In this handout photo released by The State Duma, The Federal Assembly of The Russian Federation Press Service, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, foreground center, addresses deputies during a session at the State Duma, the Lower House of the Russia

The US should not ‘overestimate the divisions inside of Russia,’ former ambassador says

Even some of the Russian leader's closest advisers don't know what Vladimir Putin is thinking, according to former US Ambassador to Russia John Tefft. He has spent plenty of time in the room with Putin himself.

The World

In this handout photo released by The State Duma, The Federal Assembly of The Russian Federation Press Service, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, foreground center, addresses deputies during a session at the State Duma, the Lower House of the Russian Parliament in Moscow, Oct. 3, 2022. Russia's lower house of parliament endorses treaties for four regions of Ukraine to join Russia. 

The State Duma/Federal Assembly of The Russian Federation Press Service/AP

The war in Ukraine seems to be edging closer to a dangerous tipping point. Ukrainian troops have pushed Russian soldiers out of the city of Lyman, a key logistics hub in the northeast of the country. Meanwhile, thousands of mobilized Russian troops are reportedly being sent home, deemed unfit for military duty.

Anxieties are especially high after a Ramzan Kadyrov, Chechen leader and key ally of President Vladimir Putin, called for the use of a "low-yield nuclear weapon" in Ukraine.

Even some of the Russian leader's closest advisers don't know what Putin is thinking. That's according to former US Ambassador to Russia John Tefft, someone who has spent plenty of time in the room with Putin himself.

"On a given day, I'm not sure who knows exactly what Vladimir Putin is thinking," Tefft told The World.  

"And I think those of us in the West need to be careful and humble in our estimates of the man, because we just don't have the kind of access or the understanding of his current mindset at this point."

Tefft said that Putin has backed himself into a corner in Ukraine: "This is a man who learned life in the streets of Leningrad when he was growing up — a very tough upbringing." 

"And he's a guy who, I think, consistently has doubled down in dealing with things. He doesn't back down. He pushes forward and tries to get his way. And I think what we've had in Ukraine is a strategic mistake that he made launching the invasion in the beginning, a strategic mistake of the first order. But he seems to be making additional mistakes now, hoping that he can rectify the situation and still achieve his dream of taking control of all of Ukraine."

Tefft, who also served as US ambassador to Ukraine, Georgia and Lithuania, is now a senior fellow with the RAND corporation. He joined The World's host Carolyn Beeler to discuss his views on Putin's approach to war based on years as a diplomat in the region. 

Carolyn Beeler: So, let's talk about the thing overshadowing all of this. Nukes. Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, a close Putin ally, generated a lot of headlines this week when he called for the use of a "low-yield nuclear weapon." Russian leaders try to counter that sort of talk. Do you see this nuclear threat as rising right now?
John Tefft: Putin looks at this and sees the impact that it has, certainly in Western media. But I've talked to some other experts and most of them right now, the ones that I listen to, don't think that use of nuclear weapons is anytime imminent, that he's in fact bringing in more troops, conscripting more people in this partial mobilization, as he calls it, that this signifies an attempt to keep going and press ahead inside the war. Now, the other thing is, I think Putin still hasn't given up on the idea of somehow increasing opposition to Western support for the war, primarily in Europe, but I think also perhaps even in the United States, he hasn't been very successful in that. And maybe he calculates that brandishing this idea of possible tactical nuclear weapons use on the battlefield will scare people and try to do that.
This weekend, former CIA director and retired Army Gen. David Petraeus told ABC News that the US would destroy Russia's troops if Putin uses nuclear weapons in Ukraine. Is this what US officials, those currently in office, are trying to convey to the Kremlin?
Part of the whole reason for this war, you'll remember, was Putin's miscalculation, not just of what was happening inside of Ukraine and not just his dream of controlling it, but his misreading of the West from the very beginning. And I think it's important that we continue to send very clear signals about what the costs of this would be. I listened to my friend Bill Burns the other day, and he was saying how carefully they're monitoring the situation, including movements of critical weapons systems that might give some indication of what was happening. So, it seems to me they're doing about all that you can do at this point, at least from my perspective, outside of government.
Do you see any off-ramps or opportunities for conversations with Russian officials?
No, I think that the administration has tried very hard to signal that it's willing to countenance negotiations. But I have to say, right now, I don't see that Putin is in any mood to actually engage in any kind of negotiations. And if there were to be some, I suspect he would try to find a way to just cut a deal that would continue to hold a lot of Ukrainian territory. And the Ukrainians have made it clear they're not going to stand for that. So, I think we need to keep open the possibility of talks, but I don't see right now that there's any real prospect in the immediate future for these. I would just say I think Putin is calculating of trying to get through the winter because that will probably minimize some of the fighting, but it will also allow him to put greater pressure on Europe, particularly in terms of energy supply, and to see whether that changes the political equation, the political support for Ukraine inside of Europe.
You mentioned the winter. I know you're a diplomat and not a military general. But how do you see colder temperatures, energy security playing into the fighting this winter?
Obviously, the Europeans have been doing everything they can to stockpile energy. We would all hope that this winter is not going to be a very cold one in Europe. I'm not sure that Putin really has gotten it right on this point, because what I hear, not just from governments, but I've had some friends who have just come back from Europe, from Britain, from Germany, and they keep telling me that the support for Ukraine at the grassroots level is still very, very strong, just as it is here in our country. People identify with Ukraine fighting against this repressive power that's trying to just take over their country. And people understand that, not just an intellectual level, but I think an emotional level. But I think we shouldn't overestimate the divisions inside of Russia. And we should always remember that Putin has spent 20 years making sure that he is at the top and that he is unchallenged at this point. There's never guarantees, of course, but I think he's still very much in charge and calling the shots literally and figuratively.
Finally, what are you keeping an eye on going forward to understand where this is headed?
Well, I was listening this morning to a colleague who said that he'd recently been in Ukraine and had been out to the front lines. And he said in his week or so of going around, he didn't hear a single person in military or private say, "We need to stop this war." People seem to be united behind this effort to try to push the Russians out. And so I think that's a key one. The other part is I try to watch, as carefully as I can at this point, the public attitudes inside of Russia. Clearly, the mobilization has caused divisions at the top, and it's obviously hit home for a lot of people, just judging from the number of Russian young people, young men and who are who have left the country. But, you know, what about the average person who has been a supporter of Putin for many years? He sees all of the people who have been killed, all of the soldiers who have been brought home and buried. When are they going to start asking, "Has this been worth it? What are we achieving with all of this horrible loss of life? Are we really the great Russian power, which is what our president said he wanted to achieve?" I try to watch that as carefully as I can, but it's very hard, especially since many of the media who follow this very carefully, in the past, many of the people responsible have left the country now, and we don't get the kinds of information that we used to.

This interview was lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

Will you help our nonprofit newsroom today?

Every week, more than 2 million listeners tune into our broadcast and follow our digital coverage like this story, which is available to read for free thanks to charitable contributions from listeners like you. But less than 1% of our audience supports our program directly. From now through the end of the year, every gift will be matched dollar for dollar by a generous donor, which means your gift will help us unlock a $67,000 challenge match.

Will you join our growing list of loyal supporters and double your impact today?