Home and Abroad Public Forum: U.S.-Russia Relations
Panelists discuss the Russia-Ukraine crisis, U.S.-Russia relations, and implications for European security.
This event is part of CFR’s Home and Abroad series, which explores issues at the nexus of U.S. domestic and foreign policy that affect America’s role in the world.
HAASS: Well, thank you and welcome, one and all, to today’s Home and Abroad Virtual Public Forum here at the Council on Foreign Relations. I’m Richard Haass, president of the Council, and I’ll be presiding over today’s discussion on U.S.-Russian relations in the context of the crisis in Ukraine.
One word about us. We are an independent membership organization, a think tank, a publisher, and an educational institution. We are also nonpartisan and we are also independent. We are in the business of producing information analysis to promote understanding of the world and the foreign policy choices facing the United States and other countries, and we will do our best to do that today.
We’re, obviously, going to focus on the crisis at hand but we’ll also, at times, I expect, get slightly broader. We have a dream team to get us through this event. Really, it’d be hard to do better.
Ivo Daalder is the president of the Chicago Council of Global Affairs, and previously he served as U.S. ambassador to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization—to NATO—and his latest book is The Empty Throne: America’s Abdication of Global Leadership. But given what’s going on, Ivo, you may have to revise that.
Fiona Hill. She’s a senior fellow at the Center for the United States and Europe at the Brookings Institution. Previously, she served as deputy assistant to the president and senior director for European and Russian affairs on the staff of the National Security Council. Before that, she was the national intelligence officer for Russia and Eurasia on the staff of the National Intelligence Council. And her latest book is There’s Nothing For You Here: Finding Opportunity in the 20th (sic; 21st) Century.
Last but not least is Mary Elise Sarotte, who’s the Marie-Josée and Henry R. Kravis Distinguished Professor of Historical Studies in the Henry A. Kissinger Center for Global Affairs at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, or SAIS. She’s also a research associate at Harvard Center for European Studies and she is also the author or editor of multiple books, including Not One Inch: America, Russia, and the Making of Post-Cold War Stalemate, which was chosen by a certain important magazine known as Foreign Affairs as one of the best books of the previous year.
Today’s discussion is on the record. The full video and maybe even transcript will be on our website, which I hope you have bookmarked, CFR.org.
What we’re going to do is before I turn to these three experts I’m going to turn to you all, and we’ve got four questions that we are going to ask you your views and we are also going to ask you at the end of the conversation the same four questions because we’re curious to see whether anything we’ve said today might influence your thinking.
First question: As you can see before you, how would you rate the Biden administration’s response to the Russian—to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine? And there you’ve got five choices from excellent through poor or worse and then not sure. So please vote.
Our second question is: Do you agree with President Biden’s decision not to commit U.S. air and ground forces to the defense of Ukraine? You can either agree on the basis that we should only provide Ukraine with the means to defend itself; you can disagree, you would favor our armed forces coming to the direct defense of Ukraine, establishing a no-fly zone, what have you, even if it risks direct conflict with Russia; or, again, you have the option of not being sure.
Third question: Do you believe it’s important to challenge Russian aggression here and show solidarity with Ukraine even if it means higher gas prices here at home? You can agree with that, that it is important to do so; you can disagree with it; and, again, you can be not sure.
Fourth and last: Given Russian actions and growing threats from around the world, would you support an increase in the U.S. level of defense spending? Yes, no, or not sure.
Be sure to click submit once you’ve made all your answers. We’ll give you a few more seconds to finish, and then, as I said, we’re going to come back to these same four questions later.
What I don’t know is whether we’re going to give you the results now but I think we may. I’m going to check my phone not because—oh, here we go.
How would you rate the Biden administration’s response? Well, basically, 60-odd percent are excellent or good. So I’d say I would call that pretty positive in the world we live in. Only 4 percent of you weren’t sure. That’s interesting, actually.
Do you agree with the decision not to commit U.S. forces? Seventy percent agreed with the decision not to commit U.S. forces directly. Only 12 percent believe we should be coming to the direct defense of Ukraine.
Do you believe it’s important to challenge Russian aggression, even if it means higher gas prices here? That’s interesting. Ninety-three percent, overwhelming support for a bit of personal sacrifice on behalf of a policy position you believe in.
And last but not least, given the challenges we face in Europe, Asia, and the Middle East, would you support an increase in defense spending? And here I would say a plurality of you right now are saying yes—44-31 (percent), with 24 percent of you not sure.
What I’m hoping is that after this the not sures go down, and then I’ll be curious about the distribution and which direction they go down.
But let me start, again, with this extraordinarily talented group of people. Let me—I want to assume that we don’t need to paint with exquisite detail exactly where we are. We’re about a week into the war after weeks or even months of Russian military buildup. Essentially, the initial policy of the Biden administration was to deter—an attempt to deter a Russian invasion through a combination of steps, essentially, with the threat of sanctions.
We also sent a degree of support to some of our NATO allies. We were sending arms to Ukraine to make it more difficult for Russia to succeed if, in fact, it were to invade, and we were offering Russia a diplomatic option, a so-called off ramp, in the hopes they would take that. As we all know, things did not work that way.
Despite that combination of policies meant to deter and offer an acceptable diplomatic outcome, Mr. Putin has invaded. After a week over—I guess, in the order of something like a hundred fifty thousand Russian forces, plus or minus, are now inside Ukraine. Russia has advanced more slowly than many have thought. In the process, several thousand Russian forces have—troops have probably lost their lives.
I haven’t seen the numbers on the Ukrainian side, but thousands—at least hundreds, if not thousands, of Ukrainian civilians, I know, have lost their lives, as much of the munitions have been targeted on civilian areas. Roughly, a million Ukrainians have already been rendered homeless. Some have crossed borders and become refugees. Some are still internally displaced.
We see large convoys of Russian trucks, tanks, and so forth making their way around major population centers, particularly in the northeast and south of the country. The arms continue to flow to Ukraine. NATO continues to take steps to make itself stronger. An extraordinary set of economic sanctions has been introduced against Russia.
Diplomacy has started. I think there’s been, what, two sets of talks between Ukraine and Russia on the border with Belarus. But diplomacy so far, at least, has not come close to resolving what is the latest war in Europe.
Before I start asking you all questions, have I left anything out that’s significant or gotten anything wrong in a significant way? I expect I have. So if anyone wants to add to this where we are situation don’t hold back on my account.
Fiona, Mary, Ivo, anybody want to add to it? And so are we, basically, in the ballpark there? OK. Let’s just say—let’s talk then about how we go here. Was it inevitable that here in 2022 this would be—we would be having this meeting and, more important, this would be going on? Were there historical forces in Europe, with NATO, in Ukraine, in Russia? Was there—was this one of those bound to happen sort of things or is this something that didn’t have to happen but happened, largely, because of Vladimir Putin choosing to make it happen?
Fiona, why don’t I start with you?
HILL: Well, I think that point about—the last point about Vladimir Putin choosing to make it happen, absolutely. And, you know, we could go back to Boris Yeltsin making a different decision about his choice of successor in 1999.
So, you know, if we were ever in doubt that leadership mattered and could be decisive in a certain set of events, I think this has dispelled things, and let me just say why. I know that Mary is going to talk about NATO and, you know, the fantastic research that she’s done for her recent book, and there’s been an awful lot of talk of, you know, the depths of Russian history by myself and many others lately because Vladimir Putin has been going out there raging across the historical landscape and different maps, showing different configurations of European borders and picking all kinds of different snapshots in time to justify his step and that Ukraine is part of Russia, or at least a very large part of Ukraine is part of Russia, including Kyiv, Kharkiv, and some of, you know, the major cities that we’re seeing either under siege or, perhaps, even in Russia’s possession—Kherson, just outside of Crimea, for example; menace on Odesa, the famous celebrated Black Sea port; Mariupol and the Sea of Azov.
But there is also another context here, which is why Vladimir Putin comes into, I think, very stark relief. If we go back to the original period, the very first few years after the dissolution of the Soviet Union—and I want to say dissolution of the Soviet Union. We often use collapse as one of our descriptive terms for what happened.
The Soviet Union was actually pulled apart by none other than Boris Yeltsin and the heads of Belarus and Ukraine as part of a power struggle with Mikhail Gorbachev over the future of the Soviet Union, and what was created in its stead was a very loose formation, the Commonwealth of Independent States, that most of us have forgotten about, which was intended to sort of keep the countries together and keep many of the ties among them.
Ukraine was one of the first to pull out of the Commonwealth of Independent States—I mean, most of us here remember this but many of the audience would not—seeing it more as a means of civilized divorce rather than keeping the gang together kind of thing. And in the early 1990s, there was an awful lot of pushback over this in Russia.
In Moscow, for example, the mayor of the time, Yury Luzhkov, made a lot of very, I would say, strident nationalistic statements about Ukraine. Ukraine had inherited, basically, a whole arsenal of nuclear weapons, making it one of the largest nuclear weapon states on the planet after Russia and the United States, along with Belarus.
You, Richard, and Ivo and many others were pushing at that time to get Ukraine to—we can’t really say repatriate because these were missiles that were stationed—positioned in Ukraine, but, basically, send those weapons to Russia to dismantle. And in the period around all of that, there was a lot of saber rattling from Russian nationalistic forces but Yeltsin didn’t do anything about it.
Now, one might argue that that was because Russia was weak and that Yeltsin recognized this, because this is a period when Russia was having to pull back from Eastern Europe, including from Germany and then the Baltic States, in this period, you know, in the early 1990s up until 1994, the remnants of the Soviet army, and there was all kinds of chaos and disarray.
But throughout the period that Yeltsin was in the presidency, he, himself, did not make any kind of belligerent pronouncements or anything towards Ukraine even though plenty of other people did. And I and many others have written about, you know, a lot of that pressure was put on Ukraine in that period.
So Putin becomes the decisive factor after he comes into power in ’99/2000, because it’s him and a whole group of people around him who start to pick up on all that nationalist rhetoric and start to have Ukraine in the crosshairs.
Now, of course, you know, as we’re going to talk about, NATO and other factors come into this. But it is very significant that it’s Vladimir Putin and a small group of people around him and a larger then reading of history and grievance and frustration and loss at the collapse of—the dissolution of the Soviet Union that feeds into this. But it’s Putin and a group of people who are very decisive in this because I don’t think that Boris Yeltsin would have done anything like this.
HAASS: Thank you.
So, Mary, let me come to you and the question of NATO enlargement. NATO has nearly doubled the number of countries since the end of the Cold War. Ukraine, obviously, not a member of NATO. Then in 2008, at the Bucharest meeting, the process, if you will, was started.
To what extent do you believe that NATO enlargement process and opening up at least on paper the possibility that Ukraine could become a member in some ways lit a match that got us here? Or do you see that, no, that almost as Fiona was saying, you had that process but it was very much—this crisis is really—this is not the inevitable result of NATO—of a process begun two decades ago with NATO but it’s really more about Vladimir Putin and his own reading of history and his own sense of opportunity?
SAROTTE: Yeah. Let me answer that question in two ways, first general and then specific. So I use a theory that actually comes out of evolutionary biology in thinking about this time period. It actually comes from Stephen Jay Gould, and he used to say when he looked at the evolutionary record he did not actually see a little evolution one day and a little evolution the next day.
He said that, what I see are long periods of stasis where things stay the same that are suddenly dramatically punctuated by a dramatic event, such as an asteroid hitting the Earth, throwing up so much debris, causing so much chaos that the dinosaurs die out, and then you create a new equilibrium, which is dominated by mammals.
So the reason I mention that as a general theoretical point is that I think it is useful, as my students know because I use that all the time, in understanding punctuational moments in history. You have these long periods, I believe, of relative stasis or equilibrium. But then you have these moments where dramatic change is possible and can happen. It’s a different way of saying a crisis is a terrible thing to waste.
And so Fiona, with her characteristic wisdom and insight, has put her finger on a key ordering moment, which is in the 1990s. It’s a time I also think was crucial and that’s why I made it the subject of my book, Not One Inch. And there, I really agree very strongly with Fiona that the fact that Yeltsin chose Putin as his successor is what then leads us on to the timeline we’re on today.
Until that happens there were other timelines, and in my research I was surprised to discover just how close Russia came to having Viktor Chernomyrdin as its next president in September 1998, how hard Yeltsin tried to make that happen. He also had other successors he wanted to promote but they failed for a number of reasons.
And as I was working on that and researching that, you know, of course, I know how the story ends as an historian. I could just see Putin off in the distance. I could just feel myself wishing that someone else would have succeeded in becoming Yeltsin’s successor.
But once you get Putin as Yeltsin’s successor, once Yeltsin chooses him, then his personal grievances then take on an outsized role, and, as you’ve rightly indicated, Richard, he has a personal grievance about NATO expansion.
He, of course, came out of the KGB, or secret police, and he was stationed in East Germany where his work, as he has said, was to spy on NATO, and he felt very strongly that the Soviet Union should not simply have retreated in 1989, that it should have used force.
He, in fact, at his KGB outpost called for military backup because he wanted to shoot peaceful protesters, and the military officer on the other side of the phone said—on the other end of the line said, I’m not going to give you that authorization without explicit approval from Moscow, and Moscow is silent.
So Putin, he’s said repeatedly that that phrase “Moscow was silent” has stayed with him and he felt that it was a huge mistake.
Now, fast forwarding to today, Putin, I think, in the period of COVID, because he was apparently so COVID phobic, spent a lot of time alone with a very small group of people and stewed over all of his grievances.
And it’s not just NATO expansion. He also has this feeling that Ukraine is not a separate country. He is upset about the post-Cold War order writ large, about how Russia got marginalized, in his view, in the post-Cold War order.
Now, certainly, NATO expansion is part of that story, but I believe he is really instrumentalizing and butchering the history of this expansion to justify what he is doing because, of course, the countries of Central Europe chose to become part of NATO. They became free democracies and they had the right to join NATO.
Where I would criticize—so, personally, I do not have—I do not object to NATO enlargement. What I do object to, and I describe this in the book, was how it happened, which, I believe, happened in a way to maximize friction with Russia at a time when we hoped we could continue working together, particularly on nuclear disarmament.
So it is part of the mix but it’s not the only part of Putin’s grievances.
HAASS: So, Ivo, let me turn to you, and it’s really a two-sided question. To the extent that Putin started this war because he was—saw threats, was it the threat, you think, of NATO getting more present in Ukraine or Ukraine formally joining NATO?
Was it more, you think, the example—the democratic example—that Ukraine constituted, which was a threat because the Russian people might notice a fellow Slavic country being a liberal democracy economically tied to Europe and they might get some ideas in their heads as to what Russia’s future might be?
And since you wrote a book with the word “abdication” in the title, to what extent do you think he, as a former intelligence guy, did his own analysis, looked out at the U.S. after Afghanistan, looked at the new German government, looked at Ukraine and, you know, run by this former comedian and said, what a great opportunity, this is going to be easy? What’s your sense of how to—you know, what was the decision-making process, to the extent we can ever know?
DAALDER: Well, we’ll need new historians like Mary to look at the decision-making process when the papers are out.
But it strikes me—I mean, let me sort of step back. For one, I agree with what Fiona and Mary have already said. But, you know, when I go back to my first International Relations 101 course, one of the books that, I think, all of us read was Man, the State, and War by Ken Waltz and the idea that there are—that causality is not unidirectional, that there are many things that cause it.
And if you go back to the decision-making process, it seems to me there are sort of levels of analysis that can be applied. At its core is a Russian fear, which is traditional. It’s grown out of geography for being surrounded or not being allowed to have enough room for it to grow, which is where old-fashioned Russian expansionism comes from.
The end of the Cold War, American power, the way America used its power, could take any leader in Russia and would have said, this is pretty uncomfortable, and I think there was a reaction to that. There were specifics of the end of the Cold War. There were specifics of NATO enlargement. But there’s a systemic problem that you, as a leader—any leader in Russia—would fear.
Second, there is the policies that were being pursued, and I think we can get back to the NATO enlargement issue. I think because NATO didn’t agree on how to deal with Ukraine and Georgia some very serious problems were created by, on the one hand, saying no to enlargement but then on the other hand saying yes to membership, which is kind of like weird and strange and was a political compromise that anybody who’s ever been in a negotiation at a summit can understand. But it was pretty awful when you think about that.
And then the larger sort of problems and issues that Putin, looking out at the world, looked at he saw a United States that for four years had done just about everything it could to undermine alliances and partnerships under Donald Trump.
He saw that a new president was talking about America being back but, in fact, wasn’t, at least initially, very effective in demonstrating how you rebuild alliances. And you mentioned Afghanistan, you mentioned—didn’t mention but also the Australia nuclear deal, which was not a textbook example of how to do diplomacy.
There was weakness in Germany and were elections in France. There was the U.K. that was inward looking and where Partygate was more important than anything else that was happening. You mentioned the Ukrainian weakness and corruption, and I do think that Putin thought that the time was ripe.
The West was in decline, an idea that Putin had put forward in a famous interview in the Financial Times a couple of years ago. He said liberalism is obsolete and that everybody was too divided internally to stand up to him. And then, of course, everything we’ve said about Putin as a person.
So you have the person, you have the policies, and you have the system that all lead to this moment. You know, few of us, I think, would have thought it would have been this exact way, if you’d come back six, seven, eight, ten months ago, but that something like this was going to happen.
I think, looking back, and even looking at the time, when you look at the history, you look at what happened in ’04 with regard to the Ukraine Orange Revolution, you look at ’08 in regard to Georgia, of course, 2014 in regard to Ukraine, Belarus in 2020, Kazakhstan in 2022, you see a leader worried about democracy in his periphery and worrying about that spilling over to his own country, and there you have it.
HAASS: I’d like to ask you all the same question and ask you for a fairly—it’s really two parts, but I want to get it on the record and keep your answers, if you can, as short and succinct as you can. One is what do you think is at stake here? Why should, the people viewing this today, care how this plays out?
And given that, given how you see our stakes to the United States, do you think we’re doing too much? Too little? Basically, have it right? But given that, like, do we think—do you think we’ve, basically, right sized our policy, given the inherent importance of what’s at play here?
Fiona, why don’t we start with you again?
HILL: Yeah. Well, thanks. That’s a great way of framing that. Look, what’s at stake here is not just Ukraine, and that in itself is sufficient, given what’s happening on the ground in Ukraine as we’re speaking here.
But what is at stake, it’s not just the whole rule-based international order but it’s the exact—it’s the premise, the whole fundament of the system of interactions among states, that we’ve built up since World War II, basically, on the premise that we were never going to allow again countries to change territorial borders, systems of governance, and to, basically, take things that they demanded by force.
So, you know, we’ve portrayed out here all of the different reasons or pulled them all out about where we got to here. But now that we are here, putting all of that history aside, what Putin is doing is setting a pretty dreadful precedent for the present and the future, and we can all imagine all the different ways in which other countries will be watching this extraordinarily closely.
So I do think that the whole system in which we, the United States, have prospered and survived is now at stake. And, again, this is like 1812 when the Brits, you know, came to get U.S. back again. It would be like if the U.K. went to try to take Ireland again. I think many of the countries around the world have realized that this is a post-colonial grab and this is also the whole post-World War II order.
HAASS: Let me—so let me just follow up. Given that you’re, basically, saying a lot is at stake—
HAASS: —that our policy has to it certain inherent limits and those certain limits, things like we don’t have boots on the ground, we’re not establishing a no-fly zone, we haven’t yet sanctioned the Russian energy sector, is our policy, if you will, sort of commensurate with the stakes?
HILL: Well, look, this is going to be like our policies were in World War I and World War II, which were going to be adaptive and let’s just hope it adapts fairly quickly, because given the magnitude of the problem we’re going to have to act fast with everyone else as well. It needs to be a major international response because we won’t be able to resolve this if it’s just the United States and NATO allies and others standing alone.
So I think what we’re going to have to do is what we already have done, which is firming it in the U.N. context and we’re going to have to push other countries as well to, basically, take action.
We’re already seeing an unbelievable—and that’s one thing that you didn’t, you know, perhaps mention quite so much in your introduction, which covered every base—a response on the individual level, the company and corporate level, and network level and all kinds of groups. A lot of people out there are realizing this. It’s going to take a lot more of stepping up and mobilizing to, basically, make any change in this situation.
DAALDER: Can I—
HAASS: Mary—oh, Ivo. Yeah.
DAALDER: Yeah. Let me just jump because I think Fiona has—I totally agree with her—the stakes. But Mary, rightly, says don’t never let a crisis go to waste, as my former mayor here in Chicago so memorably put it. There’s a real opportunity for a redo, a redo on the part of the United States and its allies.
We got it wrong after 1999 not on NATO enlargement. We got it wrong on a whole bunch of other things. We assumed that we were so powerful that we didn’t need to listen to anybody and we could ignore everybody—including our allies, which we did consistently. We assumed that because we were such a great, wonderful power the rules apply to everybody else but they didn’t apply to us. We assumed that markets would solve every problem and that if we just supported markets everything would be fine. We assumed that democracy was on the run and that we never had to come back to the idea that there wasn’t an ideological struggle. None of that turned out to be true, and now we can do a redo.
We have laid the basis and, I think, the Biden administration deserves an incredible amount of credit for putting together an international coalition that has acted more strongly, more powerfully, than anybody would have expected.
The only other time that this happened, Richard, you know well—the book’s right behind you—it was 1990. You have written about it and you participated in it. Building a coalition, but it was a coalition built on the—on an essence of values of what mattered. And we’re doing it again. And in this time, we’re not only doing it by demonstrating how powerful we are and bringing everybody along—because that was the unipolar moment of 1990—we’re actually doing it slightly differently.
We’re pushing our allies ahead of us. And it’s a very deliberate strategy for the allies to go out and sanction Putin and we come next—for the allies to call for SWIFT and we come next. And energy, which is, of course, something that the allies are going to be most affected by will be the next one.
The moment we have the strangulation siege and deliver bombardment of the big cities—and we’re very close to it because some of it is already happening—we will get energy sanctions, I’m absolutely convinced, and the Europeans will lead in this.
So now we have a moment where the democracies of the United States—of Northern America, of Europe and Asia, by the way—same sanctions coming from Japan and Australia and South Korea—real strong democracies are coming together and we have a redo. We can say, OK, let’s have a system that has power and influence based on democratic values and we do it in a shared leadership role.
So that’s the opportunity that, I think, exists in this particular moment.
HAASS: OK. But I want to focus—and, Mary, you’re going to have to bear the brunt of my devil’s advocate question. I don’t hear either of you saying, though, that we should be—given these stakes, given all that’s going on, that we are still limiting ourselves in one important way. In addition to energy—not introducing energy sanctions, we are not going to the direct defense of Ukraine.
We have not committed U.S. or NATO forces to that, whether on the ground or in the air, which is a fundamental difference from what we were prepared to do in 1990 and 1991 when it came to Kuwait when Iraq invaded and violated its sovereignty and the same basic rule of international relations about not using force to alter borders.
So my question, Mary, is, is there a disconnect? Or is the reason the administration is giving, that it’s simply too dangerous—given the possibility of direct U.S.- or NATO-Russian military conflict it’s too dangerous so what we have to do is build an indirect policy using—arming Ukraine, using sanctions, and diplomatic isolation and the like, that we are forced to go that route rather than, say, General Wesley Clark, who was saying we should be prepared to do more things directly? So how do you interpret this?
SAROTTE: Sure. Yes. The difference to the Gulf War example is that Saddam Hussein did not have a strategic nuclear arsenal and Vladimir Putin does. So that, obviously, is the crucial difference. To go back to your original question that you asked of all three of us, first, why does it matter, and second, is our policy appropriate, you won’t be surprised to hear that I think it matters hugely.
I just wrote an op-ed in the New York Times counting all the ways—
HAASS: You’re freezing here.
SAROTTE: —counting all the ways—oops, sorry. I just wrote an op-ed in the New York Times. Am I back with you now?
HAASS: You are back with us.
SAROTTE: OK. I just wrote an op-ed in the New York Times, counting all of the ways that this will matter to us and not just economic, whether it’s higher gas prices, which could have an impact on our elections, not just in stagflation, but through the potential that there could be inadvertent escalation, and this, obviously, is a very scary possibility.
I was asked by the New York Times, are we in a new Cold War with Russia, and I said the answer is yes. And then their next question was, well, how much will this new Cold War resemble the old, and my answer was, not enough, because we’ve lost a lot of the guardrails that we had during the Cold War, such as arms control accords.
We’re now down just to the New START Treaty. That’s the only one that constrains the countries that have 90 percent of the world’s nuclear arsenals. We’ve expelled embassy staff. We’ve expelled consular staff. In essence, we and Russia are acting in isolation from each other, which is a danger for the whole world.
And so there is a risk here, rather, of inadvertent escalation. There’s also the risk that Putin is going to do something truly stupid. If he’s decided to pulverize Ukrainians—innocent Ukrainians—and in a truly abhorrent fashion, he may be willing to provoke NATO. It’s really the unpredictability that’s hard to know. The old Cold War was characterized by its end by a lot of predictability, and this isn’t.
So the question is, well, what is our policy response then? Well, the challenge—and I think it is an immense challenge, one of the biggest ones that has faced this country—is to figure out a way to respond that doesn’t provoke nuclear war. But we need to stop this violence in Ukraine. This has to stop.
And so I have four suggestions. They’re not unique but, perhaps, useful to summarize in here. First, I think, militarily, there are still ways we’re holding back from helping the Ukrainians on intelligence sharing and so forth. That needs to end.
We need to stop being fussy about, you know, previous rules that we had. The Ukrainians are the ones bleeding. We need to give them what they’re asking for and that ranges from body armor for all these civilians who are signing up and have no protection whatsoever, to antitank capability and air defense. So that’s the first way.
The second way is we need, in some ways, to make clear both to the strongmen around Putin but also to the Russian people that their country is going to become a larger North Korea as a result of these sanctions, as a result of what Putin is doing. Do they want to live in North Korea for the rest of their lives? If not, now is going to be the time they need to do something.
I’m not necessarily saying regime change—I don’t think there’s a scenario where Russia suddenly reverts to democracy—but I think personnel change at the top. If somehow Putin could—if Russia, shall we say, could move swiftly to the post-Putin moment, I think that would decrease the level of violence in Ukraine. It won’t make everything perfect. But if it could somehow happen, I think that would spare a lot of Ukrainians.
HAASS: Could you, quickly, give us your other two? Because we’re going to run out of time.
SAROTTE: Then, third, you need to make clear the risks to the Chinese, that they’re living across the border from a large country willing to invade, and, last, we need to make it clear to the Russians that they’re going to cease earning money from natural reserves, full stop.
DAALDER: Richard, can I answer your direct question on troops? Because I think the answer of the question of whether or not to go in now, that question is being posed too late. That question should have been posed before the war, and the decision should have been made, if you really wanted to prevent this war, to actually have gone in six months ago when—or four months ago when we saw the escalation. At that point, you still had a deterrent capability.
Once you decided not to do that, and U.S. explicitly decided not to do that, NATO explicitly decided not to do that, and I don’t hear a lot of people saying that we should have, you, basically, had decided that Ukraine was going to be left to the Ukrainians.
HAASS: It’s interesting. This isn’t a parallel. It’s the same thing that happened in Syria. Whoever gets there first has tremendous advantages because then the other side has to decide whether to challenge it and escalate. And anytime you’re in a crisis, you always want the onus of escalation on the other guy, and in both Syria and now in Ukraine, we put it on ourselves. And I think we’re correct not to do it now, but I think you’re right. If we were ever going to do it, it would have been before and then the Russians would have had to decide whether to take the escalatory step.
So, Fiona, let me come back to you—and I want to get one last round of questions before we open it up to the audience and others—which is about Vladimir Putin has made this investment. What’s the least he can do now in order to judge it to have been worth it and a success and one that would not weaken his position at home and the world? What do you see as his definition of success at this point?
HILL: Well, very sadly, I don’t see a kind of a minimalist definition of success for him because he’s so painted himself into a corner by all of the demands that have been made so explicit—you know, many of them being in writing, many of them in the speeches and pronouncements that he’s made—that, I mean, he really has got himself so far out there that it’s going to be extraordinarily difficult to get him to come back in again.
I mean, he’s made it very clear. We’ve had this bizarre, you know, episode with Alexander Lukashenko of Belarus sort of showing everybody on television a map with, you know, Ukraine divided up into four parts and also menacing Moldova, you know, the country next door.
Putin has made it very clear that he thinks that Ukraine doesn’t exist and that part of it belongs to Russia. He’s already annexed Crimea and he’s demanded that the Ukrainian government and the Ukrainian people recognize that.
He’s also recognized the independence of Donetsk and Luhansk within the existing administrative borders and is, you know, making sure that those—that the rebel-held areas are expanding out into there.
He’s sent the Russian military so far into the south parts of Ukraine now that it’s going to be very hard to dislodge him. He hasn’t, you know, succeeded as far as he wants to right now in the north. But he’s, clearly, said before that Kyiv, you know, also belongs to Russia. It’s part of the holy lands of Russia.
That is not really giving you much scope to, basically create as, you know, Sun Tzu would have said, the golden bridge. I mean, there’s all the ideas we’ve had out there of Helsinki 2.0, European security, NATO, all kinds of things like that.
But Putin has gone beyond all of that now in the way that he’s gone after Ukraine. And so that I think that what we’re going to have to do, again, is getting back to where we have been and we’ve all been talking about this, a major international response, just as—Ivo, I’ve been thinking also about your book. I pulled it out, you know, the other day to look at that again, Richard, because it’s 1990 Iraq, not our sin of 2003 Iraq, but when Saddam Hussein also said that Kuwait wasn’t a country, that Kuwait was an accident of history, dissolution of the Ottoman Empire, a bunch of French and Brits, you know, kind of carving things up. I mean, this is, essentially, what Putin is saying about Ukraine, that this is others dividing Ukraine and Russia from each other.
So we have to have an international response to this that then frames—maybe it’s going to have to be something in a U.N. framework that then, you know, pushes forward. It’s not just going to be about European security.
So I think we have to be—as Ivo was saying, we do have a chance of a redo here. We’ve got a chance to have some thinking and we’re going to have to be creative about this because Putin has not given himself a way back from this.
HAASS: Let me come back—let me just follow up on one thing there and it feeds off on Mary’s second recommendation about sending messages to Russians to move against Putin.
We used to call that, in the Iraq context—because I was involved in that, part of it—we used to call it Saddamism without Saddam, that the whole idea was not to turn Iraq, as desirable as it might have been, into a flourishing democracy but to have, if you will, a run of the mill authoritarian who would not be a war criminal on the scale of Saddam.
So what is your sense of Russian society? Alexei Navalny, who is in prison, has said it’s great the thousands of people are in the streets. We need hundreds of thousands or more. Do you see Russia as the kind of society where you could ever get enough mass mobilization where the security forces would be overwhelmed and the small coterie of people with power would ever say Putin has now put at risk the entire system—we have to rein him in or oust him? Could that moment ever come in Russia?
HILL: Yeah, of course. That’s what Putin’s paranoid about. I mean, the very fact that you’re saying it and, you know, if anybody’s watching from the Kremlin on this, there will be—absolutely. That’s why they’re going to clamp down.
I mean, if they are arresting elderly ladies who were survivors of the siege of Leningrad, the very siege that Putin’s own family survived and his brother died in, and children and others who were protesting, and that they’re, basically, blocking off all kinds of information, the fact that they tried to kill Navalny with Novichok in his underpants and then put him in a penal colony because he was running around mobilizing people to vote against the ruling party of United Russia and, actually, openly saying that he wanted to run for president, you’re damn right they’re worried about this.
And so what we’re going to see is some pretty nasty repression. We’re going to see exactly what we saw in Belarus because this is exactly what happened to Alexander Lukashenko. The vast majority of Belarusians rose up against him and he had to make this terrible decision of throwing in his lot with Vladimir Putin to save his own skin. Putin and the people around him are terrified about their own skin—
SAROTTE: Yeah, can I—
HILL: —and that’s exactly why we’re seeing what’s happening right now, and it’s all that force of Russians and others who live outside.
I think that there’s going to be a horrible shock to that very internal Russian system by all of the things that are happening here because their biggest fear, just as Ivo mentioned before—the Orange Revolution—is color revolutions.
They believe we do it, by the way. They don’t even realize that a lot of this is spontaneous and done by their own people, and they’re absolutely terrified of something happening and then us manipulating it from the outside.
HAASS: Mary, do you want—
SAROTTE: Brief interjection. Yeah. I just want to say, just to reinforce what Fiona said, there’s been—I’ve been hearing some speculation recently that the reason for the big table where you see Putin so far away from other people is not just that he’s afraid of COVID but also that he’s afraid of assassination. I don’t have reliable sources on that but it fits with what Fiona is saying.
HAASS: So, Ivo, let me start with you in this question—and, again, I want to open up to the audience pretty quickly—which is: If we set in this—if this becomes an open-ended conflict, one way or another NATO is either going to be providing a sanctuary for a long-term armed resistance in, say, Poland or one other neighboring country, or it will be funneling arms, as it now is, into Ukraine and western Ukraine will become, if you will, the sanctuary for the rest of the country. Is this a viable scenario? Can NATO do this? What will it take? Will this be transforming for NATO if suddenly it has to, basically, become, to use an awful metaphor, the Pakistan to Afghanistan? Is that something within NATO’s writ?
DAALDER: So it already is, and it’s not just NATO. It’s the European Union. So the coordination within the NATO structure is pretty unofficial and it’s not—you know, there hasn’t been a decision made at the North Atlantic Council to do this.
But the reality is is that about half of the NATO countries are now shipping armaments directly into Ukraine and it’s being coordinated both by the European Union and the European military staff. It’s directly involved in the collection and, actually, purchase and distribution of weaponry into Ukraine from Poland and Slovakia and Romania, in particular, and NATO countries are doing the same.
We now have depot collection centers. That sounds really good, but that’s where anti-tank weapons and anti-aircraft capabilities and everything else is being collected and funneled into Ukraine.
And at some point, it may well happen from western Ukraine, depending a little bit on how this war will evolve. You know, assume for the moment that the Russians do finally succeed to get their—the fuel to their tanks in time for them to actually move rather than stand still and that there is a takeover of much of northeast and southern Ukraine to include Kyiv, I would assume. What happens to the West? And that may well become a resistance part for Ukrainians.
I think there are two questions. One is what’s the Russian reaction to that. How is that different from direct military involvement, which is one of the reasons why, I think, we’re stepping back for now for a no-fly zone and everything else because, you know, a no-fly zone also—another word for no-fly zone today in Ukraine is war against Russia because you got to take out its air force and air defense system. You could do that in Libya in five days. You can’t really do that in Russia.
So what I worry about is that we’re not building up quick enough in the new Eastern Front, and you now have a new Eastern Front and it goes from the Baltics to the Black Sea. It goes right—the eastern borders of Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, and Romania—you all now have had a great history lesson about what is on the Russian-Belarusian-Ukrainian border—and we don’t have enough forces there.
You know, the U.S. has sent only twelve thousand troops. I mean, you think about it, they have a hundred and ninety thousand. We need significantly more military capability deployed in key strategic areas—the Suwalki Gap between Belarus and Kaliningrad, sixty miles of NATO territory—that no doubt the Russians would like to unify and then cut off the Baltic States, and a whole area of it.
You know, this is a very serious long-term confrontation that we’re going to have with Russia and we should think about this in a return to containment and that means—you know, it’s great that Poland is increasing its defense spending to 3 ½ percent. It’s great that Germany is spending a hundred billion euros this year and now 2 percent for next year. But in the meantime—that’s going to take some time—in the meantime, you got to put stuff forward fast and quick.
HILL: Can I just add one element to this, which is kind of important to us to all bear in mind, which is very different from the past during the Cold War? Because of the way that European borders have shifted and populations have shifted by free movement of people, not just exodus and refugees, there are millions of Ukrainians, Belarusians, and Russians already all the way around Europe, and I think that a lot of these centers of resistance are going to be London, Berlin, Paris, and many other major cities here. We’re already seeing that. Look at the hundreds and hundreds of thousands of people who’ve already turned out and in Berlin some of the biggest demonstrations.
There’s going to be a lot of pressure there. Many of these people are German citizens and citizens of other European countries as well. There was already a million Ukrainians in Poland before all of this. So I think that the border is shifting.
People are being much more integrated. People having family members, including here in the United States as well, this is going to change this and add even more dimensions to what Ivo was talking about.
HAASS: If I listen to you all, what this adds up to is, you know, the part of the world that we thought was the most stable now becomes, in many ways, the most turbulent. It’s an open-ended conflict in which the odds that what we’ve been talking about here comes to characterize Europe for years to come and Ukraine for years to come is far more likely than a peaceful resolution, one way—either through what diplomats do or political change in Moscow.
You have the daily possibility of NATO-Russian conflict because you’re running, essentially, a resistance support operation out of NATO countries, all at a time the United States has to deal with a rising China and challenges, potentially, in the South China Sea or Taiwan, an Iran that is active in the region, to put it gently, not to mention with a fairly robust nuclear program all at a time we’ve got major domestic challenges.
It seems to me the gap between the world you’re describing and the political debate in the United States right now is large and that we are moving towards having to confront some questions we thought were behind us thirty years ago when the Cold War ended. And it seems to me that, like it or not, as I listen to this conversation it brings it home to me that we are moving into what will be a mass—a great debate about the role of the United States in the world and we’re going to have to think about the resources we’re prepared to devote to it.
And, again, what I’m struck by is the gap between the scale of the decisions we’re going to have to make and where the conversation is, and closing that gap is going to—it’s both necessary but also going to be difficult, given the divisions within the parties, not to mention the division between the parties.
So this is going to be a difficult—it’s a sobering—you add this up and it’s sobering if you focus on Ukraine. It’s sobering if you focus on Europe. It’s sobering if you focus on the world and all that. Let me—
DAALDER: You know, interestingly enough, I think, the discussion in Europe is far more mature in the last week than it is here, and if you look at the kind of statements that leaders had made, anybody who has not watched Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the European Council’s, speech on Tuesday, it’s a remarkable statement of seriousness. Or Olaf Scholz’s address to the Bundestag on Sunday or Prime Minister Draghi of Italy’s address to the Senate on Wednesday in which he said, a country that has been on the front lines of not sanctioning Russia for all—for so long, he said, we are prepared not to have Russian gas anymore.
I mean, it’s a remarkable statement. And I agree with you, Richard, I think the debate here, despite what we saw in the State of the Union, which was good to see a speech and both sides of the aisle standing up and at least uniting for a moment. But the general debate about what’s happening and how serious it is and what the impact is is quite far removed from where, I think, Europe is and, frankly, the world needs to be.
SAROTTE: I mean, part of this problem is just the speed with which we’ve spun back up to, essentially, a new Cold War, right. The old one evolved over decades and it also allowed settled patterns of interaction to evolve, and this has just spun up so quickly and Putin is behaving so unpredictably that it is very, very scary.
And I think you’re right, Richard. The events have moved so quickly that the discussion is behind them and that’s going to have to be brought into alignment one way or another. And I’m glad, actually, that two thousand people or more were willing to show up for this because it’s a heartening sign that people understand the importance of this event. It’s great the Council is hosting this outreach.
HAASS: Yeah. I mean, just a few weeks or months ago, the big conversation was pivot to Asia and the question—and it’s not that the challenges in Asia have gotten any less because of this—any smaller. So the issue is how do we deal with those at the same time now we have to deal with the reemergence of a major threat in Europe at the same time we continue to have challenges elsewhere.
And by the way, there’s also the raft of global challenges from climate change to COVID to what have you. It’s a full plate. It’s, actually, as demanding a moment as I’ve ever seen.
Go ahead, Fiona.
HILL: Yeah. One point is that China has pivoted to us now as well and to Europe. So the statement on February 4 between President Xi and Putin was pretty monumental. I mean, in many respects, it was kind of a reprise of things that they’ve said before. But China’s, you know, outright statement against NATO and NATO enlargement and a kind of an expression of support for Russia and its activities in Europe is a pretty historic shift.
So, you know, Russia has for years tried to get our attention to remember that it’s part of the Asia-Pacific region, the Indo-Pacific region. But now China is in the mix, and China has been a major investor in Europe, a major investor in Ukraine, and, you know, me and others are all kind of thinking, well, hey, we might need China to intercede here, you know, to kind of, basically, say something to Vladimir Putin as he lays waste to Ukraine. I mean, what a shift in our thinking there as well.
So, you know, your world in chaos has become, you know, kind of a chaos in lots of different ways here and I think we have to now remember that this is a global conflict in Ukraine, not just something about Europe, because President Xi made it his business as well, which he didn’t have to.
HAASS: You have to get the lingo right, Fiona. It’s a world in disarray, not chaos. But we seem to be moving in that—
HILL: Yeah. Sorry I moved it further. I’m sorry about that. But, I think, that’s the next title of the next edition. (Laughter.)
HAASS: I hope not. I fear it might be. But since we’re also depressing, let me just sort of say in thirty seconds just before we open it up is that it is possible that this has caused China to rethink, that if China looks at the scale of the sanctions that have been introduced here and all that we’re willing to do in the case of a Taiwan contingency, they’d also have to think about, which you’re not seeing here, the idea of direct defense that the United States and Japan and Australia might put together.
I, actually, think that one of the—there’s been certain salutary things to come out of this crisis. One is, in some ways, the revival of Europe and serious thinking that you’ve all alluded to, a kind of renewed understanding of the importance of transatlantic alliance and cooperation.
And then there might be a certain sobering about China, that they would—they have to be careful before they underestimate the potential of the military and diplomatic and economic response to Chinese aggression in Asia, because Mr. Putin, clearly, underestimated it in Europe and China might not want to make that same mistake. So even terrible situations might have some unexpected salutary consequences.
That’s as close as I get to optimistic. Sorry, everybody. Let’s open it up for some better questions.
OPERATOR: (Gives queuing instructions.)
We will take the first question from Babak Salimitari, a student at UC Irvine.
Q: Hello. Can you guys hear me?
HAASS: Yes, sir.
Q: Hi. My name is Babak. I’m a third-year student at UCI, econ major, and my question particularly has to do with, as you guys mentioned, energy.
During the previous administration, there’s that famous video where President Trump was sitting at the table with the guy who runs NATO—Stoltenberg, I think, was his name—and then they’re arguing about Germany and the pipeline and the energy and saying, oh, we’re protecting you but then you go and take energy from Russia. And I really think that is one of the main reasons why we’ve seen Europe unwilling to put full-scale energy sanctions on Russian oil. Why hasn’t the United States taken the lead on this and said, you’re not going to take Russian oil and that’s final?
HAASS: Who wants to take that?
DAALDER: I’m happy to take it. For one, the U.S. can say you can’t take Russian oil but maybe the United States should start that by not taking Russian oil, since it’s importing, what, six hundred and sixty thousand barrels a day of oil from Russia, which also only goes to show that it’s a lot easier to grandstand than it is to actually make policy.
On the issue of energy, a number of European countries—the Czech Republic, Hungary, Latvia—get a hundred percent of their gas from Russia—a hundred percent for heating, a hundred percent for electricity generation that’s generated by natural gas. Actually, doesn’t get a lot of the oil from Russia. It gets that from other markets. It’s natural gas that goes through pipelines which the United States does not control.
So if the United States would like to shut these pipelines off it can’t do that. And, instead, what we’re doing is we’re having conversations with our allies very quietly about the circumstances under which changes would happen.
You’ll recall that President Trump and lots of people, including many people on Capitol Hill, have been going after the Germans for Nord Stream 2, and—Nord Stream 2, which is a new gas pipeline—and we, very quietly, work with the Germans to know that the moment anything bad would happen Nord Stream 2 was shut out and it’s shut down. It’ll never work and operate. I can guarantee you it never will.
And as I said a little earlier, I think we’re talking to them, very quietly, about how do we, collectively, take the hit and shut down sales from energy, and that’s going to come in the next few weeks. And I think this is a lesson I hope that all of us can take in what it means to be effective in diplomacy.
You got to work people day in day out, quietly and sometimes publicly, and you rib them a little bit, as President Biden did to Olaf Scholz when he was here early in February on the issue of Nord Stream, on the issue of energy crisis, and, in the end, they come around, because that’s what good diplomacy can effect.
Doesn’t matter who gets to say that it was all me and everything and everybody’s following me. What you want is the result, and I think what you’re seeing in the last six or seven days coming out of Europe is, in large measure, due to the way the administration dealt with the Europeans from the moment they knew that this crisis was coming, which was sometime in late October, in very quiet diplomacy.
So it’s one thing to be on TV and sound great. It’s another thing in diplomacy to actually spend time working the problem and getting to a solution, and I think we’re getting there.
HAASS: I’ll just add one thing to that. I also think in this country we’re going to have to have a big conversation—another big conversation—about the balance between energy security and climate change policy, and the fast—the effort to accelerate the phasing down and out of fossil fuels got ahead of our capacity to handle it in a safe and secure and stable way. Germans did it themselves with the phasing out of nuclear power, allowed themselves to become quite dependent on Russian sources of gas. I think it’s, what, 40-odd percent of the—and so forth. And we need to have that conversation.
It’s not an easy conversation to have. I am optimistic enough to think that we can have a responsible energy security policy with a responsible climate policy. But we need to do that, and we have to understand there is a role to play, I think, for decades to come for fossil fuels. Doesn’t mean coal. It means oil and it means gas.
That is unavoidable. And if we want to accelerate that, yes, it’s—you know, it’s solar and wind. But also we’re going to have to think afresh about nuclear and so forth. We’ve got to have a—use the word Ivo used before—a mature conversation about energy policy anew that we haven’t quite been able to sustain here.
Let’s get another question.
OPERATOR: We will take the next question from James Gilmore, former governor of Virginia and former ambassador to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.
Q: So my question is going to be a reaction from the three of the four about what the future really might look like because I think we’re in for a very long war here, and it would seem to me that the authoritarian countries around the world have a theory under which they’d like to organize the world and it’s around repression of citizens and of people, the elimination of freedoms, and I guess the existence of free people and democracies are inherently a threat to the authoritarian construct.
So my—I mean, that’s what we’re seeing, I think, in Ukraine. My question to you is, is it possible in the distant future for the authoritarian countries like China, Russia, and other countries to actually create something like that, or is it impossible?
Thank you. By the way, good job. I’m a Fiona Hill watcher.
HAASS: Thank you, Jim.
Fiona, you want to take that?
HILL: Yes. I always very much appreciate Ambassador Gilmore because he does give a critical eye to everything and always has an extremely good response, and I think this is, really, a very important point to take on board.
I mean, we’re seeing an upsurge right now of people power in response to what’s happening in Ukraine. We’re seeing an awful lot of people mobilized. We’ve been talking about that. We’re seeing on many fronts corporate and, you know, commercial entities already responding.
I mean, we talked about sanctions. But it’s not just the actions of the government. It’s declarations by companies that have been very significant as well that have—they’ve made their own decision in looking at what’s happening in Ukraine.
And I think that, you know, getting to Ambassador Gilmore’s point, that is going to be very unnerving, not just for Russia, because actually some Russian businesses—those who have been operating overseas, abroad—and the heads of the business who are not especially close to the Kremlin have been speaking out as well, as long with, you know, cultural and, you know, sporting personalities.
But for China watching this, I think this is also going to be pushing some reassessment in China. I think this is where Ambassador Gilmore seemed to be going with his question, is as we’re reassessing all of this—and, you know, Ivo was talking about the possibility of a redo and, Richard, you’re talking about, you know, mature conversations that we might be having about climate change and, you know, Ivo was talking also about all the discussions going on in Europe—what are the discussions going on behind closed doors in Beijing, in particular, ahead of their next party congress? Because how, then, do they keep control at a time when they’ve been trying to open up their economy but that they’ve also got all of these social pressures internally?
And just as I’m saying that I think that the Russian government is going to be extremely alarmed and, actually, you know, they have a much smaller populace to be able to clamp down on, we’re seeing that in spades right now in the way that the Russians are reacting to this conflict. What is the knock-on effect going to be in China as well?
I mean, I can’t answer that question. But I think it’s extremely important that Ambassador Gilmore has raised that because is then China going to be trying to work behind the scenes, not just with Russia but with other countries, to try to see how there’s going to be some pushback on their own domestic front. And, you know, we can look at who abstained in the U.N. vote or those of them who have actually outright voted against it.
I’m wondering whether, you know, China’s doing its own sort of discussions behind the scenes, not on the issues that we hope it would be, to try to turn back this conflict or whether it’s having another set of discussions about the security of its own regime and its own system at the top.
HAASS: I don’t think that thought is ever far from the minds of the Chinese leadership. And whenever they have to decide they tend to go in the direction of more, not less, government control, you know, of the economy or the society or the political space and I expect—you know, we know pretty much what their inclinations will be there.
Let’s get another question.
OPERATOR: We’ll take a written question from Isabela Karibjanian, a research fellow at the Public International Law & Policy Group.
Could you please comment on the large number of abstentions in the recent UNGA resolution condemning Russian aggression, specifically, what effect those abstentions, particularly, those of India, may have on U.S. diplomatic and economic relations in the near future?
HAASS: Anybody want—
DAALDER: You know, so it’s thirty-five—a hundred and forty-one in favor—was it six against? And thirty-five abstentions. I mean, some of the abstentions were surprising. Venezuela, I believe, abstained. Cuba abstained. Nicaragua abstained. I think I have that right.
Those were surprising. You would have expected them to be against. Some were not surprising, China being one of them. Some changed. The UAE abstained in the U.N. Security Council resolution and voted for the resolution in the U.N. General Assembly.
But then there—you know, there’s some interesting countries. Pakistan, which just signed a trade agreement with Russia, and I think the big question mark is India—I think the one that you ask in this question. And, you know, India has a long history of nonalignment, of neutrality. That’s how it thought about itself in the Cold War period. It took a long time to sort of emerge from that ideological stance of—as a leader, really, of the nonaligned movement.
But it’s always played both sides on the Russia-U.S. tension, that—you know, the Cold War sort of helped it when the end of—the end of the Cold War helped. When the U.S. and Russia were willing to talk to each other, it made it easier for India to be both more aligned—more closely aligned with us but at the same time maintain a strong, particularly, military relationship with Russia, and that relationship hasn’t changed much.
So India’s with us when we’re against China. Turns out they’re not with us when we’re against Russia and the question that we need to ask ourselves is that OK or is it good enough for India to be with us when we are dealing with China but not when it’s dealing with an issue like this.
And I think the question is, what’s going to order our—the way we’re dealing with this issue? Is this so overriding that you really need to make a decision and use Bushian language—you’re either with us or against us—or you’re either with Ukraine or against Ukraine, which is the other way? Which, apparently, was a State Department cable that was wrongly sent out and had to be recalled in which we were—at least some State Department persons thought we should say that to the Indians and the Emiratis.
But I think this is a big issue. I don’t quite know where I come out, and if I did I’m not sure I want to say.
HILL: Could I just add that, actually, China is a factor in this, I think, particularly for India but, I think, for all the other countries as well, and this is, you know, the point I made earlier about suddenly China becoming a factor in European relations, not economically but now politically and in security terms as well.
Because in that decision to have that joint statement with President Xi—with President Putin, rather—President Xi made himself a factor in European security calculations. And now for India as well, which has a hot territorial conflict with China in the Himalayas where there’s been shooting and, you know, there was, basically, loss of life, India is trying to figure out how on earth they triangulate with, you know, the U.S. and then China and Russia, the long-standing, as Ivo said, relations with Russia, the Pakistan element here. The Indians, you know, turned away from us at one point because of our relationships with Pakistan, but now China and Pakistan, and Pakistan and Russia, are also realigning.
And I think that we’re going to have to work extraordinarily hard behind the scenes at the United Nations on this issue to make the broader point that we’d all been making about the stakes for everyone in the future of Ukraine, that this is not just about all of the old maneuverings. This is, actually, something much larger and fundamental here.
So we’re going to have to work on China and we’re also going to have to work on countries like India and all the others who abstained and, you know, really figure out here what are the root causes of the abstention and how do we manage that. And, I mean, what I mean by we, I don’t just mean the United States either but the United States and our allies.
UAE is the chair right now of the U.N. Security Council but the U.K. is coming up. We need to start thinking about how this plays out over many months.
HAASS: Color me as skeptical there only because we will not have the luxury of putting all of our foreign policy eggs in this one basket. So you will look at India and we say, well, we have to think about China, we have to think about India’s performance on climate-related issues, and so forth.
So what makes foreign policy so tough, as everybody on this screen knows, is the tradeoffs, and you rarely have the luxury of a one-directional or dimensional foreign policy, and all of these relationships, including the UAE, all the countries that in some ways have disappointed, we have the reality that we’ve got to deal with them in multiple contexts and we’re going to be reluctant and then some to see serious injury to the relationship because of this one issue, even though it is so important. That is my prediction in this.
Mary, do you want to say something? I’m sorry.
SAROTTE: Well, I just wanted to underline something Fiona said about how extraordinary it was that the—that Putin and Xi kicked off the Olympics with a joint statement opposing NATO expansion. That was a, truly, extraordinary moment to see China weighing in and especially at a high-profile moment and chose—just how controversial this issue is, and underlines what you’ve said about how complex this issue is.
HAASS: And also in that same document they dropped their long-standing basic tenet that there should be no interference in the internal affairs of other countries. That, somehow, disappeared. It’s come back intermittently since. (Laughs.)
There seems to even be something of a debate going on within the Chinese leadership about how to handle this, and that’s not surprising. I mean, everyone else is dealing with tradeoffs, too. One gets the sense this is one of those complicated, shall we say, foreign policy issues for everybody.
Let’s get some more questions in.
OPERATOR: We will take the next question from Mojúbàolú Olufúnké Okome.
Q: Thank you very much. I am a professor of political science at Brooklyn College.
And I’m wondering what the speakers think about what the end game would be in this situation and how it’s going to affect future relations in the European region and, you know, in also the countries that are major actors in this situation.
HAASS: Thank you. That’s a good question.
Mary, I’m going to start with you. Is part of the end game and how it affects Europe does NATO continue to enlarge? Does this bring about a situation where Finland and others, basically, decide that they had better cast their lot with NATO?
SAROTTE: Possibly. My fear is that there is not really an end game, that this drags on for a very long time and that we are at the beginning of another long conflict. So it is a little—it’s a little hard to say. I think that if you look in the shorter term, obviously, Putin is going, tragically, to make military gains in Ukraine so that in the short run, I think, we have to brace for that, and it’s possible there could be truly horrific brutality. I’m wondering if they’re going to encircle cities entirely and then just, you know, pulverize them in the way they pulverized Grozny, which was declared the most destroyed city in Europe.
So I think it’s going to get very ugly in the short term and we should do everything we can to stop that, whatever we can, that doesn’t—everything we can that doesn’t risk nuclear war. The end game is a little—looks worse, I think, for Russia than the short term because I do think Putin, longer term, has created a moment for people who oppose him to coalesce and come together. Whether that’s the strongmen around him or whether that’s the broader population, I don’t know.
One, perhaps, minor sign that this might be happening—again, I’m not sure that this is accurate, but there are fairly credible rumors out that the recent assassination plot against Zelensky in the last few days was foiled because someone inside the FSB tipped off the Ukrainians. In other words, there’s a sign that the strongmen around Putin are getting edgy.
So I hope, as this counts as optimism, that the end game is that this causes a personnel change at the top and that would be, I think, a best-case scenario. But we can also just have a cold war scenario where, basically, Putin has seized big chunks of Ukraine and lays waste to them. We have an ongoing refugee crisis. We have an isolated and angry Russia. There’s some very ugly scenarios. I’d be interested to hear what the other panelists think as well.
DAALDER: So I kind of—
HAASS: Go ahead, Ivo.
DAALDER: Yeah. I agree with you. I think the end game is clear. It’s Putin and Putinism no longer in charge in Russia. And the only question is what’s the cost before we get there, which is maybe another way of what Mary is saying.
I think there’s an optimistic scenario. I think what’s happening on the ground is deeply embarrassing to the Russian military and I think, ultimately, will have—is reverberating in Russian society at some point, although Fiona is in a much better position to comment on that than I am. And it may be that the embarrassment itself—because it is embarrassing. What we’re seeing if you are a Russian military or—and believe in the ability of the Russian army to take over Ukraine quickly, they’re not going to take it over quickly. The only way they’re going to take it over is at extraordinary cost to Ukrainian civilians and the Ukrainian military and the Russian military. I mean, that much is clear.
So it may be that a move against Putin happens sooner rather than later, and then we’ll see what happens then. But, if not, it’s going to take a long time and it will take a return to a policy of containment, which I wrote about in Foreign Affairs a couple of days ago, of counter pressure, of the kind of pressure that we did for forty years, which, by the way, also led to a change in regime, which comes—and it has to come internally out of that pressure.
And, I think, depending on what happens in this end game will tell you about what else is going to happen. It may well be that you not only get a redo on American policy with its allies but you may get a redo on the European security structure and system in a post-Putin—with a post-Putin Russia that’s quite different. Or you just get a push to continue to enlarge NATO and toward a—and sort of to isolate a Putin-led Russia as you go along. It’s one or the other is how I see it happen. But it really depends on how Putin’s end comes and I have no doubt that the end will come.
HAASS: Fiona, can I ask you to weigh in on that and, particularly, this idea of the balance of power within Russian government and to what extent is Putin and everybody else—to what extent does he still operate under certain constraints and what might trigger those constraints?
Give us a—because, you know, the other day when he raised the nuclear alert or raised the question of if he ever wanted to use nuclear weapons could he and it raised the larger question of just whether there are any checks and balances and whether there’s a point at which he would be seen as a liability and if that point were ever perceived whether people could act on it.
HILL: Well, I mean, look, he put nuclear weapons on the table as a possibility of use at the time when we were just seeing pictures of women and children preparing Molotov cocktails in Kyiv.
So, I think, for the rest of the world, basically, seeing this juxtaposition of a kind of a more primitive form of response and then, you know, basically, Putin promising to go nuclear was pretty jarring and I think that the Biden administration responded in the right way, which is, basically, by not responding in terms of changing our nuclear posture in any way at all.
And we’ve had, you know, a lot of pushback from people talking about this. But Putin has definitely put it out there that he would like to find ways, and I’ve said this publicly before, of using this as an instrument, and he kind of—you know, in a way he already has with a nuclear saber rattle. That’s already using it as an instrument for intimidation and coercion and to stir things up and get people around the world scurrying around and thinking, oh, my God, what can we do to head off nuclear war—what do we do to stop all of this.
I mean, it was a very clear tactic. It’s also a military technical response, in many respects. But the question is, as we’re all sort of saying here, about how does that play out internally if there’s no effect.
And I’m sorry that I kept looking down through the whole discussion here because you just never know what’s happening in any moment, and, you know, I think there’s been a speech by Macron and others, you know, calling this out and saying what a massive mistake that Putin has made.
And if it starts to be that Putin starts to look fallible, that he starts to look like a loser, somebody who hasn’t won, I mean, these are all things that he thinks about all of the time. He has to, inside his own system, look like the strong, powerful superman who is infallible and who always learns and adapts from his mistakes. And we’re still talking about him doing that, by the way. I mean, there’s a real assumption that he can learn from this and to move.
But what if they don’t? I mean, I can’t say for sure, right. But, I mean, they’ve already strung out a lot of their military in the north. It looks very different in the north than it does in the south coming, you know, through Belarus.
The people around him their position depends on success, and this has echoes, to me—although, you know, we don’t want to think about the brutality that follows this, just as Mary and others have said—about Chechnya where Pavel Grachev, the head of the Russian armed forces at the time, told Boris Yeltsin after a massive mistake in terms of a covert operation, I’ll be in and out—you’ll never know I was in Chechnya inside of their own territory to sort this problem out, and this went on for a grinding war that had a massive backlash internally.
And, you know, memories of this are quite fresh for quite a lot of people in Russia as well. The generation of people who died in Chechnya or whose relatives died or who saw that conflict they’re now the adults whose own children seem to be getting sent into a similar kind of conflict in which they didn’t even know they were going into in Ukraine.
Those people all have family members that might reach up into the higher echelons of the Russian military. These guys are isolated from us but they’re not isolated from people internally. It’s not the oligarchs. It’s not the economy. It’s not the world opinion and disapproval.
It’s how things filter up through the military that this has gone wrong. And, you know, then we need to be saying who puts the pressure on there. There are all kinds of, you know, people in that system and we don’t really know.
But Putin has a couple of vulnerabilities—just very quickly. One is 2024. He has to be reelected or reaffirmed as president or he has to have a strong position to put his own successor in place if that’s where he’s going to go. If it’s clear that he is now wildly unpopular at home then, you know, why keep him on because he’s already extended the constitution. But he’s been in there for twenty-two years. He’ll have been there for twenty-four years.
And also outside, part of that allure inside in that (sabot ?) has come from the fact that he’s seen as, literally, the badass strutting around on the world stage getting everybody else to do his bidding, and suddenly he might not be.
So let’s just say that dynamic could change. I can’t say, you know, that it will because there could also be a doubling down where, you know, people feel under siege. Some of this could backfire—you know, the pressure from the outside. But we’ll have to see, and I think the more messages that can, you know, be tried to pushed into or penetrate that bubble around him that they’ve made a mistake could shift that dynamic.
HAASS: I would also—
HILL: I think we have to be also very cautious as well for the same reasons you outlined about other things as well. You know, we can’t say for sure how this is going to play out.
HAASS: I would also think we’d want the messages to be how a different Russian policy would be well received and how Russia would be welcome back in certain—
HILL: Absolutely right.
HAASS: —polite society, how sanctions would be relieved. We want to be very specific about the benefits that would come from a different policy, not just the costs that would accrue from continuing this policy. Let me—
HILL: But this is not about Russian people, and, again, actually, while we’ve got thousands of people and hundreds of people listening to us, this is not about Russian people.
HILL: Even if there might be measures of support, the propaganda atmosphere there is so extreme that people don’t have information about what’s going on on the outside. They absolutely don’t. So let’s not blame, you know, Russian people and, you know, the whole Russian business and the community at large, either.
HAASS: No. We’re going to have to think about how we differentiate—how we message and how we differentiate on that.
So let’s return to the four questions that we began the session with, because I will admit I am curious to see whether there was any shift.
So the first question is how would you rate the Biden administration’s response to the invasion? Again, we’ve got from excellent to poor or worse, and then a fifth choice of not sure.
Second question—do you agree with the decision not to commit air and ground forces to the defense of Ukraine by—the decision by the U.S. and NATO—agree with it? Just give Ukraine arms to defend itself. Disagree—we should provide direct defense, or still not sure even after our conversation.
Thirdly, do you believe it’s important to challenge Russian aggression and show solidarity even if it—at the cost of higher gasoline prices here at home? And then last, given Russian actions and growing threats in the rest of the world, would you support an increase in defense spending? Yes, no, not sure.
Again, be sure to click submit once you’ve made your selections. We’ll give you a few more seconds.
I will say in advance of seeing what your response is, if the number of not sures went up there will be collective hurt on this panel. (Laughter.) So I’m hoping there’s a greater degree, at least, of clarity.
OK. So the positives went up, if my memory serves me correct. We’re now up to, what, is that 80 percent? Yeah, I think we went from around 60 percent to close to 80 percent in the rating of the Biden administration’s policy.
Question of whether we should limit ourselves pretty much to our current policy of indirect rather than direct support—I think that’s pretty consistent with where we were before, if my memory serves me right. I hope I’m not wrong on that. If I am, I apologize.
Willingness to accept higher gasoline prices is actually even higher. It began high and went higher, which that then suggests to me that people understand the stakes here and that it’s worth a bit of pain, given all that is at stake.
And the willingness to spend a little bit more on defense has also gone up. Still divided, but I think there’s been a slight shift in the direction of our greater preparedness or readiness to devote more resources to national security.
With that, I really want to do two things, if I can figure out how to do this. One is I want to thank the hundreds or even thousands of people who have sat through this. I really want to thank you for that. You know, Thomas Jefferson, who couldn’t be with us today, talked about the importance of an informed citizenry essential to a democracy and, hopefully, you will emerge from this being more informed and even, as a result, more involved and more engaged. And there’s any number of ways to be involved here, from in conversations to writing people who represent you in Washington. Hopefully, this will lead you to be—to follow this even more closely.
I also hope that some people in a position to do so will open up their wallets or their pocketbooks and think about providing some support for the people of Ukraine, because if we’re right here there will be millions and millions of people who will be homeless. It could be for some time to come. And this country has a tradition of being generous so I hope people will think of that.
And I also want to thank my three colleagues here. You are the best and you’ve all got wisdom and experience and perspective. You’re also, I have a hunch, as busy as you have been in a long, long time, given all the demands for your perspective. So thank you for being generous for the last hour and a half of sharing it with us.
Last, let me just say that I’m sad to say this crisis does not show signs of disappearing anytime soon. We’ll continue to do events on this. I also hope you will look at Foreign Affairs magazine on the website, ForeignAffairs.com, which covers this with great intensity; CFR.org., our explainers will give you additional background as well as our updates on this.
So, again, let me thank you all for watching us and listening to us today. I thank my colleagues and wish everybody a—wish everybody well. Thank you, all.