Putin’s invasion of Ukraine shocked the world. His brazen brutality prompted tremendous backlash and an international debate about what to do. Simultaneously, Ukraine’s courage inspired and revitalized its Western allies. But as the Russian military intensifies its assault, Ukraine’s future is still unknown.
So, how did it come to war? To understand the conflict, Why It Matters Host Gabrielle Sierra turns to CFR President Richard Haass to discuss motivations, misassumptions, nuclear threats, and the potential for a new era of global instability.
From Richard Haass
“The West Must Show Putin How Wrong He Is to Choose War,” New York Times
Richard Haass, “How the World Can Influence Putin’s Fateful Choices in Ukraine”
Richard Haass, “Putin’s Ukraine Quagmire”
James M. Lindsay, “Can President Biden’s State of the Union Address Unify Americans Over Ukraine?”
Ian Johnson and Kathy Huang, “Why China Is Struggling to Deal With Russia’s War in Ukraine”
“TPI Special: The War in Ukraine, With Charles A. Kupchan,” The President’s Inbox
Charles A. Kupchan, “Why Putin’s War With Ukraine Is a Miscalculation”
“TWNW Special: Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine,” The World Next Week
Alina Polyakova and Daniel Fried, “Putin’s Long Game in Ukraine,” Foreign Affairs
Thomas Graham, “Has Russia Just Started a Wider War With Ukraine?”
Jonathan Masters and Will Merrow, “How Do the Militaries of Russia and Ukraine Stack Up?”
Jonathan Masters, “Why NATO Has Become a Flash Point With Russia in Ukraine”
Jonathan Masters, “Ukraine: Conflict at the Crossroads of Europe and Russia”
Thomas L. Friedman, “This Is Putin’s War. But America and NATO Aren’t Innocent Bystanders.,” New York Times
Chris Buckley, “‘Abrupt Changes’: China Caught in a Bind Over Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine,” New York Times
Kori Schake, “Putin Accidentally Revitalized the West’s Liberal Order,”The Atlantic
Watch and Listen
“The Battle for Kyiv,” The Daily
“Ukrainians’ Choice: Fight or Flee?,” The Daily
Hey Everyone. Usually our show begins by introducing a topic or a story that you don’t hear about every day. Well, that’s clearly not the case when it comes to Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. The entire world is watching, minute-by-minute. We see footage of reckless destruction, courageous acts by Ukrainian citizens and Russian protestors. We hear the stories of refugees as they flee Ukrainian cities.
We’re all thinking about it. And judging from the conversations I’ve been having with family and friends, people have some basic questions. Like do sanctions work? Why didn’t we see this coming? And, perhaps most of all, is this going to turn into a world war?
I had the same questions. So I went to my boss, CFR President Richard Haass, and I asked him to join me for a chat in our New York studio.
You may remember Dr. Haass from previous episodes, including his analysis of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. He’s a good person to talk to at a time like this. He’s served under four presidents, and has had four decades of experience with conflict and diplomacy on the world stage.
The conversation you’re about to hear is largely unedited. We hope it answers some of your questions and gives you a more solid foundation for understanding what’s going on.
I’m Gabrielle Sierra and this is Why It Matters. Today, Ukraine, with Richard Haass.
Gabrielle SIERRA: Okay. Richard Haass, hello.
Richard HAASS: Good to be back.
SIERRA: Welcome back to Why It Matters. It feels like I only see you when there's a crisis. We kinda need to change that up.
HAASS: I do feel like I'm the bad news bear. My kids for a long time called me daddy downer. But, to be serious for a second, look, there's a lot about history, I was just thinking about it, that's good. Think about our lives, the average person lives decades longer. We have the technology, the vaccines they came out to deal with something like COVID. Even though we're going to be discussing an attack on freedom, a lot more people around the world are living with a degree of democracy and freedom than in almost any other time of history. We're going to be talking perhaps about economic sanctions, but there's more wealth in the world in more hands than at any time in history. So G*d knows there's a long list of problems and we're going to be talking about the biggest immediate one, but it's not all bad. But there are some things that are bad or really bad. And there are some things that will not get better by themselves. There's nothing about history that leads me to think that good things are inevitable. Good things tend to happen when well intentioned people, who are willing and able to act get together-
SIERRA: Right, it takes work.
HAASS:... and act and push back against those who are, shall we say, not well intentioned.
SIERRA: Well, so to sort of jump in that way, a few days ago, I was heading back into the city with some of my friends, we kind of looked over and all these buildings in New York were blue and yellow in support of Ukraine. And you know it felt very good. It felt warm. It felt like we were all together supporting these people who are being bullied, who are losing their homes, losing their lives. War is horrible, and what I want to understand today is why is this conflict different? Why does this seem more urgent to the world? Because let's be fair, we also see terrible images from wars in Yemen and Syria, so what's with this one?
HAASS: Well, as your question suggests, in some ways it's not so different. This is not the first time we've seen reckless wanton destruction. It's not the first time we've seen unwarranted wars, what I call wars of choice. It's not the first time we've seen the use of cluster munitions or other types of bombs that truly constitute war crimes. Indeed, it's not the first time Russia's done it recently. It does it regularly in Syria. So what is different? One, is that it is happening in Europe. Europe was the venue of so much history in the 20th century, two World Wars. And then you had in the aftermath of World War II, the rise of what we now call the European Union, began through the European Coal and Steel Community. And there was a feeling that by having resolved the question of the French, German, British relationship, that Europe was going to be safe. And then we had the Cold War, four decades of U.S. and Soviet led standoff in Europe, and we got through that and it remained cold. And it ended peacefully on terms that were extraordinarily favorable to us. So I think a lot of people increasingly said, "Okay, check, we can take Europe off our list." Yes, we've got to worry about terrorism, 9/11. Yes, we've got to worry about the Middle East indeed, a big part of history of the last three decades has taken place in the greater Middle East, from Afghanistan, to Iraq, to Syria, to Yemen, to Libya. But not so much in the terms of conflict in either Europe. Yes, there was the Balkans and so forth, but not so much in Europe and obviously not so much in Asia. Not so much in other parts of the world. So one, we weren't expecting it. We thought Europe had reached a different place in its historical trajectory or arc. And then secondly, there's something about this, which is so stark, because Ukraine is a modern country. I've spent a lot of time there. It's a modern democracy. And now what's adding to it is the degree of brutality. There is a starkness to this. It's not just evil versus good, Russia versus Ukraine. But there's a medieval quality. The siege. First, the surrounding of Ukraine with nearly 200,000 forces. Now the attacks on cities, on no clear discrimination between military and civilian targets. This is positively medieval. Plus one more thing, we're seeing and reading and hearing about it because of media and above all social media.
SIERRA: Right. It's all over TikTok.
HAASS: 100%. So one of the things you've learned over the last few years is that people don't notice certain awful things in the world if the cameras can't get in. And there were places and times in the Middle East or in Africa where you just didn't have the access. Well here we've got all the access in the world.
SIERRA: Right there were already influencers, they're just changing to now covering this war.
HAASS: Exactly. So I think for a lot of people, this has just broken through, and maybe I've left out some reasons, but it's broken through in ways that a lot of foreign policy and international stuff just doesn't break through.
SIERRA: Yeah. But why now? Why is Putin doing this now? Why not two years ago or two years from now?
HAASS: It's hard to answer with certainty. Anytime you've got a political system where decision making is concentrated within one individual, whether it's North Korea or Russia, it's pretty hard to assess much less predict. Indeed, most people didn't predict we would ever be where we are. So why now? So We're here into assessments and conjectures. One thing I would think is in no particular order, opportunity, he saw the divisions within the United States. We've had several administrations in a row, three administrations in a row, Obama, Trump, Biden who put their priority on things domestic.
SIERRA: Hmm. Interesting.
HAASS: Growing opposition in the United States to any military engagement. The ignominious departure from Afghanistan. So part of it is, I think Mr. Putin got up in the morning and looked at the United States and saw opportunity.
SIERRA: Was ready.
HAASS: Secondly, he looked at Europe and he saw the Germans and others, Germans, for example, canceling nuclear power plants, becoming incredibly dependent on Russian gas. A new German government after more than a decade of Angela Merkel and said, "Ah, a bunch of rookies. I got a real opportunity in Europe. The French are worried about elections. The Brits left, because of Brexit, left Europe. Europe's in disarray." Another opportunity. Ukraine, well, Putin has contempt for Ukraine. And this is where it gets more interesting. It's not just that he has contempt for Ukraine, but you read his essay from last summer, he writes about Ukraine in an almost a mystical way. Talks about fraternalism and organic relationships between our brotherly Slavs in Ukraine. So clearly sees this as part of his legacy. Clearly wants to create a sphere of influence there. And because he held Ukraine in contempt or still does, didn't think it would be that hard to achieve. I think also then there’s other factors. Yes, he was worried or unhappy with, to say the least, the enlargement of NATO. And even though Ukraine was not on the agenda now, this was still a process that from Mr. Putin's point of view was awful. He never reconciled himself to the breakup of the Soviet Union, which he termed one of the great historical, you know, awful historical moments, tragedies of the preceding era. He also, I believe is worried about the example that Ukraine sets. That even though Ukraine is an imperfect democracy, it's a vibrant democracy. And if you remember in 2014, Mr. Putin intervened, why? Because the people came into the streets of Ukraine in a so-called colored revolution and chased the autocrat out of the palace, in downtown, what we then called Kyiv and now we call Kiev. If you're a tyrant like Mr. Putin, there's probably nothing worse than the precedent of a country that's willing to challenge authority. So for all these reasons and more, and I've even at the risk of really getting into speculation, Gabby, and there's a lot of speculation out there that Putin's not well and feels to some extent the pressure of time, it could be any of these things. It could be all of these things. It could be things I haven't mentioned. My own sense is though he clearly saw a sense of opportunity. And to me, the most interesting thing about his assessment as best we can discern it, is how much he underestimated the challenge. I actually think Vladimir Putin thought this would be, to use a phrase that was used in another war, one undertaken by the United States, a cakewalk. He looked at Ukraine and said, "Ah, they'll never put up any serious resistance. United States, they don't have the backbone to stand up to us. Europeans, ah, we've got them literally over a barrel of oil." I think Putin got up and said, "My own military, look how well we've done in Georgia, Chechnya, Syria, how we did in Crimea in 2014." I think Putin looked at this and said, "This is going to be easy. This is fruit for the taking." And he decided to go for it.
SIERRA: It does sound like it should have been on our radar a little bit then if all of this was sort of you know in the works in his brain, or you just think that like it was just too far fetched for us to imagine it?
HAASS: It's a really good question. When you think about intelligence, the business of intelligence, I don't mean human intelligence, but intelligence in governments, so much of it is influenced by mindset and by assumptions. I mean, one of the more infamous moments is obviously the weapons of mass destruction fiasco, when they run up to the Iraq War. I always get a lot of controversy whenever I talk about it, but I was in the government then and people legitimately thought that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. I thought that even though I was still opposed to the war, but I thought that. But if you think something, it's the old expression, if you got a hammer, everything looks like a nail. Or if you're a doctor and you're looking for this disease, shockingly enough, you tend to highlight and emphasize those symptoms that correspond to the disease and you often tend to dismiss or give less weight to symptoms that are not consistent with a certain diagnosis. So I think a lot of us just weren't thinking that Putin would ever do anything so blatant or brazen. In that sense, it's very much like Saddam in the summer of 1990. I remember then every Arab government saying, "Oh, don't overreact you Americans. This is just theater. This is just diplomacy. He's bluffing, he's pressuring Kuwait. He's never going to invade." He invaded. And I think right now, a lot of people just thought that Putin was doing kind of a modern version of gunboat diplomacy, was trying to intimidate, was trying to muscle. Maybe he would do a little bit in the east, but almost all the experts dismissed or at least discounted what has now become reality. Again, assumptions are powerful things. When the Bush administration in 2003, went into Iraq, the whole idea that they were going to be met with children throwing candy instead they were met with children throwing Molotov cocktails. I think Mr. Putin had a little bit of that now. There was a sense that our fraternal brothers in Ukraine were going to welcome us. Well, guess what? They're trying to kill Russian soldiers. So assumptions are powerful and often distorting or dangerous things. And one of the best things I actually think, whether governments need to do, and governments do it by what's called red teaming, they literally have people who look at a problem and tackle every assumption. It's a good thing though, for people to do in your own life when you think about a situation to say, "Well, what if this were wrong? What if this really important assumption turned out to be wrong? How would that affect everything that flows from it?" How might I need to change what I am prepared to do and so forth. And that's the lesson I take from this, is that mindset and assumptions can really be dangerous because they can bias you or worse yet, blind you.
SIERRA: I've heard some bad things about assuming, so that kind of keeps in the same vein.
HAASS: We're not going to go there.
SIERRA: So, this is Russia after all and sort of going back to questions that I think a lot of people are throwing out there. Is this the beginning of World War III?
HAASS: Well, the Biden administration doesn't want it to be. I mean, nobody wants it to be, let me put it that way. Because we avoided a world war during the cold war and certain rules were, or unwritten rules were understood about avoiding direct conflict, that we could back proxies and allies, but not come into direct conflict and nuclear weapons were there above providing a kind of blanket over the whole thing. And when Khrushchev, Nikita Khrushchev the Soviet leader backed down in 1962, at the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis, in some ways that really reinforced that bias against the use of nuclear weapons, because any victory would be pyrrhic. Somebody once said the living would envy the dead. But there were unwritten rules about avoiding conflict directly, because that could always escalate. Things could get out of hand. And the Biden administration essentially took that possibility off the table by saying, "We are not going to directly intervene in Ukraine." And instead, basically developed what you might call an indirect strategy that they would arm Ukraine in many ways, they would introduce economic sanctions against Russia and then take other steps, reinforce NATO, send extra troops to NATO, send oil and gas to Europe so it'd be less dependent upon Russia. But the whole idea was to, and this early on was to increase the deterrence, to basically shape Mr. Putin's calculations. So Mr. Putin would see all these steps or see all these potential steps like sanctions and say, "Okay, we're not going to go into Ukraine because we don't want to trigger all these consequences for ourselves." So that was the Biden approach. But again, the reason to take U.S. forces off the table directly in Ukraine, Ukraine is not a NATO member. United States does not have that kind of a commitment to Ukraine. And the concern was that if we were to do it, it could lead as you put it to World War III. And also the European countries were not supportive of it. They too, as NATO countries did not want things to go down that path. So what flowed from it was what you might call an indirect strategy, which was among other things the most important element of which is to bolster the ability of Ukraine to resist Russian invasion. And if Russian invasion, as it now has, has happened all the same, and even if Russian invasion succeeds, and Russia takes quote unquote control of the country and occupies it, that Ukraine then has the ability to mount an extremely expensive resistance. And that's sometimes called the porcupine option or the Afghan option, which is what among others, the Soviets experienced in Afghanistan and indeed led or helped lead to the end of the Soviet Union.
SIERRA: So, I mean, you mentioned, you know nukes, and I think that's another question sort of floating out there, is that something we should be worried about? Is there a chance we can, if this escalates that we could get nuked?
HAASS: We didn't think so. And then several days ago, Vladimir Putin put his nuclear weapons on a higher state of alert. Now again, why he did that, we don't know. It might have simply been a way of intimidating. It might have been his way of saying don't you cross certain lines, about helping Ukraine. That there's nothing I wouldn't do. What I found frightening about it and worrisome about it is not that he's going to use nuclear weapons. I don't think he will, but he could. What Mr. Putin has done over the last two decades is systematically remove the checks and balances within the Russian government. The word I tend to use is deinstitutionalize. And what he has done is so weakened the bureaucracy, so weakened any sense of collective leadership that he's put into his own hands, enormous power. This was his war. This was not Russia's war. This was Putin's war of choice. He didn't have to go in. He certainly didn't have to go in when he did. He certainly doesn't have to be following up the way he is. But he enjoys a degree of discretion that is truly frightening, because has one of the world's, in many ways the world's biggest nuclear arsenal. So when he played that card or waved that card, didn't play that card, but waved it, I found it alarming. Again, not that I think he's going to use it, but it was a real signal of how free he is if not to do that, to for example, pursue a scorched earth policy in Ukraine with all sorts of conventional weapons of mass destruction. To attack much of the world using cyber. To maybe widen the war against NATO. To use chemical munitions. That it's not clear to me who or what inside Russia says, "Vladimir, you can't do that. That's a step too far." And that's at the moment, I don't see that institution or set of individuals there. I hope that it merges. And indeed that might be-
SIERRA: Me too. That sounds real scary.
HAASS: ... Well, it should. And again, if you ask me, are nuclear weapons likely to be used? No. I think the odds are extraordinarily small. I can't dismiss them.
SIERRA: Right. And there's one person making that decision.
HAASS: ... That's what worries me is the concentration of authority in one set of hands. And it suggests to me that even if he doesn't go there, he could go to a lot of other horrible places and dangerous places and destructive places. And by the way, guess what? He's already doing that. He's doing it with this siege of Ukraine cities, and he's doing it with increasingly indiscriminate use of extraordinarily violent munitions against civilian targets. These are terror weapons. It's one thing to use precision guided weapons against a military target. That's what modern war allows you to do. It's not pretty, but it's what modern war... What Vladimir Putin is doing is purposely trying to terrorize a civilian population to essentially psychologically defeat it. He's having trouble defeating it militarily. What he wants to do is defeat it psychological and politically.
SIERRA: So it sounds like one guy decided to go to war and one guy now has control over all of the next steps, and no one to stop him, within Russia.
HAASS: Well, so the question is how could this end in a way, other than the way we don't want it to end. We don't want Mr. Putin to succeed. We don't want him to crush this democracy, this sovereign country called Ukraine. We don't want to see tens or hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians die. How else could it end? So two optimistic scenarios. One would be that Mr. Putin, for whatever reason, decides that the costs outweigh the benefits. The risks are too great. And he decides to pursue a diplomatic option. Talks started the other day, made no progress, but that's a possibility. I think it's at the moment, the longest of long shots. Negotiations only succeed when the protagonists are willing and able to make peace. Mr. Putin is able, I see zero will. Now, that would have to change. How could it change? Increasing costs on the battlefield, or and that gets me to the other approach, something happens back home, that this combination of sanctions, maybe the fear of war crimes, some of the people around him, a really restive population that can't afford to buy anything because the ruble is so weak and they have to import a lot of their goods. ATMs run out of money. They look at their future and go, "Oh my God, we're going to be pariahs for the rest of my life. And I'm only 20 years old. I don't want this to be my life." That suddenly there is an enormous amount of popular frustration. And at some point, whether it gets to the point where the police lose control, either because the numbers get so great, or the police lose the will to mow people down. The other historical analogy that comes to me here is 78, 79, in Iran. Revolutions against systems, against powerful for leaders work when there's massive public push and the security forces, essentially, aren't prepared any longer to kill their own people in order to defend this regime. That's why the Shah became history and was overthrown just over 40 years ago. We're not at that point. Could we get to that point? Yes. The other thing I guess we could get is where part of this inner circle around Putin, people sitting at the end of that 40 foot table-
SIERRA: That large table.
HAASS: ... some of them may decide he's out of control. And that he might actually use nuclear weapons and the United States or someone else might do things against Russia that will set this country back decades. That what Putin's going to do will so discredit all of us, the system will come down. And one has to hope. One has to hope the people with a degree of proximity and access to Vladimir Putin are beginning to think this way. One has to hope they're beginning to talk amongst themselves. It's risky. Always risky. You're going to be found out. But one hopes in this combination, again, of Ukrainian resistance, our ability to retaliate against certain types of Russian escalation, even if we're not going to join the battle in Ukraine, the economic sanctions, the threat of war crimes, popular dissatisfaction. One has to hope that this builds some real pressure on the home front that either Mr. Putin reconsiders or people essentially move against Putin. And we're not there yet, but I'm hoping we get there.
SIERRA: I have two questions from that. So one is where do the people stand at this point? Is there a lot of opposition to what's going on-
HAASS: In Russia?
SIERRA: ... In Russia? And two is, tell me more about sanctions, because I think a lot of people are talking about them and we kind of don't know, you know, do they work?
HAASS: Right. It's hard to get really detailed data in the midst of a war, but yes, there's clearly protests within Russia. Social media has not been totally shut down, as say it, often is in China. I can't go sit here and tell you with confidence that it represents this percent of the Russian people. I don't think Mr. Putin's done a terribly effective job of selling the necessity of this war. I don't know how people will react to images of Russian soldiers coming back as casualties or dead. What we're already, actually beginning to note, Russians are clearly unhappy with the economic consequences. Thousands, I believe have been arrested. Stunningly courageous, by the way, for these people to stand up. There really is civil society in Russia, which is really admirable. But whether it will ever get to the point of being a critical mass, I don't know. But that's still early days. But that's where we are in Russia. Indeed, it's hard not to be struck by the courage and bravery, both of the society in Ukraine and elements of the society in Russia. Really, really impressive. And then you asked me another question. Oh, sanctions.
HAASS: It's always hard to answer the question, do sanctions work? So much depends upon how ambitious you define the word work. If you're asking me, is there a lot about the history of sanctions? And by the way, there's a lot of history of sanctions, because they're used almost all the time. They tend to be the popular tool between doing nothing and doing everything. So people like it. It's option three. It's what's behind curtain three. Very rarely do sanctions accomplish big things. Certainly not in a limited amount of time. The most successful case of sanctions ever is South Africa. Took a long time and then it only worked because you had large constituencies within South Africa, particularly the business community and a majority of the population that wanted them to work. I'm not sure any of that applies here. Sanctions, what they can do is be extraordinarily punitive. They can exact a toll. And that's what we're seeing in Russia. These sanctions are unprecedented. The degree of a multilateral buy-in we've gotten from Europe, from the European Union, from governments that historically have been reluctant, the Swiss government, German government, and others. It's quite remarkable this degree of solidarity. And again, Putin underestimated the breadth and depth of the sanctions that were going to hit them. These sanctions against the central bank, against the oligarchs. Now again, it's not going to be enough though, I believe directly. It won't be enough directly to get Putin to stop. The more interesting question of sanctions is whether they create fissures or pressures within Russian society. Putin's probably the richest man in the world. He's insulated from sanctions. The question is whether he is insulated sufficiently from the results of sanctions on other people and their discontent as a result. And that's where time becomes a factor. How quickly do sanctions kick in? Not as quickly in some cases as one would want.
SIERRA: But it sounds like it's pretty immediate.
HAASS: Well, some things are. Stock exchange gets closed regularly now. The Ruble has had dramatic fall. There'll be shortage of commodities and so forth. Now we haven't extended sanctions to the energy sector in Russia, because we're worried about the fallout there. To me though, the shorter timeline is what happens on the ground in Ukraine. To me, the greater need is for more arms, particularly relevant arms; anti-tank weapons, anti-aircraft systems to get into Ukraine's hands quickly. We're talking hours and days. We're not talking about hours and days with sanctions. Sanctions tend to play out over a longer time or horizon. What's critical is what happens literally in the next week, on the ground in Ukraine.
SIERRA: Right, okay. Interesting. I feel like I've got my head around sanctions now, which is probably a good thing to do. I think also something that people are talking about and you know sanctions are part of that conversation, is what about troops? I know you mentioned there's a pretty specific reason why we're not sending in troops, but is that on the table at all? Will it be?
HAASS: President Biden took it off the table very early on. I can't tell you why. My own sense of it, my own reading of it is that he didn't think the American people would be behind it. What you're seeing is a real allergy to foreign military interventions in this country. And also there wasn't European support for it, to turning it into a NATO war. And also because out of concern that it would very quickly potentially become an east-west, or what used to call an east-west conflict, U.S.-Russian conflict. And it would've gone against the behavior during the Cold War that kept the cold war cold. We avoided direct confrontations. So he opted for what I would call an indirect strategy. The principal military element, was to provide arms and some intelligence to Ukraine and thought that could sufficiently raise the cost of either invasion or more likely an occupation, was hoping that would deter Russia. Clearly it didn't work. Now he's on plan B, which is to provide enough arms to raise the costs of the invasion and occupation to a level that the Russians don't want to pay, in lives. It's clearly slowing them down. The first couple of days of the war did not go well for Mr. Putin. And the fact that the Russians are escalating with these terrible conventional mass casualty munitions and by introducing far more troops tells you that, that essentially what Mr Putin is doing is doubling down. And what we need to do, I would argue, is double down in response and get as many of the relevant weapons as quickly as we can into Ukraine's hands. You see these massive convos forming, and yes, you can shoot some of them with anti-tank weapons. There's things you can use, artillery or what have you against trucks. It would be good if you had some aircraft that could fly to take out some of these convoys. But that's where we are.
SIERRA: So shifting a little to look domestically, we do see some Americans and even some American politicians supporting Putin. So do you think that our political polarization sort of hurts our ability to act in situations like these?
HAASS: Again, we're into the land of assessment here. My own sense is it contributed to Mr. Putin's confidence. That the United States would be too divided to mount a-
SIERRA: All that disarray.
HAASS: ... an effective response. And he had gotten used to, in particular, working with president Trump and people around him who had a, let's just call it what it is, a pro-Russian view of the world. Some of these people said the real enemy isn't Russia, the real enemy is China. So my own sense is he thought we would be too divided to mount an effective political response, which is a prerequisite for the rest of our response, from military, from sending arms, to sanctions, what have you, and he was wrong. That what we see is most Americans are rallying around this president, who by the way is not a popular president. The most recent polls still show Mr. Biden, what, south of 40%?
SIERRA: Yeah. Yeah.
HAASS: In favorable ratings, going into the state of the union. But most people seem supportive. This is pretty black or white. This is pretty democracy versus evil. So much of life is the fifth 51/49 kind of decision. This is not at the 51/49 yard lines. This is, we got end zones. This is pretty clear cut. What you're seeing is a good number of Republicans coming around to supporting the administration. They're not taking the political step of criticizing Donald Trump. For a lot of them that would be a bridge too far. But they're clearly distancing themselves from a Trump-like policy, which has been an enabling of Russia and sympathetic to Russia for the past, what, five years. So some Republicans can't bring themselves to support a democratic president even when he is right. And I'll be honest, I've worked for three Republican presidents, one democratic president. I think the Biden administration has handled this well for the most part. I think they do deserve support, do deserve praise. For some Republicans that's a bridge too far, but some Republicans are. I think actually are supporting them. I actually think there is a degree of bipartisanship that has-
SIERRA: Come around.
HAASS: ... come around here. So there's still a recognizable Republican party somewhere there. A bit in camouflage, a bit buried. But it may be down, but it's not out. And you listen to somebody like Mitt Romney and it's there in full force and Mitt Romney's the guy who years ago said, "Russia is the biggest threat." And looks rather, shall we say vindicated? On the democratic side, there's a lot more support, not complete, but the bulk of the democratic party in a surprising amount of the, particularly the Washington or institutional Republican party on this issue seems to be supporting our policy if not supporting President Biden per se. If not opposing former President Trump, per se.
SIERRA: You know you mentioned a couple of times people coming together, do you think that this war could change anything about how the world works? Or do you think we're just going to go back to business as usual?
HAASS: I think there's a couple of silver linings already. One is the reemergence of Europe. Both the European Union, as well as the transatlantic relationship in NATO, plus this new German government. What's happened in recent days and weeks, if we'd had this conversation a month ago, I would've said, "That'd be great, but ain't going to happen." So remarkable turnaround, in a stunningly small amount of time. Europe has really stepped up. The fact that this new German government is talking about spending 2% or more of its GDP on defense, we couldn't get them to do that for decades. There's a real recognition I think that Mr. Putin represents something very different and very dangerous. And that this Putin is perhaps different than the Putin we thought we knew. I think economic sanctions have been shown to be more potentially effective than people thought. And I'm hoping that influences Chinese behavior on something like Taiwan. That the Chinese will say to themselves, "Wow. Look at the price that the Russians have to pay. Look how difficult it is for them." By the way, the Americans aren't intervening in Ukraine. Well, the Americans may well, I believe, would intervene in a Taiwan contingency. So I think for China, this has to get them to think more than twice about any dreams they may have had of invading Taiwan.
HAASS: I don't know, in our country. I'm hopeful that this will do something to revive both bipartisanship a bit, but also a sense of the importance of democracy and freedom and values. That what we are seeing is there's still evil in the world. And that countries that believe in democracy and freedom have to stand up and work together. And what I'm also hoping is it discredits people in this country who have cozied up to Russia, as well as in places like Europe who have cozied up to Russia, the far right in France. That it discredits them. And I'm hoping that one of the unanticipated positive consequences of Mr. Putin, this is a great irony here, here's this guy who did all this to, in social media and elsewhere, to undermine American democracy. He may have actually revived it a little bit. He may have actually reminded us about why democracy matters and why we need to work together sometimes. And that would be the-
SIERRA : And that it's not assumed.
HAASS: Don't assume anything. That is the lesson of the last few years, whether you're talking about foreign policy or domestic policy or American democracy or anything else. Don't assume anything.
SIERRA: Anything. Well then with all of this, why does this matter?
HAASS: I think it's the most important question. That we have to see the connections between what is going on here. And this is to me, the basic lesson of history. Everything we do as a society, as an economy, as individuals, depends upon there being order in the world. Think about how our lives were disrupted by a virus. Think about how our lives were disrupted by a handful of terrorists on 9/11. Obviously, for our parents or grandparents generations about how our lives were disrupted by World War II. Order out there is something that we take for granted at our peril, because everything we are as a society, as families, as businesses, as economies, depends on our ability to go to work safely, go to school safely and so forth. And the most basic feature of that order in the world is the idea that countries, governments, which have the most capability in their hands, don't invade other countries. That they respect borders. And the last time this was ignored wholesale was World War II. It gets ignored every now and then since then, but never wholesale. This is the most basic tenant, principle, norm, this thread of the fabric, of order in the world. And if Mr. Putin is allowed to get away with what he's doing, why does anyone think, one, that he will stop there? In my experience, people on a roll rarely stop. It's kind of Newton's Law, objects in motion remain in motion. And then secondly, why do we think others wouldn't follow suit? Why do we think others wouldn't take notes? Interestingly enough, when we in 1990, stood up to Saddam Hussein in Operation Desert Storm, that was the logic. What was different then, it was at the dawn of the post Cold War era. The wall had just come down a year before, the Berlin wall. And President Bush, the father essentially said, How we react to this, what we do and don't do will, will shape the character of the next era of history." And we thought that if Saddam got away with it, not only would Saddam come to dominate the Middle East and its energy and all that, but we said others would take notes and there would be other Saddams out there. They would calculate they could get away with it in every part of the world. That's where we are now. It's not just what Vladimir Putin would do if he gets on a roll, what he might do about NATO and other countries in Europe. But second of all, if we did nothing, what might China then do about a Taiwan. Or what an Iran might do or North Korea. And countries that have been dependent on us, who look to us for help would say, "Wow, we can't depend on these guys. They did nothing. So either we're going to have to sell out, defer to our powerful neighbor and kind of let them run our lives, which is what Russia wanted with Ukraine. Or we're going to have to say, get nuclear weapons of our own." Think about that, if suddenly we have a world where everybody decides they need to scramble to get their own nuclear weapons and what happens the first time there's a crisis. So that more than anything else is why this matters. I know words like world order sound terribly wonky-
SIERRA: Yeah. And I was going to say also a little abstract to give to just someone when they're like, "Well, why does this hit me at home?" Like you mentioned 9/11 and COVID, those things directly affected people right here. Whereas you're saying, "Oh, people will take notes, the world order, there's all this." I think that's a little more... It's just not as direct for people.
HAASS: When I say take notes, take notes is not all they're going to do. They're then going to take those notes and they're going to invade neighbors. They're going to develop nuclear weapons. They're going to stamp out democracy and freedom. And why do we think we would be immune potentially from the consequences of their actions or aggression? One of the lessons in this world, this show is about, why does it matter, well, the basic lesson of living in an interconnected world is that almost everything matters. There ain't no there versus here. They are interwoven. And we're naive if we think that awful stuff can happen and then it gets compartmentalized.
HAASS: It'll spread. So there's that. We also care about things like freedom and human life.
SIERRA: Of course.
HAASS: Foreign policy isn't just cold blooded, realpolitik. It isn't just about quote unquote “order.” It's also about human lives. It's about freedom, and it's about democracy and values. And we don't want to see good people left in the lurch. One way or another we have to help them. In this case indirectly, by giving them economic and military help and diplomatic help and everything else. In some cases we might want to help them directly. And that's a tactical decision we have to make. But we believe in things that are bigger than ourselves. This was a country founded on an idea. That's the whole concept that's at the core of American nationhood. We believe in ideas. We believe in values. And so I believe American foreign policy has to worry about things like order because that will affect us. That's real stuff. That will affect our interests, our security, our prosperity, all that matters. That's real stuff. But also foreign policy should be about it more than that. We are against genocides, even if we're not dying in the genocide. Why? Because we believe genocide is wrong. We believe in human rights, even if it's not Americans whose human rights will be affected for the better, because we believe in those things. So foreign policy's always got to be a matter of interest, but also values. And I would argue it gets in trouble when it's one or the other. It can't just be a crusade on behalf of values, but it just can't be cold blooded, narrow interest. It's got to have a balance of the two. So that's why this matters.
SIERRA: Well, I think this was extremely helpful for me and I'm sure it will be for a lot of other people. So thank you for joining us. Hopefully next time maybe we could talk about something really happy, versus always seeing you under these circumstances.
HAASS: I hope it's about golf.
SIERRA: One can dream. Hope.
HAASS: ... One can dream.
SIERRA: Thank you.
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Why It Matters is a production of the Council on Foreign Relations. The show is created and produced by Asher Ross, Jeremy Sherlick, and me, Gabrielle Sierra. Our sound designer is Markus Zakaria. Rafaela Siewert is our associate podcast producer. Our intern is Roshni Rangwani.
Robert McMahon is our Managing Editor, and Doug Halsey is our Chief Digital Officer. Extra help for this episode was provided by Kali Robinson.
Original music is composed by Ceiri Torjussen. Special thanks go to Richard Haass and Jeff Reinke.
For Why It Matters, this is Gabrielle Sierra signing off. See you soon!
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