Russia's War in Ukraine: How Does it End?
Our panelists discussed the current situation in and regarding Ukraine, the goals of NATO, Russia, and Ukraine, and alternative futures
HAASS: Well, good morning, one and all, to this virtual on-the-record meeting on “Russia’s War in Ukraine,” or, more broadly, the war in Ukraine, and the subtitle is “How Does It End?” One could also ask the question does it end and, if so, how.
We’ve got four people who are going to be discussing this morning. First, we all are going to have a conversation, which makes it five. Then we’ll open it up to our members, I think, in alphabetical order.
Steve Hadley, who was former national security adviser, he’s a principal in a firm with Condi Rice and Bob Gates. Most important, he’s a member of the board of directors of the Council on Foreign Relations. All else is, simply, secondary.
Charlie Kupchan—in his spare time, Charlie is a professor of government at Georgetown. Most important, he’s a senior fellow here at the Council on Foreign Relations and was senior director for European affairs on the National Security Council staff.
Alina Polyakova is president and CEO of the Center for European Policy Analysis, and Stephen Twitty is president, appropriately enough, of Twitty and Associates, and he was the former deputy commander of U.S.-European Command based in Stuttgart, and that capped three and a half decades of service in the U.S. Army.
So thank you, sir, and thank you, one and all.
Here we are. It’s the last day of May. This war is getting—I haven’t done the math, but I bet it’s getting very close to a hundred days since Russia initiated it in late February of this year, and it’s already gone through several phases. Indeed, the initiation of the war, in some ways, itself was a transition because we had several months of a gathering storm and all sorts of debate about what was likely to happen and what ought to be done.
Obviously, any efforts at averting war failed, and then we went into the first phase, and I think the conventional wisdom was that Russia was going to do extremely well extremely quickly, might actually succeed in replacing the government, that militarily it wasn’t much of a match. That was the, actually, prevailing wisdom, such as it was. As is often the case, the conventional wisdom proved incorrect.
Ukrainian resistance was not just valiant but effective. Western—the Western countries, NATO, rallied behind it considerably both with military help, with intelligence help. Already there had been eight years or so of training, and serious sanctions were imposed on Russia. And then there was another shift in the war where Russia, essentially, defined its ambitions somewhat more modestly, moved most of its troops to the east and the south of the country, and we’ve been in that phase for quite a while.
And I would say when I look at the last few days—and I’m happy to be corrected on anything I’ve said on this in particular—there seems to be a slight shift in the perception or the sentiment, which is that after the sense had been that Ukraine was doing extremely well, I would say over the last week there seems to be a sense that Russia has adapted to some extent, has adopted certain lessons, seems to be concentrating its forces much better, certainly, geographically much more concentrated, and is grinding out certain progress slowly but on the ground. Ukraine is also counterattacking in certain places.
But we seem to have entered a different phase now where this is going on and something of—again, I don’t want to use the word stalemate because that seems to me to predict too much. But, again, very concentrated battles in the south and east. Russia controls things pretty much in the maritime areas to the south, and that is the backdrop to today’s meeting.
So let me just quickly go around. To that I’d add, by the way, new developments on sanctions, to some extent, or oil in the case of the Europeans seems to be added to the list, continuing military support of Ukraine from the United States and the West, more broadly. Does that do justice or injustice to where we are, before we get into a conversation of where we should go?
Steve, why don’t I—I’ll just stick with the order to begin with. How does that sound to you?
HADLEY: I think it’s right, Richard. I would also say remember, in this year Russia has resumed an invasion of Ukraine that began in 2014 and one of the questions—the only question I would raise is I don’t think that Putin has revised his objectives. I think his strategic objective to incorporate Ukraine remains. He’s shifted his tactics and this tactic seems to be working better for him than the one before, and that’s what’s worrying.
HAASS: That’s a distinction with a difference. Thank you for clarifying that.
Professor Kupchan, what’s your take?
KUPCHAN: Yeah. I would agree with your assessment, Richard. I think that the battlefield dynamics have changed in several respects. One is that Russia now has direct lines of communication through Donbas and it’s concentrated in one area. The terrain has shifted. Russia is now more on defense than offense, at least in some parts of Donbas. That puts more burden on Ukrainian forces.
The one issue I’m not sure I would agree with was what Steve just said. I think that Putin has changed the goalposts, at least for now, and that he’s focusing on trying to get to the administrative boundaries of Luhansk and Donetsk, to connect Donbas to Crimea, probably to hold and incorporate Kherson. Whether that means down the road he’ll go further I think it’s difficult to say, but I do think that we’re looking at what could be a strategic pause and a stalemate in the not-too-distant future.
POLYAKOVA: I’m going to both agree and disagree with my esteemed colleagues here. I think—I agree with Steve’s point that the big strategic goal has not changed, to my mind. It is still to undermine and destroy Ukraine’s ability to—as an independent nation that can develop democratically and integrate into Euro-Atlantic institutions.
But the tactics for achieving that ultimate goal have shifted because of the kinds of challenges that Russia has seen on the battlefield, and, of course, this follows a long pattern of how we’ve seen Russia’s military operations take shape over periods of time where they kind of muck it up initially because they’re not that good in a lot of ways but then they adapt and they learn and they implement those adaptations over time. They’re still taking huge losses despite that, but I do agree that they have adapted.
HAASS: General Twitty?
TWITTY: Yeah. Richard, I’m going to give a little bit more color in terms of what I’m seeing here. I think the war in the Donbas is starting to turn to the Russians’ favor, and when you take a look at—and I’m particularly talking about the eastern part of the Donbas—the Russians have transitioned from trying to pour all their combat power into the Donbas to obliterating every single town. Whether it be Rubizhne, Lyman, they’re working now on Sievierodonetsk and Lysychansk as well, they’re obliterating these particular towns, and that’s how they’re making their headway. They’re not putting a bunch of combat power with infantry forces and tanks in there. They’ve taken all their artillery and they’re treating it like Mariupol and that’s how they’re making their headway. So they’re starting to make some headway in the eastern Donbas and so we have to watch that one closely.
HAASS: Given this situation, I have one question—one more question about the current situation and then I want to transition to issues of goals and war termination and the rest. Given that we are where we are and there’s more agreement than disagreement among us by far, would anyone at this point argue for a major change in Western policy, that we ought to add something that’s qualitatively—like, for example, one could say we ought to try to accelerate gas sanctions against Russia—that might be one thing. There’s the question of equipment deliveries to Ukraine. But, basically, are the contours of policy set or am I missing something?
Why don’t we reverse it? General Twitty, is there something that the president said? Are things we’re not doing that we should be doing? Is there things that you would recommend at this point?
TWITTY: Well, as I take a look at this, you know, Secretary Austin came out that we’re going to weaken Russia. We have not really defined what weaken means, because if you take a look at the Ukrainians right now, I take a strong belief in Colin Powell’s doctrine—you overwhelm a particular enemy with force. And right now, when you take a look at Ukraine and you take a look at Russia, they’re about one to one. The only difference is Russia has a heck of a lot of combat power than the Ukrainians.
And so there’s no way that the Ukrainians will ever destroy or defeat the Russians, and so we got to really figure out what does weaken mean in the end state here. And I will also tell you, Richard, there’s no way that the Ukrainians will ever have enough combat power to kick the Russians out of Ukraine as well, and so what does that look like in the end game.
HAASS: OK. You have, in some ways, anticipated my next question. So let’s just park that for a few minutes and—because that’s exactly where I want to go. Is there any—among the three of you—Steve, Alina, Charlie—would any of you introduce something meaningfully different into Western policy at this point? Alina?
POLYAKOVA: I don’t know if it’s meaningfully different. I think in terms of U.S. policy, there’s not—we can argue over specific weapons deliveries and the pace of those, as you said. But I think, overall, U.S. policy has been quite solid on support for Ukraine. By far the U.S. has been the biggest provider of security and military assistance as well as economic and humanitarian assistance.
Where I would point us to think about is European policy because you asked the question of Western policy, more broadly, and there I see—I think it was Charlie that mentioned that we’re likely going to see a kind of stalemate emerge. But we’re also seeing a stalemate emerge between European consensus in unity and policies, especially when it comes to weapons and security assistance, and Russia’s ability to carry through this war for the foreseeable future, whether that’s in a slow manner and a kind of war of attrition with the Ukrainians, until that consensus starts to disintegrate. And we’re seeing some elements of that already in the oil embargo. We’re seeing that inside of Germany’s debates on heavy weapon supplies.
You know, we came out very strong—Europeans came out very strong initially. But now we’re seeing a lot of that being walked back. So I think, really, to focus on Europe in terms of other policy actions that we would introduce—I mean, heavy weapons deliveries are number one. You know, Germany has delivered very, very little, despite its promises to deliver heavy weapons, and so have other countries, particularly, more in western Europe. So it’s really European policy that needs to be adapted here.
HAASS: So let me then jump ahead to the question that I wanted to get to and, as always, General Twitty beat me to the punch, which is let’s put some definitions on the table. So we are where we are after just over three months. We’re in this situation that you’ve all described—potentially, stalemate, maybe the Russians doing slightly better than they were doing.
What should be our definition of success? I can think of quite a few. I can think of a return to the status quo of 1991, if you will, when Ukraine first became a sovereign independent entity. I could think of—which, basically, brings you up to early 2014. I could think of getting us back to where were three and a half months ago, essentially, to the 2014—post-2014 status quo that dominated for eight years.
I can think of other definitions of our war—of aims at this point. So I’m curious. I’ll start—we’ll go back to, first of all, Steve. What do you think—and, obviously, just to cloud it, the Ukrainians have said many things over the course of the last hundred days about their war aims, depending upon who you’re listening to and when it is said, and the United States has either said often, well, it’s not up to us. It’s up to Ukraine to decide.
I’m curious, Steve, as a former national security adviser whether that’s something you agree with, that we, essentially, defer or whether we—you know, and as General Twitty pointed out, the secretary of defense along the way talked about weakening Russia as a strategic aim. I’m just curious, what do we think either our war aims are or, more important, what should Western or American war aims be at this point after a hundred days of war?
Steve, let’s start with you.
HADLEY: So if you accept my view, and I know everybody doesn’t necessarily, that Putin remains committed to his strategic objective of incorporating—ending Ukraine as a nation state and incorporating it into Russia, then I think our objectives, really, are something like this: one, to preserve Ukraine as a viable state in the face of the Russian assault; second, to defeat Putin’s strategic objective—that is to say, to deny him his ability to either incorporate Ukraine or force it to become the failed state that he says it is; three, weaken the Russian military capability to the point that it is difficult for Putin to resume military operations against Ukraine or to initiate military operations elsewhere; and then, fourth, strengthen deterrence of NATO and in Europe so as to deter him from thinking he can in the next five or ten years repeat this performance.
You know, the issue about, you know, whether there are territorial concessions that are made as part of the peace agreement, that, I think, is, largely, a matter for Zelensky. But I think if we’re going to achieve this and I’m going to—I do this with great deference to General Twitty—I think the one thing that—the question you asked Alina that is different is if we can find a way to take advantage of Ukrainians’ asymmetric advantages over the Russians to the extent that they have shown themselves to be more versatile, more flexible, and use maneuver, can we assist them to plan and execute the kind of counterattack they’re trying to do in Kherson so as to grind down, if you will, the Russian invasion so that you get to the point where there is a stalemate.
I think that’s, really, the most likely outcome and the kind of outcome that if we do it in the right way would help achieve the objectives that I described.
HAASS: Steve, I’m going to follow up on one thing, though, because I think you highlight an important issue. You know, I was scribbling some notes. To preserve Ukraine—as you were speaking—to preserve Ukraine as a viable state, to deny Putin his ultimate strategic objectives, which are, one way or another, essentially, denying Ukraine an independent sovereign status, whatever the formal architecture he might achieve. And then you said it’s up to Ukraine to decide about territorial compromise, possibly, as part of a—should it, though, be West?
Should we, ourselves, say that, as a goal, we do not want Ukraine to lose one square inch of territory because that is inconsistent with the norm that we believe is central to international order, that territory is not to be acquired through the use of military force? Should—essentially, going back to pre-2014 Ukraine, should that be a war—should that be our definition of success or a war aim of the United States and the West, given that norm?
HADLEY: It’s a great norm and you’d like to—I’d like to answer you yes. But it’s very dangerous for the United States to set objectives that we are unable or unwilling to do what is required to achieve them, and I think we are both unable and unwilling to push the Russians out of Ukraine. And to set that as objective, to say that there could be no one inch of Ukrainian territory occupied by Russia, I think, is unrealistic in our part and, again, I think it is the Ukrainians that are doing the fighting.
We have interests here. We need to be in dialogue with them. But at the end of the day, the Ukrainians are one that are doing the fighting, and the question of any territorial compromise, in the end of the day, is going to be for Zelensky to make.
HAASS: Professor Kupchan? Charlie?
KUPCHAN: Yeah. I mean, I think that the territorial issues are, to some extent, going to be decided on the battlefield, not at the negotiating table. There will, ultimately, be some kind of military equilibrium that emerges, maybe soon, and then there’s a conversation about what do we do with that. Do we have Minsk III? Do we start a conversation about going back to the February 24 borders? What do we do about the link to Crimea?
But I’m guessing here that the end game involves some kind of declaration of neutrality by Ukraine with security assurances, some agreement to continue to talk about territorial settlement. But what I think is missing, Richard, from American policy—coming back to your previous question—is teeing up this conversation.
I agree with what Steve said, and picking up on what General Twitty said, I don’t think it’s feasible or desirable from a strategic standpoint to have Ukraine try to expel Russian forces from all land that they took in 2014, number one, because I don’t think they can do it, and number two, I think the risks of escalation are high and the spillover effects of this war, whether it’s a food crisis, the weakening of the Western coalition, this all worries me a lot.
The longer this goes on, the more the negative knock-on effects economically and politically, including here in the United States, where inflation really is, I think, putting Biden in a difficult position.
So I think the first step I would recommend for the Biden administration is start to prepare the narrative for a conversation with Ukraine about war aims in general, not necessarily specific territorial settlements, because I do think the narrative right now is in a somewhat dangerous place, right.
We hear that if Putin isn’t defeated, he’ll just do more. We hear that this is the front line of the West and if we don’t kick them out of every inch of Ukrainian territory the rules-based system falls apart. I don’t buy that. Anybody who talks about a territorial settlement is called an appeaser. You saw what Zelensky called Kissinger after what he said in Davos.
We need to change that narrative and begin a conversation with Ukraine and, ultimately, with Russia about how to end this war sooner rather than later.
HAASS: OK. Let me push you on that last point before I turn to Alina and General Twitty, which is, should war termination—ending this war, as you said—be a U.S. goal? Because what—implicit or explicit in this conversation is that if we push for war termination it’s going to mean that Russia is sitting on significant amounts of Ukrainian real estate, some gained in 2014, some gained in the last three months.
And I would expect that in Ukraine you’re going to have a lot of people saying, hell, no, this is the guerrilla war we were always planning to fight. Indeed, if the conventional wisdom at the outset had held true and Russia had gained an awful lot more real estate than it’s gained, that’s where we’d be now.
So why—is it in—is it a legitimate goal for the United States to press for the war termination at this point so long as Russia is sitting on Ukrainian real estate and so long as Ukrainians are prepared to fight and die to liberate it?
KUPCHAN: Well, I think the conversation has to begin now. Where the front line ends, how much territory the Ukrainians are able to take back, remains to be seen. But I have to say I consider this to be one of the most dangerous points in modern history, as dangerous as if not more dangerous than the Cuban missile crisis.
There’s a hot war going on with a nuclear-powered Russia, and I feel quite uncomfortable with the talk of victory, with the talk of a long-term weakening of Putin, with removing him from power.
I see as a strategic priority and a measure of strategic prudence the need to end a hot war and begin the diplomacy. I would keep the pressure on. I would keep the sanctions on. I would not say, yes, Russia, you can have this, but I do think that the hot war aspect of this is more dangerous than many people perceive, not just because of escalation but because of the blowback effects.
I agree with Alina. I think we’re starting to see cracks in the West. I think there will be a resurgence of America-first Republicanism as we get near the midterms. Let’s think about where we are not just today and tomorrow but over the horizon. This all leads me to believe that we should push for war termination and have a serious conversation after that about a territorial disposition.
HAASS: So, Alina, lots on the table and, particularly, what I think Charlie has also introduced is what, I think, is a slight difference between a policy designed to achieve success and a policy designed to avert failure, and if you are increasingly worried either about the balance on the battlefield and you’re worried about cracks in Western cohesion, do we now have to, in some ways, lower our sights?
I don’t mean to load question upon question to you. But this question—this conversation, I think, which is long overdue, is bringing out some of the—what’s the word, texture or richness, of conversations that we really haven’t had. Indeed, a month ago, the most common conversation was what do we do if Ukraine continues to march successfully and are there any limits to what we ought to be prepared to support because that might risk, you know, a desperate Putin introducing WMD.
This is a very different conversation we’re having today than the one we were having a month ago. So let me turn to you and then next to General Twitty.
POLYAKOVA: You know, you’re absolutely right. It is a very different conversation, and a couple of points to respond directly to what, you know, Charlie just put on the table as well. One, I think peace cannot come at any cost, and we have heard Central/Eastern European allies are—probably soon to be Nordic NATO allies, say that over and over again. What do they mean by that?
Well, one, yes, of course, we have seen a pattern in which so-called frozen conflicts that the Russians create in its near abroad not be frozen but become launching pads for aggression. So the idea that more territory would appease the Kremlin—and to be clear, I think if it’s not Putin there will be someone very similar after Putin.
So this really isn’t about regime change. It’s about the kind of system, you know, that we’ve seen develop as a system of governance in Russia, which is going to be very, very difficult to change and, unfortunately, I don’t see any end in sight.
So if it’s not Putin it’ll be, you know, Putin 2.0 in some shape or form that will likely push for the same or even more aggressive policies. We know there is a hard line inside of Russia, inside the Kremlin, that is pushing Putin to do more—to use chemical weapons, to use tactical nukes, all those kinds of things.
So, to be clear, you know, if Russia does occupy a certain part of Ukraine—and, you know, Ukrainians have said, hell, no, as you said, Richard. They don’t want to concede any territory. Eighty-two percent of Ukrainians have said, hell, no, and Zelensky will follow what the public opinion is, at the end of the day.
So my other point is that peace cannot—besides that peace cannot come at any cost, this question of whether we should be having this conversation about some sort of territorial settlement now. And I think it’s much, much too early for that because of some of the reasons that we’ve already mentioned here. It’s a very rapidly changing, very fluid situation.
Our focus now should be to solidify the unity in the Western alliance, provide Ukrainians what they need to launch counter offensives, to give them the opportunity to, you know, move as much as they can to push back the Russian offensives.
I agree completely with Steve on the points that he made there. But it’s much, much too early to think that the Russians will come to the negotiating table with any sort of sincerity. You know, how many times have the Ukrainians tried to meet with the Russians bilaterally with this Abramovich-mediated negotiations that led to absolutely nothing?
How many times have the Russian(s) lied to us about their intentions? How many phone calls have, you know, French, German, and other leaders made to Putin personally to try to sway him in a different direction?
I think this is all an illusion, that until the Russians feel a military operational need to come to the negotiating table they will not come to the negotiating table with any desire to actually reach a compromise unless it is full capitulation by Ukraine. So—
HAASS: Can I just push you, Alina, on one—you raised an important question. Sorry to interrupt. What do you think it would do to change the Russian calculus? Is it a—what combination of, particularly, military and sanctions if your goal is to get Russia to come to the negotiating table, if you will, in good faith prepared to compromise rather than, simply, to impose a settlement? What do you think has to happen that has not happened?
POLYAKOVA: I think the weapon supplies from Europe have to go up. I mean, we’ve done a lot in the United States. You know, honestly, I don’t find messages that we saw the last couple of days from the administration saying we will not provide weapon system X to the Ukrainians very helpful. We shouldn’t be telegraphing that in public.
We should be working with our allies behind closed doors to make sure the Ukrainians get the MLRS systems that they need, whatever they need to push back the front lines, because, to be clear, whatever territory ends up in Russian occupation means it’s not going to look like West and East Germany.
It’s going to look like a complete wasteland with massive human rights violations, all the things we’ve already seen the Russians do. It’s not—it’s going to be Ukrainian armed resistance for the foreseeable future.
So this is not going to be a stable solution in the long term. It will just be a pause on the hot war, potentially. So I think it’s an illusion to think that some sort of territorial settlement now will lead to a long-term solution. I think it’s much, much too early.
This war is still very young in terms of wars, and we just need more time to give the Ukrainians a fighting chance. Right now, the problem I see is, really, again, with the—all the issues that Europeans have kind of shoved under the rug for many years is now coming back to bite them and that’s why we’re seeing all those divisions.
So I know that wasn’t as succinct answer as you may have wanted, Richard. But I think there’s a lot more we can do still—gas, oil, all of that—to get the Russians—
POLYAKOVA: —to care a little bit more about negotiations.
HAASS: Thank you.
General Twitty, there’s a lot of meat on the table here for you. So go for it.
TWITTY: Yeah. So I got a couple of things for you, Richard. So I want to go back to what you said. Pre-2014—I want you to think about that one, because I’ve had time to think about it hearing others here, and what I will tell you, Richard, you know, I learned from the National War College there’s something called ends, ways, and means.
So if that’s your end state—pre-2014—then I’m interested to hear the ways and the means because, from a military standpoint, if that’s the way then the means would be the Ukrainians lack, again, the ability to pull that off to pre-2014. They just lack that ability. They don’t have the combat power.
And I also want to remind you we hear a lot about Russian casualties and Russian losses. We hear very little about Ukrainian losses, and keep in mind they’re losing soldiers throughout this war as well. They started at approximately two hundred thousand. Who knows where they are today?
And so it’s hard to recruit and maintain that level of professionalism in that military. So that’s my first point. The end, ways, and means, they lack that, to be able to go back to the pre-2014.
The second point that I would make is, you know, as you look at the DIME—diplomatic, informational, military, and economic—we’re woefully lacking on the diplomatic piece of this. If you notice, there’s no diplomacy going on at all to trying to get to some type of negotiations. And I don’t think that we can lead that, given where Putin thinks about us.
But if you sit back and think about those that could possibly be a part of this negotiation team, you know, you have the—two of them are in—that I’m going to list are in NATO. One is President Orbán out of Hungary. Perhaps he can help out in the negotiation effort. The other one is President Erdoğan of Turkey. Longtime friends of President Putin, although some view that relationship as transactional. I don’t know. Let’s put it to the test and see.
Don’t forget about China as well. You know, we have a tendency not to put China in this because we view them as a(n) adversary. But President Jinping has a relationship, obviously, and then don’t forget about India with President Kovind as well. And so I think we need to put more pressure on the diplomatic end of this and see if we can come to some type of resolution diplomatically.
And then the last thing I would say is I have to agree with Alina. We cannot call the terms on the end game here because here’s something we haven’t seen yet and it’s coming, believe me, as an—an insurgency that is going to brew out of this fight. And regardless of whether we bring the Russians and the Ukrainians to the table at this point—let’s just say tomorrow—you have a lot of angry Ukrainians out there.
They lost their homes. They lost their families. They’ve lost everything. And so there’s going to be insurgency that comes out of this thing whether a settlement happens or not that will keep this war going for some time, in my view. That’s all I have there.
HAASS: Actually, I want to build on your last—oh, Steve, you have your hand up. Go ahead, sir.
HADLEY: Just one quick point. I want to put a little—I think you’ve had a very rich conversation here. I just want to go back. The objectives that I set out, I think, are still achievable, and we can set back Russia’s strategic objectives and we can help preserve Ukraine.
But I subscribe, really, to Alina’s analysis. It’s going to be determined—what, really, Charlie started with—it’s going to be determined by developments on the ground, and the focus really needs to be enhancing Ukrainians’ ability to counterattack, set back, and then stalemate the Russians at the same time we work the economic sanctions, to broaden them so that the price over the long term goes up, and, yes, do the diplomacy.
But I think that neither side is ready for negotiation at this point. They’re waiting for the outcome on the battlefield and that has to be our focus.
KUPCHAN: My one caveat, Richard, would be to pick up on one phrase that Alina offered that left me a little uncomfortable and that is buy more time to give the Ukrainians a fighting chance. Yes, let’s continue to arm. Let’s increase the armament. But let’s marry it to the kind of diplomacy that General Twitty mentioned.
I’m not sure that time is on our side. There’s more destruction. There’s more risk of escalation. There’s more negative knock-on effects. I think we need to push this toward some kind of stalemate sooner rather than later.
TWITTY: If I could follow up on that, Richard—
HAASS: Charlie—General, go ahead.
TWITTY: —Charlie, I agree 100 percent. But I will tell you, when you look at time, the Ukrainians have to go into negotiations with the upper hand at a position of strength, and so right now they are at a position of strength. The more this war goes on we never know if that’s going to wane, and then they will lack the ability to go to the bargaining table at a position of strength and may lose more than they intended, and so let’s keep that in mind as well.
HAASS: Yeah. I would just add to that. I would actually think that things are not teed up for diplomacy, that for Mr. Putin there’s not enough on the table to justify things and Ukraine—you know, put another way, the most that Ukraine ever would give up at the moment is not nearly enough for Putin to, basically, defy—declare success.
So I think this has to go on for a while. I actually think there’s an interesting—and I’d probably disagree with Charlie here—tactical decision about how hard we push or how hard we push for a diplomatic dimension because I, actually, think the danger of pushing diplomacy absent the consensus is it could actually create rifts in what has been a, largely, cohesive West.
You’re already seeing it in Europe. I could see it between the—within the United States, between the United States and Europe and Ukraine, and for Putin you just sit back and enjoy it. He’s not prepared to cut a deal anyhow or any deal that anybody would accept.
So it’s an interesting question whether diplomacy at this moment—what would be the implications of it or the effects of it. But it’s not only my—I would think it’s unlikely to succeed. It actually might cause certain problems, almost like a medical treatment being iatrogenic—that if you introduce diplomacy at a certain moment it could actually cause certain harm in your ability to pursue what’s been the policy to now. I’d just put that out there.
OK. This is just what I was hoping for in the way of a conversation, so thank you. But we’re not done yet. Now the hard part comes. We’re going to open it up to our members and they’re going to have the collective wit to ask you questions that never occurred to the presider at this meeting.
OPERATOR: (Gives queuing instructions.)
We’ll take our first question from Mary Beth Long.
HAASS: Mary Beth Long. OK.
Q: Thank you. Can you hear me?
HAASS: Yes, ma’am.
Q: I’m interested in some of the early commentary about the European consensus. I think there are a lot of European journalists and others who believe that early representations of the Western unity where, perhaps, the rhetoric didn’t match the actual actions, particularly with Germany and France.
With oncoming possible food shortages, certainly, oil and gas shortages, winter, et cetera, what are the prospects of the, quote/unquote, “Western unity” actually remaining cohesive and doing anything that can bring the conditions that we need for negotiations, and, in fact, is it time to start talking seriously about a strategy to keep NATO and the European/West together before it starts disintegrating before our very eyes?
HAASS: Who wants to take that?
Charlie, you have your hand up or—
KUPCHAN: Yeah. I mean, I’m sympathetic to the spirit of Mary Beth’s question in the sense that I think this war, from the Western perspective, has gone about as well as one could have hoped for on all three lines of effort: the arming of Ukraine, which has been quite substantial, the reinforcement of NATO’s eastern flank, and the sanctions against Russia. The unity has, really, been amazing and I think the Biden administration deserves credit for doing its homework and getting everything ready to go.
I do worry that, over time, that unity does fray and I’m particularly worried about the impact on the cost of living in Europe and in the United States, the food shortages that we talked about, and that’s sort of why, in general, I’m uncomfortable with this idea of time being on our side.
That doesn’t mean we rush to a ceasefire and a negotiated settlement. But my general sense is that there has been enormous progress, including on the battlefield in Ukraine. Let’s not lose sight of the success that the West has already had. I think, in many respects, what we’ve seen here is a demonstration of the strength of the liberal rules-based system. Putin has not been able to crack it. It has responded impressively.
HAASS: Steve, I’m curious. The question was about Europe. What about the United States? I read over the weekend the paper put out by the Heritage Institution. One sees certain Republican members of Congress, over—I think it was over fifty voted against the $40 billion aid package.
Former President Trump, essentially, said we ought not to be doing that. We ought to be focusing resources here at home, which in some ways is classic isolationism or butter versus guns-ism. What is your sense about the American ability to sustain this policy?
HADLEY: Well, you know, I think, in large measure, it has revitalized, in some sense, the national security focus of the Republican Party. I think initially there was a pretty substantial swing by the congressional leadership and most of its members behind the notion that this is a serious national security challenge for the United States and we need to stand by Ukraine and the like.
There has been with every vote more Republicans voting nay to the successive arms package. My take from what I read mostly in the newspapers is some of them are about—there are elements of the package—that the military elements are OK but there’s some economic support elements that people criticize about, that people want to make sure there’s oversight, that the money is spent fairly.
Part of it is isolationism. There has been an isolationist sentiment in the right wing—right side of the Republican Party and the left side of the Democratic Party, and those will probably grow. But at the moment I think it is manageable.
But I think it will require greater articulation, which is, really, Richard, why you wanted to have this session—greater articulation about—on the part of the administration about what are our goals and some articulation of a strategy to achieve those goals and a sense that they are realistically achievable. And I think that’s where the administration, I think, in some sense, they’ve done a better job of rallying the Europeans to the cause than they have rallied the Americans to the cause, and it’s one more thing, I think, that they need to spend more time on.
POLYAKOVA: Can I just—
HAASS: Just one historic—yeah, go ahead, Alina.
POLYAKOVA: No, I don’t want to interrupt your train of thought, Richard. I just was going to comment back on the European divisions.
HAASS: OK. Let me—thirty seconds on the American. One thing that comes to mind, and we learned it the hard way in 1990 after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, is how often President Bush 41 had to go out and, essentially, put more fuel on the fire to maintain popular support for what was then Desert Shield.
We weren’t even in the war yet. We were still in the building up. And we were surprised how often he had to do it and how difficult it was. If he said the same thing people said, oh, that’s nothing new. But if he said anything new people would say, what’s going on—the policy had changed. And it turned out to be a real challenge, almost a dilemma, as to how to keep the Congress and the people in—the American people involved. And at the end of the day, we nearly failed with the Congress. It was a very close-run thing in the Senate.
KUPCHAN: Even harder when gas is $5 a gallon.
HADLEY: Richard, can I make one comment on that, if I might? President Bush, during 2003 and during the war on terror after 9/11, gave speech after speech every week on the war on terrorism. I remember going to him and saying, Mr. President, why can’t we give a speech on something else?
So we wrote a speech about his Africa policy, and it was a great speech and he said, well, it’s a great speech but you need to put a little bit more on the war on terror in it. By the time he got done with it, it was a speech on the war on terror with a little bit about Africa. (Laughter.)
So I said, Mr. President, why are we—why can’t we talk about something else? He said, you don’t understand, Hadley, as he used to say to me rather regularly. When our people are engaged in combat overseas the president of the United States has to be constantly explaining to the American people what’s at stake, what’s our strategy, why we’re going to succeed.
The American people need to hear it, our men and women in uniform need to hear it, our friends and allies need to hear it, and the families of our men in Europe—men and women in uniform need to hear it.
It is true we do not have troops engaged on the ground in Ukraine, but it has, in some sense, become our fight, and the president is going to have to do that week after week in order to keep the consensus here at home.
HAASS: Alina, you were going to say something about Europe?
POLYAKOVA: Just to pick up on the reassurance conversation because this—I was in Poland and Estonia earlier this month, and I would say there were two dominant things that I heard. One was a huge amount of anxiety, more than I would have anticipated, about U.S. long-term commitment to European security, especially from the Republican side, given the midterms, given the elections, all the pressures—political pressures we’re seeing on President Biden.
I thought it was very good that Senator McConnell led a delegation to Ukraine and then, I believe, to Sweden that, I think, sends the right message. But I really do think for the majority, I think, of the Republican leadership to do more of that with our allies is going to be key.
The other thing, I think, that was important to hear when I was in Europe as well, especially from the Central and Eastern European perspective, is this real crisis of leadership in Europe. This is what we’re really talking about when we’re talking about kind of the dwindling consensus and the infighting we’re seeing between EU member states, that Germany—Scholz seemed to take up that—finally that—you know, take up the reluctance of the mantle of leadership that Germany has always, you know, been very unwilling to take up.
But now there’s a big question whether the Zeitenwende is here to stay, and what I heard over and over again from the polls was, you know, they really see this as an opportunity. We can argue whether this is a good thing or not to take more of that leadership role in Europe, for Central and Eastern Europe to be more heard in the debates at the European level that have been dominated by France and Germany.
But I think what we’re seeing play out right now in the context of the war is long underlying trends and divisions that we’ve seen in Europe over the last decades and they’re really coming to the fore. So I don’t think it’s a lost cause yet. This goes back to the question earlier.
I do think there’s an opportunity to rethink what European leadership looks like and to rethink how that moves forward in the war effort as well. I don’t think we should assume that inevitably, you know, the Ukrainians are going to be on the losing side of this if this goes on for a month or two months or three months or even a year.
I think there’s too many question marks still in terms of the military outcomes on the ground. But I, of course, defer to General Twitty on that.
HAASS: OK. Let’s—Carrie, let’s see if we can get a couple more questions.
OPERATOR: We’ll take our next question from Ken Roth.
Q: Thanks. I’m Ken Roth from Human Rights Watch.
My question has to do with what an ultimate settlement might look like, and here I’m talking less about the territorial question but I’m assuming that Ukraine is going to want some kind of security guarantee. And, you know, we know from the Minsk Accords that Putin’s word is worthless.
You know, Ukraine joining NATO is not in the cards. I doubt that Zelensky is going to be happy with, you know, U.N. peacekeepers of, you know, Bangladeshis and Fijians. So, you know, what would be possible? And, you know, if Zelensky says, oh, I’d like, you know, American and German troops as tripwires, is that in the cards?
HAASS: So anyone take it. The question is, is there any form of external assurance that’s both—that would be credible to Ukraine, that would be available, or is the ultimate assurance either a very different Russia or a much more capable Ukraine that is, essentially, much more self-reliant?
HADLEY: I’ll take a shot at that. I think there’s a lot of discussion about security guarantees. I think, in some sense, it’s too soon to tell. It depends, really, how this situation unfolds. Everybody says NATO membership is off the table. I think that’s probably right. I wouldn’t take it off the table now any further than it’s already been taken off the table because it is something for Zelensky to play if we ever get to a peace negotiation.
And I think this might be controversial, but I could see outcomes where we might actually end up with the idea that Ukraine might be in NATO. But it’s an issue for the future. I think for the moment it’s clear that neither Americans nor Europeans are willing to put boots on the ground in Ukraine to defend Ukraine against Russia. That’s where we are.
And so Article Five type guarantees seem, at this point, beyond reach. What people have talked about is a neutrality for Ukraine that is an armed neutrality, that is not a demilitarized Ukraine but is Ukraine that has an army and has assurances from other countries that we’re prepared to train and supply that army so that Ukraine can defend itself against Russia.
That’s the kind of security guarantee that people are talking about. There are memorandums of understanding and those sorts of things that have been given to other countries along those lines. I think, for the moment, that’s what people are talking about. But, again, I think a lot will depend on how this conflict plays out in the months ahead.
KUPCHAN: One thing I would add, Richard—
HAASS: Steve, just to make sure I—Charlie, one second.
Steve, just to make sure everybody understands, what you were describing sounds a little bit like the institutionalization of what has become the status quo.
HAASS: —that—commitments from outsiders to make sure that Ukraine has a degree, if you will, of self-reliance, just to be clear.
HADLEY: And the Russians would have to accept that. That would be part of the negotiation.
HAASS: OK. Sorry. Charlie?
KUPCHAN: Yeah. I agree with the way Steve described the situation. I want to add, to insert, is I would not take some kind of international peacekeeping force off the table. I could imagine that the way this ends one could imagine a U.N. force or a joint NATO-CSTO force or something that would be deployed along the line of contact to give the Ukrainians reassurance that it’s not just going to heat up again tomorrow night.
There was a mission along the line of contact beginning in 2014 by the OSCE. It was not as effective as it could have been. But, you know, as part of this conversation of diplomacy let’s keep on the table the idea of a pullback of troops and heavy weapons and the possible insertion along wherever that line of contact is—the possible insertion of a peacekeeping force.
HAASS: OK. Let’s get another question. Carrie?
OPERATOR: We’ll take our next question from Jane Harman.
Q: Good morning, everyone. This was such a rich discussion. Just superb.
My question picks up where Charlie just left off and it is about whether the performance of the U.N. and the OSCE has been in any way adequate. My view is the OSCE is hobbled because Russia has a veto and I guess it has one in the U.N., too. But the U.N. has been pretty feckless.
And so my question, first, is whether the U.N. should be playing an active role now, not later, in trying to end the grain embargo, which is going to cause food insecurity around the world, and second, whether—I, certainly, agree we need a deterrence strategy, going forward—whether that deterrence strategy—the U.S. deterrence strategy or the U.S. and allies’ and partners’ deterrence strategy—ought to be for more than Ukraine.
Don’t we need a day-after Ukraine strategy for the whole world? Shouldn’t we be worried, and I assume we are, about China invading Taiwan and other things happening in the world for which we don’t have a global strategy and haven’t had one, in my view, since the Cold War ended?
HAASS: General Twitty, let me ask you to take the first chunk of that, which is should we be doing more in the south, in a sense, to open up the possibility of Ukraine, once again, exporting significant amounts of grain and importing what it needs to support its population? Isn’t that missing from our strategy?
And we can argue whether it ought to be done through NATO. It’s hard to imagine anything these days being done through the U.N., given Russia’s veto. It just seems to me something that we seem to have accepted rather than challenged. What am I missing here?
TWITTY: No, I think you’re right, Richard, and, as you know, Russia has a blockade there along the southern coastline that’s preventing wheat and grain and everything else from flowing out of there and it’s crippling the Ukrainian economy.
Now, what can you do about it? And I agree with Jane, there needs to be a—not just the U.S. strategy but a Western strategy. What that looks like will have to be some form of escorts that will have to go in there and conduct a blockade of Russian vehicles to be able to get this grain and stuff out of there. And, once again, it goes back to, OK, so that starts World War III. I doubt so, and so we just need to get behind this, whether it be the U.N., NATO, or EU—preferably the EU—to make this happen.
HAASS: Can I just ask a question? Because you’re talking about escorts and that, obviously, reminds me of—I think it was in the ’80s when we had the Kuwaiti tanker escort mission that several of us worked on back when. But here, obviously, you’d, potentially, bump up against Russia.
Why would we have to get directly involved? Why not continue the logic of the policy to date, which is give Ukraine enhanced capabilities to challenge Russian ships? Why would you want to insert, say, NATO or American ships, raise the specter of direct contact? Why not just enhance Ukrainian capabilities?
TWITTY: Yeah. The first reason is the Ukrainian navy does not exist and so they have very small boats and they only have a couple of them. So no navy to speak of, no coast guard to speak of. Now, you’ve heard about the long-range missile capability that they used to bring down the Moskva. But those are few and far between, and those ships are deep out at sea and hard to range with that type of capability.
So you will have to have ships in the Black Sea by you name the force to be able to help in escorting this grain out of there.
HADLEY: Richard, I think, to pick up—to combine what General Twitty said with what Jane Harman mentioned initially, I think it’s worth a try. I don’t think it’s likely to succeed. But I think it would be worth a try for the secretary general to try to—of the United Nations to try to go to Putin and try to negotiate some kind of safe passage for grain and the like out of Ukraine.
I think it’s a long shot, but I think it’s the appropriate role for the secretary-general. He doesn’t need to get the approval of the Security Council to do it. It was, after all—I think I’m right about this; others can correct me—the secretary-general’s intervention that resulted in some of the safe passage from civilians out of the steel facility in Mariupol that got them out.
So I think it’s worth a try because if we could move the ships out of Ukraine with the grain with the approval of Russia it gets a lot easier, obviously. Worth a try. Long shot.
HAASS: Steve, what if the cost of doing so—my hunch is Mr. Putin would say, maybe, but here’s what you got to do for me in return, and I want the following sanctions lifted, I want certain arms sales or armed provision to Ukraine cut off.
Essentially, what you’re doing then is acknowledging that he has leverage over the situation. You don’t much like it. You can’t—you’re not going to shoot your way through. So he’s going to say, great, the bazaar is open. Let’s start bargaining.
HADLEY: He’s got leverage. He does have leverage, let’s be honest. I think my instinct would be to say this is not a negotiating issue. Those are all issues for the peace agreement. This is a humanitarian issue. This is something you do because it’s the right thing to do humanitarianly and the secretary general is asking.
Do I think there’s a chance that it will work? I think it’s very slight. But, again, Jane put the issue on the table. I think it’s worth something that this to—a conversation with the secretary general to see.
If Putin says no, I think that actually tells you a little bit about where he is and what his concern is for the international community and in terms of the widespread food shortage that’s going to come. In some sense, you can use a no in your campaign against what he’s doing.
HAASS: My hunch is he might say the sanctions are having—causing humanitarian hardship in Russia. If you agree to ease the humanitarian burden in Russia I will agree to ease the humanitarian burden here.
HADLEY: Could be.
TWITTY: Exactly. Exactly.
HADLEY: Could be.
HAASS: That would be my prediction.
POLYAKOVA: Can I just chime in here really quick?
HAASS: Sure. Of course.
POLYAKOVA: Because I really think it’s important to listen to what General Twitty is suggesting in terms of a strategic and tactical approach because we have not—why are we where we are today in terms of allowing Russia to control and block freedom of navigation in the Black Sea?
We have every right to enforce freedom of navigation in the Black Sea and we have not done so in a long time. This has been, you know, a slow-moving kind of movie that we’ve been watching unfold. And to be clear, Russia’s hostage taking of foodstuffs is part of Russia’s strategy in Ukraine, not only the blockade. But they have been strategically targeting since the beginning of the war grain silos in the middle of nowhere. They’ve been mining farmland.
Why are they doing this? I mean, it is, going back to Steve’s point, part of this broader strategic objective to make sure Ukraine doesn’t survive as a country. But they understand where the points of leverage are and they, basically, right now, because we haven’t paid attention to this particular issue from the very beginning, we haven’t prioritized Black Sea and maritime as a core part of our strategy even though this is one of the biggest weaknesses of the Ukrainian capabilities in addition to air defense. We’ve let this unfold and now they have us by the throat—
TWITTY: Yeah. Alina—
POLYAKOVA: —and there’s no way that Putin is going to let that go.
TWITTY: And, Alina, what we’re, essentially, saying is Russia owns the Black Sea.
TWITTY: That’s what we’re saying—
POLYAKOVA: That is absolutely right.
TWITTY: —by our nonactions.
HADLEY: I guess there’s a question about whether the Turks would allow in U.S. naval warships or European naval warships in order to try to dispute Russian control of the Black Sea and provide escort, and I don’t know the answer to that question.
TWITTY: Well, I, actually, think, Steve, is, you know, Turkey is a prime candidate to lead the effort—
TWITTY: —both on the negotiating side and assisting with the escorting duties.
HADLEY: Now, that’s a very interesting strategy, Richard. That’s really interesting.
HAASS: Color me skeptical here. Again, I think Mr. Erdoğan—his price—I mean, we saw his reaction to the enlargement of NATO. My hunch is that would pale in comparison to the price he would try to exact for that. But maybe I’m a little bit—I’ve been sandpapered down by the last few decades. (Laughter.)
Carrie, I think we’ve got time for one or two more.
OPERATOR: We’ll take our next question from Joseph Nye.
Q: This is a great discussion. Joe Nye, Harvard Kennedy School.
Great discussion. I wonder, though, whether what we’re going to see is what I call a Tolstoy outcome, both war and peace, and if we look at the Russian behavior we’ve noticed that they have an extraordinary capacity to develop frozen conflicts all around their perimeters and then they can ratchet them up and down as they wish at their calling.
So you wind up with a situation where we think about a hundred days of war and how is it going to end. We have to be thinking about how—what about ten years of it? After all, between 2014 and the invasion this past—this year, we saw an eight-year gap. What’s our strategy to prevent a Tolstoy outcome?
HAASS: Yeah. I think Professor Nye—it’s a good thing because one could imagine either just an open-ended war with or without a diplomatic dimension. Minsk III, IV, V, VI. Choose your number. But I think if I were a betting man I would actually think something like that is probably the most likely scenario, certainly, an open-ended war, possibly with some limited diplomatic dimension.
But, Charlie, you were going to say something here.
KUPCHAN: Yeah. I would agree, Richard. I think it’s the most likely outcome. You know, if we all had to put bets, I think we’d end up putting our money on a new frozen conflict that lasts a very long time. I think it’s a second-best outcome in the sense that it’s preferable to see a diplomatic effort that addresses the export of grain, that addresses the question of where we are with Russia, with China, at the end of this as opposed to just ending up in a frozen conflict.
But I do think that it’s important keep in mind that, you know, the bulk of Ukraine is still free, thank goodness, that the Ukrainians have pushed the Russians back from their initial war aims and that they would probably continue to do so but not with the success that we’ve seen.
But, you know, I think we all seem to be suggesting that some kind of stalemate is likely in the near term and that then raises the question of should we try to get a diplomatic effort to—in train so that we just don’t end up with another frozen conflict. My view is it’s worth a shot. I wouldn’t bet on it but it’s worth a shot.
HAASS: Charlie, let me ask you a question. Are you at all worried that a stalemate on the ground which, to some extent, is packaged in something diplomatic then becomes a foundation or a base for Putin, if you will, to resume the pursuit of his strategic objectives in Ukraine?
KUPCHAN: I would worry about that. You know, I think that Putin is going to be a troublemaker no matter how this ends. If it ends with him in control of what he has now, if he gets pushed back, if they take back Donbas, this is Putin’s brand. He’s not going to change, and so I think we have to ask ourselves what is the best way to end this before it escalates and to contain his ambition.
That’s one of the reasons that I put on the table the idea of some kind of peacekeeping force because I don’t think we want to go back to the status quo that we had in 2014, which was nightly exchanges of sniper fire and artillery fire.
Let’s try to push for something that is more stable and involves less loss of life and risk of escalation.
POLYAKOVA: If I just—
POLYAKOVA: Sorry. I mean, the whole idea—I think it’s long overdue that we put to rest the idea of a frozen conflict because that entire concept implies some deep notion of stability and security, and over and over we’ve seen, as I said earlier, that these gray zones that the Russians have established become launching pads for hot wars.
So the idea that we’re going to have some sort of stability and we’re going to be able to contain Putin’s ambitions, I’m sorry, I think it’s a complete illusion because—
TWITTY: I’m with you, Alina.
POLYAKOVA: Thank you, General Twitty. I appreciate that. Because at the end of the day, you know, this is not going to be a frozen conflict. It’s not going to be secure, it’s not going to be stable, and it’s not going to be 2014, which was—yes, we had sniper exchanges and it wasn’t a completely cold conflict. But this is going to be far, far worse than that for all the reasons we’ve been talking about.
HAASS: Just to be clear in terminology, when I usually hear or use the phrase frozen conflict, I—maybe it’s been used incorrectly—I don’t think of it as something that’s unchanging. I simply meant an open-ended conflict without a diplomatic or a packaging or underpinning, and the temperature or the intensity of it could be turned up or down and would be turned up or down constantly. Maybe a better phrase then is an open-ended conflict. Frozen suggests something that’s too static. OK.
TWITTY: Yeah. So take a look at South Korea and North Korea. You know, when I hear frozen conflict, something akin to that is what I’m hearing here. But what I would offer to you is I think we—(audio break)—of Ukraine, whatever—however this ends, and really think of NATO as a whole. And so I will go back not from 2014 but 2008 when Russia invaded Georgia, then in 2014 Crimea, then this year all of Ukraine. And so there’s a lot of learning that’s going on there.
What we have to ensure is NATO is taking all these lessons and applying them on the ground. Troop increase, troop movements to various locations, not just in Germany, not just on their home turf, but more towards the east.
All these things we’re going to have to set the European continent in a different way if this war ends without Russia being weakened, and I will tell you even if Russia is weakened we really need to go back to the drawing board of how NATO looks and how they respond.
HADLEY: Quite right.
HAASS: Well, the title of this meeting was “Russia’s War in Ukraine: How Does it End?” and the principal takeaway I get from this conversation is, oh, it may well not and that some version of it could well—indeed, is even more likely than not to continue. We won’t use the phrase frozen but we will call it open ended, and it will continue to have implications for security across Europe and beyond.
Even though the war may not end the meeting has to. One, I promised it to Professor Kupchan, who has a plane to catch, and we do like to begin and end meetings, roughly, on time because we owe that to our panelists and to our members.
Speaking of our panelists, I want to thank all four of them—General Twitty, Professor Kupchan, Steve Hadley, and Alina Polyakova—for being here today, and thank you, more broadly, for your commentary about this. It’s great when we have a meeting that achieves its goal, which was, in some ways, to move beyond some of the day-to-day conversation and to raise it up to some of these difficult but, I think, larger issues that people have had difficulty addressing. So thank you for that.
Thank you to our members for giving us seventy-five minutes rather than the normal sixty. I hope you feel you were more than well rewarded and, again, wishing everyone to stay well and stay safe and, given what’s going on in New York City today, stay cool. Thank you very much.
This is an uncorrected transcript.