Panelists discuss U.S. policy toward the Ukraine war, including what the requirements and goals for peace talks should be, as well as appropriate levels of military and economic aid.
CFR’s Home and Abroad series explores issues at the nexus of U.S. domestic and foreign policy that affect America’s role in the world.
NINAN: Rivka, thank you so very much. I want to welcome everyone to today’s Home and Abroad Virtual Public Forum, hosted by the Council on Foreign Relations. I’m Reena Ninan, and I’m going to be presiding over our discussion on “U.S. Strategy and the War in Ukraine.” I just want to remind everyone, as an independent membership organization, think tank, publisher, and also an educational institution, CFR’s focus is to give everyone today a non-partisan source of information. We’re looking to educate people on the understanding of global affairs and foreign policy, and the challenges facing the U.S. and other countries.
This particular series, Home and Abroad, looks at the center of U.S. domestic and foreign policy, and America’s role in the world. And we’ve got a great group of experts with extensive experience to really explain what’s going on right now. And with this conversation, the whole focus is looking at also at the requirements and the goals for potential peace talks and what that might look like, as well as what are the current appropriate levels of military and economic aid? And I’ve got to tell you, we might not get to every single issue—in fact, we’re guaranteed not to get to every single issue—but we’ve got an extensive conversation planned for you. And, as Rivka mentioned at the top of this, we look forward to taking your questions.
Before we begin—and I want to introduce our panelists. I want to make sure—I think it looks like everybody is here.
I just want to introduce Heather Conley, who’s the president of the German Marshall Fund. Previously, she was a senior vice president for Europe, Eurasia, and the Arctic for the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Ms. Conley was also the deputy secretary of state during the Bush years in the Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs. She also co-led U.S. interagency efforts to enlarge NATO.
Charles, Charlie, Kupchan is a senior fellow at CFR, also a professor of international affairs at George Washington University’s Walsh School of Foreign Service. And from 2014 to (20)17, he served as senior director for European Affairs on the National Council.
And last, but not least, I think it looks like we might be joined by audio, is Professor Andrew Bacevich. He’s the chairman and co-founder of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. He’s also professor emeritus of history and international relations at Boston University.
Thank you all very much for joining us. And I want to remind everyone, again, this conversation will be on the record. And after we’re done, we will post this onto CFR’s website.
But before we dive into the issues, I want to begin by sharing with you the views on U.S. strategy towards the war in Ukraine by looking at a five-question poll we’re going to ask you to partake in. And then at the end of this discussion, we want to see whether or not your views have changed. So the first question, do you believe the United States has a vital interest in Ukraine recovering all the territory it’s lost since 1991, Ukraine recovering all the territory it lost since February 2022, or Ukraine continuing as a sovereign independent state on territory it currently holds, or the United States has no vital national interest here. And second question is, how would you rate the current level of assistance the United States is providing to Ukraine? A single answer, of course. Too much support? Not enough support? About the right amount of support? Or you’re not sure.
Third question, if the tide of battle turns against Russia, do you think Putin will use nukes, attack a NATO country, get military help from China, push for a ceasefire? Number four, who do you think bears responsibility for the war? Russia and Vladimir Putin? NATO and the United States, for considering Ukraine’s membership in NATO? The European Union, for considering Ukraine’s membership? Or Ukraine, for its treatment of ethnic Russians? And our final question, what do you think is the most likely trajectory of the war in Ukraine? Ukraine’s victory? Russia’s victory? A negotiated ceasefire and peace accord? Or just a long-term stalemate?
So we’re going to leave that open for just a second, and then we’re going to be able to view and see what folks have voted on in this poll. And we’re going to get that answer in just a bit. And as we’re waiting for you guys to cast your final votes, I want to give you a sense of where this conversation will be headed. We’re going to look at the war in Ukraine. Heather’s going to look at the importance of the multinational response. And Professor Bacevich, who is still coming to us by phone, will examine what he says is the reckless misuse of military power, and the effects on America’s involvement in the war, and how it really affects American democracy. And Charlie Kupchan is going to look at how to bring Russia and Ukraine to the negotiating table, and how do you, in this current moment, best support Ukraine.
So I want to see, do we have the polling available here? Let’s see if that is available to see. There we go. Do you believe the United States has a vital interest in Ukraine getting all the territory? It looks like it’s tied between Ukraine recovering all the territory from ’91, and then Ukraine recovering the territory from February 2022. And it also looks like in third place was Ukraine continuing as a sovereign independent state on territory that it holds right now. For the second question, we’re looking at the rate of the current level of assistance U.S. is providing Ukraine. It appears to be tied pretty much—44 percent and 43 percent—that there’s not enough support and that there is about the right amount of support.
And the third question here, if the tide of battle turns against Russia, do you think Putin will, and it appears that the answer is “get military help from China,” seems like the likely option. Second place is push for a ceasefire. Interesting. Nukes seemed to be third place. We’re going to get into that later in our discussion. And who do you think bears responsibility for the war? Ninety-four percent, overwhelmingly, Russia and Vladimir Putin. And the final question, what do you think is the most likely trajectory of the war in Ukraine? Overwhelmingly, at 53 percent, long-term stalemate. Coming in at second, negotiated ceasefire and peace accord.
So we’re going to get to all of this and break it down. And then at the end of this discussion we’ll have 45 minutes of conversation and then open it up to questions. And then we’ll ask you to take the poll again, and see if anyone’s views changed live as you heard from our panelists today.
I’d like to start with Professor Bacevich, if we can. Professor, can you hear me?
BACEVICH: I can hear you, and I hope you can hear me.
NINAN: I can hear you perfectly. Thank you so much for joining us. So, you know, there is thinking on Ukraine that this is a no-brainer, to back the war in Ukraine. This is going to make the world a safer place. It’s not going to allow Putin to go unchecked. It’s going to send an example to China that democracies will rally around their allies. And backing down now is just a major win for Putin. Why do you believe that the use of military force is not the right answer, going forward?
BACEVICH: I guess I come at this issue from the point of view of U.S. interests. And what I mean by that is, I have concluded that the United States cannot afford to be engaged in another shooting war at this time. That our own constitutional order, our own democracy is in a very fragile state. And should, either through somebody’s calculation or miscalculation, we find ourselves in a shooting war with Russia—I do think that is at least a possibility—I think the results for American democracy would be catastrophic. To put it simply, should that occur Trump would be elected our next president, or a Trump-like figure. Therefore, from my point of view—and I certainly sympathize with the Ukrainians—from my point of view, the overarching national interest is to avoid U.S. participation, participation in a shooting war. By extension, that means we should be exerting ourselves as much as possible to bring this terrible war to an end.
NINAN: Heather, I want to turn to you next. It sounds like Professor Bacevich is saying, you know, we have bigger issues at home. That should be our focus, and not abroad right now. You know, this war is really transformative for world order, especially for Europe. The future of the EU and NATO here. Can you give us a sense really of what is at stake at the global stage and where do we stand with expectations of a counteroffensive coming from Ukraine?
CONLEY: Well, thank you so much. This is such an important conversation to start with what are U.S. interests. Because it is absolutely essential to have democratic support for these policies. So this is absolutely the best place to begin the conversation.
So for me, the war in Ukraine will very much shape the future of the international system. Either we have a respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity or we do not and it is fine for another country to invade its neighbor, to claim through historical grievances what is theirs. And that is a world that’s going to be highly unstable. It will impact U.S. security, and our military security, and our own sovereignty. So this is a war that is profoundly shaping for the international system. It certainly has direct implications on U.S. security and economic issues in Europe as well.
So this is a really big issue that we really have to get right. Now, it’s a different kind of war because U.S. forces are not engaged. We’re simply providing the Ukrainian military the means to defend itself, while we’re strengthening our defensive posture along NATO’s eastern flank. So this is different from involving U.S. forces. We’re giving Ukraine the capability to defend its own sovereignty and its own territorial integrity. So I place this in a little different context. But it will shape the international system profoundly, whether Ukraine is successful in the counteroffensive. And we think this is about to begin fairly soon, as well as the ground literally firms up a little bit.
If Ukraine is unsuccessful, then we are going to face—and the prediction of a long, prolonged stalemate, what I would call a catastrophic stalemate, really means that the international order, as we have understood it and as the U.S. has profoundly benefitted from that order, will continue to struggle. And global instability, European instability, will be a hallmark, as we’re also watching instability in the Indo-Pacific region.
NINAN: Charlie, it’s hard to ignore global inflation, supply chain issues, you know, the economic impact of all of this. But when you’re looking at the ground right now, with the potential of a counteroffensive coming very soon, in your latest Foreign Affairs piece, you co-author with CFR President Haass. You write about the West needing a new strategy in Ukraine. And you talk about it begin a two-prong strategy. One about immediate military needs, and then a long-term how do we get them to the negotiating table. In the immediate future, Charlie, what do you believe it is that U.S. and its allies need to supply and give to Ukraine to help with this upcoming counteroffensive?
KUPCHAN: I guess, Reena, that I sort of land in between Heather and Andy, in the sense that I think this is a big deal for the United States, and the United States has a vested interest in helping Ukraine defend itself and recover as much territory as possible, ideally to restore full territorial integrity. At the same time, I do think that we should not set expectations that are unrealistic and ought not suggest that if full territorial integrity is not attained, that somehow it’s the end of the West, or the unraveling of the democratic order. I think we need to be rather realistic and sober in our assessment of what’s unfolding on the—on the battlefield.
And I do accept Andy’s point that we have to keep a very close eye on the home front at the same time that we continue supporting Ukraine. In my own mind, the threat that illiberal populism poses to the United States, to France, Germany, to our allies in Europe, is as potent as the threat that Putin or others pose in the big scheme of things.
So coming directly to your question, I think the U.S. ought to do as much as it can currently to support Ukraine and make this coming offensive a success. I think we’re doing it. I would give pretty high marks to the Biden administration for rushing an enormous amount of military and economic support to Ukraine, doing its homework before the war began, putting in place the lines of effort that have succeeded in enabling Ukraine, or 86 percent of Ukraine, to stand firm against Russian aggression.
That having been said, I do think that as this offensive begins to wind down later this year, we should attempt to pivot Russia and Ukraine to the negotiating table. Attempt to do as much as we can to make this offensive a success but try to wrestle the war to the ground because of concern about Ukraine potentially becoming a failed state if this war drags on for years. And I do think the global knock-on effects of this war—energy and food shortages globally, widespread inflation in many parts of the world. And I agree with Andy that this is a war that overtime could work to the advantage of the far-right. So I do think we have to balance our goals in Ukraine, restoration of sovereignty, with the costs of this war on other American priorities.
NINAN: Professor Bacevich—
BACEVICH: Can I pose a question?
NINAN: Please, go ahead.
BACEVICH: This is both to Charlie and to Heather, I guess. To the extent that the war continues, and that seems to be the general expectation even if the coming Ukrainian offensive enjoys some success. If we end up with a protracted war, how does that affect the likelihood of nuclear weapons use? When I say nuclear weapons use, I don’t mean that there’s going to be a strike against Kyiv. I mean probably something like a demonstration use of a nuclear weapon by Russia. Does a longer war increase that prospect, or decrease it? And what would be the effect on the really quite admirable Western unity with regard to Ukraine that has existed up to this point?
Now, I ask myself this. If a nuclear weapon is popped off somewhere in the hinterlands simply for demonstration purposes, then how does that affect German public opinion, for example? I’m asking these questions, again, because of my concern that allowing the war to continue—and the United States, I think, really is investing in the war continuing—that allowing the war to continue opens up all kinds of dangerous possibilities.
NINAN: Heather, I want to turn to you on that point that Professor Bacevich made about this concept of the potential, the nuclear blackmail. What do you think it’ll take for Putin to use nuclear weapons? What’s your assessment of that?
CONLEY: So, and Avril Haines just spoke to this today on Capitol Hill, the director of national intelligence. And her—the intelligence community’s assessment that it’s a very low likelihood that Vladimir Putin would resort to use of nuclear weapons—indeed makes a distinction, their use of tactical nuclear weapons in the European theater—I think this increasingly becomes unlikely. I don’t think it changes the Ukrainian position. And there could be nuclear blowback back on Russian forces and in its own territory. And that effect would only, I believe, strengthen resolve, to Andy’s point, of NATO allies.
The question of whether Russia’s nuclear doctrine—which, you know, when does the Kremlin believe this war becomes existential to the nation’s survival, which is its doctrine—you know, this gets sort of back to the question, certainly around Charlie’s paper and Richard’s paper, about where is the negotiating table? I would argue, there is not a negotiating table right now to be found. One side or the other is going to have to either become exhausted or, for some reason—internal or external—stop fighting. And that’s what makes it so hard.
And this year is so pivotal because if this—the Ukrainian counteroffensive, for a variety of reasons—this gets back to Andy’s point of timing—has to happen actually quite quickly. Although the Western mantra is we’re with Ukraine for as long as it takes, Ukraine doesn’t have for as long as it takes. The West has to have democratic support for its continued military and economic assistance to Ukraine. So we actually really need to support Ukraine fully to be able to create that position where the Russians say, it’s not worth us going forward.
But I’m concerned that even a—this would be a temporary ceasefire. If you look at Russia’s invasion of Georgia in 2008, yes, they’ve had a ceasefire since 2008 where the Russians don’t agree to it, they’re continuing to push out their borders, they’re continuing to seize people. These ceasefires are never—in some ways, diplomacy is weaponized a little bit there—not put forward. But I think Putin uses the fear of nuclear weapons because, yes, it does sort of make us sit back. And we certainly don’t want a nuclear confrontation. But the Russians had communicated for years if Sweden and Finland would join NATO, they would use nuclear weapons against Sweden and Finland. That, of course, was rhetoric. That was not correct. They sort of shrugged their shoulders when Finland and Sweden decided to join NATO—Finland, of course, in NATO now.
So I think this is rhetoric. I think every time the Russians use it, the Chinese, the Indians, and others, you know, lean in and say, that’s not the right answer. So I think the probability’s low. We can’t say it’s never going to happen. I think we have to be very attuned. But should Russians use a nuclear weapon, they would be so internationally isolated, I think it would make it worse. Which is why I think they’re not moving into that place right now, as we hope they won’t.
KUPCHAN: If I could just add, Reena, that I think that the—I agree with Heather that we can’t be self-deterred. That is to say, we shouldn’t see Putin saber-rattle and say, oh, there’s nothing we can do about this. And I think the chances of Putin’s use of a nuclear weapon, a deliberate escalatory step, pretty low. I agree with Avril Haines here, because the Russians are having a pretty hard time fighting only Ukraine. Do they want to fight Ukraine, plus thirty-one NATO members? I don’t think so.
That having been said, this is a dangerous war, right? NATO forces and Russian forces are in close proximity. We had several events that have been worrying. One, the missiles fell on Polish territory and initially we didn’t know where they came from. Two, two fighter jets from Russia forced down a U.S. drone, bringing direct contact between U.S. forces and Russian forces. And just yesterday somebody launched a couple of drones against the Kremlin, right? These events underscore that this is a dangerous war. That the possibilities of escalation to a direct confrontation between Russia and NATO are not insubstantial. That’s another reason that I think it’s in the U.S. interest to try to end the war sooner rather than later.
NINAN: And on that point, it came out today the Kremlin accused the White House of being behind, and the White House, of course, denying that they had anything to do with those drone strikes.
I want to turn back to some comments, just a couple of—like, an hour or so ago from the director of national intelligence that Heather had mentioned, Avril Haines. This is a direct quote of something that Avril said. “The challenge is that even as Putin may be scaling back his near-term ambitions, the prospect for Russian concessions to advance negotiations this year will be low, unless domestic political vulnerabilities alter his thinking.” Charlie, you know it’s really hard to get a sense of public opinion in Russia, but the Lavada-Center does as good of a job as we can get. And seventy percent of Russians still back Putin.
KUPCHAN: You know, it is a sign of the degree to which the regime controls the narrative. There was at least some free media in Russia before the war. Putin has effectively stamped it out. And it’s because many Russians still get their information from state-controlled outlets, TV in particular, that the Russian population, the significant majority, still backs Putin.
I don’t think we have a good sense of what Putin’s bottom line is. And that’s why I think that, yes, we need to continue to support Ukraine so it can continue to push back against Putin. It’s completely conceivable to me that when we get exhaustion, when we hit some kind of military stalemate, that the two sides may say, OK, we’re going to sit tight for a while, let’s see if we can’t settle our differences at the negotiating table. I’m someone who thinks that it’s not inconceivable that Ukraine could reclaim full sovereignty at the negotiating table.
I think in some ways that is more likely than it recovering sovereignty on the battlefield. And that’s simply because I’m not sure that Ukraine will generate sufficient combat capability to take back every inch of its territory. I would remind everybody that the United States never recognized the three Baltic countries as parts of the Soviet Union. We sat tight. They are now independent democracies and members of NATO.
NINAN: Andy, I’d love to turn to you, Professor Bacevich. When we talk about Putin coming to the negotiating table and we look at history, why would he agree to adhere to anything that is agreed on during negotiations?
BACEVICH: Well, presumably, it’s because he concluded that it was in the interests of Russia, and probably more immediately in the interests of his regime. You know, I think it was Heather used the term “existential” a little while ago. And I don’t pretend to understand Putin. I don’t pretend to be able to read his mind. But my guess would be that he views this as an existential struggle for his regime and, by extension, for himself. Which, again, really relates to my concern that even though people smarter than I am don’t think he would resort to nuclear weapons, I fear that if pressed to the wall he would.
So again, I hate to keep repeating myself, but it does seem to me that as we talk about what’s interests of Ukraine, what’s in the interests of Europe, in my judgement there needs to be a more urgent discussion of what’s in the interests of the United States. And perhaps I exaggerate the fragility of the constitutional order that we have so long taken for granted, but I do believe it’s exceedingly fragile. We’re coming up on another election year, right around the corner, whether we look forward to it or not. And it does seem to me that the most urgent priority for the United States is to—not by any means refrain from providing military assistance to Ukraine—but to press harder on the diplomatic front.
And I must say that I was heartened by reading the column in the Washington Post today, in which the secretary of state was dropping hints of American openness to collaborating with the people’s republic, if that would provide an avenue to promote a negotiated settlement.
NINAN: Heather, I want to ask you a little bit about that, a little interesting development as well that Professor Bacevich flagged. You, in your previous job, had put out something called the Kremlin Playbook. I’m just curious if what you learned from there, what you can extract in today’s situation. And particularly with this potential of is that sending the right message? And does Xi even want anything to do with the United States at this point?
CONLEY: Yeah. Well, a moment on the Kremlin Playbook, and then I’d be delighted to—because this is a really interesting development that I think is worthy of unpacking a little bit. But the Kremlin Playbook was a series that looked at how Russia as able, through active measures, influence—malign influence operations, to basically change democracies from within. And it really was an economic ability, through companies, shell companies, politicians, political parties, that began to transform the West.
I like to say, you know, when the Soviet Union collapsed, we thought we were exporting our democracy, our market capitalism to Russia. In fact, Russia was exporting its kleptocracy to many willing Western capitals that wanted to follow that route. And the last one we looked at how the weaponization of faith, and traditions, and values is another weapon that Russia is using, both internally as well as externally. So the playbook is really the West not guarding its democracy. It’s strengthening its institutions, selling them quite cheaply to, you know, those who—adversaries that seek not our interest but to weaken us from within.
So the China dimension here is so interesting, because we’ve seen twenty days before the outbreak of this full-scale invasion this new no-limits partnership that, as we are assessing it, may have some limits. It’s an alignment. It’s rhetorical. It’s quietly supportive. And this is a really interesting moment. And I was actually surprised that the administration was contemplating China’s entrance into this, because what we begin to see is China using, you know, the vacuum that if U.S. leadership is not going to be as engaged as possible, we are seeing where China is filling that role. Whether it’s mediating between Iran and Saudi Arabia, now this.
You know, let’s be very clear. China would be negotiating to protect and shape its interests, certainly not the strengthening of the international system. You had the Chinese ambassador to Paris recently say, we don’t recognize the sovereignty of any—you know, of Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia. You don’t? Well, they’re a member of the United Nations. We recognize their sovereignty and their territorial integrity. So while I’m very glad that Xi Jinping and President Zelensky spoke at some length, after three years, Ukraine was one of the greatest exporters of grains to China before the full-scale war, I don’t believe China has Ukraine’s interests or the strengthening of the international system’s interest. Their special envoy has been the Chinese ambassador to Moscow for a decade. This is going to be a negotiation with Russia’s interest and, therefore, China’s interest of an international system. Its, of course, regional hegemonic interests, not the international system that we understand today.
NINAN: Charlie, with that in mind, how do you get these two sides to the negotiating table, if this is, for both of them in many ways, existential?
KUPCHAN: Well, I think if you look at past conflicts, diplomacy emerges as a preferred option, or at least an option, when you reach a certain equilibrium on the battlefield and both sides believe that they’ve knocked themselves out and they’re not going to make a lot more progress by continuing to fight. And it’s important to keep in mind that the disruption caused by this war is huge on both sides. We’re hearing that casualties on the Russian side are above two hundred thousand. We’re hearing at least a hundred thousand on the Ukrainian side. The country’s economy has shrunk by 30 to 35 percent. I think it’s going to be a very bloody summer, Reena.
I think it—you know, the Russians are deeply dug in, several layers of defense that’s protecting the land bridge that lies between Crimea and Donbas. And I’m guessing that’s where the Ukrainians are going to go. They want to try to envelop Crimea and be able to threaten Crimea. And so it’s going to be—it’s going to be a real fight. And so, you know, I do think that by the end of the year, by the time that the fighting season closes down because the weather gets bad again, there may be an opportunity to push the parties towards negotiations.
It’s not going to be easy. I do think that there is a tough conversation ahead with Ukraine. Zelensky, with the support of the vast majority of his population, is determined to win. That is to say, to take back every inch of territory. The Russians, we don’t know, but I’m guessing Putin needs to be able to sell to his public at least some gains. We have enlarged Mother Russia. We have made Crimea Russian forever. You know, they both have domestic audiences that they need to cater to.
So I do think that, coming back to your previous question, a key player here could be China. Because I think at the right time, even though the negotiations themselves will need to be U.S., NATO, Ukraine, Russia, if there’s anybody out there who can put pressure on Vladimir Putin, it’s Xi Jinping. And that’s because this is a war that is making Russia ever more dependent on China. Whether Xi Jinping in the end of the day is willing to lean on Putin, we just don’t know. But I do think that China in that scenario may be an influential player.
NINAN: Andy, I’m curious if you agree with this assessment of China that now is a window of opportunity, potentially. And is it the right move?
BACEVICH: Is that directed at me? I’m sorry.
NINAN: Yes. Yes, please.
BACEVICH: I take Heather’s point, which is crucial, that China’s behavior stems from Xi’s perception of China’s interests. And at the 30,000-foot level, it seems to me that his purpose is to overthrow notions of a unipolar order that the United States entertained in the wake of the Cold War, and that—and that then basically threw away as a result of the fecklessness of U.S. policy, particularly in the greater Middle East. So we’ve created an opportunity for him. He’s created an opportunity for himself, as a result of Chinese economic dynamism.
And so this moment—I mean, our conversation is focused on Russia-Ukraine, but this moment in terms of global history may be the moment in which the multipolar order emerges. A multipolar order which will have more than two players, but that will primarily involve this relationship between the United States and the PRC. We must hope and pray that that relationship is one—probably not friendly and peaceful, but at least one that is centered on a commitment to peaceful coexistence, to coexistence. And in that sense, it seems to me that the Ukraine War may actually—maybe I’m sitting here with my fingers crossed—but may actually serve as an opportunity to move toward a multipolar order that will be less conflictive than it could be.
So I, myself, welcome the participation of China in any kind of peace effort. And, frankly, welcome the collaboration between us and China toward that cause. Not because it’s going to result in peace and harmony, but because it seems to me that some kind of a decent relationship between the two greatest powers on the planet is going to be necessary if the planet’s going to survive.
NINAN: Charlie, remind me again, you were saying your rough idea of a timeline of a potential window for negotiations could be towards the end of the summer. Is that what I—did I hear that correctly?
KUPCHAN: Toward the end of this fighting season, which would put us sometime in the fall. And, you know, that is—that is, in part, about an expectation that there will be a certain exhaustion after a coming summer that is really going to be quite bloody. Plus, my own sense of both the election cycle here and in Europe, as well as where I think public opinion is heading. I mean, I’m struck by the degree to which publics on both sides of the Atlantic have stayed pretty strong.
There has been very impressive transatlantic unity when it comes to Ukraine from the very beginning. I do worry that we are beginning to see some softening on both sides of the Atlantic, and that it’s conceivable that as we head into the election cycle here, with the Republicans deeply divided over this whole question of Ukraine, as we see elections coming in Europe, this—keeping as much domestic support for Ukraine might not be as easy moving forward as it has been looking back.
Just one quick response to what Andy just said. I think that the war is, in some ways, making our relationship with China more conflictual. And that’s because the Chinese are backing the Russians. The Chinese are on the side of a country that is committing a bald act of aggression against its neighbor and carrying out egregious attacks on Russian—excuse me—on Ukrainian cities, on population centers. I think that to some extent has expedited this division of the world into a new two bloc structure, with democracies on one side and China and Russia on the other. I agree with Andy that in the end of the day, China and the United States need to find a pathway to peaceful coexistence. It ain’t gonna be easy.
And the other comment I’d make here is I think Andy’s right that we are headed in the direction of something that will look a lot more like multipolarity than bipolarity. I’m quite struck by the fact that most of the countries in the world, including major democracies like India, Brazil, they’re not taking sides in this war. They are sitting on the sidelines.
NINAN: Heather, I want to turn to you, particularly about the institution that you head up. We look at George Marshall, secretary of state who started the Marshall Plan. At that time, Stalin wanted nothing to do with it. It gets exported to Western Europe. When you’re looking at creating a Marshall Plan equivalent of reconstruction of Ukraine, tell me about what your thoughts are, what that would look like, when does that get implemented?
CONLEY: Yeah, thank you. It’s a great question. And in many ways, we are remembering our history. That was a very big, bold idea when, at the time, the American people—it’s two years after the Second World War. They had done their part in Europe. High inflation. They wanted to nation-build at home. How did they get that bipartisanship for a massive recovery effort for sixteen Western European countries? And it was a short and transformative moment for Europe to stabilize. And then two years later, NATO was founded. So there was—that prosperity and that security are so linked.
That’s why at the German Marshall Fund we are focusing on a modern Marshall Plan for Ukraine, because we see so many similar echoes of that history. I believe it was the Ukrainian Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal said recently, “If we are united in defense, we have to be united in recovery.” You can win the war but lose the peace if you don’t give people the economic means to prosper. And I think all American people want the Ukrainian economy to recover quickly, so that they don’t require our assistance and our support.
But right now we have to, as they did during the Second World War, you have to prepare and plan for the post-world war you want to see. What does that world look like? And we think we have a unique opportunity to rebuild Ukraine after this war a modern, sustainable Ukraine that can be a model for a future European economy. We have to give people hope that that is their future. I like to say Putin has the power to destroy, and my goodness has he destroyed parts of Ukraine. But what do you see the Ukrainian people do? They’re rebuilding. They’re cleaning up. And that message of hope that rebuilding provides, we need to do that again.
It doesn’t have to be government funding. And then this is the difference, we can unleash the private sector. We can make sure that civil society leaders, municipal leaders in Ukraine, mayors, are part of this. This can be the best democratic building job that we can do in a very important part of the world. And that is the message to Vladimir Putin: A modern, rebuilt, democratic Ukraine will survive this. So we think that has to be the message of hope that comes along with—and, again, we have to be optimistic about this counteroffensive. I am cautiously optimistic. I think when free people are fighting for their land, and I think the American people have that historical understanding as well, there’s a special power in that.
The odds are great. As President Zelensky said, it’s a David and Goliath moment. But the Ukrainian military has stalled the—you know, the second largest and most capable military in the world. There’s a power to that. And I think we have to stand with that. And, as Charlie mentioned, you know, for fifty years we did not recognize the occupation of the three Baltic states. Now, I would say, after 2014, before the full-scale war, I think we were wavering a little bit on Crimea. Oh, it’s theirs. We shouldn’t be worried about it. We need that same resolve. We refuse to acknowledge this, and we will be there for the day when we can rebuild and celebrate a sovereign, independent Ukraine.
That’s really America’s secret sauce. And it is really our secret power to provide that hope and inspiration that we build, we do not destroy. Authoritarians destroy. We build. And so that’s why we’re very supportive of that effort, alongside a hopeful, successful counteroffensive.
NINAN: Heather, I want to thank you. I want to thank all of you.
I think we’re going to turn now to questions. Rivka.
OPERATOR: (Gives queuing instructions.)
We will take the first question from Jeffrey Burt (sp). Please accept the unmute prompt.
NINAN: Jeffrey, hit the unmute and I think it’ll go through.
OPERATOR: It appears we’re having technical difficulties. We will take a question from Amaal Tokars (ph).
NINAN: For those of you doing this verbally, there’s a mute button that you’ll be prompted by CFR. If you hit that button at the bottom of your screen, it’ll push you through.
OPERATOR: We’ll turn to a written question. We have a written question from Michael Oppenheimer, professor at NYU, who writes: If we were able to facilitate a settlement, what should the U.S. and NATO do to guarantee compliance long term?
NINAN: Charlie, do you want to take that question?
KUPCHAN: Well, I think that in the first instance, we would need a mutually agreed ceasefire. If we don’t have that, then we’re not going to get a peace settlement. And that will be a tall order. And I think, you know, if you—if I had to gaze into my crystal ball, I would say the most likely outcome, should a ceasefire emerge, is a frozen conflict, where maybe we can get the two sides to pull back, maybe it will be more or less quiet on the line, but occasional snipers, occasional mortars. Something that looks like 2014. That, I would say, is probably a higher likelihood than a peace settlement.
But I do think that it will take a lot of heavy lifting. Heather just outlined a very important agenda of rebuilding Ukraine. But we’ll also need to give Ukraine the ability to defend itself for the foreseeable future, because the Russians may want to make another run. I mean, Putin has said repeatedly Ukraine doesn’t deserve to be an independent state. He thinks it belongs to Russia. He may try this again. And that means a long-term agenda that gives Ukraine the ability to defend itself.
I’m not someone who thinks Ukraine is going to be a member of NATO anytime soon. That may mean some other vehicle, a coalition of the willing, to provide Ukraine the security assurances that it needs. And there will also need to be incentives to the Russians if we’re going to make a peace negotiation work. And those incentives could include over time, assuming you get Russian compliance, the reduction of sanctions, conversations between the West and Russia about European security, about arms control, about strategic stability. I’m not going to hold my breath on that front. My best guess is that we will see serious movement only after Putin leaves power. But that would be the sort of broader picture that I would lay out looking over the horizon.
NINAN: How about next question?
OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Wilson Hammer.
NINAN: Wilson, make sure to hit the unmute button that you’ve just been prompted to hit.
Q: Hi, can you hear me? Does it work now?
NINAN: Yes. Great, go ahead.
Q: Perfect. I had sort of a dual question. I heard a lot of mention of the global—of sort of the international order, but not necessarily a lot of mention of the global south. Which I think is becoming increasingly more important, especially as we see the divide between, you know, Europe and North Asia, et cetera, and the global south. Obviously, we’re nowhere near this area, but as we sort of—as aid intensifies and as aid shifts from sort of military aid to reconstructive aid, how might that change how the global south views the conflict even more? I, myself, would presume that there’d be more resentment towards what I would assume to be this massive sort of shift in developmental aid to the Ukraine, this real emphasis on we need to develop Ukraine more, et cetera. I’d like to hear your thoughts on that idea.
NINAN: Heather, I’d love for you to take that question. I mean, it’s undeniable, particularly Africa, you can just see the aid that has been pulled away. And you can’t deny that.
CONLEY: No, absolutely. It’s a great point. And I think it has been very striking over the last fifteen months to see so much—so many countries in the international community, those who have suffered from conflict and violations of their own territorial integrity, to be so, you know, agnostic or this is not our fight. And once again, you’re not caring about the topics that we care about. And the wealthy nations are not paying what they are supposed to pay for, whether it’s climate impacts, or what have you.
So I think what this speaks to, though, is that, look, we have really lost a decade of important conversation. I actually personally can’t stand the whole term “global south.” Why are we lumping very unique countries that have a set of unique issues, and we have a unique engagement with all of them. Why are lumping them into one? They have their own voice. They need to have that voice expressed. We need to listen to it, and we need to deeply engage.
We’ve become so hyper-transactional in our diplomacy and our economy—our economic engagement. Are we trying to out-compete China? Are we trying to shake our—wag our finger at countries to do the things we want them to do? We really do need a new, more sophisticated, deep diplomatic and economic approach. Sometimes the U.S. is not the best face first into an engagement strategy. We have other allies that may have a different and more important relationship. How do we figure that out? So I would call, more broadly, for a larger strategy that really starts working on a different level with these countries. Because we clearly—if you cannot sort of basically support the precepts of the United Nations Charter about territorial integrity and sovereignty, we are in a bad place. And we need to figure out how to get back to that.
On your question about Ukraine reconstruction and building the resentment, yes, of course. I mean, there’s understandable resentment that Europe can absorb eight million Ukrainians but could not—you know, had a difficult time absorbing 1.5 million Syrians at the time, in 2015-2016. We have to acknowledge that. And that’s understandable other resentment. But I think, again, this doesn’t—Ukraine’s rebuilding can be a positive project for other countries that helped Ukraine with its defense, to be part of it. It’s not unilateral. We can show sustainability. And we can show a model that we could perhaps rebuild, reconstruct, modernize other countries.
So we can build some unique models here with private sector support. But I take your powerful point that this will likely build greater resentment. I think we have to resolve the resentment and deal with a much more bespoke diplomatic and economic strategy, while we demonstration that when rebuilding one country, it can benefit many countries. And I think Ukraine is actually doing a great job of reaching out diplomatically to so many countries. Maybe we can build on that.
NINAN: Right. Next question.
OPERATOR: Our next question is a written submission from Vygaudas Usackas, the former Lithuanian ambassador to the United States and former EU ambassador to Russia.
Who writes: How can you end the war without NATO membership in Ukraine and parallel peace talks with Russia?
NINAN: I want to give Professor Bacevich a chance to weigh in. Professor Bacevich, would you like to tackle this question?
BACEVICH: Well, my grandfather—my grandparents came from Lithuania, so, yes, I guess I should step right up. (Laughter.) It seems to me likely that if admitting Ukraine to NATO becomes one element of bringing this horrible war to an end, or at least suspending it—which as a near-term goal might be sufficient—that that then increases the likelihood of further violence. Now, to some degree, I think our conversation implicitly assumes that Putin is going to be around forever. He’s not—I mean, frankly, at the center. If he leaves the scene, perhaps that would open up additional possibilities. But I, for one, would oppose admitting Ukraine to NATO.
I guess the bigger point, though, is that it seems to me imperative—and this is not picking on Lithuanian by a long shot. But it’s imperative for Europe more broadly to recognize that it has utterly failed to provide adequately for its own national security. That they have outsourced security to the United States. Initially for understandable reasons, meaning back in the 1940s and 1950s. But today, that’s become utterly inappropriate. And if we are taking a global perspective, meaning that relations between, for example, the United States and China are important, that the power competition in Asia becomes increasingly important, to whether we call it the global south or we call it something else, that relations with that part of the world become more important, then it seems to me it’s time for the Europeans to step up to the plate and do what they are fully capable of doing, which is to defend themselves.
One of the things to remember about this war is that I think Charlie just alluded to it, the Russian military being the second biggest in the world. It may be but it’s also probably the most incompetent in the world. And one outcome of this conflict should be reevaluating what actually is the threat that Russia poses to anybody, or at least, I should say, to Western Europe. That threat is actually fairly marginal.
NINAN: Charlie, I want to give you a chance to weigh in. You know, just because it came down, I’m just fascinated by what Avril Haines had to say. She said: Even if Ukraine’s counteroffensive is not successful, the Russians are unlikely to be able to mount a significant offensive operation this year. With all this in mind, a significant part of motivation of going into Ukraine was also this concept of allowing them into NATO. What do you feel like might be this moment now with this, you know, issue of NATO hanging over?
KUPCHAN: Well, I mean, I agree that the Russians are unlikely to be able to generate a lot more success on the battlefield than they’ve generated so far. You know, they’re still trying to raise fresh troops. They’re sending folks to the frontlines that have had a very minimal amount of training, and they’re getting killed almost instantly. This is not a country that is, you know, at the peak of its combat power. It’s on the way down. And that’s why I think the Ukrainians will make a certain amount of success.
I share Andy’s views. I am not a—someone who at this point in time would support Ukraine’s membership in NATO. And that’s in part because I don’t think—I mean, I think right now the United States is speaking with its actions, right? It is helping Ukraine defend itself, but it is not going to war to defend Ukraine. And that’s because President Biden and his counterparts have decided, this is not a sufficiently vital interest to warrant World War III.
If Ukraine becomes a NATO member, then we are under an obligation to go to war with Russia if this ever breaks out again. And that puts the United States, its allies, in an awkward position. And that’s why I think in the end of the day, for now at least, the focus should be on making sure that Ukraine is able to defend itself. In other words, a relationship that looks more like the U.S. and Israel, or NATO next door to Finland and Sweden, before they formally join. Given that NATO membership requires consensus, and that I think getting thirty-one countries to agree to that membership is a tall order, I would recommend that Ukraine look at options for its self-defense, short of full membership. And I also am concerned that in the Russian eye, membership in NATO is something that would be difficult for them to swallow. And as a consequence, I think the prospect of a peace agreement is more likely if Ukraine is not a member of NATO than if it is.
NINAN: Rivka, can we take another question?
OPERATOR: We will take the next question from David Unger.
Q: Hello. Yes, thank you. David Unger, in Connecticut.
I’m going back to the poll we were asked to fill out at the beginning and will be asked again at the end. And the first question danced around—was implicitly whether we thought Ukraine was a vital interest of the United States. Professor Bacevich said domestic politics, more important. Charlie just said a few minutes ago, not to a nuclear war—not worth a nuclear war. I want to ask explicitly to all three of the speakers whether you think any particular achievement or prevention of any particular outcome in Ukraine is a vital interest of the United States, and why? Remembering that Kennan and realists ever since then have taught that we have many interests, but they’re not all vital interests. So can you distinguish whether you think the U.S. has a vital interest in any outcome in Ukraine, or preventing any outcome?
NINAN: Heather, you touched upon that a little bit, we talked about at the beginning. Can you take that?
CONLEY: Of course. Well, I do believe Ukraine serves as a vital interest to the United States because it is so consequential in shaping the future of the international system. I mean, if you take Putin’s logic about Ukraine and restoring historical grievances, I’d put Alaska in that case as well. Which was purchased from the Russian empire. If we have an international system where the strong take over the weak, or take what they seek, destroy culture, destroy, you know, international treaties and agendas, then we have no international system. We just don’t. But, you know, what we have talked about here is it is so costly to enforce those rules. But we know a world coming out of the Second World War where all those rules were broken and the incredible cost of resolution.
So we have to invest in those rules. And those rules of sovereignty and territorial integrity need to be binding. And so I do think it’s a vital interest. It does—I think we are approaching the war in Ukraine correctly, with providing them with the means to defend themselves. They’re not asking us to send forces. But if they are unsuccessful, we are going to be paying an awful price in increased defense posture internally to the United States as well as externally. So we have to get this right. But we have to explain to the American people what the stakes are, and have to convince them. And if they don’t believe that, then we aren’t going to support this war in Ukraine. That’s always been sort of the underlying principle here, that I would agree with Charlie.
The Biden administration, with some self-deterrence and caution to this, has provided great assistance to Ukraine. But I think they have not done the job I had hoped that they would do. But it’s incumbent upon all of us to explain to the American people what the stakes are. What is—what is the cost of sovereignty and freedom? What are the costs of allies and what we must do to support them? That’s a tough conversation, particularly when so many are hurting here at home economically. But that’s what we have to do. And I think there is a large argument to be made, because I think people understand that that strong value of freedom and sovereignty. And the Ukrainians coming through this are going to be the most capable European military in Europe. We have lots to learn from the Ukrainians and their spirit. And so I think it is. But we’ve got to put that argument to the test. And we have to earn the trust of the American people if that’s the policy we’re going to pursue.
KUPCHAN: I just want to add that I think it’s a little more complicated than that, in that I see this conversation as reflective of the fact that Ukraine falls into a bit of a strategic gray zone, right? If the Russians had just attacked Germany, and they were about to siege Berlin or Paris, I’m guessing that all of us, including Andy, would be saying: Vital national interest, pedal to the metal, send three American divisions to Europe. On the other hand, there are lots of conflicts out there in the world in which we don’t raise a finger, right? In which territory may be violated, but the United States says, you know, what? We don’t have a dog in that fight, and therefore we’re not going to put skin in the game.
Ukraine is somewhere in between those extremes. And I think that’s why we’re all, as Americans, struggling to figure out what the right strategy is. Because the bottom line is, we don’t have 100,000 troops in Donbas. And I don’t think most Americans think we should. But this is a particularly difficult case precisely because it is in that gray zone.
CONLEY: Well, Charlie, I’d say we have thirty dogs in the fight, thirty members of NATO, plus us, one—plus one. We have one hundred thousand forces in Europe. We have ten thousand forces in Poland. If Ukraine is a bigger gray zone, that is going to be a direct threat to Lithuania, to Estonia, to Latvia, to Poland, to the entire eastern flank, to Finland, to the U.S. We have the Russians blaming us for a drone fight. Putin’s survival requires confrontation with the West. Whether it exists or not, he needs to create it for his own regime’s survival.
So this is going to be—is it whether—how Ukraine is resolved or not. I’d rather have it resolved in Ukraine than have it come into the NATO country to, exactly the scenario you said, send three divisions to Germany if—or, to Poland if Poland is attacked. That’s why this is so important, that we can do—help the Ukrainians stop this in Ukraine, so it doesn’t go any farther. And I think they’re willing to pay the ultimate price, we should be able to support them, to protect ourselves.
KUPCHAN: But I’d say is the logical follow on of your position, that we should have a hundred thousandtroops, three divisions in Ukraine?
CONLEY: No, not in Ukraine. I’m just saying we have one hundred thousand forces in Europe, in the European theater, today.
KUPCHAN: No, no, I understand that. But they’re not in Ukraine.
BACEVICH: What Charlie’s asking is if it’s a vital interest, then why aren’t we willing to fight for it?
CONLEY: I think the most economic means to allow the Ukrainians to fight for themselves. They’re not asking us to put forces in there. They’re asking us for the means for them to defend their own country. That’s not what they’re asking.
NINAN: Andy, I want to ask you one question on this topic. I can’t remember which one of you said this, that it’s pretty impressive that there’s still an appetite in the United States to continue to support this. We did our polling at the top of this. Andy, what’s your sense? There’s progressive Democrats, there are Republicans already calling to pull back aid at this point. You know, public opinion matters in foreign policy. What’s your sense, even if this were to end this summer and there’s still reconstruction that needs to happen. And I think of George Marshall, and the exact same period with similar parallels of a country that was not too well economically, and asking to help rebuild Europe, trying to sell a controversial plan. What is your sense about the American appetite here?
BACEVICH: I think I’d push back against comparisons between 1947 and 1949, you know, the period that led to the creation of NATO, and the present moment. If only because Russia is not the Soviet Union. And, quite frankly, it’s also because conditions in Europe today are nothing like what they were in the immediate aftermath of World War II. So I just don’t think the comparison washes.
But if I may, I’d like to go back to Heather’s references to the international system and framing this conflict as an obligation on the part of the United States to maintain that international system. And the point I would want to make very briefly is that it would be—I would be more sympathetic to that point of view if the United States consistently supported the international system.
I know it’s twenty years ago, so forgive me for bringing up this ancient history, but back in 2003 when the United States invaded Iraq—an illegal war by any estimation—it violated sovereignty. Its violation of sovereignty led to the deaths of thousands of Americans, far larger numbers of Iraqis and others, terrible destruction, instability in the region. So for us to say today, oh, we are the—(laughs)—we are the supporters of the international system because that’s crucial to peace and stability, strikes me as the height of hypocrisy. Of course, hypocrisy is inherent in statecraft. I get it. But I really don’t think that maintaining the international system ought to enter in a serious way in a discussion of what the Ukraine war is all about.
NINAN: OK, point well taken. Some people would argue that Iraq is not Ukraine, but we’re going to put a pin in this for a second so we can move onto some other questions. But point taken.
Rivka, could we have another question, please?
OPERATOR: Our next question is a written submission from Sarah Tenney Sharman.
Who writes: The current liberal world order is based on the principle of territorial integrity or thou shalt not take territory by force. If Russia gains any territory, even through a negotiated settlement, do we open ourselves to a return to wars of conquest in Europe and elsewhere?
NINAN: Heather, would you like to take that question? You just look at the history of what Putin has done, going back in, and going back out, and going back in. So what’s your take on that?
CONLEY: Yeah, I mean, this is where the challenge—this has been going on—well, you could sort of walk back since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, and the question over Transnistria and Moldova. But we’ll just start in 2008, when Russia invaded and occupies currently 20 percent of the Republic of Georgia. And we did very little. So it’s not surprising when 2014 came about, and it was the annexation of Crimea and the occupation of 7 percent of Ukraine. We did more, but we didn’t do too, too much. And I think all of us analytically were a little surprised that Vladimir Putin went to a full-scale invasion of Ukraine, but that’s the problem with impunity. It keeps on going, and going, and going.
And who stops it? Who is going to put the resources? Who is going to commit the blood and the treasure to stop it? That’s the enforcement of the international system, Andy, as imperfectly as the United States has implemented it, we did create the system for our full self-interested benefit. But if no one enforces those rules, those rules don’t exist. So close up the United Nations. We can pack it up. And then we’ll—that’s sort of that rule of the jungle. But it’s really, really hard to do this. And I think this has been—sort of with impunity we’ve watched the Kremlin create a buffer between itself and the European Union and NATO by taking bites out of its neighbors, until it took the biggest bite. And it rose to the point where we said, no more. And we responded more boldly.
But this is the problem when you turn—when you close your eyes, and I don’t want to look at it, it’s not important to me, until it becomes so consuming. It changes global food prices. It changes global energy prices. Well, now we care about it. And now the costs get quite high. So this is where preemptive and proactive diplomacy is always the best way. But it takes courage and fortitude to enforce these rules that we thought helped protect and stabilize the system—(inaudible).
KUPCHAN: If I could just add a quick, I guess, qualification? I’d be reluctant to do this kind of black and white comparison. That is to say, if we completely drive Russia from Ukraine, all is well, we establish a precedent. If he has, you know, six percent of Ukrainian territory, the sky falls. You know, I think Russia’s going to be a tough customer no matter how this war ends. To some extent they have already been dealt a serious strategic defeat. And so I just—I want to caution against setting objectives out there, assuming that somehow it’s a magic bullet. It’s not, right? Russia is going to be an aggressor, in my mind, as long as Putin, or somebody like Putin, is in the Kremlin.
CONLEY: Charlie, these are the Ukrainian objectives. They want their—they want their territory back. I think we can understand that, whether it’s by force or at the negotiation table. We can completely understand why countries would like their sovereignty back.
KUPCHAN: No, I completely agree with that. All I’m saying is I don’t think that we should say: If we get their full territory back, the liberal international system is great; if Russia has a chunk of territory, everything unravels. That’s just not the way the world works. It’s not either/or.
NINAN: All right. Rivka, can we take the next question, please?
OPERATOR: We have a written question from Sasha Duckworth.
Who writes: How would revelations of human rights abuses and war crimes in occupied areas influence a negotiated settlement, if at all?
NINAN: Andy, I’d love for you to take that. You know, in the context of President Zelensky was at the Hague this morning. And, you know, I’ve heard from folks dealing with human rights issues on the ground in Ukraine that that has been something they’ve wanted to go after for quite some time. And there he is, today.
BACEVICH: Well, it seems to me that the imperative is to end the war, to cap the amount of destruction and suffering that has already occurred. And the understandable desire for justice to be done needs to be subordinated to that. The war—the war needs to end. And how the demands of justice would be subsequently—subsequent to that, would be satisfied, I don’t know. But it does seem to me to be short-sighted to insist upon some mechanism to prosecute criminals to get in the way of bringing the conflict to an end.
NINAN: Charlie, I want to ask you a little bit about the economics of war. Andy was mentioning, you know, about going after these criminals. What has really worked? You know, we’ve sanctioned oligarchs. We’ve sanctioned the girlfriends of oligarchs. When you look at the economics of war, and putting the screws to a country—particularly looking at Russia—what has helped from an economics standpoint?
KUPCHAN: You know, I guess, Reena, a couple big surprises for me, learnable moments, I guess you could say—is, number one, that the sanctions haven’t really worked in strangling the Russian economy. I mean, these sanctions are heavy-duty. They go beyond, I think, what Washington even in its own mind originally envisaged. But we now live in a globalized world in which the Russians have effectively rejiggered their supply chains. And as a consequence, their economy is doing OK, and they are sustaining the war effort. And that’s happened because rather than selling oil and gas to Europe, they’re selling oil and gas to China, and India, and other countries. Instead of trucks coming in from Western Europe, they’re coming in from Georgia, and Turkey, and the Central Asian countries. And so it’s—one of the things here, it’s very hard to kind of shut down a country in a way that really hurts them.
The other thing that I think is really interesting to watch, and it’s come up already in our conversation, is the global south. And, you know, I think, whether we like that word or not, you know, two things here. One is, the whole narrative of the liberal order just doesn’t carry a lot of weight there. They look at that narrative with—well, I think a lot of skepticism. And I think the second thing I take away is, you know, this is one of those historical inflection points where a lot of countries are keeping their powder dry. You know, two-thirds of the world already trades more with China than it does with the United States. So when they’re figuring out where they want to put their marbles for 2030, 2040, 2050, the answer isn’t necessarily the same as it used to be. And that—you know, that suggests we’re headed into a pretty unpredictable, fluid moment in global history.
NINAN: Heather, I’d love for you to jump in. Is there anything you feel that’s been effective in, you know, dealing with Russia’s economy?
CONLEY: I think the most effective—well, there was a little bit of shock and awe. I don’t think the Russians had anticipated when we very initially in the first days of the full-scale invasion froze their central bank assets. I think that was a play they weren’t anticipating. And we were walking a tightrope here. We didn’t want to harm our economy more than we harmed Russia’s economy, which we could have been more forceful, more quickly, you know, totally taken them off SWIFT. But then European and even Americans couldn’t pay for Russian energy.
I think the most effective has been the oil price cap because that forced the Russians to sell their oil at a discount. That actually hurt the coffers. That will make them and what they’re doing, they’re using their sovereign wealth fund. They’re working that down pretty quickly. We’ve seen, as Charlie mentioned, there’s a lot of sanctions leakage. When Turkey, a NATO ally, is not imposing any sanctions on Russia, you just can watch the import data shift from, you know, other countries. So I think we have to be cognizant of that. And, yes, I’ll get back to it, it is very costly to enforce your own rules. And it blows back on your own economy.
So you can’t sort of—I want to punish, but I don’t want to hurt myself. That ends up, you know, you have feel-good sanctions, which are the oligarch sanctions. That makes you feel good, and it makes you feel like you’re doing something, and that’s important. Don’t get me wrong, the symbolism of that is important. But if you really want to stop a war machine, you’ve got to stop—full stop buying Russian energy and goods. And this is what I said at the very earliest stages of the war. You know, you’re paying on both sides. You know, Europe and the United States are helping Ukraine defend themselves, while they’re helping—you know, paying for Russian energy for Russia to continue to fuel the war. You’re paying for both sides of it right now. So you’ve got to—got to make those very, very tough decisions.
I think the European unity, the transatlantic unity on this, has been very powerful, despite a lot of grandfathering because of Hungary and other, you know, special measures that are needed to be taken. I think it’s remarkable. And for those particularly in Germany who said this could not possibly be done, we could not get off of Russian energy, they did it incredibly quickly. It’s a marvel what they were able to accomplish. So I think all of that is important. But we are really going to have to continue to make this as painful as possible, to slow down Russia’s ability to fund their own war. If they turn to China, then we have to start being very vigilant to see if China continues—will more overtly support Russia. And I think that’s a question that only Xi Jinping can answer. But we have to be very cognizant that there could be some support there that we’re going to have to address economically as well.
NINAN: Yeah. That is definitely one to watch.
BACEVICH: Can I ask a question of Heather?
BACEVICH: Heather, in that circumstance, would we then—would propose sanctioning China?
CONLEY: Well, I think, again, the Biden administration has already sent a couple of pretty important shots across their bow, particularly for Chinese companies that are, you know, providing chips and some military support. Andy, I think they—I think the Chinese have been very cautious about this. And this is where I think the rhetoric has been—it’s been mostly rhetorical in support. Look, the Chinese have all the advantage here. The more desperate Moscow becomes for economic support, that price just gets lower and lower.
And for me, as Reena noted, I’m sort of—I try to watch the Arctic as closely as I can. I’m just fascinated by that geographic area. One of the things that came out of Xi’s state visit to Moscow was a little more Chinese access to the northern sea route, the Arctic route. So the more desperate Russia becomes, the greater the bargaining power China will have on some things it wants to accomplish. It can wait. It can wait. So I don’t see any massive quick thing. And they’re going to want to protect Chinese economic interests for sure.
But I think there is a point—you know, if the scenario is that Russia is going to be unsuccessful and continues to struggle, will Xi Jinping allow Putin to fail or will he prop him up to a point where he can continue on? That’s the question. We just don’t know how, or what, or if that timing works. But the Chinese can sit back and wait so they can acquire some pretty good Russian assets at basement—bargain-basement prices, I would suspect.
KUPCHAN: I’d bet on prop them up. I think Xi Jinping has hitched his wagon enough to Putin that he’s not going to watch him go down in smoke.
CONLEY: Charlie, I’m right there with you. And we’re not prepared for that. We’re not prepared for that.
NINAN: Hmm, it’s going to be a whole other conversation I can sense coming. I’d love to turn now—I’d love to take more questions, but we’re running out of time. And I want to go back to the polling. If we could turn and do that. Is that possible? And take a look again. I’d love for you guys to go ahead and weigh in here.
Again, number one, do you believe—we’re curious if your opinion has changed. Do you believe the United States has a vital interest in Ukraine recovering territory it lost since ’91? Ukraine recovering all the territory it’s lost since February 2022? Or Ukraine continuing as a sovereign, independent state on territory that it currently holds today? Or the United States has no vital interest here? Second question, would you rate the current level of assistance the United States is providing to Ukraine as too much? Not enough? About the right amount? Or not sure?
And then, number three, if the tide of battle turns against Russia, do you think Putin will use nukes? Attack a NATO country? Get military help from China? Or push for a ceasefire? Fourth question: Who do you think bears a responsibility for the war, Russia and Putin? NATO and the United States, for considering Ukraine’s membership in NATO? The European Union for considering Ukraine’s membership? Ukraine, for its treatment of ethnic Russians? And our last question, what do you think is the most likely trajectory of the war in Ukraine? A victory for Ukraine? A victory for Russia? Negotiated ceasefire and a peace accord? Or long-term stalemate?
If you can push “submit” once you’ve filled up your questions, I am going to pull up—Rachel has sent me the initial polling from the first poll. And we’re going to give it a second, and then we’re going to see if anyone’s opinion has changed based on the conversation we had today. Give you guys a second, and then we’ll push this through.
All right. For the first polling, initially do you believe the United States has a vital interest? And it looks like it is about the same. Initially, 38 percent—sorry, 39 percent believed in number two, which was Ukraine recovering all the territory it’s lost since February 2022. And now it’s about 41 percent. Coming in second place, Ukraine recovering all the territory since ’91. That was at 38 percent. That’s dropped to 39 percent. On the second one, how do you rate the current level of assistance the United States is providing Ukraine? Initially it said it’s—a majority, 43 percent, said about the right amount of support. And we’re seeing sort of similar as the initial one. Forty-three said about the right, 44 percent said not enough support. It was split, and it looks like that’s still the case.
Number three, if the tide of battle turns against Russia, do you think Putin will—initially we said 47 percent get help from China. That’s not 62 percent. So that number looks like it’s increased. The belief is that China will bail them out, get military help from there. And number four, how do you—who do you think bears responsibility for the war? Initially you guys said 94 percent Russia and Vladimir Putin. Now it’s 93 percent. So it looks like that has not changed. And the last question, how does—what do you think the most likely trajectory of the war in Ukraine? And initially it looks like a ceasefire and—sorry—excuse me. Long-term stalemate, which appears to be exactly the same. It was 53 percent, and still remains 55 percent that this will be a long-term stalemate.
I want to thank you guys for weighing in. It was fascinating to see how people’s opinions change from the start of a conversation to the very end. Heather, Charlie, and Andy, thank you guys so much for your time, for your wonderful conversation, and for all that you’re doing in the foreign policy world to educate and enlighten. And my thanks to the Council on Foreign Relations for putting together this fantastic panel, and to the events team for putting this all together. I’m really grateful for everyone that could join us. And I want to remind you that we will in fact have this live recording available for anyone who wants to watch. We had some, I believe, close to three thousand people who tuned in today. So we want to thank you all for joining us. And you can watch this in replay at the Council on Foreign Relations website. I want to thank you all for joining us.