Will Ukraine Wind Up Making Territorial Concessions to Russia?
Foreign Affairs Asks the Experts
The war in Ukraine seems to be entering a transitional phase. Early on, Russia failed in its effort to take Kyiv—so Russian President Vladimir Putin scaled back his ambitions and shifted his military’s efforts to the Donbas region in eastern Ukraine. As both sides battle it out there, exhaustion and the ability to replenish supplies, weapons, and manpower are becoming more and more critical. The Russians are trying to advance while the Ukrainians are gearing up for a possible counteroffensive. Will Putin declare victory if Russia is able to seize the entire Donbas? Can Ukraine retake occupied territory now that it has new offensive weapons systems from the United States and the United Kingdom? Will Western resolve and unity hold as the global energy crisis worsens?
Since Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine in February, Lawrence Freedman, professor emeritus of war studies at King’s College London, has closely tracked what’s happening on the battlefield. He’s not the only person carefully monitoring the day in, day out fighting, but Freedman happens to be one of the world’s greatest living military historians, making his analysis of the conflict indispensable. His upcoming book is called Command: The Politics of Military Operations from Korea to Ukraine.
We discuss the reasons behind the Russian military’s setbacks, whether fears of escalation are misplaced, and what could happen next in the war.
“Why War Fails: Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine and the Limits of Military Power” by Lawrence Freedman
“Britain Adrift: The United Kingdom’s Search for a Post-Brexit Role” by Lawrence Freedman
If you have thoughts or feedback, email us at [email protected]
“The Foreign Affairs Interview” is produced by Kate Brannen, Julia Fleming-Dresser, Rafaela Siewert, and Markus Zakaria; original music by Robin Hilton. Special thanks to Grace Finlayson, Nora Revenaugh, Caitlin Joseph, Asher Ross, and Gabrielle Sierra.
I’m Dan Kurtz-Phelan, and this is “The Foreign Affairs Interview.”
I mean, there’s two sorts of risks. One risk is in a sense, I suppose, that Ukraine succeeds and there’s escalation, or succeeds too well. And the other is that Ukraine fails. The risk there is pretty high too; if Ukraine fails and is seen to fail because we didn’t do enough at the critical moment, that’s going to lead to narratives of betrayal that will make those in Afghanistan seem pretty tame.
Since Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine, Sir Lawrence Freedman, professor of war studies at King’s College London, has been an indispensable source for understanding the war and where it might lead. His recent essay in Foreign Affairs explains why the Russian military’s performance has been so bad.
What makes Freedman uniquely valuable right now is not just that he’s closely tracking what’s happening on the battlefield. He’s also one of the greatest living military historians. And this combination of historical knowledge and strategic perspective—with intense focus on Ukraine itself—has made Freedman truly essential in understanding this war.
Since February 24th, yours has been one of the truly essential voices in helping the world understand what is unfolding in Ukraine day to day. That’s been through your excellent Substack, and then in a tremendous essay in Foreign Affairs called “Why War Fails: Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine and the Limits of Military Power.”
I want to start by going back to those first days or even first hours of the war. You were, I think, less surprised than most of us, including policymakers and military planners in Washington and other NATO capitals, by how badly the invasion went from Russia’s perspective — but you’ve acknowledged that the sheer extent of Russian blunders surprised even you. So when you look back at those first days, what has surprised you about the war so far? And what was surprising to most observers but didn’t surprise you given that background?
So, what surprised me was, I suppose, the general ineptitude of the Russian operations on the first day. You always have to keep in mind that if whatever had been placed in Kiev beforehand had met up with the paras, and if they’d held the airport long enough for planes to go in and Zelensky had been captured early on, this would have been considered an amazing success, and a bold and audacious move. So nothing fails like failure, and our views on the foolishness of of the Russian invasion—and the incompetence with which it was carried out—rely on the fact that it actually didn’t do very well and got the Russians into a lot of trouble.
I think what surprised me was that they would try to attack on multiple fronts and that they wouldn’t use their air power more effectively. And I’m less surprised, but it was notable, that there weren’t the big cyberattacks sort of crippling Ukraine and everybody’s responses. There were cyberattacks, we know, but they were defended against. My basic reason why I’d been skeptical about this whole thing was because I could never see how the Russians could win in the terms in which they were framing the war. If it had been a land grab for the Donbas, as it turned out to be, then you could see how in 2014 they might have achieved it then, and they might go back to it now. But once they were trying to subjugate all of Ukraine and install a puppet government, all that that was asking for was resistance and insurgency and instability in the country. They would just tie them down, and we all have had those sorts of experiences, unfortunately, of trying to occupy places where you’re not really welcome. So that was my starting belief.
I think a lot of people accepted that occupation was going to be very difficult for the Russians, but there were different theories about inflicting a bloody nose, demanding some sort of negotiation with Zelensky after they’d done that. But in the end, [they] don’t seem to be unrealistic about how war was likely to unfold.
I think once it became apparent on the first day that they hadn’t taken Zelensky, which was I think critical to everything that followed, and that he was able to establish himself as an effective leader and communicator—then the Russian campaign was in trouble, and it was going to take far, far more effort than they ever anticipated to get anything out of this situation. And this has continued with now important moves being made by NATO countries and others to support Ukraine, which is basically what Zelensky was angling for from day one. “Don’t give me a ride, give me ammunition,” as he said, which just leaves us with the question of whether the war of maneuver that Russia tried in February 2022 is going to turn into a long-term war of attrition. And that, I think, is the question people are still trying to get their heads around after the last few months.
Well, we will come back to some of those questions about where this goes from here, but let me go back a little further in history. You mentioned 2014 and you, I think, paid more attention than most people to the significance of events in Ukraine in 2014 and in the years since. With the annexation of Crimea and then Russia’s invasion of Donbas, I think for many observers of international politics and Western policymakers, that had kind of fallen out of attention, and you were of course much more focused on the significance of those events and those dynamics. What did you find so interesting about 2014, both as a student of global politics and as a military historian? Why did you see that as so significant really even before the buildup toward this current war began?
Well, first, I mean it’s a big deal. I mean, annexing territory which isn’t yours is a big deal, and we said it was a big deal at the time, but didn’t do anything about it, except through pretty marginal sanctions and went along with Minsk, went along with Nord Stream 2 and so on and so forth. So having said it was a big deal, we didn’t do much about it. And then you’re left with this continuing instability in the Donbas, which was intriguing because one question that stayed in my mind was, why didn’t Putin take it when he had the chance, when the Russians did get involved in August 2014? Because the separatists have got into all sorts of trouble; they hammered the Ukrainian army. It wasn’t very difficult. We were talking about them taking Mariupol there.
Now, there are a variety of reasons why this presumably didn’t happen, including maybe Putin didn’t feel that he had the local support in the Donbas that he certainly might have believed he had, and probably did have, in Crimea. But I think it was also because the Russian objective still was to influence Kyiv. What he was trying to use the Donbas for was as an instrument to get a veto over Ukraine, over new, future Ukrainian policy; that was, in a sense, how the Minsk agreements were designed. And a lot of the frustration he then felt—obviously feeling very intensely by the time we get to last year—was that it hadn’t worked.
You write in your essay in FA that Putin’s war in Ukraine is foremost a case study in a failure of supreme command, and in your analysis—both in that piece and in your day-to-day assessments of the war—you come back to that question of leadership and strategic decision making, I think more than many people who also focus on the battlefield and weapon systems and all of that. So explain what supreme command is and why it matters so much and you kind of come again and again back to that folly, those failures of command and that basic folly that underlies the whole thing.
Having supreme command is being the supreme commander, who is the political leader in some countries. They’re also military leaders as well. So in the U.S. you call the president the commander-in-chief; he may never have put on a uniform before but he becomes the commander-in-chief nonetheless. So supreme command is the point at which the big decisions are taken, and not only in a military sense, but how they relate to the political objectives. It’s the point of interaction between the wider political objectives, the other political concerns, economic concerns, social concerns, that war brings. And if not quite military decision making in terms of how the campaigns are designed and implemented, at least in terms of what you want the military to do and the questions you pose to your generals about what’s expected.
So the catastrophe which Putin has unleashed, which is certainly a catastrophe for Ukraine but is also a catastrophe in some different ways for Russia, was based on a delusional view of Ukraine as not a proper country, as lacking in national identity and probably not up for the fight. I mean, he started the war suggesting to Ukrainian soldiers that they put down their weapons—and then he suggested, when they didn’t do that, that they turn against their leaders.
A good idea in war is to have a pretty good idea of who you’re fighting. This was an enemy of Putin’s imagination. So that, I think, was the fundamental failure. And then, following from that, there were a series of consequential failures in terms of—in an autocratic system, you don’t have somebody saying, “Are you sure? Here’s an analysis you might care to read. So and so running this branch of the armed forces would have to do a lot of this, he thinks this is a really bad idea. Do you want to talk to him?” You don’t have any of that, or you maybe have some, but you don’t really seem to have much of that going on.
All of these are giving the Russian armed forces a political objective that they couldn’t meet, and then having to change political objectives—and it is still uncertain exactly what they’re after, which makes it very hard to predict. But clearly Putin doesn’t talk as if he’s losing, so I think that’s his own theory of victory. But this isn’t the one that he imagined when he addressed the Russian people on the 24th of February.
There’s a great line that you used to close the FA piece: “It is hard to command forces to act in support of a delusion.” And again and again, just coming back to that delusional sense of objectives, I think, runs through all of this analysis. Two of the other surprises for many people have been the response from the West—from the U.S., and the U.K., and other other NATO powers—and also the performance of Ukraine’s leadership and military. Let’s start with Ukraine. Did you expect the strategic acumen and leadership and resolve that we’ve seen from the Ukrainians thus far?
I think they haven’t been perfect, but they’ve certainly done an awful lot better than many anticipated, and they thought about defense. I think one of the problems from a Western point of view in thinking about this, and perhaps predicting, was, the U.S. is a defense-minded military. It doesn’t really think about how to defend very much, it thinks about how to take the initiative and go on the offense. As to the Russians, those who are thinking about defending come to different conclusions, and I think they did very well on that. And they had an awful lot of military veterans around, you know, a few hundred thousand have been through the Ukrainian armed forces since 2014 and they knew what to do.
So the point I made in my article was that whereas the Russians have quite a rigid system of command which, you know, if you’re pounding away at one particular target can serve you fine, but it isn’t good if you’re trying to deal with quite a fluid situation of taking initiative where you can’t. So I think in that sense, I wasn’t that surprised by the Ukrainian response, but it was sort of relieving to see it. Because, I think, as soon as you saw that response, then that brought in the West. If Russia had been more successful on the first day you wouldn’t have seen the rest and the response; you’d have seen sanctions, but even then they would have probably been a bit more tepid.
You know, you can criticize the U.S. policy on Syria as willing the ends but not the means—that Assad should go but not really being able to do much about it—because you didn’t know quite who to support. I think this was different. You weren’t willing to overthrow a foreign government. You were willing for a foreign government to survive an unprovoked aggression, and once it looked like they might then you knew what you had to do to support them now. The U.K., I think to its credit, and the U.S. had concluded before the war that it was likely to happen, and had started to work providing weapons and ammunition and some training to the Ukrainians involved—had been training the Ukrainians for some time. So this was impressive and it provided a base for which to expand the effort. I think the Ukrainians would say that it’s coming a bit too slowly, that they’ve lost a lot of people, some ground because they needed these systems earlier. But these systems are going in now and there’ll be problems.
Ukrainians weren’t always clear about what they wanted or how they would, you know—sort of like going into a sweet shop and having a bit of this and a bit of that, without necessarily being part of a campaign plan. But I think all of those things are improving and the Ukrainians have got a strategy at the moment that is starting to work. But it won’t work without the West—it just won’t. And so that has put the West on the spot in a way it hasn’t been in a similar way for a long time.
And what kind of Western support beyond what is flowing in right now will be necessary for that strategy to work, to your mind?
Oh, keep it going. I mean, there are real issues you know with ammunition supplies, and so on. I think making sure they have to work more closely with the Ukrainians. Because good kit is still a scarce resource, and accurate systems are still a scarce resource. You’ve got to use them wisely so they have to work quite closely. Then they can’t command Ukrainian forces; they’re not putting their own forces in place. But I think they’ve got to be careful with their advice. All those things being said, you’re going to have to have much closer cooperation.
One of the causes of some of the delays in Western support has, I think, been these fears about escalation and about this turning into a true conflict between Russia and NATO. When Secretary of State Blinken joined us for an event in June, he stressed that one of the big sources of concern was that the Ukrainians would use rocket systems to attack Russian territory, and there have been extensive discussions about that concern. Do you think those worries about escalation are warranted? What’s the right way to think about escalation risks in this conflict?
You’ve got to think about escalation risk, and that’s the responsibility of national security advisors, and secretaries of state, and so on. But I think we took them too seriously. I mean, there’s two sorts of risks. One risk is, in a sense I suppose, that Ukraine succeeds and there’s escalation, or succeeds too well. And the other is that Ukraine fails. The risk there is pretty high too; if Ukraine fail—and is seen to fail because we didn’t do enough at the critical moment—that’s going to lead to narratives of betrayal that will make those in Afghanistan seem pretty tame. We can’t let Ukraine fail, basically, now. The consequence of failure would be really very severe, so, having the edge, you really do have to will the means.
You know the escalation issue has to be considered calmly. Russia has made its nuclear deterrence play; it did so quite early on and it did so by saying, don’t interfere directly with your own forces in this war, and we haven’t. That’s when deterrence worked for Russia in that sense. Hence the no-fly zone issue and so on; equally, they haven’t directly attacked NATO countries, even though these NATO countries know where the supply hubs are taking equipment to Ukraine. They haven’t done a very good job of interdicting that if that’s what they wanted to do. So in that sense deterrence is working as one would expect, putting major constraints on both sides. And I worry at times that we get too far ahead of ourselves in some of these discussions, imagining scenarios that have yet to arise and that will never arise in quite the form that you imagine them should they do.
In the end, the bigger risk at the moment is Ukraine losing rather than Putin using tactical nuclear weapons. I mean, the scenarios don’t exist for sensible use of tactical nuclear weapons. Honestly, given that he invaded in the first place, you can’t preclude more stupidity. But if you’re going to start using nuclear weapons, you would warn, you would try to get maximum coercive advantage. You wouldn’t suddenly drop this thing into a battlefield and then suddenly find yourself in a completely new situation—and possibly with fallout drifting towards Belarus or something. If the Russians wanted to hurt, they’ve got plenty of ways of hurting without having to use nukes, and I don’t think it would solve any of their military or political problems.
Before turning to what the next phases of the war might look like, I want to get at this very interesting question of information and the war of narratives that we’ve seen over the last few months. And this does strike me as a quite interesting and in some ways new dimension to war. Some of that is the use of intelligence by the United States and the lead up to the war, really being transparent about what it knew and trying to lay the groundwork for a response by combating Russian disinformation. You have President Zelensky’s really savvy use of social media, you have kind of dueling casualty figures with each side, kind of making certain claims about how many opposing troops they’ve managed to kill. How do you make sense of what’s going on? How do we know anything with assurance given the role of information and to what extent is this new or is this just how it always is in assessing war in real time?
Well, “fog of war” is a famous phrase. I think we know a lot more, in some respects, when social media videos and so on are informative. They’re obviously only part of the story. We know there’s been quite a lot of fakery, I think largely on the Russian side. I think there are more monitors around people in Ukraine, and have now been taken to some of the sites of the war and seeing what happened. One gets a sense that we can’t be wholly sure about all that is being said about what’s been going on in eastern Ukraine, the deportations and so on. I think I’d like to see more hard evidence there. But you know, obviously if this is happening it’s terrible. But we need to know more.
I think by and large the Russian information campaign is wholly directed. The only people who believe this duffer are in Russia, really, apart from a few fellow travelers. So the Russian campaign has been, as far as one can tell, successful within Russia—and what’s interesting is that the challenges haven’t come from people like us. They’ve come from the nationalists who are really cross that this big chance to win a war is being blown. Because this is the war they wanted, but why isn’t it being fought all out? So if you follow some of the Russian military blogs, they’re pretty cross, and especially with ammunition dumps blowing up recently. They’re cross. So that’s the Russian campaign.
The Ukrainian campaign was certainly, initially, incredibly skillful, but it was based on immediately undermining the Russian narrative. One, Zelensky’s here and surviving and making his pitch and moving around and keenly inspiring his people to hear his evidence of blown up Russian tanks. And it’s real. It isn’t fake; it’s real and, you know, there are more videos showing how it’s been done. So they got off to a very strong campaign, and their objective from the start was to get more material support. So initially the narrative was, “look, we’re doing really well, we can beat these guys’ supporters.” And then, as things sort of ground away in the Donbas, it was, “we’re really suffering, we need more of your stuff.” I think then they realized that may be going a bit far because it was inducing a sort of fatalism—that the Russians were advancing and the Ukrainians couldn’t cope. So yeah, I think at that point they had to recalibrate a bit and have done so. They’re now finally more optimistic again. But I think they’re having somebody who’s not only media savvy but is also inexhaustible in talking to foreign audiences—I mean, just the sheer number of people that Zelensky must have spoken to through Zoom or whatever.
Over the last four months, probably as a world record, not a single parliament has been denied his presence. So I don’t think he’s doing an awful lot on negotiations or on trying to guide the conduct of the war. I think he sees his job largely in terms of this: keeping external relations in a good place and working on them. Maybe at some point he needs to ask more questions of his military — I think there have been some tensions there — but by and large it’s how to do it. But it helps if you’re doing it on the basis of evidence and an actual experience. There may have been people in the Donbas who didn’t think Russia would be such a bad thing, but you know, when your apartment buildings get blown up and when your friends get dragged off the street then you start to think differently.
We’ll be back after a short break.
You’ve described this current moment of the war as a transitional phase. As you look ahead to what comes next, what do you think we’re likely to see, whether it’s a Ukrainian counter-offensive in the Donbas in Eastern Ukraine, or a new round of negotiations? What should we be looking for in the coming weeks and months?
I think from the Russian point of view, their main hope is the economic pain being faced by the West—the energy crunch, inflation, possibly the grain issue, the food issue—though I don’t think that works quite so well for them. So I think it’s difficult to solve that, but clearly quite a lot of work is going on with Turkey to try to address that; we’ll see, but I think it’s the energy and inflation issues there, but I don’t honestly think that’ll work for them. But that’s what they’re working on.
Meaning, sorry, you don’t think that Western resolve will weaken significantly in the coming months?
I think that I can imagine circumstances where questions will be asked, and it might be especially if Ukraine gets itself into military trouble. Yes, they’re bound to be questioned, but if Ukraine can show that it can regain the initiative and is doing well enough, I think that will hold. And the EU and others are already engaged in, you know, enormous adjustments to cope.
Nobody’s in denial that this is a problem that’s going to hit us, and it’s forcing dramatic shifts in energy policy already, and, you know, it may include having to suppress demand. So, you know, these are going to be major issues. But I think if Putin is relying on that he may well be disappointed, certainly this year—I think it’ll be hard for him to get that to work this year and that may affect his calculations. But I think that matters quite a lot to him militarily. You know, I think we’ve identified the next likely targets for their offensive. How much this “pause” they talk about is real, one’s not sure; they need a bit of regeneration. And they do have real shortages of manpower and kit and maybe now of ammunition, if their supply lines have been properly disrupted and commanded. I mean, all of those things may be, but we’ll see.
We know where their likely next targets are going to be and they’ll be adjacent, you know, following on from their current positions. And Ukraine will be going for Kherson. They have to still defend in the Donbas but Kherson seems the most likely stage for their offensive. And it’s tricky—I mean, tricky with terrain. And we’ll see. I think, as it happens, one has got to hope that they’ve got a good campaign plan because they’ve been badly hurt. They’ve lost a lot of good people. They’ve lost a lot of their equipment. So we’ll see, but they seem to be quite bullish at the moment about what’s coming.
And that’ll be a counteroffensive in the south rather than in the east.
Yeah, it’ll be counteroffensive in the south. It started, but it hasn’t made fast progress so we’ll see; and I think, you know, my argument is that if that prospers that I think the Russian military will worry. I think, as an institution that’s been degraded by this war—and it’s an important institution in Russian politics, society, security—they don’t have the manpower, they have to scrabble around to get it. Their manufacturing capacity is inoperable at the moment because of shortages of key components. They’re dragging stuff out of storage; I don’t think this is a sustainable position.
So my view is, if the Russians start to get pushback—and that’s a big if—but if they are, then they will not fight to the last ditch, because they can’t afford to. It’s not worth it. It’s worth it if they think they can take more and hold it. How this war eventually ends—the question then becomes under what circumstances do you get negotiations. I think the initiative has to come from Russia. It’ll probably come through intermediaries. And, you know, many of us expected the Russians to offer something even as early as May; a ceasefire, in which they would be able to hold on to what they had. Now, the Ukrainians wouldn’t have agreed to that, but it could at least put them on the spot. But Putin hasn’t offered anything and, you know, talks of negotiations as if it’s up to the Ukrainians to be realistic and concede ground—which isn’t going to happen. So for that reason I think things have got to move some way before we see much political movement. Things could move quite fast, as often happens with these things.
You know, armies can be quite brittle things that can hold for years, months, and then all of a sudden they don’t hold anymore—because the army can’t take anymore, because it suddenly realizes it’s losing, and nobody there wants to be dying for a lost cause. And then, the same is true in negotiations. If Russia wanted a way out, it’s not hard to design an agreement that possibly gave them something on the neutrality issue—because I don’t think the Ukrainians are going to be that reliant on security guarantees in the future. But I think Putin probably has to make the first move.
As you of course know, there’s a debate in Western capitals about exactly what Ukrainian victory would mean and whether it’s possible. You’ve written that denying a Russian victory is not the same thing as a Ukrainian victory. But you’ve also noted that the Ukrainians can win, that some of the skepticism about this is—
Yeah, I think they can win, whether they will. And I think, you know, essentially a victory would certainly—as Zelensky has spoken about—go back to the position of 24th of February. But frankly, if they’re pushing hard enough to get that, then it’s hard to see how the enclaves could hold as well, I think, unless Putin really made a big pitch at that point. Because after all, you know, this is why he won’t claim to have gone to war in the first place. So they can, you know—wars end. And I don’t think this will end with the Russian victory, but it can end with something that just drags on with no satisfactory solution. Or something Ukraine can say has preserved the integrity, the territorial integrity of the country and to leave the country in a terrible mess.
In the cold light of day, it’ll all feel like a sad situation with lots of people dead and an economy shattered and buildings shattered and much work to be done. But it can revive. It can revive, you know, within its own territorial boundaries and will be given a lot of support as it does so.
So, in reading your assessments of the failures of command on the part of Putin and other Russian leaders in the last several months, I couldn’t help thinking back to some of the failures of U.S. military power in recent years, where you see some similar breakdowns in terms of strategic vision, in terms of coordination between commanders on the battlefield and political leadership. To what extent do you see equal failures of command on the part of Western powers and what should people in Washington and London and elsewhere be taking from what we’re seeing on the battlefield in Ukraine in terms of planning for the future?
Yeah, I mean, there’s different levels of command. So, you know, we’ve had our own foolish war—and whatever we think about the rationales, certainly the Iraq War just wasn’t thought through. And that was more successfully conducted. So I don’t think the problems of our past command decisions have been very much in setting the political objectives that were unrealistic and would invite trouble, and not anticipating many of the difficulties we would face which were predictable. We were all involved in these debates and know the points that were being made and might usefully have been addressed.
So that point on the supreme command level, I mean, we have got some things right. It hasn’t been an unbroken record of failure despite a lot of mess. We, by and large, got the Balkans right. We got 1991 right. We got the Falklands right. And so it’s not that everything fails, but it’s just that we haven’t done so well more recently. A lot of our failures have been in counterinsurgency, in working with local armies where we’re providing the air power and so on. As we saw with Afghanistan, as we had seen in Vietnam; once you take away the air power these armies don’t necessarily survive very long. They have very particular situations. In terms of the sort of actual command for conventional war, I don’t think we’ve got any reason to doubt our systems. They are probably okay. I think that the problems that we’ve got in the future are just all this multi-domain stuff. Trying to believe that you’re having to pull together and coordinate lots of different strands of warfare, synchronizing them to produce some grand synergy. It’s difficult. It really is difficult to coordinate different branches to produce a combined effect.
And that’s an area the Russians have struggled with, even in a limited sense in Ukraine. You know, before you bring space and cyber fully into the equation. So I think again the key thing is to not overcomplicate war, not to try to do too many things at once. Work out what realistically can be achieved and concentrate on that rather than stretch yourself right at the start. Obviously it depends on the particular circumstances and what’s at stake but it’s easier to build from success. But I think most importantly, just think about what actually you’re trying to achieve and things that military power can’t do for you. Like running a country that would rather you were not there. That still seems to be a basic lesson from our experience and from the Russian experience.
Since we’re recording this just a few days after Boris Johnson’s downfall, I can’t resist taking the opportunity to ask you a bit about UK Politics. You wrote for Foreign Affairs a couple of years ago about the UK’s somewhat flailing search for a distinctive role for itself on the world stage post-Brexit. Does Johnson’s downfall mean anything for the search? Do you see an opportunity to reset that or does that flailing continue?
Well, if you look at the quality of the candidates you probably expect the flailing to continue because there’s a few in there that would be credible prime ministers but also lots who wouldn’t. And given the nature of the system, which requires the parliamentary party to come up with two candidates, who were then put to a vote of what is a very peculiar demographic that makes up the Conservative Party membership, you might worry. But of all the many things that Johnson has got wrong, one of the things he got right was Ukraine. And that, actually, you know, in the hands of a different politician who wasn’t so prone to self-harm would have been a foundation for a stronger European foreign policy. Especially working with some of the former communist states who have been pleased and impressed by what the UK has done in ways that they’re still watching askance at times with what Macron and Schultz have done. Although they’re doing more now. So I don’t think that’ll change.
I think the issue, the big issue, is can we reset our relationship with the EU. I think the other aspect—the sort of “tilt to Indo-Pacific”—I think that’ll stay. The AUKUS connection, that’ll stay. But I think the EU issue is the most difficult and important. Plus, you know, partly because of Brexit the economy is not in a good way. And that will be a major preoccupation for whoever comes into office. But I don’t envisage, other than the EU question, major changes in foreign policy. Actually there’s quite a bit of consensus across the two front benches on that.
Lawrence Freedman, thanks for all you’ve been doing both in your Substack and in Foreign Affairs to help the rest of us understand what’s going on in this crisis and what’s going to happen going forward. We will look forward to much more in the weeks and months ahead and thank you for joining us today.
My pleasure. Good to talk to you.
Thank you for listening. You can find the articles that we discussed on today’s show at ForeignAffairs.com.
“The Foreign Affairs Interview” is produced by Kate Brannen, Julia Fleming-Dresser, Rafaela Siewert, and Markus Zakaria. Special thanks also to Grace Finlayson, Caitlin Joseph, Nora Revenaugh, Asher Ross, Nick Sanders, and Gabrielle Sierra. Our theme music was written and performed by Robin Hilton.
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Foreign Affairs invites you to join its editor, Daniel Kurtz-Phelan, as he talks to influential thinkers and policymakers about the forces shaping the world. Whether the topic is the war in Ukraine, the United States’ competition with China, or the future of globalization, Foreign Affairs' biweekly podcast offers the kind of authoritative commentary and analysis that you can find in the magazine and on the website.
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