Putin’s Strategy in Ukraine, With Stephen Sestanovich

Stephen Sestanovich, George F. Kennan senior fellow for Russian and Eurasian studies at CFR and Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis professor of international diplomacy at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs, sits down with James M. Lindsay to discuss the current course of the war in Ukraine and the potential for a diplomatic settlement to end the fighting.

August 16, 2022 — 31:22 min
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Host

James M. Lindsay

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

Episode Guests

Stephen Sestanovich

George F. Kennan Senior Fellow for Russian and Eurasian Studies

Show Notes

Mentioned on the Podcast

 

Tom Friedman, “Why Pelosi’s Visit to Taiwan Is Utterly Reckless,” New York Times

 

Alexey Levinson, “If They Fear Us They Respect Us,” Riddle

 

Stephen Sestanovich, Maximalist: America in the World from Truman to Obama

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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 Next Moves.

With me to discuss Russia's military and diplomatic strategy in Ukraine is Stephen Sestanovich. Steve is the George F. Kennan senior fellow for Russian and Eurasian studies at CFR and the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis professor of international diplomacy at Columbia University's School of International and Public affairs. From 1997 to 2001, Steve was US ambassador-at-large for the former Soviet states. He is the author of Maximalist: America in the World from Truman to Obama. Steve, thanks for joining me.

Stephen Sestanovich:

A pleasure, Jim.

Jim Lindsay:

Steve, next week marks six months since Russia invaded Ukraine. There has been a lot of talk recently about the current course of the war in Ukraine. I've heard it described as settling down into essentially a war of attrition. I've heard other people argue that we're about to witness a new and decisive phase in the war. So I thought perhaps we could begin with getting your assessment and where you think we are in terms of the fighting in Ukraine.

Stephen Sestanovich:

Well, you have definitely heard all of the available forecasts out there, and they could all be right. The war has settled down into, over the past couple of months, what seems like a stalemate, or at least a slow moving military contest but with some big events that could begin to change that outlook. In the past week, probably the headline item was the Ukrainian attack on the air base in Crimea, which took the Russians by surprise. They lost a lot of planes. They looked...

Jim Lindsay:

Why was the attack significant, Steve?

Stephen Sestanovich:

Well, because it struck very far behind the front lines. It wasn't clear how it was done and the Ukrainians are still being very cagey about whether it was some missile that perhaps the US had been giving them on the sly without acknowledging it, or perhaps an inside job in which Ukrainian partisans were able to work with unhappy Russians, all kinds of possibilities out there to stir Russian anxiety, because if that base can be hit, then an awful lot is at risk that the Russians have thought was not. They thought they had a kind of sanctuary for their logistics bases, their ammunition depots, their troops, their airfields, their ports. And while it might be unlikely that Ukrainians could repeat this quickly anytime soon, it raises the possibility, which I would guess Putin has been discussing with his generals, that the Ukrainians might have some new capabilities and that those could complicate Russian choices in the next months.

           For one thing, it has kind of scrambled the Russian strategy in trying to think about how to prevent a Ukrainian counter offensive, not too far from Crimea in Kherson, which is a capital of the region by the same name, and the Russians have apparently moved forces from Eastern Ukraine, the Donbas, where they'd been hoping to wrap up their takeover of those provinces, moved forces out there to Kherson, because they're wondering whether the Ukrainians have got more up their sleeves than they knew.

Jim Lindsay:

I'm curious, Steve, on this issue of Ukraine's striking behind Russian lines, essentially on Russian territory, in the case of Russia proper, obviously Crimea is disputed, Ukraine claims it as it's own, why haven't we seen attacks by Ukraine on Russian soil?

Stephen Sestanovich:

Well, the reasons are numerous. The United States and its allies have cautioned the Ukrainians not to do that. They haven't given them weapons that to our knowledge and to the Russians’ knowledge would be able to attack Russian territory. They've probably been a little worried about what the consequences of this would be. Former president, Medvedev said a little while ago that if there are attacks on Crimea, that Judgment Day will await, meaning all hell will break loose and you will really be sorry, but the Ukrainians have, first of all, resisted the idea that Crimea is Russian territory. They also have argued to their American allies that they need to be able to put more pressure on the Russians to be able to hit further into Russian held territory, not necessarily Russia itself, but to be able to undermine the Russian military campaign that involves now the occupation of probably 20, 25% of their country.

Jim Lindsay:

So Steve, what is our sense of what Putin's strategy is in this war? Obviously, it began on the theory that Russian forces could quickly decapitate the Ukrainian government, and take over the country or a big chunk of it. That proved to be a miscalculation of epic proportions. Now we seem to be settled into a war of attrition. If I understand the news reports correctly, the Russians have made some progress in the eastern portion of Ukraine, but not a lot of progress, and the territory they have gained has come at an incredibly high cost. So what is Putin's strategy here?

Stephen Sestanovich:

Well, as you suggest, Jim, Putin's strategy is now clearly got to be second best because even if he can achieve his original goals, it's at a much, much higher cost and strategy is supposed to relate ends and means. You wouldn't know this from Russian statements. The Russian foreign ministry, for example, when it talks about Russian aims, says all of the objectives of the Russian Special Military Operation, as they call it, are going to be achieved, and that includes de-militarizing and denazifying Ukraine. The military outlook that would have to underlie such a strategy has become more negative. So the question that people keep raising is, is Putin going to call it a win by annexing two, three, four provinces, and just say, "Well, that's that." He doesn't need a formal agreement with Ukrainians. He'll just say, "Well, we're going to try to wind this down," call what he previously declared an operational pause, or maybe something longer than that.

           The question for Putin is whether that will be viable, either politically, economically, militarily. There are doubts on all of those fronts. It might not involve any easing of sanctions. It might still carry a very heavy economic cost for Russia. It might involve continued military pressure by Ukraine, internal resistance. But there is one important fact which makes it thinkable that this is what Putin would do, apart from the difficulty of just going forward and conquering all of Ukraine, and that is, a ceasefire in place would give Russia a hugely increased share of the country. Wouldn't be a great victory, but it would not be a defeat either. And that's why given the difficulties that Putin has encountered, a lot of people are saying, "Gee, isn't it going to make sense for him to try to call this off, pocket what he's gotten, and try to get the worst of this drama over," particularly because that way, he might be able to avoid the prospect of the war turning against him, the prospect of a real defeat.

Jim Lindsay:

Well, let's take that apart, Steve, because there are a lot of interesting parts there. One is the issue of the politics of this for a Putin at home. This war has come at a pretty high cost to Russia in terms of blood and treasure. Best estimates are something on the order of 15,000 Russian soldiers have been killed, another 60 to 65,000 wounded. That obviously must play back somehow in Russian domestic politics. The country is benefiting in the near term from a spike in oil prices, but by all accounts, these sanctions are going to create lasting damage to the Russian economy. So can Putin survive politically if he doesn't produce a major victory in Ukraine, given the cost he's incurred?

Stephen Sestanovich:

Well, you wouldn't think so. This has been a mad decision on his part and yet the public opposition that one might have expected has not materialized. To the contrary, there does seem to be considerable public support, a rally around the flag effect that is well known in many other countries. Alexei Levinson of the Levada Center wrote an interesting piece recently in which he described the results of their polls. And this is an independent polling organization. Footnote here, it's very hard to do polling in Russia these days, but these are basically trustworthy people and they say 68% of Russians consider the country to be on the right track. 73% believe that there will be a Russian victory though it hasn't yet been achieved. And these are numbers that are considerably up from before the war. Before the war, 50% of Russians said they thought the country was on the right track. So you've seen a big jump in that number.

            And there are a lot of analyses by Russians of what this is based on, a satisfaction that their country is showing itself to be tough, ready to take on the West. Now, you asked about economic consequences. You're absolutely right that a lot of Putin's economic advisors are telling him, "Boss, this is going to be tough for us." The Russian Central Bank is not forecasting a return of growth until 2025. Inflation is, by official numbers, going to be 15% in the second half of the year, and the unofficial claims that I've heard are that it's much, much higher than that. The country is in a recession, and while the consequences of sanctions have not yet been as deep as people anticipated, they're expected to get deeper. So for Putin, the advantages of trying to find a way to call this off, are easy to describe.

            He's not somebody, however, who climbs down easily. I could have told him that in 2015 that the whole adventure in Eastern Ukraine, the support of these separatist groups and the semi-occupation of these territories was a loser. And lots of people told him that, but he didn't find a formula for ending it with European governments, or with the United States or with the Ukrainian government. And right now I would say the chances of finding some satisfactory formula with any of those interlocutors is not so good.

Jim Lindsay:

Well, obviously the flip side of it is, Steve, that if Putin does not step back, he has to continue fighting, and there have been a number of allegations or suggestions that the Russians are going to find it very difficult to sustain current level of fighting. They're running out of men, they're running out of materiel. So how does Putin square that circle?

Stephen Sestanovich:

Well, you're describing the kind of briefing that the Russian general staff would have to give them. Many military experts in the West are saying that the Russians can't do better unless they somehow go to a full mobilization, conscription, fuller command of resources. But the obvious pushback to that is that it won't produce any near term results. Getting a full call-up of troops will only produce a whole lot of untrained, inept, disorganized troops who are not ready to improve the military performance.

Jim Lindsay:

Made all the worse if you can't equip them adequately to fight. You're running low on ammo and the rest.

Stephen Sestanovich:

Absolutely. And the Russians are said to be digging deep into their old stocks, pulling equipment out of storage that needs to be refurbished, that doesn't work very well. We don't really have a way of judging something as intangible as the morale of Russian forces, but certainly scattered evidence suggests that it can't be very good. And there is in any system, reluctance to give the boss bad news and probably in the Russian system more than in general, and yet Putin is surely hearing that it's going to be difficult to sustain the effort that they have launched.

            I just contrast that with the briefings that Zelenskyy is getting. He surely is being told about terrible casualties. He's surely being told about the increasing economic cost. He's surely being told there are questions of morale, but he is also surely given a picture of a viable way forward, a way to do better in the next few months than they've done in the past several months. And that probably sustains him and makes it easy to think, "Well, really the secret is just to get the West to keep giving us the better stuff." They can, unlike the Russians, look forward to better equipment in the coming months. The Russians really can't.

Jim Lindsay:

Let's talk about Ukraine, Steve, because there has been a lot of speculation in recent weeks about Washington's attitude toward Kyiv, particularly to what extent senior Biden administration officials are convinced that Zelenskyy is on the right path. Tom Friedman of the New York Times wrote a column in which he said, let me quote him here, "There is deep mistrust between the White House in Ukraine President Zelenskyy considerably more than has been reported." At the same time last month, Zelenskyy fired his top security chief and prosecutor over treason charges, which sets off alarm bells when something like that happens in the middle of the war. So can you give us some insight into both what's happening in Kyiv and whether or not there are tensions between Washington and Kyiv?

Stephen Sestanovich:

This is super complicated and involves a reliance on a speculation that is inevitable in war time. It's always true in looking at a government like the Ukrainian one and with the funny relationship between important journalists like Tom Friedman and their White House sources, probably inevitable in our system too.

Jim Lindsay:

And we don't know which White House sources he spoke with.

Stephen Sestanovich:

We absolutely do not. Let's start with the attitude of American officials towards Zelenskyy. It's been a kind of troubled one for a while, or at least it was before the war. The consensus among American officials was that Zelenskyy and his people were just blind to the risks of war. They changed their attitude when it turned out that Zelenskyy was Winston Churchill of 2022, and not only rallied his own people, but rallied people all across the world, and so they became heroes. Zelenskyy became a figure that one could not criticize. However, some of the tension has remained. The Zelenskyy people are not hesitant to criticize the West for being slow in delivering arms, although that's sort of changed, and it varies a little bit from official to official. There is a kind of internal dynamic in the Ukrainian government that I don't think anybody in Washington has got figured out. When there are upheavals and firings in the course of a wartime enterprise, it doesn't necessarily mean that the government is coming apart at the seams. It can mean the leadership is finding people who are better able to meet the moment. And I think that is possibly true in this case with Zelenskyy.

           He got rid of a guy who was in charge of intelligence, who was really not suited to the job, who was an old friend of his. Whether that means that there's going to be a continuing upheaval, we don't know. There is bound to be, because this is Ukraine, friends, there's bound to be internal division because people are looking to see where they're going to land depending on different outcomes of the war. My sense is that this is a relationship between Washington and Kiev that has had its ups and downs, but it is basically been, over time, solidified because the Ukrainians have done much better than expected, because Washington has turned out to be ready to give more and more weapons than the Ukrainians had first feared, and as a result, they're in this together and can't benefit by bringing the other down too much. So it's a crazy unsatisfactory relationship from both sides, and yet one that is bound to continue. And so far, I think both sides have got a lot to be satisfied with.

Jim Lindsay:

Steve, let's talk about whether or not we really are all on this together. A lot has been written since early February, about how Russia's aggression has reunited the West, and people have been surprised by how much the European Union has done in response to Russian aggression. But what I've heard a lot over the course of summer from European academics and officials, is what I would describe as a fear, namely that sometime this fall, Putin is going to make a grand diplomatic gesture. There may not be a lot there, but it is going to be one that, at least in certain European capitals, is going to be enough to say, "Okay, we've reached a new era and we can find some way to walk back from the precipice."

            Meanwhile, the Ukrainians will dismiss this out of hand, perhaps because they don't believe it's genuine, perhaps because they are succeeding on the ground militarily, hence don't see a reason to stop just now, and the result is going to split the European and Western Coalition. And again, in the background is the fact that many European countries depend upon Russian gas to keep themselves warm, and right now we're looking to be headed into winter, with much of Europe not having anywhere near the stock of natural gas supplies that they normally would. How do you make sense of that scenario?

Stephen Sestanovich:

Well, look, let's just pick up on utility prices, which is where you ended up. There are European countries that are looking at possible increase in electricity costs in the fall and winter of 75 to 100%. That's an unhappy prospect.

Jim Lindsay:

We saw a bit of that here in the United States when gas prices spiked in the spring.

Stephen Sestanovich:

You bet. And those weren't 75 to 100% increases. So European governments are anxious about this. They have been slow in delivering the economic aid to the Ukrainians that they've promised for reasons that don't have all that much to do with public support, but with just with internal divisions within the EU, the difficulty of coming up with transfers that everybody can agree to. It's said that the Europeans have delivered barely 10% of their economic aid that they've promised to Ukraine. That's surely a source of the Ukrainian economic difficulties that are mounting. So you've got that problem. Intra-EU difficulties, public unhappiness, the possibility that the EU will not figure out any way to deliver on some of the policies that it has in principle agreed to, like cutting off oil and gas purchases, and will just grab at the possibility of some relief from this, even if it doesn't look good.

            I think there's every reason to worry about that. The only thing I would say by way of not taking that as a complete given is that not only this year, but in previous years, the EU has been forecast to be unable to deliver on sanctions policies, unable to fashion a unified or approach to dealing with Russia in general, shying away from anything that will be costly to publics. And yet I would say since the 2014 crisis, the EU has actually managed to fashion a unity that people didn't really expect.

            Now, this is a much higher stakes game where the costs are higher, the risk of a war that engulfs some European countries is greater. The reasons to try to take the Russians up on some compromise outcome are greater, but the reasons to resist are also greater. This could look like a victory for a hysterical ethno-nationalist aggression that people are uncomfortable validating. And the idea of going ahead with this could also divide the EU just as much as implementing sanctions. Just think of what the reaction will be among the frontline states, the Poles, the Balts, the Scandinavians, for that matter. You will have a lot of countries threatening to go their own way, resisting the idea of any kind of sanctions relief, for example, for Putin. So I think, just as I said earlier, it's hard for Putin to stand down from a not good situation. I think it's going to be hard for the EU to stand back from this effort.

Jim Lindsay:

Knowing that all of this is possible, Steve, what should the Biden administration be doing to prepare? Is it doing it?

Stephen Sestanovich:

Well, one bit of advice that they're getting, which seems to me basically, right, is that they ought to be treating the improvement of Ukraine's military capabilities as a high priority, something that if they have it within their ability to accelerate, they ought to be doing it, because getting into the winter is going to bring to the fore all of the divisions among Western governments that you described and subject the Ukrainians to a lot of hardship too. We haven't talked about how terribly economic outlook in Ukrainian is, but it's really beyond awful. The Ukrainians, they're able to come up with revenues that cover only 40% of their spending. They're having to turn to the IMF, to Western governments for financial assistance that a lot of governments just think they can't come up with.

           So trying to push a military outcome, a success for the Ukrainians that forces the Russians to think harder about a settlement that they won't like, but that will be a way of heading off an even worse defeat. All of that seems to me the kind of advice that Biden administration ought to be following. They're surely getting it. And my sense is that they are probably a little bit divided about how to do it, but that's the direction of Western policy and has been for months in a way that they have tried to handle, in a pretty low key Biden administration-esque way, they have, after the initial shock of the war, actually handled the issue of stoking popular animosity and fears in a relatively subdued way. I'd expect that to continue even as the military buildup increases.

Jim Lindsay:

Steve, you have stressed arming Ukraine so that it is able to increase the pressure on the Russians. Should there be any thought given to creating carrots or incentives for the Russians to stand down or have we passed that point by?

Stephen Sestanovich:

Well, depends on what you mean by carrots. I think what has generally been considered the main carrot for the Russians is some possibility of sanctions relief and some future delimitation on the military relationship between Ukraine and NATO. I think those issues will both be on the table if you're talking to the Russians, in circumstances in which you think the Russians might actually be prepared to consider a big withdrawal.

Jim Lindsay:

Though we don't seem to be talking right at the moment.

Stephen Sestanovich:

We don't see it, and I think we aren't. They're having enough trouble getting one basketball star out of jail in Moscow, so there's not a lot of dialogue. I was going to say something different about those carrots though, which is, it's hard for the United States to use them because of the experience that we've had with the Russians. An awful lot of the sanctions that have been imposed on the Russians, a lot of people want to make permanent. A lot of the military support for Ukraine, a lot of people will say that's just mere necessity because they have to be protected against a Russian third invasion. So it's going to be very difficult for all the parties here to find a formula for an agreement.

Jim Lindsay:

How much do you worry about escalation on the Russians’ part? Obviously faced with great losses, they could decide to stand down, but they could also increase the scope of the conflict. Is that a real worry?

Stephen Sestanovich:

Nobody should dismiss that. The Russians have made rather scary noises about escalation. And the quote I mentioned earlier from President Medvedev about judgment day has that apocalyptic tone. The Russians have definitely tried to gain some advantage by threatening nuclear escalation. The question is whether they are really prepared for the terrifying consequences that might follow. And my instinct here is, no. At that point, the hesitation throughout the Russian national security establishment will be very, very great, and while Putin is somebody who does make impulsive decisions, what most people who viewed him up close or seriously over a long distance in a long period have said about him is he's not suicidal. I think that we need to not be more intimidated by this prospect than the Russians are, but it's not something one could easily dismiss. You got to be scared by it.

Jim Lindsay:

On that note, I'll close up The President's Inbox for this week. My guest has been Stephen Sestanovich, George F. Kennan senior fellow for Russian and Eurasian Studies at CFR. Steve, as always, thanks for joining me

Stephen Sestanovich:

As always, a pleasure, Jim.

Jim Lindsay:

Please subscribe to The President's Inbox on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen, and leave us a review. We love the feedback. You can find the 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. Today's episode was produced by Markus Zakaria with senior podcast producer, Gabrielle Sierra. Markus did double duty for us as our recording engineer. Thank you, Markus. Special thanks go out to Margaret Gach for her assistance. This is Jim Lindsay. Thanks for listening.

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