Virtual Media Briefing: The Two-Year Anniversary of the War in Ukraine

Tuesday, February 20, 2024
Ukrainian Presidential Press Service/Handout via Reuters

Fellow for Europe, Council on Foreign Relations

Senior Fellow, Council on Foreign Relations

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


Edward R. Murrow Press Fellow, Council on Foreign Relations

As the war in Ukraine approaches its second anniversary on February 24, experts from the Council on Foreign Relations discuss the current state of the war, its long-term impact on the international order, contingencies on how it may end, and the death of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny.

ELDER: Thank you. Thank you, everybody, for joining us for this session marking the two-year anniversary of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Of course, the war has been going on for a lot longer than that; today, Ukraine is marking ten years since the Maidan revolution, which prompted Russia’s seizure of Crimea, meddling in eastern Ukraine, and then the full-scale invasion two years ago this Saturday.

It’s a difficult time. The Battle of Avdiivka is over. It ended with a Ukrainian withdrawal. We are, of course, speaking just days after Alexei Navalny was killed in a prison in northern Russia. It certainly feels like Russia is ascendant right now. And, Steve, I’ll start with you.

Let me introduce my panelists first. Sorry about that. Steve Sestanovich, of course, George F. Kennan senior fellow for Russian and Eurasian studies. Charles Kupchan, a senior fellow here at CFR. And Liana Fix, also a fellow here at CFR. And thank you all for joining us for this discussion.

Steve, so I will start with you. When you look at what’s happening in Russia, and Putin—you know, everything from the death of Alexei Navalny; today there was the news that Russia had arrested another American. He’s, of course, you know, off the high of this bizarre interview with Tucker Carlson. Do you—what sort of a strategy do you—do you see there? Is there one? Is this sort of the behavior of a madman, or is Putin trying to achieve something right now particularly as regards the war in Ukraine?

SESTANOVICH: You know, the invasion itself seemed to me to be the action of a leader whom one could call a madman. And yet, I think it’s important to see that right now, as Putin looks around, he sees many favorable elements to his—to his situation, certainly compared to a year ago when a lot of factors seemed to be converging against him. He can tell himself a pretty good story. Whether this amounts to a full strategy, you know, maybe we can get to that.

But let’s review the situation. You know, the military outlook is certainly better. The Russians held off the Ukrainian counteroffensive last year and they’ve begun to take a little bit of the offensive themselves, looking for weaknesses in the Ukrainian lines. They see a Western political debate that is increasingly fractious, symbolized above all by the stalemate in the U.S. Congress but also with some confusion in Europe. They see political division on a much greater scale inside Ukraine, triggered in part by Western uncertainty about future support as well as by the deteriorating or the disappointing military results of the past year. They—Putin can also look to his own economy and political situation and tell a story, as he did to Tucker Carlson with a lot of self-congratulation, but talking about the way in which Russian military industry has stepped up and created a new source of economic growth. Russian ability to defy Western sanctions has also been greater than they—than they expected. And they see—in a rather gloating way, Putin also mentioned this frequently to Carlson—you know, an economic stalemate, one could call it, you know, incipient recession in Germany that is making people wonder whether it was so smart to cut themselves off from Russian energy.

So, you know, if you read Russia Today, you will hear—you will read analyses that say Ukraine can lose this war and Putin can win it. It can lose the war if there’s no U.S. aid, if the Ukrainian efforts at mobilization fail, if there’s a major political crisis. None of those things are certain, but they are all far more in reach than they could have seemed a year ago or even six months ago for Putin.

So what that means about his strategy, I think, is primarily, you know, stay the course. He can tell his public, he can tell other governments: Look, things are going our way. If you want to have a settlement of this war, you’ve got to come to us. And that was the message that came through regularly in the Carlson interview. He was constantly saying he was in favor of negotiation, but not in favor of a negotiation that watered down any of his—of his goals.

ELDER: And, Charlie, you were quite early to say that the Ukrainian counteroffensive would likely end in some sort of a stalemate. Could you give us an overview of the battlefield right now, how you think it will develop, and if things are better or worse than you thought they would be a year ago?

KUPCHAN: Well, I think that I would agree with Steve that the view from Moscow is stay the course. The events on the battlefield, the developments have tilted in Russia’s favor in a way that I think surprises just about everybody, including myself. I expected the offensive to stall out; I did not expect the offensive to basically go nowhere. And unfortunately, over the course of the last year Russia has gained more territory than Ukraine, and Ukraine really never succeeded in significantly punching through the miles of defensive fortifications—tank traps, minefields—that the Russians had time to build up. And as a consequence, even if Russia can stay the course, I don’t think Ukraine can. And that’s because we really are at an inflection point as we near the two-year anniversary, and that inflation point, I think, consists of two realities.

One is that there is no foreseeable pathway toward a battlefield victory for Ukraine, even if they had some F-16s or we gave them some longer-range ATACMS. I think this has been a sobering summer and fall. And there isn’t, in my mind, a theory of the case as to how Ukraine is going to reconquer the east and restore territorial integrity on the battlefield.

And secondly, we see a much more difficult political—excuse me—landscape, mainly in the United States but on both sides of the Atlantic, when it comes to garnering political support for military and economic assistance. At this point, Europe is ahead of the United States. They’ve passed a significant bill for economic assistance, but they’re still struggling on the military front. In the United States, as everyone knows, we’re paralyzed on both the political and the economic front.

So in my mind, that situation calls for a plan B that consists of three main components.

Number one, Ukraine needs to focus on holding the line, defending the 80, 81 percent of the territory under Kyiv’s control. That will require American assistance soon and in large quantities.

Two, Ukraine should focus on protecting its core infrastructure—its utility grid, its electric grid, its industrial infrastructure. The good news here is that Ukraine has done a remarkable job of hitting naval assets, of opening—reopening several ports that had been basically shut down by the Russians and now you see grain exports that are really ramping up to prewar levels. That’s very good news. The bad news is that Ukraine is running out of air defense interceptors and the Russians still have them coming in. They’re building them—that is to say, drones and different kinds of air assets. Here too Ukraine desperately needs American assistance soon. Otherwise, Russia can continue to degrade the economic infrastructure and I think in some ways that’s Putin’s plan.

My best guess is that Putin does no longer hope to retake Ukraine by force. I doubt he’s going to try again to cede Ukraine—Kyiv and topple the government. I’m guessing what he’ll try to do is engineer a frozen conflict and then turn Ukraine into a failed state and perhaps have the government fall ultimately because of economic collapse, fracturing politically, and that’s why it’s so important, in my mind, to get Ukraine the air defenses that it needs to defend what it still has.

And then, third, I do think it’s time to begin to open the door to diplomacy aimed at a ceasefire in the first instance and over the longer run at a conversation about a territorial settlement. I do think that behind the scenes this conversation is taking place. But as Vice President Harris said in Munich over the weekend we’re still sticking with Plan A. As a prominent Ukrainian official apparently said, because I was not in the room, if there is a plan B we’re not going to talk about it publicly.

I think that’s a mistake. I think it’s time to talk about a plan B publicly, number one, because we need to convince and the Biden administration needs to convince Congress to step forward with a major aid package and to do that I think it needs to have a theory of the case about a working strategy for Ukraine and as a consequence I don’t think it makes sense if there is a plan B to hide it from the public.

And I would make the same argument about Ukraine where morale is beginning to lag, where close to 20 percent of the populace apparently now says, yes, let’s trade land for some kind of peace. And so I do think Zelensky himself needs to come up with a plan B.

A final comment, Miriam. I do think that it’s inappropriate to label everyone who questions the aid budget as some kind of dyed-in-the-wool isolationist. We need a serious conversation about the scope of aid and what Ukraine’s strategy is. We owe the American public that conversation, and I also think we owe the public a sober conversation about the interests at stake and I do think sometimes there’s inflated rhetoric that Putin is going to attack Poland unless he’s defeated, that the rules-based international system is going to unravel tonight unless he’s defeated.

These kinds of claims strike me as kind of threat inflation, and as we pivot to plan B I think we need a more considered discussion about the nature of the American and Western interests at stake. I’ll stop there.

ELDER: Liana, I’d love to have your—you know, the European reaction to some of what Charlie has said.

Is there any discussion behind the scenes in Europe about potential negotiations and also what is the view of the potential, you know, huge Russian threat? You had the secretary general of NATO even saying that they had intelligence saying that Russia could, you know, potentially test NATO’s strength by attacking a Baltic country or Poland in the next three to five years.

So what’s the view from Europe?

FIX: Thank you, Miriam.

So, surprisingly, from a European perspective Europeans have been consistently underestimated since the beginning of the war. I mean, there were a lot of discussions about Europeans not contributing enough to Ukraine’s defense and there were a lot of fears that Europeans would be the first ones out there once the word negotiation appears to—wanted to enter negotiation with Russia, perhaps not with the kind of consideration it needs before.

But that’s not what we see right now. What we actually see right now is that Europe is at the moment stronger and more resilient than the United States as this relates both to the support for Ukraine. There was a lot of concern that populist forces, that inflation, that the energy trajectory might derail European support for Ukraine. That is not taking place.

It’s not only about the 50 billion euro package that was passed. It’s also about the EU membership perspective that was given to Ukraine. It’s also about European NATO members hitting 2 percent. Next year eighteen European—eighteen members of NATO will hit finally 2 percent of NATO goal.

So Europeans are delivering. Of course, they could do more, and they are also not rushing into calls for negotiations with Russia as one would have expected from the beginning.

What we see at the moment is, rather, hardening of the rhetoric from Europe. If you have followed Macron’s remarks surrounding the Munich Security Conference and the death of Navalny, for the first time—Macron was at the beginning of the war the one who talked about a greater European security architecture with Russia, about not repeating the mistakes of Versailles. Macron was very outspoken when he was talking about the regime in Russia and he seemed pretty disillusioned by the death of Navalny. The death of Navalny was, obviously, also hitting close to home. It was in Berlin where Navalny was treated in the Charite, in the hospital in Berlin. Actually in the summer in Berlin you could meet the Navalny family just going for walks in the city center of Berlin. So there is a close connection to that.

And there’s also a feeling right now in Europe that what Europe needs to do is to push the United States to come back to the path of support for Ukraine, and how to explain the surprising resilience of Europeans I do you think it is the threat perception that Europeans have.

There’s a lot of concern that Europe will actually be lucky if there is a stalemate in Ukraine. It’s not about a stalemate being the worst case scenario. It’s about we will be lucky if there’s a stalemate because it means that Ukraine can keep Russia engaged and can prevent that Russia will be able within a few couple of years to reconstitute its military and to pose a threat to the Baltic states or to Poland, a country that Putin singled out repeatedly in his interview with Tucker Carlson as he’s done with Ukraine before.

So from a European perspective, especially against the backdrop of Trump’s comments, there is a realization that we’re not only supporting Ukraine for the sake of Ukraine but we are supporting Ukraine because otherwise Russia might reconstitute its military might if Trump undermines NATO and Article 5, might be tempted to move further to provoke NATO members and then Europeans will not be able to respond in a way that they should because they don’t have the defense bases and security and defense setup that they would need to repel Russia in any way. That is a generational task.

So the shift right now that is taking place in Europe is from supporting Ukraine in an altruistic way to realizing that we need to support Ukraine so that Russia—so that Ukraine keeps Russia busy because we are afraid that the United States might undermine its commitment to Article 5 and to Europe and that is a fundamental shift, and we also see this in the fact that the European Union is thinking for the first time about greater defense budgets, about defense commissioners with more power.

So there is this weird debate taking place. There’s even a debate taking place about nuclear weapons. Of course, there will never be a European Union nuclear weapon. I mean, we can see how the case with a—(laughs)—with a red button will be difficult to handle among all member states and with—(inaudible).

But there’s still a discussion in Germany about whether Germany needs itself a nuclear power discussion, which would have been unthinkable just years ago and that really shows that at this point of the war the combination of the perspective of Donald Trump returning and of Russia becoming more assertive in Ukraine and at home with the death of Navalny gives Europeans reasons to believe that Russia will not be satisfied with the territory it has conquered but it will continue to conquer more territory in Ukraine by force and that even a kind of Minsk III agreement with Russia will only repeat what we’ve seen in the past or, perhaps, give a break to the fighting but then lead to a renewed attack perhaps not only threatening Ukraine but also threatening NATO members.

So it is an interesting shift. Despite all the doom and gloom that we see it is an interesting shift in European threat perceptions, and the last point I want to make is what exactly is Europe doing in reaction to Navalny’s death.

We have seen that the United States is thinking about new sanctions and there will be a new European Union sanctions package—the thirteen sanctions package—which was actually discussed before the death of Navalny.

So the immediate occasion for that sanctions package is the two-year anniversary of the war. It is now linked also to the death of Navalny. So there will be some response. What I want to say is not to get hopes too high for the delivery of German Taurus long-range weapons for Ukraine.

It’s a discussion which has been ongoing in the last three days in particular, that sort of the constellation in the German parliament might allow, might convince the chancellor finally to deliver those weapons which have a range which could reach deep into Russia.

I would not get overexcited about this. I would not get the hopes too high because this has been something where the chancellor has been—the German chancellor has been very adamant that he’s not—that he’s very concerned about doing this, that he’s concerned about German weapons reaching deep into Russian territory.

And, surprisingly, we also don’t see a lot of pressure from Washington on that issue. We do see weapons coming from France and the U.K. We do see a version of ATACMS coming from the United States.

But it seems that Washington is also not pressuring Berlin to deliver those Taurus long-range weapons so I would not place a lot of hopes on that.

Just as an additional point, I think this year, again, if the war continues how it is Europeans can be lucky if it remains a stalemate and if there’s a way how they can convince Congress to do more. It is really about demonstrating that they’re serious about their own defense in the run-up to the U.S. elections.

ELDER: And, Steve, Liana mentioned the sanctions that Biden is supposedly going to announce on Friday in response to the death of Navalny.

Could you talk us through what options remain to the U.S. for some sort of approach to Ukraine and Russia absent the stalemate in Congress that we’re all too familiar with? What other options are out there to either punish Russia or bolster Ukraine?

SESTANOVICH: Well, for sanctions the choices are rather limited but they’re—it’s not zero. You can work on the oil price on which the U.S. and the EU have not been particularly aggressive. They’ve set a price of $60. They could try to go lower and put the squeeze on which would force—probably force the Russians to sell more oil at a discount.

There are new personal sanctions which can be added, and the suggestion from John Kirby, the NSC spokesman, seemed to be that that would be one of the measures to be announced on Friday when they foreshadowed there would be a new announcement.

There will be increased attention, as there already has been for some weeks and months, on the question of Russian assets in the West, should these be seized in some form. These are mostly assets held in Europe in—some in euros, some in dollars, with a much smaller amount held in U.S. banks.

The real issue here that has divided governments is whether there should be a seizure of the assets outright or of the interest on the assets which would produce, you know, a much smaller annual amount—not negligible but still nothing either as economically or politically significant as a decision by Western governments that they’re taking $300 billion in Russian assets.

Those are the main areas. The fact that—I mean, people are quoting Biden’s comments to Putin when he met with him in 2021 about Navalny—you know, the—there are devastating consequences if Navalny were to die.

You know, what everybody acknowledges is the Western response to the invasion has taken—has checked almost all the boxes—imaginable sanctions boxes. But that will be a debate that continues.

If I could add one thing to what Charlie and Liana have said about the prospect of a new setback for the Ukrainians.

You know, we have had a lot of emphasis on stalemate and a lot of our military experts have emphasized the advantages of defense in a war of this kind. But those are advantages that have accrued mostly to the Russians because they have built up defenses on such a scale.

The Ukrainians have not really done that and their lines are much more vulnerable and less fully manned so that the prospect of, you know, some kind of breakthrough by the Russians is much greater than the prospect of a Ukrainian breakthrough was given the disproportion in the defensive fortifications on the two sides.

And one of the things that the administration will be urging on both European governments and on our own Congress is the risk of a real deterioration in the military situation, that they’re going to argue that this is not a situation where we can just assume that the worst case is nothing—you know, is nothing getting any better for the Ukrainians.

The worst case is actually something more significant than that. Not necessarily, you know, the Russians rolling all the way to Kyiv but enough of a breakthrough to create a political impact inside Ukraine, in Western governments, where people suddenly are saying to themselves how do we deal with this new situation.

ELDER: Charlie, I’d love to press you a little bit also on the question of negotiations.

So, you know, the conversation seemed to start when Ukraine was in a bit of a better position and now, you know, you see Putin’s interviews not just to Tucker but to state-run TV over the past few days.

The man has not looked happier for years. Russia seems to at least see itself in a real position of strength. What’s the argument for telling the Ukrainians that now is the time for them to negotiate rather than after some sort of imagined American or European aid comes through and they can strengthen their own military position?

KUPCHAN: Well, just to pick up where Steve left off, I think he’s right that the Ukrainians are not in a great spot as we speak. They are experiencing warm body problems—you know, the soldiers on the front are exhausted.

They face numerical inferiority simply because of the size of the Russian population and their ability to recruit, and they’re running out of weapons.

And so there really is an urgent situation here and I don’t think we can take for granted that what happened in Avdiivka over the weekend is one of, right. There could be other places where there are substantial gains made, and it’s partly for that reason that I’m reasonably confident that we will get some kind of bill through Congress because I think the Republicans don’t want to own a significant setback for Ukraine.

I think Navalny’s death helps because it creates a sense of we really can’t afford to stand by and do nothing, and I agree with Steve that, yes, sanctions are always in the quiver but they’re not going to matter that much. They will matter to us because it makes us feel like we’re doing something but let’s be honest, the sanctions really have not had a huge impact on the Russian economy.

What will make a big difference is military and economic assistance to Ukraine, full stop. That is how we can respond to Navalny’s death and the repression that we see right now.

To come directly to your question, Miriam, you know, I think that the fact that Putin has stated that he is open to negotiations suggests that it is worth a try.

Do I believe that if the Ukrainians are prepared to open a conversation about a ceasefire that we will get one? No. I think the chances are low. I think what we’ll probably see emerge over the course of this year is a frozen conflict, something that looks like 2014 with a new line of contact, low levels of fighting continuing, and no formal ceasefire. But I do believe that a ceasefire by design is better than one by default, simply because it will hopefully bring the fighting to an end sooner rather than later and does create space for some sort of conversation between Russia and Ukraine brokered by the West about where this this conversation goes.

I don’t see a big downside to at least floating that possibility, right? Why not have Zelensky say to the Russians, Mr. Putin, put your money where your mouth is? You said you’re ready to talk. Why don’t you declare a ceasefire tonight and for the next seven days, don’t fight. If you do that, we’re prepared to follow suit. Why not give that a try and smoke out the Russians?

ELDER: I do—I want to open this up to Q&A.

But, Liana, I’ll just ask you just to answer quickly maybe on the subject of negotiations, is there a downside? Charlie says there isn’t. Do you see any downside to proposing the idea of ceasefire negotiations to Putin?

FIX: I think there two downsides not only from a Ukrainian perspective but also from a Western perspective.

The first is, obviously, that Vladimir Putin has not changed any of the terms that he demands, and the terms that he has put forward from the beginning of the war from the Istanbul negotiations are basically terms of surrender for Ukraine.

The second problem is that there’s no mechanism that can guarantee in any way that Russia will be held accountable for whatever it promises. And it’s not the first time that we see that Russia has lied and has broken agreements. It started in Georgia, where Russia promised an EU monitoring mission could observe the border line in South Ossetia. Until today, the humanitarian mission is only on the Georgian proper side, not on the Russian side. So any negotiations in the past from Minsk to Georgia with Russia have always led to a situation where Russia was not fulfilling the promises that it has given. and that the negotiating side from the West was lacking the instruments to force Russia to comply with it. And that is the same case in Ukraine. Again, even if Russia agrees to a ceasefire, what if it breaks its ceasefire as it has done in the Minsk I negotiations, where immediately after the agreement was put together by—especially by Angela Merkel, Putin just got a major victory and took thousands of Ukrainian prisoners of war? So I think this experience with Putin in the past and the lack of mechanisms that the West and Ukraine have to hold him accountable is really something that is a major cause of concern.

And again, the terms that he has put forward also in the Tucker Carlson interview have really not changed. So he is betting on the November elections in the United States. And from Moscow’s perspective, there’s little reason why to start serious negotiations before the November elections, if there’s a fair chance that Donald Trump might be elected, who will just sell out Ukraine, possibly sell out European security and NATO, and then it is obviously a happy day in the Kremlin.

So I think from this perspective, the timing is unfortunately really difficult for Ukraine. And luckily, this kind of disillusionment with the promises that Vladimir Putin has made in the past is something which also prevents Europeans to rush into negotiations at a time when U.S. aid is not forthcoming. Obviously, Europeans will never be able to make up for the military support that the United States provides. But at least for now, they’re holding the ground instead of giving in to calls for negotiations that are also coming from some domestic audiences within EU member states. But again, that is not the majority yet. So, so far, there is a consensus that negotiations with Russia at the moment are futile and will not lead to the results that one might hope for in among most European capitals.

ELDER: Great, thank you.

We’ll open it up now to Q&A. I’ll throw it to Monica to help manage this part.

OPERATOR: Thank you, Miriam.

(Gives queuing instructions.)

Our first question is from Trudy Rubin.

Q: Hi, this is Trudy Rubin from the Philadelphia Inquirer.

I’d like to ask Liana, it seems that where Ukraine has had greatest success is in the Black Sea and then hitting Crimea. What is the attitude in Europe towards approaching Crimea as the place where Ukraine has and could make further breakthroughs?

And the Brits and the French have provided missiles that have been used in Crimea. So, I’d like to ask Steve, the reluctance of the U.S. to send ATACMS has often been explained as fear that Putin would escalate to use tactical nukes, but it hasn’t happened. So in Europe, they don’t seem to have that fear. So maybe both of you could speak to that.

And if the U.S. finally came through with ATACMS, do you think Germany would come through with Taurus?

FIX: Thank you. I believe the attitude towards Crimea has changed significantly in Europe. At the beginning of the war, there was a lot of concern that attacking targets in the Crimea will lead to the kind of escalation that many have feared, that Crimea is a kind of special place for Vladimir Putin, that he will not accept attacks on Crimea, it will escalate possibly in a nuclear way. So there was a lot of reluctance to go for Crimea or to demand or to help the Ukrainian army to move far enough to perhaps not with ground troops but definitely with missiles to attack Crimea. That has changed. Actually, right now, there is a petition in the German Bundestag which is moving ahead, which explicitly says that Ukraine has to get Crimea back and that Crimea is a legitimate target. So the escalation concern about Crimea, these escalation concerns have really reduced in European capitals. Crimea is seen as a valid target also, because the obvious positive results that Ukraine has been able to deliver with attacks in Crimea and the Black Sea have just been so, so convincing.

The concern about Taurus is really hitting Washington territory proper, right? And that is something that French and U.K. missiles can do, too, but Taurus has an even longer way. And there is a possibility of limiting that range in the same way as the U.K. and France have done and as the U.S. have done with this one version of ATACMS that they have delivered. But obviously, for some reason, the Taurus, because of this long range, is considered to be too much of a risk because it can reach so far into Russian territory.

What we’ve seen in the past is Germany and the U.S. have very closely linked their decisions. So we had German tanks when U.S. tanks came. Surprisingly, that was not the case when the U.S. agreed to this one version of ATACMS that it is sending now. Germany is still not sending the Taurus and as it appears in a kind of agreement with the U.S. because there doesn’t seem to be pressure from Washington to do this. So I would not expect that Taurus moves ahead, but I do see that Crimea is seen as a legitimate target, but Russia proper, not. And the escalations concerns are still there for Russia proper, especially with Western weapons, but less so for Crimea.

SESTANOVICH: Let me add one thing to that, Miriam, if I could.

And hi, Trudy.

I think there’s a distinction made in all Western capitals between hitting targets in Crimea that disrupt Russian military operations—their supply lines, their airfields, and so forth—and launching a major operation to try to retake Crimea from the sea, from the land, wherever. The latter is thought to be, A, militarily very ambitious, and also politically maybe more sensitive for Putin because he thinks of this as his greatest—single greatest political achievement.

But from the standpoint of all Western governments, the idea of slamming Crimea is understood to be an important part of any not just of a Ukrainian counteroffensive, but even of a defensive strategy, because a defensive strategy really does depend on being able to pound the Russians behind the lines. And I think that is, you know, a distinction that one should also make for Russian territory itself. The ability to hit Russian military units and military-relevant assets behind the lines is, of course, going to be crucial to Ukraine in the—in the year ahead. And so I would say one other thing to look for if there is an agreement on—in the Congress, say, on renewed assistance is whether the administration not only celebrates the fact that it’s gotten more resources, but whether it relaxes some of the qualitative constraints on those systems so as to enable the Ukrainians to weaken the Russians more behind the lines.

OPERATOR: Our next question is from George Condon.

Q: Helps if I unmute.

You talked about how much things have changed in a year. President Biden marked the first anniversary with a triumphal trip to Kyiv. He’s not feeling quite as triumphal on the second anniversary. How has his challenge shifted? And what should he be doing differently?

ELDER: Who’d like to take that one?

SESTANOVICH: Well, one obvious challenge is that the domestic debate here did not exist a year ago, and now it has—it’s blocking American policy in a fundamental way.

A second challenge is that when he went to Ukraine a year ago on that surprise visit, he faced a completely united Ukrainian political elite, and now it’s much more divided, including within the military itself. And there, he sees a new leadership that has—is not tested, that in the first days under the new military commander has had to announce a retreat.

And he’s—his challenge is also dealing with a much more confident Putin.

And finally, he’s dealing with a war in the Middle East that eats up an awful lot of his time. I mean, we haven’t talked about that, but the distraction factor for the administration has been enormous.

FIX: Just to add on this one—

KUPCHAN: I would just add—

FIX: Oh, please, Charlie.

KUPCHAN: I would add that, I mean, I think the Biden administration has in broad terms done a very good job of responding to the Russian invasion last year. And on all the three lines of effort—aid to Ukraine, bolstering NATO’s eastern flank, and sanctioning Russia—there has been remarkable unity.

The one place where I think the biggest course correction is needed is on recognizing the difficulty of keeping domestic support on both sides of the Atlantic. And I have to say, echoing what Liana said in her opening remarks, I’m struck by the unity and solidarity that continues to exist in Europe, but I do think the Biden administration underestimated the longevity of the bipartisan consensus that existed last year. They underestimated the power of an America-first narrative at a time when things like the southern border and the difficulty making ends meet in an era of inflation, these are issues that weigh heavily on the minds of voters. So I do think that at this point, because of what’s happened both in Ukraine and on the ground here in the United States, you need to marry a plan B which lays out a clear, coherent strategy that matches specific military means to attainable ends to a—to an effort to rebuild a bipartisan consensus in favor of aid to Ukraine. That’s not going to be easy, but right now that domestic goal—putting together a consensus in Congress—is, in my mind, priority number one because the Ukrainians desperately need American assistance.

FIX: And I would just add very quickly that there’s also a leadership problem that Biden has. I mean, the United States has assumed such a strong leadership role from the beginning of the war, basically leading the entire coalition in support of Ukraine, and now that Biden and the White House are basically a lame duck and waiting for the Congress there’s not enough space and not enough leadership initiatives coming from other places. So the fact that Biden and the White House have gone back to the traditional modus vivendi of the U.S. is leading, the Europeans are following, the U.S. is coordinating with Europeans and doing sort of the major effort of holding—keeping everyone together leads now to a situation where this lack of leadership from the U.S. now leaves a vacuum in leadership also from the European side. This is something where Europeans need now to have the courage to step up themselves, but it would have been desirable from the beginning to share the burden of leadership in Ukraine more equally between the United States and Europe because, again, as Steve said, now the bandwidth to deal not only with Ukraine but also with the Middle East obviously makes it more difficult for Biden and the White House to continue this outsized leadership role in Ukraine—for example, in the Ramstein format, where it is Secretary Austin that keeps the whole format together. That’s something—the support for Ukraine format. That’s something where Europeans need to take a greater responsibility not only with money and with support, but also with clear political leadership.

OPERATOR: Our next question is from Howard LaFranchi.

Q: Hi. Thank you so much for doing this.

My question pertains to NATO in this year of its seventy-fifth anniversary. You know, a lot—we all wrote a lot about and talked a lot about how really the war in Ukraine and Russia’s aggression gave—in Europe gave NATO kind of a new sense of purpose. And we talked about, you know, NATO leadership and how NATO was really coming together and—to support Ukraine. But now here we are. I’m wondering, it seems in the same way that Russia and Putin seems to have the wind in his sails, I’m wondering, it seems like that that early assessment of a—of a strengthened NATO may—there may be some questions about that. And I’m wondering where you all see, again, in this year of NATO’s seventy-fifth anniversary, kind of where this—where the conflict sort of has NATO now.

KUPCHAN: I think, Howard, that, you know, we’re having this call at a time in a—in a bit of a trough where, you know, Trump last week said some disparaging things about NATO and not defending allies; where the situation in Ukraine has not gone in the right direction; the Munich conference was a bit of a downer. For any of you who were there, you felt this kind of sense of anxiety and gloom. But I still think that the bigger picture is a—is a revival of NATO that is likely to last, right? As Liana or Steve said—I can’t remember which one—eighteen members of the alliance are on track to hit 2 percent. There are two new members—one in, one probably soon to be in as long as Orban starts behaving himself. You’ve got a lot more American forces in Europe than you did before, and I don’t see that changing anytime soon regardless of how the conflict in Ukraine winds down.

And let me just make one final comment. I don’t—even if Trump is elected I don’t see him pulling the plug on NATO, in part because you have to ask what’s in it for him. And NATO still enjoys strong public support on both sides of the Atlantic. So I do think that the—that the broader picture here is one in which NATO rose to the occasion and, barring a serious Russian breakthrough and a faltering of Ukraine, one in which NATO has more or less succeeded in preventing Russia from swallowing the country even if it still does occupy some 20 percent of Ukraine’s territory.

SESTANOVICH: Miriam, can I add to this? Because I think what Charlie is describing is in some ways the Vilnius Summit of last year, you know, when the self-congratulation levels were really at an all-time high even though the alliance did not figure out a particularly effective strategy for dealing with Ukraine’s membership interest. And that is going to be different this year because the United States is hosting the summit; it’s a much more dramatically resonant occasion—it’s the seventy-fifth anniversary, it’s happening right here in town; and the president is running for reelection. So the imperatives of a political success are all the greater, and the risk of having a—the impact and cost of having an unsuccessful summit will be much greater.

The administration in particular has to figure out what its new line on Ukraine’s membership is going to be, given that there’s virtually no chance that the alliance will agree to offer Ukraine membership. But it has to do something that it actually was beginning to last year and yet has not really followed up on much, and that is to exploit a sense within the alliance that Ukraine’s security is inseparable from that of the alliance, and to build arrangements and relationships with Ukraine that reflect that sense. I would say the administration and the alliance as a whole have got a lot of work to do still to create the setting for a successful summit and one that addresses that issue in particular.

FIX: I think—just to add, I think I’m a little bit more pessimistic about the Washington Summit because the concrete stumbling stones here is the United States and Germany. You would have had a more forward-leaning outcome in Vilnius if it were not for the United States and Germany. It’s basically—even France has shifted its position on Ukraine’s membership prospective and was in favor of a stronger statement and outcome of the Vilnius Summit. And I don’t see anything changing in Washington or Berlin at the moment.

So what we might see in the worst-case scenario is that the security guarantees—which are not really guarantees, but are basically long-term weapon-delivery commitments that are negotiated now between supporting members—countries supporting Ukraine in the aftermath of the G-7 declaration—will—could be what the United States will try to spin as a success at the Washington Summit, that there are these kind of agreements on long-term weapon deliveries for Ukraine. The United States is, obviously, not negotiating this agreement right now without support from Congress. But that was at the beginning—that was considered to be the big deal. That was considered to be the Israel model. It has turned out to be little more than long-term weapon deliveries for Ukraine.

So I think this whole idea to have something as a bridge to Ukraine’s NATO membership in terms of security guarantees is really not working. It is not as strong as it is—as it was supposed to be. And my concern is that both Washington and Berlin will try to wait out the Washington Summit and will present these kinds of commitments as the big success, which it actually is not. And unfortunately, if Washington and Berlin are against something within the alliance, it is really difficult even if you have France on your side to convince Washington and Berlin to change—to change their mind. And I don’t see this happening until the Washington Summit.

KUPCHAN: Final quick comment. I agree with Liana that any invitation in Washington is quite unlikely. I do think that these bilateral security assurances, whatever they’re—you want to call them, are the best that Ukraine is going to get for now. But it is interesting that even though Zelensky went and signed two of these agreements last week, with France and Germany, those were sort of overshadowed by the Munich Security Conference and the sense of anxiety. But I agree that—with both Steve and Liana that the administration will have its work cut out for it to portray something less than membership as a success.

OPERATOR: Our next question is from Ken Kraetzer.

Q: Oh, good afternoon. Ken Kraetzer with CAMMVets Media in White Plains, New York.

I just wanted to ask about what really changed with the Russian military. At the beginning, they were described as undermanned, undertrained, poorly led, but something changed in the Russian military leadership and improved their effectiveness. What changed? And how long do you think the Russian military can keep up this level of effectiveness? Thank you.

KUPCHAN: Steve, you want to take a whack at that?

SESTANOVICH: I’m not sure all that much has changed. Here’s what’s a bit different: They managed to really get defense industry running on all cylinders. They have found a way to handle manpower issues. It’s still probably, by most military standards, sort of low-quality manpower, untrained people, but they’ve still got warm bodies on the front. They have managed to build up defensive fortifications, as we’ve talked about earlier, in a way that didn’t require vast talent or strategic sophistication. They—what they—what they really were counting on is having a—so many lines of defense that the Ukrainians really just couldn’t penetrate. It may also be that the Ukrainians—and I think this is the view in the American military, is that the Ukrainians spread themselves too thin last year, and that the payoff from a more focused counteroffensive would have been greater, dealing with the same Russian military.

OPERATOR: Our next question is from Peter Billerbeck.

Q: Hi, all. Thank you for the comments. Peter Billerbeck here with the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

Just going back to a couple of the earlier questions, I guess even if—to Charlie’s point, even if Trump doesn’t win—or, Trump wins, and the U.S. doesn’t pull out of NATO, and, you know, bark is more than the bite, so to speak, it seems that the damage and that the comments about the alliance and kind of how Republicans are viewing things is much different than it was even a few years ago, where you had maybe the more extreme or more ideological folks on the right saying what’s being said but now you’re seeing this from much of the right. I guess my question is, do you think NATO and transatlanticism more generally returns or comes back to kind of status quo ante, or do you view this as kind of the new normal now for years and years to come?

And maybe if Stephen wants to take a crack at it, too, you talked about kind of the ebbs and flows of this in your—in your book on executive power, Maximalist. And if you have a view on kind of how you see the evolution of this not just in the next six or nine months but, you know, the next two, three, five years going forward, I would appreciate it. Thank you.

KUPCHAN: You know, I think that Trump’s comments, had they not been taking place against the backdrop of the stalled debate in Congress, would not have gotten the traction that they did. They would have, you know, Trump is being Trump; he does these kinds of things. But what we’ve seen is a Republican Party that used to have a very small caucus that was kind of what you might call the America-first wing, maybe twenty people or so, the far right, and that has spread into almost a majority of the—of the House in a way that suggests that that kind of narrative is getting—is getting more and more traction. And I think that’s why the Trump comments have caused as much consternation as they have, because right now Biden’s request for this assistance to Ukraine despite the fact that things have turned in a dark direction on the ground, you know, really does raise concerns about American dysfunction and whether our political system right now is up to the task.

But you know, I would end with where I—where I was with respect to Howard. You know, I think that transatlanticism is not on its last gasp, and that the Russian invasion of Ukraine has brought Europe back into the center of America’s geopolitical map of the world in a way that will endure. But I—but, obviously, the key task at present is to navigate a dysfunctional Congress.

SESTANOVICH: I’ll add just one thing, and thanks for the book plug.

You know, the argument of that book was that the United States tends to go all out for a short period of time in addressing what it sees as the key security challenge of the moment, and tries to do a comprehensive, maximalist approach. The question now is: What is the key security challenge? And one of the things that has proved very difficult for the administration is to cope with what are seen to be in some ways distinct challenges. They try to—you know, analysts and policymakers try to link them by saying, well, you know, you’ve got to succeed in Ukraine because otherwise Taiwan is at risk, but there are obvious tradeoffs.

I’d just close by saying that I agree with Charlie that the—that transatlanticism is not on its last legs at all, but for a reason that is a little different from what we might have thought in the past. The revival of NATO has also come at a time where the United States is much more conscious of its, you know, disadvantages that it faces in coping with some security challenges. And it needs the advantages of a robust NATO, I believe. NATO is the—is the crucial element in that bloc: the most—the most important, the most reliable, the most tested, the most militarily potent. And so I think he will not—whatever the outcome in the Middle East, whatever future developments are in East Asia, and whatever happens in Ukraine, the United States is going to be highly conscious of the advantages of retaining this alliance, which is a huge force multiplier for the United States in international affairs.

FIX: I mean, I just hope that many Europeans are listening to this because it would give them some confidence—(laughs)—to hear your statements, Steve and Charlie.

Just to add one sentence, it was a huge shock moment for Europe, Trump’s comments. And they were a bigger shock than anything else that had happened before because the hope, from a European perspective, was, well, we’re not sure if he returns, and if he returns perhaps it might just be the same way as he was sort of the first term, and we’ve managed that. We’ve survived that. And also, even if he returns, it’s only for four years. So there’s still this idea that what Trump represents is an exception and it’s not the new rule. The problem is, once the realization kicks in that this might be the new rule and the Biden term was the exception to a new direction of U.S. foreign policy, which can be but doesn’t have to be, then it really becomes serious, especially for Europeans. And again, the problem is not that Trump with withdraw from NATO; the problem is the moment he says that he’s not going to defend a certain country, that invites aggression and that already undermines NATO, which is based on belief—on a belief system, on the adversary believing that the United States will come to the help and on allies believing that they will stick together and solidarity is there. So it doesn’t need any kind of, you know, leaving NATO officially, which would also be difficult to Congress; it just needs exactly these kinds of statements, which will invite aggression and which will leave Europeans to their own devices and rushing to find any kind of alternative arrangements for their own security—which, at the moment, unfortunately, are not to be seen anywhere. It’s not something that you can buy in a grocery store quickly, a European security architecture without the United States.

ELDER: All right. I’ll take this chance to thank our panelists—Stephen Sestanovich, Charles Kupchan, Liana, Fix. I’ll remind everybody that you can read the words of our panelists and other CFR experts at and also on the Foreign Affairs website. And thanks to the panelists, and thank you all again for joining us for this discussion on the two-year anniversary of the full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

KUPCHAN: And thanks to you, Miriam.

FIX: Thank you. Thank you, Miriam.



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