CFR Discussion: Geopolitical Implications of Russia's Invasion of Ukraine
The conversation on Geopolitical Implications of Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine during the International Studies Association 2022 Annual Convention featured Audrey Kurth Cronin, distinguished professor in the School of International Service and director of the Center for Security, Innovation, and New Technology at American University; Charles A. Kupchan, CFR senior fellow and professor of international affairs in the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service and Department of Government at Georgetown University; and Kori Schake, senior fellow and director of foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute. James M. Lindsay, senior vice president, director of studies, and Maurice R. Greenberg chair at CFR, moderated the discussion.
LINDSAY: Good afternoon everyone. I am Jim Lindsay, senior vice president at the Council on Foreign Relations.
It is my great pleasure to welcome you to today’s on-the-record CFR luncheon discussion on the geopolitical implications of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. It is also my great pleasure to introduce a stellar set of panelists: Audrey Cronin, Charles Kupchan, and Kori Schake. I am going to keep my introductory remarks short even though I could talk at great length about each of them and the wonderful work they have done.
Immediately to my left—at least geographically; not necessarily politically—(laughter)—is Audrey Cronin. She is distinguished professor in the School of International Service and director of the Center for Security, Innovation and New Technology at American University. She is the author of How Terrorism Ends: Understanding the Decline and Demise of Terrorist Campaigns. Her most recent book, Power to the People: How Open Technological Innovation is Arming Tomorrow’s Terrorists was short-listed for the Lionel Gelber Prize and won the 2020 Airey Neave Prize. So congratulations on that, Audrey.
CRONIN: Thanks, Jim.
LINDSAY: In the center of the stage—not necessarily politically—(laughter)—is Charlie Kupchan. Charlie is a senior fellow at the Council, and a professor of international affairs at Georgetown University. From 2014 to 2017, Charlie served as special assistant to the president and senior director for European affairs on the staff of the National Security Council under President Barack Obama. Charlie’s most recent book is Isolationism: A History of America’s Efforts to Shield Itself from the World.
Finally, to my far left—again, geographically; not necessarily politically—is Kori Schake. Kori is senior fellow and director of foreign and defense policy at the American Enterprise Institute. She has held policy positions across government including on the staff of the National Security Council, and at the U.S. State Department where she was deputy head of policy planning. Her most recent book is America vs. the West: Can the Liberal World Order be Preserved?
So Audrey, Charlie, Kori, thank you very much for joining me. We have agreed that we will engage in a conversation for about twenty-five minutes. At that point we’re going to open it up to everyone else in the room.
Given that the title of our session is Geopolitical Implications of Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine, I’d like to focus our conversation more on what the invasion means or doesn’t mean for global order rather than focus on why Russia invaded or why Putin didn’t get the quick victory that he anticipated.
So where I’m going to start is a question for all of you. Vladimir Lenin once remarked that there are decades where nothing happens and weeks where decades happen. Now it certainly feels like we are in the latter situation right now, but is this really an inflection point in the global order, and if it is, is the best historical analogy for the current moment 1815? 1857? 1905? 1914? 1939? Pick whatever you want.
Since I introduced you last, Kori, you get the first crack at the question.
SCHAKE: No, I decline. I give Charlie the first crack at the question. (Laughs.)
KUPCHAN: I was—you were going to buy time for me to think, so—(laughter).
The era that most resembles—I’m going to—
LINDSAY: I’m going to ask you the first question. Is this an inflection point?
KUPCHAN: It’s definitely an inflection point, and I guess the decade that most immediately comes to mind would be the 1890s, and that’s because I think it’s in the 1890s that a series of developments took place that enabled us to actually see the changes in the global balance of power that were taking place slowly, but it brought them to the surface. And that’s because during that—it was during that decade the United States came online as a power with geopolitical ambition outside its neighborhood, picked a fight with the Spanish, turned into a colonizer of the Philippines and other places. Germany embarked on its High Seas Fleet in 1898. And so there was a kind of consolidation of a multi-polar setting that I think looked similar to today.
And there was also a lot of domestic change and political fluidity that was the product of industrialization in Germany, in the United States. This was the progressive era dealing with large corporations, trusts, how do we tame them. This resonates with our age, both in terms of what’s happening in other places, but also in here. There’s a lot of economic or socio-economic dislocation that is taking place because of globalization.
So that’s—I think I’d say 1890s.
SCHAKE: So can I now confess that I was actually reading the ISA tribute to the Trail of Tears so I had to punt to Charlie because I actually didn’t know what question you were asking. I wasn’t listening, Jim—(laughter)—and now that I know it’s is this an inflection point—thank you, Charlie for stepping forward when I was unprepared—I don’t actually think it’s an inflection point.
LINDSAY: Why not?
SCHAKE: I think we are still litigating the end of the Cold War, that we assumed that the end was 1991 and 1992 with the unification of Germany, the collapse of the Soviet Union, the expansion of freedom, but in fact, Russia is more continuous with the Soviet Union than it is different from the Soviet Union under Vladimir Putin. And so, I think what we are seeing is a resurgent effort by the countries of the West to restrict Russian power when it is used for the suppression of the sovereignty and freedom of others.
So I think we are still litigating the end of the Cold War. I hope it will be an inflection point because we succeed and we will end up with a Russia that either lives within the existing rules of the Western order or changes.
LINDSAY: OK, Audrey, so we have a vote for an inflection point. We have a vote for no inflection point. Where do you weigh in?
CRONIN: Well, I think that whenever we talk about historical analogies, I get really nervous because Ernest May’s book had a huge impact on me early in my career—Thinking in Time—and I think personally I’m going to split the difference, and we can choose from different analogies. So I think we do have a lot of what Charlie has talked about; certainly at the end of the nineteenth century you had globalization, you had inequality at tremendous levels. You had a huge monopolization of major companies that were controlling more and more. You had the maturation of fossil-fuel-based economies, which is quite similar to the maturation of digitally based economies, and also the equivalent to oil, I would say, is—many have said—the equivalent to oil and coal is data. The data economy is becoming quite mature.
And so I think the broader context is more the way that Charlie laid it out. But I also agree with you, Kori, because I think that, you know, 1947 is a period where I would look back and say we were—I mean, I did write my first book on the negotiations over Austria, so I see that as being very comparable to what we’re thinking about in some ways with respect to Ukraine—or what the Ukrainians are thinking about. So I can certainly see the continuation with respect to the Soviet Union and Russia there, too. So I think we—you know, we have to pick and choose a little bit.
Kori, I want to come back to you, and you can throw this question to Charlie or Audrey if you want—
SCHAKE: (Laughs)—I’m listening now, I promise.
You know, you have written a book asking about whether the liberal world order can be preserved, and you have mentioned that we have seen a remarkable show of unity and action in the West. I think the West as a term has sort of gotten a new lease on life. But the fact that there is unity at the start of the crisis doesn’t mean there will be unity at the end of the crisis.
How do you assess the chances for Western cooperation to continue to be sustained? Do you think it’s temporary? Or is there an opportunity here for it to be long lasting?
SCHAKE: That’s a really good question, and the honest answer is I don’t know. But I do see—and things are about to get a lot more painful for the countries of the West economically and possibly even politically to sustain the very hard line we have taken, and not just because it looks like Russia is going to turn off the gas pumps unless Western countries will pay in rubles to get Russia around some of the creative economic sanctions that the West has put forward, but also the inability to export wheat from Ukraine and natural resources from Russia. This is going to be a huge humanitarian crisis. We are going to have a food crisis, most particularly in the developing world. And that, too, will put pressure on Western governments.
The good news is the amazing creativity of the treasury departments of the Western countries to come up new tools to try and impose economic costs on Russia. The bad news is it’s not yet clear what the second-order effects of those tools are going to be, and who they’re going to hurt, and who they’re going to help as they—as they sink their roots.
So we have set sail in very choppy waters. We did it for very good reasons, and I think, though, that two things will help Western countries hold together. The first is Russia is so obviously in the wrong here, and in a way, that’s dangerous—not just to Ukraine; it’s dangerous to this system of rules that have made the West safe and prosperous; namely borders only changed by consent, and sovereignty is inherent in any state—large, small, weak, powerful.
So having the German SPD chancellor almost triple German defense spending this year, to commit to the NATO 2 percent next year as opposed to 2035, which was Germany’s opening position, to start sending arms to Ukraine, and to agree to wean Germany off of Russian oil and gas by the end of this year—I don’t see how you walk that back. He planted his sword, and I think that will hold—since Germany is one of the weakest links in Western unity on the sanctions that have been taken against Russia, it will be very hard for others to walk back if Germany holds the line.
And the second thing is the war in Ukraine is taking on the trappings of a moral crusade, right? There are good guys in this and there are bad guys in this. And it will be very hard for a country of the West to—after all they have already said, look in the face what Russia is doing—you know, kidnapping mayors from towns they have occupied, shelling apartment buildings, and it was easier for us to look away in Afghanistan, in Syria, and in other places. It will be harder for them to look away in a neighboring country as it takes on this overtly moralistic overtone.
LINDSAY: Let me ask you, Audrey, since you have written about Austria, do you see the potential for a negotiated deal that could stick, particularly in light of the point that Kori just made that this is starting—at least in the United States—to turn into a moral crusade, and it’s very difficult to compromise when you are supposedly fighting over good versus evil?
CRONIN: Yes, well, neutrality is not necessarily good versus evil. I mean, it’s a different plane altogether, right? So you’re talking geopolitics. You can have good or evil regimes that are neutral. So I don’t really see the question of whether Ukraine could be neutral in those kind of crusade terms.
I think it’s all up to the Ukrainians and whether or not they can negotiate a deal that serves their interests. And there’s a bunch of key things that I’m really worried about. One of them is they are talking about not joining any kind of foreign alliances. So the details on that are very, very important. So if that’s part of an agreement, who decides what a foreign alliance is, is going to be very important.
The second thing is that security guarantees—they want security guarantees, and they’re saying from the United States, France, and Britain, and that’s essentially an Article 5 commitment. That is quite potentially dangerous to NATO, so it could be quite destabilizing depending upon the details.
What if the security guarantor were China, as well? What if Russia were insisting upon that as the agreement. So the devil is in the details in this agreement and to what degree are the Russians going to insist that there be demilitarization? I think that if the Ukrainians become neutral, it’s going to have to be very important that they maintain robust defenses.
And then the last thing I’m really worried about is what’s it going to look like. What is the territory going to be? Because there is going to be partition, probably. They are going to have to give something up, and it would be the Donbas and Crimea probably—I’m guessing—and this is up to the Ukrainians, not us. But, where is that line going to be? Some people think that it could be along the Dnieper River. Some people think it could only be the Donbas region in Ukraine as I’ve just said. But exactly what it is that they’re neutralizing is crucial. We could have actually a divided Ukraine that begins to look a little bit like the divided Germany after the Second World War.
LINDSAY: Charlie, you have written in the pages of Foreign Affairs just last year, that there is a need for a great power concert. But given what we’ve just talked about and Kori’s notion that we’re really sort of moralizing this conflict, what are the prospects for a concert of great powers, and what would they cooperate on in this current context?
KUPCHAN: Let me tie that question back to Kori’s comment because you all—you clearly want us to disagree to get some friction here.
LINDSAY: I want you to disagree nicely. (Laughter.)
KUPCHAN: I will be very nice, but I—you know, I think there are some differences that should be delineated.
Is this a moment of Western rejuvenation? Yes, on some level. But I also think it is a wake-up moment that will force us to confront the prospect of liberal overreach that we, at the end of the Cold War, thought that the order that we built was going to be universalized, and to some extent I think we are seeing blowback from that assumption, and may need to take a more conservative approach to the expansion of the liberal rules-based system that is more focused on us than it is on bringing others in. And I would point out that there is a big liberal democracy out there called India that has not decided to stand with the liberal democracies of the world in this conflict.
Second point: I’m more worried than you are, Kori, that this kind of resurgence of moralism and Western strength will last, and that’s because all the problems that we were concerned about before February 24 are still there, and in fact, they’re getting worse. Gas prices are going up, egg prices are going up, grain and bread is going up. What—four million or close to four million refugees have arrived in Europe, and not too far off the Europeans are going to wake up and say, holy crap, most of these aren’t going to go home. Where are we going to put them? How are we going to deal with this? And immigration has been really one of the toughest issues for Europe.
So I do worry that as this clock moves forward, as we head into the midterms here in the United States, this kind of burst of bipartisanship will be just a burst, and that the Republicans are going to get their knives out—I’ll defer to you on the Republican Party—but I don’t think the America First crowd is gone; it’s just quiet for now because it doesn’t play well. I expect it to come back vocally as we get closer to the midterms.
Final comment: I think the impulse, Jim, is to say forget a global concert; it’s over. And to some extent I agree with that because Richard and I wrote a global concert depends upon the absence of an aggressor state. We have an aggressor state. It’s called Russia. It has invaded its neighbor. But I would also point out that we cannot afford to go back to a world that looks like the Cold War. We are in the boat together on pandemics, on climate change, on proliferation, on global economic interdependence. So I do think we need to talk about either a post-Putin Russia or even a Putin Russia, and what can be done after the dust settles in Ukraine to figure out how to make sure that the broader global agenda that we face doesn’t go by the wayside.
LINDSAY: Kori, I want to get you to respond to Charlie’s point that India has not joined in the effort to sanction. And I should note it’s not just India; it’s Brazil, it’s South Africa. Indeed most of the countries of the global south have not rallied behind Western sanctions and in fact have criticized them. So what does that mean for the future of the rules-based order that you have spoken about?
SCHAKE: I think it’s a fabulous challenge. So I have a couple of reactions to it. The first is I would be doing exactly what they are doing if I were a developing country, an emergent economy because Germans can have the luxury of paying double gas prices. It’s an incredibly wealthy country. The government can float bonds and pay for things in the future because there is a lot of confidence in the dynamism of the German economy. That’s not the case for most emergent economies, and they have more pressing problems than the problems we are worried about.
And so I think the first thing is we need to not be so judgmental about the fact that they are solving other harder problems than what we are trying to recruit them to help us with. Second, I also think that’s good alliance management because allies very often disagree. They even disagree on really important things, so it’s reasonable that people who are not tied as tightly into the benefits of the liberal international order are questioned more what they’re going to offer for its continuation. So that’s the second thing.
The third thing is I think there’s a difference between not wanting to be counted on something and opposing it. And India is an interesting case in this point—example in this case, sorry—because on the one hand they get a lot of their military equipment from Russia, and they have a budding, burgeoning relationship with the United States, Australia, and Japan; not because of Russia but because of China, and trying to figure out how to synchronize the gas pedal and the clutch on their series of concerns is actually genuinely difficult. And so, again, I don’t think we should be too judgmental about this. But we should work hard to win the argument and explain to them why it is in their interest that countries cannot change borders by force. That’s what Pakistan has attempted to do to India. That’s what China is attempting to do to India. And they have a stake in a system in which all of us work together to prevent that.
LINDSAY: Do you want to jump in here, Audrey?
CRONIN: Yes, I was—so jumping off of that point, actually, Kori, isn’t it interesting that China, the great defender of sovereignty, does not seem to be interested in defending Ukraine’s sovereignty, and is quite interested in supporting the aggressor in this case.
But getting back to India, I think the fact that only within the last two years the Indians have been fighting the Chinese in the Himalayas. You know, they have a lot of other things to worry about.
And the other thing I would say is that, what major power war can you think of where what is essentially the non-aligned movement in the world has ever aligned with those who are currently defending the global order.
And then the last thing that I’ll say—to disagree a little bit since I think that’s what you want—disagree a little bit with Charlie is that I don’t think we could have a concert of Europe right now or a concert of great powers because we have a lot of new actors that are as powerful as great powers are in certain dimensions, including the major tech companies who are having a massive influence geopolitically on this crisis. So, we are not in 1815. We are in a different situation with a lot of new stakeholders and a different economic situation than the one that existed then.
LINDSAY: Audrey, can I draw you out on that point about technology companies and the role they are playing? Can you just sort of spell it out for me—how you see them influencing or being influenced by the conflict?
CRONIN: Yeah, so in some respects the tech companies have been—have sort of been bunged by reality because they have been very poor at dealing with situations of war. So you’ve got Meta that has been—you know, Facebook, and Instagram, and WhatsApp have all been shut down in Russia, and now Meta is being criminalized by the Putin administration—Putin regime—and so, because Meta claimed that they would go to an exception of their moderation rules and allow the Ukrainians to cry for blood against the Russians, this made them seem hypocritical and gave the Russians the excuse to criminalize them within Russia.
So this whole concept of neutrality where—neutrality in terms of communications that they have sort of tied their whole identity to for many decades is proving to be extremely frayed. Meta is now being, you know, as I said, criminalized, and it’s giving the Russians a greater argument for why it is that, you know, they can clamp down within Russia. And so, as a result, the Russian people are getting less information.
For the first time that I can remember, the New York Times has pulled its people from Moscow. All of the major bureaus have either closed down or pulled people. You’ve got a, you know, crackdown that started to occur before this crisis where Google and Apple representatives were being harassed and, you know, very, very severely. There is kind of a hostage-taking approach to making sure that there were people there that the Putin administration could control. So I don’t see Meta as having been very successful.
However, then you’ve also got Elon Musk and Starlink. Look at the role that Starlink has played in Ukraine. I mean, he’s the one who in many respects are keeping the Ukrainians connected, and that’s not unrelated to how this crisis is going. Starlink, with its two thousand individual-sized satellites which are very difficult to shoot down—this has been a huge boon and a support for Ukraine. So I think that major tech companies are an important stakeholder in the international geopolitical realm that we don’t put enough emphasis upon.
LINDSAY: Kori, did you have a two-finger?
SCHAKE: Yeah, I wanted to tag along on Dr. Cronin’s very good—Dr. Cronin’s very good point and say that it’s not just—
CRONIN: Kori, call me Audrey. We’ve known each other for decades. (Laughter.)
SCHAKE: Thank you, my friend.
It’s not just the big tech companies. What we are looking at is a war in which civil society—business, private charities—all these different dimensions are playing extraordinary roles, right? Chef José Andrés is not only buffeting Poland and other countries that are taking in enormous numbers of refugees, he is also running aid convoys to Odessa.
We could be in a point before this war is over where you have private charities breaking sieges of Ukrainian cities and the Russians trying to hold the sieges. You see the hackers group, Anonymous, going after the Russians something fierce, and that’s where the values, the moral crusade part of this matters because civil society in free societies are taking it upon themselves—often beyond the control of the government and without the government’s blessing—to do things that they think will help the people they think are good guys in the war.
LINDSAY: I see you’ve done a two-finger, Charlie. I’ll let you do that, but I’m going to ask one last question of you before we bring the rest of the room in. And it is what do you make of President Xi’s decision to back Russia rather than to stand up for the principle of sovereignty? Are Russia and China now joined at the hip? How should U.S. statecraft respond to that?
But I know you wanted to get a two-finger first.
KUPCHAN: Yes. One quick two-finger to Dr. Professor Cronin.
CRONIN: Oh, please. (Laughter.)
KUPCHAN: And that is that—and this will just be in defense of the concert system, and I just came from a roundtable—I see Chet Crocker and others who were there—on concerts, one of their assets being the flexibility to put at the table Google, and Meta, and International Rescue Committee, and other groups precisely because they are not formal U.N. Security Council bodies. But you seem skeptical—
CRONIN: You are—you are redefining the terms.
KUPCHAN: —so let’s not let you talk. (Laughter.)
To your question, Jim, I think that the Chinese were a little bit uncertain at first, and they said some things that suggested that they were going to back Russia and some things that said they weren’t so comfortable with the disruption that’s being caused. My sense is that they have now coalesced around standing fairly firmly behind Putin. And I think that’s because this is a war that, on balance, is probably good for China. And that’s because it pushes Russia more fully into China’s embrace and turns Russia irretrievably into the junior partner. It distracts the United States and Europe from the Asia-Pacific. We’re going to be focused on the new central front for the foreseeable future, and I think the Chinese like that, just like they like the fact that we were spinning our wheels for twenty years in Afghanistan and Iraq.
The big question mark in my mind is will they go the next step. Will they provide economic assistance and military assistance? Will they bail out a Russian economy that could be collapsing? And I don’t know the answer to that. My guess is they’re going to be careful not to see secondary sanctions get imposed.
But one issue that I do worry about—and then I’ll throw this out for discussion—is, are the Chinese going to look at what’s happening here, and are we going to look at what’s happening here, and say globalization and interdependence has become too dangerous, and as a consequence, we’re moving into what could become an era of deglobalization? That’s scary in a world in which two-thirds of the countries in the world already trade more with China than with us. So deglobalization may be unstoppable, but it’s not necessarily good for the U.S.
LINDSAY: OK, fair enough. On that note, I’m going to bring the rest of the room into our conversation. I want to remind everybody that this meeting is on the record. If you would like to ask a question, raise a hand, and please stand. Wait for the microphone to arrive, then state your name and affiliation before asking your question. And I do ask that you ask a question.
Right here in the front—right here.
CRONIN: (Laughs.) The race is on.
Q: Thank you. Victoria Hui at University of Notre Dame.
These days people talk about today it’s Ukraine, tomorrow it’s Taiwan. So do you think—
LINDSAY: Can you hold it a little closer?
LINDSAY: Thank you.
Q: People say today it’s Ukraine; tomorrow it’s Taiwan. So do you think that today it’s Ukraine means— tomorrow it’s Taiwan means that there is a bigger chance that there will be a Chinese invasion of Taiwan, or Ukraine—the experiences that we are seeing is actually going to make Taiwan safer? Thank you.
LINDSAY: So have the chances of an invasion of Taiwan gone up or gone down?
SCHAKE: So I honestly don’t know. Let me tell you the two arguments. The first argument would be what the Chinese could learn from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is it’s shocking that the Western world actually can pull together when it’s serious. Second, the diabolical creativity of Western financial institutions to develop new tools in market—to affect markets, again, should be scary to them. Third, the only way to tell whether a military is any good at what it’s doing is to fight it, and I—like a whole bunch of other people thought the Russian military was an awful lot better than it is. And China hasn’t fought in a long time, and so whether they would have the grit for this fight or the ability to do the orchestration of logistics and air power, getting across a hundred miles of choppy water in an amphibious operation on Taiwan—that’s a pretty sophisticated military task.
So lots of reasons they should take caution from that. Not at all clear to me that Xi Jinping will take caution from that—that he may very well be arrogant enough to think, well, of course the Russians are terrible at this, but my military is great at this. And of course the Ukrainians feel Western. The Taiwanese are starting to feel Western; we’d better shut this down before it goes much further. Like I could see arguments where he would think the West would never have the stomach to impose on China the kind of economic restrictions they are imposing.
So it’s touch and go I think.
KUPCHAN: Two quick thoughts: the first is that I think on balance it makes a Chinese attack less likely, and that’s simply because the Chinese are watching what’s happening to Russia, and they’re probably going to calculate we don’t want to go down that rabbit hole; that does not look good to us.
My second observation is that I think it probably makes sense for the United States to end strategic ambiguity—not to change the One China policy, but to say we’re going to defend Taiwan because I think part of what happened in Ukraine is we were ambiguous, and the Russians called our bluff. So if we intend to defend Taiwan, let’s say so. If we don’t intend to, let’s say so. But living with this ambiguity, it seems to me, invites trouble. We just learned that in Ukraine.
LINDSAY: Charlie, how do you square that with your observation earlier that you worry that the America First movement is just sort of in abeyance right now and will come back with great force? Because that would seem to be the kind of commitment that they would oppose.
KUPCHAN: You know, it is a huge and interesting question, and if Trump is reelected, I don’t know what the future of NATO and U.S. alliances in Asia will be. I do think, though, that the impetus for the America First movement came out of the forever wars, and that if you look at the Trump administration, they were actually pretty tough on China and supportive of Taiwan.
LINDSAY: The administration was; the president wasn’t necessarily—
KUPCHAN: President not so, but the Republicans are—you know, they’re pretty gung-ho on China, and so I think that this geopolitical realignment that we have been undertaking: out of wars of choice in the Middle East let’s focus on meat-and-potatoes issues in Eurasia is good because I think that’s the sweet spot in American politics.
LINDSAY: Audrey, do you want to jump in here?
CRONIN: Just two things on the Taiwan question and also the relationship between Russia and China—I think firstly that China is going to find that it has developed a kind of a vassal state now and, you know, the Russians are going to be depending upon China for weapons, for buying their oil, for technology, for evading sanctions, and I’m not sure that China, over time, is going to find that this is a good deal for them, so I think that may—in theory—change the desire that they might have had to take aggressive action against Taiwan.
I think you can see it both ways, though. I agree with Kori. I’m not sure that it’s possible to say definitively that way.
But the second thing I would say is that Taiwan has a lot to learn from what Ukraine has done. So, you know, urban warfare; using easily accessible and cheap technologies; engaging in, you know, skirmishes; fighting forward; not depending upon huge legacy systems—instead using the kinds of tactics that we associate with insurgents. I think that Taiwan would be extremely good at that, and they’re going to learn from Ukraine.
LINDSAY: I think it’s a really important point that both sides can learn from the events in Ukraine.
If you want to ask a question in the back of the room, you’re really going to have to stand up and wave because I’m not sure I can see that far back. But we have a question right here.
Q: Hi. Jim Morrow, University of Michigan.
LINDSAY: Go blue!
Q: It’s clear that the Europeans are going to come close to meeting their commitments to increase their military spending. My question is do you also think that they’ll go further to create something like a really unified European military, and also to take the political changes to have a coherent European foreign policy?
And then the other part of the question is should the United States encourage this because it seems to me there’s two sides to this. One is greater burden sharing—the Europeans can carry more, but at the same time, it will decrease U.S. influence on security and defense issues.
SCHAKE: Those are great questions. So I think the result of Russia’s aggression is going to be Europeans clinging more tightly to the United States because when we are scared, we like to hold hands with each other. And even watching how awful the Russian military is at the profession of arms doesn’t appear to be making our European friends and allies any less desirous of having the United States in the mix of it. So I don’t anticipate that the increased spending is going to be external to NATO or to build European capabilities autonomous of the United States.
I do think, however, we should be encouraging closer political and even military cooperation among the Europeans for exactly the reason you said, which is after watching the performance of this Russian military, the Poles could defeat the Russians pretty easily. And once you start mixing all the NATO countries in, our opposition to greater European autonomy has actually encouraged the Europeans to think of themselves as weak, and they are not. And we should want allies that feel their strength and are confident in their strength as a way of better balancing the risks all of us run together.
KUPCHAN: I would just add, Jim, that I think what’s going on in Germany is an inflection point because if there were to be a development on the European side that changed, in a consequential way, Europe’s defense capability, it had to happen in Germany. And Germany was the laggard. I mean, its military has atrophied, deteriorated in a way that’s hard to overstate. And if there is to be a kind of European pillar, it has to start with Germany, and it looks like they are starting.
But I agree with Kori that this is not the beginning of Macron’s strategic autonomy, and that’s because France is alone in having a view of Europe as standing apart from the United States and flexing its muscles on the global stage. Just about every other EU member state wants a stronger Europe that’s tethered to the United States; not that goes off on its own. That’s good for them, and I think it’s good for us.
CRONIN: Yeah, the only thing I would add is let’s look at what the non-NATO members have done to get a sense of how important this shift is. I mean, if you look at the tremendous increase in spending—defense spending in Sweden, increase in defense spending in Finland; the fact that Switzerland, which is not a member of NATO or the EU is now abiding by the sanctions—you know, this is an inflection point if only from that perspective. The Europeans are drawing together in anger and frustration, and it is unprecedented.
LINDSAY: We’ll go over here to the right side of the room.
Q: Hi, deRaismes Combes from American University. Thank you so much for an interesting conversation.
I’m still thinking about this notion of historical analogies that you started with, and I’m wondering if you think Ukraine is teaching us anything about 21st century geopolitics in the digital age that we just haven’t really grasped before in terms of where this is heading, both specifically with Ukraine, but also with Taiwan and with the broader geopolitical system and the liberal world order.
So thank you.
LINDSAY: Do you want to take first crack at that, Audrey?
CRONIN: Yes, I mean, that’s a huge question, and the answer is yes—(laughs)—it’s teaching us a lot about geopolitics in the digital age.
Some of this I’ve already talked about. I think that major digital actors need to be parts of this Concert of Europe that we’re talking about, the concert of the great powers, because I think they play an enormous role in affecting the future and how things are evolving.
You know, I think that we see a lot with respect specifically to Ukraine, which is that the fact that Ukraine had a pretty advanced technology element to their economy; they are very advanced in aeronautics; they had their own drone industry, and their use of drones has come very naturally to Ukrainian citizens—you know, those who are volunteering. You know, this shows you that—again, getting back to the question on Taiwan—countries that are advanced in terms of their digital capabilities, and their populations are able to use digital technologies effectively, are going to be, I think, more successful as we move into the 21st century.
LINDSAY: Kori, you want to jump in here?
SCHAKE: Yeah, two quick, additional points. One is that one of the surprises of this war was that we all expected it was going to start with a cyber Armageddon, right, that power stations were—power systems were going to go down all over Ukraine, that the government wouldn’t be able to communicate. All of these fancy cyber things were supposed to happen, and they didn’t. And it looks like they didn’t happen for three reasons: first, is the Russians gave us so much lead time of what they were potentially doing that NSA and CYBERCOM were able to forward deploy to Ukraine and other places teams to assist in the defense of the architectures. Second, the Russians—for reasons I don’t understand—were evidently more restrained than anybody anticipated. Maybe it’s the nature of cyber tools that once you unleash them your adversaries can use them back against you. Maybe we are seeing an assured destruction leveling. And the third thing is it’s just easier to blow stuff up—(laughter)—and so the Russians blew stuff up. And so one big thing we expected was going to happen actually turns out not to be as significant in modern warfare.
But Audrey’s point about the technological sophistication—I mean, the Ukrainian government dispensing an app so that people can identify Russian troops as they come. That gave them country-wide situational awareness. A couple hundred thousand people are actively using the app, so you get societal resilience and you also get better information. It is really extraordinary.
LINDSAY: Did you want to—
KUPCHAN: Just one quick sentence on the—how important the information space has been. You know, the Biden administration I think deserves credit for stealing the march from the Russians, right? The Russians have spent the last five, ten years cleaning our clocks in the information space. I think that the Biden people reversed it. They got out ahead. They released intel that they probably shouldn’t have released, but they did it anyway, and I really think it has made a difference.
LINDSAY: Going to go all the way to the back of the room.
Q: Thank you. I’m Chandler Rosenberger from Brandeis University.
And I wanted to follow up on this point about resilience because I think we’ve talked a lot about tactics. We’ve talked a lot about specific things that the Ukrainians have done. But I think the most impressive thing about them is how resilient they have been militarily and as a society. And I wonder if that tells us something about the advantages of a kind of, you know, liberal, democratic, civic order in which people feel deeply invested and its ability to survive an assault from an authoritarian states where the soldiers seem not to know what they are fighting for, that there’s—maybe we can have more faith in that kind of democratic social resilience than we might have had otherwise.
LINDSAY: Who wants to take first crack at the question?
CRONIN: I will.
LINDSAY: OK, Audrey, you’re closest, got your finger up first.
CRONIN: All right, well, so yes, I think that we are going to learn a lot about societal resilience, but I think we have to wait. I think we have to wait and find out how this plays out because Kori’s point about it being a lot easier to just blow things up, that is also still true. So if all you want to do is crush a country and, you know, occupy that country by killing a lot of civilians and, you know, targeting corridors of humanitarian fleeing civilians, if all you want to do is kill a lot of people, I think the Russians are capable of doing that. And I don’t think we can yet come to full conclusions about how strong that resilience is going to be to stand up to that.
We’re still pretty early in this fight. I hope from my heart that what you are saying is what we learn from this conflict. But we’re only, what, about a month and a half into it—five weeks into it, so I hope that resilience is what we get out of it.
SCHAKE: So it clearly makes a difference in the willingness of soldiers to run risks in a fight, right? We see the comparative difference in Russia and Ukraine, and I do think that that’s partly about societal resilience. In better militaries than the Russians there’s also the professionalism that gives resilience, right? They’re not fighting for me; they are fighting for the guy standing next to them kind of resilience.
Temperamentally I want so much to believe it’s true, and yet, I think there are a couple of factors that make Ukraine uniquely resilient against a Russian invasion. First, the terrors of Soviet occupation. There are still Ukrainians alive who experienced the Holodomor that Russia—the Soviet Union imposed on Ukraine. They feel like they are fighting for survival. They don’t feel like they are fighting for a particular kind of government—in addition to a particular kind of government.
The second thing is that I think it matters that the World War II generation is still alive in our countries because I think they have a slightly different perspective. But let me add one hopeful note.
When Jim Mattis and I did the surveys of American public attitudes about military issues for our book, Warriors and Citizens several years ago, the weirdest anomaly in the data was that the attitudes of people under twenty-five most closely approximated the attitudes of people who had lived through the Great Depression and World War II: that the world feels fundamentally uncertain and unsafe to them, and that does give a kind of resilience that I think the intervening generations might not have to the same extent.
KUPCHAN: Yeah, what I’m sort of ruminating on, vis-à-vis this question, is how did Putin get it so wrong, right? Because we will look back at this crisis and say Putin made Ukraine great again. The Ukraine that he envisaged did exist, but it was—it was pre-2014 and probably all the way going back to the Orange Revolution. You know, you used to go to Mariupol, or Donetsk, or Lugansk, and it was full of Russians, and they felt like Russians, and they affiliated with Russia. That’s gone, right? They have come together around a strong Ukrainian national identity, including the president, who grew up speaking Russian, right? How did he get elected? He got elected by, you know, pro-Russian and Russian speakers in eastern and southern Ukraine. That’s gone, right? He’s now a rock star because he’s giving his middle finger to Putin. And so the country has really come together as a consequence of Russian aggression. It’s a kind of blowback that the Russians are going to have to live with forever.
LINDSAY: This gentleman here with the dark jacket.
Q: Fen Hampson from north of the border.
The panel—I’ve forgotten who it was—raised the interesting question about Russia with Putin and Russia without Putin. And I’d like to ask you, if and when this crisis ends, what sort of relationship do we have with Russia if Putin is still around? Do we walk back sanctions? Do we take oligarchs off Magnitsky? Do we stop proceedings in the International Criminal Court? Do we welcome them back to the various organizations they’ve been thrown out of, and that includes the G-20?
And if he leaves—for whatever reason—you know, is Russian going to be easier to deal with or more difficult to deal with? And I would say, you know, be careful what you wish for because he has provided stability—and I’m not defending him—but one can envisage a scenario where the security vacuum extends now to Russia as others see weakness in Moscow.
LINDSAY: Charlie, do you want to take a first crack at that?
KUPCHAN: A lot depends, Fen, on how this ends, and my best guess is that it will not end cleanly, and it will not end well.
Audrey already mentioned some of the provisions that are tentatively on the table. I have a hard time imagining them seeing the light of day. Who is going to guarantee Ukraine’s security? Is Zelenskyy going to get the support of the Rada to change the constitution? Is he going to have the domestic support to recognize Crimea, Mariupol, and Donetsk, and Lugansk as Russian?
So I’m guessing that what will end up here is another frozen conflict in which Russia takes a big bite out of eastern Ukraine, probably doesn’t go into Kyiv because it’s not going very well, and then we sort of have to say, well, the fighting is over. They did more, they took more; now what?
And I guess I’m enough of a realist to say that, you know, we’re going to have to go back to something that looks more like the Cold War which mixes containment and engagement. And that’s because there is simply too much at stake to put Russia in the penalty box and throw the key away. And so I would say that even in a post-war Putin Russia as opposed to a post-Putin Russia, we’re going to have to find ways of getting some difficult hedging cooperation on arms control, on the question of energy issues—I mean, there’s a lot of stuff here that we can’t just throw away.
LINDSAY: I want to get in one last question because we’re nearing the end of our time, so we’ll go to that young lady over there, if we can, and then I’ll have to ask the panelists to be short in the response.
Q: Hi, I hope this won’t be too long. My name is Eve Clark-Benevides. I’m from SUNY Oswego. And I—there was an editorial in the New York Times yesterday that infuriated me, but it has been really coming up during this whole talk.
Bret Stephens argues maybe we’re being a little bit too premature, kind of celebrating that Putin has miscalculated. Maybe actually Putin really only wanted eastern Ukraine all along. He never really thought—and that a lot of the goals that Putin has wanted over time—getting rid of the free press, getting the moderates to move out, and really having full power over the Russian society—is really coming to pass.
So this is kind of a piggyback off the last question that, really, are we going to see sort of these steps to disengage economically and politically with Russia—you know, Britain realizing that maybe having Russian money completely floating their economy—we’re trying to divest. Do you think that maybe in this new Cold War—whatever occurs—that we’re going to continue to really try to get away from oligarch money in the political systems in the West?
LINDSAY: OK, Audrey, you had your hand up first so—
CRONIN: Yes, so when it comes to our analyses of Putin, I think it’s a mistake for us to personalize this as much as we are. You know, put aside this unfortunate comment about potentially regime change in the way that it was interpreted.
I think that the Russians have always, throughout their history, gone back and forth between kind of a Slavophile approach and a Westernizer approach, and Putin is a Slavophile. So what we’re seeing right now is a reawakening of Russian nationalism, a move back exactly along the lines that you just suggested to having greater control over their domestic population, getting rid of some of the threats that Putin personally feels are quite dangerous; you know, domestic movements within Russia.
I hate to see all of this happen, but yes, it does feel quite familiar. I mean, I spend my—some of my teenage years living in Moscow in the American embassy. I remember the Cold War; I’m old enough to remember all of that. And I think we are going to have to move back to that kind of relationship where sometimes we can deal on certain things and at other times we can’t deal on those things, we deal on other things.
But the worst thing that we could do would be to make Russia a complete pariah because, if you understand European history, you also know that anytime you have a complete pariah that is aside from the whole system, you are more likely to end up in a major war.
LINDSAY: Charlie or Kori?
SCHAKE: So Putin—I don’t buy the argument that Putin is a grand strategic genius and invaded Ukraine in order to crackdown domestically for two reasons: first because he is already cracking down. It was just a slow strangulation—CREF, Nemtsov, and Navalny—and so he didn’t need the Ukraine invasion to be more repressive domestically. But the second thing is I think the failure of Russian force and arms in Ukraine is actually making his domestic position much more tenuous in ways that I think are unpredictable from the outside to understand.
My answer to—just quickly, my answer to the what do we—how do we deal with Putin still in power, I think it would be a good thing for us to find ways for a strategically smaller, weaker, and humiliated Russia to have a U.S. counterparty on some things that are important to them and to us. It will make Ukraine’s longer-term future and Russia’s longer-term future easier to handle if we, who have had so little invested in this fight, step forward and help integrate Russia in ways that we can.
KUPCHAN: To the question of was Putin a grand master and he intended this from the beginning, I don’t see it, and that’s because he could have done the eastern bit at any time, and he wouldn’t have needed to put almost two hundred thousand troops all around Ukraine, including in Belarus. He could have just gone into the separatist territories, turned south, gone to Mariupol and connected to Crimea, and called it a day.
I think what’s happening here is he’s changing the goalposts because his original goal of regime change and the occupation of the country, it does not look feasible anymore, although I agree with my colleagues that he might just keep bombing for another few months. Who knows what will happen?
But the key question in my mind is whatever that ultimate disposition is, can he portray it as a victory? Can he sell it—not just to the Russian people, but to the Russia elite system, which is showing more discontent than I think we’ve ever seen in modern Russia. I don’t think Putin is about to go, but I do think that this is a war that is going to loosen his grip on power, and anything could come of that. It could mean he goes and we get a worse outcome. After all, a lot of the people around him share his views. It could also be that we get a more benign outcome. We don’t know, and as a consequence, I think we just have to hedge our bets.
LINDSAY: Well, that brings us to the end of our time here. I want to thank everyone in the room for joining us for this conversation on the geopolitical implications of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
I want to do a shout-out to Irina Faskianos and her team—
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Yay, Irina! (Applause.)
LINDSAY: —for arranging today’s thing. And I want to say thank you to our three guests: Kori Schake, Charlie Kupchan, and Audrey Cronin for their expertise. (Applause.)