Preventing a Wider European War, With Thomas Graham

Thomas Graham, distinguished fellow at CFR, sits down with James M. Lindsay to discuss why Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered the invasion of Ukraine and whether the fighting might spread beyond its borders.

March 8, 2022 — 32:04 min
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James M. Lindsay

Senior Vice President, Director of Studies, and Maurice R. Greenberg Chair Full Bio

Episode Guests

Thomas Graham

Distinguished Fellow

Show Notes

Thomas Graham, distinguished fellow at CFR, sits down with James M. Lindsay to discuss why Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered the invasion of Ukraine and whether the fighting might spread beyond its borders.

 

Reports Mentioned on the Podcast

 

Thomas Graham, “Preventing a Wider European Conflict,” Council on Foreign Relations, March 8, 2022

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Transcript

Jim Lindsay:

Welcome to The President's Inbox, a CFR podcast about the foreign policy challenges facing the United States. I'm Jim Lindsay, Director of Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. This week's topic is preventing a wider European war.

Jim Lindsay:

With me to discuss why Vladimir Putin ordered the invasion of Ukraine, and whether the fighting might spread beyond its borders, is Thomas Graham. Tom is a distinguished fellow at the Council. From 2004 to 2007, he served as Special Assistant to the President, and Senior Director for Russia on the staff of the National Security Council, during which he managed a White House-Kremlin strategic dialogue. His 14 years as a foreign service officer included two tours of duty at the US embassy in Moscow.

Jim Lindsay:

He is the author of the CFR report, Preventing a Wider European Conflict, which was just released today. You can find it on cfr.org. Tom, thanks for joining me.

Thomas Graham:

Glad to be here with you, Jim.

Jim Lindsay:

Tom, I want to begin with all the standard caveats, that this is a fluid situation, events could change before this podcast gets posted. With that warning out of the way, let me begin with the big question. Why, in your judgment, did Vladimir Putin order the Russian army to invade Ukraine?

Thomas Graham:

Well, you know it's a big question, Jim, and there are a lot of different ways of approaching this. You can sort of take the broad historical view. What you see is a desire to revise the post Cold War settlement that the Russians believe was imposed on them at the time of great strategic weakness in Russia. And they've been concerned about the movement of Euro-Atlantic institutions eastward over the past 30 years, a movement that has, in a sense, Russia out of Europe. And the Russians think of themselves, first and foremost, as a European great power, a country that has played a large role in the great battles and the great diplomatic conferences of Europe over the past several years. And they want to be back in Europe in some way. So that's the broad historical view.

Thomas Graham:

Then there are a number of things that I think that have happened over the past year, year and a half, that have been a concern, primary to Putin, but others as well. President Zelensky in Ukraine has moved against pro-Russian supporters in Ukraine, gone after some of Putin's personal friends in that attack. He's pushed for NATO expansion into Ukraine. He has raised the international level of or international awareness of Crimea in a way that the Russians find unhelpful.

Thomas Graham:

I think you can have, in addition, some things that have happened between NATO and Ukraine, the United States and Ukraine, and that is a greater cooperation in the military and security fields. More ambitious operations with Ukrainians in the Black Sea region and Ukraine itself. And obviously the support, training, weapons that have gone into Ukraine.

Thomas Graham:

And then finally, I think for Putin, it is not a matter of the challenges that he might see, but of the opportunity he sees in the state of the western world. Disarray, obviously. But beyond that, you have a new president in the United States that Putin believes is pragmatic, and wants to find a stable and predictable relationship with Russia that gives him some leverage. He knows that Merkel is leaving, and you've got a new untested German coalition that is coming in power. He knows that French president Emmanuel Macron is facing an election in April of this year.

Thomas Graham:

And then he also knows that Europe is heavily dependent on Russian gas, and that it has been a very difficult winter so far. So all these things, I think, led Putin to believe that a opportunity to revise this post Cold War settlement, to recreate the sphere of influence that Russia believes is critical to its own security over the long run.

Thomas Graham:

And then also, he believed he had a chance to operate on Ukraine itself. And Ukraine, as we know, occupies a very special place in Putin's imagination. It's a part of Russia, one that has been taken away from Russia over time by the Bolsheviks, by the Communists, for example. So you have both Russian national interests that are engaged here, views about security requirements for Russia, and a very personal element with Putin and his relationship with the Ukraine. And all this comes together in the operation that we're seeing unfold in Ukraine today.

Jim Lindsay:

Tom, what do you make of the argument that the concern Vladimir Putin had was less the military threat posed by the West and by NATO, than by the political threat that the color revolutions potentially offer an alternative model to the Russian people. Ukraine was moving out of the Russian orbit because it wants to become part of the European Union. That at the end of the day, this is what's been alarming Putin. And I've often heard talk that he has watched, apparently obsessively, video of the killing of Muammar Qaddafi in Libya. And that's what's really driving this. How do you assess that line of argument?

Thomas Graham:

Well, I think that's an important element of it, and it's certainly for Putin personally. He has been concerned about color revolutions, particularly in the former Soviet space. Color revolutions have also led to governments that have largely been anti-Russian in their orientation, you know particularly in Georgia, certainly in Ukraine. You know color revolutions have resulted in leaderships that wanted to move those countries westward, out of the Russian orbit.

Thomas Graham:

You know he also has a regime in Russia itself that is clearly authoritarian, and that is threatened by these examples of former Soviet peoples being able to move in a Western direction, to build more open democratic societies. You know that said, you know this is wedded with what are real national security concerns that are shared by a broad segment of the Russian political leads, who don't see the democratization of Russia, the democratization of Ukraine, or modernization of Ukraine as direct threats to Russia. And so his support, I think, comes largely from those who focus on the security aspects of this, and less so on those who focus on the complications of a democratic Ukraine for Russia itself. Many of those people who oppose Ukraine moving westward, themselves would like to see a much more open and democratic Russia.

Jim Lindsay:

What do you make of the arguments, Tom, that Putin's own mental health has been deteriorating? There have been descriptions of him as being more short tempered, as distancing himself from his advisors, being more inclined to give long harangues to other heads of state.

Thomas Graham:

Jim, you know this is a very difficult issue to answer, because you're trying to get into the psychology of an individual leader. I haven't had any personal contact with Putin, in any real sense, for many, many years. I did see him on stage in Sochi about three or four months ago, but he was 50 feet on away from me at that time, the way he stays 50 feet away from everyone else. So, it was very difficult to judge his mental state.

Thomas Graham:

But let me say this, you know we've known for a long time that Putin was becoming increasingly isolated. His circle of advisors narrowed over time. It's narrowed to those people we call power ministries, the people who head the military and the special services inside Russia, who have a peculiar view of the outside world that probably aligns quite closely with Putin, since he himself is a child of those institutions.

Thomas Graham:

But we add to that the really radical isolation that has come with the pandemic. Putin has been in a cocoon for the past two years. Very difficult to get to see him. You know even his own ministers, who want to have a face-to-face meeting with him, have to quarantine for 14 days.

Jim Lindsay:

14 days?

Thomas Graham:

14 days before they can have these meetings. And if that's impossible for either political reasons, or other reasons, you see what we've seen over the past several days. A meeting with French president Macron where they're separated by 20 feet.

Jim Lindsay:

That was a big table.

Thomas Graham:

I've been at that table. But usually you sit you know across from each other on the narrow side of the table, not at the opposite ends of this big oval table. If you looked at the meeting he had with his security council at the beginning of this operation, he's on a podium all by himself. All the other members are arrayed probably 40 to 50 feet away from him. About as far away they could be from Putin and still be in the same room. And my favorite picture was one from, again, last week if I remember correctly, when he was talking to his military officials and then his economic officials. And he's in a typical Russian office where there's a desk, and then a table extending out for it where the various officials would sit in a conversation with Putin. Well, Putin's sitting at the head of the table, and the ministers are huddled together at the farthest end of the table. Again, far away from Putin as they could be, and still be in the same room.

Thomas Graham:

Now, I would suggest that's not the normal behavior of an individual who's simply worried about COVID. And so, there's something else at play, but we don't know what is at play. And I think that's what is problematic for western leaders. But for the President of the United States as you try to figure out how do we operate at this point to get the type of result we want out of the Russians? How do we change their conduct? And how do we avoid a provocation that leads to an action by Putin that's way beyond what we had anticipated, but makes the crisis even worse than the one that we're facing right now?

Jim Lindsay:

Well, let me ask you about that. Do you think Putin can still achieve the objectives that drove him to choose war?

Thomas Graham:

The short answer is, no. What Putin said at the beginning of this operation is that he had two objectives. He wanted to demilitarize Ukraine, and he wanted to deNazify Ukraine. The last meant basically he wanted to change the government. And he wanted to do both those things without occupying the country.

Thomas Graham:

Now, the Russians probably can do a significant amount of damage to degrade the Ukrainian military. They certainly have begun to do that already. They have the fire power to continue to do that. But deNazifying the country, putting in another regime in place of the Zelensky government at this point, and expect that government to have any authority beyond the confines of its office, I think, is impossible without a broader occupation of Ukraine. But then the question is, do you have the wherewithal to occupy Ukraine, right? This is a big country.

Jim Lindsay:

Size of Texas.

Thomas Graham:

It's the size of Texas. A population of 40 million. It's going to resist. We've already seen an extraordinary amount of resistance, and there's no reason to believe that is going to die down as this operation progresses. And particularly as it progresses into territory that, historically, has been much more hostile to Russia than the regions that are in battle, or in play, at this point.

Thomas Graham:

You know just by way of comparison, you know the Russians, or the Soviets, in the 1980s sent a contingent of over a 100,000 troops into Afghanistan. They had the support of an Afghan army that numbered 50 to 55,000 troops, in a country that is slightly larger than Ukraine, with a population of 12 million people. And they couldn't pacify that country against a very tough Afghan resistance. Now, people will say, "Well, there are mountains, and that's very advantageous territory for insurgents." But it also turns out that cities are actually very good grounds for insurgents as well. And Ukraine has a lot of cities, and it has cities with residents that are prepared to resist.

Thomas Graham:

So I don't see how he can occupy Ukraine. And that means I don't see how he can meet his goals. And so the question that we have to ask is what is he really aiming for at this point? Will he accept something less than what he had hoped to achieve at the beginning? And what might that be? And whether that would be acceptable to the Ukrainians? Or acceptable to Ukrainian's allies and partners in the west, including the United States?

Jim Lindsay:

Okay. All good questions. So, what I'm going to do is ask you to answer them. Let's start with the first one, and that is, do you think that Vladimir Putin can live with an outcome that falls far short of what he was hoping to accomplish when he ordered the invasion?

Thomas Graham:

The good answer to that is always, it depends. Right?

Jim Lindsay:

Okay.

Thomas Graham:

But, no. Seriously. It depends on how the operation goes.

Jim Lindsay:

Well, it hasn't seemed to have gone well so far. And maybe that's an inappropriate characterization, but that seems to be the conventional wisdom so far.

Thomas Graham:

It certainly hasn't gone as well as they had anticipated at the beginning. You know the way Putin and others were talking before they launched this operation, is that they would be in Kyiv in three to four days. They clearly haven't achieved that goal. They would drive out the Nazi government, and be greeted as liberators by the Ukrainian people. Certainly that has been falsified in the past couple of weeks.

Thomas Graham:

But what we haven't seen yet are the casualty figures, and that I think begins to change Putin's calculation. The sanctions are one thing, and they are doing damage to the Russian economy, but what's really going to change the mood of the Russian people are casualties. And if a lot of young boys come back dead, that is going to be a significant challenge for Putin. You know the Russians, when they engaged in an operation in Eastern Ukraine in 2014, 2015, hid those casualties from the Russian public. You're not going to be able to hide those casualties now, in part because of social media. And no matter how stiff the censorship is in Russia, word will get around, and that will create pressure for Putin to change course.

Thomas Graham:

And so, at that point he will have to back down. He will find someone to blame for the failure. Defense Minister Shoigu stands out. The Chairman of the general staff. Those people, presumably, assured him that this was going to be a cake walk in Ukraine. They will find other things to do for the rest of their lives. I am quite certain of that.

Thomas Graham:

But the question is what would he have to have to save face at this point? And I think that's a very difficult question for us to answer. Certainly, the mood in the west, in Ukraine, in the United States, is not to give him anything at this point. And so, the tough question for us is, are we prepared to negotiate an end of this conflict, because it will reduce the human casualties, because it will leave more of Ukraine intact, because it will create the conditions under which Ukraine can rebuild and perhaps thrive in the future. And what would those look like?

Thomas Graham:

And, you know I think, what Putin would accept now as something of an off-ramp, something that he'd present as a victory, is some statement by the Ukrainian government that they are not going to join NATO for, name your period into the future. It's got to be more than a year. It's got to be more than two years. But depending on the level of stress under which Putin might find himself, five to 10 years might work, maybe a little bit longer.

Jim Lindsay:

I want to come back to this so we can put a pin on it. Before we do that, I want to ask you one more question about Putin's approach. I have often seen Putin described as somebody who believes in doubling down. That he is prepared to escalate before he deescalates, or escalate in order to get the other side to blink, so it will deescalate. How do you think that might play out in the current context, Tom?

Thomas Graham:

Well, we're going to see that in the next several weeks, I would imagine. The initial operation didn't go as anticipated. So, what are the Russians going to do? They regroup, and now they're going to begin assault on these urban centers. So, we're seeing attacks against civilian structures. There is a threat that they will devastate some of these cities, the way they devastated Aleppo in Syria, or Grozny in Chechnya, you know several years ago. That, in a sense, is doubling down on this.

Thomas Graham:

You know will they step up cyber attacks? Not only against Ukraine, but given the severity of the sanctions, are they planning cyber attacks against Europe? Against the United States? That might be more devastating than the ones we've seen over the past several years.

Thomas Graham:

We know that they can attack critical infrastructure in the United States. How much damage they can do is not known to many of us on the outside. I think people in the government would have a better idea. What we do know is over the past several years, we have not done nearly enough to protect what is a highly wired society in our country from cyber attack by hostile powers. So we could be surprised in the next couple of days. And Putin is certainly prepared to move down that route if in fact he has the capability to do it.

Jim Lindsay:

I would note also that while we talk about the economic measures taken by the west, sanctions or financial sanctions, the severity of them in total suggests what we're really engaged in is economic warfare, which obviously gives President Putin more reasons to want to double down, if that is his inclination. And he doesn't have to fight back on the same terrain. If anything, he will look for alternative or asymmetric ways to put pressure on the west. The piece I mentioned at the top, that you have written for CFR, In Preventing a Wider European Conflict, talks about some other routes he may go. One being to weaponize refugee flows. Another would be to look for flash points in Europe or elsewhere, where he could dial up the heat and put pressure on the west. Walk me through how that might work, Tom.

Thomas Graham:

Okay. Let me first say that Putin has already said that the western sanctions are the equivalent of a declaration of war. So, he's given himself the latitude to move more aggressively. So let's look at the refugee situation, to begin with. We know that this conflict is going to produce a great number of refugees. It's already produced over a million. The US government estimated several weeks back, in an onslaught like this, we could have up to 5 million people. Those have to move across Ukrainian territory into places in Eastern Europe. And you always have to ask the question of what the absorbic capacity is in various countries for this.

Thomas Graham:

You know the Poles have been quite welcoming to Ukrainians. Of course, there's a large Ukrainian diaspora in Poland to begin with, so absorbing a few thousand, or 100,000 more, maybe even a million more, is not going to be a problem. But 5 million is going to be beyond Poland's capacity. If you look at the other countries, Hungary, Slovakia, Romania, Moldova, for example, where you don't have that same sort of historical tie, the same level of Slavic understanding that you might have in the case of Poland and Ukraine. I think that these are going to be... is going to be more problematic, resettling these people in those societies, even if the governments are quite prepared, at least rhetorically, to do that.

Thomas Graham:

And you're doing this on top of what has been a very difficult two years for all these countries. Difficult because of the pandemic. Difficult because of inflation, and so forth. And the Russians, by the way they conduct the military operation, perhaps have the capacity to direct those flows to the areas where either they're going go to most problematic to assimilate. So, that is one way of creating instability in Eastern Europe. And, Putin would hope, raise questions about the wisdom of continuing this very tough stance against Russia at this point.

Jim Lindsay:

So, just to make sure I'm following you correctly. Putin could have an incentive to want to A, maximize the number of refugees leaving whatever territory the Russians end up controlling. But also trying to push them to countries that are at least open, or perhaps have been saturated with refugees, and feel they can't take anymore.

Thomas Graham:

That's right. And you simply close border crossings and direct them elsewhere. You know another aspect of this, that we also have to bear in mind, is that Belarus is part of this conflict as well. And we know that there was a refugee crisis on the Polish Belarusian border last year, on the Lithuanian Belarusian border. And there's no reason why Putin couldn't ask Belarusian president Alexandra Lukashenko to try that tactic again. Push Middle Eastern refugees, now in Belarus, towards the Polish border, towards the Lithuanian border. Again, thus creating a complicating factor for these countries as they try to deal with the Russia challenge emanating from Ukraine.

Jim Lindsay:

Is it too much of a stretch, Tom, to describe Belarus as a wholly owned subsidiary of Russia, at this point?

Thomas Graham:

I don't think so. It clearly is. Lukashenko has no popular legitimacy in Belarus at this point, after the rigged presidential election of a year and a half ago. And he exists pretty much at Putin's pleasure, at this point.

Jim Lindsay:

What about the potential for Putin to stir up trouble in the Balkans, particularly in Bosnia Herzegovina?

Thomas Graham:

Well, you know Russia has been quite active in this region, destabilizing it for the past several years. You might remember that there was a failed coup attempt against Montenegro about six months before it joined NATO. I think that's 2019 if I have the dates right. They have been supporting Serbia in its continuing conflict with Kosovo. And they've also been very close to Milorad Dodic, the Serbian leader in Bosnia, who has been creating problems for Bosnia Herzegovina for the past several years. But he's stepped this up in recent months, demanding greater autonomy, threatening separation at some point. And certainly, if things begin to bog down even more than they have in Ukraine at this point, I can envision a scenario in which the Russians ask these people sort of to step up their demands at this point. Open up, in a sense, a second front that Europe has to worry about. And NATO has to worry about, since other than Bosnia Herzegovina, Serbia, and Kosovo, all the other countries in that region are NATO members right now.

Jim Lindsay:

What about suggestions that Putin may decide to escalate by shooting through the Suwalki Corridor, or gap, and try to create a land bridge from Russia to Kaliningrad, this little enclave, Russian owned, that is on the Baltic Sea?

Thomas Graham:

And that's certainly, I think, a possibility. The Russians have been concerned, since the breakup of the Soviet Union, about how they would get access to Kaliningrad. And they did work out a deal in 2002, 2003, that allows them to cross Lithuanian territory without the normal custom regulations, and so forth. But in a conflict that is widening, opening up that corridor, and in fact occupying it, would be an attractive operation. And that again, has serious consequences for Lithuania, but also for Poland.

Jim Lindsay:

So should NATO, or most important, the United States be moving troops there? Or is that something that would be deemed provocative by the Kremlin, and could end up producing the kind of conflict it was supposed to prevent?

Thomas Graham:

Look, we're already moving troops into that region. In fact, building on troops that we moved into that region after the Russians seized Crimea in 2014. I think one of the things that the administration has done quite well over the past several months, is not only building European unity, but making it very clear that the United States has every intention of honoring its Article 5, guarantee of collective defense with its NATO allies. So, sending further troops into the region at this point, I think, is entirely appropriate. It will send a message to the Russians that we hope they'll heed, but we can't be a guarantee that in fact they will. Because as you said, dire circumstances, Putin will double down and he, at some point, may be prepared to run the risk of attacking a NATO ally. In fact, to see whether Article 5 is really operable or not.

Jim Lindsay:

Well, let's talk about another policy proposal that's getting a lot of discussion in Washington, and in Europe. It's one that has been called for by President Zelensky of Ukraine, and that is for NATO to establish a no-fly zone over Ukraine. The Biden administration has signaled that it has no intention of doing so, but certainly, at least my read of Twitter and national cable television chat, is that that idea is getting a lot more play. Good idea? Bad idea?

Thomas Graham:

I think at this moment, it's a bad idea. We have other ways of helping Ukraine deal with the aerial component of this war. Anti-aircraft weapons. For example, there's some talk now of having Poland provide aircraft to Ukrainians in exchange for more modern aircraft from the United States. There are other types of systems that we can provide the Ukrainians that will give them some capabilities against the Russian air platforms, at this point. And I think we ought to go down that route, at least initially.

Thomas Graham:

A no fly-zone, I think technically, is very complex, very difficult to do. That's one, question about whether we actually have the capability of doing that right now. Second, it does raise the probability of a direct engagement between a NATO aircraft and a Russian aircraft, particularly a US aircraft and a Russian aircraft. Whenever there's a direct confrontation between Russia and the United States, it always carries with it the risk of escalation to the nuclear level. And so we have to be very careful about that.

Thomas Graham:

I would advise caution at this point. We may get there. One of the things that we have to recognize is that if this conflict continues, and the Russians do in fact step up the assault the way many of us anticipate they will, there's going to be growing pressure in the west to do something more, more energetic than we are up to this point. This is the CN factor. These things are visible now. There's been an outpouring of sympathy for the Ukrainians over the past couple of weeks. Imagine how this will rise if the Russians go about beginning to devastate Kyiv for example, a city of 2.8 million people. You know the outcry in the west to do something more than we've done at this point will create, I think, tremendous political pressure.

Thomas Graham:

The second thing to bear in mind is that the President has framed this as a conflict between democracy and autocracy.

Jim Lindsay:

President Biden.

Thomas Graham:

President Biden has framed this as a conflict between democracy and autocracy. That's not a conflict we can afford to lose, and that means that we have to be prepared to escalate at some point.

Jim Lindsay:

Let me go back to your suggestion earlier about trying to find diplomatic off-ramps, or exit ramps, from the current situation. How do you do that in a context in which people's emotions are rising? Anger is rising. As you say, we're seeing video of cities being devastated by artillery, by missiles. That doesn't sound like a situation that is ripe for diplomatic breakthroughs.

Thomas Graham:

And it's not. But we don't know where we're going to be a month from now, two months from now. And one of our primary goals at this point does have to be to end the devastation, to save human lives, to the extent we possibly can. If we can get a ceasefire, or for some reason, Putin decides that he needs a ceasefire, you know that does begin to open up an opportunity for diplomacy. The question we have to ask of ourselves is what is a reasonable diplomatic solution at this point? And it will have to be one...

Thomas Graham:

Again, let me put it this way. The diplomatic solution to this can't be win-win. That's impossible. If it's win-lose for the Russians, that is not going to stop them at this point. So as unsatisfactory as it may be emotionally to a lot of people, what you want is a no lose-no lose situation. That is you have to figure out something that allows Putin to save enough face, that he will actually take the next step beyond a ceasefire, to the withdrawal of Russian troops from Ukraine. And we have to think clearly about what that might be, and what we're prepared to accept at this point.

Thomas Graham:

You know, the way I approach these problems is to try to think longer term about this. You know, we are experiencing a tremendous amount of trouble in this country right now. I don't need to go through the list. I mean, we're all aware of what they are. But that said, the United States has tremendous potential, and much more potential than Russia does at this point. And we need to regain the confidence that we can overcome our internal differences, that we can build a much better future for ourselves. And that means that we can deal with the Russians over time.

Thomas Graham:

So the challenge here is not to find a diplomatic solution that we can declare to be a tremendous victory over Russia. The challenge is to find a diplomatic solution that ends the violence, removes the Russian troops from Ukraine, and provides us the opportunity to begin to rebuild, to work with Ukraine. In a sense to compete with Russia for Ukraine's future in a way that is actually stacked to our advantage. So that we begin to create wins over time and change the ultimate balance over a period of 5, 10, 15, 20 years, in a way that is advantageous to us, advantageous to our European partners, but most importantly, advantageous to Ukraine itself. That's the way I think about it, and therefore I'm prepared to make some trade offs I think that other people would rule out at this point. One that we've already talked about, some form of nonalignment for Ukraine for an extended period.

Jim Lindsay:

But let me ask you about that, Tom, because President Zelensky could have put that offer on the table before Russian troops crossed the border. He pointedly did not. And the Ukrainian constitution contains a provision that has NATO membership as an aspiration, as I understand it. Wouldn't it be very difficult for the Ukrainians at this point to have suffered an invasion, to now all of a sudden agree to what they could have agreed to two weeks ago?

Thomas Graham:

Yes, but warfare also changes people's attitudes as to what is possible, and what is desirable at the moment. You know, what the Russians have prepared, or have demonstrated, is that they're prepared to do a significant amount of damage to Ukraine at this point. And they're prepared to do a lot more. And any president has to calculate the cost of rebuilding Ukraine, even after a successful resistance to the Russians. He has to calculate the potential loss of life. He has to want to save as many Ukrainians as possible. So, the Ukrainians have begun to float the idea of some form of nonalignment, or neutrality, for a certain period. So, I think under the circumstances that the Ukrainians would be prepared to do that.

Thomas Graham:

Again, assuming that they continue to have backing from the United States for the west, that there's going to be sufficient support in rebuilding Ukraine, that we continue to have a certain level of military and security cooperation. Things that give the Ukrainians a sense that they can begin to rebuild their country, begin to develop the internal resources that they need to defend its independence going farther. And if it takes a little bit longer to reach their ultimate goals, that they're prepared to live with that.

Thomas Graham:

You can change the constitution. The constitution itself was only changed within the past three or four years, to insert that clause about NATO membership, EU membership. The original Ukrainian constitution, at the breakup of the Soviet Union, had a clause on nonalignment. So, it's not a break with Ukrainian tradition in any way. And I think is doable under the circumstances.

Jim Lindsay:

Well, there does remain the question whether domestic politics in the United States and other countries would allow that sort of diplomacy, or expose leaders to complaints that they were being weak in the face of aggression. But I don't really want to sort of dwell on that.

Jim Lindsay:

Let me just ask you one final question, Tom, which is, is there a role for any other country to play mediator? I note that Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett flew to Moscow. Surprise visit. Some talk about Israel perhaps playing the role of an honest broker. Maybe the Indians could do as well, having good ties with the West, but also with Russia. Is there some third party that could come in and somehow find a way to walk us out of what seems to be a box canyon?

Thomas Graham:

There are countries like Israel and India that could be, I think, instrumental in producing a ceasefire, perhaps setting the stage for negotiation. But at the end of the day, given the way Russians look at the world, the key player here is the United States. They want to deal with the United States. They want to come to some sort of understanding with the United States.

Jim Lindsay:

They want to deal with what they consider to be their equal.

Thomas Graham:

That's right. The other big boy on the block. And they you know want to come to some agreement with us as how we're going to arrange European security going forward. And I think that's just the fact of life. So we're going to have to be engaged in the end game of this, in a very major way. As this administration has said, we need to be in close consultation with our European allies. We need to be in close consultation with our Ukrainian allies at this point, and take those ideas with us as we talk with the Russians. But absent a central role for the United States, I don't see any end resolution to this.

Thomas Graham:

And after all, this is what leadership is about. Being able to make those tough decisions. Again, with very broad consultation, but also being able to explain to your allies and partners what the realities are, and why the solution you're working to is the best under the circumstances. And the important point that I continue to make is that we're holding the future open for further advance. So don't think of this as the end of the game, think of this as an episode along the way of building the world that we all want to build together.

Jim Lindsay:

On that positive note, I'll close up The President's Inbox for this week. My guest has been Tom Graham, distinguished fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. Tom, thank you very much for joining me.

Thomas Graham:

Certainly welcome. Thank you, Jim.

Jim Lindsay:

Please subscribe to The President's Inbox on Apple Podcast, Spotify, or wherever you listen, and leave as a review. They help us get noticed and improve the show. You can find the books and articles mentioned in this episode, as well as a transcript of our conversation, on the podcast page for The President's Inbox on cfr.org. As always, opinions expressed in The President's Inbox are solely those of the host, or our guests, not of CFR, which takes no institutional positions on matters of policy.

Jim Lindsay:

Today's episode was produced by Zoe Collis, with senior producer, Jeremy Sherlick. Zoe also did double duty as our recording engineer. Thank you, Zoe. Special thanks go out to Margaret Gach for her assistance. This is Jim Lindsay. Thanks for listening.

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