Crisis in Ukraine
President Vladimir Putin of Russia recognized the independence of two territories in eastern Ukraine, portions of which are controlled by Russia-backed separatists, and has ordered the deployment of Russian troops into these regions. Concerns are mounting that Russian actions to date could be a prelude to an all-out invasion of the country. Our panelists discuss the escalating crisis in Ukraine, including how the United States and Europe should respond.
HAASS: Well, thank you. Welcome, everybody. Good afternoon. We are having this meeting with very little advanced warning and trying to keep up with events on the situation facing not just Ukraine, but Europe and the world. We are in extraordinarily good hands here. We have three people who are of my favorite breed, and it’s the breed of scholar practitioners. All of these people have one foot at least in an academic environment and have had the other foot at various times in the government. And again, I think it’s the ideal combination to look at a situation like this, because it gives both a familiarity with what it’s like to be on the inside, but the perspective of the outside.
And we’ll go alphabetical order so nobody feels hurt by the order here.
Rose Gottemoeller, who’s at Stanford University, affiliated both with the Freeman Spogli Institute as well as with Hoover. She was the deputy secretary general of NATO and the undersecretary of state for arms control and international security.
Charlie Kupchan is sort of the hometown guy here. He’s a senior fellow with the Council on Foreign Relations, though everybody’s a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, and he was former special assistant to the president and senior director for Europe on the NSC.
And last but not least, Angela Stent, who’s affiliated with Brookings. For years was a professor at Georgetown, I believe, and was the former NIO, the national intelligence officer, for Russia and Eurasia on the National Intelligence Council. And she’s written a book called Putin’s World: Russia Against the West and With the Rest. And she may have to update it, unfortunately, given what is going on.
Let me just take a minute to frame things. I feel that in some ways we’re only as good as the most recent report. There was just a briefing, or still perhaps going on, at the Pentagon. But what is clear is that over recent, what, weeks and months Russia has amassed something like 150,000 troops, plus or minus, surrounding Ukraine. All attempts at diplomacy have come to naught. Mr. Putin articulated his views about Ukraine’s position in the geopolitical firmament, shall we say, on Monday. And he made clear, as he did in many ways last July in his essay, his views that Ukraine should not be perceived or understood as a legitimate, independent, sovereign entity but rather was somehow organically tied to Russia.
You’ve had in the last, I guess, twenty-four hours the Russian recognition of the quote/unquote “independent republics” in two parts of eastern Ukraine. You have Russian troops that have reportedly gone in and there’s some question now about whether their intention is to go into not just the parts of those two areas where Russian forces have been operating for the last seven, eight years, but potentially to the entire area that falls under Luhansk and Donetsk, and if they do, part of those same areas are now occupied by Ukrainian military forces. So that is where we are. In that way, lots of speculation, which we’ll get to, about what Mr. Putin’s agenda is here and all that. Sanctions have been announced by the United States, by the British government, and many other countries have joined in. You have—had, I believe, today a debate in the General Assembly at the United Nations, a few days ago in the Security Council.
So is basically a fair way of setting it up? I think most people feel that some sort of a larger military action is, at this moment, imminent. But if I left anything out that’s critical just for the setup, if so, please add it; if not, I want to go onto some other questions in the way of forming the context.
KUPCHAN: I would just say, Richard, we were talking about this right before you jumped on, that the reports of uniformed Russian military forces in Donbas may have been premature. We’re hearing that perhaps these so-called peacekeepers have not gone into the so-called independent republics. So, you know, who knows what’s happening as we speak? Who knows where we could be by the end of this call? But I guess one could say that, at least in my mind, we’re not at the end game. Let’s not throw in the diplomatic towel. I don’t think that further conversations are a waste of time.
GOTTEMOELLER: Could I just add, though, Richard, that Pushilin, you know, one of the separatist leaders, has also been in the press today, which is an interestingly somewhat quiet day because it’s Armed Forces Day in Russia, the 23rd of February, so they’re on holiday today, after breaking all the china in the last few days, but Pushilin, one of the separatist leaders, has said, for the moment, they are satisfied with the line of control, so it doesn’t sound like, at least from the separatist perspective, they are going to try to push immediately into the rest of Donetsk and Luhansk. Again, cold comfort, I think, in many ways, but that is the declaratory position at this moment.
STENT: Yeah, I would just add, on the diplomacy side—I mean, diplomacy between the U.S. and its allies is still alive and well and has been really remarkable in the last few weeks. It’s true that the U.S.-Russian side of it is dead, but I suspect, as Charlie says, some of the diplomacy will still go on, and remember, we’re still working with the Russians, for instance, on the Iran nuclear deal, so there are other areas where we’re still talking to them.
HAASS: I think that’s important to point out, getting ahead of ourselves, that diplomacy doesn’t stop if things necessarily deteriorate; it’s just diplomacy shifts gears and has to deal rather than with prevention then with management, and you start thinking about what terms can you get to bring things to a pause. I should also add—I think the only other thing I would have added—that there are reports of cyberattacks taking place within Ukraine.
OK, let’s say we’ve got it basically right, and as Charlie said, it may have already changed in the last five minutes. So the question is, then, how did we get here? Why are we here? Was this inevitable, given Mr. Putin, given Russian political culture? Was this, to some extent, this brought about by Western statecraft, or the lack of it, over the last thirty years? When historians look back on whatever it is that’s going to happen, but clearly we’re in a situation that a confrontation has already begun, to some extent, and could escalate broadly and quickly—when historians write about that, write about this, and they distribute responsibility or explanation for why we are where we are in late February of 2022, what are they going to say?
I’m just curious what you all think. Is this essentially a war that Mr.—a crisis that Mr. Putin is largely responsible for, or were the seeds for this sown, in many ways, over the last twenty-five years? Obviously, in the back of my mind is the question of NATO enlargement? To what extent did that light a fuse that helps explain where we are? How are—how are people to understand this question of causation and explanation here?
I’ll reverse the order here. Angela, why don’t we start with you?
STENT: Thank you. So I really do think that we do have to go back to the 1990s and acknowledge the Clinton administration, for reasons that we all understand, made the decision, as it looked out onto the landscape of European security, that the best way to ensure this post-communist security in these countries in Central and Eastern Europe, many of whom, you know, hadn’t been free countries since before World War II, was to use NATO as the institution that we would enlarge, and then with the Russians we would have the NATO Russia Council and deal with them.
But this was, essentially, a system in which Russia really didn’t have a stake. And so you—and you can argue why, then, the Clinton administration chose maybe the security concerns of the Central and East Europeans over those of a Russian government that was quite chaotic and still forming its foreign policy views.
Now, fifteen years ago, we heard President Putin at the Munich Security Conference with his broadside attack on the United States, many of the things that we see today. I mean, when I watched Mr. Putin’s speech on Monday night or, rather, should I say diatribe, a lot of those things were there in 2007.
But we sort of sloughed it off. We thought that, yes, he’s expressing grievances but, you know, he’s going to have to sort of live with it. Then we had 2014 and the annexation of Crimea. We were taken by surprise then, and I think the attitude, let’s say, of U.S. administrations was that Russia was becoming increasingly difficult to deal with under President Putin and we hoped that somehow he would change his thinking.
He didn’t, and we are where we are now, and I think the reason he has chosen to manufacture this crisis—because there’s no, really, precipitating event for this—is his view—he looked at the withdrawal from Afghanistan. He looked at a very divided United States government, polarized society, an administration having trouble getting its agenda through. He looked at Europe, again, distracted by its own problems, a German government that was having trouble coming to an agreement on how to deal with many things, including Russia. He looked at Ukraine that was struggling anyway economically, and he thought that this was the moment to strike.
So I don’t know whether we could have prevented this. But I think maybe we should have taken more seriously what he was saying fifteen and ten years ago and maybe done more to, you know, have—to be more robust ourselves, to create more resilience in reacting to this.
HAASS: Angela, let me just ask you one follow-up question based on one of the last things you said. Mr. Putin looked out, whether it was a year ago, whatever, and essentially saw opportunity, given domestic divisions in the U.S., Afghanistan, the German government, what have you.
Do you think that, essentially, he misread things? That he is—is it your guess that he is in some ways unhappily surprised with what he now faces?
STENT: Yes. I think he underestimated the ability—after four years of the Trump administration when U.S.-European relations were declining, were deteriorating badly, I think he underestimated the amount of solidarity, really, between the U.S. and its European allies—the amount of unity and our resolve, really, to push back.
I think that was a mistake on his part because he just looked at the divisions, and, of course, you know, the Russian playbook has been to exacerbate these divisions—societal ones, whether in the U.S. or in Europe—and I think he miscalculated that.
HAASS: Charlie, what’s your take on why we find ourselves where we are, and was it somehow inevitable, given Russia and Russian political culture, history, Mr. Putin, or to what extent did—again, we, to some extent, set in motion that even if there had been another Russian leader we might have ended up here?
KUPCHAN: I would agree with Angela that the story does begin in the 1990s during the first and second Clinton administrations when, I think, we probably did miss an opportunity to do more to anchor Russia in a post-Cold War settlement. Exactly what form that might have taken, you know, it’s hard to second guess. But I do think that we, meaning the American foreign policy establishment, Europeans, have taken too lightly Russian objections to the continuing enlargement of NATO. I do think that any country, including the United States, would be uncomfortable with a formidable military alliance showing up along its border. That doesn’t mean I think that this is the major cause of the problem, but I do think that we need to see this process from the Russian side to understand how we got here.
Second, I think that once Putin came back to power he took a turn—cracking down at home, pursuing a brand of Russian or Eurasian nationalism, wanting to restore the Russian empire, as it were—that really pushed Russia in a direction, independently of what we were doing, that in some ways made NATO enlargement more compelling, because Russia was appearing to reemerge as a country that was willing to engage in military adventurism. And then we’ve seen that build to the point of the speech that we heard on Monday, which was really quite paranoid and expansive.
The final point I’d make, Richard, and I guess this is a question for all of us, I am uncertain in my own mind about whether his objection to NATO membership for Ukraine is the nub of the issue, and that if we could find a solution to this question he would not proceed with an invasion. Or is it essentially a smokescreen, and he’s using it as an excuse to undertake an invasion and occupation and toppling of the regime, because that in the end of the day is the only way that he sees his way through to pulling Russia back—excuse me—Ukraine back into its sphere of influence? I don’t know the answer to that question, but I’d be interested to hear what Rose, Angela and you have to say on that.
HAASS: That’s being actively debated in social media. There’s also another school of that, which is slightly different, that a big part of this is to squelch—or the whole idea of a Ukraine that sets an example that could cause domestic blowback for Mr. Putin. Its openness politically, its openness economically, its ties to the EU, in some ways more dangerous than any potential ties to NATO. And he’s just worried that the virus, shall we say, liberalism and openness, could spread across his border, and he simply doesn’t want that to happen.
KUPCHAN: I would agree with that. I think he’s more afraid of that than he is of NATO troops in Ukraine.
HAASS: Rose, let me get you to—what’s your sense of—if you were going to assign or attribute causalities?
GOTTEMOELLER: Yeah, I’m going to disagree a bit with my colleagues on the inception, because I worked for President Clinton on the inside of the administration. Now, people on this call know that I was always the kind of nuclear person, right? So we were working on the basis of the cooperative threat reduction programs to ensure that the breakup of the Soviet nuclear arsenal did not result in essentially three new nuclear weapon states—Ukraine, Kazakhstan, and Belarus—but also did not result in fissile material and warheads getting sold out of Russia, or any of the states, to the highest bidder. So those programs were really important. I know Putin doesn’t like them.
But the other thing I wanted to point out was there weas a comprehensive effort by President Clinton to draw Russia into a partnership. And he came under some criticism at the time. Why were we even trying at some kind of strategic partnership with Russia? But it manifested itself in the so-called Gore-Chernomyrdin Commission across the board in the U.S. government. Prime Minister Chernomyrdin and Vice President Gore drove a process by which we were trying to figure out ways where we could find some mutual advantage. The one area I did work on quite a bit was the International Space Station project. And in that era, we needed the Russians. We did not have the lift capability to the ISS that we needed. We did not have the spacesuit that we needed. We did not have the docking mechanism that we needed. So we needed the Russians during that period. And that was, again, a mutual and reciprocal kind of arrangement.
So of course, they went through a period of maximum instability in the 1990s. But Putin always portrays that as they were flat on their back, and we took advantage of them. That’s not how I look at it. We were looking for areas of mutual advantage. I think the highly-enriched uranium purchase agreement was another good example of how the Russians were taking apart warheads. They had a lot of HEU. They needed to get it onto the marketplace as powerplant fuel, so we worked through some very complex issues to ensure that they were able to market low-enriched uranium out of their warhead program in a way that was, again, beneficial for them and for the markets. So I just—at least I think President Clinton and Vice President Gore made their best efforts to look for areas of mutual interest with Russia at the time, and that is forgotten in today’s—in today’s discourse.
The other thing I just wanted to point out is in the early parts of this decade, up to probably 2003-2004, Putin was quite interested in cooperation. You know, the old cliché line was he was the first to call President Bush after 9/11 offering up help, but he also was the Russian leader who signed the Rome Declaration that launched the NATO-Russia Council and the large array of cooperative projects between NATO and Russia that went forward up until 2014 and the invasion of Crimea. So there was an effort also on the part of NATO to try to—to try to establish some kind of workable partnership, and Putin initially agreed.
So I’ve been asking myself: What was it about that period from 2002 up to the—up to the speech at the Munich Security Conference that sent him sour? And I think there’s a combination of factors, but I’ve been trying to sort through the domestic factors that were related to the emergence of figures like Khodorkovsky who were domestic political rivals to Putin, and then the international factors such as—and he always points to the withdrawal from the ABM Treaty, the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, as being a big moment for him where he realized that the Americans were going bad on the international front. I’m not sure that’s the case because that very year he also signed the Moscow Treaty with President Bush to pursue some further nuclear-arms reductions, so I’m not quite sure where that balance finds itself. But I think we really need to focus in on that period from about 2002 to 2007 as to where really things started to go wrong and Putin just decided he could not cooperate with this West.
HAASS: I would probably—
STENT: Can I come in there, Richard? (Laughs.)
HAASS: I’m sorry. Go ahead.
STENT: Sure. I mean, I agree with Rose. The high point of U.S.-Russian cooperation, right, was, in fact, the period 2001, when Putin supported the U.S. initial effort in Afghanistan. He came to the United States. He came to Crawford. So I think the problem is—he wanted an alliance with the United States, and the Russians were talking about we now have an antiterrorism alliance just as we allied against Nazi Germany, this is how we’re going to go forward, and there was quite a lot of optimism about that.
I think the problem was that Putin believed or what he wanted was what some Russian colleagues of mine have called an equal partnership of unequals. He wanted this kind of recognition by the United States to be treated as an equal. And in his mind—and this is where we come back to what we’re hearing now—that we would recognize that Russia did have a right to a sphere of influence in the post-Soviet space. And I think one of the things that—leaving the ABM Treaty was the first thing. The war in Iraq, you know, was another thing, the idea of regime change. But it was the color revolutions, when he saw what happened in Georgia and in Ukraine in 2004, and what he saw as U.S. support of these color revolutions. Then it comes back to the domestic situation that Charlie was talking about, that he feared that this might happen in Russia too.
So I think his expectations, then, were not met, the ones he had. We had different expectations. And I think that’s what really, really soured him.
And I would just like, you know, to say in answer to the question you had, too, I think if President Zelensky said tomorrow Ukraine isn’t interested in NATO membership, this crisis would continue because by now I think Putin’s determined, if you listen to what he said, if you read his five-thousand-word essay from July, they want to subjugate Ukraine and bring it under Russian control and have a pro-Russian government.
HAASS: OK. So this will be a subject that more doctoral dissertations will be written on than any of us would ever want to read. It’s interesting, you know, people always say hindsight is 20/20. This will be a great case where hindsight is not 20/20. A lot of debates will continue here on what are the lessons, what was inevitable and what wasn’t. But that’s a conversation for another day. We are where we are.
Very quickly, I want to raise the question of stakes. You know, a lot of Americans are going to get up tomorrow morning, the news will be on, and this is not going to resonate. Why is this so important? I just want to briefly put that on the record. To what extent are national interests, vital national interests, if any, involved in this? Less than vital interests? What’s at stake here? Imagine the worst, for a second, quote/unquote “the worst,” that Mr. Putin launches something more ambitious than he already does and he basically tries to physically, one way or another, bring Ukraine under his control and at least succeeds at the outset. Whether he can hold it or not and the question of occupation, let’s put that aside. What are the stakes here? How would we describe and rate or rank America’s national interests?
We’ll reverse it again. Rose, why don’t we start with you?
GOTTEMOELLER: Richard, even the Chinese have been speaking up in the last couple days about territorial integrity and sovereignty, so I think in the first instance we have to try to defend those key principles, even if in the end of the day, you know, there is a situation arising, such as we’ve seen across the former Soviet space. This is—we’ve seen this movie before. This is not the first time that Putin has created statelets carving out in Georgia Abkhazia and South Ossetia, of course, in Moldova the Transnistria, and now in Ukraine. But I think we must continue to stand for these basic principles, and that’s all that there is to it.
HAASS: When you say basic principles, just to clear up—to the extent we do have any order in this world, perhaps the most basic of the principles is the idea that borders ought not to be changed by force, that sovereignty ought to be respected, expect in extremis, for example, under responsibility to protect. But these are, if you will, the tenets of global order, to the extent that Charlie has enough to write about it when he writes his books.
What’s your sense, Professor Kupchan, about what’s at stake here, besides that?
KUPCHAN: You know, I think we all have to admit that it is not a first-order national security interest; that is to say, something on par with an attack on the United States or one of its treaty-based allies. But I do think that it would come in the next category, which would be, number one, a demonstration on the part of Russia that it is willing to use force, at least for now, to change boundaries and maybe to invade and occupy a neighbor, which we then have to translate into, what’s next? Is it Estonia? Is it a NATO member? And we will have to respond accordingly to that contingency.
Secondly, I would reiterate what Rose said, that this is a—there are important principles at stake. If he does violate further the territorial integrity of his neighbor, it is a threat to a rules-based system. And then finally, I think the stakes in the longer run are quite high in that I do think that we will back in something approximating a cold war, that we’ll see the remilitarization of the boundary between NATO and Russia. The cold war might actually encompass not just West and Russia but the West and a combination of Russia and China. That’s not out of the question, even though China does seem to be telling Putin to cool it right now because, you know, I think Russia is a troublemaker and it tries to disrupt, to good effect. China, I think, is more of a—doesn’t want as much disruption, right? It has piggybacked on the current international system to rise. And so I think we’re beginning to see some interesting cracks between Beijing and Moscow that weren’t evident until the last forty-eight hours or so, but I do think that a fundamental change in the international system, with a serious return to geopolitical competition, could beckon.
HAASS: Angela, do you have anything to add on that?
STENT: First of all, Charlie, I would advise you to read the statement today from a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman. It’s pretty harsh and it’s repeating all the Russian talking points.
HAASS: It was a step backwards, I thought.
STENT: I beg your pardon?
HAASS: I thought—you had the original joint statement when Putin was visiting China, which was bad. Then you had a slightly improved statement by Wang Yi in the context of Munich, and I thought today’s was a bit of a step in the wrong—in the unfortunate direction.
STENT: Yeah. And then I would, you know, agree this is a violation of all the principles of the United Nations, which Russia, of course, claims that it supports.
On a very parochial level, you know, it’s going to affect Americans’ pocketbooks—higher gas prices. If there’s a real major war, add more economic instability, more inflation, things like that. So it does actually have an impact here.
But I just want to return to one thing Charlie said. If you notice—right?—in the treaty that was proposed to NATO in December, the Russians talk about NATO withdrawing to its military posture from 1999. You had Foreign Minister Lavrov say a few weeks ago that when the Warsaw Pact broke up its members were orphaned because they lost Mother Russia. So I think that Russia’s designs could go beyond Ukraine and the post-Soviet space and it really could be looking to recreate a sphere of influence also in Eastern-Central Europe, and then we are really back to where we were before 1989. And who knows what the repercussions of that would be?
HAASS: Then we would be off to the races.
So let me just, before we open it up to our members, quickly turn prescriptive. I don’t want to be predictive, because, quite honestly, too much of this is going to be decided in the next few days by the thought processes of one individual and none of us have access to that intelligence compartment called Vladimir Putin’s brain, so—but let’s just, for argument’s sake—I mean, it seems to me there’s two scenarios. One is there’s a prolonged pause; he doesn’t do much more than he’s done, and we’ve already had some responses to it. The other is, obviously, that sets in motion, one way or another, events that lead to a far, far greater confrontation in all of Ukraine. So the question is, you know, we’ve put on the table various policies, of enhanced sanctions, more military help to Ukraine, beefing up of NATO. Is that essentially what’s in the cupboard, what we’ve essentially—what the administration has threatened to do? Some of it it’s done; more of it presumably it would do. But is that essentially what’s in the cupboard and we hope that it’s enough—the sanctions and military help we give to Ukraine is enough to raise the costs of this and so forth, or is there something that we’re not thinking of that we should add to the mix?
Charlie, why don’t I start with you?
KUPCHAN: The main thing that I would say—let’s not just keep in the cupboard but bring out of the cupboard—is more diplomacy, because I don’t think that a full-scale invasion of Ukraine is a done deal. I think we saw Putin turn up the heat by recognizing the two separatist territories, but the facts on the ground haven’t changed dramatically in the sense that Russia effectively already control these territories and there were already Russian troops there, even if, quote/unquote, “they were on vacation” and not wearing their uniforms. So this is clearly an escalation, but let’s not assume that a full-scale invasion and occupation is there, and that’s why I think yes, the pause button has been hit; let’s take advantage of that pause to try to get diplomacy open again.
And you know, I guess that for me, the biggest deterrent, Richard, is not what you just listed. It’s not the sanctions; it’s not more troops on NATO’s eastern frontier. It’s the prospect of what happens if he, in fact, goes for the full Monty. You know, Putin is someone who has tended to take small bites—Abkhazia, South Ossetia, Crimea, Donbas, Nagorno-Karabakh. Even Syria was not that huge a risk, relatively low cost. To invade and occupy Ukraine is a huge risk at very high cost, and yeah, I think the invasion itself would probably go rather quickly because of the imbalance, the military asymmetries, but then what? Does he really want to try to hold and govern a country of forty-four million people that want nothing to with Russian power and Russian troops? This is where I—you know, I still have a hard time getting into Putin’s mind. Where does he see this going? And because it’s hard for me to answer that question, I think there’s still room and time for diplomacy.
GOTTEMOELLER: I’m glad to hear you say that, Charlie, because I agree that I hope that can be the case. I want to come around again to talk about what the future agenda may look like if we can’t get diplomacy going, but I’ll leave that for you, Richard. What I did want to turn everybody’s attention to is NATO and what NATO may be doing during this period. There are steps that NATO can take and are perhaps under consideration in terms of some additional reinforcements, such as putting in place the NATO Response Force, the NRF, which would constitute some NATO reinforcements going on. What you’re seeing now, like the U.S. decision, Biden’s announcement yesterday of sending an additional eight hundred troops to the Baltic states, these are decisions that are being made by individual NATO countries, and not as a NATO matter, per se. So I think NATO could take some additional steps to show its support for deterrence and defense in Europe. We’ll see what consensus can be reached on that issue.
But in addition, I wanted to recall that now the NATO strategic concept is under consideration. And it’s funny, but what Putin’s current crisis-mongering has done, it’s kind of distracted from the so-called—we used to call it the pivot to Asia. But certainly, now it’s the Indo-Pacific, and the attention that, first, the Biden administration wanted to place on the Indo-Pacific, but also the strategic concept of NATO. One of its major objectives in doing it was to look at how NATO and China could interact going forward. Not that NATO would go to China, of course. It’s the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. So its center of gravity will stay in Europe and between Europe and North America. But nevertheless, NATO was looking for ways to build on some pretty interesting and decent cooperation that has ensued with the Chinese over the last couple of years, since I was NATO deputy secretary general.
So I’m starting to think about, of course, we’ve seen Xi and Putin hugging, and now they’ve got this great agenda of cooperation. But what is—what is the possibility for also some interaction between Western entities, like NATO or the European Union, with China? And does that perhaps serve some important function in terms of tempering Russia-Chinese cooperation? So that’s an area that I tend to do—I intend to do some more thinking about. But I also think in the context certainly the strategic concept is going to point to an increasingly, again, aggressive Russia. But its attention to China will also be worth looking at.
STENT: Yeah. I do not think that Putin would have acted now had he not understood that he had China at his back. I think the fact that China supported Russia in 2014 when it annexed Crimea and enabled Russia not to be isolated by the Wets, I think that meeting with Xi Jinping on February the 4th was very important just, again, to reinforce that the Chinese will support Russia, even if they disapprove if there were to be a major invasion. I don’t think the Chinese want to see a major war in Europe. And they also have quite good economic and political relations with Ukraine, which is part of the Belt and Road. But I think China has—you know, China’s support has enabled Russia to do this.
Two things: The Russian public is not being prepared for a major war with Ukraine. The Russian public is being told that the warmongering is the fault of the United States and NATO. But the idea that young Russian men will be sent to fight and kill Ukrainians, having been told in July that Ukrainians and Russians are one people, as far as we can see, the public opinion data shows that there really isn’t support within Russia for a major war with China. So I think that’s one important—
HAASS: Major war with Ukraine.
STENT: Oh, sorry. (Laughs.) Sorry. For a major war with Ukraine. No, there’s no war with China.
But the other point is, you know, if, Charlie, you think there isn’t going to be a major invasion, why are—you know, why are there still 160,000, maybe more than that, troops surrounding Ukraine on all three sides? Why are they making preparations, with field hospitals, everything, that look as if an invasion is imminent? Because they can’t keep that up that for that long. It becomes very costly. And you can’t keep soldiers in tents in the freezing for a long time. So, yes, we’re all guessing, and that’s the point of it. I don’t think that there’s much more that the U.S. and the Europeans can do. And I do not think that sanctions are going to deter Putin if he’s determined to do this. But, you know, reinforcing our allies is very important, because the worst scenario would be a war between Russia and Ukraine, a major war, which then spills over into Poland or Romania, into one of Ukraine’s neighbors that is a NATO member. And then, again, we are in uncharted territory.
HAASS: Wow. Usually, I’m the most pessimistic person in the room, and you’re suggesting a scenario that we avoided for four decades of cold war. Now we now need to think about. You win. No matter what else is said, you win the pessimism or concern award for today, Professor Stent.
Laura or Meghan, let’s open it up to some questions from our members for these three individuals.
OPERATOR: (Gives queuing instructions.)
We’ll take the first question from Avis Bohlen.
Q: Thank you for a very wonderful discussion, if not exactly encouraging.
I have a question for—especially for Angela, I think, but all Putin watchers and that is do you think that Putin has become unhinged in the last two years? I saw that picture of him with the Security Council and it looked like Ivan the Terrible and his boyars.
I mean, it was really quite striking, and we know how much he’s been in isolation. Has he just been spending a lot of time sitting there and brooding on this and, really, kind of gone round the bend? Obviously, there’s calculation in what he’s doing. But could you say a bit about what you think his mental state is? Thank you.
STENT: Sure—thank you, Avis—I mean, to the extent that anyone can.
Officials who’ve met with him recently, including, obviously, President Macron, who spent quite a lot of time interacting with him, really do say that he’s changed, that his demeanor, his affect, is different than it used to be. He has been in this extreme isolation for over two years. It’s been very hard for people to visit him.
What struck me in that Security Council meeting was the way he humiliated his cabinet colleagues, I mean, particularly, the head of the Foreign Intelligence Service. I mean, as you say, it’s like a spectacle from Ivan the Terrible.
And I think the other thing is he seems to be surrounded by three or four men, most of whom come from the intelligence services, who are reinforcing all of his sort of paranoid views and the view of the West as the enemy and not really caring about the consequences of what they do.
So these are all secondhand reports. I’m struck by the fact that in previous times you’ve had some of the kind of economic modernizers—people like Alexei Kudrin, the former finance minister, who was at least close to Putin—who were publishing things and saying things that it really is not in Russia’s interest to have such an antagonistic relationship with the West because Russia needs to modernize its economy. It needs to be a more prosperous modern country. You don’t see any of those views anymore.
So I think it’s quite possible that these two—more than two years of isolation have really affected him, and the way he looked when he gave that tirade, really, on Monday night, I think, reinforces that.
HAASS: I should just make clear this session is on the record. I should have said that earlier. Let’s get another question.
OPERATOR: We’ll take the next question from Lawrence Wright.
Q: Hi. This is Lawrence Wright with the New Yorker.
Thanks for this panel. I’d like for you to assess a little more about the domestic consequences for Putin if this happens, and is there enough of a civic life in Russia to restrain him in any sense?
HAASS: And I’m just going to build on that, which is, is there enough and are there things we could do to strengthen civil society’s ability to restrain Mr. Putin at all? Because that can be part of our—that’s one of the things we might consider taking out of the cupboard. So because—I’ll just say one other thing and then I’ll stop—there hasn’t been a groundswell. This is not a war that is being forced on Mr. Putin from the people of Russia. There’s not a bottom up groundswell. This is very much a top down effort. So the question is, are there constraints? And, if not, could there be that we could, in many ways, encourage? We just lost—
GOTTEMOELLER: I’d like to—
HAASS: Go ahead, Rose.
GOTTEMOELLER: Yeah, I’ll just start, as she had to run away for a minute, but—oh, here she is. But I’ll just start by saying—
STENT: I had to close the window because of the drilling. (Laughter.)
GOTTEMOELLER: Well, we had lawnmowers here on the Stanford lawn, so I hope it wasn’t too distracting. Sorry. They’re over now.
Anyway, Lawrence, to your question, I was very interested early in the crisis that there began to be a small wave of social media posts from the families of service people—of servicemen serving, beginning to express concern about their sons going to war. And they are sons. They don’t have women, really, serving in the armed forces. But their sons going to war and, perhaps, coming back in body bags or in zinc coffins and—or without one of their limbs.
So there was some of that in social media. My colleagues and friends who follow those—Angela, no doubt, will comment on it—said this just wasn’t enough of a groundswell to be that important, especially given the fact that this is not so much a conscript army anymore but a professionalized army in the last twenty years. But the one thing I will point to, again, is history and the fact that it was the so-called mothers movements that helped to bring about the end of Russia’s—the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan in 1989 and then also were active in steering the end of the Chechen wars in the 1990s.
But over to you, Angela. You know a lot more about this than I do.
STENT: Well, I mean, I think—I think you’ve touched on a lot of it. I do agree that we should be trying to reach out to civil society more. The problem is the Putin administration has made it increasingly difficult to do that. You know, opposition figures are either in jail or many of them are in exile. If they espouse views that are not those of the state, they’re labeled foreign agents. And it’s increasingly difficult for Russian NGOs and things like that to operate, particularly if—you know, if they seek some kind of support from the West.
There wouldn’t be a groundswell for this war. I think that the Crimea effect in 2014 was very popular. Putin’s popularity rates went up to 80 percent. Well, they’re 68 percent today, which is still something that—(laughs)—many of our own officials would love to have. But I do think that if there were a prolonged war this could be very divisive.
Rose, I think the soldiers’ mothers organization is now also banned in Russia, as—
GOTTEMOELLER: It is.
STENT: Right. So not that the mothers wouldn’t want to protest, but it’s going to become increasingly difficult to do so.
KUPCHAN: And I would just add that—
GOTTEMOELLER: They’ll have to rebuild from the bottom again if they decide to. Sorry, Charlie, go ahead. Yeah.
KUPCHAN: Yeah. I’m skeptical that there is a civil society movement that we could nurture that would make a difference. And I’ve also been struck by the degree to which Putin can control the narrative and turn it around on a dime. You know, first it’s all about Ukraine. Then it’s all about Syria. Now he’s going back to Ukraine. And he has a remarkable ability to kind of control the domestic narrative.
But I do agree with both Angela and Rose that going into Ukraine does really open a new chapter, and that if Russians are turning on their TVs and they are seeing Russian tanks in the streets of Kyiv and they are seeing buildings in Kyiv burn because of a Russian attack and body bags are coming home, and then suddenly this turns into a long-term occupation that doesn’t go well, I think it’s a very risky move for Putin. And I also think that that’s why it would make sense for us to support a resistance, if it comes to that, and to try to get arms and other sources of support to Ukrainians that are trying to undo a Russian occupation if that is, in fact, where we end up.
HAASS: It may well come to it. The New York Times is now reporting that the troop numbers the Russians are arraying against Ukraine are up to 190,000, which is still not a large number of troops in order to occupy a country by the looks of the given territory, the number—44 million people. It’s not a lot. It might also explain some of the stories we’ve seen about Russian plans, effectively, to do a preemptive decapitation of what would be the leadership of a resistance in order to make it a more manageable situation. But at least the most recent evidence is the window for deterring this entire thing from going to the next phase seems to be closing, but we’ll know soon enough.
Let’s get another question in.
OPERATOR: We’ll take the next question from Anders Åslund.
Q: Thank you very much for an excellent discussion.
And I’m just reading Churchill’s The Gathering Storm about the awful policies in the 1930s, and a major point there is that the side piece was not important. In the same way, I don’t think we should talk about the 1990s, the small mistakes that the West did then, but we should look up on what Putin does now. I think Strobe Talbott captured it best in his 2002 book The Russia Hand. I quote: “Putin wanted to join the West, but on his conditions.” And I think Rose said something similar. And also, Angela said it very well: It’s not about NATO. Putin wants to take over the government in Ukraine, as you just alluded to, Richard. And as he has done now in Belarus and Kazakhstan, he wants weak governments that can deliver a dictatorship.
And, Charlie, in this light I was happy to hear what you just said, you wanted to deliver arms to Ukraine. As I remember, and I do remember rightly, under the Obama administration you opposed sending lethal arms to Ukraine. I hope you’ve changed that position now. Thank you. That’s my question.
HAASS: (Laughs.) Want to explain yourself, Professor Kupchan?
KUPCHAN: You’re right, Anders, to say that we can all have our different opinions about the 1990s and what we did right, what we may have done wrong, but that’s an academic discussion. And right now, it’s all moot because Putin is behaving in a way that, whether we made good decisions or bad decisions, is over the top and unacceptable and completely unjustified. So I think we’re in agreement with that.
Yes, I was someone that was opposed to the provision of lethal weapons to Ukraine back in 2014-2015. That is not my position today, as I—as I just made clear. And my rationale at the time was that we did not want to see this conflict escalate militarily because we would not be able to win if this moved up the ladder of military escalation. We are now seeing the escalation take place. If Russia does invade, I think it’s very unlikely that the Ukrainian military will be able to stop them, even with the provision of our weapons. And the bottom line here is that despite the restraint that the United States has shown in not moving quickly to give its best arms to Ukraine, Putin is escalating and appears to be on the verge of invading the country.
HAASS: Let’s get some more questions. We’ve got time.
OPERATOR: We’ll take the next question from Cynthia Roberts.
Q: Thank you all for this session, and greetings to all of you.
My question goes back to both the issue of stakes—U.S. stakes relative to Russia—and the response of sanctions. Sanctions are—all of us as academics know—a poor coercive tool. Many of us have argued they wouldn’t work to deter Putin. And yet, the administration has emphasized and reemphasized sanctions, and how they’re going to escalate and punish Russia, and how this is going to have some impact. That raises the question: Either it’s a signal that we do not have sufficient stakes to do other things—like supply more arms, or that they’re misguided. And that’s hard to believe, given, you know, the number of smart people who work in the administration.
So how do we explain this puzzle, when it’s clear that the sanctions didn’t work before? And let me give you one hypothesis and get your feedback. There are a number of people from the Obama administration who believed that sanctions deterred Putin from escalating in 2014 and going for all of Ukraine. Those of us who looked at that issue and did interviews and studied it suggested there are alternative explanations, like more concern about popular opposition back then, there was less of a crackdown, and concern about whether they were ready to do something like that. So is it they’re overrating what happened in the past? Or is it just a reflection of lack of other options?
HAASS: I’m actually going to weigh in on that, since I’ve edited a couple of books on sanctions. Look, I think, Cynthia, sanctions can have multiple purposes. One is coercive. And you’re right, there’s not a very good record that they work. Sanctions tend to be overrated in what they can bring about. But sanctions can also be punitive, and they can also have a signaling factor, that even if they’re not going to be enough to persuade Mr. Putin not to do things, in this case, it could be a factor, and it could be a factor with the calculations of others. But sanctions alone cannot carry the full weight of policy. The question is whether sanctions, plus military help to Ukraine, plus NATO deployments and the rest, in their totality it adds up to a calculation against what Mr. Putin just determines to be the upsides.
I’d say one other thing, in government and lots of times in meetings people became—turned to sanctions only because it was the—often the third option. You don’t want to get involved militarily directly, you don’t want to sit on your hands and put all your eggs in a diplomatic basket. So sanctions check the box of, quote/unquote “doing something,” not being a bystander, not being passive. But I think the history of sanctions suggests we ask them to do too much too often. And now that I’ve spoken too much, everyone is—you all have a green light to contradict everything I just said.
GOTTEMOELLER: I wouldn’t presume, Richard, but I’d just—
STENT: Well, the problem is the U.S.—
GOTTEMOELLER: I just wanted to say really quickly I think you’re right that they send different messages, and one important message to send to Putin right now is no impunity. You’re not getting away with anything for free. And so I just think that that’s a very important message to send right at this moment. Sorry, Angela, please go ahead.
STENT: No, I was just going to say, I mean, the United States, we love to use sanctions. And we shouldn’t forget the U.S. Congress that loves sanctions, I think even more than the administration does. You know, we’ve done it throughout history. And we can go back and look at all the sanctions we had against the Soviet Union and even to some extent against Russia. Because there are—we don’t have too many other tools. Once we take the military option off the table, which we have to do. You can’t have American and Russian troops fighting each other in a war like that, because we’re both nuclear superpowers. So once you take that off the table, you restrict the extent to which you can deter a country like Russia with a leader who is determined to do this.
I think that if Vladimir Putin believed that there would be actual massive sanctions against him personally and against his wealth that might deter him, but we’re not there yet and no one has suggested that.
HAASS: Can I just follow up with something you said, Angela?
HAASS: I just want a quick lightning round with the panel. So does anyone think we were wrong to take the possibility of direct American military engagement in Ukraine off the table? Does anyone disagree with that strategic judgment?
KUPCHAN: Disagree with—no, I would just say I agree with it and that’s why we’re seeing sanctions.
The only other point I’d make, to add to the conversation, is that when you step back and you say what plays to our strength versus what plays to Russia’s strength, the military escalation plays to their strength. Sanctions play to our strength, and that’s because Russia has a small economy, right, smaller than that of Italy or Texas. We can do a lot of damage to them on that front.
And so—and that goes back to what Anders was asking about. One of the reasons that I said let’s rely more on economic sanctions than arming is that that plays to our strength rather than Putin’s.
HAASS: OK. We’re close to the anointed hour, so I have two things to do—or one thing before I thank our panelists.
Just to let you know what’s coming up, tomorrow, the 24th, at 10:30 the secretary of state, Tony Blinken, will be in conversation with the editor of Foreign Affairs, Dan Kurtz-Phelan. So that will be tomorrow morning at 10:30. It’s part of the centennial celebration of the greatest journal in the world devoted to international relations and foreign affairs, appropriately enough named Foreign Affairs.
Second of all, this week is many things. It’s also the 50th anniversary of the trip by Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger to China. And this Friday, the 25th, at noon here in the East we’re going to have Winston Lord, who is the NSC staffer who made that trip; Oriana Skylar Mastro, a colleague of Rose’s at Stanford; and Tim Naftali in conversation with Doug Brinkley, one of the leading presidential historians.
And then, last but not least, next week on the 3rd of March—I hope I have my weeks right. Was that the week after? That is next week, isn’t it? Sorry. We’re going to have a conversation picking up on some of these issues here, a more broad conversation on the U.S.-Russia relationship. And we’re going to do that with Ivo Daalder, who’s—heads the Chicago Council of Global Affairs, a former U.S. ambassador to NATO; Fiona Hill, formerly of the NSC staff and of Brookings; and Mary Sarotte of Johns Hopkins, who’s probably the leading historian of NATO enlargement. And that’ll be Thursday the 3rd at 3:30.
So lots coming up. We’ll also be covering it on the website and on Foreign Affairs.
So thank you to our three scholar-practitioners, Rose Gottemoeller, Angela Stent, and Charlie Kupchan. Thank you for today and more broadly for your voice—your thoughtful experience, knowledgeable voice on these issues. And I want to thank all of our members for joining us today for this important conversation.