Tensions at the Border: Ukraine, Russia, and the West

Thursday, December 16, 2021
Sega Volskii/Getty Images

Distinguished Fellow, Council on Foreign Relations

Director, Russia Studies, CNA

Editor in Chief, UA: Ukraine Analytica; Director, Security Programs, Foreign Policy Council “Ukrainian Prism”


Staff Writer, New Yorker

Panelists discuss the massing of Russian troops and escalating tensions at the Ukraine-Russia border, as well as potential diplomatic and military responses for the United States and NATO.

GLASSER: Well, thank you very much, Kayla. And I want to thank everyone for joining us today for what is an extremely timely conversation with three people who not only are terrific experts on Russia and Ukraine, but even can provide us a little bit of the ground truth, or at least the ground spin, that is often missing from the conversation about what’s happening back here in Washington and in the United States. Because actually everyone here in this conversation, except for me, has spent some time in the region recently, or is there right now.

So I think, you know, we’ve been embroiled in a real series of conversations this year about just how to understand what’s going on with Russia and its recent military moves, the diplomatic conversations that are occurring, or not occurring, between the Biden administration and Putin administration, where and how Ukraine and the government of President Zelensky figures into those discussions, where Europe figures in. so there’s an enormous amount to talk about today.

So without further ado, I’m going to introduce the panelists and we can just jump right into it. I should say to everybody, we’re really looking forward to your questions and interjections today as well, so we’ll make sure to save a good amount of time for that today. This is an on-the-record conversation, and there will be plenty of time for you to jump in with your questions later on in the conversation.

For now I’m going to start with Tom Graham, who’s sitting in a hotel room in Moscow right now. Not the best hotel room. (Laughter.) And he may or may not make it through with us on video the entire time. But we are obviously grateful to have Tom with us today, a distinguished fellow at the Council, served, of course, as senior director at the National Security Council, expert on Russia, and a general person to help us navigate this crisis moment.

Hanna Shelest is with us from Odessa, her home. She is the editor-in-chief of Ukraine Analytica. And I think I’m really looking forward to what she has to say to help us see what things look like from the Ukraine side of things. So thank you so much, Hanna, for being with us today.

And Michael Kofman, who is the director for Russia studies at CNA, also a fellow at the Kennan Institute. Expert on the Russian military. Michael, you were just, I believe, in Russia last week. So also coming away from this. Maybe not with clarity, but at least a sense of what people are saying on the ground. I am here in Washington and eagerly looking for answers to all of those questions.

So, actually, Hanna, I’m going to—I’m going to start with you, because it’s really important to say that this is a story not just about Russia and the United States, but it’s a story about Ukraine, of course. And this is all playing out against a really human backdrop of, you know, what is it like to have 100,000-plus, you know, army on your borders threatening you, and seeming to get attention as a result of what can only be described charitably as incredible bullying behavior. What do you think is actually happening here, Hanna?

SHELEST: Thank you for these wonderful questions. And the view from inside, it looks less dangerous probably than from the outside. And that is the basics of the crisis psychology that the person in the accident usually is less afraid than those people who are watching it from the TV. Definitely the situation is very dangerous. It is escalating. But at the same time, we are living in this situation for seven years. So from the Ukrainian point of view, what we are seeing is just the raising of the stakes, is the greater rhetoric, is the bigger amount of forces. But in general, it is the same trend that we are living. So that’s why it seems to me that inside of the country views among politicians, experts, journalists is much less panicked than what we can read in some of the U.S. or German media within the last few weeks. So that is definitely, like, point number one.

Point number two is that, you know, you said it is about Russia and Ukraine not Russia and the U.S. The issue is what the latest developments are demonstrating since April, I would say. That even more and more Russia demonstrates that it’s not just about Ukraine. It’s never been just about Ukraine. Ukraine very often—some part of the problem is mental, historical, ideological. That is definitely purely in the Russian-Ukrainian relation. But it was always a greater picture. In all the statements since 2014 that you hear from Moscow, it is the attempt to reach Washington. It is an attempt to return back to that bipolar view of the world, especially of Europe, how to divide the zones and it is the U.S. who is controlling Ukraine.

So this rhetoric, it’s always been. But for the last year, we started to hear more strongly, more articulated. And now we reached to that—it’s not catastrophe yet, but for the—(inaudible)—level, saying that it’s now about NATO, about eastern flank of NATO. So the statements are already even about the NATO member states of the former Soviet Bloc, or the Baltics. And the actions developed the same. So if you would like to see the whole picture, you need to look not only to the buildup of the forces on the eastern border of Ukraine, but also to see how within the last year the buildup has been happening in the Black Sea in terms of the maritime security and maritime incidents. They were less immediate, but much more dangerous sometimes.

We need to see what is happening in Azov and we need to see what is happening on the northern border, because definitely we see the certain scrapping of the—like, diffuses of the forces of the Russian Federation, and the actions that are threatening not only Ukraine but the buildup near Sweden, near Estonia, and rest of the buildups.

GLASSER: Well, Tom, sitting there in Moscow, you probably can’t answer for us the question of what exactly is going to happen, but maybe you can help answer Hanna’s very important question, which is: What is it even about? What do you think it’s really about from the perspective of Russia right now? Why are they doing this? And what are their aims, even if we don’t know exactly what it is they’re going to do?

GRAHAM: Well, I would put it this way: For all the talk about the success of Putin’s foreign policy over the past several years, the fact of the matter is Euro-Atlantic institutions, both in an ideological sense and in a material sense, have moved eastward toward the Russian border. And if you think about it in the ideological sense, they’ve penetrated very deeply into Russia itself. And I think one of the things that the Kremlin is trying to do is say: Enough is enough. You know, we consider this a matter of our vital security interest. We need to find a way to stop this pressure moving towards Russia.

And what they really are looking for, and what’s striking in the conversations that I have had over the past few days—and it confirms what Hanna has just said—they really want to sit down and talk to the United States, to the Biden administration, about how we’re going to regulate this long border between NATO and Russia in Europe. How are we going to deal in a—in a forthright manner with what Russia considers it main security interest, interest that they said they’ve been raising repeatedly for the past several years but haven’t received any satisfaction from the United States.

In fact, what they have come away with is a sense that the Biden administration really didn’t want to negotiate with them on these things, that it wanted to park the relationship with Russia so it could focus on China. And so part of this buildup is a way of saying you can’t ignore Russia. And oh, by the way, you can’t simply talk to us about the things that you want to talk about. This is a vital interest for us. We have to sit down and talk. And we’re not going to deescalate the situation along the border until we believe you are, one, engaged in serious negotiations and, two, we’ve reached some resolution on some concrete issues.

GLASSER: So before I get to Michael, Tom, I just want to follow up quickly. Why now, though? I mean, you know, the idea that they are so aggrieved about NATO expansion sort of begs the question that NATO isn’t expanding right now. And it has a feeling of this sort of incredible manufactured crisis that perhaps has more to do with Putin wanting to get attention from the Biden administration and not, you know, sort of be pivoted away from to China.

GRAHAM: Well, you know, what they will—or, what, you know, Russian officials have told me, other Russians as well, is that there has been a significant change on the ground in and around Ukraine over the past—over the past several months. Zelensky has been—the Ukrainian president—has been much more aggressive in pushing his foreign policy, cracking down on the pro-Russian forces inside Ukraine, arresting an oligarch who actually was quite close to Putin at one point, closing down Russian—pro-Russian TV stations. He has tried around the international community to put Crimea back on the agenda. He has pressed very hard for NATO to make some decisions about Ukrainian membership in NATO.

And that has come at the same time, from the Russian standpoint, that you see the United States stepping up its military and security cooperation with Ukraine, something that other major NATO countries are doing as well—the United Kingdom in particular. The Russians believe that we are running many more military exercises in the Black Sea than previously, and more ambitious military exercises. And that we’re flying some strategic reconnaissance flights, strategic bombers, close to the Russian borders.

So there’s a sense that over the past, say, seven, eight, nine months Ukraine is—has become much closer to the West. It is moving much more rapidly out of Russia’s orbit than had been anticipated. And as someone from the Carnegie Endowment wrote a few weeks ago, you know, the Russians aren’t worried so much about Ukraine in NATO right now. They’re worried about NATO in Ukraine. And that’s why they raised the alarm at this point. They want to sit down. They want to put a stop to that.

GLASSER: So, Michael, there’s a lot to sort of unpack there. I guess I have a two-part question for you. One is help us actually understand the nature of this force that Russia is assembling on Ukraine’s borders. You know, the reports are that the U.S. intelligence has estimated it could go up to 175,000 troops by sometime early in the next year, that it is, you know, a variety of capabilities that are more serious than what has been positioned there in the past, in the spring when there was the earlier buildup. So, first of all, help us understand what you believe to be, you know, the nature of this Russian force building up next to Ukraine. And then, you know, why you think they’re there.

KOFMAN: OK. Well, let me start off by saying that people have tried to break up what’s happening now in the fall with the Russian military deployment in March and April. But they’re actually not really two separate events. They’re one series of events that has been unfolding all year, probably starting from about late February. And March/April could be seen in some ways as a dress rehearsal for Russian military deployment, but also a number of the forces that were deployed back then never left to go back to their garrisons. They actually stayed over the summer into the fall.

Since then, there have been an addition of a host of Russian forces kind of tripling and slowly prepositioning. And this is all military activity that’s outside of sort of regular cycles of things that you’d expect to see. And it’s actually being done in a way that suggests they are concealing important aspects of the deployment. We’re seeing some people say, well, if Russia wanted to conduct an attack, they would do a surprise attack and do it covertly. So that’s wrong on two levels from just a standpoint of military science.

First of all, you cannot deploy any sizable force in 2021 without it being identified and detected and observed. Second, you can deploy a large force in a way such that you are actually keeping observers guessing as to the potential timing of a military operation, the final disposition of forces, the potential vectors or sort of the scope of the operation. And all the key indicators and warnings would only show up very, very late into the game, by the time there’s very little time left to do anything about it. And that is, in fact, a fair depiction of what is taking place.

It looks far more complex than you would need for just coercive diplomacy, if you were just pursuing another effort in intimidation of the way things kind of looked in March and April. It looks a lot more thought out. And they’re signaling that they’ve even, you know, invested in reserves, that whatever the operation is they expect to be holding or occupying terrain for some at least limited amount of time. So it is the most serious it’s ever been since the winter offensive of 2015.

But you can have a rough scope depiction because, of course, you know, as a military analyst numbers often make sense to me, but they could be a little down in the weeds for other folks. So if you think about the Russian military operation in August/fall of 2014, it was only about four or six battalion tactical groups. It wasn’t that large. And in the winter of 2015, maybe eight to ten. And a battalion tactical group, for those interested, is around on average 800 troops. It’s not a tremendous amount of military power, but nonetheless—nonetheless it was sufficient.

The force gathered right now is somewhere over fifty battalion tactical groups, and headed northwards, right? So this kind of gives you a scale depiction. Now, of course, recall that the Russian military has evolved tremendously since 2014 and 2015. It’s much different in terms of capability, force structure, posture, and military experience. The Ukrainian military has logically improved but the Russian military has improved tremendously as well. So these have both been moving targets since that time.

So the long story short is that it is a force that as it is positioned now is capable of fairly large military operation, and it’s positioned that way because clearly they’ve been given the planning orders to make that an option. That doesn’t tell us that somebody in Moscow has decided to go forward with it. Right? It doesn’t tell us that they’re going to do it today or tomorrow. In fact, everything about the force posture says, this is going to play out in the coming months, not in the coming days. It’s not a position that suggests an imminent attack is going to happen. But it is also one that tells us clearly that when those indicators change there won’t be a lot of time to react, to be very frank. Right? They will retain the element of surprise.

And one last point: To me there’s a real problem in terms of the Russian political position, what they’re asking for, and what’s happening on the military side, the ground side that you can kind of physically observe. The ask is sort of grand. Right? That is, the demands for legal judicial guarantees is so extensive that they’re asking for things they know the United States, NATO, and other countries simply can’t give. Even on basic technical grounds it would be very difficult to see how they can give them something like that. All right?

The military posture is not a military posture that Russia’s likely to maintain beyond early spring. There are logistical issues. There are costs. There are all sorts of things that kind of come into play that suggest they will have to make a decision in the coming months. And what they’re asking for, just in terms of the political process—let’s say Washington said, all right, we’re willing to talk, let’s sit down, let’s see what we can do—even that process hypothetically would unfold over such a time period that to me is beyond the kind of scope of what we see as the logical military deployment that’s taking place.

So something’s wrong here, as I’ve said before, looking at this, that really worries me. Something’s not right with this picture. The military posture doesn’t make sense relative to the diplomatic and political position.

GLASSER: Yeah, I think that’s an incredibly important point. I remember being in the Kuwaiti desert watching the U.S. invasion force pile up over the period of several months to invade Iraq, and, you know, that was a real eye-opening experience for me. And one of the things is that it costs an enormous amount of money, and generally speaking, in history, there aren’t a huge number of examples of when you build up a force like that where you just turn around and go home without doing anything.

And so I would think, Hanna, that that is the big worry, no matter how much, you know, people in Ukraine have been, you know, already living in this state, as you pointed out, since 2014. I’m constantly frustrated when here in the United States you hear commentators say things like, well, would Putin really invade Ukraine? And of course, the answer we know is yes because he’s already done so.

But you know, I want—maybe you could address for us a little bit of what Tom was talking about, which is this Russian argument that actually there is a change both in the Zelensky government and its attitude toward Russia and in a sense that Ukraine has sort of reached a crucial moment in its turn away from Russia and toward the West.

SHELEST: Yes. Thank you. Definitely. And jumping from your last phrase about will Putin invade Ukraine, that’s definitely the most-asked question for me from all international media, both European and U.S., for the last months, and the answer is very simple: He has already done this. In 2014, in February, Russian forces already invaded.

GLASSER: That’s right.

SHELEST: So it is a not new invasion. One of the reasons why I don’t believe in the invasion as the full-fledged invasion because for Putin it was extremely important to keep the status of mediator within this conflict. All the time he tried to present it more as the supporting proxies in separate districts of Donetsk and Luhansk regions. And even when Erdoğan, the president of Turkey, proposed his mediation effort just a few weeks ago, the immediate answer from Moscow was, no, no, no, we are not party to the conflict. So when the Russian forces would invade openly—because this time it would be impossible to do as it happens, as Michael perfectly described, in 2014 and ’15, just with proxies and with a small amount—you are losing this main argument that you are not party to the conflict. You are a state party to the conflict and you are not a mediator. So that’s difficult, but it definitely not take away the risk of incidents and of provocations, and that’s we afraid much more and that’s what Ukrainian forces are prepared.

To briefly refer to some of the statements that Tom has been making about how it’s seen from Russia—you know, it seems to me that that is the perfect case for the books of constructivists and how the reality is constructed from Moscow. First, you have to go about NATO. When Russia did the first actions in 2014, at that time there were no even hopes for the Membership Action Plan, and even inside of Ukraine only 13—1-3—percent of population supported NATO membership. It was the lowest level of interoperability. It didn’t stop Putin from invading and annexing Crimea. At that time, you know, all the NATO documents and until recently, which even in the NATO strategic concept that is still valid through March 2022, Russia been made as the partner, the strategic partner, of NATO.

So the first question that I’m usually asking to the Russians arguments about NATO are, please explain me how and when NATO started to threaten you. It had been your or some kind of the old perception that NATO coming closer will take some of your spheres of interest. At that time, well, most of the NATO countries were not even thinking with the categories of the spheres of interest in Europe, because in the beginning of 1990s they were open to the cooperation with Russia. In 2014, we compared the number of the joint events between Russia and NATO and Ukraine and NATO, and some of the NATO officials even asked me, who from your two states are going to apply for the membership? Russia had tremendous number of cooperation. So it was more of the creating of the domestic needs in the Russian Federation that unfortunately, at the certain moments of time, created all these crises within the European security. And in the beginning of 1990s, nobody promised Russia that—and Gorbachev even said it in the German media interview back in 1990s, that no such promise has been made to him but it’s some kind of myth created by media or by some Russian politicians much later.

In terms of the increased cooperation between Ukraine and NATO, it was a logical process all of these years. So it’s nothing new. It’s nothing something special happened in 2021. It is the decision since 2014. The number of exercises is more or less the same; sometimes the tasks are changing. But is it normal considering that Ukrainian army is developing, because in 2014 we didn’t have army. It had been destroyed, our military as a whole, because we lost 75 percent of navy in Crimea. So definitely you see the training. You see the support from our partners. And, for example, the Bayraktars that had been used to buy Ukraine the drones, the Turkish drones that brought some panic in Moscow, Moscow didn’t care about this construct before these drones been used in Azerbaijan. And when in Nagorno-Karabakh really noticed how efficient they can be.

So it is just a natural process that is coming for now. And in terms of the United Kingdom and the exercises, that’s really very interesting because the chief partnership agreement been signed last year and the reason was not only Brexit, because the U.K. was searching for the new place in Europe as well, but also because there are certain things like freedom of navigation which are extremely important for our partners. It’s not only about Ukraine. China started to learn the bad examples from Russia already and it is noted by many intelligence. We started to see that Russia became much more assertive in the Black Sea when, for example, now they closed 70 percent of the Sea of Azov for navigation. Previously, they closed 25 percent of the Black Sea for exercises. They closed for six months for exercises Azov Kerch for the military and state ship. So they’ve been doing all this time; it’s just that international media was not paying attention that much to what has been happening.

And the last, from what we’ve been saying about Zelensky, that’s really interesting because it seems to me it’s not that Zelensky became more aggressive; it’s just Zelensky realized what is the threat. When he came in 2019 he was that much inexperienced, out of politics, out of any security sphere, that he thought that looking into the eyes of Putin will save the world and change—resolve the conflict. After December 2019 meeting in Paris and the events happening after these violations of cease-fire, he realized and he felt that it is a real war. It is not just some political discourses in the media. That’s why his rhetoric has been changing because he started to realize personally and seriously what it is.

GLASSER: Hanna, thank you. There’s so much to unpack there.

Tom, you couldn’t possibly respond to all of that, but maybe you can help us understand this important point about, is there a gap between what is the military capability that Russia has built up right now and what’s even possible diplomatically? What you were outlining for us, you know, is rightly something that feels very disconnected, you know, to any specific things on the ground and very, almost a, you know, an abstract—you know, we want the West to declare somehow that they’re not going to be here anymore.

GRAHAM: Well, you know, there is interest in diplomacy on the Russian side. But I will say that the diplomacy up to this point has been clumsy, it’s been inconsistent, and it’s been hasty. You know, to take a good example: You know, my understanding is that when the assistant secretary, Karen Donfried, was here in Moscow yesterday, the Russian side presented her with two sort of documents sort of outlining what the politically binding—or essentially, the juridically binding guarantees would be on non-expansion of NATO, other things that are of Russian concern. But now they’re contemplating whether they should make those documents public or not. Perhaps in the next twenty-four hours, perhaps a little bit later, obviously long before the United States or NATO allies could sit down and take a hard look at these and formulate some sort of reasonable response.

So there seems to be a definite effort to try to push the diplomacy as rapidly as possible to put this out in public in order to sort of make clear what it is the Russians are asking for. And anybody who has engaged in serious diplomacy in the past knows that those are nonstarters; it’s counterproductive.

But what I did hear was that, you know, they are not in fact looking for the United States to say, you know, we’ve seen the light; yes, these are problems and we’re prepared to undertake all these steps in order to meet your concerns. What they’re looking for is some indication that the United States is in fact prepared to engage in serious negotiations with them about these matters. So one official said to me, you know, if the United States sort of announced who was going to head a negotiating team, that it was—clearly, it’s going to be interagency the way their negotiating team is going to be interagency, and they provided us with the time frame in which the United States would be prepared to sit down and start these negotiations in a serious fashion. That would answer a number of their initial concerns. They understand that with the holiday season upon us in the West, a long holiday season in January, that you’re not likely to get a lot of stuff moving over the next several weeks. But if someone said, third week in January we will go to city X and we’re prepared to deal with these issues in a serious way, that would help alleviate some of the concern.

The other point I would here, though, is that there’s nothing that’s going to lead to a de-escalation on the military side at this point. I think it’s quite clear from the comments that Putin has made over the past several weeks, particularly ones that he made to his diplomats in the middle of November, that he sees the tension as something that focuses Western attention on Russia and he also believes something that we all know, that a looming military force sometimes help the diplomacy go along a bit faster than it might under other circumstances. So we’re going to have to deal with that as well.

In any event, I think they are looking for something that indicates we’re prepared to deal seriously on a sustained basis with their concerns, understanding that it will take some time to come to satisfactory solutions.

GLASSER: So I want to bring Michael in on this as well, but Tom, just quickly, I’ve got to ask you, like, Michael’s point is a very important point about the nature of this force, and, you know, it appears to be well beyond the force that’s necessary for the kind of coercive diplomacy and attention-getting that you’re describing. You’ve been around Russia for a long time. I mean, you know, is it really plausible that they just want attention with something like this? This is different than what they’ve done before.

GRAHAM: Well, look, it’s not simply attention; they want movement on these things as well. So they want a serious set of negotiations where you begin to lay out positions. You know, you talk about NATO expansion. We have to come to the table prepared to say something more than that’s a nonstarter from our—for our standpoint. So I think, you know, what we have to ask ourselves on the American side: Are there ways of sort of finessing this issue that doesn’t sort of undermine our principal position on the right of countries to choose, but, for example, if the United States were to come to the table with an idea on a moratorium of some sort that we wouldn’t take practical steps, for example, that would bring Ukraine into NATO for the next ten or fifteen years, would that, in some way, begin to answer some of Russia’s concerns?

If we came to the negotiation and said we’re willing to talk about limiting the types of weapons systems we will provide the Ukrainians, again, on the assumption that Russia would also be prepared to limit the types of weapons systems it would deploy along the border with Ukraine, does that get you engaged in a negotiation that would, in fact, help ease some of Russia’s concern?

Could we decide to reengage on the INF issue? You know, I think a lot of us who looked at this before the treaty was abrogated believed that it was a technical question. We could have resolved the issues that we had with each other through technical means if there had been the political will to do that. Can we find the political will to do that at this point?

So I think there are steps that we could take in the next several weeks that would indicate that we are prepared to deal in a serious way that—and begin that process, and that would lead to, potentially, de-escalation on the Russian side. That’s where I think they are.

Now, I’ll just end this by stating the obvious. I spent my time talking with a lot of diplomats who like to negotiate. I didn’t spend my time talking to the military, who run the operations.

GLASSER: So, Michael, you know, listening to that, does that strike you as a realistic framework for how we could go forward here or is that really not compatible with the kind of footprint that you’re seeing for this Russian operation?

KOFMAN: I mean, it’s an optimistic outcome. I thought the safest bet looking at this was, oh, that it was just another case of coercive diplomacy. But then, when I began to see kind of Russian political demands, how kludged together and rushed the entire affair seemed to me, I began to really worry and started to grow pessimistic.

So, first of all, Moscow has our attention. They’re still adding to the force posture. It’s growing, and it doesn’t need to grow at this point. We’re all taking this very seriously, certainly, in Washington, D.C.

Second, they themselves have climbed up to this position. Now they cannot back down with nothing without suffering a real political loss. People will either say that Putin was bluffing, and it’s the second time this year around, or they will say that he was deterred. Either way it would be a political defeat, and I’m just not—in my experience, I’ve not known Russia to play it this way, right? So they’re going to need something.

I’m skeptical that, substantively, they can get even a fraction of what they want. I agree with Tom. It’s kind of an optimistic interpretation, in some ways, and it’s the best possible, maybe, outcome, that the dialogue emerges. But the Russian MFA—the Ministry of Foreign Affairs—doesn’t make policy. Generally, it explains it and it’s usually the last to know about what Russia is going to do in military terms. And that’s been—that’s kind of been my experience with it.

So I am growing increasingly pessimistic. I don’t think that Russia has a full-scale invasion in mind. I don’t like this term because it’s a meaningless analytical term, right? Russia is not going to invade all of Ukraine. Russia has the military capability deployed now, if it wants to, to conduct a sizable military operation like the Russia-Georgia war, destroy Ukraine’s military potential, impose a new political settlement, and have the force if it wants it to occupy a much larger amount of territory maybe in eastern Ukraine, far above and beyond the scope of anything we’ve seen in 2014 and 2015.

It doesn’t mean that that’s what they’re going to do. It doesn’t mean that that’s what they plan to do, necessarily, either. But this very well may not come out and may not settle without military action of some kind, and whatever happens is likely to dramatically exceed the scope of previous events that shaped this conflict.

GLASSER: So I want to make sure that we get to our questioners. We’ve got a large audience today online.

But, Hanna, just quickly, listening to this conversation about Russia and the United States negotiating over, you know, Ukraine’s future and that of NATO, I’m just wondering how that looks from your perspective sitting in Odessa. And, you know, what does Ukraine need to do to be represented at the table in this conversation?

SHELEST: You know, it seems to me that is the lessons of 1990 that we needed to learn, and that is the slogan that Ukraine is using now: Nothing about Ukraine without Ukraine. We already have—because I hear—have been talks about the new agreement that can be reached. We had a wonderful agreement, so-called Budapest Memorandum, even that a memorandum would not be a binding—a legally binding agreement, but Ukraine already received some kind of assurances. Russia didn’t care about it. So the question for me is always: Are you sure that Russia would care about any kind of a new arrangements signed in 2021?

But what is important to me, it seems to me, and what Ukraine is doing now, we united our voices with the Eastern European countries, with the Central European countries, because the guarantees that the Russian Federation would like now, they are not just about Ukraine. They are, obviously, about the Baltics and about the Central-Eastern countries of Poland, of Romania. And that was extremely important, that after the first telephone call, this videoconference between Biden and Putin, the next call was with the Bucharest Nine, and that these states already said that, come on, you are not going to have Washington-Moscow talks about what is happening at our territory; we are the equal NATO members.

And it seems to me that for Ukraine the most important now will be not only that support that we need from our Western partners, the support that we are receiving now, but this unity of the—of the allies within NATO, because for the Russian Federation the worst scenario, it is when NATO and European Union are united in their position against the assertive and aggressive actions of Russia. And this indirectly, but even directly, will be the best-case scenario for Ukraine because that would ruin that idea that it can be just Washington and Moscow who can decide everything.

GLASSER: All right. Well, Kayla, should we go ahead and get some questions from our audience?

OPERATOR: (Gives queuing instructions.)

We’ll take the first question from Steven Pifer.

Q: Thanks very much. Steve Pifer out at the Center for International Security and Cooperation at Stanford.

Two questions for Tom, based on your conversations in Moscow the last couple of days, No, it’s true. I mean, Ukraine has shown much more desire to move towards NATO. You have much greater U.S., British, other military cooperation with Ukraine. You have many more ship days by the American Navy in the Black Sea, you know. And I think if you compared that to before 2014, you’d see a substantial increase. Is there any recognition in Moscow that there is some reason why these activities have taken place compared to, you know, prior to 2014?

And then the second question, I think your point about the Russians believe that this looming military posture has pushed Washington to look at dialogue in a different way, but do they also recognize that there—some de-escalation at some point might help because there’s going to be, I believe, a reluctance in Washington to engage very far in a dialogue if it looks like it’s at the point of a gun, and it’s going to take some time because it just can’t be a U.S.-Russia dialogue. It’s got to be a dialogue that, ultimately, brings in other people?

GRAHAM: Steve, those are two very good questions. I mean, first, there was no suggestion in the conversations that I’ve had, certainly, with Russian officials that Russia might have done anything that would elicit a certain response on the part of the United States.

But, you know, this goes back to a standard refrain that we’ve heard for the past ten, fifteen, twenty years, which is, you know, we didn’t begin this. You know, we’re not to blame for this. It’s the United States, the collective West, that has acted in ways that have threatened our security.

So if you’re asking for some self-awareness on the part of the Russians, if they have that, it’s something that they’ve discussed in private and, certainly, not in public and not in the conversations that I had.

And, you know, I’ve already managed to forget the second question, Steve. Could you remind me what it was, just quickly a couple of words?

Q: Yes. Let me say, I believe that you can’t solve Donbas without some kind of a dialogue on broader European security questions, and your point was the Russians think this looming threat has pushed Washington. But it’s also, I believe, going to be very hard to have that dialogue if it’s under this threat of a Russian invasion.

GRAHAM: Well, again, you know, yes, they do believe that what they’ve done has gained them Washington’s attention. They’re not sure that, in fact, they’re getting the response they want, which is the sustained serious engagement with the Russians.

You know, I have made the point that, you know, the way they have conducted the diplomacy at this point has, largely, been counterproductive, trying to do this in public, public demands. You know, if there was any chance that NATO would review the Bucharest Summit declaration, that died when that was made a public demand on the part of the Russians.

So they’re creating an environment through their diplomatic actions that actually makes it much more difficult to take them seriously as a negotiating partner at this point. So, you know, it comes back to something that Mike said on the military side, is it’s hard to see how this all fits together, what the plan is.

But it has been, I think, altogether very, very clumsy and we’ll have to wait and see what happens. But they’re still, I think, quite interested in sitting down with us and having a conversation, understanding that we do have to consult with allies, we do have to consult with Ukraine, so that this will take some time.

OPERATOR: We’ll take our next question from Cynthia Roberts.

Q: Thank you. Thank you all for doing this.

My question goes in a somewhat different direction and it builds on Michael’s point that the political objectives and the military actions are out of sync, that it’s hard to see a bargain coming in the time allotted, given Russian military sustainability issues.

I want to take that one step further and touch it on points that both Hanna and Tom have made in the sense that we may be facing a deterrence failure, given that Russia’s posture would allow for possible rapid military success, not the kind of protracted war that Hanna seems to be referring to that might bring in, say, NATO allies in support of Ukraine.

And if that assessment is right, then it raises the larger question of U.S. policy, which, to my surprise, seems to be basing deterrence on weaponized finance. As someone who’s worked on this question, I wonder if the Biden team has over learned a lesson that the Obama administration thinks it learned from 2014-15, which is that Putin was deterred from expanding the war because of the threat of devastating financial sanctions.

I don’t think that’s a deterrence that’s going to work. I think it’s going to lead to escalation. And I wonder, Tom, if you learned anything in your discussions that where Russians have responded to the focus, principally, on financial sanctions. Thanks.

GRAHAM: Well, Cynthia, you know, that really didn’t come up in the conversations I have had so far. You know, in general, the Russians don’t like sanctions. They don’t react well to the threat of sanctions. To what extent this is factoring into their calculation is another question.

They have spent the last eight years trying to, in a sense, solidify their monetary system so that they can withstand sanctions like this. So I don’t know if that is really all that much of a threat or a deterrent on the Russian actions at this point. And in any event, the sanctions aren’t going to come until after they act and they felt that they have—while, you know, they’ve taken some hits, the economy is not going as well as it might without the sanctions, nevertheless, they’ve survived quite well, thank you, over the past eight years, and there’s every bit of confidence that they’ll be able to survive whatever the United States throws at them in terms of sanctions over the next, you know, pick your number of years.

Q: Sorry, Tom. That was exactly my point, that it won’t serve as the kind of deterrent that the Biden team hopes and that, if anything, the Russians will retaliate against those sanctions with horizontal escalation like cyber or anything.


Q: So if you didn’t get a sense that that’s a deterrent effect, that’s something that Washington needs to rethink. Sorry. Thanks.

OPERATOR: We’ll take our next question from Tim Frye.

Q: Thank you very much. It’s been a great discussion.

It all might be bluster, but it seems like Moscow, Washington, and Kyiv have really dug in their heels in their public statements around this crisis. Can anyone outline an agreement that would be, roughly, acceptable to all parties, including their constituencies at home? Even in broad terms, I mean, it’s—

GLASSER: Easy question there, Tim. (Laughs.)

Q: Well, I wonder how big the window is here.

GRAHAM: Could I just make one point on this, is that, you know, I think, at the end of the day, something like that is unimaginable but we won’t be able to do it in public, and I think that’s the problem that we have at this point and some of this is a direct consequence of the way the Russians have decided to talk about this.

Diplomacy on issues that are as sensitive as the ones that are on the table and that the Russians have put on the table, which concern security matters, as Hanna has, rightly, said, I think, stretching from the Arctic to the Baltic Sea into the Black Sea are best conducted in confidence and quietly.

Anytime these negotiations are conducted in public there will be leaks. It’s easy to attack one element of an agreement when it’s separate from all the others. If you see it in a package and you can weigh the pluses and minuses of tradeoffs that are made, sometimes you can see the wisdom of the final package. But you’ll never be able to build that by discussing individual elements in public over the course of the negotiations.

A final point is that, you know, if we were to negotiate a solution that’s acceptable to everybody it isn’t going to be in two weeks. It’s not going to be in three months. You know, we’re talking about many months, probably years, to come to some sort of satisfactory agreement and I think the questions that we all ask, particularly given Michael’s assessment on the military side, is the Russian—are the Russians prepared to wait that long to get any type of agreement that might satisfy their minimal security concerns.

SHELEST: Excuse me. If I can jump briefly for the Tim question.

For me, the main problem is to understand what are the ultimate goal of the—of the sides, because if you consider the Russian secret wishes as the restoration of the Russian Empire, so that is not that much concession that you can do for the accommodations because, from Ukrainian point of view, it’s not even the question of public or not public; it is the question of sovereignty and territorial integrity of the territories that belongs to us, not that we took somebody’s territory occupied. Annexation of Crimea, it is not about the territory that Russians claim belongs to them since some time because Turks and Greeks owned this territory much longer and they had more moral rights to have it.

But it is the history of the glory for a Russian navy or something like this. The issue is that for us, it is the homeland for the indigenous people of Crimean Tatars who didn’t accept the attempted annexation of Crimea, or what is happening in Donbas. My family is from there, and, sorry, it’s never been a Russian territory or Russian-speaking territory.

It became so in 1950s when the deployment of people started to be to reconstruct the territory and it was the strong propaganda of 2004 with the Russian political technologists. So it was quite artificially manipulated during the elections—domestic elections. That is our problems and lessons that Ukrainian state didn’t learn, that nobody’s taken responsibility for these—that these conditions became possible.

But that’s why it is the question. Doesn’t matter secret closed-door negotiations or public negotiations. The question is what are the real goal(s) of the Russian Federation. If the real goal is to restore the Warsaw Pact or Russian Empire and to control these territories, it is the nineteenth century way of thinking. It is not how most of the European states are ready to think, and we really hope here that it is not how Washington is ready to think about this.

So the conversations and guarantees can be about may be some technical issues like stationing of certain type of weapons or the dialogue on cybersecurity or something like this. But, unfortunately, without the psychological understanding of the motivation of the Russian leadership, it will be difficult to propose something, to find those starting points that Michael talked about with what we are coming for these negotiations, opposite to what Russians are coming.

We already had a Russian plan in 2008. Remember the Medvedev plan, so-called Corfu plan or the new European Security Order. At that time, nobody was ready to speak with them because nothing new. It was more a return to the old division of powers rather than proposal for the mutual benefit of the transatlantic community.

OPERATOR: We’ll take our next question from Jan Lodal.

Q: All right. Am I muted?

A great discussion. To a quick point and then my real point, bigger point. The quick point is that, you know, if the Russians do this thing it’s going to be a disaster for them. Several of you have made that point in one way or another. But it’s going to unify NATO. It’s going to unify the Europeans, and so forth. So they’ve got to take that into account.

But on the military side, I’d just like to get the panel’s view. Steve Pifer and I wrote a paper about six or seven years ago proposing that we give them some Javelin missiles, which eventually we did. It was slow, but they have about a thousand of them now and they’re very, very effective and can kill armored vehicles.

Now, they got to be in the right place. There’s a lot of other aspects of it. But more than likely, there would be five (hundred), six hundred, maybe more, destroyed Russian armored vehicles if they undertake this, as opposed to more or less zero or two or three or four that Ukrainians have been able to destroy with their World War II weaponry before.

So it’s a pretty big price they’d have to pay, particularly in terms of impression of their military and its vulnerability. So I’d just appreciate any comments that any of you might have about whether they’re likely to think about that more carefully, whether, in fact—I think the Ukrainians, in fact, would use them right away. They’re pretty well trained. And we could, actually, probably covertly send them some more right now but that’s another issue.

GLASSER: Michael, do you want to take that one?

KOFMAN: Sure. First, I don’t know if something’s going to be a disaster for them. A lot of things are contingent both in military affairs and international politics. The Russia-Georgia war was not a disaster for Russia. The Syria intervention was not a disaster for Russia. Intervention and offensives in Ukraine in 2014 and 2015, while there were battles that Russia won, they didn’t achieve their political aims. That’s why we are, in part, here is because the policy for Russia and Ukraine is in a ditch. But it’s debatable long term to what extent it’s a disaster. That’s a history you can write looking backwards. It’s hard to write looking forwards.

On military affairs, well, Javelins are tactical anti-tank missiles. In terms of political affairs, they don’t matter. These things don’t change anything at the operational/strategic level. And either way, political leaders generally don’t know, don’t care about the stuff, and don’t make decisions on war on the basis of them. Does it make a tremendous difference in terms of costs? War entails costs. It entails vehicles being killed and the like.

I will be very careful I don’t offend anyone, but I strongly discourage you from wargaming this between your armchair and your couch. OK? The way these things play out in the big picture is complicated and a lot is contingent, and I wouldn’t put a lot of faith in either the Javelin anti-tank missile or the dozen or two dozen—(inaudible)—drills that Ukraine has. It’s not going to make that big a difference.

And if Russia is really genuine about this, they’re willing to pay the cost—the political cost, the human cost—for a sizeable military operation. They have some large political aims. They will go through with it.

Now, if your argument is that, you know, Russia is a country that’s just not willing to pay costs to achieve political aims to use force, I would say a lot of Russian history, really, goes against that statement, even contemporary history. So I’m skeptical of it.

That said, I don’t think anything is necessarily decided. So it’s very hard to predict, you know, how this decision is going to be made, necessarily, in the coming two to three months.

But I just want to discourage folks from believing that, you know, the Javelin is like the sword Excalibur pulled from the stone and it’s going to do it, and if we give it to Ukraine or some other country that that’s really the solution. It isn’t. That’s not how these things work.

Q: Mike, could I just follow on to that to ask you a question? You know, if you looked at the operation in 2015 there was no airpower that was used. Presumably, if the Russians move this time there would be a substantial amount of air power that would actually have some impact on what happens on the ground.

KOFMAN: Yeah, absolutely. So there was, essentially, no airpower used and no airstrikes. There were no precision strikes with long-range guided weapon surface fires and there was a very tiny modest use of anything that remotely approximates long-range high-power artillery and rocket systems, and, fundamentally, the Russian army is an artillery army with lots of tanks. So this was a very, very restrained fight. It was a very small fight, often at company- and battalion-size levels. And this war would look very, very different, and it’s very hard to predict how it would play out. But I will give you high confidence that in terms of quantity and qualitative superiority, it’s all on the Russian side of the equation.

That’s, of course, the first move. It all depends on what the Russian aims are. Do they intend to occupy territory or not, do they intend to take a lot of it or not, and the like? And that’s hard to predict.

But I would discourage folks from, you know, planning for the last fight, which was 2014 and 2015. This will be very different. And only last comment I’d make just because I didn’t have an opportunity to just offer a thought on where I think we, fundamentally are, to me, this conflict kind of lies at the intersection of two social processes.

I just want to leave this as my parting thought. First is what historians say, that the dissolution of the Soviet Union is a process and not an event because these are, fundamentally, wars of Soviet succession. This is part of the Soviet Union dissolving itself and Russia unwilling to give up Ukraine out of its geopolitical space, unwilling to let Ukraine enter the West’s political, economic, and security orbit.

And the second one is the simple fact that, essentially, the most single powerful military in Europe outside of NATO is Russia, and that country is not a stakeholder in the European security—system of security as they see it, led by the United States, right? So this is, fundamentally, yes, not just—it is about Ukraine but it’s also about Moscow engaging in coercive diplomacy to try to compel the United States towards a new condominium in Europe of how security is managed in Europe. So this is about that post-Cold War settlement and Russian attempt to revise it and its position in it.

And finally, just a quick plug. We had a discussion earlier on NATO and what was promised and what wasn’t promised. A good article in the previous issue of Foreign Affairs by M.E. Sarotte based on her book, Not One Inch. So I recommend checking it out. I think there’s a lot there on that subject and it remains to be a complex debate.

GLASSER: So I think we’re out of time, more or less. But, Hanna, I’ll give you the final word, if you can be just very brief on, you know, is Ukraine prepared for a war if that’s what it comes to?

SHELEST: It’s 10:00 p.m. so you would allow me to be not politically and diplomatic correct, and my answer, in some way, will be the response to the last statement of Michael about that Russia would not allow Ukraine to go.

It alarms me with the case as domestic violence. You know, what if, I mean, the husband would not allow the wife to go while it is beaten? Who cares what the husband would allow if it is a threat for your life? And that’s what’s happening in Ukraine. Let’s be honest. Yeah, it’s a very emotional comparison, but it seems to me that when we are speaking about this not as about lives of people—2 million IDPs, ten thousand dead, and the daily killing of the Ukrainian citizens—you cannot think about this. It is for all of you just statistics, something happening over there; it’s not their real lives.

And is Ukraine ready to fight? Yes and no, because Ukraine didn’t start this war and we were not going to fight. We didn’t prepare to this and, definitely, it is normal for people not to be ready for war. But at the same time, we can say that our state institutions, our military forces, are much more prepared. We have now the development of the territorial protection forces. It is the civilians who are training to protect.

The mindset of the people are changing that now they are understanding. Definitely people in Odessa or Lviv are perfectly sitting in cafes and restaurants thinking only about COVID—even not so much now—but not about war as people in eastern Ukraine or in Mariupol are thinking. But it doesn’t mean that when the crisis is coming Ukraine is relaxed and just enjoy the raping that is happening by the Russian forces. Yes, politically incorrect, maybe not diplomatic nice in such an event, but that is the situation on the ground. You are not thinking about great Russia and poor with Ukraine; you are thinking about people who are protecting their own lives and their own territories.

GLASSER: So, Hanna, thank you so much for reminding us what’s at stake and that there’s an actual country with actual people involved here. It’s really an important point, and I want to thank everybody, really, for an extraordinarily helpful conversation.

Tom, we appreciate your live reports from ground zero here. Please feel free to let us know what’s the details of these Russian proposals as soon as you’re able to and thank you for sharing that with us.

And, Michael, I have to say that was really just incredibly helpful for you to lay it out in terms of where were the military piece is at.

So to everyone who asked the great questions and took the time today and to CFR for convening this group, thank you, and happy holidays to everyone.


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