Ukraine’s Counteroffensive, With Max Boot

Max Boot, the Jeane J. Kirkpatrick senior fellow in national security studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and a Washington Post columnist, sits down with James M. Lindsay to discuss the success of Ukraine's recent military counteroffensive and how Russia is likely to respond. 

September 13, 2022 — 33:10 min
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Host

James M. Lindsay

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

Episode Guests

Max Boot

Jeane J. Kirkpatrick Senior Fellow for National Security Studies

Show Notes

Max Boot, the Jeane J. Kirkpatrick senior fellow in national security studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and a Washington Post columnist, sits down with James M. Lindsay to discuss the success of Ukraine's recent military counteroffensive and how Russia is likely to respond. 

 

Mentioned on the Podcast

 

Max Boot, “Putin Wants to Terrorize Ukraine Into Submission. It’s Not Working,” Washington Post 

 

Max Boot, The Road Not Taken: Edward Lansdale and the American Tragedy in Vietnam

 

Tim Lister and Darya Tarasova, “Russia’s Collapse in Northeast Ukraine Ignites Fury From Putin Loyalists,” CNN

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Transcript

Jim Lindsay: (00:03)
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 Ukraine's counteroffensive. With me to discuss the significance of Ukraine's recent successes against the Russian military is Max Boot. Max is the Jeane J. Kirkpatrick senior fellow in national security studies at the Council. He is also a columnist for the Washington Post and has written widely and well on a range of issues involving war in military affairs. Max's most recent book, The Road Not Taken: Edward Lansdale and the American Tragedy in Vietnam, was a New York Times Best Seller and a finalist for the 2019 Pulitzer Prize in Biography. Max, thanks for joining me.

Max Boot: (00:56)
Great to be with you, Jim.

Jim Lindsay: (00:57)
So Max, Ukraine has launched its much anticipated counteroffensive against Russian forces. The counteroffensive looks to have gone very well so far. CNN is reporting that in the last week, Ukraine has recaptured more territory than Russian forces captured in all their operations in Ukraine since April. Can you walk us through what this Ukrainian counteroffensive looks like, Max?

Max Boot: (01:22)
Well, it's a very significant attack, Jim, and a very significant victory for the Ukrainians and a very significant defeat for the Russians. This is happening in Kharkiv province in northeastern Ukraine. And much of the focus up until recently has been on southern Ukraine, in particular in Kherson province, where the Ukrainians had been sort of advertising an offensive since August. And what that did was that it induced the Russians, deplete their defenses in the east to move some troops into the southern Ukraine. And that opened up a huge opportunity for the Ukrainians, which they have taken advantage of with stunning success to launch an unexpected surprise attack on Russian forces around Kharkiv, which is Ukraine's second largest city located in the northeast, very close to the border with Russia. And the Ukrainians caught the Russians with their pants down. The Russians were completely unprepared. And with these mobile operations, the Ukrainian forces have made very rapid advances. In the last week, they have liberated more than a thousand square miles of territory so a lot of land, and the Russians have been running literally, many of them back to Russia. The Russian forces have not been willing to stand and fight. They have just been caught unprepared, and they have been sent reeling. So this is the biggest Ukrainian victory since the defense at Kyiv in the wars early days in a massive setback for Putin and is more of aggression against Ukraine.

Jim Lindsay: (02:47)
So Max, help me understand why the Russians were so unprepared for the attack on Kharkiv. You've read far more military history than I have, but what I have read suggested it's pretty common in warfare for your adversary to feint in one direction and to attack you in another. In that sense, the Ukrainian tactics or strategy seems taken out of a well-worn playbook. It is as you describe it, I think accurately, it comes across almost as if this was a novel idea to the Russians.

Max Boot: (03:18)
One of the features of the Ukraine invasion has been terrible Russian intelligence. I mean, we think that U.S. Intelligence was bad in places like Iraq and it was, but Russian intelligence has been 10 times worse because remember, the whole premise of Putin's invasion of Ukraine was this notion that he could take Kyiv in three days and that a lot of Ukrainians would welcome, quote unquote, Russian liberation because they happened to speak Russian. Those assumptions as we saw in the spring were spectacularly misinformed. That is not at all what happened. The Ukrainians actually fought very violently. The Russians could not penetrate Kyiv. They had to pull back and 90 plus percent of the country has rallied around President Zelensky and his resistance to Russian occupation. So horrible Russian intelligence, kind of ironic given the fact that Putin himself was a former KGB man, but you're seeing that terrible Russian intelligence once again, where they were completely unprepared by the Ukrainian thrust out of Kharkiv, but it's not just bad intelligence. I would say it's also terrible military leadership and very low morale. All those things have combined to sty me the Russian war effort, despite the much larger material advantage that the Russians enjoy over the Ukrainians. I mean, it's a much larger country, much larger military, many more weapons. And yet the Russians have somehow over the past six plus months managed to squander their material advantages just through horrible intelligence and terrible leadership. And you're seeing that there are many differences between the Russian and Ukrainian forces, and the Ukrainians are now actually starting to become, in some respects, better equipped than the Russians because they're getting this massive flow of western and in particular, US weaponry. But I think the biggest differences are really in the realm of leadership and morale. The Ukrainians are fighting for their homes. They're fighting to defend their nation from annihilation. And that gives them a kind of morale, fighting spirit that these Russian troops simply don't have because what are they fighting for? They're fighting for their paychecks. Many of them are basically mercenaries. They have very little motivation to fight for the Putin regime because whatever Putin may think, conquering Ukraine is not integral to the future survival of Russia. And I'm sure the troops know that. They also have terrible corrupt leadership that completely sells them out time after time. They often don't get the food or the equipment that they're supposed to get because somebody has sold it on the black market. And the Russian military continues to suffer from this over centralized style of leadership, which harks back to the days of the Soviet Union, where the lower level officers and non-commissioned officers are afraid to take decisions because they fear the consequences of what their senior leaders will say if they screw things up. And so everything is reliant on decision making at a very senior level, and the Ukrainians have had a lot of success in targeting rush and command posts, taking out Russian officers, disrupting their command infrastructure. And so the Russians have often been left kind of rudderless and not knowing what to do, whereas, the Ukrainians have transformed their military with U.S. And other Western help since 2014. So they're much more of a U.S. Style military where decision making is pushed down to the lowest levels, junior officers, and NCOs. They have spirit, they have ingenuity, they have motivation, and they have the authority to make decisions. And so the Ukrainians have consistently shown that they are much more nimble fighters than the Russians who are very ponderous, slow moving, and often find themselves unable to keep up with the operational tempo of the Ukrainian forces.

Jim Lindsay: (07:01)
Max, I think you're right to flag the importance of morale in terms of how an army or a military fights. Morale is one of the hardest things to measure. Morale is usually higher as you point out, when you're fighting for something that you believe in. It's also higher when you are winning. And that takes us back to your observation about poor Russian leadership, but also poor Russian intelligence. So I want to look at it from the other perspective, to what extent has American military intelligence and advice been important to the success of the Ukrainians? Do we know?

Max Boot: (07:37)
Let me just start by saying that U.S. Weapons have been very important to the success of the Ukraine. And I think the decision by President Biden to supply Ukraine in June with HIMARS, the rocket artillery systems that have a range of about 50 miles, that has been a turning point on the war because that's what enabled the Ukrainians to blunt the Russian artillery bombardment that and has been pulverizing Ukrainian positions in the Donbas region of the east. All of a sudden the Ukrainians are able to use HIMARS to target not only Russian command posts, but ammunition depots. And so they interrupted the flow of shells to the Russian artillery and that all of a sudden slowed the Russian advance to a stand still and has now allowed the Ukrainians to take the initiative. And there are other U.S. weapon systems that have been important, including the HARM missiles, the high-speed anti-radiation missiles, that we have now supplied to the Ukrainian Air Force, which they're using to take out Russian radars which has also been very important to allow Ukrainian aircraft and unmanned aerial systems to operate over the battlefield. And there's also, this is getting more directly to your question, there's also been U.S. Intelligence that's been provided to the Ukrainians and certainly U.S. advice as well. It's hard to know exactly how crucial that has been because what we largely hear is one side of the story, which is after you have a big breakthrough like this, there's a little beating of the breasts at the Pentagon and a few victory laps are taken and you see the lead-

Jim Lindsay: (09:00)
Always off the record.

Max Boot: (09:01)
Yeah. Always off the record, but do you see the results in places like the New York Times or Washington Post where officials are bragging about how much they did behind the scenes to help the Ukrainians with intelligence, with planning, with war gaming. And I'm sure all that stuff was important. I don't mean to diminish it in any respect. And I think it has been crucial, especially the weapons, all that has been crucial to the Ukrainian success. But I would make one very important point because let's remember the Armed Forces of Afghanistan also had all the U.S. Support in the world. They had even more support in many ways because they had an Air Force that was provided by the United States, but they had tons of weapons and they were fighting against a much less formidable adversary. I mean, they were fighting against the Taliban, which is basically a light infantry force armed with small arms, with assault weapons. They don't have missiles, they don't have artillery, they don't have all aircraft, all these systems that the Russians decline and the Russians are one of the largest and most powerful military forces in the world. And yet the Afghans, with every advantage in the world, completely folded and basically gave a cobble last summer with barely any fight because they did not believe in their cause, they had low morale, their own government was riddled with corruption and it was widely viewed by many people in Afghanistan as being an illegitimate foreign imposed regime. It's night and day with Ukraine. I think, ultimately what explains the Ukrainian success is that the Ukrainians believe in their government and they believe in their cause. They believe in their democracy, they are fighting for their right to freedom. They're fighting for their right to self-determination. They believe in this fight. You see it in the polls where over 90% of the people of Ukraine support President Zelensky's government. Over 90% are confident that they will win. So there is no division in Ukrainian society. This is like America during World War II. And we were United in what we saw as this existential battle against evil. That is exactly how the Ukrainians view the current struggle and it gives them a massive advantage. So they've been very skilled and smart in using all this Western provided weaponry, but all the arms in the world wouldn't make any difference if they didn't have that fighting spirit, that desire to go out and win and to risk death or dismemberment in the cause of their nation, then that's exactly what they're doing. So, I don't mean to disparage U.S. aid in any way. It’s been incredibly important. We need to provide more weapons and more stuff, but the difference between victory and defeat, I think is really the quality of the Ukrainian Armed Forces and the kind of support that they receive from the Ukrainian nation.

Jim Lindsay: (11:34)
So what does Ukraine do next, Max? I have to assume that President Zelensky, Ukraine's military leadership has to view the success of the counteroffensive as being basically their best case scenario, but the facts are still troubling in many ways. The fighting in the southeastern portion or southern portion of the country, where the Russians are in greater number, have more supplies has been much tougher. Russia still controls large chunks in southeastern Ukraine. Of course, Russia continues to hold all the Crimea, which is illegally annexed back in 2014. So do the Ukrainians keep pressing their military advantage? Do they, at some point, stop and try to consolidate their gains? What do you think comes next?

Max Boot: (12:21)
Those are great questions which are very hard to answer without having access to a lot of information that we don't have access to because only the Ukrainians know what their supply lines are, what their capacities are, how far they can go, how far they can support an offensive. But right now, what you see, I think what President Zelensky is trying to do is, he is trying to change the facts on the ground before winter sets in. I think there are a couple of factors that are dictating this Ukrainian offensive, both in the northeast and the south. First factor is President Zelensky really wants to stop the sham referendums that the Russians were going to hold in both the south and east on a next and those territories to Russia. They had announced that they were going to do that this fall. The Ukrainians really don't want them to do that. And now those referendums have been postponed by this Ukrainian military success. The other factor is to strike before winter because there's a sense that when the snow starts, the battlefield is likely to become more static. It's going to be harder to move. The Russians can dig in. And at that point also, of course, the Europeans are going to feel the impact of higher energy prices if the Russians withhold their gas supplies. So there's always the danger that European support for the Ukrainians could waver. I think President Zelensky is making that less likely now because he's showing that the Ukrainians are being successful and everybody wants to be associated with the winner. This is clearly not a lost cause. In fact, the Ukrainians have the initiative and the momentum, and I think it remains to be seen what they're going to do next. I think as we've seen the last week, they're very good at the element of operational surprise so I would not be full hard enough to say we're going to strike an X place next. I think they have a lot of options. By the way, I think they're continuing the Kherson offensive in the south. It has not certainly had the kind of rapid results that we've seen in the northeast, but I think the Ukrainians are chipping away at the Russian logistics, at the Russian ability to support their forces on the west bank of Dnipro River. At some point, if the Russians can't support their forces, they're going to be either trapped or have to withdraw. And so I think the Ukrainian hope in the south is to avoid a very costly war of attrition. They don't want to slug it out toe-to-toe these entrenched Russian forces, because doing that would inflict very heavy casualties on the Ukrainians, being a democracy. They're very casualty averse. They don't want people to die, whereas as Putin doesn't seem to care how many Russians get slaughtered for his mad dreams of imperial glory. So I think the Ukrainians will continue to chip away. And I think we should not assume that the south is going to remain a stalemate indefinitely any more than the east has been. This was something I actually wrote in June where it appeared that the war was kind of settling into the stalemate. But as I pointed out in one of my columns, if you look at military history, there is a long number of precedents of a stalemate suddenly shattering in a way that nobody expected. I mean, for example, this happened in 1918 on the Western Front where you'd had a four-year long stalemate and all of a sudden, after the American entry into the war and the consequences of the British Blockade of Germany by November 1918, the Germans were pretty much spent in their army, just shattered. And the situation change very rapidly on the ground. I think you're seeing some of that happening right now in Kharkiv and northeastern Ukraine. I think the issue will be whether Putin can stop the panic and stop the flight, whether he can mobilize more forces, or whether this defeatism will spread and infect Russian ranks throughout the country.

Jim Lindsay: (15:49)
Well, let's pursue that line of argument. Max, what happens if the Ukrainians have even more success? If the Russian military breaks in the south and southeast, do you expect the Ukrainians to try to push on to Crimea? In conversely, should the United States or the West try to slow such a Ukrainian military advance on the fear that it may expand the war?

Max Boot: (16:13)
I mean, I think the Ukrainians have been pretty clear that they view Crimea as their territory and that they will liberated if they're able to-

Jim Lindsay: (16:19)
It is under international law.

Max Boot: (16:20)
Right. Now, I think, Crimea is obviously going to be the toughest target because it is isolated from the Ukrainian mainland. It has Russian Air Force and naval bases. That's going to be very tough to take, but I think that's not certainly not going to be an immediate objective for the Ukrainians. They've actually managed to attack Russian bases on Crimea a few times recently, but that's not designed to enable a larger attack in Crimea. It's designed to disrupt Russian operations in southern Ukraine, which are supported from Crimea, and I think it's been successful in that regard. I mean, I think the realistic Ukraine objective is, I think they have a very good shot to take back pretty much all the territory that the Russians have seized since February 24th in the south and east. I think that's a realistic objective and we should do everything possible to support them. I think we were talking about and what the prospects are for the Ukrainian offensive now that the Russians are on the run and the northeast, what can they do? Well, part of what they can do is going to be depending on what we do because so far we have been limiting U.S. aid. And I mentioned that the HIMARS were incredibly important, incredibly critical, but the Ukrainians only have 16 HIMARS. Imagine what they could do if we would supply 60 of those, now that would have a huge impact. Or if we could supply longer range of emissions for the HIMARS called the ATACMS, which have a range of like 150 miles versus the 50 miles on the HIMARS. Or if we started supplying F-16s and M1 Abrams tanks, which is also equipment that the Ukrainians want. And frankly, I don't see any reason why we shouldn't supply it. I think we should be enabling them because if you think about what is the best way to achieve a durable piece in Ukraine in the war for good, it's not to have this uneasy stalemate of the kind that they had in the Donbas in 2014 until February of this year, where there is constant fighting and sniping and going back and forth, and the Russians are just waiting for an opportunity to resume their attack. I think it's incredibly important to the extent that the Ukrainians are able to push the Russians back outside the international borders of Ukraine within an asterisk around Crimea, but certainly the other international land borders of Crimea. And I think that is going to make for a more durable piece although obviously there is going to be some understandable nervousness about how is Putin going to react to a defeat of that magnitude.

Jim Lindsay: (18:41)
Max, I take your point about the question surrounding what it is the United States and NATO country should supply Ukraine with. But there's also the question of what targets the Ukrainians can be allowed to hit. My understanding is that NATO countries have provided weapons to the Ukrainians with the understanding that Ukraine will not attack targets within Russia itself. It is as you note, the success of the counteroffensive in the northeast now means that Ukrainian troops are going to be right up against the Russian border. There's the possibility that the Russians will attack with missiles or artillery from Russian territory. Should the West dissuade to the Ukrainians from counterattacking?

Max Boot: (19:25)
It's certainly the case that the Ukrainians should not be trying to bomb Moscow, okay? And I'm sure we've told them not to do that, but I don't know, they need our advice not to do that. It's more of a fuzzy area when it comes to the border region because you do have places like Belgorod, which is a Russian city, right over the border from Kharkiv, not that far away, which is used to support military operations. And until recently, up until this recent offensive, the Russians were actually shelling Kharkiv, the city of Kharkiv from Russian territory. And so at that point, it becomes kind of crazy if we're telling the Ukrainians, "No, you can't do anything about the fact that your second largest city is being shelled because the artillery pieces are in Russian territory." I think in that kind of situation, they have every right to defend themselves by taking out Russian military positions right on their border, but certainly they should not be expanding the war. I don't think they want to expand the war. And I don't think we should be too, too nervous because there have actually been, despite the fact that the U.S. And other NATO countries have told the opinions not to attack Russian territory. They actually have attacked Russian territory surreptitiously on a number of occasions. They're not attacking civilian targets. They're only attacking military targets in Russia. And Putin has basically chosen not to make an issue out of this. I mean, they also not so long ago, carried out attacks on Russian air bases in Crimea which Putin claims is a part of Russia, but these are next to Russia. And again, he has muttered threats about escalation and so forth, but he really has not highlighted these Ukrainian attacks. He's kind of let them go because I'm not sure that he has a good response.

Jim Lindsay: (21:01)
Well, let's talk about the response that President Putin has. Obviously the Ukrainian counteroffensive is creating some upset in Moscow. The assumption is that President Putin isn't simply going to cry uncle and call off the Russian military. There are no signs that the Russians are looking to open diplomatic negotiations, anything the Russians have said over and over again that they plan to continue this war. So what does that mean? What is it you think Putin will do in response to the success of the Ukrainian counteroffensive?

Max Boot: (21:36)
Well, we don't know. I think that's the big imponderable. I don't think that even the CIA knows because they'll know once he makes a decision, but as he's deliberating, I'm not sure that they know because it's a very opaque political system. It's not clear who the decision makers, if any, are besides Putin. It just seems to be basically one man regime at this point. And as we've seen in the past year, he can certainly make very dangerous decisions like his decision to invade Ukraine, which those of us looking at it from the outside saying, "The Russians are going to invade a country of 40 million people with 150,000 troops or even fewer? How is this going to work? They don't have the troop-to-task ratio. It doesn't make a damn bit of sense." And yet he did it anyway because he had some bad intelligence telling him that he could succeed in three days or whatever. So Putin is certainly prone to delusion, prone to bad decision making. But I would say he is not crazy. I mean, there was a little bit of a worry after the invasion of Ukraine. Is this guy got off his rocker? Is he going to start World War III? I haven't seen any evidence that's the case. He's actually been pretty rational. Like when the Russians were losing around Kyiv, he didn't start World War III. He pulled the troops back and focused on the Donbas, which made military sense from the Russian perspective. And so far as I mentioned, he has not responded to some of these Ukrainian attacks inside Russia. And he definitely... Well, again, one of the other concerns that I know other people had was NATO countries supplying Ukraine, like Poland has been a massive relay station of aid to Ukraine with U.S. cargo jets landing all the time in Poland and equipment moving across the border. So there was concern. Putin can attack Poland. Is he going to attack some of these other frontline NATO states? He hasn't done that at all. And I would surmise it's because he understands if he can't defeat Ukraine militarily, he certainly cannot defeat NATO. And I don't see any indication that he is reckless enough to start World War III, to start a nuclear war because I mean, this is the guy who insists on meeting people across a 30-foot table, because he's so worried about catching COVID. I mean, he doesn't want to be a martyr. He doesn't have any kind of life after death ideology. This is all about enjoyment here and now for him. All that said, and we don't know what he's going to do, but I mean, he certainly has options, including the big option I think right now is will he mobilize Russian society? And he's refused to do it so far. He's refused to even call it a war. He's called it a special military operation.

Jim Lindsay: (23:58)
Max, can you walk me through why mobilization would be significant? I understand that you could call up people under Russian law, but it takes more than that to build an army that can be effective on the battlefield. If you send untrained troops on old battlefield, you just turned him into cannon fodder.

Max Boot: (24:15)
Well, that's exactly right. And I think that's part of the reason why he has not actually declared a larger draft or mobilized Russian society because it's not clear that he has the officers to train a lot of new troops and it's not clear he has the equipment to supply them. And so, as you say, you could just be sending more cannon fodder to be blown up on the battlefield. But I think the other reason why, and again, this is all surmise. We don't really know what Putin is thinking, but the other reason experts surmise that he has not declared to mobilization is because he's afraid of the political blowback because basically the social contract that Putin has with Russian society is, "You give me all the power, don't criticize me. Let me loop the state. Let me and my cronies engage in horrific corruption. But at the same time, we will give you a somewhat better life and improved standard of living and we won't ask that much of you."He certainly hasn't been conscripting the elites in places like St. Petersburg and Moscow, because I think he remembers what happened in the Afghanistan war in the 1980s, when he was a young man, a young KGB officer, and there was a Mothers Movement that formed in Russia, in the Soviet Union in the 1980s. Among the mothers of troops who were killed in Afghanistan and that helped to undermine support for the war effort and helped to undermine the Soviet regime. I don't think he wants something like that in the case of Ukraine. I think he's afraid of the political blowback. If he mobilizes Russian society and still can't achieve a victory, so he basically prefers to fight on a cheap raising pay-for-troops, trying to, unless people from the margins of society, from non-Russian ethnic groups, from the underclass, they've even been enlisting from prisons and mental homes allegedly. So anybody they can drag into a Russian uniform, they will do. But they have not put Russian industry on a full wartime footing. They have certainly not mobilized all of Russian society. So if you were to do that, I think it could potentially change the playing field in Ukraine. But it would take some time because as you say, you can't just mobilize millions of people and call them an army. You have to train, you have to equip them. Very hard to do, especially because the Russians are suffering very heavy losses of officers and their best troops in Ukraine. So it would probably take them a year or two to actually train up a substantial new force and equip a new force. And already Russia is starting to feel the squeeze from economic sanctions. They've been able to more or less keep the economy functioning in part largely because of energy sales, which are going decline. But in places again like Moscow and St. Petersburg, they really don't feel the war. They feel like there's a sense of normality going on. But again, I think Putin is afraid that if he were to mobilize Russian industry, people would not be getting the consumer against that they've come to expect. Everything would be going to build weapons. And so again, that would be another massive stress on Russian society, which I think he is eager to avoid. So for all those reasons, I think he faces very difficult dilemmas about whether to mobilize or not mobilize and what to do because he just does not have enough troops on the ground in Ukraine right now to win this war, not even remotely close.

Jim Lindsay: (27:17)
So Max, do you have any read on Putin's political situation in Moscow today? I read stories of growing criticism of his handling of the war. I see that recently 40 local elected officials in Russia signed a petition, criticizing his handling of the war. I also see news reports that Putin is being increasingly attacked by ultranationalists who argue that he hasn't done enough and he's leading the country to defeat. Now, I think you're quite right that Putin has essentially turned Russia into a one man rule, but one man can go. If you have any sense of Putin's challenges in longevity?

Max Boot: (27:56)
I really don't have a good sense of it. And quite honestly, talking to Russia experts, I'm not sure anybody has a good sense of it because again, this is such a closed political system. It's not like the days of the Soviet Union, which Russia actually arguably had a more functional political system under the Soviet regime because they actually had a Politburo so there was a sense of collective decision making. And if the top guy screwed up badly enough, as Khrushchev did during the Cuban Missile Crisis, he was actually deposed by the Politburo, but there is no more Politburo. It's not clear who, if anybody, could depose Putin at this point, possibly there are some generals who could do it, possibly senior people in the security services. Certainly if they can get to his bodyguards, that would be huge because many presidents have been overthrown by their own troops, by their own bodyguards. But these are people who are very carefully vetted, paid a lot of money, very loyal to Putin. He knows that his survival depends on their loyalty and so it's proved a very durable regime, which has lasted more than 20 years now. And there is some dissension Russian society at large, despite the nonstop war time propaganda, and the fact that it's illegal to protest or criticize the warfare and people are actually going to jail for this. Despite that, I think, there is some grumbling, some dissatisfaction. Certainly, a lot of Russian elites, technocrats have fled the country since the invasion started. And there have been murmurs that some of the oligarchs, the wealthy business leaders, are unhappy about the war because of course it's cutting into their bottom line. But again, it doesn't seem like any of those people actually has any influence or sway over Putin. It's not clear who influences Putin's decision making or what it will take to cause them to change course, or what could possibly lead to those overthrow. And I'm not ruling out as overthrow. I just don't think we know enough to say what the chances are, who would carry it out. It would be, I think, a complete surprise if it were to happen. I mean, it's certainly not something that I think we should count on.

Jim Lindsay: (29:50)
There's certainly no evidence that he's going to voluntarily resign the presidency of Russia. Just a quick question, Max, to follow up on that. If Putin does depart the scene, is that necessarily good? Do you have any sense of what might replace is essentially one man rule?

Max Boot: (30:07)
Well, that's a great point and it's not necessarily good. We just don't know. I mean, it could be he could be replaced by even harder aligners. People who think that all bets are off and they should go and nuke Ukraine. I mean, that's what in the realm of possibility. Yeah. I think that's actually a very important point that you're making, there's kind of an assumption like we have to pray that Putin will leave office or will drop dead or whatever, and things will improve. Yeah, that is a possibility. I would be very happy if Alexei Navalny were let out of prison and became the next president of Russia. But I don't think that the odds would necessarily favor that happening. And it's quite possible that if Putin is overthrown, it could be by a harder line faction, but we just don't know. Weighing on the other side is the fact that this is very much Putin's war. Everybody knows he makes all the decisions. So he has all the weight and responsibility of this conflict on his shoulders. If you had another leader come in, as long as they weren't completely crazy, they might make a very rational calculation kind of the way Gorbachev did and when he took over Soviet leader in 1985. He was not responsible for the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan so he could actually end it and it wouldn't reflect badly on him. The fact that he was ending it so you could have a similar dynamic with another leader, whoever would succeed Putin, they might feel like Putin invested too heavily in Ukraine. This is not my war. Let's cut our losses and hope for the past. So that could happen or you could have some crazy hard-line general, this Russian version of Dr. Strangelove taking over all bets are off. Everything is within the wrong with possibility here.

Jim Lindsay: (31:40)
Brings to mind the old saying by the great philosopher, Yogi Berra, "It is hard to make predictions, especially about the future."

Max Boot: (31:47)
Exactly. Which doesn't stop us, but still.

Jim Lindsay: (31:50)
On that note, I'm going to close up the President's Inbox for this week. My guest has been the one and only Max Boot, the Jeane J. Kirkpatrick senior fellow in national security studies here at the Council on Foreign Relations. Again, Max, thanks for joining me. Keep up the writing. I know you have the column in the Washington Post. You've been doing a lot of writing on the war in Ukraine that I think is well worth reading.

Max Boot: (32:12)
Thank you very much, Jim. Pleasure to be on with you.

Jim Lindsay: (32:14)
Please subscribe to The President's Inbox on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen, and leave us your review. We love the feedback. 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 are the host or our guests, not of CFR, which takes no institutional positions on matters of policy. Today's episode was produced by Ester Fang and Rafaela Siewert, with Senior Podcast Producer, Gabrielle Sierra. Ester and Rafaela were also our recording engineers. Thank you, Ester. Thank you, Raf. Special thanks go to Margaret Gach for her assistance. This is Jim Lindsay. Thanks for listening.

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