Following Russia's announcement that it will annex additional occupied territories in Ukraine, panelists provide an update on the war, including responses to the annexation, recent successes by Ukrainian forces on the battlefield, Russian mobilization and nuclear threats, and alleged sabotage of the Nord Stream pipeline.
CREBO-REDIKER: Well, thank you so much to everyone for joining us today for this Council on Foreign Relations update on the war in Ukraine. I am very delighted that we have so many participants on the line, and especially to the journalists who have joined us today. You know, grateful for all of the incredible reporting that you’re doing to keep us all informed, whether you’re broadcast or print. And we hope that CFR can be a very good resource for you.
I’d like to introduce our two speakers today. Both are prolific authors. They’ve served in government, and they bring a great deal of expertise to the table on Russia, Ukraine and, more broadly, on Europe.
First, Charlie Kupchan is a senior fellow at the Council. He is also a professor of international affairs at Georgetown University in the Walsh School of Foreign Service in the Department of government.
And Steve Sestanovich, who is the Kennan senior fellow for Russian and Eurasian studies at CFR, and also a professor of international diplomacy at Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs.
And the first thing I’m going to do, since this has been moving so quickly, is just ask Steve to bring us up to date on recent developments. And when I mean recent, since you all follow these very closely, developments really of today and just this past weekend. So, Steve, can you just let us know where we are?
SESTANOVICH: Sure, Heidi. And thanks for Irina for chairing this session. Four quick items: The formal legislative ratification of the annexation of the four provinces in Ukraine was completed today in Moscow. It was, not a surprise to anyone, a unanimous vote. The only real interest created by it was that Putin’s spokesman Peskov immediately got some questions about whether—where the borders of these newly annexed territories were going to be. And he said he didn’t really have any idea and would get back to you. And he said, well, we’ll have to work this out with the residents. Well, you know, we’ll see how that goes.
Second, there is a continuing forward movement by Ukrainian forces today past Lyman, which was the kind of logistics railroad hub in Donetsk that had—that the Russians had to surrender. The Ukrainian forces seemed to be going beyond that, and also in—possibly in Kherson, which is in the south, north of Crimea. These movements are not confirmed yet by Ukrainian officials, to my knowledge.
Third interesting item today is a report that U.S. is telling allies that it has intelligence of a possible Putin order to test the Poseidon nuclear torpedo, one of the weapons that Putin has brandished with particular pride in his annual press conferences and state of the union messages. The location of this test is unclear. It doesn’t seem as though it’s supposed to be a nuclear weapons test, but a test of the torpedo. Some reports say this’ll happen in the Black Sea, so adjacent to the battle.
And fourth, I might—(laughs)—on a kind of humorous note, mention that Elon Musk has come forward with a peace plan for Ukraine. And this has produced considerable hilarity and indignation on Twitter.
CREBO-REDIKER: OK. So there’s always—like, always a way for Elon Musk to get into the story. (Laughter.) So what would you—I mean, given that, you know, we started the weekend with this big speech that Putin gave on Friday, which was quite, you know, filled with conspiracy about intentions of the West and why Russia was facing these—you know, these big challenges in their special military operation—what is the—what does that speech mean? And how did you interpret it, just in terms of where Putin is right now?
SESTANOVICH: Well, when the leader of a major power starts talking about satanism, I think we have to wonder what is going on in his head. (Laughs.) This was a really unusual speech. It was—I think it’s not wrong to call it hyperbolic and hysterical. It was all about redefining the war in Ukraine as a war against the West, and a war launched by the West against Russia, to destroy Russia. And the stakes, as Putin defines them, could not be higher. He has said this is about generating a world without Russia.
It is obviously a part of his overall response to the negative developments of the past ten days or so. I said last week that this was—had been the worst month in the worst year of Putin’s presidency. But I think you could argue this is the worst week in the worst month in the worst year of Putin’s presidency. He is coping with a series of very negative developments, from his point of view. The botched mobilization, the advance of Ukrainian troops on the battlefield, the solidarity of Western countries and increased support for Ukraine, and the domestic impact which he now has to reckon with of all of these developments.
And let me just say a word about those, because, you know, people keep asking: You know, well, is there a danger that Putin will be dislodged, that here will be a coup against him? And I think we shouldn’t expect to see that in the near term. But there’s no question that Putin now faces a somewhat different domestic political environment. And I think you can see this in a variety of ways. You see this polling that people are free to publish now, showing an increased sense of popular alarm. That percentage of the population that describes itself as “alarmed” by developments has doubled, you know, to 65-70 percent, just in the—you know, in the past month or so.
You have now a change in journalistic coverage of the war. It’s now OK to criticize generals, not Putin himself yet. It’s now OK to say that the mobilization was terribly mishandled. It’s now OK to say on television that this has created an atmosphere challenging political stability. They’re, as I said, not critical of Putin yet, but there is definitely increased pressure on him to try to turn this around. The message that I think has gone out to senior journalists is: Try to create a kind of understanding in the public that this is going to be a long struggle, that we need patience for a while at least.
Second, the area in which one can see some impact or things that one ought to be watching for, I would say, is within the national security establishment. I was really struck by the New York Times article a week or ten days ago saying that Putin had overruled the generals about withdrawing from Kherson. Similarly, the Post had a report about intelligence officials opposing the prisoner swap that Putin did. You have open criticism of policy by this guy who is generally referred to as Putin chef, Mr. Prigozhin, and the Chechen warlord Mr. Kadyrov, who were calling for escalation, full mobilization.
You even have some cautious questioning of Putin’s policy from, you know, the analytical community, which has been quite subservient. There’s an article in the papers this morning about the possibility of a nuclear catastrophe. You know, which is not directed exclusively at Putin, but it suggests that, you know, he’s created a situation in which catastrophe is possible. There are now—there have been some military firings. We’re likely to see some more.
What about the economic impact of all of this? When the first mobilization was announced, there was suddenly a rush by all kinds of institutions to get exemptions for their personal—for IT workers, for example. And those were granted, but I think we’re likely to see some economic disruption from the mobilization. And ahead, because this is now the—you know, the next phase of Western sanctions policy—you’ve got the need to manage the oil price cap that Western countries are trying to put into place. We don’t know what the impact of that is going to be, but remember oil is the single-largest source of revenue for the Russian—for the Russian government.
So you see a whole pattern of difficult problems that Putin has got to deal with, that if you had asked, you know, six weeks ago or a month ago what they looked like, the outlook was much more stable. Suddenly, he is dealing with uncertainty of a much more acute kind.
CREBO-REDIKER: So, Charlie, let me turn to you and, you know, with a similar question. What do you think the domestic impact of the recent developments have been politically, socially, economically, and for Putin’s hold on power? And, again, I think this—the opening up of criticism not against Putin but on the back of the military mobilization. And we’ve all see this extraordinary exodus of Russian men trying to flee over the borders, young and old, and complaints against the ill-equipped soldiers and lack of kit or supply, heading into a cold winter. What do you see—you know, same question as I asked Steve to kick off with?
KUPCHAN: I mean, I would agree with Steve that Putin is at the low point of his time in office. And he’s in bigger trouble domestically than he’s ever been in. I think that, just to pick up on some of Steve’s remarks about his speech, I think we’ve seen a pivot here in terms of how Putin has been portraying the war, right? If you go back to February 24, when he justified the, quote/unquote, “special military operation,” you know, it was really about Ukraine. It was about Ukraine not deserving to exist as an independent state and about historical linkages. It’s now become existential. It’s now become about the existence of Russia in a faceoff with NATO and the West.
And I think that’s, in part, because Putin’s effort to contain the domestic salience of the war has failed. He can no longer tell people to go about their daily lives when recruiters are running around grabbing people and trying to get them to go to Ukraine, and they’re fleeing for the exits. And so I think he has ramped up the rhetoric in order to justify the greater sacrifices that he is now asking Russians to make to prosecute the war. And all of this is taking place against greater awareness in Russia of the fact that this is a conflict that has not gone well.
And I do think that—(laughs)—what Steve mentioned today about this—the remarks from Peskov are very interesting, right? Here’s Russia announcing a few days ago that it’s annexing these territories and is unclear what they’re annexing. Are they annexing the regions up to their boundaries—their administrative boundaries? Are they annexing areas controlled by Russian troops, which constitutes a dwindling portion of these four regions? I think it really does show that there is a level of chaos in Moscow right now that is just kind of uncharacteristic.
And, you know, Putin doesn’t have a lot of irons in the fire, right? His presidency has been highly dependent on his ability to punch above his weight. And he has generally been successful, in Georgia, in Nagorno-Karabakh, in Kazakhstan, in Syria. Now his biggest gamble to date is not working. And I think that leaves him in a dangerous situation.
Final comment, we do, I think, need to worry about escalation. Because if Putin is raising the stakes, he’s telling the Russian people that this is existential, that then in some ways backs him into a corner in the sense that he’s going to have to make expenditures that are consistent with an existential struggle. Does that mean he’s going to be prepared to use a nuclear weapon? I don’t know. But he is increasing the stakes domestically for himself. That then raises questions about war aims and where the Ukrainians, with our support, see this war going.
CREBO-REDIKER: So just before I turn it over to the audience that’s joined today—which I hope you’re getting your questions all ready, post them on the Q&A, raise your hand, let us know when you want to—when you want to ask. But, Charlie, where do you see European cohesion, moving forward into a very precarious winter vis-à-vis energy supplies? Putin has obviously wielded the energy weapon with massive effect. And, you know, there was the Nord Stream 1/Nord Stream 2 sabotage pending investigation. But where do you see the Europeans, fast-forward, you know, four to six months from now?
KUPCHAN: Heidi, I would say this is the component of the war that creates my own highest levels of anxiety, in addition, obviously, to death, and destruction, and escalation. Because I think what Putin is doing here is playing the long game. And he’s trying to create a battlefield position for the winter that enables him to hunker down, get some reinforcements in there. Whether he is able to do that before the cold weather sets in, we’ll have to see. The Ukrainians are clearly on a roll right now. But I do think that one of his bets is that over time the steady resolve of the United States and its European allies may wane, and that the hardship that Europeans are facing could produce them to take a more, shall we say, flexible approach when it comes to negotiations and trying to find some kind of end game.
And, you know, I do think that that may have been the motivation for hitting the Nord Stream pipelines, if, in fact, the Russians did it. That is, to send a message that your infrastructure is not safe. I can make your lives even more uncomfortable. And it’s worth keeping in mind that the gas is still flowing through the pipeline in Ukraine. If Putin wanted to increase prices even more or simply create shortages, he could—he could tamper with that flow, as he has tampered with the Nord Stream flow. And there are datapoints that we should keep in mind—the victory of the Swedish Democrats recently, the elections in Italy that have brought to power a fairly far right-wing government—or, will soon bring to power.
And so I think that, you know, inflation, high energy prices, energy shortages—we’re not sure where Europe is going to head as it gets cold. But I’m guessing that what Putin is trying to do here is to bank on Europe going more wobbly over time.
CREBO-REDIKER: So we have—
SESTANOVICH: Can I add just a couple of thoughts to that?
SESTANOVICH: You know, I was in Kyiv last month at a conference at which I would say every fourth sentence involved some expression of anxiety about how the Italian elections were going to turn out. Everybody seemed to have gotten this—the message that the Italian government was going to change course on Ukraine. And they may yet. But it’s interesting that one of the first things that Giorgia Meloni did after getting by far the largest share of the far-right votes in the elections, was to tweet her support personally to President Zelensky, and to talk about, you know, the heroic efforts of the Ukrainian people.
I mention this because in many ways the Russian hopes for disunity in Europe, while always reasonably based, have been consistently disappointed in the course of this year. You see that right now with the decisions that the Germans are making about weapons supplies. You know, they’ve just undertaken a new cooperative effort with other European governments to increase the level of supplies, new commitments on supplying air defense. They’re still nervous about tanks, but what their response to this is to find others ways of offering military assistance. And I think that’s the pattern that has frustrated the Russians so far. They keep expecting disunity, and what they find instead is European adjustments to the need to come up with some kind of increased support, which over time cumulatively has been very significant.
CREBO-REDIKER: So we have a number of questions that have come in, and I want to get to—I want to get to some of them, starting with Alexandre Fielding. Can you speak to the risk of a nuclear escalation or test in the Black Sea? What are the indicators or current verified facts? Escalation in the Black Sea.
SESTANOVICH: Well, General Petraeus was asked just today, I believe, about this very question. And said that the right Western response and the thing to make clear to the Russians is that if there’s a use of nuclear weapon, that the entire Russian fleet in the Black Sea will be sunk. So that is a very commonly mentioned site for some kind of nuclear demonstration shot. But that isn’t the only way in which the Russians could use nuclear weapons. They might actually decide that there’s some benefit in using tactical nuclear weapons on the battlefield. You know, try to wipe out a complete set of, you know, Ukrainian military formations.
People don’t know how to interpret what the—what these threats by Putin amount to. And one of the things that is being said increasingly in Russian discussion of this question is that it’s not enough to just be ready to do a demonstration shot, even though that’s a very significant break in the nuclear taboo. It’s not enough just to say that you’re going to use these weapons against Ukrainian forces because, some of these Russian experts point out, you know, that leaves the West unscathed. So you have to increase the level of fear in the United States and Western Europe that they will be the targets of nuclear weapons.
Some of this talk is—I would say, all of this talk is increasingly hysterical, but most of it still remains defensive. That is, the description of how these weapons would be used is in response to increased pressures and attacks on Russian forces. The worse the Russian military situation is, of course, the more people are worried that that’s what—that will be the Russian response. And my own sense is that the—you know, the possibility of something along these lines has gone from very, very, very marginal—like 1 percent—to still unlikely, but a kind of number like 10 percent, that one has to take seriously.
CREBO-REDIKER: So that just answered, I think, Bill Taylor’s question about—first question about escalation and nuclear escalation. But he had one more. Steve, could the Ukrainian success in and beyond Lyman be contagious, possibly leading to a broader Russian military collapse in the next three months?
SESTANOVICH: You know, I’m not a military expert, but it is clear if you consult the military experts, as we’re all doing, that they have an image of the way in which the Russian position could collapse. And it’s as a result of very careful Ukrainian strategy. For example, encirclement of forces and careful use of more sophisticated weapons that they’ve been provided. Plus, panic on the part of Russian forces, increased confusion at all levels of the military hierarchy about how to respond. Division as to what the next steps would be that paralyze further action. And at that point, you begin to get a snowballing effect of setbacks, bigger defeats, and a kind of, you know, atmosphere of chaos in which nobody is prepared to be the last guy to die in Ukraine.
I don’t know how to evaluate that. But I think most of the military observers are now describing an environment in which that is more thinkable. I mean, I saw General Mick Ryan, an Australian military specialist, this morning talking about the possibility of cascading tactical failures by the Russians. That’s now a scenario that’s taken seriously. And I think the Russians are surely concerned that they may not have a way of stabilizing their lines.
CREBO-REDIKER: So next question is from Richard Foster. What are the chances that the Ukrainians will focus their attacks on Crimea, if they’re convincingly victorious in the east, particularly given the relocation of the Russian kilo-class submarines from Sevastopol to Novorossiysk? I’ll let either one of you—maybe, Charlie, you want to take that one?
KUPCHAN: Yeah. I mean, I can start. I think that at least for now the Ukrainians are going to be focused on expanding the success that they’ve had in the north, but now it seems they’ve also been able to advance, to some extent, in the south, and to continue to try to take back more and more land, particularly in Donbas. Going after—I mean, they’ve obviously taken some operational risks in Crimea successfully, and carried out some attacks on a Russian airbase and others. And so it’s completely conceivable that they could—they could continue to do that. That obviously entails higher risk in the sense that, you know, the Russians have built a bridge. They would perhaps be more likely to escalate if they were fighting in Crimea rather than in parts of Donbas. But that remains to be seen.
I would agree with Steve that the risks of a collapse of the Russian military I don’t think are high, but I do think that from the very beginning the Russian military has underperformed expectations. And at this point, it’s difficult to predict where they’re going to go. I think one key issue is how many reinforcements can they get into the fight, and will they be able to give them sufficient provision and sufficient training so that when they get there, they can actually make a difference? And right now, we just don’t know.
CREBO-REDIKER: Steve, you want to chime in there on Crimea?
SESTANOVICH: Look, one of the things that is important about the Kherson counteroffensive that the Ukrainians seem very carefully to be launching is that it puts them right up to the doorstep of Crimea, if they succeed. This is—they’re a long way from taking all of Kherson, but at that point they will have done a lot to squeeze the Russian presence there. They will be in a position, for example, to cut off the water supply. And that will set the stage for a possible further offensive. I’m not sure that that’s where they will keep going next. I mean, and I think there will be a military decision that would have to be made at that point because there will be plenty of other territory in the east that, if taken, could further add to the isolation of the Russian position in Crimea. And they may decide to do that.
They may also think that at that point they have such a strong hand that they can really begin to set their own terms for a diplomatic negotiation. And I think it’s right to take seriously what President Zelensky said after Putin’s speech. Which is, I’m willing to negotiate with the Russian government once Putin is no longer in it. On the other hand, once the Ukrainian military position on the ground improves—in the way that is now imaginable even if not by any means certain or even likely, but certainly imaginable—at that point the Russians will have to consider the question of how long they want to risk further setbacks. Do they want to try to stabilize the situation in some way? And what are they prepared to offer the Ukrainians by way of—and what do they Ukrainians—might the Ukrainians be willing to offer them?
So I think it’s right to say, because the Ukrainians say it, that Crimea is one of their targets. But I think we should not forget that once—if they get to the point where they could actually talk about an assault on Crimea, the entire environment would have changed so much that we don’t know how it will affect either side’s calculations.
KUPCHAN: And I would just add that the bargaining leverage of Ukraine gets stronger and stronger because of the successes on the battlefield. The key question is, will they conclude that as a consequence of these successes they should go for broke and attempt to restore the borders of 2014? Or should they at some point, either because they fear escalation or for other reasons, they should use that enhanced leverage to try to go to the negotiating table? At this point, I just think it’s too soon to know. At least for now, they’re going to keep fighting.
CREBO-REDIKER: So Steve referenced that President Zelensky said he’s ready to negotiate, but only after Putin leaves. We have a question from Dee Smith. Would love to hear thoughts on the influencers in Russia to the right of Putin, who advocate for a more aggressive set of actions against Ukraine and the West. How influential are they in relative terms? And what is the likelihood of their ascendence in a potential post-Putin period? Might you get an outcome where you have a—you know, a further aggressor on the other side to negotiate with?
SESTANOVICH: There is a hysterical wing of Russian opinion that is very, very—(laughs)—well represented on TV every night, calling for full mobilization, nuclear weapons, every kind of element of military and ideological and political confrontation between Russia and the West. Some of the more kind of vocal critics involved include this guy Igor Girkin, who was the leader of the separatists in 2014, who’s tried to make—who’s tried to rally some political support for himself back home. Ramzan Kadyrov I mentioned earlier, the leader of Chechnya.
But these are still pretty marginal figures within Russian debate. They get a lot of attention and they do have some forces in the field. And I also—I mentioned earlier Prigozhin, Putin’s chef, who has his Wagner Group, which is pretty active in eastern Ukraine. But what we don’t know is whether they really command any significant support within the sort of classic institutions that dominate the Russian national security state—the police, the military, the intelligence services.
You know, there’s an interesting study done by Tatiana Stanovaya of the Carnegie Endowment, who’s written that, you know, for all that Putin has tried to define this as an existential war, that’s not really what the Russian elite believes, that Russia’s existence is at stake in this war. She has exceptionally good contacts, particularly within the technocratic elite, but also more broadly in the political class. And her conclusion is, which is somewhat borne out by other kinds of studies and polls, is that people don’t actually think the rhetoric of satanism and a world without Russia really describes this conflict.
So I think we don’t know what the hysterics really count for. And I think there’s some reason to question their influence. That’s a little separate from whether Putin might make some decisions that accord with their—with their preferences. But he might do that not because he agrees with them, but mainly as a matter of personal political—personal physical and political survival.
CREBO-REDIKER: So we have some hands that are raised as well. And I’ll turn it over to my colleague Alexis to go to the audience.
OPERATOR: We’ll take a question from Daniil Goporovich (ph).
Q: Hello. Thank you very much for doing this.
So you already mentioned Prigozhin and Kadyrov. And you almost answered my question, but I will rephrase it anyway. So the criticism towards general expressed by Prigozhin and Kadyrov, do you think that, in this case, they represent—they still represent some kind of faction within the Russian government? Or they speak exclusively on their own behalf? Because we know they both have personal reasons to attack the military. And my second question is, in your opinion what will be actual response of the West if Russia is using tactical nuclear weapons in Ukraine? Thank you.
SESTANOVICH: We don’t really know about the nature of Kadyrov and Prigozhin and Girkin’s influence and contacts. I think it’s almost inevitable that the military in this environment, feeling itself—seeing itself responsible for a lot of setbacks, is going to have some divisions. But there’s a—there’s not a real sense of efficacy—(laughs)—if I could put it that way—political efficacy within the Russian military that they make their own decisions. They’re used to being bossed around by the political class. And I think they are surely expecting some heads to roll. They may think that they’re protected in some way by the fact that, you know, once Putin fires a few people he’s then even more responsible for what’s happened. This is a situation, the internal politics of the national security establishment, that we can only guess at the dynamics of.
About Western responses to nuclear weapons, why don’t I throw that one over to my colleagues, Charlie Kupchan.
KUPCHAN: Just a quick addition to your comment, Steve. You know, I am struck by the degree to which you are now seeing more open dissent. You know, for those of us who maintain conversations with Russian academics and public intellectuals, that dissent was there from the beginning. But to see this kind of public food fighting suggest that on some level Putin has lost or is losing the public narrative, and is having trouble maintaining what, until recently, was a fairly tight grip on how this war was being discussed and on the permissibility of speaking out against it. And we seem to be in a new phase now, which I think does create a great deal of fluidity and vulnerability in the Russian political scene. Whether that means Putin is going to survive this, who knows. But it’s interesting how much has changed in the last few weeks.
On the question of the response, you know, who knows? Obviously, there’s a lot of work that’s being done as we speak about the options for response. My guess is that the United States would not respond in kind, but would take steps against Russian targets, my guess is, in Ukraine. I would not be surprised if instead of instead of relying exclusively on the Ukrainians if NATO forces themselves, probably from the air, could attack Russian positions in eastern Ukraine, perhaps in Crimea. Obviously more additional sanctions. But I do think that the Russian isolation globally, including from China, and India, and other countries, that would emerge should the Russians decide to use a nuclear weapon, would reinforce the sense that this was a losing proposition for the Russians, and it should remain only the Russians who have gone down that road.
CREBO-REDIKER: So we have a related question, I guess. I guess, short of—short of the use of a nuclear weapon, given Ukraine’s recent changes on the battlefield—and this is from Heidi Hardt—what do you see as NATO’s role in responding to the recent changes on the battlefield? And how as NATO’s response thus far helped, hurt, or had little effect on the current geopolitical situation?
KUPCHAN: Well, I think in general NATO’s response has been a game-changer. And that the success that Ukrainians have enjoyed is, in part, due to the ability of the United States and its allies to get weapons and economic support to the Ukrainians. A lot of that is coming from the United States. And I’m guessing that that will continue. And the provision of intelligence, I think, has been very important. Because it has enabled the United States to target Russian supply lines, Russian depots, Russian headquarters, to do things that the Ukrainians themselves may not have had the necessary eyes and ears to carry out. And so I think the intelligence has been at least as important as the weapons themselves.
And as far as I can tell, it’s steady as she goes. There was a report a couple of days ago, I guess, that the United States was in the process of setting up a new command structure that will be focused exclusively on arming Ukraine and getting the Ukrainians the material that they need to keep defending their territory. So at least for now, both sides really do appear to be hunkering down and planning for the long haul. I think one—some of the questions that we need to ask from the Russian side, short of the potential use of a nuclear weapon, what other options do they have in their quiver, whether it is going after more Ukrainian infrastructure? Whether it’s turning off the flow of gas through the pipeline that runs through Ukraine, whether it’s contemplating a wider war, we don’t know. But given the success that the Ukrainians are enjoying, I’m guessing that the Russians are looking for other options for pushing back.
CREBO-REDIKER: So we have a couple of raised hands. I’ll go over to my colleagues to call on them.
OPERATOR: We will take our next question from Edward Cox.
Q: Yes. Let’s assume that the Ukrainians are completely successful on the battlefield, as General Petraeus is very definitive about, and others, military people of similar statute. And Putin—if Russian history is correct—Putin would be out, one way or the other. Where would Russia go in a more general sense? More towards the West? More toward China? Or what’s the view of that among the panelists here?
KUPCHAN: I guess, you know, we don’t—we don’t know whether Putin is going to survive. And as one of the earlier questioners indicated, if he doesn’t survive, we don’t know whether the Russia that comes next is better or worse from an American perspective and from a national security perspective. I think it’s safe to say that for now Russia is going to look to China. Russia is going to become more deeply integrated into the Chinese economy and into the Chinese broader diplomatic portfolio. I mean, the fact that they seem to be damaging their own pipelines is an indication to me that they’re not expecting anytime soon to look west, to rebuild their economic connections to Germany.
And in fact, by attacking a pipeline, it seems to me that they are pushing European politics further and further away from any possible of Ostpolitik, of some kind of new relationship with Russia, barring a democratic revolution of a sort that, right now, I think is hard to envisage. And so I see for now Russia falling more and more into the Chinese camp. The big question that I have is: Are the Chinese going to welcome the Russians with open arms, especially if this is a war that continues to go badly for the Russians? I think the answer to that is yes. And they’ve done a reasonably good job so far of supporting the Russians politically, but not crossing the line of violating sanctions and not arming the Russians. And that does speak volumes. So they’re trying to maintain that partnership with Russia, while at the same time keeping a certain distance from the war. My guess is that strategy is going to continue.
SESTANOVICH: I think we may have a little bit of a disagreement here. So let me sketch what I think would be a different trajectory. I think what Charlie describes is absolutely right, as long as Putin stays in power. Because Putin has no chance of rebuilding a relationship with Europe and the United States. He’s just ruled that out. But once you get beyond Putin and introduce a new leadership, it seems to me two things are on the agenda. One is the need to overcome the failure of Russian policy toward Europe and the United States. I mean, there’s just no way that the Russians can get around that. And once you’re past Putin, you can put aside all of the crazy talk about satanism and try to figure out is there some way to rebuild that relationship?
You know, this is a gigantic step for the Russians, to decide that for the long term they’re prepared to have no productive relationship with Europe and the United States. And I think that is one that is unlikely to be taken, even by a leadership that represent something of a sort of conservative continuation. I think it’s even less likely to be taken by a government that sees itself as representing a kind of democratic step forward. You know, I recommend Alexei Navalny’s piece in the Washington Post in the past couple of days, who—because he really is saying, look, the future of Russian politics has to be reexamined.
There are a lot of people who are going to agree with that, even if they’re not followers of Navalny. And the idea that Russia is just going to cut itself off from European civilization strikes me as too narrow a forecast. They have to find some way, without, you know, completely—without replicating the humiliation that they feel the 1990s represented—to repair the tremendous damage that they’ve done to their place in the world. They—it seems to me that really increasingly we’re getting to the question—I mean, the Russians themselves are going to face the question of , you know, reconceiving and restructuring—the old perestroika term rears its ugly head—both their domestic and their foreign policy.
KUPCHAN: I don’t disagree with that, Steve. The big question is, how long is it going to take to get there? And the answer is, it could take a while.
SESTANOVICH: Yeah. (Laughs.)
CREBO-REDIKER: And China is quite compelling as a partner. So there will be a continued draw eastward as well, so. One question, to what extent is Putin forced to heed rising criticism from its allies, including China and India? And is this criticism symbolic, or is there an effective effort by these countries, in your opinion, to constrain Putin? That comes from Brett Kitt.
KUPCHAN: You know, I think that the Chinese are mixed about this war and have been so from the beginning. I think the Indians have heartache about the position that they have taken. And some of that became clear when Modi spoke openly to Putin at the SCO summit. How much of an impact is this likely to have on Putin? As far as I can tell, very little. Because my sense is that he is doubling down, raising the stakes domestically, raising the stakes militarily. He’s turning the heat up, not turning the heat down. And so, no. I think that the words of caution that are coming, if they are coming, from Beijing, from Delhi, from other places, are unlikely to have an appreciable difference on Putin. He had jumped into the deep end of the pool, and I think he sees himself as having no option but to double down.
SESTANOVICH: Heidi, Putin’s speech on Friday reflects an interesting evolution in the way he kind of pitches his presentation of Russia to the rest of the world. It’s very much a kind of anti-colonialist message. He tries to associate himself with all segments of the non-European world that see the United States and Europe as colonial forces and tries to encourage them to see Russia as their ally in this respect. The problem for him is that it—you know, the colonial era is kind of in the past. And there are not all that many countries whose entire approach to international politics is shaped by a sense of who are the colonialist oppressors and who are our friends in overthrowing colonial rule.
So, you know, Putin is trying to find—develop some traction, some way of getting international understanding of what he’s doing. But I think it reflects a kind of failure of everything else that he’s tried. You know, he really—the whole idea of forging quasi-alliances with the Indians and the Chinese was not to be anti-colonialist, really. It was to be anti-American and also to create, you know, what they call a multipolar world, to try to have an alliance of the great powers. If the U.S. wanted to have international relations be defined by great-power competition, great. We’ve got three great powers. And Putin can say, you know, that’s our side. And, you know, in the famous remarks of Bismarck, in a game of, you know, five great powers, it’s better to be three than two.
But, you know, that’s a little different from just saying we are carrying forward—which he said explicitly in the speech on Friday—we’re carrying forward the heroic support that the Soviet Union gave to anti-colonial movements in the 1950s. You know, that’s—I think that’s—
KUPCHAN: I was just going to say—
SESTANOVICH: Yeah, I think it’s not going to—
CREBO-REDIKER: I’m going to have to wrap it up because I think we’re past the witching hour. So just very quickly—just, Charlie, very quickly.
KUPCHAN: Yeah. I was just going to say that, you know, he’s not without some reason for playing that card, in the sense that I remain struck by the degree to which, despite a bald act of aggression and territorial conquest in Ukraine, much of the world is sitting on the fence. Much of the world is not choosing sides. That suggests to me that we’re headed into a period of great fluidity when it comes to who aligns with whom.
CREBO-REDIKER: Well, on that note, I want to thank everybody for joining us today. I want to give huge appreciation to both Charlie and Steve for their insightful analysis of what’s going on. And please, you know, join us—join us again for these updates. This is—you know, this is really moving very quickly. And so thank you from the Council on Foreign Relations. And have a good rest of the week.