Panelists discuss the ongoing conflict in Ukraine, exploring potential outcomes, examining the future of U.S. and EU engagement and support, and assessing the political and economic hurdles confronting both Zelensky and Putin as the war continues.
FRYE: Thank you. Thank you, everyone. I wanted to welcome you to what I think is going to be a really terrific panel on a timely event. And in the interest of time, I’m not going to introduce our panel. You have your biography—their biographies in front of you.
Now that we are almost two years into Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, it’s a good chance for us to look back over all that’s happened over the last twenty-four months and look forward to what we expect to happen in 2024. We’ve been surprised, frequently. And one of the things that we’ll talk about is what surprises await in 2024. Those surprises might come from Ukraine, from Russia, from the United States. And we will talk about these issues from each of those different points of view.
And I wanted to start first with Yaroslav Trofimov, who, I have to say, is the author of a really terrific book, Our Enemies will Vanish: The Russian Invasion and Ukraine’s War of Independence, which I’ll encourage you to buy and read. It’s excellent. I wanted to ask you a little bit about what’s going on in Ukraine at the moment. Given the tremendous losses that Ukraine has suffered, given politics in Washington, is there some sense of a reevaluation of the Ukrainian war effort, and war aims, and war goals?
TROFIMOV: Thank you so much for the very kind introduction.
I think what’s happening in Ukraine is a reevaluation of the likelihood of achieving these goals. I think the goals remain the same. I think most Ukrainians still want to reclaim all of the territory that has been occupied by Russia since 2014. But the difficulty of the counteroffensive last year showed that it’s not going to be easy. It’s going to take time. And people are bracing for the long haul. It may seem like a difficult moment in Ukraine now, like a dark moment.
But let’s remember what it was like two years ago, almost two years ago, when everyone in the West and in Moscow expected Ukraine to collapse as a matter of days, when the American embassy was shut down, where very little help was forthcoming, and the Ukrainians were pretty much on their own. And they surprised the world by repelling one of the biggest military forces in the world, pushing them back from Kyiv by themselves, and then, thanks to the Western aid that started flowing, repelling them from what is more than half of the territory that has been occupied. So now, two years into this, Ukraine is still standing and still fighting. And Russia, which now again has an advantage in artillery because, let’s face it, the cut off in American aid has had an effect of the battlefield, still hasn’t been able to achieve significant battlefield victories.
FRYE: Yes, I think there’s been a lot of moving the goalposts. I think if in March of 2022 you had said the lines of contact are where they are today, that would have been seen as a tremendous victory for Ukraine. And instead, I think there’s a lot of kind of looking back and readjusting, and not recognizing the tremendous success of the Ukrainian forces.
TROFIMOV: And not just the lines but look at the Black Sea. I mean, Ukraine has been able to reopen the port of Odessa to commercial traffic, to push back the Russian Black Sea fleet from Sevastopol. Which is a major victory in the naval domain.
FRYE: Now, Steve, I wanted to go to you for the view from Russia. On the one hand, things in Russia look quite stable. There’s reason to think that Putin might believe that in a long, grinding, slow war of attrition the sheer numbers of Russian soldiers and artillery will just wear Ukraine out, particularly if the West is not forthcoming with more aid. On the other hand, there’s been 315,000 casualties with not a lot to show for it. We have seen some setbacks militarily. So on the one hand, people have said that, given those difficulties in Russia, maybe there’s a reevaluation of war aims going on in Moscow. At the same time, you know, Putin has publicly continued to declare that the goals are still unchanged—de-Nazify, demilitarize, and turn Ukraine into a neutral country. So where do things stand?
SESTANOVICH: Well, I think it is a moment in which Putin probably has a good story to tell himself. But I also think that what one hears constantly in the Western media, that he believes time is on his side, is maybe a little overstated. There are plenty of reasons for him to feel that he’s in a better position than he might have expected when the year began. There is what you referred to, Tim, a kind of prospect that Western aid could diminish, or in the case of the United States actually be cut off. There is a kind of resurgence of a Russian military industry, which Putin brags about all the time. That, you know, all the ammo churning off the assembly lines.
There is an economic story that he’s proud to tell. You know, not only is the military budget up two-thirds but, you know, they now have new markets in Asia, the economy, you know, grew faster last year than the year before. And there are plenty of ways in which some of the problems that people anticipated for the Russians haven’t materialized in the extreme form that was often forecast. Manpower, for example. With a combination of volunteers, prison convicts, non-Russian conscripts, the Russians have been able to keep manpower levels high, and to take advantage of the fact that they have a three-to-one population advantage, and maybe more, over Ukraine.
At the same time, there are plenty of things that have to make Putin nervous. And Putin, although he talks a really good game in public, he’s also I think a bit of a worrier. And there—what are the things that he might be worried about? You know, over the weekend, you had this dramatic shoot down of two Russian planes, and the AWACS and a, you know, airborne command unit. You have had Russian bombers on the ground taken out on air bases by Ukrainian missiles. Which shows you what could happen if you had a loosening of qualitative constraints on the part—on the part of Western governments. Which shows you what—you know, what could happen in the way of a kind of turning of the tide, the regaining of some momentum on the part of Ukrainians.
The Russians have benefited from the fact—all in all, politically, from the fact that Ukraine always states its war aims in rather grand terms. You know, regaining the 1991 borders. But as a political matter, if you had a new momentum developing in which it seemed as though the Ukrainians were making steady gains, gaining back, say, half or a third—or half of the territory lost in 2022, Putin’s position would suddenly be much more precarious. You would have the Russian elite challenging the idea that this is a war for Russia’s existence. You know, people saying, you know, why are we—why are we doing this? Why are we putting our future at risk?
And so I think if Putin looks out at the—at 2024, apart from the deep uncertainties involved from his reelection campaign—(laughter)—you know, I think the military—the military outlook has a positive side to it, but he has got to be nervous about the way in which things could go negative.
FRYE: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, and the one—there’s definitely a contradiction in the story of this is an existential battle and if we lose there will be NATO tanks on Red Square tomorrow, but by the way this is only a special military operation and we’re not going to do a general call up here. (Laughter.) So at some point, you know, people can understand that tension—
SESTANOVICH: But you make a very good point, Tim, which is that—and I mentioned manpower constraints as being not so serious for Russia. If you had a sustained momentum for the Ukrainians, suddenly there would be big pressure on Putin to call for a new mobilization. And suddenly, people would be worrying whether they have the manpower to sustain the military resistance, to turn the tide back against the Ukrainians.
FRYE: Right. And all the polling data suggests that mobilization is very unpopular, even with all the incentives for respondents to say, oh, no, of course we would sacrifice.
SESTANOVICH: One of the things that’s certain is that if you had a fear that there was going to be a new round of mobilization, you’d also have a lot more people leaving the country. You know, suddenly, tickets to Almaty would be in high demand. (Laughter.)
FRYE: Now I want to bring in Kori Schake for perhaps the greatest uncertainty and wildcard in what could change, what many people see as kind of an equilibrium that’s been reached on the military front is what are the likelihood of U.S. aid continuing in the levels that we’ve seen in the past? And what are the implications, both for American foreign policy and the war on the ground, if aid is drastically cut?
SCHAKE: Yeah. So I’m happy to answer that. And I’m sorry I’m not there in person. But before I answer it, I want to say thank you to Yaroslav, because your reporting on the war has been fundamental to the work that I, and everybody else, have been trying to do and understanding strategy. So I really look forward to reading the book. Want to say thank you for your good work.
TROFIMOV: Thank you.
SESTANOVICH: Actually, I’m reading the book. And I have to say, it’s great. (Laughter.)
SCHAKE: So to answer your question, Tim, I think it’s true that the biggest uncertainty is not the willingness and ability of Ukrainians to sustain the fight, or the determination of Russia to try and recreate the former Soviet Union. The biggest uncertainty is whether the United States will remain committed to the fight, and whether the United States can remain committed to the fight. It is the biggest foreign policy success of the Biden administration that they stepped forward to help defend a country fighting for its liberty. And that, once a month, the secretary of defense gathers fifty-four counterparts in Ramstein Air Base to hear from the Ukrainians what they need, to figure out who among us have it, and to figure out how to get it to them. It has shown a different and better Biden administration than the abandonment of Afghanistan. And it’s been a reminder of what is possible in the positive shaping of the international order with American commitment and leadership.
My fellow Republicans are being unhelpful in this regard. I think for a couple of justifiable reasons and one for a reason of continuity. First, I think Republicans are correct that the Biden administration is doing just enough to keep Ukraine fighting and not enough to help Ukraine win. And there, the most important thing the United States could and should do differently is, as Steve suggested, relax the policy restriction on Ukraine using Western-provided weapons to attack Russian territory. Because, as we learned in Vietnam, and Iraq, and Afghanistan, allowing an enemy military sanctuary while they are destroying Ukraine is an enormous contribution to Russia’s war effort. So concern about keeping Ukraine in the fight as opposed to giving Ukraine the means to succeed I think is an important and legitimate critique of a Biden administration approach.
Second thing Republicans are concerned about are unrelated foreign policy issues. The size of the debt, border security, and barely controlling the House, not controlling the Senate or the executive, they are trying to use the leverage of unrelated—the leverage they have over the president on Ukraine, given how committed he has been to the fight. And then, of course, the third, the looming unreasonable, is support for the recklessness of former President Trump’s approach to the problem. And let me be clear, if Donald Trump were president, Ukraine would already have lost. The United States would not have stepped forward to provide the assistance that we have provided. And I think there’s no reason to believe he will be any more reliable should he be reelected.
So I do think there is cause for concern about the continuity of American assistance. And my experience doing coalition management in a couple of administrations has been that when the United States steps back, everybody else steps back further. Because we forget what countries that actually don’t have the ability to win their wars without American assistance, how scary that looks and how good compromises that aren’t in their interest and aren’t in our interest look by comparison to flat out losing.
FRYE: Good. I wanted to get to that, and I’m glad Steve brought up the easing of the qualitative constraints on—so are you arguing that the U.S. should be doing more to bring the fight to Russia? And how would one respond to concerns that the Biden administration have made about the risk of escalation?
SCHAKE: So the administration is justified in being concerned about escalation, either horizontal—that is attacking NATO countries, expanding the war geographically—or vertical, the escalation to making a conventional war a nuclear war. But those concerns were legitimate at the start of the war, but we now have two years of data about Russian responses. And Russian responses, again, I defer to Steve and Yaroslav who are more expert than I am on this, but it looks to me that the Russians are as concerned about escalation as we are concerned about escalation. And so we are forgetting that we are actually the strong ones in this equation, and the Russians are the weak ones.
And so there’s great work by Brady Africk, one of my AEI colleagues, that was published in the Washington Post a couple of months ago. And it shows the satellite footage across the six months in which weapons we had promised the Ukrainians were slow in arriving, and that permitted the Russians to build these defenses in depth in territory they were controlling. The pace at which we have been providing weapons has been slowed by our concern about escalation. And that’s actually a large part about what—a large part of the explanation of why the Ukrainian offensive hasn’t been more successful in the last couple of months. We are a party to this conflict, even at a distance. And our anxiety about that, despite the depth of the president’s political commitment to Ukraine’s success, has actually been an enormous contribution to the Russian war effort.
FRYE: Steve, did you want to add anything on this, or Yaroslav? This is also an issue for U.S.-Ukrainian relations. You know, they don’t see eye-to-eye on this as well, so.
SESTANOVICH: Yeah, I would add one thing. That Kori was absolutely right to point out the way in which American and European decisions interact. So that right now the Germans are hesitating to provide a cruise missile that the Ukrainians really want, the Taurus, thinking that this is too long range, this will seem as though it’s inviting Ukraine to attack Russian territory. Even though the British and the French have provided long-range missiles themselves. And so what’s the explanation? Well, everybody says—and I think German officials say this too—we’re waiting for the U.S. to make this decision. So that ATACMS, which have a kind of longer range than anything we’ve provided so far, would be assigned to the Germans that they can go ahead, in the same way that the decision about Abrams tanks was a kind of green light for the Germans to provide their own Leopard tanks.
TROFIMOV: Yeah. And when we talk about this escalation risk, I’d just like to recall this pivotal moment in October 2022, when Ukraine broke through the Russian ranks, and it swept through the Kharkiv region. The Russian units there were collapsing. And President Putin announced this annexation of four Ukrainian region and made this speech very openly putting the nuclear threat on the table. Saying, well, henceforth, all these regions are Russia. And I am not bluffing. And any attack will be met with all the available means to defend the homeland. And what did the Ukrainians do? They just kept going. They called the bluff. And they took Kherson which, according to Russian law is a capital in a Russian region. They took them on. And I think that was the moment where the nuclear threat became a lot more hollow than it seemed until then.
SESTANOVICH: I think that’s right. Although, you’ve got to remember, the Russians keep using this. And just a couple of days ago, former President Medvedev actually went, chapter and verse, on the Russian, you know, defense statute which provides that nuclear weapons can be used when the existence—even in response to conventional attack, when the existence of the Russian state is at risk. And so the claim is the existence of the Russian state is at risk, says he.
SCHAKE: Can I jump in? Can I jump in on this, Tim?
SCHAKE: Because, you know, we’re not passive, lacking in agency on this. And the administration has actually demonstrated we have the ability to affect Russian choices, because after one of the Russian threats of escalation the administration very adroitly got China and India to publicly criticize the Russian choice. And not only can we affect international diplomatic reaction, but we can affect both the decision making and the ability to carry it out, if we would emphasize that anybody responsible for either making the decision or executing an order to use a nuclear weapon, either on Ukraine or anywhere else, that we would hunt those people down and either take them to The Hague or kill them. You know, we can affect Russian choices. We just haven’t played those cards. And we shouldn’t act like, you know, if Russia says it, all the rest of us should be worried. Russia is the weak state in this equation, not us.
FRYE: I was going to ask a question about negotiations, but given the tenor of the conversation that we’ve had so far I think it’s kind of a nonstarter, which is fine with me because I don’t think they would go anywhere. I don’t think the Russians have much interest in it. I think the Ukrainians don’t have much interest this year.
TROFIMOV: Not this year.
FRYE: Yes, but—
SESTANOVICH: But the audience may have some interest in it.
FRYE: Yes. I’m planting the seed there, oh, so subtly. (Laughter.) But I did have an unfair question. So let’s say we get invited back here a year from now. What are we looking at? And I ask this question with my former colleague, Phil Tetlock, in mind, who is the expert on how to make forecasts. And he says that you should make them as falsifiable as possible. So not, you know, things will be better, things will be worse. And also, give us some sense of your confidence in your forecast. So where will the line of contact be a year from now? And how confident are you? What will the level of fighting be like a year from now? What would the level of U.S. aid be now? You can take a hedge by making your prediction up until November, where there’s an obvious branching point. (Laughter.) But—
SESTANOVICH: Possibly, possible branch. (Laughs.)
FRYE: Possible branching point. Who wants to go first? Put their prediction cap on.
TROFIMOV: I guess I can go first.
SCHAKE: I will.
FRYE: Good. OK.
SCHAKE: Go ahead. Go ahead, Yaroslav.
TROFIMOV: Thank you. I think we can only speak about what we should be looking at. And I think the key variable in all of this is the resilience of the Russian society and state, and the resilience of the Ukrainian society and state. And the question is, which one will break first? And from that will stem where the—where the (crack ?) will be, and everything else. And obviously, we have seen how brittle the Russian state is last year with the Prigozhin uprising. Nobody could have forecasted, and it came out of the blue. We don’t know what else is brewing in that state where so much is hidden, not just from us but also from Russia’s own leadership.
And we also know in Ukraine the resilience of society, the stability, and the ability to continue to fight is, of course, a function, to a great extent, of continuing Western aid, both economic and especially the military. And that makes it even more important for that aid to continue.
SESTANOVICH: OK, I think Yaroslav is dodging this. (Laughter.) So let me—I don’t want to jump ahead of Kori, but I’ll just say I’ll give you two sentences. I would predict that Western aid will continue. That the—
FRYE: At the—at the same levels, or?
SESTANOVICH: Well, I’ll say at the level that the Biden administration is seeking from the Congress. That whatever partisan craziness has held it up until now, I would predict—and I’m not sure—but I’m not sure when—but within the first quarter of the year. So because people really don’t want to have this be deep, deep, deep into the presidential campaign. There will be a reaffirmation of American commitment. And the deal that the Biden administration proposed, by the way, was essentially to make that assistance year long, so that no review had to be made until after the election. And I predict they’ll make it in favor of what the Biden administration has asked, and that Europeans will go along.
Don’t ask me about the seizure of Russian assets, though. (Laughter.) I don’t have a lot of confidence on that.
FRYE: That question will come up, I’m sure.
Kori, do you want to jump in on this?
SCHAKE: So I am more confident than either of my colleagues. I think by this time next year, Ukraine will have recovered most of its internationally recognized territory, because aid will continue not just at current levels but, as Steve said, with greater longevity. I think the Biden administration will be pushed to relax the policy restraints on the use of the weapons, as they have slowly, incrementally been pushed on relaxing so many other restraints on types of weapons. I do think Russian assets will begin to be used to pay for assistance, which I’m not wild about. I do think the Russian assets can legitimately be seized, but I would prefer to see them used for the reconstruction of Ukraine rather than war-winning efforts. Which I think all the rest of us should continue to support.
And I also think that the United States and the European Union will have realized that we just got a World War Two-style wake-up call that our defense industries have not been prepared for that magnitude of wars that the international order could impose on us. So we will replenish our own stockpiles because the aid we are giving to Ukraine is rounding error on what we need for our own purposes, and that we have not bought for our own purposes. So not only will Ukraine be stronger. We will be stronger.
SESTANOVICH: I’d say, Ukrainian defense industry will be revived in a significant way that will contribute more than people have expected to their own new military capabilities and activities. You already see this in the drone production, which has developed. You know, there was this story, might even have been in The Wall Street Journal, a couple of days ago about, you know, a Ukrainian furniture manufacturer that’s now switched over to making drones because they’re made of—they’re made of wood. And these are pretty long range, with capabilities that enable them to do the kinds of things we were talking about earlier—which is attack Russian planes and airfields.
TROFIMOV: I would even go more further and say that certainly drone capabilities, the experience of the Ukrainian military in the past year and a half, develops tactics and ways of winning the war will be very valuable for the U.S. military and the Western countries. Because the U.S. military does not have drone units at the squadron and platoon levels doing the sorts of things that the Ukrainians are doing.
FRYE: Great. Now, for the last thirty minutes or so, we’ll go to questions from the floor. We’ll also take questions online. We have a very large online audience as well. If you could state your question concisely, please, and give your name and affiliation before you ask. And you can address the question to the panel or to anyone in particular.
Q: Adrian Karatnycky with the Atlantic Council.
I have a brother-in-law, a fifty-year-old violinist, who’s been in the armed forces of Ukraine for two years. He volunteered on the first day Kyiv was being attacked. I don’t ask the question to honor him, although he deserves a lot of honor. But the Ukrainian military, the median age is, I think, forty-three or forty-four. It’s basically middle-aged guys fighting the war. And one of the anomalies, and my question is to Yaroslav Trofimov, what is the issue about conscripting 18-to-27-year-olds? And why is Ukraine not doing it? Why has that become, like, kind of a given? They’re talking about potentially reducing military age to twenty-five. They want to call up, like, half a million people. And it’s becoming a big issue. What are your thoughts about it? And what are they thinking? I mean, why are they not doing this?
TROFIMOV: There are several—thank you for the question—there are several answers to this. First of all, a lot of the volunteers who went to fight back in 2014, and also especially after the post-Kyiv invasion, were people in the middle age. And for many of them, the logic was: I want to fight so that my son doesn’t have to fight. He can build a family. And that is part of the culture, in some ways.
I think another answer is very practical. You know, the military needs people who know how to drive tanks and shoot from howitzer. And those are the people who served in the Soviet Army, because everyone in their fifties had served in Soviet Army does have the skills. That’s why, you know, during defense of Kyiv you will see tank crews with, you know, fifty-, sixty-year-old guys, because they are the ones how to do it.
I think another reason is that politically it’s been easier for the government to find recruits in the countryside, in little towns, where people are older often. And Kyiv is, you know, full of young men who are not serving in the military. And they’ve been trying to—not to touch the big cities, in part to avoid the backlash and, in part, because those are the most valuable parts of the economy.
FRYE: Anybody else? Question in the back.
Q: Ian Johnson with the Council on Foreign Relations.
I wanted to ask a question about the military hardware that’s being delivered. It just seems to me that even if these—even if the Biden administration can release the—get the $50 or $60 billion released, and so on, there’s a fundamental problem in the industrial production of things like tanks and armored personnel carriers. And while these things may be rebuilt over time, it’s going to take years to do so. And when you look at, say, the Germans, you know, they gave like twenty tanks or something like that, thirty tanks. These are—these are just insignificant numbers.
And they don’t even have more they can do, because they haven’t made the commitment to, you know, serially produced these tanks. And you see the same thing with the number of Abrams that have been sent, and so on and so forth. There needs to be—incrementally, a huge increase of these things that are sent. And I just wonder, is that in the horizon? Is that going to be—is that going to happen? Or maybe it just doesn’t matter. But it just seems to me that right now it’s completely inadequate for any sort of real offensive.
FRYE: Kori? Yeah, Kori, do you want to take that one?
SCHAKE: I do think it’s inadequate for the offensive. I think that’s actually what we saw as a limitation on the Ukraine—the success of the Ukrainian offensive. And as Yaroslav pointed out, it is affecting Ukrainian operations right now. They are rationing ammunition because we are not sending enough for the magnitude. And that’s what I meant by the warning that Ukraine has given all of the rest of us. The British military, if they were fighting at the intensity the Ukrainians are fighting, they would be out of precision-guided munitions in five days. That’s not a Ukraine problem. That, as he suggests, is an order of magnitude we have not been buying the militaries we need for ourselves.
Yes, I think there’s been a stark realization of it. The United States Army and the United States Air Force have both done a pretty good job of driving this issue forward within the U.S. defense establishment. You know, when I worked for John McCain he used to say, if money can solve a problem let money solve a problem. And the ammunition shortfalls aren’t just the money problem. You need multiyear contracts so that American businesses, who are the main producers of the equipment we need, allies need, and the Ukrainians need. Multiyear contracts so that they know that they can invest in training the people and building the plants for what’s needed.
Let me also add, though, Congress needs to do its fundamental responsibility of passing a budget. Looking at you, Republicans in the House of Representatives. Because the reliability of on-time budgeting is essential so that you don’t draw down defense stocks and so people can move the money to where it needs to be.
FRYE: It’s also important symbolically, I think, you know, so that Ukrainians know and that Russians know that there is still that commitment, even if the material is slow in getting there and it doesn’t quite always match what one likes. But just the sheer fact and the knowledge that the U.S. is willing to stand, by I think is important.
SCHAKE: Great point.
SESTANOVICH: Yeah, Ian stressed tanks, though. And I think one of the interesting features of the Ukrainian wish list is that tanks are really not a big part of what they want. When General Zaluzhnyi talked about what could turn a stalemate into a moment of opportunity for Ukraine, he emphasized a variety of other capabilities, especially air defense. And in those cases, we actually have more than we do in tank inventory. And sometimes, you know, the offerings of American—the U.S. administration, you know, involve that transfer of a handful of individual items.
What needs to happen is both, as Kori and I have been saying, a relaxation of the qualitative constraints, but also a readiness to step up the quantities that are being delivered. That kind of new approach by the administration can go along with a sense that you’ve got to retool and revitalize defense industry. American officials have been saying that from the beginning of the war. They haven’t done it, perhaps, with the hair on fire urgency that one might—that one might want. But in in addressing the particular Ukrainian to-do list, we got a lot of the stuff that they want.
TROFIMOV: Yeah, especially in terms of sort of long-range capabilities. You know, when the—when Britain and France provide Ukraine with its cruise missiles, they were game changers in terms of the naval battle. They removed Russia’s ability to use the Sevastopol port and to blockade, you know, Ukrainian Black Sea traffic. And, you know, the U.S. has plenty of those missiles. And then they’re not being released for political reasons. And going to the funding issue, some countries in Europe—like Norway, like Germany now—they have passed these multiyear procurement plans for Ukraine, knowing that industry really requires some sort of visibility to the future to ramp up production.
FRYE: I think this also speaks to Steve’s point about the need for Ukraine to build up its own defense capabilities in any case, regardless of what happens.
We’re going to go to a question online now.
OPERATOR: We’ll take the next question from Avis Bohlen.
Q: Hello. Thank you for a really interesting discussion. I just want to say that I think, to the panel generally, that your picture sounds a bit rosy to me. I think there are some constraints on us and on the Ukrainians. First of all, Kori, you were very generous to your fellow Republicans. There are a lot of people who just don’t want to give foreign aid anymore. I don’t think Marjorie Taylor Greene’s going to change her vote if the president is more aggressive in his use of weapons.
And also, none of you have really talked about the difficulties on the Ukrainian side. I mean, the manpower has just been alluded to, the lack of ammunition, the fact that American aid, even if it passes which it probably will, there won’t be another one. That’s what people who are close to Congress say. This is it. And also, if the if the New York Times is to be believed, the Ukrainians are being driven back. Not a lot, but in eastern—on the eastern front. And, you know, I think we shouldn’t underestimate the fact that Russia has lots more manpower and lots more weapons. And so, I mean, I guess if I had the forecast for next year, I would see just about the same, if we’re lucky. Sorry.
FRYE: No, great question. That’s what we want, a little controversy here. And so anybody want to respond? Kori’s jumping at the bit, we can tell. Go ahead.
SCHAKE: It’s true. I have two things, Avis. The first is, the vast majority of members of Congress support continued aid to Ukraine. And the aid to Ukraine is then designed to be a one year aid package in order to take it out of the electoral cycle. Not that nothing can pass after this passes, but you want to get it out of the electoral politics. So I’m more confident than you that assistance to Ukraine will continue, even beyond the current aid package which, I agree with you, is likely to pass.
On the small gains the Russians have picked up, again, I defer to you, Yaroslav, but it looks to me from the Institute of the Study of War and AEI’s Threats Project, that the Russians are trying to retake areas and experiencing significant losses of both people and equipment in the doing of it. And Ukraine is actually encouraging the Russians into those fights because it’s a way to chew up a lot of Russian soldiers and a lot of Russian equipment. So it’s worth that small trade on the side of the Ukrainian war effort, because, as Yaroslav suggested, the brittleness of Russian commitment is a big part of the politics of the end of this war eventually.
TROFIMOV: Right. And if you look at the history, you know, the only town that the Russians have been able to seize in Ukraine since November 2022 is Bakhmut, at the cost of thirty thousand Wagner troops. And those losses in Bakhmut really triggered that uprising in Russia that Prigozhin attempted. In the last few months, Russians have been trying to advance and have not taken a single village.
FRYE: And they got Bakhmut out of it. What a prize. (Laughter.)
TROFIMOV: Well, and they got Bakhmut, you know, a year ago—
TROFIMOV: —(inaudible). By the time they took it, they—
SCHAKE: They got a destroyed Bakhmut.
FRYE: Yeah. Well, Steve, do you have any—you want to defend your rosy picture, or?
SESTANOVICH: I don’t think it’ll be easy for the Ukrainians. And the kinds of stresses that the group has been describing within internal—within Ukrainian society, within the political leadership, which is not, you know, completely united, those can all be—can turn into problems for Ukraine. But I think the main emphasis that we’ve been describing, which is a reinvigoration of Western assistance to enable the Ukrainians to do some things that they’ve shown they’re good at—this is not just speculation, Avis. It’s, you know, an area where we’ve seen capabilities used that, if used much more extensively, could have a significant military effect.
FRYE: Great. Question now from Bill Luers.
Q: Yeah. Bill Luers, Columbia University.
I just wonder if you’re going to get to the point of the question of this panel. How does it end? Why don’t you get to that?
FRYE: Great, how does it end? That was my forecasting question, was hoping to get to—open the door to the question of it how it ends. We all know that wars end in—all wars ending in negotiations. But all lives end in death, but death varies a lot. So that’s not really a very helpful statement. How does the war end? Who wants to take that? Kori.
SCHAKE: The war ends with Ukraine regaining control of its internationally recognized territory. I realize it’s fashionable to say that military force can’t solve problems. Only military force is going to solve this problem. Somebody is going to win and somebody is going to lose, because that’s the only stable equilibrium in this existential fight. And in my judgment, it’s Ukraine that’s going to win it.
SESTANOVICH: I think Ukraine can win it, possibly without the full restoration of its 1991 borders. And for a reason that may seem sort of puzzling to some of you. I think that kind of regained momentum on the Ukrainian part may actually make it easier for the Ukrainians to compromise on certain elements of a settlement. Right now, a compromise on—not just on territory, but on political autonomy and so forth for the eastern provinces, for Crimea or parts of Crimea, is much easier to portray as defeat. If it is a part of a negotiation that is opened up because of Ukrainian advances and because the Russians suddenly are ready to talk more seriously, then I think it may be possible for Ukrainian leadership to do its own kind of reassessment of what it really wants to continue the war for.
And I—you know, I think the Ukrainian elite is actually kind of divided about how much it really absolutely in the short term needs to have Crimea back. Which is a very problematic enterprise for them, given the ethnic—traditional ethnic makeup, the way in which the Russians have imported the hundreds of thousands of Russians, the need for deportations. I mean, it would be extremely complicated. And the ability to punt on that would, I think, be much greater for the Ukrainians if they felt they basically won.
FRYE: Yeah. On the Russian side though, if the Ukrainians win can Putin still spin the narrative in such a way that it’s this—
SESTANOVICH: This is tougher. You know, I always say to people, you should understand that Russian ability to, you know, fight on, endure any kind of meat grinder warfare indefinitely, is not historically correct. World War One basically took the Russians out after two and a half years—less than two and a half years, because you had this society rebelling at home, you had the soldiers on the front mutinying. And it turned out that at that point you just didn’t have a coherent leadership that could—that could continue the war. And so you had to sue for peace.
TROFIMOV: Well, I would say that definitely it doesn’t end this year. And I have to agree with Kori that it ends eventually in a victory, of one or the other side. And as someone who was born and raised in Ukraine, I very much hope it’s not the Russians.
Well, Crimea—I think if there is a Ukrainian breakthrough, and there are Ukrainian troops ousting Russia from Kherson, and Zaporizhzhia, and they are at the entrance—at the gates to Crimea, and they have long-range strike possibilities, it would be very hard for Russia to keep Crimea militarily. And Russia would have to negotiate. But we’re not anywhere near there right now. And I think that, you know, we could be talking about how does it end in a year, or maybe even two years?
SESTANOVICH: Actually, can I just add another thing here?
FRYE: Please do.
SESTANOVICH: Bill, the question of how the war ends is itself a political issue that isn’t necessarily related to negotiation but to sustaining political support. The Ukrainians, for example, have had this conference in Davos over the past couple of years with eighty governments participating to talk about their peace formula. Is it really in order to prepare for negotiations? Maybe, but I think one other Ukrainian—senior Ukrainian officials kind of give me this idea, it’s as much to keep governments from moving closer to the Russian position. In particular China. They don’t—they want the Chinese—the Ukrainians want the Chinese not to move up toward lethal military supplies for Russia. And they think that posturing themselves as in favor of negotiations in a way that the Chinese have to recognize is good, and will give—make it easier for the Chinese to say no to the Russians.
FRYE: This is a record. We’ve gone fifty-three minutes before someone mentioned China on the panel, in 2024. (Laughter.) I thought that was obligatory in the first fifteen minutes.
SESTANOVICH: Well, I try to solve a problem. (Laughter.)
FRYE: Thank you.
Q: (Off mic.)
SESTANOVICH: Well, that’s true. But I think it’s also, even before you get to real negotiations, the way people talk about negotiations is related to maintaining diplomatic support and unity.
FRYE: Yeah, my colleague, Sam Greene makes this—has this line where he says, Putin doesn’t want to negotiate but he wants to be in negotiations, right? (Laughter.)
TROFIMOV: Right. And the Russia’s successfully fostered this narrative that it’s Ukraine that doesn’t want to negotiate, it’s Ukraine that doesn’t want, you know, any reasonable agreement. But at the same time, you know, Putin himself said a few weeks ago Odessa is a Russian city. You know, Medvedev says Kyiv is a Russian city. So what’s there to negotiate about really, if they still claim all of Ukraine?
FRYE: We’re going to go into another question online.
OPERATOR: We’ll take the next question from Ivo Daalder.
Q: Thanks, all, for doing this discussion. Yaroslav, terrific, terrific book. Look forward to reading it. Your reporting has been great.
I share Avis’ unfortunate view that I think you guys are a bit too optimistic, particularly on U.S. funding. I actually think the chances of any funding coming through this year is slim, to getting slimmer every day. And Yaroslav, I just—I would like to sort of get your take. Let’s assume there is no more funding from the U.S., you get whatever it is from the Europeans, which isn’t a tremendous amount. The two things the Ukraine’s need—the Ukrainians need in order to maintain at least the status quo, this is—you know, it’s not a stalemate. This is a very dynamic situation that requires constant input—is artillery shells and air defense. And they’re running out of both.
They’re now using—and you’re already seeing in the air defenses that we used to see the Ukrainians intercepting 80-90 percent of the incoming missiles. It’s now down to less than 50 percent. And so tell—you know, give us your sense also, since you still—you’ve been there—how are the Ukrainian people going to react when the missile barrages actually penetrate into the cities at the level that we may be seeing if there are no more air defenses?
TROFIMOV: Right. So I would have to disagree with you that—on the levels of European aid. I mean, European aid right now accounts for about half of total aid. And it’s true that the U.S. has more stuff to give to Ukraine, but obviously the Europeans can buy it from the U.S. if there’s no U.S. funding. And the current levels of aid are not enough to enable any counteroffensives, but probably, with the European assistance, the Ukrainian military will be able to hold the line in the coming year. I mean, they—it’s easier if you’re not advancing. On the air defense front, yes, air defenses are critical. Also because air defense umbrellas allow Ukraine to develop its own military industries.
You know, they protect the Ukrainian military facilities, which were the main targets of the recent Russian barrages, especially in Kyiv. Ukraine so far hasn’t run out of air defense missiles. The statistics that we see are in part because Russia has been trying to strike targets in areas that are outside the main air defense concentration, because obviously Ukraine is a very big country. It’s the largest country in Europe, besides Russia—after Russia. And it just, you know, doesn’t have enough air defenses to cover the entirety of this territory. There will always be areas that are unprotected.
But I think the main conclusion is the Ukrainians will fight on, because what choice do they have? So all these delays in American funding are just measured in Ukrainian lives that are being lost unnecessarily. But are not magically bringing Ukraine or Russia to the negotiating table or making peace any more likely.
FRYE: OK. Another question? Yeah.
Q: Just let me ask Kori, what happened to the Republican foreign—my name is David Nachman. I’m with Columbia, Brooklyn, and Yale Law Schools.
I was going to ask Kori what happened to the Republican foreign policy establishment, but she’s been so stalwart today that I’ll cut her that slack, and ask instead what the situation—
SCHAKE: Thank you.
Q: Proselytize, please. What is the situation with Zelensky and the military? We read of this general and that general, conscription, corruption, corruption around procurement? What’s the situation within the upper echelons of the military? And is Zelensky—what’s his relation with his senior military staff?
TROFIMOV: Kori, you want to start first?
SCHAKE: Nope, you go ahead, Yaroslav. Because what I think I know of it, I know from you. (Laughter.)
TROFIMOV: Thank you. Yeah, it is a war. And always, in any war, there is always friction between the political leadership and the military leadership. Which is a natural, because the political leadership doesn’t just look at the military considerations, but the broader picture of politics and international relations. And this example of conscription problems is a very good one, because there was abhorrent corruption in the Odessa recruitment office. The guy who ran it was buying villas in Spain. And so to, politically, it made a lot of sense for Zelensky to fire not just him but the entire leadership of all the conscription officers throughout the country saying I’m cleaning house. You know, I’ll bring in combat veterans to run it clean.
But the result of that was that the entire conscription process was disrupted, because everyone was removed. And then the military found itself with a manpower shortfall as a result, because the whole mechanism broke down. Zelensky and Zaluzhnyi have had their disagreements throughout the war. And the key thing is that they’re still working together. And it’s probably healthy that you have not just someone like Putin who decides everything and makes mistakes of a historical nature rather than situation Ukraine where people do talk to each other and come to a compromise when they make decisions. So I would necessarily see it as a sign of weakness, but more a sign of strength for Ukraine.
FRYE: Last question to Jan Svejnar, my colleague.
Q: Yeah. I’m from Columbia, a colleague of Tim and Steve’s.
So I love your optimism. And I hope it’ll come true. But let me ask—follow up on what you mentioned. If the U.S. pauses or steps back, the allies step back even more, right? So in this case, should it happen, will the Europeans—the European allies actually step in and go forward? They should, in a way, because they have a border with Putin and there’ll be threatened if he gets Ukraine. On the other hand, we just discussed that in terms of their wherewithal, military wherewithal, they are nowhere near.
And it might be politically difficult for them to buy from the U.S. politically. Domestically, that they’re actually—the U.S. is not doing anything, and they’re buying in order to help, right? On the other hand, I think where they really could help is if they opened trade. If they let Ukraine freely onto the market, et cetera, it would just make a huge economic difference. So in a way, the optimal would be for the U.S. to continue the military assistance, because it’s essential there. And for the Europeans, sure, talk about Ukraine being in the EU in ten years, and so on, but immediately allow them to trade. Is that at all something that can happen?
SESTANOVICH: Let me just say two quick words about this. One is I think you’re right about the economic benefits of such an approach. Although the—a lot of European concerns have actually focused on getting the Ukrainians to export elsewhere, so that they don’t export—so they don’t export into Europe. And that’s actually fine for Ukraine. There’s a problem with a division of labor in which the United States bears the military responsibility and the EU handles the economic problems, because in Washington people, understandably, talk about how the Europeans are not bearing their share of the military burden, increasing defense spending, and so forth. And if you just say to them, we’re going to do the military stuff and you do the economic stuff, you reinforce that narrative.
You remind me of something else that we haven’t talked about, in addition to China today, and that is the NATO summit this year, which will be in Washington. It’s the seventh-fifth anniversary of NATO. A lot of attention is going to be focused on this. And the importance for the administration of having it be a success is going to be very, very great. And I think they’re going to—you know, we don’t talk about this much, but over the next six months the priority for the administration is going to be how to make coordination between the United States and Europe lead to a successful summit. And that’s leverage for all parties. It’s leverage for the Americans to say to the to the Europeans, look, if you don’t do this, we won’t have a successful summit. So a lot of—I think a lot of bargaining will be focused on that—on that event.
TROFIMOV: And I think if we’re talking about Europe, obviously, you see very different approaches in different parts of Europe. I think for countries that feel an existential threat from Russia, Poland, like the Scandinavian, Baltic states, and I think even Germany increasingly so. I don’t think necessarily that as the U.S. steps back they will step back even further would be the case, because we are seeing increases in Germany. And, you know, Chancellor Scholz spoke about Zeitenwende and the great change in March 2022. That didn’t happen because the Russian armies did not arrive on the Polish border at the time. But if Ukraine’s independence would be endangered again by Russian (ripples ?), I think we would see that Zeitenwende. And we already see, you know, Germany dramatically increasing its spending on Ukraine in anticipation of the shortfall in the U.S.
FRYE: Thanks a lot. This has been a terrific panel. And I want to only marginally violate the Council’s rules on ending on time, but it was such a terrific discussion that we’ve gone over a little bit. But please join me in thanking our panelists what I think is a terrific, terrific discussion. (Applause.)