Can Putin Survive?
The Lessons of the Soviet Collapse
We at Foreign Affairs have recently published a number of articles examining what the United States and Europe should do in Ukraine. Those articles sparked a heated debate, so we decided to ask a broad pool of experts to state whether they agree or disagree with the following statement and to rate their confidence level about that answer.
The United States should provide whatever military aid the Ukrainian government needs to defend itself against Russian-supported rebel attacks.
LEON ARON is Director of Russian Studies at the American Enterprise Institute. He is the author, most recently, of Roads to the Temple: Truth, Memory, Ideas, and Ideals in the Making of the Russian Revolution, 1987–1991.
Strongly Agree, Confidence Level 10 Along with the obvious moral obtuseness of debating whether to send defensive weapons to a victim of naked aggression, this debate is shot through with strategic myopia. By now, there is ample evidence that for deep ideological, political, and geopolitical reasons, Russia’s president-for-life is well on his way to forging a revanchist authoritarian state that would dominate much of Eurasia as a geostrategic counterbalance to what Moscow perceived as a United States–led “West” bent on world domination and, as part of it, Russia’s destruction. This long-term design, in turn, conjures up an unprecedented strategic challenge for the West: a revisionist, assertive, and increasingly nationalist autocracy in possession of 1,700 strategic nuclear weapons deployed on nearly 500 strategic nuclear platforms/delivery vehicles. It is therefore imperative that in confronting such a challenge, the West adopt the same long-term strategic vision as the one that drives Russian President Vladimir Putin. Within such a framework, only one strategy appears to have a chance of eventually succeeding in modifying Putin’s design: increasing its domestic political costs (a supreme realist, he doesn’t care two pins for world public opinion and other such intangibles) and thus confronting him with hard choices. A democratic, stable, and West-oriented (and eventually Western-allied) Ukraine is the first major, perhaps fatal, impediment to Putin’s plan—and, as such, the country must be dismembered and destabilized and its leadership eventually removed (preferably by being replaced with another authoritarian pro-Russian regime). By the same token, the survival of such a Europe-bound Ukraine is in the West’s core long-term strategic interests. By sharply raising the domestic political cost of Russian aggression, arming Ukraine advances such interests.
IAN BREMMER is President of Eurasia Group and the author of Every Nation for Itself: What Happens When No One Leads the World.
Strongly Disagree, Confidence Level 9 I've spoken to most of the senior policy advisers promoting the idea of sending arms to Ukraine. Not one has a suggestion of what the United States should do if the Russians then escalate their attacks (which I consider likely). When you don't have the willingness to make redlines stick, doubling down on them is intrinsically foolhardy. Also, the policy is strongly opposed by Germany and France, which to date have taken the lead in coordinating Russia policy with the United States.
MICHAEL E. BROWN has served as Dean of the Elliott School of International Affairs and Professor of International Affairs and Political Science at George Washington University since 2005.
Disagree, Confidence Level 7
VALERIE BUNCE is Aaron Binenkorb Professor of International Studies and Professor of Government at Cornell University.
Disagree, Confidence Level 9 There are two costs to arming Ukraine. First, as we found in Iraq, for example, arming a weak and corrupt military is a waste of money. Second, the stakes in Ukraine are extremely high for Russia—not just because of Putin’s concerns about Ukraine joining the EU and NATO (as most analysts have noted) but also because he fears the diffusion of popular protests from Ukraine to Russia. What is on the line for him, in short, is not just national security but also job security. As a result, Putin will respond to the arming of Ukraine by the United States with an escalation of the conflict. He has gone too far at this point to lose.
IVO H. DAALDER is President of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. He was the U.S. Permanent Representative to NATO from May 2009 to July 2013.
Agree, Confidence Level 9 I strongly believe that the United States and NATO countries should provide Ukraine with lethal defensive military aid. There are certain military items—tanks, F16s, etc—that I would not provide Ukraine, nor has Kiev asked for them. But counterbattery radar, secure communication systems, UAVs, and antitank missiles are desperately needed. Ukraine has been invaded. It has the right to defend itself. And we have the right—indeed, the obligation—to help it defend itself by providing lethal defensive aid.
KEITH DARDEN is Associate Professor in the School of International Service at American University in Washington, D.C.
Strongly Disagree, Confidence Level 8 This is a limited conflict, and we should keep it that way. The talk of arming Ukraine only feeds the delusion that Ukraine can win on the battlefield, lessens the likelihood of a settlement, and pretty much guarantees Russian escalation to a level sufficient to ensure the humiliating defeat of Ukrainian government forces. Minsk II is the best deal that Ukraine is going to get out of this crisis. Unfortunately, instead of convincing the Ukrainian government that it has no viable alternative to the bitter pills of decentralizing constitutional reform, nonbloc status, and ending the schemes that its corrupt leaders have used to steal vast sums of money at the country’s expense, we dangle the unrealistic hope that the country's troops can serve as a well-funded and well-armed proxy in a fight between Russia and the West. This risks undermining the Minsk process, not reinforcing it, and Ukraine will continue to shed blood and territory as long as it is on the table.
PAULA DOBRIANSKY is a Senior Fellow with the Future of Diplomacy Project at Harvard University’s JFK Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs and Chair of the National Board of Directors of the World Affairs Councils of America. She served as Undersecretary of State for Democracy and Global Affairs from 2001 to 2009.
Strongly Agree, Confidence Level 10 Failure to provide defensive military assistance would lead to the intensification of Russian aggression against Ukraine and would further destabilize Europe. It would also convince Moscow that it can engage with impunity in aggressive actions against the Baltic states among others, a scenario fraught with tremendous risks and dangers.
KEITH GESSEN is Co-Editor of n+1 and the author of the novel All the Sad Young Literary Men.
Disagree, Confidence Level 7 As a goad to European diplomacy, talk of arming Ukraine turned out not to be a bad idea. As an actual idea, it remains terrible. Short of NATO aerial sorties, no amount of weaponry will alter Russian/rebel dominance on the battlefield, meaning that weapons shipments will only extend conflict and more people will die.
MASHA GESSEN is a Russian and American journalist, author, and activist.
Agree, Confidence Level 7 This holds only if the United States provides sufficient aid to ensure effective defense. Arming Ukraine in order to deter Putin will not work and will cause only greater bloodshed.
JAMES GOLDGEIER is Dean of the School of International Service at American University in Washington, D.C.
Agree, Confidence Level 7 Russia has continued to escalate its military activity in Ukraine with no response from the West. After raising expectations in 2014 that increased Russian aggression would be met with additional sanctions, the West has not raised the costs to Putin of Russian-backed military moves. The West should provide lethal military aid to the Ukrainian government to help defend against these Russian attacks. The challenge is that Ukrainian forces are still not well organized enough to use assistance as effectively as one would hope, and the government in Kiev continues to grapple with a deepening economic crisis.
ROBERT JERVIS is Adlai E. Stevenson Professor of International Affairs at Columbia University.
Strongly Disagree, Confidence Level 8
IVAN KRASTEV is Chairman of the Centre for Liberal Strategies in Sofia and a Permanent Fellow at the Institute for Human Sciences in Vienna.
Disagree, Confidence Level 8
ROBERT LEGVOLD is Marshall D. Shulman Professor Emeritus at Columbia University.
Disagree, Confidence Level 8 I supported providing support to the Ukrainian military from the beginning of the conflict last spring, but as part of an effort to transform and rebuild a dysfunctional military from the ground up and as part of a two-track policy that engaged Russia and offered an alternative path. Doing a piece of that now—injecting lethal arms when the Ukrainian army has just been defeated—will only split the U.S.-EU alliance and invite a Russian escalation that we are not prepared to answer in kind.
ANATOL LIEVEN is a British author, Orwell Prize–winning journalist, and policy analyst.
Strongly Disagree, Confidence Level 10 The advocates of arming Ukraine have learned nothing from the experience of Georgia in 2008. It could only contribute to new Ukrainian offensives in the east, very probably leading to full-scale Russian invasion and Ukraine's defeat. Would the United States then be willing to send its own troops to defend Ukraine, leading to war between the United States and Russia? If not, do not embark on this policy.
KIMBERLY MARTEN is Ann Whitney Olin Professor of Political Science at Barnard College, Columbia University, and Deputy Director of Columbia’s Harriman Institute for Russian, Eurasian, and East European Studies.
Strongly Disagree, Confidence Level 10 I have written about this several times in detail, including with my co-author, Rajan Menon, on ForeignAffairs.com. In brief: First, Putin will not back down no matter what. Sending U.S. lethal weapons to Ukraine would justify his claims to the Russian public that the conflict really does stem from U.S. and NATO efforts to harm Russian security and sovereignty. This would prop up his approval ratings and give him an excuse for open Russian military intervention in the conflict, with Russian public support. Second, there is no clear plan about what Washington will do next if the result of sending arms is that Putin escalates. The United States would potentially be entering a conflict spiral with no clear exit point. Third, without sending U.S. personnel into combat areas inside Ukraine, Washington would have no control over how the weapons are used. Identifiably U.S. antitank weapons (for example) could be used either by militias not under Ukrainian government control or by Russian agents inside the Ukrainian military, in two ways that would undermine U.S. interests: first, to target civilians, thereby undercutting perceived U.S. legitimacy especially with Europeans and undermining the unity of the sanctions regime; second, to strike Russian territory, thereby giving Putin further public support for his claims and for his further escalation. Sending U.S. weapons to Ukraine is very unlikely to end the conflict; Putin's military is much stronger and bigger than Ukraine's and is capable of creative adaptation to changed combat conditions. Putin's interest in winning in Ukraine is undoubtedly stronger than the desire of the American public to defend Ukraine with a full-scale U.S. military intervention and war against Russia. Sending U.S. lethal weapons would instead prolong, intensify, and escalate the war—all while propping up Putin's reputation with his domestic audience.
JOHN J. MEARSHEIMER is R. Wendell Harrison Distinguished Service Professor of Political Science at the University of Chicago.
Strongly Disagree, Confidence Level 10 Arming Ukraine will lead to an escalation in the violence but will not cause Putin to bow to the West's demands. In the process, Ukraine will suffer greatly and trans-Atlantic relations will be harmed, since the Europeans, especially the Germans, are firmly opposed to arming Ukraine.
RAJAN MENON is Anne and Bernard Spitzer Professor in Political Science at the City College of the City University of New York and Senior Research Scholar at the Saltzman Institute of War and Peace Studies at Columbia University.
Strongly Disagree, Confidence Level 10 Ukraine has every right to seek weaponry from any quarter it wishes. So this is not a matter of self-determination, as some who favor arming Ukraine aver. But what Ukraine is free to do is wholly separate from the question of whether the United States should arm Ukraine. Ukraine is doubtless in a tough spot; but the claim that the security of the United States (or even that of NATO-Europe) is inseparable from Ukraine's is an assertion—made by the “arm Ukraine now” camp—and not a reasoned, let alone persuasive, argument. Starting a confrontation with Russia in a place that's adjacent to it and matters far more to its interests than to those of the United States is a terrible, even dangerous, idea. Doing that will make Ukraine less secure, not more.
ALEXANDER MOTYL is Professor of Political Science at Rutgers University–Newark.
Strongly Agree, Confidence Level 10
CYNTHIA A. ROBERTS is Associate Professor of Political Science at Hunter College, City University of New York and is also an Adjunct Senior Associate and Adjunct Associate Professor at the Saltzman Institute of War and Peace Studies at Columbia University.
Disagree, Confidence Level 7 In an ongoing conflict, it’s usually unwise to rule out instruments in the foreign policy toolbox. Nonetheless, if the United States arms Ukraine, it’s likely that Russia will escalate, and the outcome will prolong the killing, not roll back the separatists. Putin perceives Russia to have greater stakes in Ukraine than the United States, and Ukraine’s military is ineffective. If the separatists are able to keep advancing to Mariupol and perhaps beyond, then the political pressures in Washington to give military assistance will grow. But it is not inconceivable that the terms of a later deal could be even less favorable (and more costly) to Ukraine after escalation by both sides. Thus, getting all parties to agree to a bargain now should be the paramount objective. Then Ukraine can try to chart a path to rescue and reform its economy with Western help.
MARY ELISE SAROTTE is Dean’s Professor of History at the University of Southern California, a Visiting Professor at Harvard University, and the author of The Collapse: The Accidental Opening of the Berlin Wall.
Strongly Disagree, Confidence Level 10 Putin’s support for violent changes to post–Cold War European borders is a major, unjustifiable transgression. But the unilateral response proposed—that “the United States” (i.e., not NATO) provide whatever military aid Kiev wants—risks escalation against a nuclear adversary when other options exist. A wiser course is to accept that at this point in the conflict, the least bad option is a de facto division of Ukraine with a “Finlandized” western part, especially since a potential road map to this result now exists: Point 11 of the Minsk II accord. In it, Hollande, Merkel, Poroshenko, and Putin detailed a way to decentralize Ukrainian governance. Rather than unilateral military support, Washington should help Ukraine by helping Merkel implement that road map, imperfect though it is, and by aiding as many displaced Ukrainians as soon as humanly possible. Finally, even in a worst-case scenario—a Putin move toward the Baltics or Poland—any military response should come from NATO, not the United States unilaterally.
JOSHUA R. ITZKOWITZ SHIFRINSON is an Assistant Professor at the George Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M University.
Strongly Disagree, Confidence Level 9 Two points. First, I do not know how the United States could credibly "provide whatever military aid the Ukrainian government needs to defend itself," simply because a defensive armament has yet to be created. Yes, there are bureaucratic charts that list certain weapons as defensive—but that ignores the reality of combat. Defensive assistance can be used for offensive purposes, just as foreign development assistance can be misappropriated by host countries for all sorts of ulterior purposes. Ultimately, I neither believe there is a purely defensive assistance that the U.S. government can provide to Ukraine nor—equally important—expect that Moscow would see the United States as playing the role of "security provider" and "defensive aid."
This brings me to a second point. The Ukraine crisis is a contest of interest, will, and geography. By any definition save amorphous conceptions of the international order, Russia has greater interest in Ukraine than the United States, and the people in eastern Ukraine seem highly motivated to leave or limit Kiev's influence. Interest makes Russia's will to fight—and that of its Ukrainian proxies to do the same—greater than the U.S. interest in aiding the Ukrainian government, whereas geography and interest suggest Russia can up the ante and intensify the conflict to offset anything the United States might provide. Adding a blank check of U.S. aid to Ukraine is only going to pour fuel on the fire, risking: one, further escalation on the ground; two, putting the United States and Russia on a direct collision course; and three, deeper estrangement between Moscow and Washington. At the end of the day, only a settlement between the Ukraine government, Moscow, and the rebels will end the violence—American assistance will only muddle the distribution of power in the conflict and cause all sides to fight harder and longer than they would.
JACK SNYDER is Robert and Renee Belfer Professor of International Relations in the Department of Political Science and the Saltzman Institute of War and Peace Studies at Columbia University.
Strongly Disagree, Confidence Level 10 Eastern Ukraine is very disadvantageous terrain on which to pick a fight with the Russian army.
JAMES G. STAVRIDIS is Dean of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University and the former Supreme Allied Commander of NATO.
Strongly Agree, Confidence Level 10 The phrasing is problematic—"whatever" is far too broad. It should be "lethal defensive weapons to support the Ukrainian efforts to defend their nation." As phrased, it biases the survey against by implying a totally blank check, which no one is advocating.
ANGELA STENT is Director of the Center for Eurasian, Russian, and East European Studies and Professor of Government and Foreign Service at Georgetown University.
Disagree, Confidence Level 9 It is not clear what would happen to the weapons once they reach the Ukrainian army, given the current state of play in the war in the Donbas region. If lethal weapons were delivered, Russia might escalate the war, with dire consequences for Ukraine.
KATHRYN STONER is a Senior Fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies at Stanford University; a Faculty Fellow at Stanford’s Center on Democracy, Development, and the Rule of Law; and Faculty Director at Stanford’s Susan Ford Dorsey Program in International Policy Studies.
Agree, Confidence Level 7 Given the Ukrainian military's recent performance, it is hard to see how well they will use the equipment without NATO trainers on the ground. However, the Ukrainian president seems to want intelligence capacity the most—that is, equipment such as radar to know where Russian/rebel artillery is located. The Ukrainian military should be capable of using this.
DANIEL TREISMAN is Professor of Political Science at the University of California–Los Angeles and the author of The Return: Russia’s Journey from Gorbachev to Medvedev.
Agree, Confidence Level 5 There are reasonable arguments for and against providing arms to the Ukrainian government. On the negative side, it would be immoral to send weapons into a war zone if doing so will only increase the level of casualties. That is a possibility. It is also an open question how much difference defensive weapons would make, given the many other serious problems in the Ukrainian army—from disorganization, lack of basic supplies, and limited manpower to infiltration by Russian intelligence. I do not find the argument that sending weapons will provoke Putin into escalating convincing. He would no doubt feel the urge to respond in some way. But he has already escalated repeatedly, and there is no way of knowing whether or when he will stop. On the positive side, there are costs for Putin if Russia increases its visible involvement. Polls suggest that the Russian public would not support the direct use of Russian troops, and more casualties among the "volunteers" could grow into a serious public relations problem. The Western sanctions, along with the fall in the price of oil, are starting to have a marked effect on the Russian economy, and further sanctions would be even more damaging. A significant effort to beef up the Ukrainian forces—and I would combine defensive weapons with intelligence support, tactical advice, and other types of aid—might succeed in freezing the current frontline, whereas providing no military aid might lead to more nibbling by the Russian-backed rebels, such that the West would have to revisit this question in six months after Kiev has lost even more territory. At the same time, diplomacy should continue, but there must be some reason for Putin to negotiate in good faith, and even the effect of sanctions has so far been insufficient. Meanwhile, it is absolutely crucial that NATO do more to strengthen defenses in the Baltic republics, especially planned responses to low-level, incremental tactics of hybrid war intended to undermine confidence in Article 5.
WILLIAM C. WOHLFORTH is Daniel Webster Professor of Government at Dartmouth College.
Disagree, Confidence Level 8 A negotiated settlement is preferable to either a frozen conflict or escalation. Weapons for Kiev do not advance that objective: Russia remains sufficiently resolved to credibly maintain escalation dominance.