Foreign Affairs March/April 2023 Issue Launch: Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine—One Year Later
Foreign Affairs editor Daniel Kurtz-Phelan and authors Liana Fix, Michael Kimmage, and Dara Massicot mark the one-year anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and launch the March/April 2023 Foreign Affairs issue.
KURTZ-PHELAN: Thank you, Sam. And welcome, all, to today’s discussion. We are, of course, marking the one-year mark of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and also, somewhat prematurely, the launch of the March/April issue of Foreign Affairs, which is out next week. I am Dan Kurtz-Phelan, the editor of Foreign Affairs.
This is, of course, an extremely grim occasion, a grim anniversary. But we really cannot ask for a better lineup of Foreign Affairs authors to make sense of what’s transpired over the past year and also, perhaps more importantly, to help us understand what’s coming next, whether that’s on the battlefield, in Russia, in U.S.-Russian relations, and in geopolitics more broadly. All three of them have done really some of the best work anywhere on the war over the past year. I hope you’ve all read the steady stream of pieces that they’ve done for foreign affairs over the past several months.
I had the job of going back and reading over all of those last night, and I was struck both by how, you know, the kind of foresight and insight of so many of those pieces, but also by the fact that I still found pieces, even those written fairly hurriedly in the early days and weeks of the war, to have so much that was so illuminating, even as we think about the questions that will define the next year of the war in Ukraine. And then we’ve been thrilled to feature really, truly magisterial essays by all three of them in the last couple of issues.
First, we have Dara Massicot. She has a piece in the new issue called What Russia Got Wrong. And there’s really no better explanation of what has happened on the battlefield in the last year. But she also steps back in that piece and considers what might happen next, which is, of course, a particularly germane question as we head into this second year. She is a specialist in the Russian military at the RAND Corporation and, before that, was at the U.S. Department of Defense.
We then have Liana Fix and Michael Kimmage, who I’m introducing as a pair because they have written a really wonderful series of pieces as a pair over the past year. That started a few days before the war, actually, with a piece called What If Russia Wins? And then has been followed by a series of pieces that all have that “what if” title, going from there to What If Russia Loses? a few days after the war started. What If the War Escalates? What If the War Doesn’t End? and several more. These are so full of insight and wisdom and considering the broader ramifications of the war in a number of different ways.
They have an issue that is out now in our January/February issue called Putin’s Last Stand. And it considers what Putin’s future might look like, given Russia’s struggles in the war, and really kind of fundamentally takes on the question of where this all ends. Liana is now a fellow here at the Council on Foreign Relations and Michael is a professor of Russian history at Catholic University, and also previously served on the secretary of state’s policy planning staff working on Russia and Ukraine.
Sorry to go on so long in the introductions, but I’m just particularly proud to have been able to feature the work of these three, and really grateful for all of you for joining us today. Dara, Liana, Michael, again, thanks so much, and for all you’ve done to help me and the readers of Foreign Affairs understand the grim events of this past year. I’m going to start by looking back, having each of you very quickly—in let’s say a minute or less—tell us what has most surprised you since the start of this war and what was it that you missed that you didn’t, or perhaps couldn’t, see a year ago that accounts for that surprise?
Dara, let me start with you on this.
MASSICOT: Thank you so much for having me. And thank you so much for the kind words. It is a really grim milestone to look back on the last twelve months. I think one of the things that surprised me the most was that Russia would make such a big bet, with all of its professional forces, and yet have so many faulty assumptions that went into the plan. You know, the one thing that I didn’t know then but we know now is how Western support would pivot for Ukraine after the war started.
You know, we had a—we had a program. We had a plan for supporting them before the war, but at the time it was mostly focused on smaller arms, like Javelins and Stingers. And officials at the time were speaking off the
record talking about supporting an insurgency, essentially, after the government or the military fell apart. And when that didn’t happen within a few days, our whole plan changed comprehensively. And just look at how far the support has come. I don’t think the Russians were anticipating that, and they don’t have an answer for it. Or, at least one that they’re not willing to do.
KURTZ-PHELAN: Liana, let me go to you next on that same question.
FIX: Yeah. And also for myself, thanks so much for the invitation. I think I’m going into a similar direction as Dara is, but what surprised me in particular is how Putin has not only miscalculated his own army and the Ukrainian army, but has also miscalculated the response from Europe. And that I find surprising because he always considered himself someone who knows Europe, who knows Germany well. A president very much—like Biden is an Atlanticist president. A president who is rooted in this Cold War history in Europe.
And from his perspective, it seemed to be a golden opportunity. Angela Merkel was leaving the stage, Emmanuel Macron had elections. Russia was rushing to increase Europe’s dependence on Russian energy, trying to conclude the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, trying to empty European gas storages. So the idea was that Europe would be in Russia’s pocket and there would be not much resistance against this war. And it turned out to be completely differently.
And perhaps, to Putin’s credit, there’s anything anyone wants to give Putin credit for, actually Europeans themselves might have underestimated their own possibility to raise resilience. In the weeks and months after the war, you could often hear European officials being surprised themselves at the response that they’d been able to mount in reaction to the war. So that adds to the miscalculation that Putin has made with his own army, with Ukraine’s Army. The miscalculation that Europe would be in his pocket and would not mount a significant resistance.
KURTZ-PHELAN: Michael, how about you?
KIMMAGE: For me, it’s the scale and the magnitude of the event itself. The 2014-2015 annexation of Crimea, the war in the Donbas was a very significant event. And I think it did have ripple effects all across Europe. But this event has had ripple effects all across the world. I’m tuning into this conversation from the country of Colombia, where the food prices have gone through the roof and inflation is much, much higher directly as a result of the war. And that’s only one of, you know, many, many countries that have felt the effects of this war far, far away from Ukraine. So it’s just astonishing to me that in terms of food security, in terms of energy, in terms of inflation, and obviously the security issues that are connected to the war, it’s just much more momentous than anything I could have imagined.
In terms of what I got wrong, and I think it’s, you know, an explanation for the magnitude of this event in part, is the radicalism of Putin. He had seemed to me like a man who was in power for twenty-two years before the war. Obviously capable of brutality, capable of aggression. That’s not a surprise. But he had always built in certain limits, or at least I thought he had before this. And in this case he has just, you know, turned over the apple cart in the biggest possible way, and undertaken for himself enormous risks for his country and for his own regime. And that was not the Vladimir Putin I understood before the war, but it’s the one who’s emerged from the war. And that’s been a great surprise for me.
KURTZ-PHELAN: There’s a ton to unpack there but, Dara, let me stick with you for the moment on the Russian military and what has surprised us here. You know, you’ve studied Russia and its military as deeply as anyone for many years. I’m sure you’ve seen, you know, classified assessments in your time at the Department of Defense. You note in your piece, in a really striking and powerful way, that, you know, had Russia followed the military doctrine that it has articulated, that it has, you know, supposedly adopted in recent years, the war would have gone very differently. But it, in fact, didn’t. It diverged from that in key ways. What accounts for that divergence, and the failures that no one really expected?
MASSICOT: Well, I should probably clarify that even if they had followed their strategy a little bit better and they had planned for this in a way that was appropriate, it doesn’t necessarily mean the performance would have been 180 degrees different. But there were a few key departures that really, really hurt them in the early days and weeks of the war that they’ve never really been able to recover from. So I think for me, what I was anticipating at war’s start was that they would lead off with days or weeks of air and missile strikes before they even committed the army. That’s how they talk about it. That’s how they think about a war like this.
That didn’t happen. They committed both in at the same time. And immediately the Russian Army got into trouble. The air force was then taken off of its mission set, which at the time was doing deep strikes, trying to hit fixed targets, trying to find and suppress Ukrainian STAMs. They were taken off that mission and they were there to defend the army. And doing close air support is not something as a force that it—they weren’t really equipped to do. So we saw that very early on. And I remember texting, you know, colleagues who also follow the Russian military, like, what are they doing? You know, what’s happening here?
And really, they could never suppress Ukrainians STAMs after that. And there are a few reasons for that. On the—
KURTZ-PHELAN: STAMs are surface to air missiles, just for—
MASSICOT: Yes, I’m sorry. Yes, surface to air missiles. And as a result, Russia could never have dominance of the skies. And that should have been one of their advantages in this war. And they were ever able to achieve it.
KURTZ-PHELAN: And, sticking with the state of the battlefield at this point, you know, you kind of end your new piece with a bit of a warning, I think. You note that, you know, while the performance has been, you know, much less than was expected by Russians or by the rest of us watching from afar in the first year of the war, there are signs that Russia has adapted and learned in various ways. And, you know, that’s not a reason for, you know, kind of overconfidence on the part of the Ukrainians. We’re, you know, I think seeing the early weeks, perhaps, of Russia’s counteroffensive. Do you see evidence that Russia’s learned? What are the prospects of that counteroffensive, given what we’ve seen so far?
MASSICOT: Well, I’m still struggling to find the right metaphor for what I’m seeing. I mean, the Russian Army is very—it’s almost, like, unrecognizable from the way it was a year ago. There’s just been so many loses not only of equipment but from trained specialists as well. So I made a recent analogy, and I don’t know if it’s the right one, but I talk about, you know, an engine in a car where its transmission has been blown. And you can press on the gas pedal all you want, but it’s never going to shift into a higher gear. And I think we’re seeing that right now with Russia’s offensive.
You have hastily trained personnel. You have older equipment being pulled from Siberia. It’s not as effective. And they’re trying to push this forward in Donetsk and Luhansk before they were really ready to do it. And so I just think we’re seeing a set of compounding mistakes here. But we’re also seeing something that I think the Ukrainians are worried about. And that’s the intent is unchanged. They were willing to throw human waves at this problem, and until they get the results that they want. And I think, you know, the capacity is the issue that’s the problem. I think right now even with the mobilized forces, another large push, you know, perhaps to take Kharkiv, is out of the question, really. I think Kyiv—another run at Kyiv is totally out of the question for years. But it’s still dangerous as an organization. The intent is there, but the capacity is diminished.
KURTZ-PHELAN: Michael, let me go to you to talk a bit about how you see Putin’s calculations at this point. You know, you noted how surprised you were by his conduct over the last year, year and a half. Do you have a sense that he has changed his goals, has moderated his goals in any way? How does he see the state of the war, given how badly its gone, from his perspective?
KIMMAGE: Well, I think the foundation for Putin is that the domestic situation is under control, and will be under control for the foreseeable future. So the one thing that he has navigated from his vantage point capably since the start of the war is that he’s kept Russians on board. Whether Russians feel emotionally committed to this war, I really don’t know. But he’s able to bring the country, I think, after maybe one or two months of shock at the beginning of the war, he’s brought the country to the extent necessary behind the war. So in that sense, and it sort of echoes Dara’s point about the intent, sort of, like, the political capacity, as far as we can see, is there.
But I think when it comes to the military side of things, it strikes me that he’s simply improvising. Obviously, I think, he has these dreams and fantasies of what he can accomplish. And who knows what kind of information he’s getting about the battlespace. But, you know, it’s often with political timetables, or it seems to me as if it’s with political timetables in mind. And I think, you know, Dara could say better than I could in terms of Bakhmut, but it just feels like it was a political effort calculated to occur at the time of the one-year anniversary. And you could sort of see Putin’s stamp on that. But the military logic is much harder to discern. So that improvisation, I think it is, to a degree, typical of Putin. But it looks like it’s an aspect really of the larger incompetence of the whole war effort.
KURTZ-PHELAN: And, Michael, let me just stick with you on Putin for a moment. I mean, you noted that this is not the Putin you thought—you thought you knew. You know, that you’ve studied him very, very deeply for a long time. What is—give us the picture of Putin that we have now, and how is that different from, you know, what you thought of a few years ago, or when you were in the U.S. government, you know, watching him attempt to take over swaths of Ukraine last time around?
KIMMAGE: Well, it’s really two things that had stood out to me before. And they may not be entirely irrelevant now, but they’re less relevant than I—than I thought they were. And the first is a sort of sense of limits. That in 2014, he did annex Crimea, but when the politics didn’t go his way in Kharkiv and Odessa, although he hoped that it would, he didn’t mount an offensive there. It was a more limited offensive in the Donbas. Likewise with Syria. You know, he could have gone further, but he committed sort of a limited number of resources and got a certain return on his investment.
And the second aspect of the sort of pre-war Putin that had always struck me, and I think this was a cliché about Putin before the war, is that he was a classically cynical Russian political figure. And so he kind of lies and dissembles. He was interested in his own power, his wealth. You know, in the kind of circular reasoning of this argument, he was interested in perpetuating his regime. You know, again, I don’t think that that’s irrelevant, but I think he’s a much more ideological man that I was able to see before. There is a kind of Eurasianist element to his thinking. There is a desire, really, to revive empire, whether of the pre-revolutionary or of the Soviet vintage.
And the risk—the sort of extreme risk that he’s undertaking on the basis of these rather fantastic ideological programs—either that was in his heart and not expressed for twenty years, or it’s a function of his getting older, or it’s a function of the pandemic. You kind of fill in the blank there. As I understand it, sort of final point I would make here, is that we had this paradigm of radicalization that we use—or, we used after September 11th for figures who got into terrorist movements. I think that that’s Putin’s story, in a sense. He’s been radicalized maybe by his own ideas, and then by likeminded people around him. But it’s enormously consequential.
KURTZ-PHELAN: That’s a powerful and disquieting analogy.
Liana, let me get you to turn the focus a bit to the policy response from the U.S., and Europe, and others who have backed Ukraine. I think there’s been kind of consistently this desire to balance two competing imperatives. And I think that you and Michael noted in an earlier piece that these two imperatives are often in tension. And one of those is avoiding escalation, you know, especially nuclear escalation, and then avoiding some outcome that would mean, you know, a true Russia-NATO war. And, on the other hand, giving Ukraine what it needs, supporting in its efforts to fight off the Russian offensive and take back as much of its territory as possible. Do
you see that balance as right? Or, you know, there have been many critics that have argued that the U.S., and Germany, and others have been too afraid of escalation, or too willing to cede initiative to Putin out of fear that he might escalate.
FIX: Yeah. That’s a good question to answer in hindsight, because then you know what has happened or not happened. (Laughs.) But I think the idea that now is often discussed in how the support for Ukraine was, you know, sliced in pieces mostly reactive to the battlefield, the explanation now in hindsight is a little bit that this is a strategy of escalation management. So the idea was to cook the frog slowly so it doesn’t jump out. And I’m not entirely sure whether this is really the full truth. I mean, it was also public constituencies in Europe but also the United States which obviously made it difficult to immediately send tanks to Ukraine after the outbreak of the war. But that explains sort of the slow—the slow increase in support.
And what we see right now, and I thought that was surprising, is since the beginning of the year we see a new push both from the United States and from Europeans to really give Ukraine one last chance—or, perhaps not last change—but at least one big chance in this year to conduct another successful counteroffensive. And at the end of last year, there was a lot of pessimism that support would slowly go down. That’s not what we’ve seen. We have those tanks in Ukraine. The first Polish tanks actually just arrived today in Ukraine. And how Biden’s described this, and I thought was quite fitting, an American strategy of escalate to deescalate—escalate support to later force Russia to negotiate. And President Macron put it in similar terms. He said, we need Ukraine to launch an offensive so as a way for later to return to negotiations.
And if that—if that is the strategy right now, I am not entirely convinced and optimistic that this will work out. Because the question really is if there’s a willingness to negotiation from Russia’s side at all. And Michael and I, we have laid out different scenarios to that. But the question really is, what if Putin does not negotiate, does not escalate, remains in power, but just continue fighting and does not concede defeat? Even if Ukraine is successful in a counteroffensive, he might just continue fighting on a smaller scale and negate Ukraine the victory that it wants to see.
And I think the quote that was attributed to Lavrov in a Financial Times article that the three advisors to Putin are Ivan the Terrible, Catherine the Great, and Peter the Great, it might not be true. It might be what oligarchs and businessmen tell the Financial Times to set their own record straight. But it would be quite concerning, because it would mean that Putin is driven by history much more than by any military or security concerns. And in contrast to both Yeltsin, who had this deal with Putin that he will not be touched, that he will not be prosecuted in any way. Putin has no one to make this deal with.
So it really is the question how closely in his perception—also since he’s been occupied with the fate of Gadhafi a lot—how close in his perception victory or defeat in Ukraine is linked to his own survival. And that might mean that he just cannot negotiate, but just continues a fight which will be more difficult for Western publics to sustain in year two, three, four, five.
KURTZ-PHELAN: So a long war at a certain level might be the best possible outcome for Putin at this point.
FIX: It might be. And it might be on a—if it is on a smaller scale—and Dara can estimate that in a better way—it might become more manageable for the West, if they continue supply to Ukraine, if Ukraine even achieves to break up Russian forces into the east and into the south again. But it still means that this war will continue on a small scale, and will need continuous awareness in the West. And we do have elections in the U.S. next year. We do have elections in Germany in 2025. So Putin thinks in categories of five years. We have a lot of domestic—a lot of domestic events taking place in the West in the next five years.
KURTZ-PHELAN: Dara, let me go to you to talk a bit about the prospects of another Ukrainian offensive, and what might be achievable. You know, I think the conventional view at this point, for those of us who are not miliary experts, is that, you know, this Russian offensive will, you know, maybe make a bit more progress in eastern Ukraine, but eventually kind of fissile out, for reasons you laid out. And then Ukraine will be back on
the offensive again. You know, if you talk to Ukrainians, they say they will go all the way to Crimea and, you know, take back all of the territory, even territory that Russia’s held since 2014. But what do you think is actually possible in a Ukrainian offensive this year? And do you see Crimea as plausible part of that? I mean, is that a feasible objective for them?
MASSICOT: Well, I think the Russians are the weakest when they’re on the offensive, which they’re doing right now. So there’s a lot of factors that are still in play with that, and we’ll have to see what they’re left with at the end of it. But what I’m not seeing is Russia aggregating strike power anywhere. I don’t see multiple battalions that they’re holding in Russia that are going to come in and punch through Ukrainian lines. I don’t see that. So unless there’s some other information out there, I think the offensive that we see right now is about all they can do with the folks that they’ve mobilized so far.
That being said, I do think Russia’s going to have to do another round of mobilization next year. And I’m not sure which form that will take. It could be the more politically safe version, which is just to do a continuous call up to replace casualties in small numbers to try to keep things level at home. That doesn’t buy them a lot of additional strike power. Option B would be doing another really large mobilization round like we’ve seen. They can’t keep these people in the field indefinitely, either through casualties, sickness, you know, PTSD, these kind of things. They will have to mobilize again. It’s just how are they going to do it?
In terms of Ukrainian counteroffensives, if you look at what the Russians are doing on the ground, I can see where they are very concerned. They are putting a lot of effort right now in the Zaporizhzhia oblast or region, trying to build multiple defensive positions, minefields, trenches, things like that. I think they do feel a little vulnerable down there. If there was an attempt by the Ukrainians to cut them off and try to bifurcate that land corridor to Crimea, I think that’s what the Russians are maybe anticipating and worried about.
In terms of getting to Crimea, this is a topic that comes up a lot. It is very challenging for the Ukrainians to get to it. There’s a lot of natural barriers in the way right now if they were going to try to come down through Kherson and get to Crimea on the ground. And the naval issue is an entirely different can of worms. So while it makes sense for them to take it, I think militarily it is one of the more challenging operations to undertake right now. And the Ukrainians also leave themselves vulnerable in a counteroffensive as well. I mean, this is just vulnerable for both sides if something goes wrong.
KURTZ-PHELAN: So from a Ukrainian perspective, to your mind, a kind of optimistic scenario for the next six months or so would be for them to cut the land corridor between Donbas and Crimea, but likely not get much further than that?
MASSICOT: I mean, that’s certainly one outcome. And I know that there are—you know, there’s rumors that they’re, you know, in talks with Western partners to think about the best way forward. And they’re doing a lot of incredible work on their own. I think they have a really excellent understanding of Russian forces and how they fight. And a lot of that played into their success last year in the Kharkiv offensive. They did a two-pronged attack, and they really attacked the Russians where they were very weak. And the whole front line collapsed in on itself due to morale problems and understrength units.
And a note of caution: A lot of the ingredients that led to that success at that time, you know, the thin units, depleted units, really spread out, those ingredients are not necessarily there anymore on the Russian side. They’ve filled in a lot of those gaps. Not with well-trained soldiers. They’re mobilized. But it does add up.
KURTZ-PHELAN: Michael, let me go to you for one other, I think, solution or kind of objective that you hear sometimes from Ukrainians or supporters of Ukraine in the U.S. and Europe. And that’s the prospect that Putin will fall as a result of his failures in Ukraine. You know, what is your sense of how vulnerable he is? You know, on the one hand you note that he has a real lock on his country, and there’s not a lot of opposition within the borders of Russia that could viably unseat him. On the other hand, you and Liana wrote in a piece earlier this year that autocratic leaders cannot lose wars and remain autocrats. And there seems like prospect of Putin
winning, at least. So what exactly do you see? What are the prospects for him politically? And is it, you know, merely wishful thinking to imagine that he might somehow fall as a result of this? Or is there some prospect of that?
KIMMAGE: Well, certainly the infrastructure of repression and the infrastructure of state power is quite strong. And in that sense, it’s—you know, for any kind of opposition movement or figure in the Kremlin who wishes to unseat Putin, it’s a steep climb. And, you know, I think that has to be acknowledged from the outset. But to focus, I think, on the real vulnerabilities, which are there and are going to gather strength, I think it goes back to what Liana was saying a moment ago. So Putin is going to try not to lose this war. That’s his objective at this point. He’s going to improvise. He’s going to do what he can. He’s got a media apparatus that can spin things in Russia to make it look like whatever narrative he wants to make it look like.
But it’s an increasingly difficult venture. I think it’s important to go back to the very beginning of the war in this regard. The kinds of arguments that Putin put forward were very weak. You know, de-Nazification of Ukraine, demilitarization of Ukraine, refusing to call it a war even at the beginning, special technical operation, et cetera. It is actually very, very significant that on the 23rd of February 2022, if you could have polled Russians—I’m guessing here—but if you could have polled them, 90 percent, 95 percent, would have said that they don’t want the war.
And wars don’t get more popular over time. They get more unpopular over time, even for countries that are—that are winning wars. And so I think that Putin is playing a very, very dangerous political game. He’s going to have to go pretend not to lose a war that he’s losing. So I don’t anticipate massive street protests or kind of revolution coming to Russia. That’s sort of hard to envision. But the incentives now for people who are elsewhere in the power structure to provide a challenge, and the sort of militia groups that are popping up across Russia—you know, under Prigozhin’s control or Kadyrov or others—is also, I think, a kind of warning sign.
So it's always a fascinating question in politics, how long a lie will last. They can last a long time. But they can also crack up very rapidly. And that’s, I think, the crux of the dilemma for Putin. That his whole political venture now is based not on achievements and not on the country’s future prospects, which are quite bleak, but it’s based on his ability to lie about the war. And I don’t think he’ll be able to do it indefinitely.
KURTZ-PHELAN: Liana, you noted some skepticism about negotiations and negotiations as a kind of war of ending this war. Yet, you do hear from policymakers in Europe and even some in the U.S. that, you know, they do expect that this war will have a diplomatic ending. That’s where they see this going. And yet, you’re skeptical of any prospect there. Do you see that, you know, first of all, as a threat to the unity of Western supporters of the coalition and a potential fissure coming? And the second, is there some, you know, kind of more—less ambitious kind of negotiation that may at least freeze the conflict? People kind of invoke the Korean War as an example of a war that has never truly ended, but at least has been, you know, frozen for decades now. Is there some other picture of negotiations that might be—might be viable here?
FIX: Yeah. I think—I think of the question of the end game in Ukraine, because that’s what it’s basically about. It’s fascinating that sort of on February 24th, 2022, we really had the entire Western alliance on the same page. So it was the moment when the Germans called the Poles and said: Oh, you were right. We were wrong. It was really sort of this moment of realization. We are on the same page. This is what is happening. But since then, under the mantle of unity, we have seen the countries fall back into tendencies of thinking that they had before. It doesn’t mean that they fall back to their positions that they had before, in Germany’s case a position of dialogue with Russia, but they fall back into their old ways of thinking, to some extent.
And for Western Europeans, that’s very much a thinking which sees and which places the escalation risks on a higher level than the Central and Eastern Europeans. So for instance, from the perspective of France and Germany, escalation would be highest if Ukraine would try to get Russia out of its entire territory, including Crimea. From the Polish perspective, the escalation would be highest if Russia does not lose decisively, including Crimea. And that leads to a NATO-Russia escalation, because Russia feels emboldened to go further.
And these differences are not as present right now, because there is basically no explicit agreement. The line is, Ukraine decides how far it wants to go and also how long—you know, whatever it takes, and how long it takes. But these disagreements are certainly—they are present also when it comes to the question of fighter jets, and so on. So I think it will become a problem once we get to that point, but so far it’s relatively comfortable for everyone to say, well, let’s first get militarily to a point where Crimea can be put under pressure at all, and then we discuss the next point.
And I think on negotiations, the great—the hope or sort of the ideal negotiation would obviously be sort of a big negotiation, which would include a new outline for European security and, you know, ideally some new arms control measures, where troops can be stationed on Ukraine’s side and on Russia’s side. And I don’t see this big, new European security architecture emerging. I think the architecture was very much destroyed and what we have is an order which is upheld by military capabilities, first and foremost.
So even the discussion about security guarantees for Ukraine and the defense pact for Ukraine will only become real if it is undergirded by military capabilities. It doesn’t help to have something on paper which says, oh, it’s a little bit less than Article 5 but more than Budapest. That’s not what will—what will make the difference. So what we might probably hope for at some point is a ceasefire, an armistice, in any way, perhaps more local than on the entire frontline.
But I find it hard to imagine, even after China’s proposal or position paper that they have put forward yesterday or today, there doesn’t seem to be any creative thinking that is not sort of strongly on Russia’s side how to end this—how to end this war. Actually, in comparison to the Chinese position paper, Minsk II was quite an elaborate and detailed peace proposal. So there really is a lack of imagination how Russia can be brought to the table for a broader kind of agreement.
KURTZ-PHELAN: I’m going to ask the three of you one more question before we go to questions from others. So please, everyone, get those into Sam.
I’d like each of you in, let’s say, thirty or forty seconds, to answer the question of what you think the biggest source of uncertainty is. You know, what variable will determine what happens from here that we don’t have a clear view on right now, whether that’s on the battlefield or in political support, or anything else?
Michael, let me start with you on this one.
KIMMAGE: Sure. And it goes back to your previous question. I think the biggest variable that I think will determine the effect of the shape of the war is the sentiments of the Russian people. I don’t think that Ukraine is going to lose its will to fight. And, you know, there are cracks in the edifice of transatlantic support for Ukraine, but I don’t think that they’re going to widen that much. So I think this side of the equation is going to remain firmly in place.
And I will just say that the Russian people, to me, are a mystery. And you can come up with polling data that suggests high level of support for the war, but I don’t fully trust that. And I just wonder. And if there were to be some shift on the popular level, the war would start to look very, very different. So that, to me, makes it the variable that, above all others, could really change the logic and dynamic of the war.
KURTZ-PHELAN: Liana, how about you?
FIX: For me it’s actually U.S.-China relations. Because I have the impression that where U.S.-China relations are headed will also decide where China is heading with its support for Russia. And we see this with this big concern in the United States about China providing lethal assistance to Russia. So if China comes to the conclusion that it cannot afford at all to let Russia lose this war, and also that it is a useful leverage towards the United States to play, and that they are not compartmentalizing the relationship with the U.S. with the war, then
this could sort of become mixed up into a broader Chinese strategy of pressuring the West also by supporting Russia more visibly than has been the case before.
KURTZ-PHELAN: And Dara.
MASSICOT: I’m worried about issues of sustainment. And I think that impacts the Ukrainians the most. We do not have an indefinite supply of Soviet-era air defense missile interceptors. There is only so many places abroad that we can go to try to get more of those. For the Ukrainians, we are supplying them with Western surface to air missiles, like IRIS-T and NASAMs. But again, those are int indefinite either. Artillery shells is a problem too. So I would worry about the sustainment issue. But I agree with the other panelists that the Ukrainian will to fight remains as strong as it ever was.
On the Russian side, I do worry there’s a few shoes that could drop. I am concerned that the Russian Air Force is still a force in being. They’ve lost some squadrons, but all in all it’s 8 percent or less of the Air Force that’s gone. They’ve been very conservative with how they’ve used it, because they can’t get through the air defenses. If that was to change, if Russia was able to attrit those STAMs down and they were able to bring their air power back in a meaningful way, that would be very damaging and would change dynamics.
And I share Liana’s concern as well with the possibility of Chinese lethal aid to Russia changing the equation a little bit in key ways. They still can’t create more trained soldiers, though, for the Russians. So there’s limits there in terms of proficiency.
KURTZ-PHELAN: Thank you. Sam, let’s go to questions from people on the line. And let me just stress to those of you who are asking questions live, please keep those pretty crisp so we can get to as many of those as possible. Sam, let’s go to the first one.
OPERATOR: Thank you so much.
(Gives queuing instructions.)
We just touched base on this a little bit, but a lot of questions in the chat have been—and we’ll start with combining two written submissions from John Seden (ph) and Robert Nail (ph), who ask: What is your reaction to the news that China has called for ceasefire? And please address the outcomes associated with China’s military support for Putin?
KURTZ-PHELAN: Liana and Dara, do you want to expand a bit on your previous answers in response to that? Liana, you first.
FIX: Yeah. So reading the proposal, I think that there are a lot of demands directed towards the United States and Europe in this proposal. So about NATO enlargement, about ending unilateral sanctions. Of course, there’s this first line—this first paragraph that says: We respect the sovereignty and the territorial integrity of countries. But then there’s no follow up that says that Russia should withdraw its forces in any meaningful way. So for me, this suggest that despite the positive language on nuclear threats, on avoiding attacking nuclear power plants, this is very much something that Russia would feel comfortable with. Having a ceasefire now, having a line that Russia could use as a pause to then, again, rearm and reattack Ukraine.
I don’t see it is a credible proposal, also because it really lacks detail and sequencing in a way which makes it—it’s a position paper for China but makes it almost impossible to negotiate. It might give Ukraine the opportunity to find a dialogue with China, which is important for them. But apart from that, I don’t see a major prospect of this position paper being successful.
KURTZ-PHELAN: Dara, just to expand a bit on what you just said, you know, even keeping in mind the manpower constraints that Russia will continue to face, what kind of Chinese aid would make a concerning difference, from Ukraine’s perspective?
MASSICOT: Well, so, I want to preface my answer by saying I’m not a China scholar. So, you know, I don’t know what China is willing to potentially supply. But in terms of what Russia needs, they need better ISR at the tactical and operational level. China may have some unarmed drones that can help them there. Russia’s been using them already, very small ones—
KURTZ-PHELAN: ISR is intel, surveillance, and reconnaissance.
MASSICOT: Yes, sorry. Yes, to assist them with their targeting and understanding where Ukrainian positions are. There is a lot of shared equipment between the Russian and Chinese militaries—whether it’s air defense missiles, Russia could use some of those and repurpose them into land attack missiles as they have done with their own inventory. I just don’t know that China is really in a place where they want to give up, you know, SA-20 missiles. That seems like something they would want to retain for themselves.
Logistics would be another aspect that would help the Russians, whether it’s logistics trucks—Russia is short on those in many ways. So I really don’t know where the conversation is going. There are rumors that Russia and China are talking about armed drones. That would be a problem. It seems like Russia is using Shaheds and its own capabilities to target Ukrainians cities and try to force a choice. Like, what are we going to defend today with our STAMs? Are we going to draw them down or let these missiles or munitions hit our cities? I mean, they’re trying to force that constraint on Ukraine, essentially to open up an air corridor again. So Chinese involvement in that way I find particularly troubling.
KURTZ-PHELAN: Sam, next question.
OPERATOR: We will take our next question from Joanna Shelton. Please accept the unmute.
Q: Yes. So good afternoon.
And I have to say, there are so many questions that I’d like to pose. You’ve already touched on one of them, which is China’s perspective military support. Another is the fact that Western sanctions haven’t hit Russia as hard as I think was initially anticipated. But what I’d like to ask you to focus on is Moldova, which borders Ukraine. There’s been talk about a potential coup in Moldova. And you already have Transnistria, which Russia largely controls. My question is, does Putin have the capability to bring about a coup or, in any other way, increase Russian forces in Moldova, and thereby increase pressure on Ukraine from the southwest? From what various speakers have said, I don’t see that that seems possible, but it appears that it’s something that he’s working on or talking about. Could you please discuss that? Thank you.
KURTZ-PHELAN: Thank you for that. I’m going to actually—let’s make that two questions. And, Michael, if you could very briefly address the sanctions question—where we think the Russian economy is, to what extent the sanctions are having some effect on them. Liana, I think you’re probably best suited to the Moldova question, so we’ll give that one to you. But Michael first.
KIMMAGE: Well, there are two ways of explaining the sanctions. And this, you know, dichotomy has been there since 2014, and it sometimes gets confused. The first is a method of changing Russia’s overall calculus. And that has never succeeded. It didn’t succeed in 2014. It didn’t succeed in 2015. It doesn’t seem to be succeeding now. And just wouldn’t expect that to happen in the future.
But the other framing for sanctions is as a way of blocking and impeding the development of the Russian war machine. And I think there you could have maybe hoped for more, but I suspect that a year—you know, sort of two years, three years from now, the effects will be quite substantial. We may learn more in retrospect about the
first year of the war. And perhaps they were already quite successful in that regard. But I wish that U.S. policymakers would just a little bit clearer on what the function is.
KURTZ-PHELAN: Liana, Moldova.
FIX: Yeah. On Moldova, I mean, that’s very true. I mean, there were these reports this morning by President Zelensky that they have caught a Russian plan to destabilize Moldova, which is not an entirely new effort. I mean, we had these Russian plans and these reports about the FSB being closely and deeply involved in Moldovan politics for a long time. As it looks now, Moldova has been able to have a new pro-European government, which continues the course of the government of President Maia Sandu, which is encouraging.
But, again, Moldova itself, in both its economic and political outlook, is really very fragile. And that is one of the aspects—at the moment, Russia’s military is obviously—has a lot to do in Ukraine. But stabilizing Moldova is certainly one of the greatest tasks next to Ukraine EU membership that is on the table for Europeans. Because it’s not only about Russia’s military activities there. It’s also about deeper-seated problems about corruption in Moldova. And apart from Ukraine, Moldova is really the only country left that is going into a European direction. We see that Georgia has quite some—has moved backwards, in many regards, with the imprisonment of Saakashvili, with NGO laws, foreign agent laws, being discussed in Georgia right now. So next to Ukraine, Moldova should—stabilizing Moldova should be the top priority for European policymakers.
KURTZ-PHELAN: Michael, want to add to that quickly?
KIMMAGE: Yes. I just wanted to reference the first of the What If pieces that Liana and I did just about a year ago, in which we predicted a jagged line of insecurity running really from Kaliningrad to the southeast of Europe. And I think that’s what we have. And that’s where I would put Moldova, on that jagged line.
KURTZ-PHELAN: Yeah. I would say, in reading back through that series in the past couple days, there are so many warnings or predictions in those pieces that we are still grappling with today.
Sam, let’s go to the next question.
OPERATOR: We will take our next question, which is a written submission, from Bob Barnes.
Who asks: The war in Ukraine has served as a stress test in many ways, including highlighting the inadequacy of the defense industrial bases of the U.S. and other NATO countries. How well do you think the U.S., NATO, and the world at large will address the weaknesses and lessons learned revealed by this multifaceted stress test?
KURTZ-PHELAN: Dara, you touched on this. If you, you know, consider what the lessons of some of the sustainment challenges we’re seeing now would be, what would we need to change about the defense industrial base?
MASSICOT: Well, I think it’s changing. My big concern is that I don’t know how elastic it is. I think there’s a problem there with—we haven’t needed this type of—this number of shells. We haven’t needed this type of surge from the defense industrial base in a long time. And just from a business perspective, you can see it from their point of view. You know, why should I build additional factories and hire up all these people when maybe this is a two-year surge for me, and then what do I do with all this leftover infrastructure? I wish I had the answer for how to make this more elastic or how to build strategic reserves. I don’t. But I know a lot of people in the Pentagon are wrestling with this topic right now.
KURTZ-PHELAN: Dara, just to linger on something that you, I think, implied there. My sense is that the way this war has been fought has been much more intensive in terms of its use of artillery shells and, you know, other kinds of weapons that we thought would be a smaller part of warfare today. Has this changed our sense of what war looks like in the twenty-first century?
MASSICOT: You know, the Russia-Ukraine war, Operation Z since it started twelve months ago, they’ve been at war for nine years. This is just a more intense phase of it, really. It’s like they’re fighting in two different centuries. You see the Ukrainian side being very adaptive and trying to integrate different types of apps and—I mean, it’s really amazing the things they’re doing to be more efficient and qualitatively better than the Russians. And you see the Russian military, you know, defaulting, almost, to this twentieth century-style of fighting. They’ve always prized artillery. They always have.
But, I mean, they’ve shot millions of rounds. I don’t know that, you know, our defense industrial base can keep up with that for much longer. And I think—I think we’re heading into a crunch period. There are changes underway. The Army and—excuse me—the Department of Defense has asked the defense industrial base to surge, and they will. But it’s going to take two years for it to get up to that capacity.
KURTZ-PHELAN: I would recommend for everyone listening a piece we ran in the last few days by Lawrence Freedman, a great military historian, which I think had the title Moscow and Kyiv are Fighting Two Different Wars, which gets at some of what Dara is referring to.
Sam, let’s go to the next question.
OPERATOR: Our next question will be a live question from Stephen Flanagan.
Q: Thank you. Thank you all for very interesting presentations.
I wanted to pick up on Dara’s point about why Putin didn’t follow Russia’s military strategy in the initial phases. And certainly one theory I’ve heard is that perhaps he did—and there’s certainly evidence of this—that he did think this would be a quick coup. That he could impose a compliant government and then declare victory and move forward. Now that it’s clear that isn’t going to happen, I’ve also heard it said that perhaps the theory of victory is, well, if I can’t control even more territory, I can at least ensure that I can tell Russians that Ukraine will never, ever be a threat to the Russian Federation again, after what we’ve done to it over the last X-number of months. So I’d be interested in your thoughts on that, Dara. Thanks.
KURTZ-PHELAN: Dara, and Michael, it would be good to hear from you on this. But, Dara, why don’t you start?
MASSICOT: All right. If you listen to the accounts of Russian defectors or Russian POWs—even though there’s ethical issues with that—they talk about the pre-war period and how they—some of them, at least at the officer level, were told: This will be like Crimea. We will not be resisted. It maybe pockets of resistance, but it will be over soon. And we know that Russia has made multiple assassination attempts on Zelensky. They had hundreds of collaborators who were ready to administer the shadow government at all levels, from the municipal level up to, you know, the national level.
Ukraine rolled them up. I think they arrested, they said, somewhere around seven hundred of them after the war began. So, you know, there was this assumption that they could get in there and do this. And it just—it quickly fell apart. There wasn’t really a plan B. And I think our panelists have talked about this. They’re trying different approaches over time to see what works. And, Steve, I’m so sorry, I’m running on fumes, I have forgotten the last part of your question. (Laughs.)
KURTZ-PHELAN: We can kick that to Michael to—
KIMMAGE: Well, I think that you’re right about—if it’s true about Russia wanting to, you know, sort of block Ukraine from being a threat to Russia, if that’s what Putin is going to claim, it’s a very ironic way of framing things, because what the war has gone has created a kind of, you know, sort of medium-sized superpower in Ukraine. And that trajectory is going to continue of Western support. And Dara just mentioned a moment ago
how capable the Ukrainians have been at integrating new kinds of technology. So that, at the very least, has been deeply counterproductive.
But I think that, in a way, Putin is still more ambitious. I think that he is intent in some ways on just destroying the ability of Ukraine to function. And I think he does that on the presumption that, you know, the West is not going to indefinitely back a basket case. And that five years of a destroyed Ukraine is going to cause the West to lose interest and turn to other projects. I don’t think that it’s going to pan out that way. I don’t think it’s going to work that way. But I think that that’s Putin’s mind. And there, we’re back maybe not to the ideological Putin I was describing a moment ago, but that’s really the cynical Putin who we’re, alas, all too familiar with.
KURTZ-PHELAN: Sam, let’s go to the next question.
OPERATOR: Our next question is a written submission from Kevin King (sp), who asks: As conventional military capacity for Russia deteriorates, does Putin’s calculation change about using tactical nuclear weapons in Ukraine? And if they were to be used, how do you believe NATO would respond?
KURTZ-PHELAN: Dara and Liana, let’s go to both of you for this. Liana, why don’t you start?
FIX: Well, I wish I would have a good answer to that question. I guess I’m not the only one. (Laughs.) Let me—let me try to start with the second part of your question. How would NATO respond to that? And I think that’s probably the most important part because, together with the messages that have been sent to Beijing, this is sort of the deterrence message that is being sent to Moscow to say: Don’t do this. This will not help you in any way, and this might lead to an even greater involvement of NATO in this war. Certainly not in a nuclear, but in a conventional way.
It will not coerce European and Western publics into defeat, but it will probably rather rally the publics in rage against what has happened. So it will not have the same effect—and I remember, Michael, you compared it once to the, like, Hiroshima bombs, which really sort of coerced a defeat. So that will not work out. And in the end, it’s a question how this message has been perceived by Putin and really where exactly the red lines are that he has. And I think that’s impossible to answer. There are different takes to that. I mean, some Eastern Europeans do perceive Putin’s threat more as a bluff. There’s more concern in Washington and in Western Europe, but I would say it’s well-advised to tread cautiously because, again, at the beginning of the war everyone also said, well, this is crazy to do, and it still happened.
KURTZ-PHELAN: Dara, what’s your sense?
MASSICOT: Well, I did have some concerns last year in August and September during the—after the Ukrainian counteroffensive. When Kharkiv collapsed in a very uncontrolled way, there was silence from Moscow. And it’s been my experience that when something really unexpected happens to them, they go very quiet until they figure out their next move, and they’re concerned about it. And at the time, I mean, I knew the Russian front line was in really poor shape. The units were very depleted.
And I—at the time, I was focusing on whether that cascading collapse would go along with frontline. And I thought, what would the Kremlin do if the whole front just started caving in from morale problems? Because that was a really, really low point for them. That didn’t happen. And then I think a few days later it was in the New York Times that there was unidentified Russian officials talking about the use of nuclear weapons. And I’m thinking, oh my God. But we’ve moved on from that.
I would probably say in terms of using tactical nuclear weapons, there are several things that Putin would do prior to doing that. So—and we would see them, or we would know about them. And I think those things would be horizontal escalation outside of Ukraine. So more cyberattacks, to the extent that they can. They’re trying hard against Ukraine. There’s a bit of a misunderstanding about what’s happening there. Russia has been conducting a lot of cyberattacks against Ukraine. It just had a lot of help to, you know, parry them away.
Cyberattacks attacks attacking our satellites, either the government’s or commercial satellites, to really impede our ability to continue to support Ukraine with the passing of information. Those kind of things would happen before we’d get to that point. The issue about tactical nuclear weapons is, what’s the target? You need a target for it. And if Ukrainian forces are dispersed in trenches or hiding in tree lines, like the way they are in many cases, there’s not a really, like, ideal target for a tactical nuclear weapon. Like, an air base—you could do it against an air base, or a city. So I actually worry.
And I have—and this is just something in the back of my mind. I’ve seen zero evidence to this, but it’s something I’d consider. If we’re talking about trench warfare again, which is where we’re at, is this a place where we’re going to see gas, like chemical weapons? And that doesn’t get as much attention but, you know, that does concern me as well.
KURTZ-PHELAN: Sam, let’s do one final quick question.
OPERATOR: Our final question is a live question from Heidi Hardt
Q: Hi. Thank you very much. Professor Heidi Hardt from University of California, Irvine. And also former CFR IAF fellow.
I’d love to hear more about the role of disinformation. And particularly we heard a lot about the morale of Russian soldiers, and concerns about waning Russian public support for the war. So how would you evaluate where we are in terms of both NATO’s response, the role of European allies in particular, and, you know, what Russia’s moves have been here. Thank you.
KURTZ-PHELAN: Great question. Michael, let me get you for a minute on this, and then we’ll give Liana and Dara thirty seconds each to address it as well. Sorry if that’s inadequate, but it’s what we’ve got.
KIMMAGE: Disinformation in Europe and the United States from Russia has been a spectacular flop. I don’t know even they even tried it, but I don’t know if the reputation of Russia could be much lower in Europe and the United States. On the other hand, if you looked at the question globally, it’s not as if Russia is winning the argument about the war, but they are inserting a lot of narratives all over the place about the sort of, you know, lack of a difference between the United States and Russia, or just as the war—about the war as excessively costly. And that’s packing a punch. So, you know, it’s maybe more propaganda than disinformation, but it’s meaningful.
KURTZ-PHELAN: Liana, anything you would add?
FIX: Yeah. I think the disinformation focus has really shifted from the sort of very clear Russian propaganda that worked after 2014. And now it has shifted to different fields. So what we see now is that Russia tries to advance is the argument that we need a ceasefire, that we need to stop the fighting, which is—works better for some parts of society. So we do see from this really—from the outside, you know, the de-Nazification and so long, are going to reduce the issue where it become a little bit more elaborate and really tries to push the “peace forces,” in quotation marks, in many countries into support the efforts, and sort of arguing that the West needs to push, pressure Kyiv to make concessions over Crimea, over eastern Ukraine. So I think it has become a little bit more elaborate than after the beginning of the war, but it is still—the overall environment is just very to Russia’s disadvantage.
KURTZ-PHELAN: And, Dara, I’ll let you close.
MASSICOT: Sure. I’d like to answer a little bit about the morale of Russian forces. Families with Russian servicemen know how bad it is at the front, because their servicemen are—they’re calling them back and they’re telling them the conditions of service. They are just keeping that information to themselves, or perhaps sharing it informally among a few friends. It’s not coalescing into collective bargaining. In the extent that it is,
it’s often Russian citizens making appeals to the Kremlin: Please fix this. We know you can fix it. It’s not necessarily bring them home, we don’t support this anymore. And I think that’s an important distinction to make.
In terms of what is the information space in Russia, they’ve cut people off from a lot of information that we see out here on either Twitter—Twitter’s blocked. YouTube’s blocked. Facebook’s blocked. Name your social media outlet. I don’t think most Russian citizens are seeing what we’re seeing in terms of how poorly their servicemen are being treated in Ukraine and the conditions that they’re in right now. I don’t know if there’s a way, or if there are people who are thinking about how to get that information into Russia through Telegram, or, you know, VK, or something else. But I think many of them are unaware.
KURTZ-PHELAN: Good. And let me recommend to you, Heidi, and to all of you, a wonderful piece that Dara did, I think it was in April or May, early in the war, called The Russian Military’s People Problem, that I think is still very illuminating.
Thank you to all three of you for the wonderful pieces you’ve done for Foreign Affairs over the last year. We’ll look forward to having you back on our pages or on our website soon. And let me recommend to everyone as well a series of pieces we’ve done around the one-year anniversary of the war about what we’ve learned. And if you go to foreignaffairs.com, you can see contributions from Fiona Hill, and Lawrence Freedman, and Angela Stent, and Josh Yaffa, and others. So there’s a lot more that will add to what we discussed today.
Thanks to all three of you. Thanks, everyone, for joining. And we’ll look forward to being back on another topic soon. Thanks, all.
FIX: Thank you.