When Russian troops attacked neighboring Ukraine this past week, it set off a full-scale war, and worries by some that it’s the start of World War III — the likes of which most people alive today have never experienced.
Ukraine is the gateway between Eastern Europe and Russia. It’s about the size of Texas, formerly part of the Soviet Union, which dissolved in 1991. Half a world away, the conflict likely means more pressure on already rising gas prices and heightened risk of cyber attacks on our power grid and financial systems.
Ironically, Ukraine gave up its large nuclear arsenal to Russia after the Soviet Union fell, in exchange for assurances from us and other countries that we’d help protect them. Scott Thuman reports on the Ukrainian fight and Russia's intentions.
Scott Thuman: Full Measure acquiring these dramatic images summing up the fight – Ukrainian soldiers scrambling to defend their country. Across Europe, the worst fears of a new war have become a reality. President Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine sparking a mad dash to get out of the country, jamming roads out of the capital, Kyiv. And our cameras capturing this steady stream crossing into Poland.
President Biden issued severe economic sanctions against Putin’s inner circle and banks - but threatening them in the run up to war did not deter the Russian president, whose goal is to install a pro-Russian government in Ukraine.
In this fight, the Ukrainians are alone, outnumbered but still determined, according to diplomat Kurt Volker, a former special envoy to Ukraine.
Volker: The will of the Ukrainians is there. The problem is that the Russians have a huge military that is arrayed against them, and they have brought the tanks up close to Kyiv, and they are gradually testing the defenses of Kyiv, and seeing what kind of urban warfare might develop. So this still favors Russia militarily, but the Ukrainians are determined to fight.
Russian aggression didn’t start this week, or this year. As we previously reported from trench lines, Moscow has been taking Ukrainian territory since 2014, and backing a low level conflict ever since. In 2017 a soldier gave us this fearful prediction: "We are front line, it is true. If we lose here, you lose Europe." A threat NATO has tried to counter with a buildup of forces throughout eastern Europe that accelerated this week.
Scott: What do you think is really at risk here?
Volker: Well, what's at risk is the future of European security. This is a country that is being attacked – sovereign country, independent, not a threat to anybody. And Putin is just preying on this because he sees weakness in the West.
Sharyl (on-cam): What does Ambassador Volker think needs to be done next?
Scott: Well he thinks that the U.S. and allies need to completely recalibrate how we deal with Russia in the future. And he says so because the concept of off-ramps he thinks is ridiculous. The reason he says that is because he thinks that Putin prefers to deal not with diplomacy, but, if given the opportunity, with force.
Sharyl: President Putin has said his actions are partly motivated by concern that Ukraine might be allowed to join NATO, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. To Putin, that’s “a hostile act” that brings a western military alliance right to his doorstep.
For perspective on all of this that may be a little different than some you hear, we speak with Lieutenant Colonel Daniel Davis, a decorated combat officer and military analyst.
Sharyl: Some people took a statement that president Putin made the other night as a veiled threat to use nuclear weapons, when he warned anybody against interference, or something really big they'd never seen before, would happen. How did you take that? And do we have to worry about nuclear weapons being used?
Davis: There is no question that's precisely what he meant.
Sharyl: So where does that leave us now? What action can we take to be sure we're in the best interest of our country and keeping us safe now that we're here,
Davis: What we should still do what I passionately recommended we do before war broke out and that is just plainly acknowledge reality — that this is not in our interest — and we are taking any further NATO advancement off the table. We're just not even gonna contemplate it any further.
Sharyl: An agreement — and yet he would get to keep Ukraine.
Davis: No, no. The agreement is that that Ukraine declares neutrality. Putin does not want Ukraine, despite what anybody thinks. He just wants a buffer between him and NATO. See if he took Ukraine, then he would be building in a border with NATO. That's not what he wants. He wants a boundary, a buffer between the two. That's what he did in Georgia. He did not go into the rest of Georgia when he had the chance. He just went into those two provinces and then withdrew the bulk of their forces, leaving "peacekeepers," which is what he's got in the Donbas right now. So that's his M.O. is that he just wants security on his border. He does not want the land.
Sharyl: What do you foresee, despite what you think maybe ought to be done that could help? Where do you think we're headed?
Davis: Where I think we're headed is, we're gonna stay stubborn. We're gonna stay arrogant and say, 'No, we're not gonna let anybody tell us what we can do,' which is exactly what happened while we didn't give these guarantees before, and that the war's going to continue on. And the bloodshed will just continue to rise, because I think Putin has decided there's no point in going half measures now. I'm going all the way, and I'm either going to get it through negotiation, or I'm going to get it through military conquest, consequences be damned. I think that he's already completely made that decision. And so I think that if we don't do what makes sense, that's what we're going to get.
Sharyl: Odds we see any deployment of nuclear weapons in the next year?
Davis: I certainly hope not, but you can see that if Putin actually follows through with that path, the worst scenario basically, and captures Ukraine, that you could see that many people along the west, I think Sweden, Finland, maybe saying, 'You know what, it's time for us to join NATO. Now that we're afraid.' And now then that's going to raise the fears even more in Moscow. And now you're gonna say, 'Hey, maybe we should put some tactical nuclear weapons toward the Eastern part.' People are going to say that. Some people are already saying that, but after a full conquest, I think those voices would gain even more currency. And the danger to us all could continue to rise. So this could get a lot worse than it is.