anticipation of doing things in Ukraine that are really going to horrify us.

Goldberg: Anne, do you agree with Tom that the Russians have not actually done all that is within their power to suppress, subdue Kyiv in particular? And could you frame this a little bit historically in terms of Grozny and Aleppo: two recent examples? Maybe explain a little bit about Russian tactics in those places and try to answer the question: What has kept them from going all-out, if you think that they haven’t gone all-out already?

Applebaum: So they haven’t gone all-out in the sense that they have not carpet-bombed Kyiv and burned it to the ground—which is what they did in Grozny, and it is what they did in Syria.

Goldberg: Grozny, the capital of Chechnya.

Applebaum: And that was how they ended the Chechen War. They killed hundreds of thousands of people. They burned everything to the ground. It was a charred ruin. I mean, it was like a World War II photograph. And my guess is the same as Tom’s—that, you know, Putin is actually going on Russian television and saying, you know, This is Russia. He’s not just saying [Ukrainians are] fellow Slavs; he’s saying, This is a Russian city. These are Russian people, and I’m retaking it for mother Russia. And to try to burn this historic city with ancient churches and murder tens or hundreds of thousands of people, would undermine many of his claims about the purpose of this war in the first place. And so that is my guess as to what they hear as to why they haven’t done it.

Obviously, they can do it. And actually yesterday and today, they have been using these very imprecise multiple bombings—kind of flying cluster bombs, cluster munitions—on a hard heave. And someone just told me they may be doing it in Kyiv now, but they were doing it in Kharkiv already, and they’re beginning to kill civilians. I’m also told, by the way—this is something we’re not seeing because there are no reporters there—that there has been some street fighting in Mariupol, which is the town just on the border in the east.

And you know, I also have to say that if the Ukrainians are going to do street-by-street fighting, then this will be very long and very bloody, and it is very hard to say how it will come out. But so anyway: To sum up, I agree they haven’t done this extremely brutal form of fighting. Thank God. And what does worry me now is that they are running out of other ideas. I mean, it’s very strange. It’s already day five. It was clear there were a couple of different plans. There was a plan to land paratroopers. There was a plan to have a coup d’état. None of that has worked. And what worries me is that they’re left with only these very extreme options.

Goldberg: Tom, let’s go to the most extreme option—and let’s talk about this very carefully, obviously, because it’s too serious to talk about in a non-measured way. But you’re an expert on the Cold War. You’re an expert on Soviet nuclear policy, Russian nuclear policy, and American nuclear policy. It’s notable that Putin has twice— once with an allusion to his strategic arsenal, and once that was rather direct—by moving his nuclear-alert status to a higher degree. What is the threat to Ukraine, and what is the threat to the West, to the United States and Western Europe? Can you foresee any situation in which Vladimir Putin decides that the nuclear option is a plausible option?

Nichols: I don’t in Ukraine. Putin is not Stalin. And you know—I don’t know where the internal limits on his behavior are. But I assume there are internal limits on what people around him will actually allow or do. Probably those lines are pretty far away, but I think, as you said, we need to think about this responsibly. I think like most leaders and most military leaders—and we know this from the Soviet experience—they talked a big game about nuclear weapons. But after the Cold War, when we talked with them, they often made it clear talking to these former Soviet generals and marshals that they were no more willing to go near that than we were.

What I worry about is a combination of things. One is that if this goes so badly that Putin decides that the only thing he can do to recover some sense of national unity and to save himself is to scapegoat the West somehow, and to say, These Germans are, you know, neo-Nazis that are providing dangerous weapons that are, they’re collaborating with nuclear… He’s really been talking about ... he’s really been using this Soviet era, you know, Banderists and Nazis and neo-Nazis.

I mean: really weird stuff coming out of him in the past five or six days. And to set up some kind of confrontation, because this is the Soviet playbook—set up a confrontation with the United States somewhere else, to get people’s minds off of what he’s doing in this current war—how he would do that without a central front? You know, we always worried about Berlin and the central front. I don’t know how those pieces move together, but I worry that that temptation on his part will be linked to some kind of black-swan event that we can’t foresee, to some kind of accident misidentification, random shot across the border; some kind of triggering event that we can’t see.

And I think that [with] the recent nuclear alert, I’m surprised that he went for it so fast. But Jeff, as you know, I wrote a piece before the last thing I wrote, saying this is one of the things he will likely do. I just didn’t count on him doing it three days to two days into the war. But I worry that he then decides that somehow this is the only way out of this—not because he’s looking for a nuclear conflict, but to just throw the dice and to move this to a chest-thumping confrontation with Washington that then somehow gets out of control.

When you increase the alert status of your nuclear weapons—I don’t know what he’s actually done on the ground, and the Pentagon’s been looking for this—because he can say it; he can say, “Go to a special combat regime.” And you know, the two guys—the chief of the general staff and defense minister—both went okay. Not as far as we know. Nothing’s happened on the ground yet to indicate they’ve gone to that.

Goldberg: Does that mean that [there’s] the possibility that they’re treating him the way the national-security apparatus often treated Trump, which is a Yes, great idea; we’ll go for it as soon as we can—and then hoping that Trump forgot that he asked for something outlandish? I mean, is there any possibility that there are people inside the national-security apparatus in Russia who know that Putin is a little bit unstable at this point?

Nichols: I don’t think so, but I don’t think it’s impossible that they might be slow-rolling him just a bit. You know, the defense minister is a really interesting guy. He’s the only guy that’s been in the Kremlin in every administration since 1991. He is kind of the ultimate Kremlin survivor. There’s Sergei Shoigu, and he’s a pretty wily character to have survived in Kremlin politics for 30 years. So—I mean, with Trump, it was a different matter, where, you know, people literally take things off his desk and say he’ll forget about it.

And it could just be that Putin is consciously just engaging in signaling and saying to these guys, “I’m going to declare this thing.” But once you say it, you know, again, you put things in motion that are inherently risky. And, you know, we can’t pretend that he didn’t say it, but I don’t think we should be like, you know, clutched with panic or fear right now. He’s done that before. And the Biden administration did exactly the right thing by basically ignoring it.

Goldberg: Let me ask you a very specific short question, and then a very big general question for both of you. The short question is: Do you have any sense of how influential his advisers are over him? Or is this really a one-man show? I mean, the defense minister could be a wily character, but he could be ignored by this leader.

Nichols: Yeah, I mean, I think Anne’s better tuned into that than I am. I’ll say on the security side—when you humiliate the head of your own foreign intelligence service on national television, it tells me that these are not ... you’re not getting a lot of good information from your inner circle. And the staging of these meetings—maybe I’m kind of lapsing too much into the old Kremlinology of looking at staging and who’s sitting where, and all that stuff. But the staging of these meetings has been weird. I mean, it’s almost visually noticeable how isolated he is. And if you ask me right now, “Who’s the guy whispering in his ear?”—you know, who does he call at 11 o’clock at night? I don’t know who; that I can’t say with certainty.

Goldberg: Anne, do you have any insight on that?

Applebaum: So the only insight I have is that even a few years ago, it was possible to kind of know people who knew people who talked to Putin in Moscow, and you could kind of get some information or some sense about it. And in the last two years, during the pandemic, that has stopped. He has been living in almost total isolation. He has required anyone who’s coming to see him to be in quarantine for two weeks before they meet in person.

You’re now seeing him sitting at the end of these very long tables—that is presumably related to COVID as well—although I’ve had a momentary question in my head as to whether he’s not afraid of assassination or something else as well. He is much more isolated than he’s ever been. I mean, I think one of the reasons why he seems to have so completely misunderstood Ukraine is that he’s not reading anything about Ukraine, or no one’s telling him about Ukraine. And so that means that we’re in a very peculiar situation. So I think we don’t know who’s talking to him in the middle of the night, and I’m not sure anybody knows. Mm hmm.

And this is different from what he was before. Just to be clear. He was part of conversations; people did go and see him. There was interaction between him and lots of different members of the Russian elite in different parts of it. And that seems to have stopped. As a friend of mine said, this may be the one political impact of COVID that nobody predicted—the isolation of Putin.

Goldberg: That’s very interesting. Let’s see; let me ask you this. The very large question is: You’re both experts on Soviet leadership and Russian leadership after the demise of the Soviet Union; which leaders from history does Putin resemble right now? The related question is—you’ve already alluded to it Anne—is he decomposing in some way? Is there some level of disintegration or cognitive decline, or moving into some sort of fantasy realm? And do you have insight into how the Soviet system dealt with that in the past? And let’s just for shorthand call it the Soviet system, even though you might want to talk about leaders who came after the Soviet Union.

Nichols: Yeah. Well, in the Soviet system, the way they compensated for it was to decentralize leadership that even with things like nuclear release, there were—their procedures for nuclear release were actually more complicated than ours. In our system, the president says it. The SecDef says “That really was the president speaking,” and STRATCOM does it. In their system, there was a kind of army/KGB party leadership interlock among those three parts of the three leaders on the Politburo, and it was actually a little bit more cumbersome for them to do this stuff. If you’re asking me who here resembles Soviet history, it’s somewhere between ... it’s like [Yuri] Andropov in the last days of dialysis. I don’t want to say Stalin. Putin is just not that big a person.

But the most dangerous period in the Cold War in my view—and I keep having this kind of gut feeling about it—was 1983 and early 1984, when Andropov was just sick, and he was cut off from everybody. And he had given up on relations with the West, particularly after the downing of the Korean airliner. The outpouring of anger about that—and this kind of tracks with what we’re seeing in Ukraine—the outpouring of anger after the Soviet downing of that aircraft really shocked Andropov. And he said, “Oh my God, the world really does ... You know, we are surrounded by enemies. The world really hates us.” And he, at that point, gave up. But he just gave up and said, “Okay, you know, conflict with the West now is just inevitable, and we’re headed down that road.” If I had to pick someone as an analogy, I’d say that.

But I want to add one other thing. People keep talking about Putin’s rationality. You know, you don’t have to be insane or, you know, gibbering to be irrational. The thing I worry about most is that people become irrational; he’s capable of functioning, and he can prioritize decisions—but he’s not processing information in any way that’s attached to real life. I mean, and this is what you see when leaders become like when Saddam Hussein said, you know, the allies are crossing the line of departure, and Saddam goes, No, they’re not. It’s just not happening. I think he’s reaching that point of just not being able to process, and I don’t know how long he’s been there. I think he has reached the point of it. He literally is not capable of processing information in a way that’s tethered to events in reality, and that’s really worrying me.

Goldberg: Anne, you’re an expert on Stalin, among other figures; does Putin rise to Stalin levels?

Applebaum: No; I mean, I agree with Tom. He’s also not yet been a mass murderer. He hasn’t. He hasn’t established, you know, a concentration-camp system with millions of people in it or anything like that. Funny enough, I was going to pick Andropov too, but for different reasons. Andropov is actually Putin’s idol. He’s built a couple of statues to him. He dedicated a kind of painting and a sort of icon to him in the FSB building in Moscow very, very early on. I think it wasn’t even when he was president; it was before that. It was when he was either FSB chief or prime minister. And there are lots of rumors in Moscow about his connections to Andropov. They might be made up, but he clearly has a special relationship to Andropov, at least in memory.

And what’s interesting about it is that Andropov’s obsession—I mean, obsession—was with the power and importance of democracy movements, street movements, dissidents. You know, the language of dissent. Andropov was the Russian ambassador to Budapest in 1956 at the time of the Hungarian Revolution. And this was one of the great revolutions against the Stalinist system, and Andropov witnessed that as the Soviet ambassador. Eventually, the Soviets sent tanks to clean it up. The Hungarian revolution started with a very small thing. It was these kinds of academic discussion groups, and then they brought academic discussion into the street. And then, like the workers joined them, and then the police joined them, and then the military joined them. Then you had a revolution. And so Andropov had this obsession about it. And actually, the 1980s were one of the times of the greatest crackdown on dissent in Soviet history.

So there was the Stalin period—obviously is a special case, but then there was a thaw. The ’60s and ’70s were a little bit later. People could have private conversations, you know, without feeling so much fear. There was a little bit of dissident literature that was kind of publicly available. Andropov ended that; he did this major crackdown. He eliminated dissent because he had this theory that even little tiny things that you think don’t matter—little independent newspapers or magazines—can blossom into something big. And it seems to me that Putin is following that same line. Now, aside from what he’s doing in Ukraine, he has now completely shut down almost every civic organization in Russia or every independent organization, including apolitical ones, organizations for mothers of soldiers. He’s shut down almost all independent media. So there’s almost no, you know—it’s not just that there’s no opposition; there’s not even language of, you know, anything different from what you see on state television.

As a result of which, I should say something like one Russian that I know estimated that only about 20 percent of Russians even know there’s a war in Ukraine. So it’s not being discussed on Russian television. This is also relevant to what we were saying before. It’s such a taboo war that it’s not even there, so I think I think he’s that. And then the question is whether he veers into something even crueler and more terrible. But right now, he thinks of himself as the person who’s stopping—like Andropov—stopping everything before it starts. Before it turns into the street revolution that he is the most afraid of, that he saw in Ukraine in 2014, that he almost feared in Moscow in 2011.

Goldberg: You make an interesting point about what people know. We have to be very careful not to assume that the Russian population is understanding or getting information the way we’re getting information, and that’s very important.

Applebaum: They’re definitely not.

Goldberg: I have a feeling I’m about to assign an Andropov profile, which is not something that anybody would imagine in 2022. But he seems to be sort of the man of the moment.

Nichols: Can I add one thing about Andropov? That’s also interesting. Andropov had great faith. He believed so much in the power of these movements that one of the strategic errors he made in the early 1980s was that he really thought that public dissent in the West was going to help the Soviets squash a lot of Reaganism and rearming Europe, and all of that stuff. There are now declassified speeches where he says, Okay, comrades; well, we really thought we were going to keep these nuclear weapons out of Europe through, you know, the peace movement and people power.

And as one Russian historian later told me ... he was one of the people, and people surrounding him, who were genuinely shocked when Reagan won a landslide. Because they had just kind of internalized the notion that what they see as public dissent was just going to be fatal to the regime. So they not only worried about it for themselves, but they actually thought it was very powerful overseas. I think Putin’s got to be flipping out, if he’s seeing—and this is another question—is he seeing the number of people that are congregating in London and Barcelona and Toronto and wherever? But I just don’t know.

Goldberg: We have more than a hundred questions from our audience. We’re not doing a hundred. Many of them are on the same themes, so I’m going to try to bunch up a couple. But before I do that ... Anne, could you answer this question? You’ve written very interestingly about the formation of Ukrainian national identity. There are many surprising things here. We have a piece in the last couple of days by Gal Beckerman about one of the surprising twists of history—that Ukraine has a Jewish president who is leading the Ukrainian nationalist revolution against Russian imperialism. Go back to the question I asked at the very beginning about things that are surprising you—talk about the Ukrainian response and Ukrainian-ness, and how it’s actually being cemented right now. A little bit that, you know, this question of: Is Ukraine an independent country? Well, I think we have an answer.

Applebaum: It’s not just a little bit; it’s a lot. I mean, I think Ukraine is changing not only its image abroad. I think Ukrainians are going to feel differently about their state and about one another, when this is over—however it ends. Whether it ends in a good scenario or bad scenario. Just one thing about Zelensky being Jewish, which a really smart Ukrainian historian said to me a couple of days ago—no one has ever said to the Ukrainians that there are different definitions of nationalism.

There’s ethnic nationalism, and there’s civic nationalism. Ethnic being, you know, you’re attached to your tribe; civic nationalism being something more like patriotism, where you’re attached to the laws of your country, and so on. Political scientists make this distinction between them. No one ever said to them that there are these two different things—but without anyone saying that to them, what they have chosen is a kind of civic nationalism.

If you’re Jewish, if you’re Afghan—one of the leaders of the 2014 Maidan [Revolution] was of Afghan origin. Whether you speak Ukrainian or whether you speak Russian, in this, of course, you might have something to do with it. You can be part of the Ukrainian nation, you know, as long as you are willing to defend your country. And as long as you believe in our national mission—which is to create a sovereign nation and integrate with the West and become a democracy. And somehow the Ukrainian national identity has become wrapped up in those ideas. So it’s not just about blood and soil, and “You had to be born here, and your great-great-great-grandfather had to speak Ukrainian.” It’s more complicated than that.

Goldberg: Several people have asked versions of this question about the negotiations that are happening. Is Putin open to negotiations? Really?

Nichols: I don’t think so; I’ll just keep it brief. I don’t think so.

Applebaum: I don’t think so, either. It may be some kind of play for time. I was a little worried that it was some kind of game to get people to the border and then shoot them or poison them; there is a long Soviet and Russian history of doing that. But it looks to me like a part of an information-war game.

Goldberg: Here’s a question that I think you’ll both like, and you both address this in different ways. “I’m hearing from friends that this war is the fault of the U.S., because we let countries like Ukraine near Russia join or start moving to join NATO, and Putin felt threatened.” This is what the questioner says; I think this is baloney—but I’d like a more thoughtful response. What do you all think of that concept, that notion?

Nichols: Anne’s written about this—what Putin feels threatened by is the proximity not of NATO, but of democracy. He hates NATO because it’s practically encoded in his DNA to hate NATO. I was a “go slow on NATO’s expansion” guy in the ’90s. I was a more conservative kind of post-Reaganite Republican, saying, you know, “Do this slowly; do this measure.” But again, Putin has made the best argument for NATO’s expansion that anyone’s ever made. He certainly talked me into it.

These are countries Russians have no problem traveling to, sending their children to their schools, doing business with. But yet somehow, Putin says, this line is too far. I think this is about democracy. I think it’s about a mafia regime trying to stay in power. And I think that these arguments—that, “If but for NATO’s expansion, this wouldn’t have happened”—I think it’s just utter nonsense.

Applebaum: Let me go farther than that. If you—okay, if I can have one sentence—which is I think that the expansion of NATO was the most successful, if not the only truly successful, piece of American foreign policy of the last 30 years. It created a zone of safety and security for 60 million people in a part of the world that had been the source of two world wars. It was begun because the nations of the region—Poland, the Baltic states, and others—were afraid of the language of Russian revanchism, which began already in the early ’90s. There’s a speech that the then-president of Estonia gave in 1994, and when she talks about precisely that. The fact that we expanded NATO has pushed the possibility of this kind of conflict back and for at least a decade, if not more. We would be having this fight in East Germany right now if we hadn’t done it.

Ukraine was not in favor of joining NATO a decade ago. The reason why Ukraine wants to join NATO now is because they’re afraid of Russia. Russia has created this sense of fear in all its neighbors by its aggressive actions. If that weren’t the case, there would be no NATO. There would be no need for it. So Russia has created this need for NATO and has made Ukraine envious of the relative safety and security—not just the relative, the genuine—safety and security next door.

Goldberg: What can NATO do? What can the United States do? The way I would frame it, so borrowing some language from one of the questions, but—what are the outer limits here for? Let’s just say that the American government is fully engaged in supporting Ukraine. NATO’s fully engaged in supporting Ukraine. Tom, this is, in part, a nuclear question, but it’s more than just a nuclear question. How far do you think America and NATO can go to support the Ukrainians before it triggers some kind of new catastrophe?

Nichols: Well—the president’s made clear we’re not putting boots on the ground. That’s the right thing to do. I think that the people—you know, I actually ran into Congressman [Adam] Kinzinger the other day; he was talking about no-fly zones. I think that’s a bad idea. We’re at the limit militarily of what we can do, other than providing weapons and defending our own, defending NATO’s territory. I mean: I think had Putin blitzed his way through this, and everything had collapsed in four days and actually started talking about, “And now it’s time to bring home the Baltics,” and to bring back, you know, Bessarabia, you know, whatever—then I might have a different answer about counter-signaling. To say enough is enough. But I think, you know, NATO’s doing what NATO ought to be doing, which is making clear: You know, we can’t defend this; we can’t defend this country. We understand your home-court advantage. There’s a lot of terrible things you can do, and we’re going to do everything we can to make sure that this fails, including helping our Ukrainian friends, but don’t even think about going anywhere else, because that’s a whole different ball game.

Goldberg: What would you do if you were advising President Biden on what to say tomorrow night to the nation and the world? What points would you like to see him hit, including in this area of “What can America do?”

Applebaum: I would like him to explain to Americans—who I think, despite the heavy news coverage, may not understand—why this matters to us, why it’s about more than just Ukraine. Brave as the Ukrainians are—extraordinary as they are—why it’s about the preservation of peace in Europe. Why it’s about respect for borders and for a certain idea of political order and stability. Why the shattering of that order would damage us materially, economically, politically, spiritually, and in every other way. You know, actually, I slightly disagree that this is a good moment for foreign policy. I wonder whether a lot of people are following this and understanding it, and I would like him to hit really high notes in framing this and explaining it to people.