Media Call: The Ukraine Crisis and U.S. Talks with NATO and European Allies

Wednesday, March 23, 2022

Distinguished Fellow, Council on Foreign Relations

Senior Fellow, Council on Foreign Relations

George F. Kennan Senior Fellow for Russian and Eurasian Studies, Council on Foreign Relations


Adjunct Senior Fellow, Council on Foreign Relations

As President Joe Biden heads to Europe to bolster the Western alliance in the face of Russian aggression in Ukraine, CFR experts will discuss the response by the United States and its allies to the crisis and what lies ahead.


CREBO-REDIKER: So good morning and thank you so much for joining us for this CFR curtain-raiser. It’s a press briefing for President Biden’s trip to Europe this week.

This briefing will be on the record and you can find additional resources from CFR on Russia-Ukraine on CFR’s website. We’ll have this video and transcript posted online afterwards for your reference. And in terms of format, we’re going to open with about twenty minutes of conversation with the three guest speakers, and then we’ll open it up to Q&A with all of the participants on the line.

Just by way of short introduction, we have Tom Graham, who’s a distinguished fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. He is a cofounder of the Russian, East European, & Eurasian Studies Program at Yale University and sits on the faculty steering committee, and he’s a research fellow at the MacMillan Center at Yale.

Steve Sestanovich is the George Kennan Senior Fellow for Russian and Eurasian Studies at CFR and is also a professor of international diplomacy at Columbia University’s School of International Public Affairs.

And Charlie Kupchan is a senior fellow at the Council. He’s a professor at Georgetown University of international affairs and teaches at the Foreign Service Department of Government.

So all three of them have extensive public and private service to contribute today, and with that, I’m going to say, you know, this is an important trip that the president is going on this week and it’s—we’re just reaching the one-month mark of the conflict and the invasion of Ukraine. The summit will be with Biden and NATO, with EU leaders, with the G-7, and then he will go to Poland as well.

So I think, you know, what I’d love to do is start with Charlie and just ask, you know, what can we expect from this trip? You always have deliverables when you have a presidential visit like this. The White House has telegraphed more sanctions are on the agenda, but what else? And then, importantly, can you talk a little bit about Poland and the Polish part of the trip, and maybe a little bit about what we might see, you know, as a result of the enormous strains from refugees that are being placed on a number of European countries right now? So why don’t we start with you, Charlie?

KUPCHAN: Thanks, Heidi.

I think that the main deliverable is the trip and its symbolism. This is an emergency trip. The president is going to sit down not just with NATO leaders but with the G-7, with the EU, and I think the message here is we stand shoulder to shoulder, that the West is united, that the West stands together against what Russia is doing in Ukraine, and I think it’s a very important message to send to Russia, to Ukraine, and to the rest of the world. And I have to say, I’m struck by the strength of the response from the U.S., Europe, the G-7. Much of the world has condemned this invasion and, in some ways, I think what Biden is doing is strengthening the overall response and the condemnation of the trip.

Given that it started—the planning started relatively recently, I don’t think you’re going to see huge deliverables of the sort that you would see if this was a summit that was planned a year ago and you could spend weeks if not months preparing, so I don’t think there are any bombshells here, but I’m looking for the following set of conclusions from a relatively short trip; the president comes home on Saturday: one, an agreement to extend sanctions. We’ve already seen very far-reaching sanctions—in some ways, the most far-reaching sanctions we’ve ever seen against a country the size of Russia, and from what we hear, those sanctions will entail the economic isolation of a considerable number of members of the Duma.

Secondly, at NATO, I would expect a discussion about a considerable strengthening of NATO’s eastern flank. We’ve already seen a discussion of reinforcements. We may see perhaps the decision to pull down the NATO-Russia Founding Act and a decision by the United States and its allies to begin to permanently station significant combat troops in the eastern flank. That would not surprise me. I also think there will be a quieter discussion about how NATO would respond to potential escalation, and I think we have to take seriously the prospect of a widening of the war, either by accident or by design, but we know that there are long supply lines running from Poland, Romania, other NATO countries into Ukraine. It’s not inconceivable that a strike could be taken, not just against those convoys once they’re in Ukraine but in NATO territory itself.

On the Polish piece of the trip, I think the focus will be more on the enormous effort that Europeans are making to welcome refugees from Ukraine. This is the biggest outflow that we’ve seen since World War II. I think the United States is going to announce additional support to the relief effort, and I’m also guessing that what we’ll see here is an American decision to increase its own effort to bring Ukrainians into the United States as part of a burden-sharing effort with the European Union.

CREBO-REDIKER: So I think that’s—those are themes that we’ll draw out later in the conversation. I’d like to just flag for the press on the call to start thinking about the questions you want to ask. We’re going to do a raised-hand format, so if you can start lining up your questions while we have this conversation, that would be great.

Tom, I’m going to go to you next. So what do you think is coming next from President Putin? I mean, he’s sort of backed himself into a corner and the military—you know, the advance on Ukraine has stalled; we’ve all seen it playing out on our news screens. It’s turning into gruesome attacks on civilians and basically carpet-bombing cities and towns, and we’ve seen tremendous heroism from Ukrainians. But Russia’s calling for reinforcements, from the Chechens, from Belarus. What are we looking for in terms of escalation? You know, what could we see? And I guess in terms of the Russian military capabilities, what have we learned, what are the takeaways in terms of how Russia is approaching this and what are the failures, and what have learned from the operations on the ground?

GRAHAM: Well, thank you, Heidi. Let’s start with the obvious point that this operation has not gone nearly the way President Putin had anticipated. In his calculations, he should have been in Kyiv about three weeks ago and this conflict should be winding down right now, and it’s extended much farther and much further than anyone thought in Russia, and many of our own analysts in the West, for example. You know, what I think Putin is going to do at this point is double down; that is what he has done in the past in face of this type of setback. You’ve seen, as you said, him stepping up the attacks against civilian infrastructures, basically, leveling cities along the way, an effort to terrorize the population, hoping that that will lead the Ukrainians to reconsider resistance and to, basically, surrender at this point.

There are a set of negotiations ongoing. If you look at the proposals that the Russian side is making, basically, it’s what the Russians have wanted from the very beginning—neutrality for Ukraine, recognition of Crimea as part of Russia, and recognition of the independence of these statelets in the Donbas region—certainly, a nonstarter for the Ukrainians.

They’re going to bring in reinforcements, in part, because their own military hasn’t performed as effectively as they had hoped and as Putin had been led to believe, I think, by his own generals and also by the experience of the past. The Russian military performed quite effectively in Crimea in 2014, in Syria in 2015.

What we tend to forget was those were fairly small operations involving, perhaps, forty (thousand) or fifty thousand troops. This is a much larger operation, a hundred and fifty thousand upwards of the Russian military. Many of the soldiers were conscripts, had no idea what they were doing in Ukraine, and also don’t have the experience to fight this type of conflict in an effective fashion.

There have been all sorts of problems with logistics, armed operations, joint operations, and so forth. So the military is, really, underperforming and that has to come as quite a shock to Putin.

In terms of escalation, I think we’ve seen some of this over the past few—the past several days. It’s not only the attacks on civilian infrastructure but it’s also the use of some fairly sophisticated weaponry—the hypersonic weapons, for example—just to demonstrate that Russia has this superior capability.

I think that’s a warning to the West, to some extent. There’s a possibility of a chemical or biological attack somewhere in Ukraine. The Russians have used this before in Syria so I see no reason why they wouldn’t, under some circumstances, use those in Ukraine but in an effort to turn this into a false flag operation, saying that it’s the Ukrainians that, in fact, conducted these attacks with American support, if you look at all the propaganda and rhetoric surrounding the biological labs in Ukraine, for example, over the past several weeks. And they’re going to attack as they got closer to the—to the Ukrainian border with NATO countries, again, as a way of sending a warning to the West that this could escalate, and if it escalates then it brings NATO into direct conflict with Russia and where does that end.

So it’s—I think it’s part of a Kremlin view that you can deter NATO from stepping up its support for Ukraine.

So, I think, the final point here that I would make is that Putin has given no indication that he’s prepared to step down. He’s not looking for an off ramp at this point. He’s prepared to prosecute this war for many, many weeks into the future and that’s what we have to prepare ourselves for in the West.

CREBO-REDIKER: Thank you so much.

Stephen, I wanted to talk a little bit, you know, taking Tom’s point on the propaganda within Russia. We see what’s happening in Ukraine. There’s been, again, huge—you know, huge heroism, and it’s moving beyond words. But what are we seeing inside of Russia as a response to this?

We’ve had media shut down. The propaganda is all about de-Nazification of Ukraine. There are—are we seeing any signs of disunity in terms of the elites in Russia or from the population, and is there any reason to think that Putin would be interested in an off ramp or a diplomatic solution to this if he were offered one?

SESTANOVICH: (Laughs.) Yeah. Thanks for doing this, Heidi, for herding these cats. Big questions.

Look, this is the biggest crisis of Putin’s presidency, no question about it, and he has had to deal with signs of unexpected internal disaffection. Some senior economic policymakers and advisors have, reportedly, resigned with the—and some of them quite significant figures, leaving the country.

You have reports of new resignations at Channel One. There are—the numbers of people who were said to be in Yerevan or Tbilisi or Istanbul or other capitals, you know, climb by the day. At the same time, you have a relentless effort by the regime to spin this as a good story and, so far, a success.

I think if we’re almost four weeks into the war that means it’s almost four weeks that Putin’s spokesman, Peskov, has said every day things are going according to plan. (Laughs.) That’s their line and they’re sticking to it. There has been a big effort of nationalist propaganda, not just the symbol Z but Putin’s big rally, bringing in tens of thousands of people to show, on television, support for this enterprise.

How that can be sustained with, at the same time, that there’s no progress on the battlefield is a question that, you know, Putin and his military advisors and his political advisors are going to have to address in an ongoing way.

I don’t think we see right now any indication that Putin wants to climb down. Putin is really bad at climbing down. That’s not his MO. It never has been. As between climbing down and doubling down, he chooses the latter every time.

If you look at how he’s handled Ukraine over the past eight years, you know, where there has been a diplomatic process to address the war in the East he’s never really shown any interest in a kind of outcome that would enable him to wind down the conflict. This is a much more grueling, costly enterprise for him.

But, I think, so far the indications are he’s not exploring an off ramp. The biggest reason for that, of course, is where we started, which is the internal challenge. Putin can’t afford to lose, and most of the diplomatic formulas that people talk about seem to have to be tilted Putin’s way in order to make it look as though he’s gotten a victory.

But that isn’t going to work with Ukrainians. It’s clear that that is just a formula for continuing resistance on their part. Something that would represent a real compromise would be seen internally as a calamity for Putin and he can’t cope with that.

That doesn’t mean he is facing pressures to step down. But if, two years from now, this is still going on and he has not been able to bring this to a close there will be a lot of people saying this is a record on which to run for reelection, which is what he faces in 2024? So there are big questions posed for the regime.

One last question—one last point I’d like to make about Ukraine. As far as I can tell, the Ukrainians are not going to be present at this meeting in Brussels even though there is a vehicle for their participation—the NATO-Ukraine Commission. And so the issue for the Ukrainians is how to be heard in these meetings. They have—Zelensky has made an effort to address all the G-7 parliaments. He’s been—he’s made himself the man of the hour. But this week is one in which he risks being pushed aside a little bit, and their challenge will be to continue to have their voice heard as the rest of the—Europe and the United States underscores their unity.

CREBO-REDIKER: So that was a great—a great introduction. Thank you all for kicking it off today.

We have Garrett Mitchell. I’m going to ask, if you have a raised hand, please unmute and feel free to ask the first question.

OPERATOR: Mr. Mitchell—

Q: Let’s see—let’s see if—does that work?

CREBO-REDIKER: Yeah. You’re good.

Q: OK. Let me ask a simple but not easy question, which operates on an assumption that I am not assuming that anyone on this panel makes. But it goes like this. The war is over in Ukraine and it’s now time to do the cleanup. There are two things that seem to be in tension. One is the continuation of sanctions, punishment. The second is the requirement of Russians to pay for this, i.e. reparations. My question is, has anyone thought through or does anyone have a thought about how to balance those two needs and/or requirements?

CREBO-REDIKER: Who would like to take that question? Steve, do you want to—do you want to—Tom, go ahead.

GRAHAM: I’ll take a first shot. Steve and Charlie will have something to add, I’m quite, quite confident.

You know, I would say the two are, obviously, related. You know, we are not going to lift sanctions simply because the Russians have withdrawn their troops from Ukraine, if that’s the point that we reach at the end of this conflict. The reconstruction of Ukraine is, obviously, going to be a massive undertaking because of the way the Russians have conducted this operation up to this point. And just play this out over several more—several more weeks and perhaps months. So the cost is going to be tremendous.

We are going to, I think in the West, demand that Russia pay something for the reconstruction cost. Paying for all of it is probably beyond the capacity of Russia at this point, but nevertheless that they should make a substantial contribution and that, along with the money and funding that the United States, the European Union will put in—put into this, put together a fairly complete package that begins a rapid reconstruction of civilian infrastructure and other things and setting up of social services again in Ukraine. So we’re not going to let the Russians off the hook. It’s not simply enough to end the actual fighting. The Russians are going to have to participate in a major way in the reconstruction of Ukraine.

KUPCHAN: I would just add, Heidi, that, you know, I do think we need to see this as a—as a game changer, as a—as a kind of world-altering event, in the sense that even if there’s an end to the war that involves some kind of settlement, right—we don’t know what that would look like. I agree with Tom and Steve that what’s on the table right now doesn’t look like a deal that the Ukrainians are going to take. But barring some kind of fundamental political disjuncture in Russia that would involve regime change—that is to say that Putin loses his political support among key elites because this war doesn’t go well—you know, I think that the sanctions against Russia, that the divide between the West and Russia is going to be with us for a very, very long time. And so the—you know, the prospect of Russia getting in and helping to reconstruct Ukraine, it strikes me as, in some ways, farfetched because I think we’re really going to see a fundamental divide here.

I guess, you know, one final comment, and maybe this comes back to something that Steve was saying. I agree that Putin is not someone who will—who will climb down. On the other hand, it seems to me he doesn’t have much choice but to change his goalposts, simply because this is not a war that is going according to plan. And even if—even if they double down, even if they go after civilian centers, even if they try to force Zelensky to leave Kyiv, I think it must be becoming apparent to Putin and those around him that he is not going to subjugate the country. There are 44 million angry Ukrainians who are not going to sit tight as Russia reintegrates the country into some kind of sphere of influence.

So that suggests to me this is not going to end well for Putin. Whether that means that his days are numbered, who knows? But I do think that the facts on the ground do suggest that any outcome is possible here, including tough times for Vladimir Putin himself.

CREBO-REDIKER: So just in terms of, I mean, the sanctions and the ability of Russia to sustain, as Steve was mentioning, the two years, if we’re looking two years from now I would imagine that since the sanctions regime and the export-control regime that we have implemented so far—and we’ll see, you know, more of that this week—it’s to punish. There’s not—it’s not to negotiate. It’s not to deter. It’s to punish and it’s to basically degrade the industrial base of Russia over time. And given that, the self-sanctioning of companies pulling out, the brain drain, no investment going in, you know, it’ll be a question mark as to whether or not there is enough pain domestically over time that this can be sustained.

Steve, did you want to—did you want to add anything?

SESTANOVICH: Just one sentence, Heidi, because there are plenty of other people in your queue I’m sure.

You know, the big question about when sanctions come off really has to do with what kind of Russia we’re dealing with. If this is just a kind of end of hostilities but without any real transformation inside Russia, a lot of sanctions will continue indefinitely because—for example, you mentioned export controls. The idea that this is a Russia that needs to be—to be kept from developing advanced military capabilities and even economic growth, that will be a strong part of Western policy. If you—if you have a kind of watershed moment in Russian politics, then you’re looking at something more—possibilities of transformation.

CREBO-REDIKER: Next we have Howard LaFranchi. Can you unmute yourself?

Q: OK. Can you hear me?


Q: Great. OK. Yeah, so this is Howard LaFranchi with Christian Science Monitor. Thanks for doing this.

I’d like to get some thoughts on just what the significance of Biden’s—of this trip for the president’s, you know, efforts for democracy. I mean, he came into office, he was the champion of democracy facing, you know, mounting or rising autocrats and authoritarian rule. And I think for a lot of people that remained kind of—kind of academic or it was an intellectual construct, but now this war kind of, you know, makes it a reality. A democracy is under attack. And so I’m just wondering, you know, what the stakes are for, you know, Biden’s, you know, battle for democracy and the implications—what the implications would be if, you know, anything other than preservation of a democracy in this war, you know, were accepted; you know, the first—the first war of this 21st century that the president said, you know, was going to be, you know, the battle of democracy versus autocracy.

CREBO-REDIKER: Tom, do you want to take that?

GRAHAM: Yeah, I can—I can start. I’m sure Steve and Charlie will have something to add.

You know, this is an important sort of turning point in global history and it’s an important point—juncture point for the administration. You know, we have been talking about Putin can’t afford to lose this struggle. By the same token, President Biden can’t afford to lose this struggle. I think there’s a great deal of optimism in the West now—given the level of Ukrainian resistance, the ineffectual operations of the Russian military—that Putin is, in fact, on the losing side of this, and I think we all hope that that is true. But there’s a great deal of devastation that Putin can do over the next several weeks. And so not only do we have to preserve democracy in Ukraine, but we also have to preserve as much as we can of the actual infrastructure so that they can have a prosperous democracy going forward. And I think that’s one of the challenges that the administration faces.

I think Steve is right, this could drag on for months. It could drag on for two years. But the administration, I think, if it’s—in its defense of democracy should be hoping that it can, in fact, bring this conflict to a more rapid conclusion through either pressure or from some set of negotiations that preserves the fundamental democratic character of the Ukrainian state, of the Ukrainian society, of Ukrainian polity, but at the same time limits the devastation to the extent possible so that you can build not only a democratic society but a prosperous democratic society, which at the end of the day will be the best sort of instrument for containing Russian aggressive behavior in the future. So that’s the challenge I think that President Biden faces at this point.

KUPCHAN: I would add that I think the conflict in some—in some significant way reinforces the Biden narrative because it gives concrete form to the idea that we are, in fact, in a world in which democracies and non-democracies are going head to head, and the Russian invasion of Ukraine is in part about scuttling Ukrainian democracy. It’s not just about blocking its path to NATO.

And my best guess here is that China is going to stand by its Russian partner. It’s going to try to avoid secondary sanctions. It’s going to try to tiptoe around the question of how strongly it supports Russia. But I do think that we’re looking at the emergence of a world in which Russia and China are on one side and democracies on the other. But two brief caveats.

One is that divide is not as neat as it sounds because we see that there are some democracies that aren’t speaking up, that aren’t imposing sanctions. India is an example. India is the world’s largest democracy and, so far, it has decided to avoid pushing back against Russia.

Secondly, we’re going to need to cooperate with countries that aren’t democracies, and in order to try to help Europe deal with potential deficits of oil and gas we’ll probably cut a deal with Iran, look to the UAE, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, maybe Venezuela—right, not card-carrying liberal democracies—to help here.

And my final point, Heidi, would be that I don’t think—yes, there has been a sort of spiritual rebirth, if you will, of transatlantic solidarity, of the sense that we democracies stand together. But all of the internal sources of dysfunction that we faced before February 24 are not gone. Some of them are actually increasing in intensity.

Yes, Europe has opened its doors to migrants, but that’s going to cause a knock-on debate about migration, which is a very, very volatile issue within the EU. Here in the United States we’ve got midterms looming. We’ve got high inflation.

So the point here is, yes, this may look like a war between democracies and autocracies. But let’s not allow what Russia has done to distract us from the important domestic agenda that we have to make sure that liberal democracy here in the United States and in Europe is healthy.


SESTANOVICH: OK, Heidi. If I just—let me add one thing here. Sorry. (Laughs.)


SESTANOVICH: I do think it’s important that the questioner puts his finger on a very useful point. The theme of democracies versus autocracies used to be a kind of ideological one, a spiritual one. But this war has forced a shift from spiritual unity to operational unity. The real issue underlying this summit trip is burden sharing—how to get different contributions from different countries to make sure that the policies of democracies work—and I think that’s going to be the big test for the president. If he’s only looking for spiritual unity, this trip will seem to have been kind of a bust. If he’s able to make progress on operational unity, on sanctions, on arms supplies, on diplomacy, on refugees, on China, then it will seem like a success.

CREBO-REDIKER: So all great points.

I’m going to move to Ben Gittleson next. If you could unmute yourself and state your affiliation, please.

Q: Hi. This is Ben Gittleson from ABC News.

I have two questions, and I was wondering whether you expect President Putin to take any steps in direct response to Biden’s trip and these meetings over the next several days. Could he use biological or chemical weapons, for example, or attack those supply lines in Ukraine’s west as a show of force as these leaders are meeting?

And my other question was about the Chinese and President Xi. Presumably, they’re watching these meetings. Could you speak about what message President Biden is sending to China with this trip?

CREBO-REDIKER: Steve, do you want to take that one?

SESTANOVICH: About Putin’s response, there will definitely be some fulminating rhetoric about the military supply effort and a reminder that countries involved in that kind of enterprise are legitimate targets. I’d be a little surprised if Putin used biological weapons just as an answer to Biden’s trip. (Laughs.) But—and on the message to China, it’s what we’ve been talking about. Charlie captured it well.

CREBO-REDIKER: We haven’t really raised cyber all that much in terms of what could be the next ball to drop. But that’s something that, I think, is probably—the White House has been telegraphing quite a bit lately.

Tom, do you want to add anything to what Steve just said?

GRAHAM: Yeah. I mean—well, look, I mean, you just raised the cyber issue and that is, really, one of the surprises, I think, so far in this special military operation, as Putin would have it. We haven’t seen cyber capabilities used by the Russians very effectively in Ukraine. That’s something that you would have expected from the onset of the military operation. Nor have you seen any significant cyberattacks against Europe or the United States. I think there was a concern going in and I think there’s a continuing concern, you know, given what Russia has done over the past several years, that there would be cyberattacks against critical infrastructure in the United States. I think there was a concern that as we leaned very heavily on the Russian financial sector, cutting many of their major banks off from SWIFT, that that would elicit or provoke a response on the Russian (sic) against a financial sector somewhere in the Western world. That hasn’t happened yet.

You know, what the Russians might be contemplating I don’t think we know at this point. But, obviously, we have to be on guard against that, and I wouldn’t be surprised if one of the things that we see in the next several weeks and not necessarily key to the—Biden’s trip and the meetings in Europe in the coming days is a major cyberattack as a way of driving home the point that this is—that Russia can do damage to those countries that are providing Ukraine with the wherewithal they need to maintain this very stiff resistance against Russia.

CREBO-REDIKER: Can we move next to Farah Stockman?

Q: Hi. Thank you all for doing this.

I’m sorry to bring some doom and gloom here but there are some who, you know, who think that Putin could essentially take what he wants out of Ukraine, take the coast, take the east, you know, leave a rump state maybe in Lviv and—you know, Lviv and parts of western Ukraine, and just leave that to the West and just—you know, he doesn’t have to have a full victory, that he can be very brutal; he can essentially have a military dictatorship in Ukraine and that, you know, we’ll never be able to reinvest and grow Ukraine again because there will always be this fear that it will be attacked once again. I guess I’m curious whether you feel like this is a possibility, a bigger possibility than Ukrainian outright victory, given all the cards that Putin has in his hand and has yet to play.

And I guess the last question I have is just about this idea of democracy versus autocracy. There’s an awful lot of autocracies in the world, including if you look at Saudi Arabia and a bunch of our allies in the Middle East. You know, if we—there’s a certain point at which, when use sanctions so much to totally cut off Russia, which we were going to totally cut off Iran, and now, you know—it seems like, at a certain point, should we be afraid that we’re cutting ourselves off from the rest of the world?

GRAHAM: I can start with the first one. You know, before this operation began, there was much speculation on what the Russians or what Putin intended to do and this division of Ukraine sort of in half along the Dnipro River, Russia taking over the control of the north shore of the Black Sea and leaving a rump Ukraine may have been one of the outcomes that the Kremlin would be driving for. But, you know, I think what has been demonstrated by the stiff Ukrainian resistance over the past several weeks is that Russia probably doesn’t have the wherewithal it needs to actually occupy and pacify that territory. It may occupy in a sort of smaller scenario. You know, that’s still a significant part of the Ukrainian population. Let’s do a rough calculation off the top of the head—top of my head; that’s probably still, you know, 15 to 20 million people. You know, we’ve seen already resistance, local resistance, to Russian efforts to put in place alternative governmental structure. Kherson, I think, is a good example of that where the Russians have occupied that city but they certainly haven’t pacified the population at this point. You’ve seen the very stiff resistance to Mariupol, something that won’t end simply because the Russians have occupied Mariupol.

And then I think the final point that I would make here, that has to be very disturbing to the Kremlin, is that the resistance has been stiff, and very stiff in those areas that were supposed to be most friendly to Russia. The people who are being killed in Kharkiv are Russian speakers and ethnic Russians. That’s true of much of the other areas where the Russians have operated over the past several weeks. So anyone who thinks that they can occupy a smaller part of Ukraine and free themselves of the types of problems they would have if they had occupied all of Ukraine I think are deluding themselves.

On the sanctions issue, I think that’s—it’s a good question. I think it’s something that we need to give careful consideration to. The driving force initially was to put together the most crippling set of sanctions that we thought possible as a way, one, of deterring Russia—that clearly didn’t happen—but now is punishing Russia and hoping that this leads to an earlier end to the conflict than might otherwise be the case. But I think the questioner is absolutely right that we have to begin to think about what the longer-term consequences of this are. What are they thinking about in Beijing, for example? How are they going to sort of restructure their own systems to prevent the United States and the Western world from being able to levy these types of sanctions against China? There’s going to be capitals like that rethinking about the role of the dollar as the international reserve currency, looking at alternative payment systems, and so forth. So we do run the risk, and I hope people in—and I know people in Washington are thinking about this, of sort of undermining the foundations that have allowed us to levy these types of sanctions. We may find that we can’t do this in the future because of the way we’ve approached it at this point.

CREBO-REDIKER: The point that these sanctions are collective, though, when you have the Europeans on board, so you’re talking about the euro, and you have the Japanese on board so you’re talking about the yen, and the Brits with the pound, so that you sort of have—you’re eliminating a lot of places to run.

GRAHAM: Exactly, but, you know, as Charlie pointed out, I mean, the Indians aren’t on board, the South Africans aren’t on board, the Brazilians aren’t on board, the Israelis aren’t on board, none of our Middle Eastern allies or partners are on board. You know, this is fairly, so far, as far as sanctions are concerned, it’s the Western world, sort of broadly defined, against Russia, perhaps China, but much of what we used to call the Third World is actually sitting on the sidelines and looking at how they’re going to position themselves over the future, wanting to stay out of this but also, I think, to provide themselves alternatives so that they’re not subjected to these same levels of sanctions from the Western world.

MR. KUPCHAN: I just had a couple quick points, Heidi. I agree with Tom. You know, if we had had this conversation a couple of weeks ago, I would have guessed that Putin would have aimed to occupy eastern Ukraine and that his kind of self-deluded sense of history doesn’t apply to all of Ukraine, it applies mainly in eastern Ukraine, but I think he’s now getting the sense that that may not work. And so one possibility is that he could try to take a smaller band stemming from Donbas down into Crimea to connect Donbas to Crimea, which is something that we’ve all been worried about going back to 2014, and then maybe some other areas further west, but who knows? We’ll have to watch. But I would guess that he’s getting the sense that trying to occupy and hold down even eastern Ukraine, not just—not the whole country, is a tall order.

And on the sanctions, I really do think we have to consider the possibility that this is the beginning of a more far-reaching de-globalization. You know, we talked about decoupling amid the pandemic, but I’m guessing that as the United States, as Russia, as China watch what’s happening here, globalization does turn into a vulnerability. And I’ll be watching carefully to see what lessons the U.S. and China learn from how powerful the sanctions have been on Russia, precisely because of interdependence and globalization.

SESTANOVICH: One sentence here, if I could. A Russian friend said to me this week, there’s no worse outcome for Putin than having to occupy any significant part of Ukraine now. That’s clear and he has to avoid it at all costs. (Laughs.)

CREBO-REDIKER: So we’re going to move next to Lyric Hale. If you can unmute yourself and state your affiliation, please.

Q: Yes. Hi, Heidi. It’s Lyric Hughes Hale with EconVue in Chicago.

Two items on the agenda that I feel have to be there that I don’t think you’ve discussed yet. One, since, in the last thirty days, Russia’s current account surplus has soared and that is because oil is still flowing to Europe and payments are still coming back from Europe to Russia for that oil. Secondly, both Biden and Putin have just openly discussed the nuclear option. Is that something that’s going to be discussed, and how could that be—what do you imagine will be discussed with that in terms of our allies during this trip? Thank you.

CREBO-REDIKER: Thank you for great questions. We haven’t touched a lot on energy security, but that will certainly be—that will be a big topic for discussion, given the overdependence of, you know, specifically, you know, very large European states, namely Germany, on Russia for its oil and gas supplies. So what do you expect to see? Are there any good—are there any good potential solutions, near-term, medium-term, long-term? And then to the nuclear question.

SESTANOVICH: Let me say a word about the nuclear question. This will definitely be on the agenda, because European allies are going to be saying to the Biden administration, we want to know how you’re handling this, and is existing policy in which you threaten to use nuclear weapons against attacks on NATO members adequate? And the administration is going to be saying: We remain committed to a robust defense; everything is on the table. But one of the ways in which we want to avoid having any awkward questions about the nuclear threshold arise is by not doing anything like no-fly zones or transferring fighter jets to the Ukrainians. So there’s a kind of potential there for both sides to breathe a sigh of relief that they’re on the same page in trying to limit nuclear risk.

What is less reassuring is the way the Russians talk about this. That is, the more sort of bloodthirsty invocation of the nuclear option, you know, at every turn. There is—this predates the Ukraine war by a lot. Putin is the international leader who has taken most pleasure in brandishing nuclear weapons. And his emphasis on the advances in Russian military technology that make it possible to, you know, assure victory in the event of a nuclear war—it’s kind of bizarre. And so whatever success the Biden administration and European allies have in reassuring themselves that they’ve got this one, Putin will continue to unsettle people.

KUPCHAN: On the energy issue, you know, this is just an inescapable dilemma, in the sense that Europe still is heavily dependent on imports of Russian fossil fuel to keep its industries going, to turn on the lights, to heat buildings. And it’s going to take time to alter that. The EU has put out a rather ambitious plan to decrease in a substantial way its dependence on Russian gas. We’ll see whether that comes together. But I’m guessing that, especially in the U.S.-EU piece of the meeting on Thursday, there will be a discussion about getting more LNG to Europe, about getting other forms of assistance to build up Europe’s reserves. But for now, this is just—you know, this comes back to Farah Stockman’s question about interdependence and globalization. The Europeans need that energy. And as a consequence, they will be using it. That will provide revenue to Russia. Russia will use that revenue for ill-begotten gains in Ukraine.

GRAHAM: And if I could make one add-on to what Charlie has just said. You know, clearly there is a difference between oil and gas. Europe is dependent on Russian oil, but oil largely is fungible. So there are ways in which the United States, other countries could bring more oil onto the global market that would enable the Europeans to wean themselves in fairly short order of the need for Russian oil. And that’s something that some of the Europeans are pushing for at this point. And that would cut off a substantial flow of revenue to the Russian state.

Gas obviously is a different matter. This is a long-term problem. There’s very little that can be done in the short-term. That would—that would lessen, to a significant degree, the dependence that Germany, for example, other countries in Eastern Europe have on Russian gas. That’s more sort of medium to long term, we need to be thinking about that now. But there’s almost nothing that we can do in the short term that would radically change the equation.

CREBO-REDIKER: So next can we go to Debra Krol. And if you could unmute yourself and state your affiliation, please.

Q: Well, I’m—OK, I am working. Hi, Debra Krol with the Arizona Republic.

Speaking of sanctions and energy, I’ve been reporting on a story on uranium. In all of the energy sanctions, uranium has not yet been interdicted from Russia. So I was wondering if anyone feels like there—they might be able to answer why is the United States not sanctioning uranium? And do you think that might be the next thing that gets cut off? And just in case—I’m sure you guys know this—about 25 percent of all the enriched uranium that we use in the U.S. is imported from Russia. Thank you.

CREBO-REDIKER: Who wants to take that? So, I mean, if you asked the administration that, they’d say everything is on the table. But I think—(laughs)—

GRAHAM: Well, uranium is—again, it’s one of those things that we can’t replace in the short term. We have given up much of our capability to produce the fuel for our nuclear reactors. We’re dependent on imports from Canada, from Russia. And interestingly enough, the uranium that we’ve gotten from Russia has been, historically, uranium from—down-blended highly-enriched uranium that was used in Soviet nuclear weapons. So it was a program that was called From Megatons to Megawatts, which we considered to be very much a successful program back in the 2000s, and I think up to about 2014-2015.

You know, the answer to this is for us to develop our own indigenous capability to produce the type of fuel that we need to power our nuclear reactors. We haven’t done that. We have some things on tap. But, again, that is going to take time to do. And in the short term, I think it’s going to be very difficult for the administration to sanction Russia because of the consequence that it would have directly on the United States.

CREBO-REDIKER: So I think we’re just—we’re coming up on the witching hour. I just want to remind you that this is—this CFR press briefing is on the record and available to—it will be posted on the website. I will leave it with any one of the three of you, if you want to make any predictions about how this ends, as a final—as a final word. Or you can take a pass. But, you know, we could just do a quick round-robin and then close out.


KUPCHAN: I guess—go ahead, Tom.

GRAHAM: Yeah. I’ll start. I mean, this will end in a negotiated settlement. We just don’t know when and we don’t know what the terms of that settlement will be.


KUPCHAN: I would agree with that. And to circle back to the question about potential nuclear use, I think it’s quite unlikely—either nuclear or chemical/biological—as long as the war does not spread. If the war spreads, and this turns into a broader conflict between NATO and Russia, I think we know from Russian military doctrine, from the development on both sides of low-yield nuclear weapons, that the risk of a potential use of nuclear weapons goes up. And so my final comment would be to simply support the position that the Biden administration has taken on the no-fly zone, on MiGs. I think that we need to do as much as possible to support Ukraine, but always keeping an eye on preventing this war from turning into a broader conflict between NATO and Russia.


SESTANOVICH: You know, logic would tell you that a negotiated settlement is the way this war ought to end. But that often takes a while to sink in for both sides. And since Tom dodged the question of when—(laughter)—I will try to be a little more precise, although I’ll still be evasive. Neither side has—is close to concluding that it needs a compromise that it would have, you know, just a little while ago or even at the outset or before, thought acceptable. The scale of effort, of loss, of emotional engagement has been too great for either side to back down any time soon. So if you asked me will this war still be going on next year, I won’t be a bit surprised.

CREBO-REDIKER: Well, look, I want to—I want to thank everyone on the line for joining us today. And I want to particularly thank three great experts today: Tom, Charlie, and Stephen. There’s a lot that they’ve—that they’ve published available on CFR’s website, and please feel free to reach out to them for any further comments or background information. Thank you for joining us.

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