Meeting

Screening and Discussion of "Putin vs The West: At War"

Wednesday, February 21, 2024
Kevin Lamarque/Reuters
Speakers

Senior Fellow, Center on the United States and Europe, Brookings Institution; Chancellor, Durham University; Former Deputy Assistant to the President and Senior Director for European and Russian Affairs, National Security Council (2017-2019); CFR Member

Series Director, Putin vs the West

Senior Fellow, Russia and Eurasia Program, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

Presider

Member, Editorial Board, New York Times; Former Moscow Bureau Chief, New York Times; CFR Member

Introductory Remarks

Series Producer, Putin vs the West, Brook Lapping

Putin vs The West, a three-part series produced by Brook Lapping, tells the inside story of how the West has struggled to deal with Vladimir Putin, told by the presidents and prime ministers who worked and fought against the Russian leader.

As we enter year three of the Russia-Ukraine war, CFR will be screening the first episode of Putin vs The West: At War, followed by a discussion on what to expect next.

SCHMEMANN: I hope you were all as struck as we were by this remarkable documentary, and I personally hope very much that Tucker Carlson saw it—(laughter)—to learn how to handle hostile propaganda in a way that makes it clear what it is. 

We have very little time and an excellent panel here. Two, Norma and Tim at the end, are the producers and directors of this wonderful documentary. And we have Dara Massicot, a senior fellow at the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and an expert on the Russian military; and Fiona Hill, the chancellor of Durham University in England, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, former expert on European and Russian affairs at the National Security Council. 

So, to get down to work, as I watched this I was, of course, struck by recalling and seeing in direct interviews the slow gathering of Western resolve of the support for Ukraine that has been, until now, so remarkable. And it’s a little bit painful to watch it from a perspective of two years since, and to know that some of that resolve is now fraying, as we are told the next installment of the series will show. It’s almost remarkable when you see what was achieved and the debates that took place—debates in Germany, in NATO, in Finland, in Sweden, in the United States—when you watch all that slow gathering of a consensus, to sense that this is falling prey to what Putin may have predicted. It hasn’t yet, and there is still time, and I hope this documentary will help build up that resolve again. It also, for me, raised so many of the questions, to see the same questions raised at the very beginning that we’re still struggling with now—the military questions, how will this end, how can we help it end creatively, what can we do. 

And so let me turn, if I may, first to Dara, who’s been watching all this for many, many years from a military perspective, and then ask you, as you watched this: What thoughts do you have? Do we have the resolve? Do we—can Ukraine hold out? What have we done wrong? Did we do anything wrong in the beginning when we wavered, when we didn’t know what to send them, when Zelensky was begging us to send tanks or helmets or whatever we could? What is your takeaway from this documentary? 

MASSICOT: Well, first of all, I’d like to thank both of you for putting this together, season one and season two. And watching it brought back a lot of memories and, frankly, a lot of adrenaline, just remembering that time in—ten years ago and remembering—ten years almost today, as a matter of fact, and then two years ago what it was like to watch a Russian military machine put all the necessary pieces into place and then go. So thank you. Thank you, again, for documenting it. 

And for people like me, you put your head down and you start looking at where are the tanks moving, where are people firing up the jets, and sometimes you miss all the flurry of the diplomatic activity. And I think you really, really captured how everyone was trying to put the brakes on something that was very challenging. 

To the question about, you know, were we too timid or were we too concerned about escalation, that’s something that I think about—I thought about then, think about today, think about six months from now. At the start of this war, I don’t think that we had figured out where the Russians were, necessarily, but I think we’ve had enough datapoints over time—whether we’re giving them artillery, whether we’re giving them HIMARS, whether we’ve—everything that we’ve done for them; and not only the military equipment, but the intelligence support that we provide and the planning support that we provide—and they still have not escalated over that line into NATO. They haven’t—they just haven’t. So that is still a line that they hold. 

Where we find ourselves now, as we think about how to help Ukraine, the situation is not good, and it is trending poorly, and they are being starved of ammunition. And they have some manpower problems of their—of their own; that’s a policy choice that they’re making in Kyiv. There seems, to me, to be an understanding between perhaps Washington and Moscow about red lines—about, well, the Russians, I think, have communicated that they don’t want anything long range that is American or that is NATO origin firing into Russia or they’ll retaliate. Theres only way to one—(laughs)—one way to find out if that’s a bluff or not, and I don’t think—I just don’t think that—and I would defer to the expert on the panel—about Putin that he’s suicidal. And you know, providing—there is a military utility to providing long-range strike weapons to Ukraine, if we’re talking about ATACMS or we’re talking about Taurus. There are targets that they can hit that makes thing(s) harder for Russia. 

I don’t know if I’ve answered all your questions, but I should have prefaced this with I depress everyone that I speak to right now. (Laughter.) So I’ll end with that note. But there is a way forward. 

SCHMEMANN: Can you tell us something—your impression of whether Russia can sustain this and for how long? I mean, in terms of production of arms, in terms of manpower, are they in better shape than Ukraine at this stage? 

MASSICOT: Well, they have—they have two advantages. 

One, they are willing to dig deep in the population to mobilize. I don’t think Putin wants to do this again. I think he would prefer his current method, which is offering a lot of financial incentives, pressuring prisoners, pressuring those who are trying to get citizenship in Russia. They’re recruiting from foreign fighters around the globe. He’s already done it once, though, so he’s already crossed that line once. It’s easier to cross it again. I don’t think he wants to. So there’s a tension in his objectives that he’s giving his commanders: I want more territory, I want to take more, but I don’t want you to take so much that you deplete everyone and I have to do another mobilization again. So there is some inherent tension. 

They do have right now the advantages in certain kinds of production, mostly artillery. We are putting steps in place. If we meet our marks, by 2025 we’re looking at something that approaches parity with Russia if we combine American and European production. But we’d have to give it all to Ukraine. So they’ve just made choices eighteen months ago to be in the position where they are right now, and if we make choices right now then we can be in a better position. But if we never make those choices, this is only going to go one way. 

SCHMEMANN: Thanks. 

Now, Fiona, I know you have been watching Putin for a very long time and very closely. You wrote an excellent book about him. I also never forget watching you at one of these Valdai meetings sitting next to Putin and catching a glimpse of his notes, which was very amusing. (Laughter.) Do you think—what is your impression, first of all, of how he’s portrayed in this—his resolve, his firmness, his propaganda? Do you think there’s any way to get him to back away? I mean, he’s willing to surrender all his young men. He’s willing to surrender his economy and his future. Is there any way to turn him back? And when you—when you watch something like this documentary where you see all these people sort of following him blindly, is there any retreat possible for him, or is he ready to make one ever? 

HILL: Well, I’m sure, like everybody else, I mean, when you see it on such a huge screen as this it really does make an impression. And I found, actually, I caught my breath a few times in watching this. I mean, it’s—and, you know, seeing Putin’s face so clear—we could see the veins around his nose, the little kind of, like, pink on his cheek, you know, the botox—no, we couldn’t see botox injection marks. (Laughter.) But it was—it was really, I mean, very striking about, you know, how much you saw of the man himself in the moment. 

And also, I would say the kind of look of terror on many of the people around him. You know, I hadn’t quite seen Naryshkin quite so close up in that moment where he was caught off guard. I mean, watching Nebenzya, as well, in that moment also just not knowing what the heck was going on, and being able to see that in real time, I mean, it’s very different just seeing it in clips on CNN or, you know, something kind of after the fact when you’re trying to kind of catch up with it later on, the kind of the feed from the BBC. So I just, you know, actually do want to commend you for catching those moments where you make the people so real and those moments so real. 

And it gets back to what you were asking about there, Serge, because Putin has got such a grip on the people around him, or they’ve got such a grip on themselves in that moment of him, that you can see that there’s very few checks and balances on him from the people around him. We’ve just had, you know, the horror of the death of Alexei Navalny. And I think putting it in context of what we saw in the series and then in the weeks—or just the week that we’ve just experienced, the Munich Security Conference, seeing that in real time before the invasion—I was at the Munich Security Conference. I think, actually, a few people here I—(laughs)—spotted in the crowd where—as well, last week. And having that announcement about Alexei Navalny’s death on the—just as the vice president was about to give the keynote address, you can see how much Putin enjoys that moment of orchestration. Whether, you know, Navalny’s death was actually timed for the beginning doesn’t actually almost matter because of the drama of the moment and putting everybody on their back foot. 

And when you’ve got a person like Putin who enjoys putting people on their back foot, I mean, all of the pictures that you show there of him actually in that moment enjoying and savoring the discomfort of others—I was actually a little bit surprised. I do—I do actually want to ask you about that. There is sort of footage of Putin from one of the victory days in May where he actually doesn’t look too well and looks infirm, but the pictures that you’ve actually chosen always saw him in command of the moment. And you see that Putin is orchestrating everything—sending messages, as I said, getting everybody rattled and riled. And it’s really conveying that message, really, Serge, in answer to your question, that he has no intention of stepping back whatsoever. 

He changes the rationale for the war over and over again. In the Tucker Carlson interview, he doesn’t even bother to actually make a big fuss about NATO. He goes back and takes us all back to the ninth century. Thank God you didn’t do that, actually. (Laughter.) That would have been a very long leadup into the video. If you’d started with Rurik and Yaroslav the Wise, we’d—I don’t know how you’d have got footage, but anyway, it would have been, you know, a very long preamble to where you started. (Laughter.) But I think, you know, the message that we’ve got loud and clear is that he has absolutely no intention of stopping unless he’s stopped. 

And that bring us to all of these dilemmas, because, basically, the only thing that’s going to stop him is a show of overwhelming resolve. And I think for me, and probably from everyone here—because I did hear a bit of a collective gasp—the most poignant moment is Lindsey Graham—(laughter)—you know, who’s saying that, you know, if the Ukrainians fight, then we will fight and we will stand up for them. And Lindsey Graham didn’t show up at Munich because Lindsey Graham was one of the people that voted against the supplemental for Ukraine. I felt a sense of shame as well as, you know, kind of shock in that moment of, you know, seeing that as you feature it in the—in the documentary, because, you know, if Ukraine loses, and loses now—and we’ve had the retreat from Avdiivka in a large part because of a lack of ammunition—it will be because of us, because of our lack of resolve. And that’s really kind of what comes out in the course of this. 

And so Putin’s, you know—he’ll just keep on going until he hits enough resolve on our part. And I think that the resolve is going to be very difficult to show. 

SCHMEMANN: And what do you think—what is your prognosis on the resolve front? 

HILL: Well, it’s not very good from the U.S. perspective, not at all. I mean, I keep hoping. I keep, you know, checking my phone—although I left it in the other room this time—(laughs)—to see whether there’s been any movement in Congress, because that’s a thread that comes through in, you know, the—I’m sure in the second series as well. 

But I do have to say, from being in Munich just this, you know, past week, that there’s been a real shift in Europe. But it gets back to the issues that Dara has raised. You know, our production capacity to, you know, assist Ukraine is lagging way behind. I mean, the Danes have given, you know, basically, Ukraine every piece of ammunition that they’ve got. I met with senior Baltic leaders; they have been pretty much giving Ukraine everything that they’ve got as well, because there is a realization sitting in—or, setting in which does fit with what, basically, President Zelensky says very powerfully, that if you don’t help us war will come knocking at your door. And that might not be knocking at the United States’ door, but I think most Europeans have now realized it’s knocking on their door, especially if you live right next door in the Baltic states, in Poland, and Finland, and Norway, and Sweden, and others—and Denmark. 

In Germany, there’s a split. So my prognosis there is, you know, that Germany has some real decision-making to do internally. There’s a real split between the chancellery and, you know, even within some of the political parties. 

But for the Norwegians, for example, a hundred percent support for supporting Ukraine in all their political parties. Same with the Lithuanians, the Latvians, and the Estonians. 

And Belarus, which features in the rather bizarre personality of its U.N. ambassador, is seen as actually a real threat now as well because it’s very clear from your documentary, as well, that Belarus is a party to the war—not on the choice of its people, but certainly by the choice of its leader, Lukashenka. And I mean, again, part of the prognosis is that while Belarus is not factored in here and is being able to be used as a—as a military platform, the security of Europe as a whole is maybe at risk because, of course, Belarus is right there as a bordering state with the Baltic states, with Lithuania and also with Poland. 

So there’s definitely a sense in Europe now that the dimensions of this war have got greater, this is a European war, and that they have to do something. But we are the weak link here in the United States, a great deal of concern that we might not even be there in terms of moral and political support in a few months by the way things are going. 

SCHMEMANN: Thank you. 

Time is becoming an issue already. That was predictable. But we have with us two of the creators of this documentary, and you spoke of Belarus. And I was struck that you were able to get the ambassadors of Russia and Belarus to speak so frankly—I mean, frankly, they were lying, but just to—(laughter)— 

HILL: Finally lying. (Laughs.) 

SCHMEMANN: Nowadays, that passes for frankness. But to get them to speak, to get them to answer your questions, to appear on the record. Can you tell us, perhaps, a bit of how you got them on there? 

PERCY: Well, for us, it was a bit of a handicap because we’re supposed to do all sides. And it became clear, although we made a program ten years ago with excellent access to the Kremlin, that this wasn’t really going to happen. I had a phone call with Dmitry Medvedev—sorry, Dmitry Peskov early on, Putin’s press guy, and he said, oh, yes, in principle we’d happily be in your program, but the time isn’t right. He was sort of implying that if you could get your government to behave better in Ukraine I’ll be in your program, but until then no. But it turns out that the embassies have a certain amount of freedom to do it, and first the British ambassador and then finally the U.N. ambassador were able to do it. Well, the poor Russian ambassador to the U.N., I think, is another example of Putin’s sense of humor, that—(laughter)—he didn’t happen to tell his ambassador, who happened to be chairman of the Security Council, that he was going to time his invasion. And it’s perfectly obvious he’s not lying when you look at his face that he was as surprised as everyone else. 

But the Belarus guy was a real surprise to me, yeah. He combines being such a good witness in describing things that you believe with that extraordinary thing to say about Bucha. So I think it’s a tribute—you can tell listening—you, listening, that you can tell when he’s lying and you can tell— 

SCHMEMANN: Mmm hmm, you can. 

PERCY: —tell when he’s telling the truth. 

SCHMEMANN: Well, that’s your skill in making that clear. 

And, Tim, that scene in the Security Council when they learned, I mean, you had mentioned earlier that that’s a scene you’re particularly proud of to have found it, and to have shown it, and to have worked it in. Could you tell us a bit about that sort of from the technical point of view and from the creative point of view how you did that? 

STIRZAKER: Well, it’s one of those moments which—you know, when you start out making a documentary like this, there are certain scenes that you know you really want to make a central pillar in them, and this is one. We’d seen the footage of that Security Council meeting and we’d seen the faces of the ambassadors. We’d seen that extraordinary moment where he says phone Lavrov. And we thought: We’ve got to try to bring this to life. 

But you can’t just put the footage up there and expect the audience to, you know—you need to sort of translate it somehow. We need to recognize what documentaries are good at, which books are not good at, is human experience. You know, that’s what we can really do in these films, is we can try to make you understand what it was really like for the people who were there. And so with that one, we literally kind of saw everyone around and said, well, we’ll write to everyone and try and get them. And bit by bit, we got first—as Norma says, first we got the British ambassador, and then I think we spoke to Linda Thomas-Greenfield after that, and we sort of built it up. And each person that we spoke to just gave that scene a little bit more richness, and the—Nebenzya, the Russian ambassador, was actually the last person. He was the sort of cherry on the cake for making that scene. But just every time that we interviewed someone, you got a little bit more sense of the tensions, and a little bit more of a sense of who was texting who, and what was actually going on around the table. 

But the other thing is that we’ve got an amazing editor who spent hours going through—you know, it was, like, a four-hour meeting, and just going through and looking for just the right glances and the right looks, so that you have these kind of—you know, when you do seem Martin Kimani checking his phone, you can sort of get a bit of sense of what it was like for him in the room. But it was a slow build, that one. And we had a rough cut that worked pretty well. But Norma, who I’ve worked with for a long time, is—we sort of had this rough cut, which is quite good. This is before Nebenzya was there. And we thought, this is—this is working quite well. But Norma just sort of would always say, it could be a bit better, it could be a bit better. (Laughs.) And so we just sort of kept on trying and eventually got there. 

But it’s just a case of—you know, a lot of the stories in this film we built from just interviews. We didn’t know they were going to be big scenes. At the beginning of our production we speak to as many people as we can off the record just to try and figure out what those key meetings are. And a lot of the time, you don’t have the archive footage. You know, you’re relying on people’s description to take you into that room. And I think the reason I particularly like this scene is that it’s—you not only hear it from them, but you actually see it playing out in real time as well. 

PERCY: But I really think that’s—in all my—it’s almost four decades of doing it, that moment at the U.N. Security Council, you do feel like you’re there. You feel that feeling in the pit of your stomach. This is really happening in front of my eyes. And it’s a real tribute to the people that put together.  

SCHMEMANN: Indeed. I’m glad you let the Kenyan ambassador, say—point out the uselessness of it all. (Laughter.) That may not be entirely fair. Let us open the floor. Do remember that this is on the record. I see already one hand in the back. There’s probably a microphone near you. Please identify yourself too. 

Q: Yes, sir. Hi, James Siebens from the Stimson Center.  

Thank you all very much for this discussion. So this question is for Chancellor Hill. You mentioned shifting kind of rationale from Putin as to explaining the justifications or goals of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. What do you see as the genuine or most well-supported understanding of Russia’s aims in Ukraine now? 

HILL: Well, I think, despite the fact that, as Serge points out, you know, often many of these protagonists—and you also make it clear in the documentary—tend to be a little loose with the truth. I think Putin has been pretty consistent. And, you know, though you’re not featuring the Tucker Carlson interview, you know, the fact that Putin always takes us back to history is itself very significant. I mean, at the—at the early part of the documentary, of course, he says that he’s launched his special military operation because of the treatment of people in Donbas. And so that’s, I mean, another part of the rationale he always gives. 

But he makes it very clear that he believes that Ukraine belongs to Russia, and that Ukraine is part of Russian territory, and that Ukraine, you know, doesn’t really exist as a country. He’s been very consistent with that. And if we go back to 2008 and the Bucharest NATO Summit, he tells George W. Bush that Ukraine is not a real country. And he continues without all the way through to the most recent interview with Tucker Carlson. So it’s just really a kind of a question of wanting to put Ukraine back where it belongs, as much of it as you can get, which is back in Russia.  

SCHMEMANN: Yeah. 

Q: Good evening. Scott Cooper at the Atlantic Council.  

I’m reminded that this organization a hundred and five years ago was founded to give form and stage to America’s engagement in the world. And we are at a Charles Lindbergh moment, I think, trying to figure out how it is that we protect that sacred idea that Walter Lippmann had. How do we pull up out the stops? What courses of action do we have as citizens, as people that are committed to America’s engagement with the world, convincing Lindsey Graham and others that we do, in fact, need to act? 

SCHMEMANN: Are you going to handle that?  

MASSICOT: Sure. Yeah. 

SCHMEMANN: What do we do? 

MASSICOT: What can we do?  

SCHMEMANN: Chto delat? 

MASSICOT: Chto delat? (Laughs.) So I’ll answer that question in terms of, you know, what does the battlefield need? And my boss is Andrew Weiss at Carnegie. And he pulled out a document of ours, an old American document from the ’80s, when we were talking about the Soviets in Afghanistan. And what was really clear to us reading it was that the language was just different. This was in the early—this is in the early part. And it was—and it would say, quite clearly: It is not possible for us to evict the Soviets from Afghanistan right now. We have several interim objectives that we can accomplish towards the pursuit of that goal. And I would like to see us start to use that language again. I don’t think that we’ve used that kind of language publicly in terms of our support for Ukraine.  

So an interim objective right now to me, which is urgent, is that military assistance is—the $61 billion goes through, because without it—Ukrainian units are rationing right now. They will move to depletion. When they are depleted, the Russians can come forward. So that, to me, is the interim objective for right now. We have to study up this line for ’24. I think it’s then possible once they have support that they feel is stable, then they will begin to mobilize more people. And then you train those people for the tasks that they have, which is setting a defense. And then you start looking years out ahead of time. And there is a way forward. But I think what’s not being broken apart and what hasn’t been broken apart is those interim objectives. And it’s OK to say those things. It’s OK to say those things publicly. That’s just my perspective on what to do. But there is a way forward. As depressing as I sound, I promise, like, there is. But it needs commitment. 

SCHMEMANN: Yeah. And I might add that you had the answer to your question in your question. This is the moment for the Council to get active on its primary mission of engagement, of trying to get that resolve back together.  

Back there. 

Q: Thank you. Uriel Epshtein, Renew Democracy Initiative. That was—well, that was—Uriel Epshtein, Renew Democracy Initiative.  

That was an incredible piece of storytelling. And yet, we are losing the storytelling battle. You mentioned that Tucker Carlson interview. And we’ve seen what’s happened with the right. Putin’s propaganda machine has been unbelievably effective. I heard from a congressman that it was effective in Texas. So, you know, I mean, people in Texas are watching RT. So the question is, I mean, how do we combat this at scale when you know, you don’t have people like the people in this room necessarily watching a documentary of that style? I mean, is that something that you guys have been thinking about? Is that a strategy that you’ve been working to pull together? 

SCHMEMANN: Yeah, Norma, do you think that’s something you could respond to? How it is that we respond to Putin’s—the success of Putin’s propaganda? What is it— 

PERCY: Just telling it as it when you can. But who can control what’s going on in Russia? I mean, that’s—I’d like to hear from you who knows about those things. 

SCHMEMANN: Yeah. I suppose that part we can’t control very well, but the storytelling— 

PERCY: Our first series went out simultaneously on Russian television, on Moscow television, as the BBC. But that was in 2012. And Putin still cared about what the West thought about him. These days, I don’t think it would. 

STIRZAKER: I just think it’s also, you know, we sometimes struggle to convince people to actually take part in these things in the first place. I mean, it’s a—it’s a slog, getting all of the people that we got in this film into this film. I mean, it’s—you know, people kind of think, oh, well, Norma’s been doing this for years. She just phones someone up and they’ll say, oh, I’d love to be in a Norma film. And that’s just not how it works. And it’s—I think, for us, it’s really important that the sort of, you know, people who are taking these decisions also realize that telling their stories is important. And telling their stories in a way that’s compelling is what we try to do.  

But I think if people stop taking part in documentaries like this, that’s when it becomes really difficult, because we need to somehow kind of get that message out there. It’s not—you know, I’m not going to pretend that these are watched at the same scale as something, you know, like RT is. But it’s still—for us, it’s just important to keep trying to tell those stories, and tell them in a way that feels balanced and fair. But also, you know, draws people in. I think that’s important. So I would just say that people should say yes when we ask them to do interviews. (Laughter.) 

HILL: I just want to add to this, though, I mean, look, it’s a challenge to all of us here, right? And we can all be storytellers. We’re all participants in this, whether we like it or not. This is going to affect everybody. And I think, you know, Martin Kimani, the U.N. ambassador from Kenya, who I’ve met in person, he is an incredibly effective storyteller as well. And in a conversation that I had with him, you know, he actually said: Look, Americans have forgotten how to tell a story. He was—actually made a joke about Hollywood. He said, you know, you’ve all turned into, you know, kind of Guardians of the Galaxy twigs and raccoons. (Laughter.) You know, you’ve lost—forgotten—and this is exactly what he said. You’ve kind of lost humanity. What’s happened to the Americans who go out there and tell a story, you know, that makes it very clear about why people are doing things? 

And, you know, that’s something that members of the Council on Foreign Relations do. It’s why we’re having this event. It’s also what people do in journalism, like Serge and, you know, all of his opinion and commentary pieces. But it’s kind of, you know, something that we’re all going to have to do on a regular basis. And, you know, I think some of you might have read just recently in the New York Times the movie of Bulgakov, Master and Margarita, that’s being shown, you know, right now in in Russia and having an impact. We’ve got to start being creative about things like this, about telling stories. The story of Alexei Navalny dying—you know, somebody of that kind of unspeakable bravery to, you know, do the things that he did, and to sacrifice himself in the way that he did—telling that story and moving it forward. 

Because you can’t just leave Vladimir Putin to tell the story. And I think that this documentary is a challenge to all of us about how do we get out there and work on the narrative. Our politicians need to do better. Stoltenberg is amazing actually doing this. Actually, that’s probably why he’s still the NATO secretary general after all this time, he’s been in there like ten years now. Because we need to find people who can tell stories. Boris Johnson’s quite the raconteur. I wasn’t quite sure about some his colorful turns of phrase at times—(laughter)—but, you know, he has been very consistent. And you’ve got people in that—in your documentary who really can tell a story. So how can we get people to be out there explaining why this matters? 

SCHMEMANN: Yeah. I suspect Putin’s success is also in part a reflection of our general inability anymore to distinguish between truth and falsehood. These are becoming very confused elsewhere. Yes, ma’am. Right there in the third row.  

Q: I can speak very loudly. (Laughter.)  

SCHMEMANN: You don’t need to. 

Q: Thank you. Thank you for hosting this event. It was a wonderful film. 

And my question is, the atrocity that we’ve seen in the film is very astonishing. And especially the one minute film that was shown by the president. My question is, what are some potential outcomes that you see is going to come from this war? How will this end? It’s been going on for some time. When do you think this will reach to an end? Thank you. 

SCHMEMANN: Well, that’s, I think, the big question hanging over all of this. How can it end? It was raised—it was interesting, it was really raised from the beginning. Fiona, how’s this going to end? 

HILL: Well, actually, it doesn’t end. Because what it does is it’s already set in motion a whole set of other events. I mean, that’s what always happens with wars. I mean, World War I, World War II, every war we think of put something else into motion. And, you know, what we—what we saw in the documentary when people like all Olaf Scholz talk about it as being a zeitenwende, a watershed moment. Everyone in Europe realized that, you know, history had changed yet again, another pivot. And so, you know, the big kind of question now is whether Europe basically reverts to the kind of situation that it’s been in, you know, for the last hundred years, of being in a state of conflict with one of the other major European great powers.  

I mean, it certainly doesn’t seem to have much prospect of an end where we have a reconciliation with Russia and get back on a—you know, a track to where we were before. Dara, I mean, can obviously speak to this. But we see Russia now basically building up its military. And even if, you know, miraculously the war ended tomorrow, there’s very little likelihood that Russia would stop building up its military. So Europe has gone, in a way, back full circle to 1949 and the creation of NATO, and actually having to deal with a hostile power in the European space. That was the realization that everyone had come to in this past week in Munich.  

It’s also now interconnected to multiple other wars. I mean, I’m very struck by everybody talking about we don’t want World War III, but in many cases we’re already there. We had the Hamas attack on Israel of October 7th, which has started off yet again another sets of rounds of Middle East conflict. We have the tensions that were kind of alluded to but not made clear in the documentary in the Asia-Pacific region. I mean, you did a quick scoop around the—or scope around the U.N., mentioning that not everyone was on the same page. And we’ve got multiple tensions interspersed here. We have Iran and North Korea actively helping Russia in the war in Ukraine, who’ve had no role in any of the European conflicts previously. We have China at least tacitly supporting Russia as well. We’ve got Iran as a major factor in the in the Middle East. So everything is becoming intertwined.  

And then we’ve got that big question that Martin Kimani has had on the table, about what about the failure of the multinational institutions? So this really only ends if we figure out how to reinvigorate the international system on the basis of international law, recognition of territorial integrity, and sovereignty. It will not end by partitioning Ukraine. That’s certainly for sure. 

SCHMEMANN: And, Dara, can I put the same question to you, but in military terms? Do you think that Putin has roughly the territory he wants, give or take a kilometer here and there? Or does he want to push as far as he can? I mean, from the way he’s preparing it, from the way they’re sort of distributing their troops and the resources, what do you think would be enough for him, if there is such a thing? 

MASSICOT: I don’t want to put him on the couch when the expert is—(laughter)— 

HILL: I don’t think any of us want him on the couch. (Laughter.) 

MASSICOT: No. I don’t we really want to see the scenes that play out inside that mind. But just taking a look at what’s going on right now on the battlefield, and where I think they’re trying to set the pieces for the summertime, they know the Ukrainians are depleted. They know that they don’t have enough manpower. And they know that we’re wobbling. So the strategy they’ve been pursuing for the past five months is to just press along multiple points of the line and just try to hollow out these units in place when they find a weak spot.  

I think that they wanted Avdiivka really badly. And they got it really badly. They lost 600 vehicles. They haven’t—the casualty numbers being thrown around are still not particularly accurate, in my view, so I’m going to hold off on that estimate. But it was costly. I think that they are trying to push next towards the border of Donetsk oblast. I think if he could have—again, if Putin could have an intermediate objective, it would probably be all four of the oboists that they annexed into Russia. So Luhansk, Donetsk, Zaporizhzhia, part of Kherson. And I think that is maybe what the goal is for this year. And then that changes if Ukraine runs out of air defense, and if units are truly broken and irrecoverable for next year. Then it invites more. 

SCHMEMANN: Hmm. Thank you. I think we’re out of time. Will you give us one more question, or do you think this is it? One more? OK, sir. 

Q: One more question. 

SCHMEMANN: One more. 

Q: Steve Eisenbraun. I’m retired U.S. Foreign Service.  

My question is mostly to you, Fiona, because you were on the NSC at one time and developing policy options. And that is, we have heard in the American press that the Americans—and there hasn’t been very much mention of other allies—in developing sanctions, further harsh sanctions, against Russia, because of the death of Navalny. All right. We expect them tonight. Maybe they’ve already been announced. But they’re imminent. My question to you is—I’ll hold that—the last couple of days commentary on NPR has suggested that Putin is pretty much immune from sanctions. He sees that they don’t really harm him or his inner circle of supporters. All right. Now, the question to, Fiona. What would you believe to be a truly serious blow to Putin’s power or interests in these sanctions? What would really hurt him? 

HILL: Yeah. I think there are several things that would really hurt Putin. Whether it’ll happen or not— 

SCHMEMANN: Deny him his Botox? 

HILL: Yeah, well, denying Botox might be one of the things. (Laughter.) But anyway, I think one of them—and this, actually, you know, is being debated right now in in Europe, but of course, it’s controversial here as well, is taking the frozen assets. Because Putin spent an incredibly long period of time building up, basically, reserves. It’s been a very important issue for him in the early parts of his presidency. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the problems that Boris Yeltsin got into in the 1990s, Putin took away from this that the insolvency of the state was the biggest risk. Yegor Gaidar, the former Russian prime minister, wrote a book actually about this collapse, in which he said that the key to the future was financial solvency and building up major reserves. And Putin spent his entire time in the first ten years of office building up reserves, paying off all of the debt.  

It would be very painful for Putin to have all of those reserves taken away. I mean, he relied on—and this is where the debate comes in, about the sanctity of the Western financial systems. You know, thinking that it wouldn’t be a problem having those reserves in euros and dollars, et cetera, and gold. He did move out some of those reserves from the U.S. before the inversion, thinking that, you know, we are—we were very likely to do something. But he never thought that the Europeans would touch the money. There’s been rumors, you know, that he might actually go after the head of the central bank and others for not thinking ahead. But he didn’t tell her either, or any of his staff, that he was going to invade. Just like, you know, most the other people in the Russian government. So I think that would hurt him. Whether that’s going to happen or not is another matter.  

The other thing is, of course, hitting the revenues from oil and gas. And that’s also, you know, pretty tricky, because that all has knock-on effects, obviously, on the rest of the world economy. And we heard Daleep Singh talk about that, about how do you try to make an impact on the sources of revenues from Russian energy but without, you know, completely destabilizing the broader economic system. So there are things that could be done—constraining the revenues, constraining his ability to build up armaments, certainly, you know, trying to push back against Iran and North Korea and others, you know, that are supplying Russia with bridging armaments, and denying them components for the military buildup.  

But all that is obviously easier said than done. But that definitely would hurt. And taking away some of the diplomatic support. If China flipped, you know, or other countries decided that this was also hurting their interests and started to put some pressure on Putin, that would also be difficult for him. But, again, it’s hard to envisage those pathways. 

SCHMEMANN: Hmm. Well, thank you. And I know you’ll join me in thanking the Council, and the creators of this wonderful documentary, and my fellow panelists. (Applause.) 

(END) 

Top Stories on CFR

Ukraine

The two-year-old war in Ukraine—which is far from deadlocked—could pivot dramatically in the coming months. U.S. decisions will play a decisive role.

Egypt

International lenders have pumped tens of billions of dollars into Egypt’s faltering economy amid the war in the Gaza Strip, but experts say the country’s economic crisis is not yet resolved.

Iran

CFR experts discuss Iran’s attack on Israel and the escalation of the conflict. FROMAN: Well, thanks very much. Thanks, everybody, for joining. And thank you to our six senior fellows here who’ve …