‘When you think about the prospect of a nuclear holocaust, you have to consider how deeply committed [Putin] is to this campaign,’ said Jeff Burt ’66

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Jeff Burt ’66, Jim Hitch ’71, and Peter Pettibone ’61 headed up the Soviet and Russian practices of the international law firms where they were partners: Arnold & Porter, Baker & McKenzie, and Hogan Lovells, respectively. On Sept. 20, the same day that Ukraine President Volodymr Zelensky addressed the United Nations, they discussed their thoughts on the war with fellow alumni at a Tiger Talks ’66 event, and shared an important message: The threat of nuclear war is very real. On the latest PAWcast, the three shared their thoughts on the conflict, Putin’s rationale, how the situation could be affected by the recent violence in Israel and Gaza — and just how far this war could go.

Liz Daugherty: I’m Liz Daugherty and this is the Princeton Alumni Weekly’s PAWcast, where we interview members of the Princeton community.

 Peter Pettibone ’61, Jeff Burt ’66, and Jim Hitch ’71 might know a bit more about the war in Russia and Ukraine than the average Princetonian. All three headed up the Russian and Soviet practices of the international law firms where they were partners, and over time and travels they got to know the people in those countries very well. In the past few years they’ve written and spoken in various formats about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and on this episode of the PAWcast, they have a message: The threat of nuclear war, they say, is very real. 

Hi, Jeff, Jim, and Peter, thank you so much for coming on the PAWcast today and sharing your expertise. Let’s start with a little background. Would each of you very briefly explain your work with Russia and the former Soviet states? 

Peter Pettibone: I’ll begin. Fifty years ago in, the fall of 1973, I formed the U.S. Soviet Trade Council and was its outside council for the 20 plus years of its existence. I opened my first law office in Russia in 1991, and it grew quite a bit over the ensuing 20 years to an office that had about 60 people in it. I retired in 2010, after serving in that office and became an arbitrator. And I’ve arbitrated commercial disputes involving Russian-Ukrainian parties with their Western counterparties in Moscow, Kiev, and Stockholm. And obviously the war in Ukraine has had a significant impact on that, but I continue to be active in that field.

Jeff Burt: This is Jeff Burt. Early in my career at Arnold & Porter, an international law firm based in Washington, I developed an expertise in international joint ventures, primarily representing Japanese firms. I authored a textbook and taught a course on international joint ventures. When Mikhail Gorbachev became a general secretary of the Communist Party in 1985, he reached out to the West and decided international joint ventures would be the format for cooperation with the West as he tried to institute his perestroika programs. I and a partner were invited to Moscow in the fall of 1986, just after Gorbachev came to power, to give a lecture to Soviet bureaucrats on how to institute a law to invite Westerners to the Soviet Union for joint ventures. Out of that experience, at the very beginning, I began representing some western firms interested in joint ventures.

And we opened an office in 1990, one of the first law firms to do so. And, that launched my experience in helping western companies establish businesses in the Soviet Union, and also representing some Soviet entities and later Russian entities. And basically that started a long involvement in Russia, which has continued until this day. During the last several years before the invasion of Ukraine, I taught some courses at Moscow’s largest law university, and made many friendships, and until the disaster in February of 2022, Russia was a big part of my retirement career.

Jim Hitch: I’m Jim Hitch, I’m Class of ’71, Princeton. I opened the office of Baker & McKenzie in Moscow in 1989, and then from that we opened offices in Kiev, St. Petersburg, Almaty, and Baku. My last 14 years of my career I spent in Russia and Ukraine. I was a managing partner of the St. Petersburg office from ’97 to 2001, and then I moved on to Kiev and was there from 2002 to 2011. So I saw, had some interesting experiences, especially during the Orange Revolution in Kiev. And the best part was all of the attorneys that I dealt with — I was the only foreigner. So I had 25 lawyers in St. Petersburg and 95 in Kiev until the global crisis came in 2008, then I retired in 2011. So it’s been an interesting career spent with Russia, Ukraine, and these other Soviet states.

LD:  So let’s just dive into the big question here: Do you think this conflict is going to escalate into nuclear war? And what do you think could make the difference of whether Putin takes it there or not?

PP:  I’ll begin. It’s Peter Pettibone, Class of 1961. This has been the big question. As you probably know, Russia and the United States control 90% of all nuclear weapons, and Russia’s share of that is approximately half, so, 45% of all nuclear weapons in the world are in Russia. Now, we’ve been concerned as a country, with the possibility of escalation. It hasn’t happened yet, and we cannot give an answer of whether it will or will not. But it is certainly on the table. There are questions as to whether there are red lines. Is, for example, Crimea a red line? If Crimea is invaded by the Ukrainians to take it back to Ukraine as it originally was, is that going to cross a red line? We don’t know, but it is certainly there. The fact that it hasn’t been invoked actively is not an answer that it will not be.

JH:  Yes. And, and I agree with Peter that nobody knows for sure, but my feeling is that Putin doesn’t have the only decision here, that he has his generals around him, the various political elites in Russia. There’s such a fear, I believe, even on the part of Russia, that if they start bombing nuclear weapons into Ukraine, the Eastern border where they have territory that is disputed now, won’t there be some radiation blowback onto Russia itself? So I think it’s going to really be difficult for there actually to be a nuclear escalation, even just tactical nuclear weapons. It’s really a red line to cross for Putin, too.

JB:  I want to give a slightly longer answer. A month ago, the three of us made a presentation to the Class of ’66 in a series that our class has sponsored for about a year and a half. And we spent an hour and a half on this very subject. And so, I just want to take a minute to answer a critical question that’s necessary to think about when you think about your question, Liz, and that’s why did Putin do this? And what was his motivation? What are we dealing with here? And as we explained at some length, there are three things you have to understand to evaluate that question, which is why he did it, and what is Putin about here? 

And the first question is, what does he think he’s doing here? In the summer of 2021, he published a 5,000-[word] essay, which he directed should be given to all Russian soldiers. This was the time when he was coming to his final stage of his thinking on why he needed to invade Russia. This was a deliberate, well-thought-through plan, which he hoped he could accomplish in a matter of a few days. And in this 5,000-[word] essay, he explained why Ukraine has to go. And he called his essay, which he said he authored himself, “On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians.”And he said, basically, Ukraine doesn’t exist. They’re all Russians. It’s part of the Russian community. And this group in the territory of Ukraine has stolen Russian land that it was engineered, by the West. And indeed, it goes back several centuries because Ukraine never existed. And basically it’s a — and this was characterized as such by international experts — a genocidal program to get rid of the idea of Ukraine as such.

He has invested an enormous amount of psychological energy, he’s put his future at stake with the idea that it’s important. Russia conquers Ukraine, and Ukraine does not exist anymore as a people. And you combine this with his self image, which has also been well documented. He considers himself to be the modern Peter the Great, the man who forged the Russian Empire. He considers this territorial grab, not as something he’s reaching out to, but something he’s trying to recover. It belongs to him. And for that reason, when you think about the prospect of a nuclear holocaust, you have to consider how deeply committed he is to this campaign. And one, leading expert in this area said that Putin is committed by whatever means are necessary — I’m quoting from his piece in the Foreign Affairs recently — whatever means are necessary to succeed.

In that context, I think you have to consider the consequences to Putin of giving up on this campaign. It would mean the end of his career. It would mean more than embarrassment. It would be basically giving up his dream. And in terms of how far he is willing to go, right now, Putin does not feel he needs to use nuclear weapons. So we can relax for a moment. But if he’s losing, if he’s going to have to face the consequences of the American investment and try to defend and have Ukraine recover its land, all bets are off, and I think that the prospects are very real. And I’m not the only one. David Petraeus [*85 *87] and others have said if he thinks he’s going to lose — and it’s not going to be this year, but it could be next year — we just don’t know what’s ahead, and the prospects are very real. And Biden realizes that, and why he has been very cautious as he slowly escalated the armaments to Ukraine. And where this will all come out, I don’t think — nobody really knows.

LD:  Do any of you have anything to add to that? Peter or Jim? 

PP: Just the quip that I’ve used in the past: While Putin thinks of himself as Peter the Great, Peter the Great opened Russia to the West at the beginning of the 18th century, while Putin is closing Russia to the West in the first part of the 21st century.

LD:  When we talk about this, it seems like we’re in a catch-22. We don’t want Putin to win, but if he doesn’t win, he might pull out the nuclear weapons. So, where do we go with that?

PP:  It’s Peter Pettibone again. I have been a proponent of the Korea-type solution. We’ve already seen the war the last almost 12 months, reach a stalemate point. There have been very few territorial gains, either by the Ukrainians or by the Russians. That’s not to say that the new weapons coming in will change that, but at least at the present time, the conflict has pretty much stalemated. And you may recall that the Korean War ended 70 years ago without any peace treaty, it just came to an end after discussions. That could happen here. That could happen. The parties stalemate along a line that’s fairly much the same as it is today. There is no peace treaty, there is no recognition of that line is creating international borders. The parties can — certainly, the U.S. will take the position that that these lands are illegally occupied, just as we took the position that the Baltic states did not belong to the USSR for the period from 1941 to 1991.

That could be the solution. And it is not a solution that requires either side to recognize that it is won or lost. It is just that the situation stalemates. Following that clearly, there would have to be forces, Western forces in Ukraine to prevent a resumption of the war, but at least it would bring the killing, which is at a horrendous rate at this point, come to an end. So it is a possibility. It means, as I say, that no one has to acknowledge victory or defeat. It just says that it ends and it ends where it ends.

JH:  I’ll say briefly that things are not good in Ukraine. We see that every day. They’re also not good in Russia. There’s a popular feeling growing that this war is not good. It’s not just the moms back in Afghanistan with their boys coming back. The sanctions are starting to have an impact. There’s inflation. There’s a worldview that maybe Russia is no longer the right to party in this fight. 

So we don’t think, I don’t think there’ll be any uprising from the people. It’s not in the Russian way. There certainly could be a palace coup of some sort, some other power, some other leader who feels that he or she is the same strength or same political influence that Putin has that could ease him out if the war got to be really bad. 

On the other hand, Ukrainians, this is an existential crisis for them. And there was no unity in Ukraine when I went there in 2002: The people in the East didn’t like the people in the West, and there are differences in languages. Starting with the incursion of Russian troops into Ukraine, even before the actual invasion, Ukrainians realized, this is us, it’s all over. And they’ve united. And now with this leader they have in Zelenskyy, it’s going to be equally hard for him to back down. And maybe a compromise will be reached. I always thought that if they really were successful in this counteroffensive, brush will be pushed out the door, maybe they’d be willing to give up Crimea. Now, it’s not so clear because Ukraine’s not winning. New weapons are being introduced. Weapons the U.S. is giving that can actually bomb inside Russian territory. 

So I’ve always agreed with Peter’s comment that this will be decided on the battlefield. But I do believe that there’s a possibility for Russia not to fight this out to the bitter end, and the fact that Ukraine will be biting its lip or biting it, you know, its tongue, but they will ultimately have to reach some sort of settlement, whether it’s a Korea-style settlement or not.

PP: May I just add one further comment, which is that it, it puzzles me greatly that the oligarchs who have lost their markets in the West, their markets for petroleum products and other products, and are now selling those at a significant discount to China and to India, that they haven’t revolted. And also, the patriarch lost at least 40% of his Orthodox adherents when the Russian Orthodox Church in Ukraine moved over to be the Orthodox church in Ukraine. No connection with Russia. So it seems to me that, that certainly the patriarch ought to be very unhappy, losing 40% of his adherents. The oligarch should be very, very unhappy at losing lucrative markets in the West, and with no sight that there’s any, development that would turn those things around.

JB: There are a lot of factors at, at play here, and it’s sort of difficult to sort it out. But just three points. apparently the administration has been telling Congress that the way it’s going, the U.S. commitment is a three to five year enterprise. And it kind of takes us aback. Imagine three more years, five more years of this. How this plays out is partly going to depend on what happens on the battlefield, which Peter has made a point of many times. 

Right now it appears the Ukrainians think that they may have a slight edge, but it’s not clear. Putin is sitting back figuring all he has to do is wait, because there’s no way the West will continue this kind of support three to five years. And of course, there’s Mr. Trump on the scene, if he should become the president and next year the dynamics change dramatically.  And Ukraine will have to sue for peace as best it can. 

The second point is, in 2013 there was a poll that showed that the majority of Ukrainians had a favorable position feeling towards Russia. The more recent polls showed 2% of Ukrainians have that. So the seeds that have been created here are going to, I won’t want to say blossom, but how the future will play out given what Russia has done. And we have to remember, they’ve, the casualties are at least 200,000 Ukrainians, enormous number, and the infrastructure, the damage, it’s tens of billions, if not a trillion dollars of damages. So how this will all play out is anybody’s guess. And the question also, of course, is how long Putin can continue this enormous strain on the Russian resources. And the latest casualties indicate that as many as a hundred thousand Russians have been killed and many more maimed. 

So it’s a very unstable situation. I, for one think the, Korean solution, won’t work out here because of the length of the borders. And also currently Russia has 22% of the territory of Ukraine. And we can’t, as the West and as Europe, let this end up with what appears to be a Russian victory, and it would be a Russian victory if they keep all the territory they’ve gained and then continue to eat away at Ukrainians’ independence in the years to come. So Liz, the short answer is, I think it’s an unknown territory and a lot will depend what happens in the coming months and what happens in the battlefield.

LD: Since we first started talking about this podcast, there’s been a major shift in the world, and of course, I’m talking about the outbreak of violence in Israel and Gaza. How do you think it could affect the war in Ukraine? And Jeff, you probably have additional thoughts since you were actually in Israel on October 7th, the day that Hamas attacked. Right? 

JB: Not to say that being in Israel on Oct. 7 with my family and my three grandchildren, 11, 13, and 9, gives me any greater expertise, but it does give me an emotional connection with the horrors. But I was fortunate that I could leave two days later through a creative travel agent and take a 26-hour ride through Ethiopia to get out of there. 

But I think there is a clear connection, and indeed, President Biden in his amazing address last Thursday gave it a direct connection. He said that America now confronts two evil, and he called it unadulterated evil in the case of Hamas. But he applied it as well to Russia, because if you take a step back, I mean, what has Russia done here in Ukraine? A peaceful country that had no threat to Russia was suddenly invaded by a hundred thousand plus troops. Tens of thousands of people have been killed. Homes have been destroyed. The civilian casualties are much greater than they were on Oct. 7. 

And what we’re witnessing in the West, as Biden outlined it, is a war against tyranny and tyrants and terror. Because what Putin has done in Ukraine is precisely what Hamas is doing in Israel, inflicting enormous amounts of death and destruction on people who don’t deserve it. So American policy has now tied and linked Israel’s defense of its territory with Ukrainian defense of its territory. And the hundred billion dollars that’s now on the table in Congress is designed to both help Ukraine resist and also help Israel resist.

And so he has conflated the two as part of his America’s moral mission in the world. And this is now a clash of ideologies. As we discussed earlier, Putin has an ideology to wipe the Ukrainian people off the face of the earth. and he does it by denying the existence of the Ukrainian people. And there’s a similar, frankly, ideology that we’re seeing in efforts to destroy Israel. And by conflating this, Putin has made this a dual enterprise of the American public, to defend American’s democratic values and defend countries who wish to exist without being invaded. So, I think there’s now a link and we’ll have to confront it.  I think it, in a sense, will help Ukraine, which is good. But it also complicates matters because now this is more of a global struggle that Biden has identified. 

And it’s kind of a new world, and a new terrifying world, because the Middle East also has such deep problems, and the amount of firepower with Iran and the other countries in this quagmire, it’s something America can’t ignore. And, so, that’s my short, and I can tell you, as somebody who never was in a war zone before, it’s an experience that no one wants to live through, even when you’re protected because you can get out of there because you have the resources. 

PP: May I make two comments? It’s Peter. First is that, the events in, Gaza and Israel are solidifying the new grouping of Russia, China, Iran, North Korea. You could almost make a contiguous border around those four countries. All of them are helping each other in one way or another, certainly in the war in Ukraine. And also it appears possibly, in the Gaza invasion.

The other comment is that, I hope that the aid package can stay as a unitary package. As we know, there have been a number of representatives in the House who have expressed, questioning issues regarding the aid to Ukraine. By tying them together, that is to say, with aid to Israel, which is almost universally approved, it may be helpful for the aid package to Ukraine. I just hope that the fusion of those two packages stays as a unitary package that isn’t broken up.

JH: Yeah, I want to agree with Peter on that. In particular, I think there was a little, starting to be Ukraine fatigue once again in the U.S. And I think this idea that Biden put forward saying that, “Hey, they’re alike. So different in so many ways, but it’s tyranny, it’s democracy. It’s not just Russians against Ukrainians in some distant country. It’s not just the Hamas coming into Israel. It’s more to it than that,” this certainly will help Ukraine, in my opinion. Already, there’s a lot of talk. I looked at The New York Times this morning, the headlines, there are three or four just on the issue of, well, if money goes to Israel, is enough money left for Ukraine? What about weapons systems? If there’s a competition for one weapon system that both countries need, even though the wars are very different, how will that be dealt out?

But Tim Scott, South Carolina senator, has said, “Oh, there’s a difference between Israel needs U.S. aid immediately, we need to have a longer discussion about how much more we give to Ukraine.” It’s better than the situation before the news of the Israel, Israeli problem, because now the focus is back on Ukraine in a different way. Is there going to be enough money for Ukraine and Israel? Why are we giving money to Israel? Oh, America always supports Israel, but yes, there’s more than just Israel. Is there a deeper meaning that I think Biden successfully portrayed to the U.S. How it plays out in Congress, and we had a discussion earlier: Without a speaker in the House, how does this legislation get to the floor? When are we going to have an aid package? What’s going to happen in the meantime?

And maybe make a point I was thinking about earlier, Liz, was that one thing the U.S. did do, one thing Biden did correctly was bring NATO together, bring NATO to the forefront, bring NATO, make NATO important again. Maybe Trump will be elected and he’ll sort of again try to dismiss the value of NATO. But I think Europeans, now, it’s not just going to be the Balts and the Pols who are bordering on Russia. It’s all of Western Europe, Germany, France, Netherlands, Sweden, they’re all talking about why it’s important to have a united front against Russia, and how NATO is the best delivery system for that. So this is, I think, progress that will help Ukraine ultimately, but before the U.S. Congress and Senate can work out how they’re going to deal with Israel and how they’re going to deal with Ukraine.

JB: One thing I, I’d just like to add: Imagine a few years ago, thinking of Finland joining NATO. Imagine Sweden joining NATO. just today, you’ve seen Turkey has now withdrawn its objection to Sweden joining. So we have seen by virtue of Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, an enormous change in the whole European framework and the future there. Because Europe, Sweden, and Finland and all these other countries now realize that Russia is an imminent threat, and they have to unite to collectively fight what’s happening in Ukraine. It now is the center really of Europe’s future. And in terms of how this all plays out, Europe cannot afford to let Russia win the war in Ukraine. They cannot permit it, and it will not happen, absent something terrible on the battlefield.

LD: From your perspective — and you’ve been following the news very carefully, and you have all of this personal experience with these countries — what do you wish people knew about or understood about everything that’s happening here? 

JB: I’d like to take a shot at that, as my, more recent experience dealing with young people at this prominent, law school. And indeed, just yesterday, I got a WhatsApp long email from one of my students. He is learning English, and he’s taking additional lessons. He sees a future, for him and many of his classmates, of democracy. He sees a future having the kind of lifestyle that we have here. These are lawyers and they are committed to a rule of law, committed to the judiciary. The values that we have been pursuing, around the world are very attractive to many young people. And they are, necessarily in today’s Russia, keeping their mouth shut.

And indeed, I’ve advised all my former students — I’m no longer dealing with them for reasons of the war — to wait it out, to hope for the best, and to hope that the Putin effort to restore Stalinism — because that’s what’s at issue here, going back to Stalinist days — fails. So the Russian people, many of them, the faculty members, many of the students — indeed, I think perhaps most of them — do not want a Putin type of Russia. They do not want it. Right now they have no choice, and the Russian people, and, Peter and Jim who’ve spent so many years there as well, are people not that different from you and me, not that different from the law students at our various law schools. They want a better life. They don’t want to take over Ukraine. They don’t want a Peter the Great, they want a world more like the ones that you and I enjoy. 

So what I’d like the listeners to realize that at this point in time: Don’t identify the Russian people with what Putin is doing. Putin has been called a rogue leader. And I think history will decide that he’s a rogue leader, and that the Russian people deserve a better future than what we see now and what Putin and his small band of people now in control are foisting on the Russian people.

JH: Yeah. Let me follow up on Jeff, because he stole a little bit of my thunder. I mean, call me sentimental, I, my wife is a Russian, and you know the Russians and the Ukrainians were like Americans and Canadians. There were differences, but they, many of them all spoke Russian. They had a common culture with Tchaikovsky and Dostoevsky, and Ukraine as a country — I’ve said this, and other Ukrainians have disagreed with me — I don’t think Ukraine as a country realized its own nationhood until this all started. As I mentioned earlier, there was a lot of antipathy when I had my attorneys in the office between the Russian-speaking Ukrainians and the Ukrainian-speaking, Ukrainians. Ukraine was a diverse, divided-up country, and people just didn’t realize, “Ah, we are a country, we are a nation. We have a border. We have our own rights, we have our sovereignty.”

It wasn’t until the Russian bear got provoked. It wasn’t until there was an election where Viktor Yanukovych was coming in, and he was going to not allow Ukraine to become part of the EU for the EU association agreement. When Ukrainians decided “we don’t want to be part of the East, we want to be part of the West.” And there’s so many families. Maybe it’s like the old, religious problems you had in Ireland or where, you know, Northern Ireland, Southern Ireland, where there are families in Ukraine where the father was a Russian speaker, the mother was a Ukrainian speaker. What were the kids? They were both. 

So I think if people knew how close the Ukrainians and the Russians were before all of this started, how this initial provocation has brought the Ukrainians closer to saying, just like a Canadian, “I love America, but I don’t want to be a U.S. citizen.” Ukrainians loved Russia. They had trade, they had commerce, they had common history, as Peter said, common religion. But now Ukraine wants to be independent, and the Russians I know don’t want to have Ukrainians dying in the field from bombs coming from Russia. The bad guy here is Putin. And there’s no doubt about that.

PP: I want to add to what Jim and Jeff have said and concentrate on the younger people. All three of us have had extensive business contacts in Russia. I had a law firm there for 20 years, and I was the only American, for most of the time there. And so all the others were Russian. We worked together in a very cooperative, ethical, and with views that are, very, very similar. And I know that they all want to have a life that is free from conflict, that they can raise their families in peace, that they can visit western Europe, they can attend universities around the world. And that is not possible now. So I certainly want to support what Jeff said, that we should not conflate the Russian people with Putin’s regime. If this thing can be brought to an end, hopefully, in Russia, the situation will be such that people can once again espouse ideals towards peaceful resolution of conflict, getting along with one’s neighbor, raising families, traveling throughout the west. Hopefully we will be there. We’re certainly a long way from it now, and the clouds in the sky unfortunately are quite dark. But hopefully there’s a silver lining somewhere.

LD: All right. Well, thank you to all three of you for taking the time to talk to me today. This has been wonderful and really informative and interesting, so thank you.

All: Thank you, Liz.

PAWcast is a monthly interview podcast produced by the Princeton Alumni Weekly. If you enjoyed this episode, please subscribe. You can find us on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, and SoundCloud. You can read transcripts of every episode on our website, paw.princeton.edu. Music for this podcast is licensed from Universal Production Music.