War in Ukraine
Russia's invasion of Ukraine has brought war to Europe, driven millions of refugees across borders, and increased the risk of a direct conflict between NATO and Russia. The world has entered a perilous era, rife with uncertainties: What are the possible trajectories of the war? What is Moscow's endgame? What role can, or should, the United States play? And how could the outcome reshape global politics?
Please join Foreign Affairs Editor Daniel Kurtz-Phelan and authors Robert Kagan, Michael Kimmage, and Angela Stent as they mark the launch of the May/June issue with a discussion of what comes next in the Russian-Ukrainian war.
Robert Kagan is Stephen and Barbara Friedman Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution and the author of the forthcoming book The Ghost at the Feast: America and the Collapse of World Order, 1900–1941.
Michael Kimmage is Professor of History at the Catholic University of America and a Visiting Fellow at the German Marshall Fund. From 2014 to 2016, he served on the Policy Planning Staff at the U.S. Department of State, where he held the Russia/Ukraine portfolio.
Angela Stent is a Nonresident Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution and a former U.S. National Intelligence Officer for Russia and Eurasia. She is the author of Putin’s World: Russia Against the West and With the Rest.
Daniel Kurtz-Phelan is Editor of Foreign Affairs. He previously spent three years as Executive Editor of the magazine and served in the U.S. State Department, including as a member of the Secretary of State’s Policy Planning Staff.
KURTZ-PHELAN: Good morning. Welcome all. I’m Dan Kurtz-Phelan. I’m the editor of Foreign Affairs. The excuse for this meeting is the launch of our May/June issue, which is officially out today. But we wanted to use this as an opportunity for a broad conversation on Ukraine and on Russia and the U.S. response to Russia’s invasion.
We have one participant who has an essay in the just-released issue and then two others who have written outstanding essays both for past FA issues and then, notably, on ForeignAffairs.com over the past few months. You have full bios for all of them so I won’t spend much time on introductions other than to point you to some of our panelists’ FA contributions from recent weeks and months that they’re reading or rereading in this moment.
First, we have Michael Kimmage. Michael is an historian of Russia and U.S.-Russian relations. He served on the secretary of state’s policy planning staff a couple of administrations ago, and among his contributions to FA are a wonderful series of pieces he’s co-authored over the last six weeks or so with Liana Fix on ForeignAffairs.com that have, I would say, really offered some of the best real-time assessments of the war’s effects on Ukraine and on Russia and on the world. The latest one of these will be published tomorrow online, so you can look for that tomorrow morning.
Then Angela Stent, perhaps, the United States’ foremost Putinologist, including most recently in her book, Putin’s World. She served as the national intelligence officer for Europe and Russia at the National Intelligence Council. She covered Russia on the policy planning staff as well, I believe, three or four administrations ago, and among her many notable contributions to Foreign Affairs over the past few years is a piece that she did earlier this year called “The Putin Doctrine,” which, I think, stands up quite well in light of what’s happened since then.
And last but not least, Bob Kagan, well known to FA readers for his essays on the past and present of American foreign policy, going back to the mid ’90s or so. He will soon release the much-anticipated second volume of a trilogy on the history of America’s relationship with the world. This follows up on Dangerous Nation. He, I believe, also served on the policy planning staff—Bob, correct me if I’m wrong—probably five or six administrations ago, though, I think he was extremely young at the time. So I don’t mean to be calling him out as the graybeard of this discussion. And he has a(n) eloquent and trenchant and provocative piece in the new issue called “The Price of Hegemony.”
I suppose I should say that I also served on the policy planning staff, so we have not by design an all-S/P panel today.
I want to start by looking backward. You know, at a moment when we’ve been taking stock of the first phase of the war and its terrible toll on Ukraine and, of course, also a moment when we are looking at the beginning of a similarly brutal or, perhaps, more brutal phase of the war in Eastern Ukraine, I think it’s a good moment to kind of step back and look at some of the assumptions and analyses that prevailed before the war started.
You know, the weeks before February 24 as, you know, all of our readers know, there was a set of fervent debates among scholars and analysts and policymakers, including those in this discussion, about what was driving Putin, what his objectives were, what he was after, and I think, given the crew we’ve got today, it’s worth spending some time at the beginning looking back at those debates and how our assumptions have changed or, at least, should have changed.
So, Angela, let me start with you. How have the last couple of months changed your assessment of Putin, whether that’s his appetite for risk, his strategic acumen, his grasp on power? If you were in your old job at the National Intelligence Council offering an updated assessment to policymakers of Putin, how would it have changed over these last couple of months?
STENT: Well, I would say he’s probably doing worse now than we thought he would. I mean, we knew the grievances. We knew that he wanted to extinguish, you know, Ukrainian independence and to put a puppet government in Ukraine and we knew that he depicted NATO, you know, as a major threat to Russia, and we did know that this military buildup was going on and, of course, all of our military analysts told us this is not for a limited action; this is really for a major invasion.
But I would say the debate among sort of scholars, think tank people, still was, well, is he really going to do a full-out attack on Ukraine or is he still concerned, really, with the Donbas region, just taking over the rest of the territory there? You know, we looked back on what he’d done previously in the Russian-Georgia war and also with the annexation of Crimea, and those were more limited actions. You know, they didn’t get rid of President Saakashvili in 2008. They just—and they didn’t take Tbilisi. They just recognized the two entities in Georgia. They annexed Crimea and they began this war in the Donbas in 2014 but they didn’t continue fighting. There was a ceasefire, which more or less held, although fourteen thousand people had died in that.
And so we look at the treaties that were presented to the U.S. and NATO and there was this debate, are they serious about negotiating with these treaties. We, the United States, took it seriously. Our European allies did. We sat down. We had these discussions. But I think it became increasingly clear that they really were not interested in negotiations.
I would say right up to the night before February 24 people—many people, not everyone—didn’t quite believe there would be this full invasion. So I think Putin appears to be much more of a risk taker than he was before.
And the other thing that really stands out is his miscalculations, the misinformation he was given, totally underestimating the ability of the Ukrainians and their will to fight back and how well the Ukrainian army could perform. In the years since the annexation of Crimea they’ve been very well trained by the U.S. and its NATO allies.
So a total underestimation of that, a total overestimation of the ability of the Russian military to achieve its aims—you know, the blitzkrieg that was supposed to take seventy-two hours. It turns out they were ill prepared. The corruption that pervades all of Russian society pervades the army, too, and this is one of the reasons why money that should have been spent on equipment, on training, wasn’t. It went to line people’s pockets.
And then I think the third miscalculation on his part was the extent to which the United States and its European and Asian allies could get together, unify, and even impose these very tough sanctions on Russia.
So, I think, coming away from that, I would say we probably overestimated Putin’s, you know, prowess as a strategist. Doesn’t look so good now.
On the other hand, what we do know is that this is a very brutal war and it’s continuing, and Putin, you know, hasn’t retreated yet. But I think we really will have to reassess what kind of information he was getting and why it was so bad.
KURTZ-PHELAN: We will come back to those questions as we go forward with the conversation.
Michael, let me turn to you. One of the really wonderful things about this recent set of pieces as well as your work, more broadly, is that you put these—Putin and these current events in the much broader context of Russian history. And so as we look at what’s played out, to what extent is this about Putin and about particular characteristics of him as a leader and the nature of his power, and to what extent do you see elements of what Stephen Kotkin, for example, has called the, you know, perpetual geopolitics of Russia? How much of this can we chalk up to the man in the Kremlin right now and to what extent do you see broader historical or structural dynamics driving events here?
KIMMAGE: Well, certainly, the Kotkin thesis is very persuasive at the moment, which is that Russia engages with the West not for the sake of joining the West but for technology transfer and modernization, going back to Peter the Great, and then when it feels it has, you know, sort of, you know, sort of duly modernized, then the moment of confrontation begins and that’s, certainly, one very valid, I think, historical framework for understanding this conflict.
I think another point I would make in terms of history—I don’t know if this is Steve Kotkin’s point or not—is really how ideological Putin is and this, to me, to go back to your question to Angela, is one of the things that has surprised me about Putin. I had sort of thought that, yes, he has this ideological side, going back to the KGB period—Russian nationalist, Orthodox Christian, et cetera—but that it’s fairly cynical. It’s a fairly cynical country and a lot of it is smokescreen, but he does seem in the case of this war to have acted not just on what he understands to be Russia’s strategic imperatives but an ideological vision, the Russian world that he’s seeking to impose onto Belarus and to Ukraine, and that, to me, is not out of whack with Russian history. It’s in line with it. But it’s been a bit of a surprise with Putin himself.
And then, finally, I would say one thing that does resonate with Russian history, although, to me, in perplexing ways, is Putin’s low estimation of the West. I’m conditioned as a student of Russian history to look at Russia’s fear of the West, right—Napoleon, Hitler, the outside invasions, et cetera. What you see here is a kind of hubris vis-à-vis the West on Putin’s part. Maybe this is the bad information that he’s getting or inaccurate assessments, an underestimation, as Angela puts it.
But, to me, it’s the most interesting aspect of the war. Why did he think that he could get away with it? Why did he think the West was in such a state of decadence or disrepair that he could do it, and that, to me, seems, you know, in line with Russian history but, surprisingly, unfearful.
KURTZ-PHELAN: But the upshot of all of this is that he bought his own propaganda in a way that we did not quite believe two months ago?
KIMMAGE: For me it is.
Bob, let me turn our attention to U.S. foreign policy and the history of U.S. foreign policy a bit here. You write in your new piece, as you’ve written in a slew of recent works, about the failures of successive U.S. administrations to use U.S. power effectively to deter Putin. And so if you look back at, you know, four or five administrations and their attempt to shape Putin’s security environment, to offer effective deterrence, what should we have done, going back—looking back at the history that we didn’t do? You know, was there a way to avert this outcome and end up in a dramatically better place? What were the tools that we had that we didn’t resort to in the right moment?
KAGAN: Well, I think the thing that we tend to, I don’t know, somehow leave out of the equation whenever trying to assess what another actor in the world is going to do is we leave ourselves out of the equation and, after all, these are dynamic relationships. Putin or Saddam Hussein or any number of other potential aggressors don’t make their decisions based solely on their own calculation of their own ability. Obviously, Putin miscalculated his own ability. But I’m not sure he miscalculated the West.
The West has had an opportunity to unite and punish and put together all these sanctions now, largely, because of the military failure of the Russians in Ukraine. If, in fact, the Russian military had accomplished its objectives in the way that Putin and they undoubtedly expected, we would be looking at a Ukraine that was completely controlled by Russia and we would be talking about how inadequate our response is. So I think we really need to be careful to separate out what happened militarily from the overall picture of Putin’s judgment.
Putin has spent, as we’ve all discussed in various ways, you know, well over a decade probing, testing, seeing what the Western response will be to a series of actions, which have—as Angela Stent says, have gradually escalated as well in terms of the severity of their action. And so he correctly assessed that the United States and NATO allies would not have a response to his military action if he took it, that he was not afraid of sanctions over the long term if he’d already presented the West with a fait accompli.
So I really do think, and in answer to your question, did we, through our signaling or our responses to his various probes, encourage him to probe further and to take increasingly drastic action up until this latest? The answer is, of course. And so, again, I would just conclude by saying when we assess an opponent’s decision-making process, we have to make sure that we’re in there somewhere—(laughs)—in terms of shaping that decision-making process.
Just as an aside, I recall when Saddam Hussein built up a very substantial force across from Kuwait, I believe the intelligence assessment was that he also wasn’t going to cross into Kuwait. So, somehow, we’re incapable of looking at—(audio break)—
KURTZ-PHELAN: We may have lost Bob for the time being.
KAGAN: In any case, in both those cases, it was their read of the United States that led them to the action that they took.
KURTZ-PHELAN: All right. We lost you for a moment there but got the key point across. Let me—
KAGAN: Sorry. I’m just repeating myself endlessly. (Laughs.)
KURTZ-PHELAN: Got it. OK.
Angela and Michael, let me linger on this retrospective analysis of U.S. foreign policy for one second, and without going down the NATO expansion rabbit hole, I would be curious for thirty seconds from each of you on the extent to which you think NATO expansion did or did not play a role in this. You know, that tends to be the, for those who would argue the opposite side of the case, as Bob has, the thing they would point to as having been provocative or unnecessarily threatening to Putin. So I’m curious for your assessment of that.
Angela, let’s start with you.
STENT: OK. This is not about NATO expansion, and if you read what the Russians are saying now or listen to it, they’ve even dropped the NATO expansion part. I do not believe that NATO expansion played a role in this.
I think the one problematic issue was the Bucharest communiqué in 2008, you know, achieved after a battle between the Bush administration and the Germans and the French, and the line on the communiqué say Ukraine and Georgia will join NATO, although nothing was ever done about that. There was no plan. Ukraine wasn’t on track to join NATO.
But it’s unfortunate that that sentence was there because the Russians could pick on it. But I think this is a gross exaggeration to say that the reason this has happened is because NATO expanded. All I can say is imagine if Poland weren’t in NATO now. You know, we know what the next stop for the Russians would be. So I do reject that argument.
KIMMAGE: Two quick points. One, I’ll just very much agree with Angela. I don’t think the 2022 war is about NATO expansion. It’s, clearly, a war on the Ukrainian people and, in that sense, to explain it vis-à-vis NATO just doesn’t make any sense, despite some of the rhetoric that has come from the Kremlin.
So I don’t think it’s a causal factor in any meaningful way in the 2022 war. Where I think we may want to think retrospectively about NATO maybe in a more critical vein is how well NATO, as a framework, prepared us for this moment and it seems like it didn’t prepare us very well.
Obviously, Ukraine didn’t fit in NATO. Our security commitment to Ukraine was too minimal up until 2022. So, perhaps, we were just too uncreative. We should have thought of other structures to deal with the security of this region. But that’s, of course, a debate now for the historians.
KURTZ-PHELAN: Let me press you for another thirty seconds on that. What would a more creative option have looked like and what might that suggest as to paths we should be exploring now?
KIMMAGE: Well, I think that when you see the nature of the military support that even Germany is lending to Ukraine, not to mention the extraordinary support that the U.S. is giving on many different levels, you see that that possibility was there all along.
So, perhaps, if that had been made prior to 2022, not under the rubric of NATO but just as a security commitment, not only would that have built up Ukraine more precipitously but it might have had a greater deterrent effect on Russia. So a non-NATO security commitment of the kind that we now have would probably have been a very good idea several years beforehand.
KURTZ-PHELAN: Let’s linger on current U.S. policy on the reaction of the U.S. and its allies that surprised Putin. I think all of you are in agreement that what’s been done so far exceeded what most people expected two months ago. But I think there’s a moment of intense debate about what happens now with sanctions and the end game and diplomacy and the future of military assistance and everything else.
So I’d like to spend a bit of time on that, starting with Angela. As you look at where U.S. policy is so far and if we accept that it’s handled some of these lines of effort relatively effectively thus far, what do you think we need to be pursuing now? What are the big steps that you think the administration should be focusing on as it looks to this next phase in Ukraine?
STENT: We, certainly, need to continue supplying weapons to the Ukrainians and they need more of them, and they—you know, they need to be able to combat the Russians. So I think we need to step that up and I think we—I know that a number of our allies are doing this bilaterally. But also encourage our allies to keep supplying these weapons.
I think we have to try to persuade the Europeans to really wean themselves off Russian hydrocarbons. I mean, coal—you know, many of them are now not going to import any more from Russia. Some of them are ceasing or tapering off their oil imports.
But Germany, for instance, is still saying, we can’t wean ourselves off Russian natural gas. We need it for our economy and for our population. And so I think, you know, we just have to remember those billions of dollars that go into the Russian war coffers through the purchases of its oil and gas, really, enable them to sustain this war and all the atrocities we’ve seen.
So I think we should be working as much as we can with the Europeans. And then there are still some more financial sanctions, I guess, that we could impose on Russia. Again, I don’t think that’s going to change Putin’s calculus right now but it will put more severe strains on the Russian economy.
I wish we hadn’t had this debate about the fighter jets—you know, the Polish MiGs and things like that. I think that was a distraction and something could have been done about that earlier. But I suppose now we are letting some of our NATO allies, which used to be in the Warsaw Pact, give some of these—of this military equipment to Ukraine.
KURTZ-PHELAN: And on the military equipment question, are we doing—giving the kind of assistance we should be giving but should do more of it and continue to do it, or do we need to be willing to take greater risks and transfer different kinds of equipment to the Ukrainians than we have thus far?
STENT: Well, I think at the moment we seem to be transferring to them the things that they need. Obviously, they want to have a no-fly zone. But for the reasons that we all understand this has been taken off the table by the Biden administration. So short of that, yeah, I think those are the right kinds of weapons.
KURTZ-PHELAN: Michael, let me have you focus a bit on the diplomatic side. To what extent do you see a meaningful diplomatic path here? Do you see the U.S. and its allies handling this in the right way? What’s the right push diplomatically at the moment?
KIMMAGE: I feel like the diplomacy of the Biden administration—I’m happy to be critical on other accounts but I think they’ve done a superb job. I mean, it’s a lot of moving pieces on the transatlantic side and I think they’ve put them into really admirable order. I think that they’ve done the right thing vis-à-vis Ukraine diplomatically. Angela mentioned the military aspects.
But they’ve given Zelensky the room to keep going with the war, or when and if he needs to move toward a diplomatic sort of negotiated settlement, you know, I think he has the support of the Biden administration to do that as well. That’s just right. We shouldn’t be dictating to them what they should be doing. They’re doing the fighting. They have the open space.
I think all of that has been, you know, sort of formidable and impressive. Where I have worries is about the factors behind the diplomacy, which is to say the domestic politics of all of this. So we have an election in France coming up on April 24, the runoff between Le Pen and Macron. That’s really quite significant for the diplomacy if Le Pen would win. That’s outside the control of the United States but it’s, obviously, something they should be thinking carefully about.
And even in the United States, where, I think, there’s a lot of widespread support for Ukraine, the domestic politics are important. So we need to factor that in as much as possible so that unwelcome surprises don’t come and put a monkey wrench into the diplomacy.
KURTZ-PHELAN: Bob, let me have you focus a bit on the European dimension since you twenty or so years ago wrote a seminal book about Europe and its relationship with power. What has surprised you or have you been surprised by the European reaction thus far? What would you like to see the Europeans do, going forward, and how confident are you that this can be sustained as we go forward in this war?
KAGAN: Well, you know, the issue for the Europeans has always been do they feel threatened. I think that, you know, for much of the Cold War they didn’t, fundamentally, feel threatened and, certainly, after the end of the Cold War, I think, they didn’t feel threatened at all, which was sort of the heyday of the EU and Europe will run the twenty-first century and all of that. And, honestly, you know, I think it made perfect sense when, you know, we accused them of being free riders.
But the bottom line is we created an international system which allowed them to feel secure and so they acted the way secure nations do. They cut back on their military capabilities and didn’t think military power was really very important anymore.
Well, you know, now fast forward to where we are. We’ve seen—they’ve seen, more importantly, an old-style twentieth century type of aggression being committed on the continent with obvious strategic implications that even today, should Putin persevere and take—and manage to take back what he—well, to take what he was seeking initially it will be a brand new strategic day in Europe with Russia in control of Ukraine and Belarus.
So this is something that does affect them directly and they’ve had, it seems to me, an appropriate response, one which, you know, we can only hope will last. But as you rightly point out or as, I think, Michael pointed out, you know, domestic opinion on both sides of the Atlantic is subject to change and fluctuation depending on events, depending on election cycles, et cetera, and so I think we can’t be too sort of complacent about where Europe is.
In terms of what they ought to be doing, you know, Angela has laid out what, I think, they ought to be doing in terms of their own hydrocarbon dependence. They ought to be increasing their military capacity and, certainly, in Eastern Europe you’re going to see that because they’re the ones who feel most directly threatened.
So, you know, the net result of all this is a reminder and a strengthening of the transatlantic relationship. But, again, I think what we all recognize is that the pillars of that relationship on both sides of the Atlantic are not entirely secure and need a great deal of work, and I’ll just say it’s unfortunate because, of course, Biden’s staff is now, you know, deciding, understandably, that he needs to focus on domestic issues. But this, really, is also a time when American diplomatic and organizational leadership remains at a premium and so the administration is going to have to walk and chew gum at the same time on that front.
KURTZ-PHELAN: Let me—before we go to questions from members and subscribers, let me spend a bit of time with all of you on what we think the end games here might be, what we think the objective of U.S. policy should look like.
Angela, let me start with you since, I think, you probably can, as well as anyone, kind of understand what this looks like from Putin’s perspective.
Do you see, as you project forward through these next weeks of the war, any settlement that would be acceptable to Putin that would also be acceptable to Ukrainians and to the U.S. and its allies?
STENT: I’m afraid it’s very hard to see that. I mean, what the Russians are now trying to do, as we know, is to take the whole of the Donbas, to take Mariupol, which they probably will, although they’re valiantly holding out there—the Ukrainians—and then now—then they will have, you know, one of Ukraine’s two major ports, and I think the next thing on their sights, if they succeed in doing it—and we don’t know that they will but they’re putting all their effort into that—would then be to take Odessa. That will be much tougher.
But the Russian goal is to, essentially, cut Ukraine off from the Black Sea, to make it a landlocked country, and they might be able to achieve that. I don’t know. If they did, they would then, presumably, only want a settlement that leaves them in control of still a large swath of Ukraine and would make it very difficult for a future smaller Ukraine to function economically without access to the Black Sea.
So it’s very hard for me to see the Ukrainians accepting that as a basis for negotiation. You know, we know what the Ukrainians have said. President Zelensky said that Ukraine is willing to say that it will remain neutral. It won’t seek to join NATO, providing it has security guarantees from the West, and that’s already complicated.
And then he said that he would be willing to discuss the status of Crimea and of the Donbas region. But if we are already in a situation where the Donbas has been taken by the Russians and then more of the territory in the south there, it’s very hard to see how you negotiate an agreement out of that.
KURTZ-PHELAN: Michael, let me put the same question to you. Do you see any formula involving neutrality—Ukrainian neutrality—and U.S. and European security guarantees with some territorial concessions that might be a diplomatic end to this war? And then what’s the alternative? You know, the piece we’ll publish from you and Liana tomorrow asks the question, you know, what if this war never ends—what if this is a protracted low-level conflict. So sketch out those two scenarios for us.
KIMMAGE: Right. I agree with Angela that some sort of diplomatic settlement seems remarkably unlikely. Of course, the atrocities committed on Ukrainian soil do not make anything easier for President Zelensky, and even beyond the atrocities, the nature of the Russian occupation and all of the territory that they’ve taken is just unacceptable to any leader of Ukraine.
So that’s the state of affairs. It doesn’t mean that Zelensky wants to keep the war going indefinitely. But I see no way in which he can come to the table in the short term. So if that’s true, sort of sketching out future scenarios I would see two core objectives for U.S. policy. One is to do everything possible to sustain and preserve Ukrainian statehood and nationhood.
Let’s, you know, be optimistic for a moment. If you look back over the last eight weeks, that has not gone as badly as one might have expected on the eve of the war. It is a country that is, in some respects, really strengthening internally. I think that there’s a lot that the U.S. and partners and allies can do to contribute to that.
And, secondly, the more difficult, perhaps, part of the equation is figuring out a long-term Russia policy, which I would see having two components, one, which is in place already with the sanctions to inhibit the modernization of the Russian military, and I think that that really may kick in six months or twelve months from now with the microchips and software that will be much more difficult for the Kremlin to obtain, and then, secondly, some kind of outreach to the Russian people beyond Putin where it’s a low probability investment but where you would hope for a better future there.
Since you asked earlier about diplomacy, I think the Biden administration could be doing a little bit more. They made a gesture in the speech in Warsaw but it all got overtaken by that ad-libbed remark at the end.
So there could be a little bit more long-term investment in a post-Putin Russia and, you know, sort of containment style we could weave that into the policy at the present moment.
KURTZ-PHELAN: Bob, closing with you on this question, what does success look like here? What outcomes should we be aiming for and what—when will we know when we’ve gotten there, right? What’s our objective here?
KAGAN: Well, I think, first, our objective needs to be in tune with what Putin’s objective is and I think that Putin cannot stop until the Zelensky government is gone. Whether that is something that is going to happen from there—you know, whether it’s this year that they can accomplish that or two years from now or four years from now, whatever it is, this—(audio break)—is in Moscow—(audio break)—
KURTZ-PHELAN: I think we are—I think we are—
KAGAN: (In progress following audio break)—as long as his forces are in some—sorry. Am I back?
KURTZ-PHELAN: We lost you—we lost you for a second there.
KAGAN: Yeah. All I was saying is that, you know, Putin’s objective is not going to change. He has to change the government in Ukraine. That’s his end game, and he will do that—he will work at that for however long it takes, including years and so our objective needs to be to make sure, in the first instance, that he cannot do that. I must say, the whole discussion of neutrality—I understand we’re throwing around that word—Ukraine was neutral. (Laughs.) And now Putin has invaded it. I think Putin has kicked away the possibility of any genuine neutrality and, again, precisely because he’s not finished. And he won’t be finished. So we’re going to have to think seriously about—(audio break)—from not only—(audio break)—
KURTZ-PHELAN: All right, Bob, I think we’re losing you. But we got the—
KIMMAGE: It has something to do with—
KAGAN: You got the point.
KURTZ-PHELAN: —the key part of the answer, at least. But let me—before I go to questions, let me just get one more in here, to Angela. Michael mentioned post-Putin Russia. And that has been much speculated on in the last couple of months. Is Putin at risk of losing power in the medium term, or is that a dangerous fantasy for Western policymakers at this point?
STENT: Yeah, I think we have to be very careful about making these kinds of predictions, because from a logical point of view you would think he should be. But he isn’t, necessarily. Obviously, we know that there have been arrests of, you know, a number of FSB people for their faulty intelligence to him. There is ferment among some of the military, at least we read. A lot of this is rumor. But still, you know, he controls the levers of power there, and I think he’s not at risk at the moment.
Unfortunately, the majority of Russians seem to have bought the version of what’s happening in Ukraine that they’re shown on state-run TV. And public opinion data shows that, that they really now believe that they’re rallying around a leader because it’s an existential fight with the West. You know, they’ve even forgotten about the Ukrainian part of it. So I do not believe that he’s—you know, his power is at risk, even in the medium term. But of course, in Russia you can never be sure about anything, and I may be proved wrong.
KURTZ-PHELAN: Fair. All right, I was trying to get some glimmer of hope out of the one of the three of you to close there. But let me resist the temptation to continue my questions and we’ll go to Council members and FA subscribers for theirs. So, Sam, let me hand it over to you.
OPERATOR: Thank you so much.
(Gives queuing instructions.)
Our first question will be a written submission from Roy Pettis who asks: The Kremlin’s public information campaign, especially television, is increasingly strident about war being made on Russia by Ukraine, NATO, and the U.S. Are we still underestimating the breadth of Putin’s aggressive plans, even in light of failures in Ukraine? Are we at risk of a greater war, even if the U.S. continues its restraint?
KURTZ-PHELAN: Angela, do you want to take—
STENT: Sure. So I would agree. I mean, if the latest TV things that I’ve seen in Russia, the rhetoric is really escalating. It’s now a holy war. It has a religious element to it. Fighting the decadent West, as well as everything else. I’m saying that Russia is existentially threatened by the West. So unfortunately we can’t rule out, depending on how the war goes, the use either of chemical weapons—and there has been some evidence that some chemical substances were used already—and even, because you will hear this again if you want to sit through the Russian Sunday night TV shows, the possibility of the use of a tactical nuclear weapon, of a limited nuclear strike. I mean, the Russian population is now being prepared for the possibility of some kind of nuclear part of this war as well. So I’m afraid that at the moment there’s no abating in this very confrontational rhetoric. And that makes me very concerned.
KURTZ-PHELAN: Bob or Michael, anything you’d add to that? Michael, go ahead.
KIMMAGE: Well, I think that, to look at things hopefully not through the lens of self-congratulation, but there’s a big of an admission of defeat in this escalation—rhetorical escalation of the war to a war with the West. I think it’s one way tacitly of the Kremlin saying—explaining why the war has gone so badly for them. You know, if they’re losing against Ukraine, that’s, I think, in Russian terms, a kind of impossibility. If they’re having difficulties against the West, it’s a little bit easier to stomach.
And I would fold into that a sort of secondary point, that as far as I understand the military logistics they’re in no position—eight weeks after a war beginning they’re unable to take the city of Kharkiv—they’re in no position to be attacking Poland or the Baltic Republics. Just, you know, purely from a logistical, military standpoint. So they can escalate rhetorically. That’s cheap. But I think that their escalatory possibilities outside the territory of Ukraine are pretty small at the moment.
KURTZ-PHELAN: Bob, anything you’d add?
KAGAN: Just that, by the way, I think he’s probing, again, to see what NATO and the West will tolerate in terms of his behavior in Ukraine. I think it’s pretty clear, by the way, that he is averse to NATO involvement. In the sense that he is making a lot of rhetorical noise, but I would say he’s being—maybe it’s because he has no choice, as Michael suggests—but I think that he certainly has the choice to levy threats. And I think he’s been pretty careful about not doing anything to provoke NATO involvement, which given the job that his military is having to deal with Ukraine I would fully understand. So I just think—but unfortunately, he’s probing to see how much the West will tolerate in Ukraine against the Ukrainian people. And I fear that, you know, he may escalate on that front, if not in a direct attack on any NATO country.
KURTZ-PHELAN: Sam, let’s go to the next question.
OPERATOR: Our next question will be from Jane Harman. Please unmute your microphone.
Q: Good morning, everybody. Fascinating conversation. Bob, I miss your monthly lunch bunch things at Brookings. If you’re doing them again, please put me back on the list.
But my question is about Putin’s timelines. There was a mention of the French election on Sunday. What happens if Le Pen wins, God forbid? She’s within the margin of error. And we should be anticipating a Russian disinformation and cyber campaign to help her win. This is not news. They’ve done this before. Not very effectively, but they’ve certainly done it before. That’s one timeline. Second timeline is May 9th. I don’t think you mentioned it, but that’s the victory day over the Nazis. Well, aren’t the Ukrainians the Nazis? And what might plan for that? And the last timeline, I shudder to think, is, is he trying to outlast everybody and waiting for Trump to come back in 2024, and then have our whole policy shift?
KURTZ-PHELAN: Michael, do you want to start on that one?
KIMMAGE: Sure. I feel like I don’t have excellent answers on a lot of the—of the hypotheticals. I mean, I think Le Pen’s election would be very, very problematic. The only thing that one could hope for in the case of it is that she would be more responsible in government than she has been on the campaign trail, but I don’t see beyond that what we can do about it. And I’m sure the French government is working hard on the—as Macron did earlier—on issues of election meddling and disinformation. But it’s truly a concern.
My worry when it comes to May 9th is that, you know, Putin faces a big choice now. He doesn’t have enough mobilized manpower. And two hundred thousand soldiers was far too few to take the territory of Ukraine in the way that they had hoped to do. So if he does mobilize, that might be the day on which he does it. Instead of delivering something by May 9th, which may be difficult for them, it may be the day in which Russia turns this into an all-out sort of massive war on Ukraine, which would be—which would be a terrible outcome.
And then as for Trump, I mean, I think Putin does have these kind of fantasies of the West unraveling and the U.S. being deeply at odds with itself. And it’s certainly an outcome I’m sure he would—he would welcome. But, you know, two years is a long time in politics and two years is a very long time in war. So if that’s his answer to his problems with the war in Ukraine, it’s probably not a very viable one. But I’m sure it’s on his mind.
KURTZ-PHELAN: Angela, do you want to add anything on timelines?
STENT: Sure. So I would say on May 9th, Jane, I mean, Putin’s going to have to declare some kind of victory. But one can assume that by then, for instance, if Mariupol were to have fallen, that could be presented as, you know, a triumph or victory. So some way or other he’s going to present this as a victory. But I do agree with Michael that they may also decide by then to say that this is actually a war. You know, they’ve been calling it a special military operation. And of course, they weren’t supposed to have conscripts, but we know they’ve got lots of conscripts who’ve gone there and have been killed. So that would be a mass mobilization. And I agree with Michael, it’s possible that that might happen on May the 9th.
And as for Trump, all I can say is I think by the end Putin and the people in the Kremlin were pretty disappointed with Trump because he didn’t deliver what he said he was going to deliver, because the rest of—(laughs)—his—the people who worked for him made sure that he couldn’t do that. And so I think they welcome, obviously, you know, all of the polarization and the domestic problems that we have here. But I’m not sure that they’re really waiting for that in 2024.
KURTZ-PHELAN: Bob, anything to add, without speculating on U.S. politics too much?
KAGAN: Well, I would speculate on U.S. politics only to say that insofar as anybody in Russia is paying attention, it’s kind of remarkable the degree to which this invasion has created the one issue on which Republicans and Democrats agree in roughly equal numbers. So if the hope was to split America, then I would say that this is not—I’m sure he wasn’t really thinking about that very much—but it certainly has had the opposite effect, and forced even Trump to do a public about-face because his position was untenable even with his own movement when he was too pro-Russia.
KURTZ-PHELAN: And to Angela’s point, I would direct all of you to a really powerful piece that Fiona Hill wrote in our, I believe, late November/December issue called The Kremlin’s Strange Victory, which gets at a lot of the issues that Angela was raising.
Sam, let’s go to another question.
OPERATOR: Our next question is a written submission from Margaret Hoover, who asks: In a speech last week, CIA director William Burns warned that increasing desperation could prompt Putin to launch some type of nuclear attack, calling it a threat that can’t be taken lightly. Burns reminded us that Russia’s military doctrine allows for the use of nuclear weapons in order to deescalate a conventional military threat. Do you think he would escalate with nuclear weapons to deescalate?
KURTZ-PHELAN: Angela, let’s go to you on this one.
STENT: Well, I guess I alluded to this before. I mean, it is possible that he, you know, would contemplate using a tactical nuclear weapon. And that’s why Director Burns was quite explicit about that in a public speech. What you do have to, you know, question is, if such a weapon were used in the region, you know, the fallout isn’t just going to be contained to Ukraine. You know, Russia’s right next door. So what the broader implications of that would be for the Russian population would be interesting to contemplate. But this has been part of Russian military doctrine for—I mean, the question about the use of a tactical nuclear weapon—that’s been there for quite some time. And it’s certainly been discussed, you know, in the kind of scholarly and think tank literature in Russia. So I think you can’t rule that out.
KURTZ-PHELAN: Let me just follow up on Margaret’s question to any or all of you. Is there something that NATO or the U.S. should be doing now to deter the use of a tactical nuclear weapon in Ukraine that it’s not doing thus far? Michael, go ahead.
KIMMAGE: I would stay vague on this point. I think we all have memories of a certain comment made about redlines in Syria, and difficulties that that caused the Obama administration. So sometimes not speaking can have its—have its utility. And of course, Putin has proven cautious analysts wrong a number of times in in the last two months. But let me just be a little bit cautious on this front. I don’t see militarily what that would really change for Russia. They’d still be faced with the same problems if they were to go down this road. And I think the risk, in addition to what Angela mentions about blowback in Russia itself, is also this could really horrify the Europeans and push them further to support Ukraine, or even to consider pushing back drastically against Russia. So it could be counterproductive. Again, I’m not sure Putin is thinking in precisely those terms, but it could be counterproductive for him.
KAGAN: Well, let me just—yeah, I mean, there’s two things here. One is that because so many analysts miscalculated Putin’s decision to launch the invasion in the first place, we then got into this, well, he must be crazy, because we didn’t—you know, he made the wrong decision. And so now we’ve opened up the idea that he’s crazy, which I don’t think there’s any evidence that he’s crazy at all.
And secondly, you know, I think it’s right to say that Putin would have no moral qualms about using a nuclear weapon, but I think Michael’s point is the key point. To what end? It does not help him take territory. You still need troops on the ground to take territory. And I just don’t see how it furthers his goal, other than, you know, to bring on potentially some kind of stronger Western response, which is—I think he’s shown very clearly he doesn’t want to do. So while acknowledging that, of course, he’s capable of doing any number of things, I just think we shouldn’t get ourselves too much, you know, down that road, because I just don’t see really what the military utility is for him in this situation.
KURTZ-PHELAN: Sam, next question.
OPERATOR: Our next question will be from Lawrence Wright.
Q: Oh, thank you.
I’d like to ask about sanctions. And there’s a—it’s been very impressive, you know, the scope of the sanctions. But I wonder a little bit about the legality and morality of seizing private property. I just don’t understand it. I don’t—oligarchs losing their yachts, it’s hard to feel pity for them. But it also strikes me as questionable. And also using the Foreign Reserves of Russia for reparations in Ukraine, all this. I’d just like to have your reaction to this, because I don’t know how to think about it.
KURTZ-PHELAN: Michael, let’s start with you here, since you were, I believe, in government during the 2014 sanctions. So you saw an earlier version of this debate.
KIMMAGE: Well, you know, to go back to an earlier point that I made about what the goals of our Russia policy should be, I think it’s really degrading the Russian war machine that should be the core aspect of sanctions—not regime change and maybe not some things that at times get attached to sanctions in the public discussion but I don’t think should be the core of the policy. And so I think that’s where sanctions are likely to be most effective and that’s where the energy should be—should be directed.
Clearly there is a secondary sort of function of sanctions at the moment, and this is punitive. And I, frankly, don’t know what the legal underpinnings are in that regard, but it’s hard not to endorse it in the sense that it’s become a rogue government. It’s perhaps been that way for a long time, but it’s explicitly that at the present moment. And the oligarchs are not separate from it. They’re a part of the whole operation. So they are complicit with the crimes that Russia is committing on Ukrainian territory and soil.
And again, this is very different from a Nuremburg trial or sort of a Hauge tribunal. It is, in the spirit of your question, I think somewhat less legal than that. But it just feels right at the present moment when you look at what the Ukrainians are going through. But the moral function of sanctions, to me, seems less significant than the strategic function which, again, is military in nature.
KURTZ-PHELAN: Bob and Angela, do you see any risk of sanctions proving counterproductive or there being blowback in terms of Russia support for Putin?
STENT: Well, I think, you know, the more the Russian public suffers—and they’re beginning now—you know, there are empty shelves and, you know, inflation, and things like that. The more that they are suffering economically, they’re being told it’s because the West, you know, is out to Russia and it’s all the West’s fault. But at some point, you know, this might change. I’m reading now that because of the shortage of spare parts, you know, automobile factories, steel factories are now not able to function as well in Russia.
So in the end, this will trickle down more to the population. And then you—you know, you do get the question, with any sanctions, how much do you really want to impact on the people? Particularly, as Michael said, we want to still try and maintain some links to the Russian people, then that’s very difficult. I also think that there is a question about the legality of seizing some of the property of these individuals, but I guess that will be worked out, I’m sure, in a large number of legal cases.
KURTZ-PHELAN: Bob, anything you’d add?
KAGAN: Well, you know, we’re not in a legal situation. I mean, there’s no—the only way international sanctions could be legal is if they were endorsed by a U.N. Security Council resolution. Other than that, they’re unilateral or multilateral acts, but they are acts taken by sovereign nations for their own reasons. So I’m not sure what—I’m not sure what it means in this context. You might find some aspects of sanctions more troubling than others, but historically in the past a sanctions regime was basically another version of war and conflict. So that’s the world we’re living in.
KURTZ-PHELAN: Sam, let’s do another question.
OPERATOR: Our next question is a written submission from Paul Gagnon, who says: What can be said about the behind-the-scenes role of China in the conflict?
KURTZ-PHELAN: Great question. Bob, do you want to start on this?
KAGAN: Well, I mean, I don’t—(laughs)—you know, I don’t know what’s going on. There’s a lot of different stories about, you know, what Xi has wanted to do. It’s clear that—I would say—some of what I’m about to say is a supposition and may not be true. But it’s a reasonable supposition that the Chinese are taken somewhat aback by the unity of the international community’s response to Russia. Obviously, the international community would have a more difficult time isolating China’s economy, but it’s not something that hasn’t happened to China before. They remember what happened to them after Tiananmen Square. So I think that ought to be a question. And then, of course, just the object lesson of watching what was supposed to be one of the world’s advanced militaries have such a difficult time dealing with what should have been a walkover, I’m not probably the first person to point out that the Chinese may also have questions about their own military capacities under these circumstances.
So but China shares Russia’s broadest goals of putting an end to American hegemony in the world, putting an end to the liberal international order, and hoping to reap the benefits of that breakdown. But that is not what’s on offer right now. The order is still pretty secure. So I wouldn’t be surprised if the Chinese response to all this is to be a little bit cautious, and to try to balance its position with Russia, you know, on the one hand offering some suture to the Russians, I suppose, but on the other hand making it clear to the international community that they’re not all-in with Russia, which I think that they have tried—at least tried to walk that balance.
KURTZ-PHELAN: Angela and Michael, Arne Westad, who’s probably the greatest historian out there on the Sino-Soviet alliance and on the Sino-Soviet relationship during the Cold War, wrote a piece for Foreign Affairs in which he argued that we should be skeptical of attempts to split Russia and China in the short term, that the new solidarity is probably not something that the U.S. and its allies can meaningfully affect in the short term, but that Beijing would ultimately come to regret its support of Moscow, and see it as more of a problem than a benefit. Do you share that basic assessment? How do you think—how do you see this relationship developing?
STENT: Well, first of all, Putin wouldn’t have invaded Ukraine if he wouldn’t have understood that he had Chinese support. We don’t know what happened when they met on February the 4th in Beijing. And it’s quite possible that Xi Jinping did not understand the full extent of what Russia wanted to do. But still, Russia has made its choice and China’s made its choice too, for the—now what they call the no-limits partnership. So I’m a little bit skeptical that the Chinese anytime soon are going to want to break this kind of increasingly close relationship with Russia.
Interestingly, they’ve been doing joint military maneuvers for a number of years now. So you wonder how much, to get back to Bob’s point, the Chinese understood about how the Russian military functioned. But so far, the Chinese in what they’re saying and doing are completely supporting the Russian line, blaming NATO and the United States for this. And even though they periodically reiterate that they believe in territorial integrity and sovereignty, and this applies to Ukraine, China’s, of course, Ukraine’s number-one economic partner, Ukraine’s part of the Belt and Road. But still, so far in their words and deeds they’ve been fully supportive of Russia.
Now, at the moment, however, they are also abiding by the Western sanctions. Their large banks are contravening them. We’re waiting to see if they do anything to help Russia avoid the sanctions. And they must also be thinking about, as Bob said, what might happen to them if they were to, you know, invade Taiwan. What kind of sanctions would be imposed on them? Although it would be much more difficult, given the economic stakes that the West has in their relationship with China. I don’t see any reason to think that they’re going to split anytime soon. For Xi Jinping, Putin’s a very important ally, for all the reasons Bob explained, you know, in terms of pushing back against what they see as this unfair hegemonic U.S. world order.
And, you know, you could make the argument—but this is another discussion—that from the U.S. point of view, it might make sense now to reach out to China more, if we’re concerned about this Chinese-Russian alliance. On the other hand, of course, that’s not what the Biden administration’s policy is, nor was it the Trump administration’s policy.
KIMMAGE: Two points—two points that go in separate directions. One is that there is—at the same time that the Western world has become more unified because of the war in Ukraine, there’s sort of this sprawling non-aligned world out there, which often doesn’t get the attention it deserves in our conversations. And it seems to me like in that world China will see certain opportunities. There’s a deglobalization that’s going on as a result of the war. It’s anarchic and nobody knows where it’s going to end up. But, you know, if you factor in countries like South Africa, and Brazil, and India, all of which are not a part of the sanctions regime, we could see developments there that are sort of not to our liking and that could push Russia and China closer together in the coming years or even decades.
But let me make a second point that goes in the exact opposite direction, which is that I think this war is the wrong war at the wrong time for China. And in a very obvious way, Russia has just thrown a hand grenade into the Belt and Road Initiative. It crosses a lot of the territory in this war that China was thinking about in strategic economic terms. And I think that there is, exactly as Angela suggests, a great opportunity for U.S. policy here to work subtly and gradually toward—you know, it’s not going to be, I think, an easy cleave of Russia and China, but present the U.S. and China as system-building powers, to make it very clear that Russia is the spoiler and the disruptor, and to make clear how costly it is for China as well as for the U.S.
KURTZ-PHELAN: Sam, let’s get one last question in.
OPERATOR: Our last question will be from Richard Foster (sp).
Q: Thanks very much.
My question was actually asked earlier, but I’ll take the opportunity to ask a question about the role of India in all of this—a country armed by the Russians.
KURTZ-PHELAN: That’s a great point to build on Michael’s point on this nonaligned world. So, Michael, why don’t you start on this one?
KIMMAGE: Sure. Well, I think it goes a long—goes back a long ways to the—to the Cold War. There are lots of practical reasons why it would be difficult for India to come out explicitly against Russia at the present moment, but it’s certainly an awkward aspect of U.S. policy. And maybe one of the ways in which for U.S. grand strategy Europe and the Indo-Pacific just don’t align at the present moment, where there’s a kind of slippage there. And I’m not sure what to say about it. And when we frame this conflict, as the Biden administration is prone to do, as a conflict between authoritarianism and democracy, India just doesn’t fit all that well. I wouldn’t get rid of the framing, but I think India has to be understood, you know, probably in new terms going forward. I doubt the Biden administration would have much success really turning India away from Russia. And that’s probably not the goal. But sort of where does India fit in these other structures—the Quad and other sort of multilateral structure? That has been, I think, altered and, to a degree, complicated by the war in Ukraine.
KURTZ-PHELAN: Bob and Angela, let me just give each of you forty-five seconds. Not just on the India question, but on this question of whether the U.S. and its European allies have gotten a little bit too forward leaning on this sense that the world—that the entire world has come together in opposition to this war. Do you see a more complicated picture, or really a new kind of free world unity in opposition to Russia’s invasion? Bob, let’s start with you.
KAGAN: Well, obviously it’s an overstatement. There’s a lot of countries in the world who probably, you know, don’t care one way or the other. And then there’s ones who are conflicted, the way India is. I mean, the thing about India is it’s not going to change the way the India feels about China. And after all, India has been—had a very independent foreign policy. It has never liked being grouped into the U.S.-European sort of democracy world. And so but on the other hand, they really have no place to go on the issue of China. So I think that that structure will maintain itself.
But, you know, look, in general if you look at the critical regions of the world strategically—where the wealth is, where the populations are, where the advanced economies are—that is Japan and Korea and Australia and India, on the one side. And it’s the Europeans and the United States in the middle. That’s a pretty formidable group. And whether that includes every country in the world, and where South Africa is, frankly, it’s not the most important question. What you really do have is the overwhelming percentage of the global GDP and, as I say, that’s a very formidable group. That is what makes up this liberal world order.
And for those purposes, I think it’s perfectly reasonable for the Biden administration to characterize things as they are. You couldn’t have characterized things more clearly in World War II either. That was a very complicated situation. So things are never that clear. But insofar as things are ever clear, I think in this case it’s right to see things and to frame things the way that Biden has been doing.
KURTZ-PHELAN: Angela, let me give you the last thirty seconds here.
STENT: So the subtitle of my book is Russia Against the West and with the Rest. And Putin has spent the last decade at least building up relations with the rest. And we see the result of this now. I agree completely with Bob that, of course, if you look at GDP and military might and everything, the rest is much weaker. The population of the countries that did not vote to condemn Russia’s invasion is more than half the world’s population, but many of those countries are poorer and they don’t carry that heft.
But I think it just reminds us that we’ve been very focused on Western unity and also with our Asian allies. And many countries around the world view this very differently. And one of the reasons that they’re unwilling to condemn Russia is because of the way they look at the United States. I mean, it’s been true before. It’s still true. And it will be true in a post-hopefully-war world when we have to reassess how we contain Russia and which countries we can work with.
KURTZ-PHELAN: Bob, Michael, Angela, thank you for doing this. Thank you for your wonderful pieces in Foreign Affairs so far and going forward. And thanks to everyone for joining us this morning.
This is an uncorrected transcript.