Putin’s Choices, With Michael Kimmage

Michael Kimmage, professor of history at the Catholic University of America and visiting fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States, sits down with James M. Lindsay to discuss the choices Russian President Vladimir Putin faces in Ukraine.

March 29, 2022 — 33:42 min
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Host

James M. Lindsay

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

Episode Guests

Michael Kimmage

Show Notes

Michael Kimmage, professor of history at the Catholic University of America and visiting fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States, sits down with James M. Lindsay to discuss the choices Russian President Vladimir Putin faces in Ukraine.

 

Articles and Books Mentioned on the Podcast

 

Liana Fix and Michael Kimmage, “What If Russia Loses?” ForeignAffairs.com, March 4, 2022

 

Liana Fix and Michael Kimmage, “What If Russia Makes a Deal?” ForeignAffairs.com, March 23, 2022

 

Liana Fix and Michael Kimmage, “What If Russia Wins?” ForeignAffairs.com, February 18, 2022

 

Michael Kimmage, The Abandonment of the West: The History of an Idea in American Foreign Policy (2020)

 

Speeches and Podcasts Mentioned

 

Joe Biden, “Remarks by President Biden on the United Efforts of the Free World to Support the People of Ukraine,” Warsaw, Poland, March 26, 2022

 

Liana Fix, "Germany's Foreign Policy," The President's Inbox, February 15, 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 Putin's choices.

 Jim Lindsay:

With me to discuss the choices that Russian President Vladimir Putin now faces, is Michael Kimmage. Michael is professor of history at the Catholic University of America and a visiting fellow at The German Marshall Fund of the United States. From 2014 to 2016, he served on the policy planning staff at the US State Department, where he held the Russia Ukraine portfolio. Michael's latest book is "The Abandonment of the West: The History of an Idea in American Foreign Policy." He has also co-authored three recent pieces on ForeignAffairs.com titled "What if Russia wins?", "What if Russia loses" and "What if Russia makes a deal?." His coauthor in those pieces was Liana Fix, who was a recent guest on The President's Inbox. Michael, thanks for being here.

Michael Kimmage:

Wonderful to be here. Thank you for having me.

 Jim Lindsay:

Perhaps, Michael, we could start off by just doing a basic review of where things seem to stand on the battlefield. Are the Russians still making gains? Are the Ukrainians pushing them back? Do we have a stalemate?

Michael Kimmage:

I think there are two fundamental points that are significant at the moment, and one is a big picture point, which is that the Russians prepared for this war and came into it with a very unrealistic concept of what they could achieve. Unrealistic in terms of their forced posture, 200,000 troops for a country that's among the largest in Europe with a population close to 40 million people, and unrealistic in terms of what they expected from the Ukrainians, they expected immediate state collapse or state capture. They didn't think that the Ukrainians would fight. They thought large portions of the population would come over to the Russian side. So they are, and will be, as long as this war continues, the victims of this stupid concept of operations and stupid idea that underscores the war. There's nothing they can do about that that can't be changed, and what you've seen play out on the battlefield is that the Russians have achieved much less than they had hoped, and the Ukrainians have exceeded all expectations.

Michael Kimmage:

And I would say, big picture-wise, that's the story of the war, and that's the first point that I would make. The second point is that this does not equal any immediate Russian surrender or retreat. You know they will recalibrate. They are at the moment, your question is about changes on the battlefield. Clearly, they're reorienting away from Kyiv, and toward the east and the south where things have gone a bit better for them. And you know they can persist for a very long time in a losing war, and we could go back in history and look at many comparable, if not identical conflicts, the French in Algeria, the US in Vietnam, the Soviets in Afghanistan. And it's not impossible in those wars at the early stages to predict defeat for one side, but it took a long time. So I think that's where we are. We're in the midst of a Russian defeat. I think we can say that with some confidence, but the timing of this defeat is very unpredictable, and I think not short term in any sense.

 Jim Lindsay:

I like that framing, Michael, and can we dive in a bit deeper? Why is it in your view that the Russians launched a war based on such faulty assumptions about the nature of their adversary and how the war have to be fought?

Michael Kimmage:

As I see it, there's a bureaucratic component to it and a personal component, and the bureaucratic component to it goes, I think as follows that Russia does have on paper, and of course in reality, a considerable amount of military power. They have nuclear weapons. They have a military of some 900,000 soldiers, a considerable air force, lots of sophisticated weaponry. And I think when they looked at Ukraine going back to 2014, Putin, primarily, they saw a problem that was unresolved at best and also getting worse in many respects, they annexed Crimea. That's, I think something of a separate topic. It worked out pretty well for Putin domestically, but they involved themselves in the Eastern Ukraine and the Donbas in hopes of acquiring a lever over Ukrainian politics and to prevent Ukraine from moving westward. What happens after 2014? The country moves steadily westward in its economics and its political institutions, and most importantly, for Russia in its military arrangements, the military relationship between the US and Ukraine in was getting closer and closer prior to the war.

Michael Kimmage:

So I think that they looked at their powers on paper. They looked at this problem and they tried to figure out what the solution was. They destroyed their option of persuading the Ukrainians to come into their orbit. And so I think military force became a sort of plausible solution to the problem. Again, looking at things on paper, that's one part of the reason why they went in. I'm quite convinced. The other part, I think, is a bit more, maybe familiar from the news, and this is the character of Putin, his sense of cultural and civilizational connection to Ukraine, his identification with the narratives of the Second World War, and so the de-Nazification of Ukraine, which sounds absurd and is absurd in so many respects, but I think it's not absurd to Putin, and so he's fit himself into that narrative. He's an aging dictator with very few checks and balances, if any.

Michael Kimmage:

And this is a war that's as much his whim as it is something that speaks to Russian strategy or to the needs of solving problems in Russian's neighborhood and on Russian terms. So it's some combination of personalist folly and error and a strategic reading of the situation. That's not crazy, but that much overemphasized what Russia could accomplish with military power.

 Jim Lindsay:

Michael, is there any evidence that Putin's personal whims are being trimmed in any way? Is he facing any pushback among the Russian elite, military elite, economic elite to change course, or is the system in Russia so deinstitutionalized that even though Putin as committed a major strategic error, there's no one to push back on him?

Michael Kimmage:

I think Putin is being constrained as dictators. Even dictators are much more by circumstance than by anything else. So Russian soldiers are exhausted. They've poured enormous amounts of equipment, lost enormous amounts of equipment in this war. They simply can't take Kyiv. So you can lie to the boss up to a point, and you can pass information up the chain that's not true and that's overly optimistic, but you do hit up against certain realities. So he sent you know his deputy defense minister and others out recently to scale back some of the Russian war aims. I'm sure, with great regret on his part, simply because he has to, that there's no logistical alternative to doing that, but I don't see any other constraints than that. He does have a lock hold on Russian politics for the foreseeable future. It's becoming much more repressive in Russia.

Michael Kimmage:

A lot of the critics of the regime in the last couple of weeks have left the country, some 200,000 Russians, and there isn't an opposition movement to speak of in a formal sense in Russia. I think the elites are too afraid of a post Putin Russia to do much about Putin in the sense of getting rid of him. So the constraints are not there within the system, but the constraints are there in the real world, and so he has to operate between some strange space, between an unrealistic system in a world that imposes realities upon him.

 Jim Lindsay:

Michael, back during the Vietnam war, which you alluded to earlier, a Vermont Senator George Aiken, was quoted as saying, "The United States should just declare victory and get out." Is there any chance that the Russians might just declare victory and come back home?

Michael Kimmage:

I think there's a chance. I mean, there's certainly an incentive. But if I know Putin's character, and I think I know some aspects of it, he's become, I think, a lot more unpredictable in recent months. I think the idea of an outright surrender or retreat is very unlikely. I think it's more probable that he'll allow this to settle into a war of attrition, maybe not across the territory of Ukraine, but in substantial parts of Eastern Ukraine and Southern Ukraine and allow his defeat to play out slowly and perhaps to see also if you make it a war of attrition, then you can start to speculate about whether the refugee crisis in Europe will change the calculus of certain European countries, perhaps rising inflation.

Michael Kimmage:

I'm thinking from Putin's point of view, perhaps rising inflation in the US, and elsewhere will cause the West to moderate, and perhaps opportunities will arise. Maybe Ukraine will falter over time, just economically and over the course of a year or two of a war of attrition. So I think that's probably his best option in terms of squeezing something out of this conflict. He would be prudent. He would be wise to cut his losses and turn around, but I just don't think it's in his character.

 Jim Lindsay:

Well, just before we sat down, I saw a news report in which Moscow said that it planned to drastically reduce military activity near Kyiv and Chernihiv in order to let me quote the source, "To increase mutual trust and create the necessary conditions for further negotiations." I want to get to the negotiations point in a second, but I'm sort of more curious on the continued fighting. I take it that what Putin is doing is really recognizing reality on the battlefield and trying to find a nice framing that doesn't make it seem like an overt defeat.

Michael Kimmage:

I think that's correct. I mean, I think, you know I wouldn't over estimate the completeness of this kind of news. You know he could be regrouping. He needs to consolidate and refresh his military and it doesn't preclude future offensives. The problem for Kyiv, which is going to be in perpetuity at this point, is that by having absorbed Belarus into Russia militarily, Kyiv is now very, very close to the Russian frontline even if the Russian troops were to withdraw back into Belarus.

Michael Kimmage:

So safety and security for Kyiv is greater than it was, but it's far from complete, and I wouldn't be surprised that Putin pursued a kind of surge somewhere in the next couple of months on the basis of attempting to get more at the negotiating table, but it is a concession, certainly, to reality. In a different sense, militarily, you know I think that Mariupol, probably will fall in the next couple of days. You'll see a certain consolidation there on the southern front, and the Russians are going to make a push in the east to try to act on what were their initial war aims. Their initial stated war aims, which was to ensure the independence of the Donetsk and Luhansk People's Republics, not just the parts that they occupied before the war, but a somewhat bigger area of territory. So yes, it's a concession to reality. It is an opening to negotiations with Ukraine, certainly, but it's probably also a reconsolidation of military efforts elsewhere in the country.

 Jim Lindsay:

How significant will it be, Michael, if Mariupol does in fact, fall and the Russian for are essentially able to link up in the Southern part of Ukraine?

Michael Kimmage:

I think it's significant. I think it may speak to what's a new Russian plan. You know their wild dreams at the beginning were a new government in Kyiv and the partition of the country, perhaps along the Dnipro River, which runs roughly through the center of the country. And now they may be thinking of something that ensures the security of Crimea from their point of view, gives them greater access to the Black Sea and makes Donetsk and Luhansk. You know sort of puts them deeper into Russian territory or Russian-controlled territory. So that may be for them a less than ideal scenario, but a scenario that gives them something that they can claim as victory beyond what they achieve at the negotiating table. In other words, if they can get something about NATO, a statement about NATO from Ukraine, that's great, but I think there are still territorial ambitions that Putin is entertaining.

 Jim Lindsay:

Well, if that is how things play out, where the Russians maintain control over significant chunks of Eastern Ukraine, how do you see that evolving in terms of the nature of warfare in how Russia will maintain control of those areas? I mean, if it's the case that many Ukrainians are opposed to Russian dominance of their territory, will Russia be in a position to actually run an occupation as the United States discovered in Afghanistan, as Soviets discovered in Afghanistan as well, occupations can be incredibly dangerous.

Michael Kimmage:

Well, it's a nightmare of Russia's own making that they have put themselves into a country that they believe they can influence, and the way in which they put themselves into that country is making it harder and harder for them to influence it. So it's an exercise and a kind of absurd policy, a perfectly self-defeating policy in the long term. And I think you can infer from that this whole venture, this war Ukraine really will fail, but I fear that it could be 10, 20 years from now, because I think what the Russian approach will be in terms of occupying and controlling territory is just to be maximally brutal, and we've seen lots of evidence of that already in multiple domains. So we've seen the evisceration of civilian buildings, apartment houses in Mariupol, and elsewhere, we've seen huge refugee flows. So that's one solution to the Russian problem.

 Jim Lindsay:

Just push people up, that way, the people who are opposed to you are no longer your problem, they're somebody else's.

Michael Kimmage:

Get rid of the recalcitrant elements that way, and then we've also heard from the US government and from other sources that Russia has these lists of disobedient politicians, they will either kill or physically menace in some way. Then we've had many reports about the deportation of Ukrainians to Russian territory. So all of those you might describe as Stalinist or Neo-Stalinist methods of occupation. I don't think Putin is going to shy away from those methods. I don't think it's going to give him anything attractive, anything civilized or humane in terms of the territory that he occupies. But it may enable Russia to occupy these territories for 5 years or for 10 years. I mean, he's going to pursue methods that the US never considered pursuing in Afghanistan and in Iraq of that I'm quite convinced.

 Jim Lindsay:

But I will note that the Soviets pursued some of those tactics in Afghanistan, and it didn't pay off for them either. So it's not clear that more oppression, a greater brutality actually produces a victory at the end of the day.

Michael Kimmage:

I would add just one footnote to that, which is that by not defeating the government in Kyiv, by not replacing it by not decapitating it, Russia has created a separate nightmare for itself, which is that Ukraine could not come to terms and could continue prosecuting the war and could start to make gains. I mean, we've seen counter-offenses in the last couple of days, that could translate into a real offensive in the east, perhaps through drones, through other kinds of warfare with the assistance of the US and other countries. And Russia could be really embattled in those territories that it occupies in a way that it wasn't after 2014, when there was a peace deal, that it didn't end all the fighting, but ended most of it, but they may not be in that position going forward.

 Jim Lindsay:

But on that point, do you think we run the risk of having a frozen conflict, where essentially you don't have a peace deal, but you don't have active fighting, or do you see a possibility where you could just have fighting continuing for quite some time?

Michael Kimmage:

I think more the latter than the former. I mean, I think Ukraine has shown something really remarkable in the course of this war against a militarily superior adversary. They've more than held their own, and if they start to reclaim territories that happened around Kherson, around the Western parts of Kyiv, their appetite may grow for reclaiming more territory, and the Russian morale, Russian logistics, Russian military planning, has been so bad that they've opened themselves to that kind of counter attack. It might have not have been conceivable before the war, but it's conceivable now. And so that's a disincentive, perhaps, for Ukraine to come to the table, and you know Russia may have to deal with an emboldened, empowered Ukraine completely outside of their planning for this war, I'm quite sure, but that may be their new reality.

 Jim Lindsay:

What does that mean for the possibility of negotiations? I should note that Ukrainian officials and Russian officials have been meeting in Istanbul to have discussions, the Ukrainians, so they understand they put an offer on the table. The Russians have indicated that they will mull it over. We don't know whether that response is sincere or simply strategic, but how do you see the negotiations playing out?

Michael Kimmage:

It's going to be very, very hard for Zelensky. I think if it's just about Ukraine's neutrality, if it's just about NATO, I don't doubt that they could come up with something that would work on both sides. That's the issue that really is least intractable, but I don't think that the Russians would stop there with some kind of promise about NATO or constitutional amendment. I think Russians are going to want to keep, at least some of the territory that they've fought for. You could almost say that they owe it to their soldiers to do something like that, otherwise it's a completely senseless military venture. So that's going to be one of their demands. I don't see how Zelensky can easily accept that demand. Obviously, Crimea is a bit different, and I think Zelensky has signaled that they could defer the question of Crimea for 10, 20 years. That's probably a very smart and prudent idea, but not the other territories that Russia has conquered since February 24th, 2022.

Michael Kimmage:

And so Zelensky has spoken of a referendum where maybe they would vote on this. You know what I argue in the piece with Liana is the best that I can come up with in the situation from a Ukrainian point of view is that they negotiate a provisional piece with Russia. Try not to give away anything fundamental when it comes to independence and autonomy, and then just hope for either a much weakened Putin or for a future Russian leader with whom one could do actual business. That to me is one of the best case scenario for the negotiations. But my instinct at the moment is to say that Russians and Ukrainians are not at the point of exhaustion yet. It's still about five weeks into the conflict, and I think it's going to take quite a few more months to get real diplomacy, but I would be delighted to be proven wrong on that point.

 Jim Lindsay:

Michael, help me understand something, the Ukrainians have now begun talking about their willingness to consider neutrality, and to abandon the desire to enter NATO, but that was not an offer they made before the war began. Why didn't they make it then, given that that was ostensibly Putin's rationale for ordering the invasion?

Michael Kimmage:

It's an excellent question. So after 2014, the first round of this conflict, Ukraine did change its constitution and make NATO membership a part its constitutional order. So there's that. There's very strong political will. Beyond even the polling. I think it's a majority of Ukrainians who support the idea of Ukraine and NATO, but among politicized Ukrainians, I think the will is even stronger to go in that direction. And here, you know you could be critical of US and Western policy also. I mean, there have been signals sent that Ukraine won't join NATO under the surface, but there have been a lot of statements that Ukraine might, we can go back to 2008 and the famous Bucharest Summit of NATO, where the promise was made that Ukraine and Georgia will become NATO members.

Michael Kimmage:

So you know there's been mixed messaging on the part of the West. And I think, I don't have good evidence for this, but I think when Biden came into office in January, 2021, I think Zelensky felt like he had a new opportunity. This is an Atlanticist, this is an old cold warrior. It's a friend of Ukraine who's coming into power. So maybe there's a new chance. You see a certain hardening of the Ukrainian position in the first six months of the Biden administration, as if they could really sort of jump into the Western alliance. So it's difficult to understand in retrospect, but I think prior to the war, this felt fluid to a degree for Ukraine, and there was such a strong desire to be on the side of the West that they wanted to keep that option open.

 Jim Lindsay:

I'm curious, Michael, how you assess the chances to have successful negotiations, by which I mean, not simply having an agreement, but an agreement that sticks and reduces the fighting. And I asked that question in the context of a saying, I once read that went something like this, "When I am winning, why should I compromise, when I am losing, how can I compromise?" How do you square that circle in this conflict where both sides have to agree that the time is ripe to do a deal?

Michael Kimmage:

Well, let's make the circle even more and I don't know what geometric form would be necessary for this, but I'll superimpose another circle on that already very difficult to resolve circle, and this is dealing with Putin himself. Not that many people in the West or in Ukraine, had a high opinion of Putin before the war, but the war was a sneak attack and Putin sort of in KGB mode and intelligence officer mode, he used deception to give himself the element of surprise, as he did in 2014 with the annexation of Crimea. And so I think it's safe to conclude now that all of the diplomacy in those frenetic three months before February 24th, all of it was a game on the Russian side. They knew that they were going to invade unless they got huge concessions, which were very unlikely, and so they did that theater for the sake of confusing the Ukrainians, which I think they succeeded in doing that Ukraine didn't really expect the invasion until the last minute.

Michael Kimmage:

So what's to stop Putin from doing that again, from using diplomacy agreements, words on paper, from giving himself an operational pause, and then going back on the attack. I don't think anybody could be saying when about Putin at this point, and so there too is another difficulty that Ukraine has to manage. They can't get rid of Putin, but they have to deal with a very duplicitous and ruthless political leader. On the other side, I suppose in the manner of negotiations at the same time, that it's difficult to make concessions before utter defeat, that you just have to work with the real incentives that are there on both sides, and it really matters in this case that Russia's losing the war. If Putin can accept that, I don't know, but he is losing the war, and he will lose bigger and bigger as time goes on.

Michael Kimmage:

So that's really an incentive on the Russian side to cut some of the losses and see if they can manage something. And Ukraine has done all these remarkable things in the course of the war, but of course their economy is being torn to shreds. There are 10 million you know a combination of refugees in internally displaced people in Ukraine. Maybe it's going to grow soon to 13 or 14 million, and we've all seen the images of destroyed infrastructure and cities. So that's obviously an incentive. I think Zelensky has been clear about that, that there's a kind of ethical humanitarian incentive for Zelensky to put an end to the fighting. So to the degree that interests can drive these kinds of negotiations, the interests are there and now it will depend on the political leadership if they can manage the messaging and the psychology and just the interpersonal relationship. I can hardly imagine Zelensky meeting directly with Putin, but it probably would have to come to that.

 Jim Lindsay:

Well, let me pick up that thread you pose of Vladimir Putin, being a particularly brutal person who is comfortable using military force to get his way. As you know there's an awful lot of talk in Russian military doctrine about escalating to deescalate. Is there any chance that because Putin is losing, he decides not to quit the field of battle, but to expand, perhaps provoke NATO?

Michael Kimmage:

I think provoking NATO to me seems like a step too far. I mean, I can see scenarios in which he could bomb aid convoy, or a missile could go awry, or through some accident or error, the work that expand in to Poland or elsewhere, but Putin has been crazy with this war. He would have to be outright insane to go from a war where he's unable to deal with the Ukrainian military to a war where he would have to confront NATO conventional forces, not to mention all of the escalatory possibilities that would be involved in a conflict with NATO. So it seems to me like borderline insanity to go in that direction for Russia. I think it's much more likely that if he would choose to escalate, he would just find ways and find ways of escalating within Ukraine itself.

Michael Kimmage:

The Russian Air Force, it's one of the interesting questions of the war, where they haven't used it to better effect or use more of their air power. They haven't been able to knock out Ukrainian air defenses, but you could imagine an escalation there, that's probably the least costly option for Putin. But you know I think also of the Iraq War and the surge, the surge comes five years into the Iraq War. You know I think George W. Bush felt like that was one of the better military decisions he made in the course of the war. I could easily imagine Putin thinking in those terms, "We'll gesture as if we're going toward peace, but then we'll surge in some unexpected area of the war," for the sake of reclaiming gains that he thought he could get at the beginning of the war. I think that's more his mindset than, "Let me just wind this down and cut my losses and be reasonable."

 Jim Lindsay:

Well, let's talk a little bit about Putin's willingness negotiate and I want to do so in the context of the big news over the weekend, which is that President Biden at the tail end of a speech in Warsaw ad-lib remarks about how Putin cannot remain in power. That certainly set my Twitter feed alight, and it seemed to have consumed all the oxygen on cable news over the weekend. And what I heard quite frequently was that Biden speaking in this way, not only was a gaff, it actually reduced the chances for diplomacy because it was going to personalize the conflict with Russia and make Putin even less willing to compromise because it would convince him of his core conviction that the United States has been working, not just recently, but for decades to push him out of power. How do you assess that argument?

Michael Kimmage:

Well, you know Putin is paranoid for his own reasons, and Biden could be much more moderate in his statements, and Putin would be paranoid about the West that goes back a long ways. I wouldn't want to, over-interpret a handful of comments. I think there's a larger Biden policy on Russia and that policy is the most important story. I do regret those words, maybe not so much for what they indicate about Biden or his attitude, but I think about it as follows, do we really imagine that in the next two years, any solution to this problem can be achieved without Putin, that Putin will exit the scene? I think if we do that, it's very low cost to make these kinds of comments about Putin or about the Russian government. If on the other hand, there is going to be some kind of larger settlement to the war, United States has to be a part of it in some way. United States is a very, very close partner of Ukraine, and Russian war aims have a lot to do with their views of the United States.

Michael Kimmage:

And so you do in that sense, want to give yourself maximum latitude, and at the same time that you express the outrage that the American population feels about the humanitarian crisis and speak your mind about who Putin is as a human being. You wouldn't want to be vague about that or unclear. You just want to give yourself as many options as possible, and what I really regretted about Biden's comment when it came out was I felt like he had been doing precisely that since the beginning of the war. Really since he came to office, he suggested that he could do business with Putin. He was sort of business-like, kept certain boundaries in terms of where NATO was going to be involved in the Ukraine conflict. At the same time, he's been very robust in supporting Ukraine economically, and militarily, Biden, I think, has done a great job, getting a trans-Atlantic and international coalition put in place.

Michael Kimmage:

So he's assembled all of the pieces and you just want to keep that open space for the time that comes, when the Ukrainians come to the US and say, "We have a deal with the Russians potentially, but it involves you giving us some kind of security guarantee, and so you're going to have to come to the table and be a party to this stuff." Who's going to be on the other side of the table? It is going to be Putin and the Russians. So we just have to psychologically accept that that's how it is. At times we can be moralistic about all of this, but let's not go too far down that road because it's not going to do enough to end the war for the Ukrainians. The war will be ended not through moralism, but through diplomacy. That's what we really have to remember.

 Jim Lindsay:

Well, I will note that people on the other side of the argument, Michael, invoked parallels with Ronald Reagan during the Cold War denouncing the Soviet Union as an evil empire, and would argue that calling Putin what he is actually is empowering, and so people can assess how that debate goes. But I want to ask you this question about what the United States should be doing going forward. I understand the wisdom of maintaining space for negotiations, but what is it that the United States should be trying to do? It can't step in for Ukraine, but should it be pushing a particular kind of outcome? Should it be deferring to European countries like the French or the Germans, and trying to find some way to resurrect something that looks like The Minsk process that was born after 2014? Help me think through what Washington should be doing unilaterally with its allies. Should it lean on Ukraine, not lean on Ukraine?

Michael Kimmage:

Well, God forbid that we resurrect The Minsk process of 2014.

 Jim Lindsay:

Why is that?

Michael Kimmage:

I worked on that for two years as a diplomat at the State Department. And I think we can say in hindsight that it really resolved nothing. The Minsk diplomatic process, this was signed by France, Germany, Ukraine, and Russia, after several rounds of fighting in 2014, 2015. And on our side, the sanctions were put in place because of Minsk, and the idea was to get the Russians out of Crimea, on the one hand, and get them out of the Donbas, and have the Donbas reintegrated into the Ukrainian polity. On the other, that was the policy. It sounds good in theory, but it just didn't work, and the sanctions weren't enough. Not enough pressure was put on the Russians to get to those sort of outcomes. And the worst part of The Minsk diplomacy and I think it is a factor in Putin's decision to go to war again in 2022, is that we all forgot about it. We just sort of let it lapse into irrelevance as if it had resolved the conflict when the opposite was the case.

Michael Kimmage:

So it's clear that from the Western side, and I think you have lots of will on the Western side that moves things in this direction, but it's clear that much more effort has to be made at this stage. If we're going to achieve results that we think are acceptable, we're going to really have to push for them. It can't be this piecemeal, half-hearted policy of the kind that we implemented in 2014, 2015. So to go to the core of your question, I think there's only one country to which the US should be deferring at the moment and that's Ukraine. You know Zelensky has to make what is a combined political, strategic and moral decision about how long and how to prosecute the war. I can see very good arguments on both sides. I can see a good argument for continuing. I can see a good argument for halting and trying to find some kind of negotiated settlement.

Michael Kimmage:

When Zelensky comes to that decision, if we have a sense that it works with the people that he's governing, and he seems to be quite in tune with his own population, then he deserves our unconditional support. So there I would defer. He wants to go a little bit more toward peace, a little bit more toward war. That's his choice to make, and we should support it. We should be pushing, I think the Germans to be more proactive. They've made a small revolution in their foreign policy, but they still have a ways to go to real leadership in your up. I think with France and Britain, we have quite a bit to work with.

Michael Kimmage:

Obviously, the military component is very important. I'm not especially critical of it. I think it's been fast. I think it's been significant. I think it's really helped Ukraine, but more of that would be good. I think the US has a real responsibility to do more about refugees. So 100,000 is the commitment made so far, given how large Ukraine looms in our foreign policy, it should be more than 100,000. There should be more effort in that regard. We need to think also about some of the secondary effects of this crisis. So on grain prices and food supply in North Africa, and the Middle East, and elsewhere, that's grain supply from Russia and Ukraine, that's probably going to be minimized by the war. So the US could look at those kinds of questions while continuing to support Ukraine as much as possible, and continuing to tell the story of this war as Biden began to do in Warsaw.

Michael Kimmage:

It's sort of regrettable that the phrase that got pulled out of the speech was the one that he seemed to have done ad-lib at the very end of it, when the rest of the speech was supposed to be a better narrative of democracy in Europe and support for Ukraine, and I think Biden really has to continue telling that story. And very finally, I would say, when it comes to the policy toward Ukraine, we have to have patients. It's the first social media war of our lifetimes, and social media makes us all want instant resolution and quick solutions, quick answers. It's just not going to happen here. It's going to be a very long-term crisis, even if they do negotiate something in the next couple of weeks. And so the US has to maintain patients and keep the US population on board with sanctions and with some of the sacrifices that will have to be made on Ukraine's behalf. So it's all those balls that need to be juggled simultaneously.

 Jim Lindsay:

Are you optimistic, Michael, that US policy can be sustained? Do you worry that in a world of instant gratification, in deep political partisanship, that American interest and support for Ukraine may evaporate?

Michael Kimmage:

I'm optimistic. I mean, you mentioned at the beginning of our conversation, the book that I had republished in 2020 called "The Abandonment of the West", where I looked into the story of America's support for the West, going back to the 1890s all the way up until 2016. And it's a story certainly with many ups and downs, but what's intriguing to me is the author of that book is that Ukraine fits squarely in the most significant tradition of American foreign policy, which is on the one hand transatlantism. On the other hand, it's a support for what the United States considers liberty and self-government in countries outside of the US. And you know this is a long and chequered and complicated story, but it's a thread that runs through American foreign policy, even back to figures like Thomas Jefferson, and to the American Revolution itself.

Michael Kimmage:

So there is something in the American DNA, I think, that makes the Biden administration and much of the American population and much of the GOP look at a country like Ukraine and say, "It just deserves our support. you know It's a partner. It's a friend. There's a Ukrainian diaspora in the US." There are those elements of it as well, but a sort of an underdog fighting for its survival against a very potent authoritarian foe. Is there any more American story situation for foreign policy than that? So that gives me not complete confidence, but considerable confidence that the US can carry on with this policy.

Michael Kimmage:

And I think Biden has cut a very reasonable between proactive, engaged support for Ukraine, but the kind of limits that Trump voters and a lot of Democratic voters also wanted to see after Afghanistan and Iraq, that the US is not going to go in whole hog, that the US is not going to sort of make a massive military move in Ukraine. And I think that too is going to help sustain the effort of support for Ukraine. So I'm optimistic in that regard, and I think Europe, when it watches the humanitarian crisis unfold in Ukraine and sees the Ukrainians fighting for their survival, may not be quite as robust as the US and some of this narrative, but I think Europe will be on the side of the US as well.

 Jim Lindsay:

Do you worry about the flip side of the problem that the United States seeing this as a clash of good and evil, will push Ukraine to stand firm and oppose negotiations? After all, it's very hard for many people to envision negotiating with someone they see as a war criminal and a butcher?

Michael Kimmage:

I do worry about that a little bit less, that we would impose things on Ukraine a little bit more, that will start to entertain maximalist fantasies about what can be accomplished. With Russia, I mean, you mentioned Ronald Reagan a moment ago as a kind of counter argument to claims about patients and negotiation. I mean, I think Reagan could really do, he could do both. He called the Soviet Union, the evil empire, but nobody negotiated more creatively with the Soviet Union than Reagan. Of course he had Gorbachev to work with and that's hard to compare to the figure of Vladimir Putin, but nevertheless, he could do both things at the same time. He could be critical. He could espouse American ideas and he could negotiate. And I do worry that we have sort of overdone in some ways, the influence that we might have in Russia. It's not the Biden administration, exactly. But you can get this kind of climate of opinion. That sanctions are really about bringing put into his knees and bringing about a new regime and sort of creating democracy in Russia, and we have to guard against those kinds of things.

Michael Kimmage:

Again, speaking historically, it is impressive when you see this merger of moral and military power. That's when the United States is usually at its most effective, but it's very often that merger is there when the United States has made some of its worst foreign policy mistakes, whether in Vietnam or after 9/11. And that's not what I'm predicting here, but it's the kind of thing that we want to guard against to kind of excessively messianic approach to this problem. If we can save Ukraine, and if we can salvage a decent future for Ukraine, that's the triumph here. What's going to happen in Russia will be decided, I think, on a different timeline and according to a different logic, and we'll probably have to face Putin for quite a while. So let's just keep the focus on, on saving Ukraine and not imagine that we can save Russia in terms of our sort of words or our deeds.

 Jim Lindsay:

On that cautionary note. I'll close up The President's Inbox for this week. My guest has been Michael Kimmage, professor of history at the Catholic University of America, and a visiting fellow at the German Marshall Fund. Michael, thanks for joining me.

Michael Kimmage:

Thank you so much for having me.

 Jim Lindsay:

Please subscribe to The President's Inbox on Apple Podcast, Spotify, or wherever you listen, and leave us 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 on 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. Today's episode was produced by Zoe Collis, with senior producer, Jeremy Sherlick. Zoe also did double duty as our recording engineer. Thanks as always Zoe. Special thanks go to Margaret Gach for her assistance. This is Jim Lindsay. Thanks for listening.

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