Former US Defense Secretary Hagel Expects Further Escalation of War in Ukraine

Former U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel says Russian leader Vladimir Putin is likely to further escalate his attacks on Ukraine.

Hagel, a former Republican senator from Nebraska who led the Defense Department from 2013 to 2015 in the Obama administration, said that while the war had in some ways settled into a stalemate, the real surprise is the Ukrainian military.

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“I think what we’ve seen in the last 10 weeks has been a spectacular performance by the Ukrainians,” said Hagel in an interview with WTTW News. “It’s still unpredictable. It’s still probably going to escalate, but after 10 weeks, this has not been any anywhere near the victory I think Mr. Putin anticipated, far from it.”

Hagel, who is visiting Chicago to speak on national security and global geopolitics at the University of Chicago, said he has also been surprised by the seemingly inept performance of the much-vaunted Russian military.

“I think the Russian military has been a disaster,” said Hagel, noting reports that young conscripts have been deserting. “They’re not only not trained well, but it’s been a logistical nightmare for the (Russian) military.” 

While the United States and NATO are playing no direct combat role in the conflict, Hagel said the fact that the U.S. and Western allies are providing lethal military aid means that in effect the West is at war with Russia.

“We’re providing the armaments that allow the Ukrainians to kill Russians. So in many ways we are at war with Russia,” said Hagel.  “We don’t have American soldiers killing Russian soldiers but we’re strangling their economy. I mean that’s the reality.”

Speaking to the Senate armed services committee, Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines warned Tuesday that Putin could regard a possible defeat in Ukraine as an existential threat to his regime that could prompt him to use nuclear weapons – but only as a last resort.

“We do think that [Putin’s perception of an existential threat] could be the case in the event that he perceives that he is losing the war in Ukraine,” Haines told the committee. 

Haines said Putin would likely escalate the conflict in other ways before turning to his nuclear arsenal.

“There are a lot of things that he would do in the context of escalation before he would get to nuclear weapons, and also that he would be likely to engage in some signaling beyond what he’s done thus far before doing so,” said Haines.

In the event Putin does escalate the conflict further by using weapons of mass destruction, Hagel said that NATO would have no option but to intervene directly because the lesson of World War II is that you cannot appease dictators.

“You cannot let this stand,” said Hagel.  “If Putin escalates this into chemical weapons, biological weapons, or using God forbid nuclear weapons ... I think if he escalates in that kind of way, I don’t think the United States or the West have any choice here.”

Hagel will be in conversation with professor Robert Pape at the University of Chicago Chicago Project on Security and Threats (CPOST) Wednesday. The conversation will be held at Mandel Hall at 5:30 p.m. and is open to the public. Social distancing will apply.

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