No Peace on Putin’s Terms
Why Russia Must Be Pushed Out of Ukraine
Since Russia invaded Ukraine in February, the world has contended with the stakes of the conflict, and what the war means for Russia’s relationship with the West—and beyond. Should Russia still be considered a great power? What in Russia’s past explains the mistakes it’s making today? Will unity in the West outlast the war? What is Russian President Vladimir Putin’s ultimate goal in Ukraine, and is it changing?
Stephen Kotkin is the author of seminal scholarship on Russia, the Soviet Union, and global history, including an acclaimed three-volume biography of Joseph Stalin. He is a professor at Princeton University and a fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford. Kotkin brings formidable historical depth and a sharp sense of the current geopolitical landscape to these questions about Russia, Putin’s leadership, and Ukraine’s future.
We discuss why Russia’s capabilities too often fall short of its ambitions, why Putin underestimated the West (and why the West tends to underestimate itself), what China is learning from Russia’s experience, and what could happen next in Ukraine.
“The Foreign Affairs Interview” is produced by Kate Brannen, Julia Fleming-Dresser, Rafaela Siewert, and Markus Zakaria. Special thanks to Grace Finlayson, Nora Revenaugh, Caitlin Joseph, Asher Ross, and Gabrielle Sierra. Our theme music was written and performed by Robin Hilton.
If you have thoughts or feedback, email us at [email protected]
I'm Dan Kurtz-Phelan, and this is "The Foreign Affairs Interview."
I thought that maybe Putin would get away with murder again, not because the West was what he thought it was, but because the West wouldn't respond to show the teeth, to show the power, to show the unity, to show the values that gave it this power.
There is perhaps nobody who brings deeper historical perspective to understanding Russia's invasion of Ukraine than Stephen Kotkin. He has for 33 years been a professor of history at Princeton. He is also a fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford, and he's the author of a number of books, including a riveting three-volume biography of Stalin. But Stephen is not just a great historian, he combines his knowledge of Russia's history and its leaders, past and present, with unique insight into how they shape the world today. I could not imagine a better guest for this first episode of "The Foreign Affairs Interview."
Stephen, welcome, thanks so much for joining us. You've written a slew of fantastic essays for Foreign Affairs over the last few years. Even those published long before Russia's invasion of Ukraine, I think, really continue to shed a ton of light on the awful events of the last few months. Your most recent piece is in our May/June issue. It's called "The Cold War Never Ended." But I wanted to start by reading a couple of lines from an earlier essay, one you wrote in 2016, called "Russia's Perpetual Geopolitics."
You wrote, "For half a millennium, Russian foreign policy has been characterized by soaring ambitions that have exceeded the country's capabilities. Recurring episodes of Russian aggression reflect the same geopolitical trap, one that Russian rulers have set for themselves again and again." So if you extend this pattern to the present, how does it explain, to your mind, Putin's aggression in Ukraine and why it has gone so badly for him, at least thus far?
Dan, thank you for the honor of the invitation. It's wonderful to be here and to be able to discuss these issues with your audience.
So there was this puzzle: Why was Russia continually an autocracy? Not only an autocracy, a personalist autocracy, with a very repressive state, coercive attempts at modernization, and they failed, again, and again, and again. So how do you explain that? And some people explain it by the notion of a deep cultural proclivity towards imperialism. Russia is just innately imperialist and it wants to swallow up its neighbors, it's very, very aggressive, and therefore, you can never trust them, you gotta watch out and they're gonna do it again. And another way of looking at it was, the West is itself hegemonic or at least striving to be hegemonic, constantly pushing up against Russia, constantly challenging Russia, and therefore Russia is just defending its own security interests vis-à-vis Western imperialism. So you have this sort of perpetual Russian imperialism, which is an innate cultural trait explanation, and you have this response to the West, what could they really do, the West's actions are themselves imperialist and Russia is really defending itself.
With NATO expansion being the most recent iteration of this.
Exactly, Dan. And so I'm thinking, that doesn't work for me. How come the pattern that we see again today with Vladimir Putin's regime, how come that pattern predates NATO expansion? We see it with Stalin, we see it with the czars long before NATO even existed. And moreover, if something is a cultural trait rather than a strategic choice, you can't do anything about it: it's essentialist, it never changes. And that's not true either.
And so I started to puzzle out what were the factors, the elements that put together gave you this type of behavior, and the first and foremost one in my mind was this sense of being a providential power with a special mission in the world. This is not unique to Russia, but the Russian one is deep and abiding, over centuries, under different incarnations, of course. And so you have this providential power with a special mission in the world, a kind of civilization unto itself, neither Western nor Eastern, but something specific. Maybe it's Eurasian, maybe the word Russia suffices—and that providential power with a special mission in the world has a problem. Its capabilities don't match these ambitions, it wants to be right up in the first rank, but it hasn't been up in the first rank.
There are a handful of episodes in history, exceptional episodes where Russia was briefly in the first rank—when Peter the Great defeated Charles the Twelfth in the eighteenth century, when Alexander defeated Napoleon in the nineteenth century, and when Stalin defeated Hitler in the twentieth century—and briefly, Russia was kind of an arbiter on top of the world, and it looked like its power did match its ambitions.
But those episodes were fleeting. And so there was this gap between the power and the ambitions—the ambitions exceed the power. And again and again, we see: Okay, let's try to build a strong state to make up for this gap, either to manage the gap or to overcome the gap. And this strong state will beat the country into that first rank of power with some coercive state modernization. You get an economic spurt, but then you usually get stagnation. And moreover, even worse, the state building, the quest for the strong state, devolves into personalist rule, which is anti-institutional and it's actually anti-strong state. The state is undermined by the whimsical nature of personalist rule.
Here we have perhaps the greatest example today of this pattern. We have Vladimir Putin complaining about the West and trying to match the West's power without the capabilities, using the strong state, devolving into personalist rule—and now making their situation far worse than it was before February 2022.
So that's why I call it "Russia's Perpetual Geopolitics." And it's important to underline that it's a choice, it's not an innate cultural trait. Russia could say, "You know, we can't match the West, the West is too strong for us. Let's instead not try to compete with the West and maybe overtake the West. Let's try to live alongside the West and focus on our own internal development instead." That's a strategic option that we'd like to see Russia take, those of us who are not Russophobes but Russophiles, but we don't see that option yet.
It would be great if in the aftermath of this Ukrainian tragedy, we see a different strategic choice in the Kremlin where they finally give up. They can be Russia, they can be non-Western, a European power in a cultural sense, but not Western institutionally. They can be true to their identity and values, but they don't have to try to do something they can't do. You know, I'd love to play in the Premier League—soccer—and I practice, and I practice, and I can't do it. I can't do it because my capabilities don't match my ambitions. That analogy sounds very trivial, but this is what we have with Russia.
So one aspect of that account that I think cuts against the way most people have talked about events in Ukraine in the past few months, is that it doesn't focus so much on Putin and what he is thinking and what kind of information he's getting. He is in some ways, conforming to type and the structure is much more important. Do we focus too much on Putin and who he is and what he thinks in most analysis?
We do. We have to acknowledge the personalities matter, they matter a lot. When people were criticizing Khrushchev for not being up to Stalin's level and Khrushchev gave that cult of the personality speech, they said to Khrushchev, "Yes, there was a cult, but there was also a personality," meaning Stalin was a forceful figure. So Putin's personality does matter, but also really important is the fact of being in the Kremlin and in charge of the problem of Russian power in the world.
In many ways, systems select for leaders. You can get into power randomly through some accident, if you're appointed, or there's a death—you name the cases where there's an accidental rise to power of a figure. But you can't stay in power for 20 plus years accidentally. You actually have to sustain yourself in power, and that's much harder, more complex. And so the random characters who might get in are not there 20 years later. But then they're transformed by being in that position.
The argument of Stalin, volumes one and two so far, is that he wasn't a fully formed personality before he got to the position of being the despot of the Kremlin. It was being in that position that made him the figure that we know. Something happened to Putin as well, there. It's not to say that he didn't have certain worldview tendencies, grievances, resentments, life experiences—he had all that, but now he's in charge of this very difficult problem with this ambition. So the weakness and the grandeur combined, in his case, too, to produce this paradoxical person who becomes more anti-Western than he was because the West is so powerful and Russia is so weak. This aggression derives from weakness: a sense of grandeur that's unmet and weakness in terms of the capabilities that they have.
Finally, I should say, on this question of personality and structures, it's not only that the system selects for people. It's not only that the system has an effect and transforms personalities or brings out certain traits more strongly than other traits. It's that the others around this person are negatively selected for loyalty rather than competence, rather than skill level, and so you get a regime where the person in charge fantasizes that he's there because he's better than all the rest. And the reason that seems true is that he's appointed these non-entities around him so that they won't conduct some type of palace coup against him.
So you have an autocrat who's trying to manage Russian power in the world, surrounded by non-entities. And many of them know that they're not as skilled or capable as the person who's at the top, and so they hesitate to move against the person even when the person exacerbates the geopolitical dilemmas that that person was supposed to fix. So it's a really deep hole that they've dug themselves, and this is not the first time.
So we in the American foreign policy world spent months ahead of February 24 arguing about NATO expansion, and the degree to which this was a cause of Russian insecurity. You have very forcefully and persuasively, including in your recent piece for us, countered and I think fairly effectively dismantled the idea that NATO expansion is responsible for Putin or what Putin is doing now. But when you look back at this period from 1989 until five or six years ago, do you see things that the U.S. and its allies could have done differently to arrive at a different outcome? You say in the recent piece that we made a mistake in seeing 1989 as a really fundamental historical turning point. If you look back at the couple of decades after that, and you could go back and re-run U.S. policy with more assertiveness, more sympathy, anything that could have changed the course of Russian politics and geopolitics over this period?
We tend to exaggerate the influence that our policies have in Russian behavior, Iranian behavior, Chinese behavior. They're ancient civilizations that pre-exist the United States by many, many centuries, and there were internal dynamics there that are deep, profound. It's not to say that there weren't major policy mistakes, of course, there were policy mistakes, and retrospectively one can criticize many things that the West did or failed to do. You just can't get that to be the explanation or the prime driver for where we are in the relationship with Russia today.
You write in the new essay that Putin's biggest miscalculation was underestimating the United States and the West more broadly. He thought it was decadent and indecisive and riven with internal tensions and unlikely to respond in a significant way to his invasion of Ukraine. And I think we've all been surprised by the extent of the economic and military response—and the unity that we've seen, at least between the United States and Europe thus far.
You see this idea of the West and the advantage that confers as one of the real strengths that the U.S. and its allies bring to this. You write that the advantages afforded by being unashamedly and unabashedly Western are advantages that America should never take for granted. I think this has become a little bit more complicated in the last couple months as you see other powers who are a little bit less comfortable with this idea. We ran a piece by Shivshankar Menon, the former Indian National Security Adviser, taking issue with what he called the fantasy of the free world. Explain how leaning into this idea of the West or the free world, to your mind, leads to a better strategy as we respond not just to Ukraine, but to the challenge from Russia more broadly.
I didn't use the term free world in the essay version—people do use it, and it certainly was a powerful concept in earlier decades and did a lot of conceptual work for binding the alliance and for guiding policy.
There are two directions to go in answer to your question. One is Putin got away with murder—literally. He was murdering journalists, he was murdering people abroad, including with chemical weapons. Russia has signed a treaty—not Putin personally—but Russia signed a treaty which bans the use of chemical weapons, and he's throwing around Novichok and other things to murder people. He got away with Georgia in 2008, he got away with Crimea in 2014. Germany voluntarily enhanced its energy dependence on Russia. France continually fantasizes about how it's a diplomatic superpower, and goes to Russia and asks someone in the Kremlin: what do you need to be respected? What concessions do we have to make for you to feel respected again? The UK has this colossal industry of money laundering and reputation laundering, all of which was available for Russia, and of course not only Russia. And so if you're getting away with that kind of murder, literally and figuratively, you might miscalculate that the West really is finished—not just decadent, but self-corrupting, self-flagellating.
People in the West, including at our major universities, including on our most illustrious op-ed pages, including on that morass known as cable television—they're talking about how the West is in decline. The U.S. is in decline. The rise of China is inevitable. The West is genocide. The West is imperialist. And we're talking about this—a lot of the establishment, not just the far left in university departments dedicated to Western bashing—a lot of the establishment is mouthing the talking points of the Kremlin, of Moscow, and Beijing. And you're living in that world, and you're getting away with that literal and figurative murder, and you can begin to think that the world is going your way.
You can begin to think that the West is right in its self-flagellation. It's over. It's finished. And it won't stand up to me because it hasn't stood up to me, and it's afraid. It's afraid, and it's divided, and it's energy-dependent, and it doesn't really want to fight wars anymore; instead, it wants to trade and it's worried about the standard of living and prices and quality of life and luxury goods. And that's the West that Stalin misperceived and that's the West that Putin misperceived, but moreover, that's the West that we ourselves misperceived. So he got away with murder and he felt he could do it again.
But the other way to go with your question is this, then. So I knew the West was more powerful than we were saying it was, let alone than what Russian and China were saying. I knew there is no multipolar world. I knew the West was not in decline. If you are part of the military industrial complex in Russia or China, you're dependent on the West for component parts and software. If you're engaging in trade with the rest of the world and not trading with a Western country, you're still using Western currencies and Western financial institutions. If you go as a Chinese representative to a meeting somewhere in Asia—your neighborhood—with other countries, you speak English with them because they don't speak Chinese all over the world; they speak English all over the world, including with countries aligned with China, in China's own neighborhood.
So if you're in Beijing and Moscow, you live in a Western-dominated world: not just the military, not just the financial system, not just the technology, but even in cultural and values terms. So that's the problem for them. And I understood this, honestly, beforehand, that the West was really powerful. I gave lectures in Vienna several years ago about the West as a voluntary sphere of influence and how the West had this power. But I made a mistake.
What did you see that others missed?
I study history. And so people talk about a multipolar world and I say, "Okay, name to me the important international institutions where someone from South Africa, India, or Nigeria is the dominant decision maker. Tell me which institutions you're talking about. Would that be the IMF? Would that be the World Bank? Would that be the EU and NATO? Would that be the Five Eyes? Would that be the Federal Reserve, which is not even a multinational institution, but is a domestic institution, but it's the most powerful multinational institution in the world, including for the Europeans?" And so, if you looked at it soberly, empirically, historically, you couldn't fall for this Chinese and Russian propaganda that we ourselves were mouthing. But I made a big mistake. It's very necessary, Dan, to be humble. Humility is the hardest and most important trait of anybody who purports to have some expertise in some area, and I made a really big mistake.
I didn't understand how the West could snap back so quickly and rediscover this power that it had. I thought that maybe Putin would get away with murder again—not because the West was what he thought it was, but because the West wouldn't respond to show the teeth, to show the power, to show the unity, and to show the values that gave it this power. And so I underestimated the ability of the West, in a short period of time, to rediscover and reassert itself, and I'm so happy to be wrong about that.
So if we'd been having this conversation on February 22, before the invasion, you would have shared the view of what would transpire that Putin presumably had at that time.
I was afraid that we would not respond properly to Russia's challenge in Ukraine. I understood that Ukrainians would resist, and that's because we all watched in real time in 2004–5 and in 2013–14. We watched them overthrow domestic tyrants, and we watched them risk their lives, and we watched some of them lose their lives in what was originally called the Orange Revolution, and then the Maidan of 2013–14, when Yanukovych was chased from the country and then Putin seized Crimea not long thereafter.
We all watched that, and so we understood that the pathologies of the Ukrainian political system aside, that the society was really, really strong and that there was courage there, and ingenuity. We didn't know, necessarily, the depth of NATO training of the rebuilt Ukrainian army. I think that's something that only people in the know, on the inside, fully understood. I certainly didn't fully understand that. But I understood the will to resist, take risks, put their lives on the line, and I was afraid the West wouldn't respond properly to that.
Let's remember the Biden administration, which had the disastrous exit from Afghanistan. We can argue whether it was a good idea or a bad idea to exit from Afghanistan, but I don't think you can argue that the exit as executed was well done. Trump started the exit from Afghanistan—the original date was May, the Biden administration changed it to September 11, thinking it was going to reap all this political capital. Instead it reaped the whirlwind, as we know. It was the same plan for Ukraine. It was a cut and run, and it wasn't just the U.S., but the embassies all fled from Kyiv. What was that about? And then the U.S. offered Zelensky the opportunity to flee the country. Ghani fled by himself, from Afghanistan. But we were offering him the logistics to get out, and he declined, Zelensky declined. But we could have had, if Zelensky had made the mistake of agreeing to the Biden administration offer to get out, we could have had something similar in Ukraine that we had in Afghanistan, only maybe even worse.
But we didn't. Zelenskyy showed the kind of courage to risk his own life, as well as all the ingenuity that we've been seeing, to stay there and to say, "We're going to stay here and we're going to fight." And the Biden administration was good enough, smart enough, to latch on to that and slowly, gradually escalate our support for Ukrainian resistance.
The Europeans were ahead of us at the beginning of that process, when Zelensky turned them. And the Biden administration has been too slow and too gradual but nonetheless has done the right thing, which is to say, support Ukraine self-defense with everything we can, and rally, in a leadership role, the NATO alliance to be deeply involved in that. And the EU has stepped up to the plate as well. So I didn't understand that all of that could happen so quickly. It was a gift from the Ukrainians. It was a gift, their courage, their ingenuity. It was a gift maybe we didn't deserve, but they delivered it to us at very high cost, extremely high cost, which is still going on as we speak. And fortunately, we accepted that gift and we did respond and the West did snap back, and so now, the issue is sustaining that self-rediscovery of the West, thanks to the Ukrainians, that gift that we got.
We'll be back after a short break.
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Let's linger on China for a moment, before going back to Ukraine itself. If we'd been having this conversation at the end of March, say, I think there was a consensus that the Chinese were really taken aback and seemed to be in a fairly weak position as a result of their interactions with Russia ahead of the invasion and their reaction to the invasion. Beijing seems to have recalibrated a little bit, and I think is trying to figure out how to turn this into an opportunity or an advantage. What is your sense of how China is likely to emerge from this and what they are learning from the Russian experience in Ukraine thus far?
Big trouble. They made some deep and fundamental mistakes that they did not understand, and when I say they, I mean he. Because we have the despotism problem, we have the single person with too much power unaccountable, not just to the population at large, which is an autocratic or authoritarian regime, but unaccountable even to the inner regime, even to the elites at the top. That kind of system, which is characteristic, as we were saying, of Russia, is characteristic of China, is characteristic in a different way of Iran, which has a much more complex political structure.
And so: profound mistake. So the Chinese had a brilliant grand strategy. Their grand strategy, just to simplify, was as follows. The U.S. is going to be hostile because from the Chinese point of view, the U.S. is hegemonic. It can't rest until it controls the whole world, it's on this quest for global control. So it must hold down the rise of China, it could never tolerate or accept the rise of China, so the U.S. is going to be hostile vis-à-vis us.
We don't want to decouple in Beijing, because we still need the high-nd technology transfer, those component parts and software, as we build up our own high tech, the famous or now infamous Made in China 2035, where China was supposed to become self-sufficient at some point, in the crucial high-tech component parts and software and maybe even beat the West in this area. But they could only do that by continuing to import Western high-end technology and know how—either steal it or buy it, or some combination thereof.
And it looked like a brilliant strategy, because they had an ace in the hole. The ace in the hole was Europe: conflict-averse, trade first, not wanting to be in the U.S. pocket over China policy and being this colossal trade partner of China. And so, no matter how bad things got with the U.S., even if there was a decoupling in technology, which was not then on the horizon, but even if that happened, they still had Europe. And so then, Xi Jinping sides with Vladimir Putin over the unprovoked criminal invasion of Ukraine, which is based upon all the lies that we know it's based upon, and he sides with him. And the Europeans say, "Wait a minute. Could this be happening? Not just Russia invading a sovereign country on the territory of Europe, but the Chinese going in?" And so what happened was, Xi Jinping destroyed his own wedge between Europe and the United States. And instead, Europe and the United States have embraced—not just on Russia policy, but on China policy now. And the trade first Europe, the Wandel durch Handel—Angela Merkel, change through trade—has blown up in everybody's face. And so now, how do you recuperate that? Dan, it's not just siding with Putin on Ukraine, but now, the Europeans understand that Tibet is Ukraine, and Xinjiang is Ukraine, and Hong Kong is Ukraine, and Ukraine is Ukraine.
And we haven't even gotten to Taiwan yet. And this is a profound realization, that maybe European policy vis-à-vis China should not have been what it was and instead should align with the U.S. to a great extent. Not 100 percent, but to a great extent. Xi's lost Europe. Is it a prominent loss? We'll see. But how does he recuperate Europe? Moreover, they have no commercial relationship with Russia to speak of. The only thing they get from Russia is very inexpensive oil and gas, which is available elsewhere in the world, and which they get from other places because they also have diversified sources—properly, from a strategic point of view in Beijing, for their hydrocarbons. They have their own UN veto. They don't need Russia's UN veto. So, what is it that they actually are getting in a positive way, to risk the trade relationship with Europe and the high-end technology?
Let's close this answer with a final point. Made in China 2035—the problem with that is, you can get there potentially, you can mobilize resources and you can get there, but the West doesn't stand still. There's massive investments in R & D and innovation in European countries, in Japan, in Australia, in South Korea, in North America, U.S. and Canada. You can maybe close some of the gap, especially if there's no decoupling, but the gap doesn't close fully, because the West doesn't stop. Innovation doesn't stop. So your dependency on the West never actually ends.
Knowing what you know now, after three months of war, about the vigor of the Western response, and knowing what you presumably knew before, about Putin and what the rest of us have seen in these past few months, what do you expect to happen in the months ahead in Ukraine? Can you imagine Putin accepting some plausible settlement? Is there a diplomatic path out of this? Or do you imagine that this will go on at great cost, more or less indefinitely, flaring up at various points and becoming the central preoccupation of American foreign policy for months or years?
Dan, you're in charge of Foreign Affairs, to the extent that when you tell people to do something, they do it. And when they don't do it, you're actually not in charge, you're nominally in charge. If they decide not to implement your directives, either quietly or not quietly, you don't have the kind of power in reality that you have on paper. So a despotism is only as good as the chain of command implementation. Right now, if Putin's commands are not implemented anywhere along the chain of command, including quietly, whether that's in the general staff or whether that's on the field of battle or right down to the platoon level, then he doesn't have as much power as we think.
So, there are a couple of really big variables to watch here. One is the ability of the Ukrainian Army to mount a counter-offensive at scale; not counter attacks, not defense of their territory, but combined arms operations, the kind that Russia failed in Ukraine to carry out successfully. Can the Ukrainian army, on the battlefield, do that to evict Russian troops from Ukrainian soil? Now, we're arming them with the heavy weapons necessary to attempt that counter-offensive, that combined arms operation at scale. And we'll see that in the upcoming months, whether that's in late June, July, August, depending on the battlefield situation and the amount of arms that actually get to the front.
The dynamic right now is: Russia bombs a school, Russia bombs a hospital, more heavy weapons get into Ukraine from the West. All Putin has to do is use a tactical nuclear weapon on Ukrainian territory, and then he's got not just heavy weapons, but he's got NATO forces engaging his troops. So that's the dynamic we have, which is very positive for the Ukrainian army, but the heavy weapons, I would say, are a necessary, but not sufficient condition. We hope they're able to pull off that combined arms operation against Russian forces that the Russians failed to do.
It could be that the Ukrainians can't, in which case, we have a stalemate. It could be that the Ukrainians can't manage, but the Russians believe they can and begin to disintegrate on the battlefield. A Russian disintegration, like a kind of bank run, where at first everything looks okay, and then all of a sudden there's this really rapid acceleration and everything unravels. They don't want to fight. They leave the battlefield. They join the Ukrainian forces. We can't exclude a Russian disintegration upon contact. We don't know how much of that is going on now. So, the Ukrainian ability to mount an offensive—remember, offenses are much harder than defense, they require a large superiority on the battlefield in terms of the number of soldiers, they require tremendous scale and coordination, your airplanes, your tanks, your infantry.
Can they do it? We hope so. We'll find out. Will the Russian army disintegrate? If it does, that's the end of Putin's despotism. So those are the two main dynamics to watch for. On the other side, however, we have to understand—we have to be sober about this. In many ways, it looks like Russia lost the war. They couldn't take Kyiv, they haven't been able to take the entire Donbas, both of their phase one and phase two or plan A and plan B have failed.
But they actually have penetrated more Ukrainian territory now than before the war started, and so they have to be evicted. And if they're not evicted, they're there. In addition, they have destroyed the Ukrainian economy. And finally, you have the Western unity issue, and I don't have to tell your listeners about Hungary's position vis-à-vis the EU oil embargo on Russia or Turkey's position vis-à-vis accession for Sweden and Finland into NATO. And that's just today. Project things out. Three months from now, six months from now, nine months from now. So if you're Putin in the Kremlin, can you ride this out? If you dig in instead of conducting more offensives, if you just dig in to try to hold the territory you've got, against both the Ukraine and offensive and partisans in your rear—and they are digging in—if Ukraine can't pull it off, if the West does begin to lose some of its resolve and unity or gets distracted, you can muddle through, if you're Russia.
One final point on this, Dan: let's remember the problem with economics textbooks. The models are brilliant and they explain a lot, but there's always this line which says, all other factors held constant, bang, bang, bang, you get the result from the model. But as you know, having been on the inside in government and editing Foreign Affairs and having all those incredible issues, covering things that happen in the world: stuff happens, including stuff that you don't foresee. And so, all other things are not held constant.
So, what happens as Iran begins to get closer and closer to the bomb, this summer? Does any Israeli government, whatever Israeli governments in power, tolerate that or do they decide to act and potentially, bomb Iran? And moreover, what do they have in the Israeli arsenal? Remember, the Obama Administration wouldn't give Israel those mountain-busting bombs, but we had the Trump Administration. Did Israel get those bombs? Even if they didn't get them, they have tremendous capabilities and they could act. And so, how does that upend the chess board and the calculations and the $8 billion a month to Ukraine and everything else? What happens in North Korea? What happens if [Kim Jong-Un] decides it's his time now? Like his grandfather once decided in 1950, as we discussed in the recent article in Foreign Affairs, that you published.
And then there are all these other things that I have no clue about, and I'm not watching closely and I'm not an expert on, and it'll probably be one of those things rather than the things we're watching. And so, that is a variable that always upends the chess board. So if you're Putin, you're holding out not just for those weaknesses that you perceive or you hope are there in Ukrainian offensive military capabilities, in western pocket books, in western resolve. Something else could happen in the world, that could come to your rescue. So I predict nothing. I have no idea what's going to happen. I know nothing about the future. In fact, I know even less than nothing about the future, but there are these factors to watch, is the way I would put it.
That is a good note of intellectual humility to end on—Stephen Kotkin, and the most recent essay in Foreign Affairs in our May/June issue is called "The Cold War Never Ended." Stephen, thank you so much for doing this today.
Well, thank you, Dan, for the opportunity.
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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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