Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine has exposed weaknesses in the Russian state, from rot in the army to the Kremlin’s authoritarian echo chamber. The war has also hastened Russia’s decline. The country has suffered enormous losses on the battlefield, and it has been cut off from important energy markets and access to critical technologies. Does this mean Russia should be ruled out—or at least downgraded—as a threat?

Deputy Editor Kate Brannen and authors Andrea Kendall-Taylor and Michael Kofman mark the launch of the November/December 2022 issue of Foreign Affairs with a discussion of Russian power and how it could threaten U.S. interests in the years to come.

Transcript:

BRANNEN: Welcome, everybody, to the launch of the November-December 2022 issue of Foreign Affairs. I’m Kate Brannen. I’m deputy editor of the magazine.

And I’m thrilled to be joined today by Andrea Kendall-Taylor and Michael Kofman. Andrea is director of the Transatlantic Security Program at the Center for New American Security, and Michael is the research program director of the Russia Studies Program at the Center for Naval Analysis and a senior fellow at the Center for New American Security.

I’m excited to talk to you both today about your recent article, “Russia’s Dangerous Decline.” It really serves as a warning not to become too complacent about Russian power and the threat it might pose, despite its losses on the battlefield.
 
Before we get to that, though, I’d like to talk to you—have you both walk us through what the war has done to Russian power sort of before we warn about not writing it off yet. But it, obviously, has suffered through the course of the war so far, and I thought we could start with the military. 

And, Michael, if you could tell us what toll the war has taken on the Russian military and what your thoughts are about recent mobilization and what impact that could have at reviving that power, if any. 

KOFMAN: Sure, and thanks for the invitation to participate in the discussion today. 

So the war, at least, certainly, the last eight months of it, have inflicted tremendous costs on Russia’s conventional forces, particularly, its ground forces. Russia has spent and misspent a lot of its best manpower, a good deal of its armored force, and a fair amount of ammunition, special artillery ammunition, and a good deal of its park of conventional and precision-guided weapons. 

That said, Russia still retains a lot of some of the higher-end capabilities that are most concerning for NATO and for the U.S. in defense planning. These are things like integrated air defense, advanced submarines, counter satellite systems and the like, and many of these have either not been used or used but not lost in large amounts in the war in Ukraine.
 
To be perfectly frank, I think a lot of times in military planning probably the least concerning aspect of the Russian force were sort of modernized late ’80s Soviet-era tanks and infantry fighting vehicles and much more concerning with these higher-end capabilities and their implications. 

All right. So where does it leave the Russian military? Well, it’s still fighting. Mobilization can help Russia fix some of the structural problems in its force in terms of its manpower deficit in the war. But it can’t fix the quality side of the equation in terms of the level of training of the personnel, leadership—Russia has lost a lot of its best officers and a lot of its best equipment. 

If the Russian leadership had chosen to mobilize back in April after the initial invasion, clearly, failed, it might have led to somewhat different outcomes because they still had a large percentage of the force available. They had enlisted professionals, officers. They had a lot more equipment to use. But they didn’t.

So mobilizing into the winter, I think, is partly an act of desperation to stabilize their lines, but they have conscripted a fairly sizable amount of personnel and the question is what’s that going to yield for them three to four months later.

I think it could extend the war. Quantity is not deterministic but it does actually matter. Mobilization had significant positive effects for Ukraine. Russia doesn’t benefit from the intangibles that Ukraine does. It doesn’t have the motivation or the morale, on the one hand, but on the other hand, it could, nonetheless, extend the war.

I can see a couple different trajectories that the situation could take in the next several months. Could simply make offensives more challenging or more costly. So it’s a picture to watch, and I think a better period to assess the net effect of mobilization might be something towards February rather than right now.
 
BRANNEN: OK. I also wanted to talk about the Russian military industrial base because this is really a war of attrition. It comes down to who runs out of ammo and equipment and people first, and in Washington you hear a lot of concern and a lot of talk about the American industrial base because it’s supplying the Ukraine side of the war, and you hear less about the Russian military industrial base, and I think of it as sort of these industrial bases, including Europe, sort of squaring off against each other. 

What has been the impact on the Russian military industrial base, not just the war but, obviously, American sanctions and Western sanctions, and where is it having the most trouble in supplying its own troops and how does it find workarounds? Because I know that is also—you hear about chips from washing machines being repurposed in missiles and things like that. 

So how is Russia sort of being creative to get around these problems it’s facing? 

KOFMAN: Sure. There’s a couple of different issues there.
 
So, first, regarding our own defense industrial base, it’s clear that, in many respects, we’ve become victims of the efficiency model, which may work in business but is not necessarily suitable for—when you’re planning for major wars.

Conventional wars do come down to attrition and they come down to replaceability of manpower, equipment, and ammunition, and the side that is best able to reconstitute over time can then begin to return to maneuver warfare, create real operational dilemmas for their opponent. 

U.S. defense industrial base and, particularly, European defense industrial base has demonstrated that our output is quite low in key areas like artillery ammunition, rocket ammunition, what have you, and that a lot of what’s been given is forcibly given out of stockpiles, which is, essentially, pulling out of your ammunition savings account, and that the longer the war goes on the more challenging it is because you begin running out of ammunition at an excessive rate. 

The Russian military also has substantial problems with ammunition. They were heavily reliant on artillery to offset their deficit in manpower in the spring and summer and they had a very high use rate of artillery.

They came about to mobilizing industrial production quite late in getting equipment out of storage, trying to increase artillery production, and I think they’re going to be facing deficits. In fact, I think that that’s probably the biggest issue right now for the Russian military effort and why they’ve adopted a defensive strategy writ large trying to entrench for the winter and reconstitute the force. I’m quite skeptical in their ability to return offensive potential after the winter, but we’ll see.

Regarding the defense industrial sector overall, so a couple of points here merit mentioning.

The first is that the Russian defense industrial complex is not autarkic; that is, it’s not self-sufficient. It is heavily dependent in areas on import of Western components—chips, electronics, key components, maybe, bearings and the like.
That said, it is relatively more self-sufficient than most other countries because our defense industries are actually heavily intertwined to global supply chains and we also do a lot of co-development. 

So, in that regard, Russia is a lot more self-sufficient than other countries. But its main dependencies will be components and also machine tools. They spent years modernizing and tooling up the defense industry with Western machine tools, in fact, which are, frankly, the best ones, and they’re going to have problems sustaining it over time. 

Regarding sanctions, though, and export controls, I think here a lot of the conversation might be overly optimistic—(inaudible)—not exactly technically sound. 

So, first, sanctions are going to have a very neat effect and quite noticeable effect, as we’ve seen, on the Russian economy and key commercial sectors that are dependent on foreign imports. 

But it’s going to take quite a while for them to actually affect Russia’s defense industrial complex. Many of the stories I’ve seen early on in spring and summer, I’m sorry, I just don’t believe them to be true, and we’ve seen the Russian defense industry deliver batches of equipment throughout this year. So a lot of this is a very low information environment. 

Here’s the reality. I think export controls over time—and over time I mean over the course of years, not over the course of months—like, these are effects you are not going to be seeing within the span of eight months.
 
I’m sorry. Nobody’s just operating on a two-month supply of chips in the defense industry in the Russian military. That’s very unlikely. At least that’s my opinion. 

That export controls will substantially constrain their access to these components. They will have to find workarounds. 
Now, Russia, like countries, let’s say, such as Iran, is rather well practiced at trying to get around export controls and importing chips through fake end-user certificates, shell companies, and what have you. 

In fact, we now have the opportunity to pull apart Iranian weapons that Russia is using, their drones. And they’re actually quite full of U.S. chips, too, and they’ve been one the longest sanctioned countries in the world. And it’s a very mixed story in terms of efficacy of export controls because they come down to enforcement. 

So I’ll wrap up on this. The more expansive the sanctions regime the more difficult it is to enforce, the more it becomes a question of enforcement and playing a bit of a game of whack-a-mole with the Russian military and Russian intelligence community that’s trying to get around export controls. 

I think you should appreciate that these things aren’t talismanic, meaning they don’t magically cut Russia off of access to chips and technologies. They make it much longer and much more costlier for Russia to acquire these technologies, but you should have some, we’ll say, moderate expectations of the downstream effects. 

BRANNEN: OK.

KENDALL-TAYLOR: Kate, I’ll just jump in really quick, too, just to highlight the point because you mentioned it too and Mike touched on it a little bit, which is the concern about U.S. and European defense industrial base and our ability to sustain weapons to Ukraine. 

I mean, we are facing a lot of challenges in that regard and I think there’s two key problems that I keep hearing regularly.
 
One is kind of the U.S. contracts. I heard anecdotally that after the White House announced that they would provide the NASAMS to Ukraine it took more than six months to actually get the contract signed and that production line going. 

And then, similarly, you hear a lot about our defense companies not having the horizon, not having confidence that the orders will keep coming, and so they’re not willing to make the costly investments to add new supply lines and other things that are going to be needed in order to sustain the weapons. 

So Mike’s right. Like, Russia will have some challenges on the defense side. But it is a major focus, I think, right, in this current moment for both the United States and the Europeans. We recognize it’s a challenge, and everyone is trying to figure out what it will take in order to be able to sustain the weapons that will—that Ukraine needs in order to stay on the fight and reclaim territory. 

BRANNEN: While you bring that up, I wanted to talk a little bit about the U.S. midterms and the American political picture because it’s directly tied to American staying power in Ukraine, and the inability of defense contractors to plan out, like, largely, depends on this political question in the United States and how long the U.S. will support Ukraine and whether it will wobble at all. 

Any sense from the results of the midterms? You know, there was not this red wave, which, to some people, predicted, you know, perhaps, more scrutiny on Ukraine aid. 

Is there a sense of relief now that that hasn’t happened from our allies or from Ukrainians themselves? Is there anything on that front that you could shed light on? 

KENDALL-TAYLOR: Yeah. I think there’s definitely relief that you hear from allies and also the Ukrainians.
 
But I still think we have a near-term/long-term problem. So, in the near term, I feel really confident that the United States and with this Congress will be able to sustain support for Ukraine.

Ahead of the elections there were some kind of perilous moments, right, when you had McCarthy with his statement that the United States wouldn’t provide a blank check, and then on the Democratic side on the far left the letter that came out that was also kind of pushing towards negotiations.

I think what was notable about both of those things is McCarthy kind of had to walk back his statements and, clearly, the Democratic caucus quickly rescinded its letter. So that, I think, inspired some hope. 

But with this outcome, it seems to me that at least U.S. support on the—sorry, on the military support to Ukraine will remain strong and robust. That seems to be where there is extremely strong bipartisan consensus that we need to continue to sustain the military aid. 

I think where I get a little bit more nervous is on the economic aid front, and I think that is likely to be a bit more of a challenge. I think you will, even though the Dems hold the Senate and the House, you’re going to hear more and more about oversight and, you know, like, that’s what was behind McCarthy’s statements, in many ways. More about oversight, more about anti-corruption, making sure American tax dollars are being spent adequately. 

And the other thing that I’m a bit concerned about, too, is there is a widening gap between what the United States is providing in terms of economic support to Ukraine and what the Europeans are providing, and I think I am surprised, honestly, that some of the kind of Trumpian Republicans haven’t pounced on this more to say that, you know, our allies aren’t pulling their fair share. This is a war that’s happening in Europe—why aren’t they doing more.

So I do think it’s plausible that this can—this might become the new 2 percent where you see some Republicans kind of bashing allies for not doing enough. So though—but in the near term, dollar amounts on military aid I feel good about. I worry more on the economic aid front.
 
But we do have this looming concern over the longer term in terms of what happens with the elections and, obviously, Putin and others are watching very closely because it is possible, it is plausible, that if Trump were to re-announce and win or another Trump-like candidate that that kind of support for Ukraine could be reversed.
 
So I guess that’s—it’s a good news story in the near term with still a lot of question marks in the longer term.
 
BRANNEN: Mmm hmm. To go back to sort of assessing Russian power, I wanted to ask you, Andrea, a little bit about Russian economic power and political power. 

At the beginning of the war there were really dire predictions about what would happen to the Russian economy in the near term as these sort of new sanctions were being leveled upon the Russian government.

How do you assess—it’s, definitely, a murkier picture, I feel like, than the military itself. But how do you assess the state of the Russian economy right now and how it relates to its power in the world?
 
KENDALL-TAYLOR: Well, Mike, touched on some of this with the sanctions and export controls. 

But you’re right, I think the Russian economy—the World Bank adjusted its assessment for this year that the Russian economy would contract by just 6 percent and, by comparison, I think Ukraine is something like 35 (percent) to 40 percent its GDP will shrink. 

So I think in the immediate the sanctions and export controls didn’t have the impact that many hoped that it would. But over the long term, as the points that Mike made, the sanctions and the export controls, in particular, are likely to continue to constrict and constrain Russia on the economic front and, certainly, all of the steps that Europe is taking to diversify its energy dependence away from Russia over the long term will significantly weaken Russia economically and take away a key source of leverage that the Russians have been able to have and use regularly over the Europeans. So I do—I think it’s a bit of a mixed picture. 

The other point we make in the article is that Russia has never been an economic powerhouse and, yet, it’s always been able to threaten and disrupt and challenge U.S. interests. 

The other key point that we make, too, I think, is that the more isolated that Russia is economically, the less of a stakeholder it is in the rules of the game, the more kind of emboldened it is to be disruptive, and I think those are the key points. 

So on all of these things, whether it’s the military, the economy, yes, of course, Russia is going to emerge from this weakened on both of those fronts. But it still retains important capabilities that the United States has to pay attention to.

I guess, and I—and maybe just the final point is, I think, for us that was the point of this article is, number one, kind of in the immediate aftermath of the conflict we saw a lot of experts and analysts in the community starting to significantly wave off Russia as a challenge, basically, saying, well, if they can’t even beat the Ukrainians then, really, the United States and Europe don’t need to worry about Russia. 

So that was one. We wanted to speak to that and, I think, have a more nuanced assessment.

And then the other point of this article is this war really shook the foundations of the Russia community and the way that we understood the Russia challenge, and so we saw this article as beginning the conversation of trying to evaluate, well, now what is the nature of the Russia challenge because we don’t want to over—we don’t want to underestimate Russia—

BRANNEN: Right.

KENDALL-TAYLOR: —because that creates all sorts of risks and challenges. But nor do we want to overestimate what it is because we recognize with China and climate change there’s so many competing challenges. 

So we wanted to start the conversation of trying to understand now, given what has happened in Ukraine, what is the nature of this Russian threat.

BRANNEN: Yeah. It does feel like Americans have real whiplash when it comes to the Russian threat. It’s either this, like, mastermind genius who’s, you know, changing elections here in the United States or it’s, you know, a complete fool who’s humiliated itself on the battlefield, and it does feel like we can’t right size that threat properly. 

Michael, I’m curious. I know you were in Ukraine recently. Do the Ukrainians see Russia clearly or do they—is there that—is there any level of complacency there? 

KOFMAN: No. I think, if anything, they’re actually less complacent than we are here and less consuming of the victory narrative, right, which is the distinction between Ukraine is winning and it has the initiative and is doing quite well versus it has already won, which is a sentiment you often get on social media and, actually, not just social media, regular media. 

I think in Ukraine the approach is much more sober minded, understanding that this is a conflict that’s likely to go on. Ukraine is, certainly, winning but a lot of its effort hinges on external material assistance, on the material availability and the policy to make it available, particularly in the United States. I wouldn’t say the United States is the only factor but, to be frank, I think it’s the number-one significant variable.
 
And also many European countries—their policies or support are reactive to the U.S. policy as they look to see to what extent the U.S. is willing to give something to see if they’re also going to contribute. 

And I think in Ukraine the views are real optimistic, but often defense establishments have to plan for a worst case scenario. So I think there they don’t find Russian mobilization, even with all the problems it has had visibly, to be a laughing matter. 

There, they understand that the Russian military was able to conduct an orderly withdrawal of most of its forces from Kherson. It’s a major strategic victory from Ukraine, but they realize they’ll have to face those forces again on another front and that the Russian plan is to try to extend the war and push the war well into next year while attempting to destroy Ukrainian critical infrastructure, right, to raise the economic toll and to increase the number of refugees. 

And so, I think, in Ukraine my impression is that of a well-motivated military and dealing with folks who very much think they’re winning but are also quite realistic about how much more there is to do, right, and not quite as optimistic that, you know, these last two victories mean that it’s going to be a short war or that it’s going to be an easy one.

Actually, the campaign in Kherson was quite costly. It was a grinding attritional battle. And also understanding that there’s still a fair deal of uncertainty in terms of whether the Russian military could stabilize its lines, whether it could entrench over the course of the winter and how that campaign can go, and the Russian strike campaign and its attempt to whittle away the Ukrainian economy. 

BRANNEN: I want to shift gears to the discussions of negotiations. 

Andrea, you mentioned the Progressive Caucus letter that came out at the end of October. It was quickly walked back and the people who signed it disavowed it. 

But, recently, just this week, you have General Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, telling an audience in New York that the winter is really a moment—a window—to seize and to get both sides to the negotiating table. 

Again, the Biden administration has distanced itself from these comments. It’s difficult to tell what’s exactly going on there. But what’s your take on this larger discussion about negotiations and whether it’s the proper time now or whether, you know, with Ukraine winning on the battlefield it’s really not the moment?

What is your take on that? 

KENDALL-TAYLOR: It is absolutely not the moment, and I think, if anything, we should be having a discussion about how the United States and Europe can lean in in the wake of the victory in Kherson to push even harder.
 
I think Mike—I mean, Mike just gave a good summary of where things are. I mean, the risk is now that after this victory subsequent victories for Ukraine could become ever more difficult as Russian forces are kind of consolidated and as they build up their defensive lines. 

And so what we’d want to prevent happening is this moving into a stalemate that drags on for a very long time. That’s not in the U.S. interest. It will increase the costs of sustaining a very long war. It increase the cost that we will have to pay eventually to rebuild and reconstruct Ukraine, and it creates really significant risks to Western cohesion, which up until this point has been impressive. But the longer this goes the greater the risks become. 

So it is absolutely not the right time to be talking about any sort of negotiations, and Mike makes this point regularly that, certainly, any ceasefire would just be used by Russia to reconstitute forces and they would come back at another time. 

So I think that’s where we are, and I would say from the Russian side, today, we should note, a hundred missiles launched and lobbed into Ukraine again. That, certainly, is not a signal of a side that’s ready and willing and genuine about any sort of negotiation.
 
So I don’t know exactly where the administration is. I agree, it is confusing with a lot of mixed signals. My sense is what you said, Kate, is that the White House in particular is trying to distance itself from Milley’s statements recently, reiterating that now is not the time for negotiations.
 
And so my sense is that’s where the White House is. But, again, it’s really hard to tell. But I think my sense and my opinion, my view, my assessment, is that now is, certainly, not the time for any sort of negotiations.
 
KOFMAN: Yeah. If I could just, maybe, briefly add to Andrea’s comment.

I think it’s important to consider that usually in a war if you want to have negotiations for a cease-fire you’re looking for one of two things and neither of them are present in this situation.

The first is a military stalemate, which doesn’t exist. Ukrainians are actually winning, and if you’re trying to impose a ceasefire it’s only going to benefit Russia, which desperately needs several months to try to reconstitute its forces. That is the Russian strategy, moving forward. But then it would—they would only renew the war. 

The second is either side being willing to revise their minimal war aims, which neither is willing to do. They’re irreconcilable. And Vladimir Putin, by going through with annexation, has essentially severed his ability to revise his minimal war aims; that is, there’s not much for him and Ukrainians to talk about after his annexation of Ukrainian territory, right? What the settlement point is now is profoundly unclear. 

So, from my point of view, that entire conversation is very much premature and it’s not aligned with Ukrainian sentiments at all and the Ukrainian approach in this war. So I’ll leave it at that. 

It’s not—I’m not being sort of performatively hawkish and saying there’s no space for negotiations. Many wars end with negotiated settlements, even when one side is, clearly, defeated. It’s just this doesn’t look like the time for it and a lot of conversations are really premature. 

BRANNEN: Michael, just to think a little bit about what happens next, what does control of Kherson and acquiring it in the way that it did, you know, without as big a fight, maybe, as some expected—what does it set Ukraine up to do next? 

KOFMAN: So, realistically, taking Kherson allows Ukraine to move up long-range artillery fire to range a lot of the southern occupied territory. Not down to Crimea, but it also allows them to now free all those forces that were deployed on a very large front in Kherson and, perhaps, displace them to a different part of the battlefield. 

The most important aspect of this victory is that it eliminates the prospect for a future Russian campaign along the southern coast because Russia no longer has a foothold west of the Dnieper River. So it no longer has the opportunity to try to pursue a future campaign towards Mykolaiv or Odessa, right. 

I think now Ukraine has a number of options regarding what they might want to do, right. They have the freedom of maneuver. They have interior lines. That is, it’s much easier for them to shift forces within Ukraine than it is for Russia to shift forces around Ukraine between different fronts.

They can now move them to the Donetsk or Luhansk, or they can work to reconstitute forces and prepare for a major offensive in the south, maybe, in the future. I’m not going to speculate.

Regarding the kind of immediate military outcome, yet to see. So the Dnieper River is a significant natural barrier. It is not an insurmountable barrier but it is a big natural barrier and it’s clear that the Russian military’s plan is to try to, essentially, fortify behind it, right, and shift forces further east and try to consolidate defensive lines, at least for the next several months. 

And Ukraine’s military strategy, from what I can tell, is to try to disrupt the reconstitution of the Russian forces over the winter. That is, to keep up the pressure, to increase the level of attrition because Ukraine does have a qualitative advantage in the kind of artillery and arms it is using, right, and to keep the battlefield dynamic—to keep it from sort of freezing and trenching behind which Russia can use this time period to raise the manning level tables in its forces, to build out reserves, to rotate troops, and try to fix many of the problems in its military over the next four months, right.
 
So even though as winter looms—it’s actually the worst in November and December because it’s cold and muddy and rainy—the battlefield itself, you know, it’s not going to—it’s not going to become stalemated or necessarily stagnant, even though the weather itself is probably prohibitive towards large-scale military offenses. It usually is.

BRANNEN: OK. 

Andrea, did you want to add anything? If not, we’ll go to—at this point, we’ll go to audience questions. I could talk to you guys for much longer but I don’t want to hog the mic. 

So, Sam, I’ll hand it over to you to start taking questions from our audience. 

OPERATOR: (Gives queuing instructions.)

Our first question is a written submission from Aaron Kaye (sp), who asks: November has been pretty mild so far. But as winter goes on what are some of the key things Ukraine will really need to get through the winter? Are the nearly daily attacks on Ukraine’s energy infrastructure having the desired effects and how much more can Ukraine sustain? 

KENDALL-TAYLOR: Mike, do you want to jump in or—I mean, I guess—I mean, it’s clear that—you know, I think it’s $4 billion a month or something that Ukraine requires in order to keep its budget afloat. 

So, yes, it is necessary. It is urgent that the United States and Europe continue to provide economic aid to Ukrainians.
 
They are asking for things like generators and batteries and other things to try to alleviate some of the hardship that the Ukrainian citizens will face. So there, certainly, is a whole host of economic support that it will be necessary for the United States and Europe to sustain. 

And then on the military front—and Mike can chime in on this—I think what you continue to hear from the Ukrainians in terms of what they need is, number one, the air defenses. That is one way that the Ukrainians can continue to keep their citizens safe in cities. So that is key to protecting electrical grids and heating and power and water. So air defenses are critical.

The other thing that President Zelensky talks very frequently about is armored vehicles and tanks and other things that they will need in order to retake territory. He also talks about needing them in large enough numbers so that entire kind of units can be equipped with the same tank because one of the challenges that they face is that they have a hodgepodge of different equipment, which makes maintenance for them really difficult.
 
And then the other thing that they hear regularly is the long-range artillery, and ATACMS continues to be at the top of their list and, again, helping Ukrainians—not being by any means a silver bullet in what they need but allowing them to strike more deeply into Russian-held territory is another way that, I think, you could kind of disrupt the potential current stalemate.

So both on the economic aid front but also this laundry list of things that the Ukrainians are asking for is another way that the United States and the West can ensure—again, I think the goal at this point is to accelerate the end of the war. 

Again, it’s in the United States interest that we can end the war as quickly as possible rather than having this get into a prolonged conflict that, as I said, will raise the costs both of sustaining it, of rebuilding Ukraine, and risks breaking up Western unity. 

So it’s really critical that the United States and Europe do the most that they can to sustain aid on both those fronts. 

OPERATOR: We will take our next question from Kimberly Marten.

Q: Thank you so much. This was a terrific discussion and, as always, I really enjoy learning from both of you. 

This is, maybe, a follow-up onto the statements that Andrea has made. How do you see this war ending? How should we expect things would change in Russia to get Russia to stop fighting? What is going to happen in Russia when this war ends?
 
I mean, it just—I know this is a question that gets asked a lot. But assuming that U.S. and Western weapons support continues to be flexible but at the same kind of level it is where it is, basically, designed to limit the Ukrainian ability to attack Russian territory and so it is designed to allow Ukraine to regain territory, do we see a future in which Putin just says, I give up, I lost, and that’s the end of it? Thanks. 

KENDALL-TAYLOR: Mike, I’m sure you’ll have thoughts, too. 

I mean, I can’t imagine that Putin would terminate the war by choice, and I think there’s some interesting research that was, I don’t know, published a month or so ago on War on the Rocks that I found especially interesting that was a comparative look at war termination, and I’m forgetting the author’s name. 

But it is extremely infrequent when you look across wars that the leader who started a war would end the war, and even though kind of leadership turnover can facilitate war termination, this scholar found that even then a leader that inherits the war is often bound by the same kind of ideas, the same kind of risks of blame, that the previous leader, especially if that leader comes from within the inner circle, right—so that even war termination under a—for a leader who inherits the war is also not as high as we might expect.
 
So that’s number one is I can’t really imagine a scenario in which Putin accepts something that is quite clearly a loss for Russia. I think he would rather drag this out and have a prolonged war so that he doesn’t have to reckon with the consequences. 

I think for Putin it would be better for this to drag on than him to kind of pull out with a clear defeat because I do think that could potentially be destabilizing. So it’s still really hard for me to imagine exactly how this ends.
 
In an ideal world, I think we should be pushing for Ukraine to retake all of its territory, at least to the east. Crimea is another question, and I know that’s where a lot of the most contention arises. 

But it seems to me a realistic solution to that is if Ukraine can retake its territory there could be a way to at least have Western leaders come out to say that they recognize that Ukraine—that Crimea is Ukrainian but that they kind of kick the can down the road with an agreement to negotiate about its status at a later date.
 
To me, that seems like the best possible outcome. It is, at least where we are today, feels like a long way away. But given some of the recent Ukrainian victories, I don’t think we can rule out that we could get there at some point. 

But, Mike, I don’t know if you have different thoughts.
 
KOFMAN: Yeah. So I think it’s a great question. Thanks for asking that.

So I would say the honest answer is I don’t know how this war necessarily ends. The challenge with wars is that it’s difficult to see inflection points except in hindsight, and you often have a bias whenever you’re in a war in assuming that the war is going to go on the way it has in whatever phase you’re currently observing, and wars tend not to work that way. So you tend to linearly sort of extrapolate and have the status quo bias about how a war can continue. 

So that’s kind of the challenge of trying to see the future. But I can see one outcome where the Ukrainian military is successful enough to pressure Russia to revise its minimal war aims. That might be an optimistic scenario.

I could see another one where the war is a sustained conflict and even though Russia has no prospect for winning Putin, simply, is unwilling to end the war. And one of the annoying things about wars is it’s typically up to the loser to decide when the war is over, and Russia can, simply, not acknowledge military defeat and keep the war going via various means like the strikes you saw today, right.

Even if there are no Russian soldiers on the battlefield Russia can keep the war going as it makes more missiles. It could—let’s imagine a pessimistic scenario so we have a realistic discussion and it’s not all rosy eyed.

You know, it could be a negative-sum game where a strategic defeat for Russia is not necessarily a victory for Ukraine. A lot of people assume that one means the other but it does not. Or Ukraine could be incredibly successful but the result is something that leads to nuclear escalation, which, I think, weighs very much on the minds of folks in Washington, D.C. Yeah, there’s a desire for an accelerated victory, but also you hear a lot of concerns about the implications of that as well for the imperative of escalation management.

I’m not necessarily saying what I think. I’m just saying what I think people who are in a position to actually make decisions on these subjects think in this city. And there are lots of events that could be unforeseen. You know, you could have a cascade failure of the Russian military; a collapse resulting from a Ukrainian breakthrough. You could have a tremendous drop in morale over the course of the winter amongst mobilized personnel and have a part of the line fail, right.

So these sort of serendipitous events that you can imagine but may not necessarily predict and they then put parties into a position where they have to make decisions they might not have otherwise anticipated. 

So, sorry, that’s not a satisfying answer. I often give unsatisfying answers to these questions. But at least it helps, I think, map out the range of possibilities. 

OPERATOR: Our next question is a written submission from William Wye (sp), who asks: What can Taiwan learn from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as it faces a possible invasion from the Chinese? 

KENDALL-TAYLOR: Mike, that’s all you. That’s a military question. (Laughs.)

KOFMAN: Yeah. Well, be very careful in generalizing from a context. I always warn people at first people like to strip away the context of a particular war and try to figure out lessons for their own situation. 

But military power and how it expresses itself is very context dependent. And the second part I’d say is that, oftentimes, early on in a war you learn a lot of things that aren’t true. Most of the early lessons are wrong, just to be frank. They’re based on very incomplete information and kind of tangential takes, and it takes time to actually figure out what happened in the war. You know, I tell people we still debate over what happened in World War I and why. So you have to manage your expectations about eight months into this war that you’ve got the lessons down as to what actually took place and what it means. 

I guess my takeaway would be that certainly a concerted defense, leveraging urban terrain as possible, those were big—a big part of the Ukrainian success story early on. However, this was very much a conventional artillery war and it’s a war with a lot of technology that you might have seen being demonstrated online in social media is not really the capability that’s been most decisive. 

I’d say the big lesson is going to be pretty boring. First, a lot of major conventional wars, beyond the initial operation, come down to attrition, as I described before.

Second, much of it has to do with a country’s ability to withstand the initial blow, prove resilient, and that’s a question about force structure and the amount of hedge you built in. That’s actually, to me, often the most interesting thing.

I find capability discussions technically fascinating but intellectually often very boring because force structure and force design is going to reveal a lot more about how a military is going to fight and the strategic choices they made than which anti-tank missile they ended up buying at the end of the day. OK. 

Beyond that, capacity and being prepared for a war of attrition. Wars like this very rapidly consume your equipment and your best capabilities. And the question is how much hedge have you sort of built into your force, right, your ability to sustain that fight. 

But the contexts are very different, right. Like, a Chinese amphibious invasion of Taiwan is going to be rather different than the context you’ve seen of the Russian invasion in Ukraine, and also keep in mind that the initial Russian operation was a regime change operation rather than a combined arms operation with good planning, prepared forces who actually expected to fight and were going to make the Ukrainian military the center of gravity in the assault. That’s not what took place in this war.
 
Fortunately, it did, right. It made the Ukrainian task of defending much easier. I don’t think Taiwan is going to have that luxury, to be perfectly honest. But, of course, they have certain other advantages being a fairly large island with complex terrain relative to China.
 
So we can keep going on this question. The one thing I will say is that what you definitely see is the supremacy of the political in war and political assumptions in driving a military campaign, the fact that it will affect the concept of operation. There isn’t this sort of air gap between professional military planning and the assumptions of a political leadership when they actually decide to use force, and you see that consistently and you see that demonstrated in this war.
 
And, second, that things in war go wrong very, very quickly and they often go wrong, actually, on both sides, right, and the side that’s best able to recover from that—from those initial assumptions going wrong is often the one that stands a better chance of prevailing over time.
 
And the last point is quantity and quality are significant but there’s nothing more deterministic than force employment—how you actually use those capabilities and what the military strategy is. 

OPERATOR: Our next question will be a live question from Amy Austin Holmes.
 
Q: Hi. Thank you very much for this fascinating discussion. I’m an international affairs fellow at CFR. 
My question is how you think—how both of you assess the Russian war in Ukraine has impacted Russian capabilities, particularly in Syria. The New York Times reported last month that Russia withdrew an air defense system and some of its troops from Syria to Ukraine. There was speculation as to the number of troops, whether it was two battalions or more. But I’d be interested to hear if you have any thoughts on how the war has impacted Russian capabilities elsewhere, particularly in Syria. Thank you. 

KOFMAN: Well, I think the war, overall, has put a huge strain on the Russian force, right, and on ability to sustain operations distant from the Russian border. I mean, for one, there’s just simple military transit problem where Russia has to primarily resupply Syria or change force posture by airlift. 

I think that the war has consumed the better part of the active force. It’s consumed a lot of the equipment, the volunteer units as well, and it’s led Russia to really rethink parts of the force posture it’s had abroad.

But I don’t read anything to withdrawal of an S-300 battery. Russia has countless S-300 air defense units and has a lot of ammunition for them. And why that was moved, you know, these are small tactical events. To be honest, I don’t see them with major strategic significance. I don’t read anything into it, to be perfectly frank, and I don’t try to fill that uncertainty with, like, speculation. 

So, from my point of view, it doesn’t matter that much. I don’t think Russia is going to withdraw from Syria. It may downsize its footprint there by a meaningless amount of forces. But the Russian footprint in Syria is very small to begin with. There was always one mixed aviation regiment with some force protection around it and a limited ground presence and, typically, it never exceeded six thousand troops, and probably right now it’s quite short of that.

So I don’t see that sort of as being a big buildup either way.
 
OPERATOR: Our next question is a written submission from Hale Marku (ph), who asks: What do you make of the recent speculation about the U.S. admin urging Kyiv to be open to negotiations? What is your read on Jake Sullivan’s visit to Kyiv and CIA director to Turkey, where he met with his Russian counterpart? 

KENDALL-TAYLOR: So, Kate, you touched on that a little bit with your questions. 

But I think on the—encouraging the Ukrainians to be open to negotiations, in particular, to me, I think, that the administration is worried about cohesion, worried about sustaining support for Ukraine over the long term. 

And so my best guess is that they—you know, Zelensky had made the statement that he isn’t willing to negotiate with Putin and only with a future Russian leader, and I think the administration was concerned that that very definitive hard line position could alienate support, allow kind of third world countries, onlooking countries, to shift blame to Ukraine for the prolongation of the war. 

So I think that’s what I read into it is an effort by the United States to try to sustain as broad of a coalition of support as possible for the Ukrainians.
 
And then on the negotiations with Bill Burns and Turkey, again, it’s really hard to know exactly what those are. I don’t think we’re necessarily getting the full story behind all of that. You know, obviously, the administration has tried to sell it as Bill Burns warning the Russians about what would happen in the event that Russia used nuclear weapons.

I’m not sure that’s all there is there. But, again, the fact that a day after the meeting Russia launched a hundred missiles on Ukraine doesn’t suggest that those talks were going particularly well and that they were producing anything fruitful.
 
So I think that’s where we are. 

OPERATOR: Our next question will be from Mark Hannah.

Q: Hi. What a fascinating conversation. Thank you. Mark Hannah with the Eurasia Group Foundation. 

I’d love for you to just sort of rank what you think U.S. war aims should be. I know that we’re not officially, you know, party to this conflict but—and, certainly, American interests aren’t completely aligned with Ukrainian interests here. They deviate in various ways. 

But in terms of just, you know, avoiding escalation with nuclear—a nuclear-armed power versus protecting the Ukrainian people versus preserving democracy or territorial integrity, what do you think? There hasn’t been a clear articulation of what are the primary goals here and I’d love to hear from you guys what you think they are. 

KENDALL-TAYLOR: I can jump on that and then see if Mike has anything to add. 

I mean, I think, number one, first and foremost, is to support Ukraine to get to a, quote/unquote, “Ukrainian victory” however we might define that and to ensure as the administration continues to say that Ukraine is in as strong a position as possible once they eventually do get to the negotiating table. So I think that’s kind of priority number two. 

When you look at other objectives, I think the United States is looking to minimize the impact of the war on the rest of the world so, certainly, things like the green deal, the energy shocks, and other things. I think one of the goals is to maintain cohesive allied support for Ukraine to ensure that this doesn’t become a divisive issue. 

Obviously, as you said, one of the key goals, and as Mike alluded to weighs heavily on the minds of the U.S. administration, is to prevent any direct military conflict between the United States and Europe. I think it’s to increase the strength of NATO. I guess that could fall under the kind of what—you know, the cohesive and strong allies. 

It’s to help the Europeans accelerate their energy independence from Russia and to ensure, I think, one of the goals—and, obviously, there’s been debate about how to articulate this appropriately in public—is to diminish Russia, and, you know, Milley came out to say, you know, that the United States wants to weaken Russia. That elicited a lot of backlash. 

But I do believe that one of the goals of the administration is to ensure that Russia can’t continue and return to aggression beyond its borders. 

So I think there is a long list of goals. Obviously, support for Ukraine and getting to Ukrainian victory is at the top of that, and I—and, again, minimizing the impact of the war.
 
I think there’s another one you would put in there on kind of in between states and ensuring the broadest coalition of support possible and ensuring that some countries like India and others that have been on the fence continue to move in the direction of the United States rather than sitting on the fence. 

So I do think that there’s a long list of goals. But I agree it’s been a while since the administration has been out to articulate what the goals are. I think the last we heard from President Biden was his op-ed back in July. And I think a lot of us have this feeling like we are—the United States is outsourcing our foreign policy to the Ukrainians. 

But I think when you get a U.S. official in the room those are the things that they would be able to articulate. I do think that they are operating from a fairly clear list of goals that they all understand internally. 

But I think they’re falling short on being able to articulate that to the public. So that would be what I put on my list as what the goals are. 

OPERATOR: Our next question is a written submission from Mona Yacoubian, who asks: Is there a danger of falling into an escalatory cycle of continuing to push for additional military gains and, in effect, ending up in a long-term war of attrition rather than accelerating the end of the war, as desired? Is it not possible to prepare the way for negotiations while continuing the fight on the ground?

KENDALL-TAYLOR: Mike, do you want to jump on that? 

I guess—and I want to add one goal, which is a China-related goal, and I think, again, the United States is trying to ensure that China rethinks its position on Russia. I think that’s something else the administration would say. 

But, Mike, I don’t know if you want to answer this question. I can jump on it after you. 

KOFMAN: Yeah. I’m not sure I fully understand the question, to be honest. 

I mean, I don’t see escalation as necessarily tied to the phasing of the war—how it’s progressing, right. Escalation is probably derivative of the two sides’ red lines and, you know, they’re either crossed or they’re not, and whether you cross them through one military strategy or another, I don’t think, really matters all that much. 

I think escalation management is an imperative but it’s not disarming one. The U.S. has been pretty successful in supporting Ukraine’s military efforts while also managing escalation and so far that’s actually gone pretty well. Not to say that it’s going to continue that way. 

I’m not sure that there’s much meaning in discussing short war, long war, accelerated or not. Like, Ukraine is not fighting this war intentionally slowly, if that’s what people think. That’s not what’s taking place, right. 

So the war is going, I think, about as fast as it could go with the provision of U.S. arms and U.S. ammunition that’s being provided already, I think, at a rate that’s not necessarily sustainable. 

So the U.S. is actually trying to ramp up production of ammunition as are European countries. Folks seem to appreciate that, that it’s not like the war is going this way for lack of trying. 

I’m not sure what else to add to it. Like, I think Mona has a good question. I think it’s very much up to the Ukrainians, to be perfectly honest, and it’s up to the military strategy that they want to pursue and how—you know, how they want to approach the war. 

Q: Can I ask a quick follow-up?

Is there a disconnect between Washington and Kyiv about escalation? Are there red lines that the Ukrainians are willing to cross or explore that the Americans are not? Or are they on the same page on that? 

KENDALL-TAYLOR: I think that’s hard to say. I mean, certainly, Crimea is going to be a major issue at some point and I think that’s where you’re likely to see the most divergence between the Ukrainian position and the U.S., as currently stated. 

So, right now, Ukraine’s war aims are to restore its territorial integrity to the, you know—to its original lines and that includes Crimea. I think there’s going to be a lot of heartburn in Washington over what to do in Crimea. 

But there are small little issues. So, like, the ATACMS are a good example. Obviously, the Ukrainians want the ability to hit further with precise strikes. The United States is very concerned that Ukraine would use those to strike into Russian territory.
 
The Ukrainians are trying to mitigate, where they can, the divergence by saying to the United States, well, if you give us the ATACMS we promise that we will kind of get your preapproval on any targets that we seek to strike using those.
 
So, I think, there are, I think, small points of difference that the Ukrainians recognize and are looking for creative solutions to minimize that difference. 

But over the long term, I think Crimea is going to be the key area where, if we were to get to that point where Ukraine was actually seriously looking to retake territory in Crimea, that the United States could end up pressuring the Ukrainians not to move in that direction and, again, encouraging them to kick that can down the road as part of a future discussion while recognizing that our position is unchanged, that we still view Crimea as part of Ukraine but it might not need to be settled immediately. 

So, I think, little points of friction. Generally, on the same page, except if we get to that point where we have to discuss Crimea. 

I don’t know. Mike, agree? Disagree? 

KOFMAN: Yeah, I agree. I just think that the—here’s my view of it. 

I think that the more that Ukraine is successful on the battlefield, right, and the more territory that it regains and the better its position down the line, the greater, potentially, the risk of escalation, and that’s when over time you can get misalignment or much less alignment on how this war ends. 

But my personal view is that that is all a good problem to have. OK. Brilliant discussion. Let’s get it there and then have a conversation on how to realign those things. But we’re not there yet. 

So I see, like, a lot of premature conversations on the basis of what happened in Kharkiv, which is not a model for how this war is going to go, and then based on what happened in Kherson, which I’m not sure is fully understood yet.

So I think it’s best to actually be in a place where you can have the happy problem of discussing misalignment from policy success. 

BRANNEN: I think we have time for one or two more questions, Sam. 

OPERATOR: We will take our next question from Tom Davis. 

Q: Hello. It’s a great discussion. 

Tom Davis, former Army artillery officer and at one time the chief of the nonstrategic nuclear forces branch on the joint staff. 

I think Andrea is the only one who’s mentioned the nuclear component of this. So I have, basically, a two-point question.

Do we really have to have a serious concern about a desperate Putin doing a desperate thing and resorting to some sort of battlefield nuclear or tactical nuclear weapon? 

And, secondly, to turn around William’s question earlier for Michael, what might the Chinese—the People’s Republic—have learned from this conflict? 

KENDALL-TAYLOR: I’ll weigh in first. 

I mean, I do think we have to worry about the risk of nuclear escalation, and Mike was getting at this. The better that Ukraine does on the battlefield the greater the risk of that type of escalation grows in the long term. And I say that—I mean, I know that there’s a lot of people who are making the argument that we’re overstating the risk of nuclear and that then kind of—we’re self-restraining because we’re overstating the risk of that. 

But I think it’s really hard to know, right. I mean, and so a couple of things that stick out to me for why it’s plausible that Putin would go there is, first and foremost, like, if he gets to the point where he believes that his own regime’s survival is at stake. I think that’s the only case.

I don’t see him using this to shift tides on the battlefield because, as you rightly said, it doesn’t have much utility on the battlefield. But I can imagine a scenario in which Putin feels like he is at risk of being ousted because of a glaring failure in Ukraine and kind of sends up a hail Mary, to use a sports metaphor, in order to try to kind of preempt that outcome. 

And the reason I say that is, I mean, just from studying authoritarian regimes, when these leaders exit office it’s these highly personalized autocrats who face the most risk of being either killed, exiled, or jailed. So they face the worst fate once they are ousted from office.
 
So, for Putin, I think he equates the risk of being ousted as a result of his failure in Ukraine with his own survival and that’s kind of the one instance in which I think he could use it. And, again, I don’t think he would use it in order to achieve or gain any advantage on the battlefield.
 
I also think that he might calculate that it would be very divisive to Western cohesion. Perhaps the Germans would respond differently. I don’t—so maybe he views it as a tool to try to break consensus in the alliance about how to sustain support for Ukraine, moving forward.

So, again, it is a low probability kind of event and it’s in that case where Putin feels that his own survival is at stake, that he could go down that path. 

KOFMAN: Yeah. It’s very real. Like, no one should hand wave away the prospect of nuclear escalation. 

It may not be incredibly high. But after enacting wartime measures and mobilization and going through with annexation, he’s fully committed the regime to this war. The war is now going to go on as long as he’s in power. 

There’s not a lot of ways for him to step back from having launched this and that just suggests that if the worst comes to pass for the Russian military, then the risk of nuclear escalation is not insignificant down the line. Just being perfectly frank. So we should consider it. 

How Russia might employ nuclear weapons, you know, that’s a debate. I, actually, don’t know why people are so dismissive of battlefield nuclear use. I don’t think that Russia would use nuclear weapons in that way. 

But I’ve learned a lot of things about nuclear weapons in the last month on the internet that I don’t think are true, OK, so to put it politely in that, yeah, nuclear weapons can be used on the battlefield and actually have effects. But putting all that aside, I don’t think that’s necessarily the right scenario to consider. 

On Chinese lessons, I, honestly, don’t know. That will be a tremendous case of intellectual tourism for me not only to wander into what Chinese think but, specifically, what they think about this war, right.

I’m willing to just, at best, guess that they’re going to assign a lot of Russian failure to Russian mistakes specific in this context and see their situation as different. I can tell you what lessons I hope they learn, personally, which isn’t the question you’ve asked but might be of relevance. 

I hope that they learn the military lesson that, actually, if they can’t achieve an isolation of the battlefield early on that the United States remains the most capable military power and could very steadily grind them down. 

And the second one is that the U.S. holds tremendous structural economic power in the international system and can really put the screws to China. If they take a good look at the sanctions package and the export controls as applied to Russia, I think it should be a very valuable lesson, I hope, of what the United States and other countries might do. 

Now, of course, they’ll only do it if China intends on something like a major military operation against Taiwan. But I think this should be a valuable lesson. I don’t know if that’s the one they’ll take. 

BRANNEN: All right. Sam, is that it for questions? 

OPERATOR: I think we’ve hit the time. 

BRANNEN: Yeah. 

OPERATOR: I’ll turn it back over to you. 

BRANNEN: OK. 

Well, I just want to thank you both so much for doing this and thank everyone for joining us today. Please find and read our latest November/December 2022 issue, in which you’ll find both Andrea and Michael’s article that they wrote together. 

Thank you, everybody. 

(END)

This is an uncorrected transcript.

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