Panelists discuss the escalating threats at the Ukrainian border, the risks of Russian military action, as well as the mounting tensions between Russia, the United States, and the European Union that have led to this point and possible ways forward.
TREVELYAN: Good morning, everybody, and welcome to this Council on Foreign Relations virtual meeting, “Russia and the West: A New Cold War.” Even just this morning in the last hour there have been more developments with the announcement by the Pentagon that the U.S. is deploying some of those troops that it put on standby last week to Eastern Europe.
So there is so much to discuss, and I’d like to welcome all of you and I’m thrilled that there are hundreds of you on this call, and just to say you will get a chance to ask questions at 11:30.
But first of all, let me introduce our distinguished panelists, who I’d like to welcome and thank for their time. We have Dr. Tim Frye. He is the Marshall D. Shulman professor of political science at Columbia University. We also have with us Douglas Lute, formerly, of course, U.S. Permanent Representative to NATO, now at the Harvard Kennedy School and a CFR member, and joining us from Italy, Dr. Nathalie Tocci, who is the director of the Institute of International Affairs.
So thank you all for being with us. I look forward to this discussion, and anybody who watched the U.N. Security Council meeting in New York earlier in this week could well have been forgiven for thinking that we were back in the days of the Cold War.
But I would like to start with Doug Lute. So, Doug, we have Russian troop buildup on the Ukrainian border, well over a hundred thousand troops, and just this morning we have the announcement from the Pentagon that it is going to deploy troops to Poland, to Romania, to Germany, to bolster the defenses of allies but not to send troops, actually, to Ukraine. What do you make of this development?
LUTE: Well, I think that those deployments in those locations, in particular, are really important because geography here tells the whole story. I mean, Germany, for decades, has been the center of American military basing in Europe. The bases in Germany give us the flexibility to move in any direction. So it gives us the most flexibility by moving additional troops to Germany.
In the northeast corner of the alliance the U.S. has, on a rotational basis, troops in Poland and has since 2015 as part of the aftermath of the 2014 Russian aggression against Ukraine.
So we already have some troops in Poland. These will reinforce them. And then Romania, of course, similarly, on the Black Sea in NATO Southeast. And, significantly, both Poland and Romania have sizable land borders with Ukraine. So while I think the purpose of these troop deployments are to reassure allies and to reinforce the idea that Article 5 of the NATO Treaty—an attack on one is an attack on all—really means what it says. It is also to, potentially, contain any spillover of the events inside Ukraine across these two land borders into Poland and Romania.
TREVELYAN: Does it strike you, Doug, as a pretty muscular move by the Americans?
LUTE: Well, I don’t think muscular in terms of scale. Several thousand troops are not decisive in any measure but, I think, important in terms of timing because these are the first ground troops being deployed, apparently, under U.S. command right now. So this is a U.S. move.
But I think the message to the rest of the alliance is that other members of the alliance, particularly, those contributing this year to the NATO Response Force, should be considering similar national moves in an effort to sort of prime the pump in the event that the NATO Response Force is required.
So I think the U.S.is setting a very positive example here with these troop moves.
TREVELYAN: Tim Frye, how is it going to go down with Vladimir Putin, though? We know that he absolutely detests having NATO troops anywhere near him, and he broke his silence of six weeks yesterday and he announced that the U.S. had, essentially, ignored his concerns about security. So how do you think this is going to be received in Moscow?
FRYE: I don’t think it will be very unexpected. I think the demands put forward by Moscow to abandon the open-door policy in Ukraine to eliminate troops and materiel from the new members of NATO admitted after 1997 he had to expect that there was going to be strong pushback on those demands, and it’s probably a part of the bargaining that will take place.
And the real question here is whether or not Putin is willing to trade security guarantees on issues like arms control, particularly, surrounding intermediate-range missiles, confidence-building measures, restrictions on troop movements, perhaps, greater transparency, greater communication between Moscow and Washington in exchange for NATO’s commitment to the open-door policy, which I don’t think is going to change and will be difficult to fudge.
His remarks yesterday, I thought, were rather balanced. He recognized that NATO had, basically, given him a stiff arm in responding to their demands. At the same time, he also emphasized that they wanted to keep dialogue open, and I took that as a helpful sign. Remember, these are his first remarks on Ukraine in more than a month.
TREVELYAN: And, Tim, do you think he’s been a bit surprised by the unified somewhat, at least, nature of the NATO response? Was he betting on the fact that the U.S. seemed disorganized and confused in the Afghan withdrawal last summer and that he was going to try and press some kind of advantage?
FRYE: Yes, I think so. I think, in my reading of commentary from the Kremlin and the Russian press, the NATO alliance looked as usual, as it often does, like it’s in disarray. However, when NATO members focus their attention and their energies, you know, they usually do come around to support the core principles of NATO.
Just to give one example, you know, if you, in 2014, had taken a bet that the European countries would still be on board with the sanctions regime in 2022 you could have made a lot of money. Predictions were that the European business community would not put up with, you know, such severe restrictions on trade with Russia for more than a year or eighteen months.
But here we are in 2022 and, you know, the Europeans are still on board with the sanctions regime, and all the talk is on increasing the level of sanctions, and, in part, that’s a response to, really, I think, Putin’s misreading of the situation in Ukraine, where, thanks to his actions, support for NATO within Ukraine has gone from, you know, 33 percent in 2014 to, you know, more than 60 percent today.
So I do think he’s been surprised by NATO’s response and I also think he has been surprised that there hasn’t been a greater support for Russian moves within Ukraine. So I think on both of those fronts, although Putin is a very talented physician, he’s somewhat misread the situation.
TREVELYAN: And, Nathalie, there’s a big piece in the Wall Street Journal today about concerns about Germany and is it going to stand firm as an ally throughout all of this. How do you read the European unity, or otherwise, at this moment?
TOCCI: Well, I mean, you know, so following on from what Tim was saying, I mean, I actually think that up until now we have—and this is true both at the transatlantic level and in the European level—I mean, despite the differences, which, obviously, exists, so there’s been, you know, a lot of attention being paid to Estonians being frustrated about the fact that they can’t sell German-made weaponry to—to send some weaponry to Ukraine, about, you know, Italian businesses meeting with Vladimir Putin, you know, sort of German helmets are being made sort of, you know, being divided.
So, there’s, obviously, been quite a lot of attention at those sort of instances of differences, of divisions. But when push comes to shove and you actually look at what both Europeans and Americans, where they stand on all of this, we, basically, see that the bottom line, really, is shared. Right or wrong, you know, sort of—regardless of whether the policy is right or wrong then we agree that we’re not putting into question the open-door policy.
We agreed that Ukraine ought to be supported, and different countries are supporting it in different ways. We agreed that we’re not prepared to go to war in Ukraine and we agreed that a response to a Russian aggression is sanctions. And, as Tim was saying, considering that the sanctions that we are discussing are, obviously, very painful ones for Russia, but let’s face it, they’re also very painful ones for Europeans amidst an energy crisis, right. And, yet, we are discussing them.
So I think that as of today that response has actually been a very united one. What concerns me is the kind of response that we are debating is in the event of a Russian invasion. Now, what if there isn’t a Russian invasion and there is something which the president of the country across the pond defined as a minor incursion, whatever that means?
Now, that, I think, is where we could end up with those differences coming to the fore in terms of what kind of sanctions in response to what kind of aggression.
TREVELYAN: Right, and it’s very interesting to note that here in Washington earlier this week the Qataris were in town, who, of course, could supply gas to Europe in the event of the energy crisis getting worse because of an invasion of Ukraine, which is fascinating.
But, Nathalie, in terms of the sanctions, the Germans are in a really difficult position, aren’t they, because of this pipeline that’s bringing gas from Russia to Germany—Nord Stream 2? Isn’t that something that Vladimir Putin is exploiting there?
TOCCI: I think that, you know, Nord Stream 2, obviously, has been a big issue for Germany for a long time in an odd kind of way. This crisis has, paradoxically, almost made it easier. I mean, the Germans were in this incredibly uncomfortable position whereby, commercially, this was very clearly something that was going ahead. You know, it’s very difficult to, basically, halt it. Politically, many within Germany felt very uncomfortable and have been feeling very uncomfortable about it for years.
Now, you know, if the situation changes because there is a Russian aggression, well, frankly speaking, that debate ends. It’s very clear. You know, the German foreign minister has made it very clear Nord Stream 2 would be suspended. So I think in an odd kind of way it actually makes life easier rather than more complicated in Germany.
TREVELYAN: Very interesting.
And, Doug, just tell me, I mean, as a former NATO ambassador how does this feel and look to you? Does it feel and look like there could be a war?
LUTE: So there could be, of course, and that won’t be a NATO decision but a President Putin decision. But, you know, it feels very familiar because I was at the consul as the U.S. ambassador in 2013 to 2017, which, obviously, included the last time we saw something like this. This was, in 2014, Putin seizing and illegally annexing the Crimea Peninsula—a sovereign piece of territory in Ukraine—and then destabilizing the Donbas with a not so ambiguous Russian troop presence.
So it feels a bit like that. But also the coherence, the solidarity among allies, feels similar, too. I recognize this sense of, you know, day-to-day, thirty democracies, each with independent capitals and their own democratic politics to play, don’t always move NATO forward aggressively.
But in the face of a crisis there’s this cohering of the alliance, which, I think, we’re witnessing now, and one key ingredient of making it through such a crisis is U.S. leadership. I think we saw it in 2014 and 2015 in the aftermath of Crimea and the Donbas, and I’m glad to say I see it today again, as the administration, I think, really does yeoman’s work in pulling everything together.
TREVELYAN: And, Tim, what do you think? Do you think that we’re on the brink of war or can Vladimir Putin save faces somehow and, if so, what’s the face saving?
FRYE: So I think all leaders in Washington, Kyiv, and Moscow have staked out pretty public and strong positions that will not be easy to walk back. There is a small window of overlap around some of the issues that I mentioned before. But it would take, I think, in each of these three capitals some political capital.
In Russia, it’s quite interesting. I think, among the Russian public, there would be a great sigh of relief. If you look at the public opinion data in Russia, Russians—80 percent of Russians are perfectly fine with Ukraine being an independent state, and surveys over the last fifteen years have shown that it’s really only 15 (percent) to 20 percent of Russians who are interested in unification with Ukraine. And, also, Russians are very sensitive to loss of casualty. This is one of the reasons why Russia’s operations in Eastern Ukraine have been so stealthy, you know, and why they’re not publicized within Russia.
The harder sell would be among the security services and, you know, they have taken on an increasingly important role in decision-making in Russia in the last—particularly, in the last eighteen months. But I think, you know, Putin is still the leader of Russia. He’s the president, and if he wanted to expend some political capital he could sell a deal, you know, provided that there were, you know, credible guarantees about the placement of missiles, restrictions on troop movements, and agreements on, say, naval exercises.
And the big issue here is, look, Russia is the major military power on the continent. But it’s outside of the European security architecture. So if Putin can tell his generals, look, our voices are being heard and we’re being—you know, our interests are being taken into account, I think he should be able to sell it.
TREVELYAN: And, Nathalie, give us some insight into this shuttle diplomacy, particularly, by the French and the Germans, that’s going on behind the scenes, especially President Macron and his calls with President Putin. How influential do you see all of that as being?
TOCCI: Well, me, I think this is a crisis that takes place, obviously, at different levels, and I think that before one even gets into the various levels the one point that really should be noted is that, well, thank God that Europeans and European diplomacy woke up because I’m not quite sure where it was up until a couple of weeks ago.
And given that this crisis has been kind of sizzling away since November—in fact, it has been sizzling away since April, if we don’t—we don’t want to go back to 2014—I mean, it is really quite shocking that up until a few weeks ago European diplomacy was nowhere to be seen.
Now, once it became clear where things were headed and, indeed, the prospect of war became a more tangible one, the French and the Germans basically went back to what the format that they themselves have established was all about, which operates at a level not of the conversation about arms control—which is, obviously, mainly a U.S.-Russia conversation; it’s not the sort of NATO and, therefore, opens-door policy concerning Ukraine—but it’s really about the Ukraine conflict and, therefore, the revival of the Normandy format.
Now, you know, I think there can be lots of—you know, there were also many reasons why this format can be critiqued. As a Europeanist, I would say that one of the main reasons is that the EU as such is not part of it. However, having said this, I think it does have the incredible value added not so much that France and Germany are there, but Ukraine is there. Because, of course, you know, part of the tragedy of all of this is that we’re talking about a Ukraine crisis and, yet, Ukraine has largely yet to be consulted and the U.S. has, you know, really gone out of its way, in many respects. But Ukraine has not been sitting around the table, and here we are trying to support Ukraine’s sovereignty, and all of the major negotiation formats with the exception of the Normandy format is one that excludes Ukraine.
And so I think that it’s not but simply for that the French and the Germans should be credited for reviving that format. I don’t, personally, think that it’s a format that at this point in time can really deliver. I mean, I think, in many respects, the Minsk Agreement, which really hinges on that format, is dead in the water, and it’s dead in the water probably because it’s unimplementable, I mean, not simply because it’s unimplemented. But having said this, as I said, you know, given that it’s the only format that sees Kyiv sitting around the table, I think it’s really something to be valued at this point in time.
TREVELYAN: Doug, here in Washington, of course, U.S. senators are working on a package of sanctions. There’s some debate about whether Russia should be sanctioned now. But what do you make of the twin track approach that the U.S.is deploying, both troops but also pretty tough financial sanctions, which, potentially, could cut Russia off from the international banking system? I don’t know if they would really go that far. But what do you make of what the U.S.is contemplating?
LUTE: My sense is that the U.S.—with U.S. leadership, we and our European allies have really assembled a pretty potent package of potential sanctions, and I think we’ve clarified over the last two weeks through a series of diplomatic engagements—some U.S.-Russian bilateral, then, again, at NATO, then, again, at the OSCE, earlier this week at the U.N.—exactly what these consequences are.
So clarity and precision in these sanctions, I think, is really important. I think they’re sufficient to give President Putin pause in terms of what his cost benefit ratio would actually look like if he were to trigger these sanctions by way of an attack on Ukraine.
So I think this is a part of the diplomatic surge, if you will, over the last couple of weeks that, I think, has been quite effective.
TREVELYAN: Tim, what do you think about these sanctions, the idea that President Putin, well, personally could be sanctioned but then the impact of financial sanctions on a country which is already under so many?
FRYE: I think the ambassador is right that it’s impressive, the scope and scale of the package that’s been put together and the level of cooperation that’s taken place among countries with very different interests. You know, the research shows, I think, that if you look at cases of sanctions, when countries really want to do something sanctions are not really going to deter them.
At the same time, it doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t put them in place. They do raise the cost to decision-making on particular constituencies that might be important. They’re also important as a bargaining chip that can be removed during negotiations once, you know, the parties get around the table.
They’re also important as a signal of just how strongly the U.S. and its allies feel about this issue. If we go back to 2014, one could imagine a situation of the U.S. and its NATO allies simply condemning Russia with kind of cheap talk, criticizing the, you know, violation of national sovereignty of Ukraine.
But that has a much bigger impact when countries demonstrate that even they are willing to suffer some pain in exchange for upholding this international norm about the sovereignty of national borders.
So I worry a little bit that within the Senate there’s a real tendency to oversell the impact of sanctions. Like, if we just hit Russia hard enough, you know, then they’ll back down. You know, Russia has a lot of options. They’ve got a big national wealth fund of over $600 billion. They’ve been under sanctions for a while. So we shouldn’t oversell the impact of the sanctions on Russian decision-making.
TREVELYAN: And, Nathalie, in Europe, how is Ukraine viewed? As a reliable partner or as a slightly problematic one because of the corruption that’s there? Just walk us through that.
TOCCI: I mean, I think that Ukraine is kind of viewed, broadly speaking, as, you know, a country in transition and in transition towards something better than what it was. So, yes, indeed, you know, no one is kind of starry eyed about Ukraine and the problems that persist, as you were mentioning, in terms of governance, of corruption are, certainly, sort of, you know, perceived.
At the same time, I think there is a recognition that a number of reforms have taken place. I think there’s certainly the recognition that probably Ukraine has the most vibrant civil society amongst any of the countries in the eastern partnership and that, in general, the sort of direction of travel is a positive one.
Now, having said this, we are not at the stage in which we are seriously contemplating, frankly speaking, you know, anything meaningful as far as enlargement is concerned. But this is, I think, something that goes well beyond Ukraine. I mean, it’s really—you know, we’re in a different geological era in this respect. You know, we no longer live in that wonderful liberal international order in which it’s all about expanding our norms and our values and our rules through enlargement and neighborhood policies.
I mean, we’re in a different world internationally and in a European level, and therefore that, I think, entails that there are real structural limits, in a sense, to the European role in Ukraine, given that, obviously, there is this mismatch in terms of what the expectation is and, really, where the European debate is—as I said, not just about Ukraine but in general about enlargement, be it the Balkans, Eastern Europe, the Caucasus, or Turkey for that matter.
TREVELYAN: Doug, the U.S. is sending its top cybersecurity official to NATO, which is an interesting development, and being very public about it, as the Americans have been about all these moves. What do you make of that, the idea that, you know, war is waged on many levels and, particularly, the information one?
LUTE: Well, I think it’s important because in President Putin’s kit bag he has a lot of options which are short of actual ground—conventional ground attack across the international border with Ukraine. Maybe most telling or most meaningful among those lesser options are his cyber capabilities. And, look, cyberattack in Ukraine won’t be anything new to the Ukrainians. I mean, they’ve been under cyberattack for about a decade now.
But Putin has a sophisticated array of cyber tools that he could use and which, for a while, could look ambiguous, not quite clear, perhaps, a bit hard to attribute directly to Russia, and he may be looking here for an option that features an attack on Ukraine, not by conventional force but by cyber, which then begins to open divisions or cracks in the coherence of the sanctions regime.
So would we sanction him to the same extent if there’s a significant cyberattack? And he may be looking for an opportunity here to achieve some of his objectives and avoid some of the sanctions.
TREVELYAN: Tim, I have to ask you this because it’s so fascinating. President Putin is going to go to Beijing for the opening of the Winter Olympics. Lots of speculation about what this means. Does it mean he wouldn’t want to rain on China’s parade by launching an invasion of Ukraine? Of course, you know, history tells us that the Olympics has often been a cover for military action. But do you think that relationship is key in all of this?
FRYE: Well, I think—I don’t think that, you know, the planning of the Kremlin is really strongly rooted in the Olympic calendar. I think Putin will make the decision about whether to go or not, you know, regardless of regardless of the Olympics.
If we—you know, China’s position has been more supportive of Russia during this particular crisis than it was in 2014. You know, there are real limits, and Chinese foreign policy tends to be rather cautious, particularly, about the—supporting the use of force in changing international borders. That’s something that Chinese foreign policy has not supported. So they’re walking a fine line.
Now, if you remember back to 2014, there were lots of expectations that China would just jump in and fill the gap caused by U.S. sanctions. But by my reading, the Chinese jumped in and took advantage of the situation as a monopoly, a bargaining partner, and were able to get some pretty sweet deals from the Russians.
So, you know, China is an option for Moscow and it does help, but it will come at a cost, you know, above from what, you know, Russia would usually get in a normal market situation where it could play China off against other countries.
TREVELYAN: OK. So Tim, Doug, and Nathalie, thank you so much for answering my questions. That concludes this portion, and now I would like to invite all of our members to join this conversation with their questions. Just a reminder that this meeting is on the record. It’s being recorded. It will be posted to the CFR website afterwards.
The operator will remind you how to join the question queue. So please raise your hands if you would like to speak and our panelists, I know, will be delighted to answer your questions. And, perhaps, you can, you know, say if you’re directing it towards someone in particular. Thank you. So we await your questions eagerly.
OPERATOR: (Gives queuing instructions.)
We’ll take the first question from William Courtney.
TREVELYAN: Go ahead, William.
OPERATOR: Ambassador Courtney, please accept the unmute now prompt.
It looks like we’re having some difficulty with that line. We’ll take the next question from Mikki Canton.
Q: Good morning. I want to thank you, first and foremost, for taking time. You are all fascinating, and I’m very impressed with your insightful comments.
My question is, given the role that in the past Russia has had in its relationship with Cuba as well as with Venezuela, and the idea that they would establish a more concrete military presence there at this time, whether it’s for show or to actually have a possibility of just engaging in military action, especially with Cuba being only ninety miles away from south Florida, I’d like to get your thoughts on that and if that’s something that you believe the United States has really taken that seriously.
When we had the uprising in Venezuela against Maduro, the United States was very much gung ho in bringing in the new president as Guaidó, and all of a sudden everything came to a halt and I suspect a lot of Russian influence was involved in making that decision to hold off. Given that and, of course, the history that Russia has with Cuba, what are your thoughts?
TREVELYAN: That’s one for you, Tim, I think.
FRYE: Yeah. Thanks a lot. You know, I don’t see that as something the U.S. should be strongly concerned about. The capacity to, you know, have forces so far away from Russia makes logistics challenging. Cuba would have to really think twice about how much they want to anger their big neighbor to the north. Venezuela might be more of a possibility but Venezuela is not a particularly easy place to operate these days.
Also, I think the bigger point is this would simply justify U.S. actions in Europe, which would be much more threatening to Russia. The Americans could say, well, if you’re going to be in our backyard we’ll be in your backyard, and that’s a trade that I don’t think the Kremlin would like to make, given that the, you know, U.S. presence in Europe would be far greater than anything that the Russians could establish in the Western Hemisphere.
TREVELYAN: Thanks for that answer, Tim, and for the question. Shall we have the next question, please?
OPERATOR: We will try once more with William Courtney.
TREVELYAN: I was—
Q: Yeah. Yes, thank you. I apologize. The publishing of a(n) anti-war statement by about three thousand members of the intelligentsia about the same time, really, within hours of President Putin’s somewhat conciliatory speech sounds a little bit coordinated, based on the way we know about practices in the past.
Is there a possibility here that there’s been Kremlin infighting and there’s been maybe a shift in attitudes?
FRYE: That’s a really good question. I don’t have sources in the Kremlin that would lead me one way or another. But, one, you know, there’s always infighting within autocratic regimes. There are always differences of interests. One of Putin’s great success has been to balance these different interests for a long period of time.
What’s happened, I think, though, in the last, you know, twenty-four months, eighteen months, is that the voices of moderation within the Kremlin have really taken a backseat to the more hawkish voices, and I think that might be, you know, accounting for some of the rhetoric, some of the extreme demands, and, frankly, some of the policies that we see towards Ukraine taking place right now.
Now, you could absolutely be right, that given NATO’s response, given the lackluster support for this kind of operation from the Russian public at the moment, there may be some reconsideration going on and recalibration to think that maybe there was some overreach in the earlier stages, and the evidence that you point to, you know, speaks to that.
TREVELYAN: Thank you so much for that answer and also the question. Could we have the next question, please?
OPERATOR: We’ll take the next question from Samuel Visner.
Q: Good morning. Thanks. Thanks for taking my question. This may be a question that Doug Lute would like to address, although anyone else who would like to address it I’d be grateful for their thoughts.
How well do we think Russia is integrating cyber and other capabilities into a new and sort of more organic and more fully integrated concept of operations, not just to wage war but to gain its objectives geopolitically and using, perhaps, Ukraine as an example of it? And if you can comment on it, how well do you think the West is doing in building up its own integrated concept in which cyber and cyberspace are considered integrated components of state power? Thank you.
LUTE: So I think that Russia is actually in advance of us in this arena. They have developed and proofed, demonstrated, especially in the near abroad—in their near abroad—in the West, a spectrum of capabilities, which, at the high end include, obviously, nuclear capability and conventional weaponry and so forth, but a much more sophisticated and synchronized continuum of capabilities, including cyber, misinformation campaigns, disinformation campaigns, interference in electoral processes, energy intimidation, and so forth, in a way that I don’t think we have fully accounted for yet.
We’re still a bit stovepiped in our approaches and I don’t think that these less than conventional force options are as well integrated in the West as they are in Russia.
TREVELYAN: Nathalie, would you like to talk a little bit about that, about the European view of Russian cybersecurity capability?
TOCCI: Well, I agree with Luke (sic) on the Russia side—I mean, I think on the European side. The reason why I agree with him, that I think we’re well behind, is that, in a sense, we haven’t had as much practice, if you like, as Russia has in terms of actually, you know, sort of doing this. You know, I think there are plenty of documents going around and we’ve been working on these documents for a long time.
I’m not quite sure how much of this we’ve actually put into practice. And of course, you know, the fact that Russia has actually been conducting many of these attacks, as we know, over the years has given it the advantage of actually, in a sense, kind of engaging quite a lot of trial and error, which, of course, we haven’t been able to do—and we don’t want to do. (Laughs.)
TREVELYAN: And, Tim, just tell us about the importance to Vladimir Putin of this strategic cyber war advantage, particularly, with regard to Ukraine.
FRYE: Well, obviously, you know, Putin has many tools in the cyber kit from kind of misinformation to attacks on, you know, energy plants to command and control attacks as well, and, you know, these kinds of tactics—this is Russia’s comparative advantage, you know. The U.S. likes to use sanctions because we have a comparative advantage in, you know, dominating the financial markets. Russia has a comparative advantage in military on the local level, particularly, in their own region, but also in terms of cyber. They have, you know, as the ambassador mentioned, a very integrated system. And the attractiveness of this for President Putin, I would think, is that it does create uncertainty about how the West should respond. You know, in the event of an invasion the response, I think, would be, you know, pretty clear and people have kind of thought that through.
But if it’s some, you know, gradual or cyberattacks that knock some command and control sites offline for some periods of time that are damaging and disruptive for Ukrainian business and politics and daily life, you know, it’s not clear how the West would respond.
TREVELYAN: Thank you so much for your answers and for that good question. Could we get to the next question?
OPERATOR: We’ll take the next question from Doyle McManus.
Q: Thanks. Thanks very much.
Professor Frye earlier talked about how strong the positions were that the Russians have taken and how difficult it would be to walk back. There’s a lot of talk, as you know, in every capital about finding the off ramps, and probably the most difficult off ramp to find will be on—it would seem to me, is on the persistent issue of NATO membership for Ukraine, which is not in the cards but we also can’t rule out.
So do you have any suggestions on where there might be an off ramp on that particular issue?
FRYE: Well, on—
Q: And I’d direct this to everyone, in fact.
FRYE: Yeah. Actually, does anybody else want to jump in on this first?
TREVELYAN: Why don’t we start with Doug and then hear from all of you?
LUTE: Oh. I think the off ramp itself, if Putin reads carefully Article 10 of the NATO Treaty—the Washington Treaty of 1949—it lays out how a candidate or an aspirant could actually join—can actually join the alliance and, of course, NATO has gone from the original twelve to, today, thirty allies. So we’ve got some practice in terms of how to apply these criteria.
But the one that’s sticking for Ukraine is that the treaty specifies that all current members—so, today, thirty allies—must agree unanimously on the admission of a new member, and the reality is, and it has been for some time, at least since 2008 and the Bucharest Summit, that there is not consensus among the current member states.
So Putin wants—President Putin is stating he wants an ironclad legally binding guarantee. I think the best he’ll get in that regard is a careful reading of Article 10 of the treaty.
TREVELYAN: Nathalie, what do you think?
TOCCI: Well, in fact, just connecting to a point that Doug was—the point that Doug was making, let me, though, add something that I think we should note in this respect, because this is—this really connects to a debate which has been going on in Rome and I think in—well, in fact, I know in other European capitals as well.
I think that what we shouldn’t be doing in order to somehow substantiate the Article is for some capitals—some capitals of NATO members to step up and formally say we would not be in favor of this. Because, you know, this is a debate that is actually going on in Europe at the moment and I personally feel that it would be a very bad idea because, in a sense, on one level, it’s obvious, but were it to be formalized we would be going back to actually sowing that division, in a sense, which, you know, is kind of—at the moment has been capped, but is, obviously, under the surface there within NATO and more broadly in the transatlantic relationship.
TREVELYAN: Tim, is there an off ramp for Vladimir Putin—
FRYE: So if the Kremlin sees Ukraine primarily as a security threat, or Ukraine and NATO or NATO and Ukraine, however you want to phrase it, you know, then there are off ramps. You know, there are confidence-building measures, arms control agreements, limits on intermediate-range missiles, and other, you know, items that have been in place in the past that could be a possible off ramp that might address, you know, the security concerns.
If the Kremlin sees Ukraine primarily as a threat because it’s a Slavic country that’s drifting away from Moscow culturally, economically, and militarily, I mean, Ukraine’s largest—Ukraine traded more with China last year than with Russia. Ukraine traded more with Poland last year than with Russia.
So it is, you know, really drifting away, and in that case, it’s very difficult to design policies that would satisfy Russia’s demands to keep, you know, a heavy hand over Ukraine. One troubling thing is, you know, it’s hard to see a kind of backdoor solution, as we saw in the Cuban Missile Crisis, where, you know, miraculously, six months after the crisis unfolds, you know, the U.S. removes missiles from Turkey. You know, given the great degree of distrust in Moscow and Warsaw, you know, that is a trickier off ramp, I think, to manage today than it was in that case.
TREVELYAN: Thank you all so much for your answers and for that question. Next question, please.
OPERATOR: We’ll take the next question from Jan Lodal.
TREVELYAN: Do go ahead, Jan. Are you unmuted?
OPERATOR: Mr. Lodal, please accept the unmute now button.
It looks like we’re having some—
Q: No. No. We’ve got it. We’ve got it.
OPERATOR: Oh. Pardon me.
Q: Sorry. Doug, I think back to your very great help in 2015 when we were all trying to get some Javelins and things like that, and so I’d very much appreciate your thoughts as to what the actual military capabilities of the Ukrainians might be. I mean, I think about it, and they’ve got at least a thousand, maybe some more now, Javelins. Plus, they’ve got a bunch of other stuff.
So let’s say that the Russians did invade and roll their tanks in, and the Ukrainians have the capacity to destroy a thousand or two thousand of their kind of more modern tanks because we’ve given them some stuff. That’s something that Russians haven’t suffered any time in recent history. Would they think carefully about that? Is that, potentially, more of a military deterrent than we give the Ukrainians credit for having? Obviously, they can’t really win the war against that huge Russian force but there might be an awful lot of bloody destroyed tanks around, and how much do you think the Russians pay attention?
LUTE: Well, thanks for that, Jan. I think the Ukrainian military has made substantial improvements, especially since 2014, for example. A lot of this has come by way of the assistance from the U.S. and other NATO allies, providing training, organizational reform, and some meaningful equipment.
I think most meaningful in terms of the deterrent effect are these Javelin anti-tank missiles that you mentioned. Ukraine now has hundreds if not thousands of these, including some emergency additional shipments just in the last week. These are the world-class first in show systems which can reach out about three thousand meters, so about two miles. They are in use in the American ground forces and they give the Ukrainian soldier on the front line a capability to exact a pretty—a significant cost against Russian armor.
And so I agree with you. I think that there is an impact here. The difference, though, is that this would be deterrence by way of exacting a price that would increase the cost of an invasion. But I don’t think it’s sufficient for President Putin to consider not invading at all. I think if he decides to invade the Javelins are not going to be a factor.
TREVELYAN: Tim, would you agree with that? Do you think the Javelins are a deterrent to President Putin?
FRYE: Actually, I had a question for Ambassador Lute along these lines. We haven’t really talked about—you know, one argument that people make is that if the Kremlin is going to go into Ukraine they should go in whole hog because a minor incursion, recognizing the Donbas republics or, you know, seizing some small territory is still going to incur massive sanctions and massive costs from the West. So if you are going to go in then you should really go in and occupy a large territory in Ukraine.
Do you buy that argument or not? This is more your specialty than mine so I’m interested in your thoughts about—
LUTE: Well, Tim, I don’t buy it completely because the deeper the incursion—the invasion into Ukraine, the more the Russian forces incur other costs. So not only Ukrainian resistance but logistics, the impending spring weather when Ukraine is famous for difficult maneuvering and so forth, large populations in Kharkov and, ultimately, in and around Kyiv.
So, I mean, there are significant costs, even setting aside Ukrainian armed resistance. Just time, distance, and the physics of a campaign that large would impose significant costs.
FRYE: Yeah, and—
TOCCI: Can I just—can I just come in on this? And, also Tim, I think we shouldn’t underestimate the advantage for Putin of a, quote/unquote, “minor incursion” that is far more likely to sow division within the West than anything major.
TREVELYAN: Fascinating. Now, we must get to the next question. Thank you all for that. Next.
OPERATOR: We’ll take the next question from Joanna Shelton.
Q: Good morning, and thank you so much for this fascinating discussion. I’m Joanna Shelton with the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
I’d like to go back to the cyber capabilities that Russia has and ask the question that if there is a Russian attack that brings Western financial sanctions, do you think Putin would dare to retaliate by hitting U.S. critical infrastructure, including our own financial sector, for example?
TREVELYAN: Go for it, Tim.
FRYE: It’s a very good question. I think it would depend a lot on, you know, the extent of the sanctions, who they were targeted against. You know, with sanctions you want to keep, you know, one card in your back pocket so that there’s always the threat that you can do something more.
So striking that right balance with sanctions so that, you know, when the other side responds—and, inevitably, the other side responds, whether it’s in terms of cyber or military or diplomatic efforts—it’s always good to keep that one, you know, card in your back pocket, and we might think about Putin trying to disrupt the global financial system by striking U.S. targets as being the card that he probably would keep in his pocket, just given the collateral damage it would have, you know, outside of the United States as well.
But, again, you know, he doesn’t share his plans with me and that’s speculation.
TREVELYAN: Thank you very much for that answer. Let’s take the next question, please.
OPERATOR: We’ll take the next question from Bob Tuttle.
As a possible compromise between the Russians and the allies, and since they’re not in the process of applying, could we agree that the—you know, Ukraine would not apply for membership in NATO for, say, five years or seven years or ten years? Is that a decent idea or not?
TREVELYAN: What do you think, Nathalie?
TOCCI: I think that—well, firstly, what I think is probably most important of all is that whatever happens comes from Ukraine. So I think that whether it’s one, ten, twenty, or never, you know, if at the end of the day what we stand for is Ukraine’s sovereignty, then this is something that should be coming from Ukraine, and not coming from Ukraine because we’re pointing a gun at its head. So I think that as a point of principle—beyond the not questioning the overall open-door policy, I think that as a point of principle what, I think, we should be standing for is that whatever negotiation there is—and, obviously, this is and could be part of the overall package—this is something that comes from Kyiv itself.
TREVELYAN: Tim, what do you think? Would that placate President Putin, no Ukrainian—
FRYE: You know, the Kremlin has said never. That’s when the—you know, they’ve—Sergey Lavrov came back very forcefully to say, no, the correct number for when—for a promise of when NATO might allow Ukraine in should be never, right?
You know, that said, I think what concerns the Kremlin is, in part, Ukraine in NATO, you know, but they recognize that the odds of that happening in the near future are pretty low. What they’re more concerned about is NATO in Ukraine and, de facto, Ukraine becomes an extension of NATO policy by increasing its military relationships with NATO as an organization and with individual member countries in a way that is perceived to be, you know, bad for Russian security interests.
So, you know, both things are going on and, you know, the U.S.is focused on the security issues rather than on the NATO guarantee and, you know, the hope is that that will preserve peace because a war on this scale would have tremendous costs for Ukraine, for Russia, for Europe, and it has the potential to really fundamentally alter the security architecture of Europe. So the stakes are very high here.
TREVELYAN: Thank you so much for those answers. And, please, could we have the next question?
OPERATOR: We’ll take the next question from Avis Bohlen.
Q: Thank you, and thank you for this very wonderful discussion.
I have a further question about Ukraine and NATO. Obviously, we are committed to leaving the—to the open-door policy and we won’t go back on that. But how—would it really be in the U.S. or in NATO’s interest to have Ukraine in NATO?
LUTE: Well, we have to go back to where Nathalie—the point Nathalie just made. I mean, that decision is, fundamentally—has to begin with the Ukrainians. I mean, this has to be a national decision first, and then based on that national aspiration to join, NATO takes it under advisement, there’s a Membership Action Plan, and so forth.
Look, I don’t think membership of Ukraine is—would be a decisive advantage for NATO. I think Ukraine is, in terms of democratic values, which is one of the criterion—criteria of membership, Ukraine still has work to do in civilianizing its military structures, civilian control of the military. It’s got to deal with endemic corruption and so forth. So it has homework to do before it becomes a serious aspirant.
TREVELYAN: Very good. Did either of you want to answer that, Tim and Nathalie?
No. OK. On we go. Thank you so much for that answer and for the question. Next question, please.
OPERATOR: We’ll take the next question from Edward Cox.
My question, really, builds on the past ones about the military capabilities and what Ukraine has to do to go into NATO. And is Putin’s real concern here about the Donbas and the growing military capabilities supported by the will to use them with the increased Ukrainian nationalism meant that, perhaps, in the east Ukrainians might act to reestablish their borders there and in that process pave the way with the other reforms they’d have to do to get into NATO? And is that what’s really driving Putin here and by his military moves they saying, no way—don’t try it?
FRYE: That’s, certainly, the Kremlin argument, that they’re worried about a provocation from the Kyiv side to retake the Donbas. And if you look, you know, Zelensky has taken a harder line on Minsk-2. Kyiv has accepted drones from Turkey, which have been, you know, somewhat successful on the battlefield.
Zelensky has also sanctioned Viktor Medvedchuk, who is a Ukrainian citizen oligarch, if you will, who’s a close colleague, friend, godfather to Putin’s daughter. Now, but do those really—those actions really justify a buildup of, you know, a hundred and fifty thousand troops to encircle an entire country and, you know, bring the continent to, you know, the state of war? I would say—you know, I would say no.
TREVELYAN: Thank you so much. Thanks for the question and for the answer. We just have a few minutes left. So, please, could we get another question?
OPERATOR: We’ll take the next question from Craig Charney.
It concerns the pipeline, the Nord Stream 2. People talk about it as though it is leverage for the West. However, I’ve imagined it might be the reverse. Suppose Mr. Putin were to say in the crisis, well, there have been some explosions along the pipelines that feed to Ukraine and Poland. So sorry, but the only pipeline that can satisfy the needs of Germany and Europe is Nord Stream 2. What would we do in that case?
TOCCI: Yeah. Well, I think you’re absolutely right. And I think that was a very likely prospect, which is why, of course, what is happening—(inaudible)—you know, the scramble for LNG that Laura was mentioning at the outset.
Now, you know, let’s be very honest about this: LNG is not going to be sufficient, and I think we’re all aware of it. Which is why, actually, I think, you know—going back to the point about unity, you know, which is why I actually think it’s really quite remarkable that we’re sticking to this line and that we are actually seriously considering the package—you know, the sanctions package, which we kind of have built within it an assumption that there would be this kind of Russian retaliation. Now, whether it would be, indeed, sort of a decision to interrupt supplies, which I doubt, or whether it could be, as I think was implicit in your question, sort of, you know, collateral damage, if you like, of a military incursion, I think this is a very likely prospect.
You know, this is really something which, I think, is also happening at this point in time precisely because we’re in an energy crisis. I mean, you know, the energy relationship between Europe and Russia is, obviously, one of, I would say, broadly speaking, interdependence rather than dependence. But it’s very clear that when prices are low, which was the story between 2014 and six months ago, the bargaining hand is on the buyer’s side—and therefore it’s on the European side—as opposed to when prices are high, which has been the story since September/October, where the reverse is true.
So I think, you know, this is happening at this point in time precisely for this reason. You know, we’re not being naïve about it. We know that we could be facing an extremely expensive and cold winter. And you know, but as I said, it is actually quite remarkable that we’re going ahead with this.
Frankly speaking, I don’t think that there is a quick-win solution to this one. You know, I think that if there is a takeaway from the current crisis, it’s that it’s brought back into the debate energy security that we have forgotten about since 2014, thinking it was a thing of the past.
TREVELYAN: Nathalie, thank you so much. And it is now, according to my clock here in my BBC Radio studio, 12:00—12:01. So we’ll conclude this session.
Thank you to everybody for these excellent questions. Thank you to our panelists for doing such a superb job. Thank you to the Council on Foreign Relations for hosting this virtual meeting, “Russia and the West: A New Cold War.” It will be posted to the CFR website. Thank you all and have a good afternoon. Bye-bye.