The war in Ukraine continues to rattle the world. As the conflict drags on, the West faces serious questions about how to proceed. Why It Matters Host Gabrielle Sierra sits down with CFR President Richard Haass to discuss the current situation and the global repercussions, including alleged Russian war crimes, the refugee crisis, and the energy debate.
From Richard Haass
“What Does the West Want in Ukraine?,” Foreign Affairs
Jonathan Masters, “Ukraine: Conflict at the Crossroads of Europe and Russia”
David J. Scheffer, “Can Russia Be Held Accountable for War Crimes in Ukraine?”
“War in the Digital Age, With Audrey Kurth Cronin,” The President’s Inbox
Elliott Abrams and Gideon Weiss, “Why Israel Has Been Slow to Support Ukraine”
“Perspective on Ukraine, With Richard Haass,” Why It Matters
Charles A. Kupchan, “Putin’s War in Ukraine Is a Watershed. Time for America to Get Real.,” New York Times
Kate Conger, “Ukraine Says It Thwarted a Sophisticated Russian Cyberattack on Its Power Grid,” New York Times
Watch and Listen
Claire Felter and Thamine Nayeem, “Is Russia Committing War Crimes in Ukraine?”
Hi everyone. It’s been more than two months since the war in Ukraine began. At first, many people assumed that the conflict wouldn’t happen. Then, many assumed that it would end with a quick Russian victory. Now, after incredible bravery by Ukrainian armed forces, we know that we are looking at a prolonged conflict.
Ukraine has pushed back hard. Russia seems to have given up on Kyiv, at least for the time being, and is preparing for a renewed assault on the Eastern and Southern regions of Ukraine.
Meanwhile, more than 11 million Ukrainians are believed to have fled their homes, with more than 5 million fleeing the country. Casualties continue to rise. And as focus on NATO grows, we still don’t know whether this regional war could turn into a war between superpowers.
With all of that in mind, we thought it was time to sit back down with CFR president Richard Haass. We talked last week, and a lot has happened since then including an official visit to Ukraine by Secretary of State Tony Blinken and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin.
But I learned a lot in the conversation, and I got to pick Richard’s brain about what this war means, and where it's headed. And we wanted to share that with our listeners.
I’m Gabrielle Sierra and this is Why It Matters. Today, the path forward in Ukraine, with Dr. Richard Haass.
Gabrielle SIERRA: Here we are again.
Richard HAASS: Good to be back.
SIERRA: Welcome back to Why It Matters, Richard Haass. Again, wish it was under better circumstances. But ..
HAASS: You wouldn't have me back if the circumstances were all good.
SIERRA: That's a good point, actually. Yeah. That's true. Ok let’s get right into it, so you have a new piece out in Foreign Affairs, and in it, you note that while Russia's goals in this war seem pretty clear, the goals of the West aren't very clear. So what should our goals be and what should we be unwilling to accept in terms of how this war ends?
HAASS: Russia's goals, as you say, seem, and I probably emphasize the word “seem” pretty clear.
HAASS: You never know what's real and what's put out, but the goals to begin with were quite expansive, obviously was all of Ukraine to effectively end its sovereignty, probably establish a puppet government, that didn't work out so well for Mr. Putin. They seemed to have downsized their goals significantly. And now you see a lot of stuff about the Donbas, a land corridor connecting Southern and Eastern Ukraine to Crimea. So that seems to be the current set of goals. If they ever were to achieve them, none of us can say with confidence, they wouldn't, once again, revise their goals up.
HAASS: But I am struck by the contrast. I don't know what our goals are. And I've been watching this pretty closely, you know, almost all the debate out there, think about it - is, are we providing enough arms? Are we providing the right kind of arms? Are we doing everything we can and should be in the way of sanctions? Are we doing everything we can and should do in the way of bolstering NATO? Almost all the debate that I've heard and read has been about means. It's not been about ends. So what's our definition of success? Is our definition of success, for example, to simply end the war? Is it to get all Russian forces out of all of Ukraine? Including what they gained in 2014, Crimea and parts of the Donbas? Is it to get back to where things were two months ago, when this phase of the war began? Is it to get a peace treaty? Is it to get accountability on war crimes? Is it to get payment for reparations? Is it to get Vladimir Putin out of power, when the president mused about regime change? So here we are two months into the war and I don’t think we have a shared definition of success. And that's really important because in a couple of weeks, we're probably going to be in the middle of an intense battle in the south and the east. And what should it inform our policy? For some would say so long as Russia doesn't get more than they now have, that ought to be something we, and the Ukrainians can live with. Some will say that gives Russia way too much of a reward. And that what we ought to do is get back to where we were in late February. Some will say, there should not be one Russian soldier on any square inch of Ukrainian territory. And a lot of people have raised their war aims because of the atrocities. War has a way of hardening people. And the feeling is Russia has to pay a cost for the awful things that they've done. So again, the question I have is what are our war aims? Who sets them? Ukraine might have a different set of war aims than the United States, which might have a different set of war aims, say than Germany or the EU or NATO. And there's a lot of history here. In 1950, when we fought a war in Korea and originally the North Koreans did very well, they conquered most of the peninsula, then General McArthur landed US and UN forces at this port called Incheon marched up to the 38th parallel. And at that point, things were where they had begun. And he and President Truman made the fateful decision, "Wow, we're on such a role. Let's continue. Let's try to unify the entire peninsula under the pro Western government in Seoul." And lots of people said, "Be careful because as you go up toward the Chinese border, the Chinese won't let that happen." Hundreds of thousands of Chinese troops entered the war, tens of thousands Americans, hundreds of thousands of Koreans died after that. And after several more years, things were once again, pretty much stopped along the 38th parallel. And I raised that because I think we need to have a serious conversation about a couple of possibilities. One is that things go badly on the ground. Just say, Russia continues to expand some of its holdings in the Donbas, moves towards Odessa and the rest, what more might we do there? What do we do to prevent that or reverse it? What happens if Ukraine starts gaining the upper hand? In the first phase of the war, Ukraine did extraordinarily well, just say they started pushing Russian troops out of the Donbas into Russia. And Mr. Putin then starts to threaten escalation. What do we do then? Again, what do we insist on if there are talks that begin about a cease fire? What are our terms and so on? It's important to have some good answers to these questions now.
SIERRA: Yeah. It seems like.
HAASS: The heated battle is not the best time to start improvising. By and large, you get in trouble when you improvise. History has a lot of examples of that, including something I was involved with, with the Gulf war. So it's important to think this through and my guess is there won't be consensus. There probably won't be consensus in Ukraine. There probably won't be consensus in the United States in the administration. There won't be consensus within Europe and NATO. And I don't want that to become something that Mr. Putin exploits. And so I think we need to begin talking about these to be honest, difficult issues, about who decides and what should be decided.
SIERRA: Right. This is really interesting to find out, because I feel like it's a little like that thing where you're like, "Oh, well my parents will know the answer and no worries." I just assume that there's a set goal and plan.
HAASS: One of the things I've learned over the last few years, I don't assume anything anymore. About our own country, about the world.
SIERRA: Fair enough.
HAASS: And even this war, think of how many people, even after close to 200,000 Russian troops mobilized on Ukraine's border, "assumed" that countries don't do that anymore.
HAASS: January 6th domestically, how many of us would've assumed that kind of thing can't happen here? People would never not accept an election or try to overturn it. So I think what we're learning the hard way is all bets are off. Also, it's one thing in an abstract academic way at the beginning of a conflict to say, "Okay, here's what our war aims are." And I've been involved in those drills in government, but the conflict itself can change them. Also in this case, the conflict wasn't expected by most people. Remember when the United States was running around saying, "Hey, these guys aren't just mobilizing. They're going to invade." And people said "No no." Including Zelenskyy, including President Zelenskyy. And so it's not clear to me when this war began, we had a set of aims because most people didn't think it was going to come about. And since it began for good reason, everybody's been so focused on how to not lose the war. Again, that's the questions of arms to provide intelligence, training, sanctions, what have you. That's been the understandable focus. This sounds like something. Well, we'll get to that later. So my guess is this is you have your inbox, your outbox, and I'll get to that later box. My hunch is that's in the, I'll get to that later. My point is simply, later is now. Now that we're on the cusp of a major battle, that could prove really significant for this war, we have got to think about what is it we want to bring about and what is it we want to avoid? What can't we live with? And those are questions we had better ask ourselves and more important start to answer.
SIERRA: What would it mean for it to end with Russia gaining territory? Does that establish a very dangerous precedent?
HAASS: My short answer would be yes. And that would be, to me, bad for both Ukraine, because the question is whether Ukraine was really viable, if you had Russia in control of large chunks of the country and you're sitting in Kyiv in government, what kind of autonomy and independence and sovereignty do you really have? How do you know Russia might not restart a war in the afternoon? But also if Russia were to maintain control of lots of territory, it's obviously inconsistent with the basic international tenant rule that sovereignty is to be respected. Territory is not to be acquired by force to the extent there's a basis for order in the world. That's probably the most fundamental principle. So the question is, if it's violated here, what else might Vladimir Putin do? What else might others do? If they basically said he can get away with it, how might China or somebody else read that and say, "Wow, that's interesting." Maybe that's a precedent for me. So my problem with Russia succeeding, even though they've reduced their definition of success, apparently, I don't like it. I don't like it for Ukraine. I don't like it for the precedent it sets, so I would think a reasonable goal is that we push back. We give Ukraine the means to push back if at all possible to get them at least to where things stood at the end of February before this round of the war began. Do you think that there's a risk of the US and Europe just getting tired of this as it goes on and sort of pulling back from it?
HAASS: The answer is yes. Might not be uniform, but people will say, "Well, we've got to focus now on something else." Some other crisis might come along or they might just get tired of this. They could get tired of things like higher energy prices. That's possible. You can also have political changes in certain countries. So you could have different governments, they could have very different policies and developments on the ground will affect policy. People will say, "Oh, it's hopeless." Or they'll say just the opposite. They'll say “it's too expensive.” When people start seeing the tab. President just announced another $800 million dollars package of arms going to Ukraine. But if this is a long war, which I think is more likely than not, if there's no peace agreement that "terminates the war," we could be doing 800 million dollars every couple of weeks, we could be doing several hundred million dollars of humanitarian aid every couple of weeks, not just us but other countries. So this could become an extraordinarily costly, for all the protagonists, for ourselves, as well as for Russia. And you could have pushback. And that's why, again, this debate over war aims becomes important. Because some people are going to be saying, it is worth fighting for, I expect there'll be those who say, "No, it's not." In this country, there's the historic tension between foreign policy and domestic policy. So-called guns versus butter. And I would think there'll be those who are say, "Well, we've done a lot for these people, but what about doing more for ourselves?" I'm not advocating that, but I would expect we're going to hear those voices, by the way, on both sides of the political divide. There'll be conservatives and progressives alike, who will likely argue that at some point.
SIERRA: Yeah. You said that, you know, foreign policy, doesn't always make it to the top of people's concern list.
HAASS: And even if it does, it doesn't stay there. And again, here we are after two months of war and if you turn on lots of cable television, this is dominating the shows, not a hundred percent, but dominating it. The question is will it still be in two more months? Or in four more months and so forth? So I have my doubts. And a lot will also, though, depend upon the nature of the fighting. What's also really affected things has been the atrocities. There's been a human quality to this war that this is not a battlefield war indeed. Central to Russian strategy has to make it anything but a battlefield war, but instead to target civilians in cities. And so when civilians living in cities elsewhere in the world see that, they have an identification with this. This is not in that sense a traditional war between armies, there's that dimension. And we're going to see it intensively in the south and east in the coming weeks. But this is also a war where missiles and artillery shells are being fired against civilians living in towns and cities. So when people in Europe in particular see that, but also in this country, there's an understandable, “oh my God” reaction.
SIERRA: And we are seeing it. We're seeing it as it happens on TikTok and different platforms.
HAASS: Exactly right. Again, exactly right. So this is monstrous. This is barbaric and people therefore feel we've got to do things. And I actually think that's had a lot to do with the Western reaction. It's interesting if you read the debate in Germany, the big loophole in the sanctions is that the Germans still haven't shut off their gas imports. And the question is these images, and we’re now seeing these terrible stories out of Mariupol about these large trenches with hundreds or even thousands of innocent people killed and put in them, is whether this affects the calculus in Germany and people say, "Hey, I know it would be incredibly costly to our economy if we were to shut off or dramatically reduce imports of Russian gas, but we have to because we're financing this war." And it'll be very interesting to watch that debate.
SIERRA: Well, thinking of natural gas and oil and energy, it feels like the west is sanctioning Russia but also still buying its energy, doesn't that play against itself?
HAASS: The short answer is yes. Russia's main export is energy, coal, oil, gas. Coal and oil are essentially global commodities. Because you put them on a tanker, you put them on a barge and you can send them anywhere. You can't send them to Europe, you can send them somewhere else. And that's what's happening. The sanctions against Russia are not universally supported, indeed, just the opposite. A clear majority, an overwhelming majority of the world's countries, are not supporting sanctions. I don't know if it's two thirds or three quarters or four fifths, but out of 190 or so countries in the United Nations General Assembly, I'd be surprised if more than 50 or so, were supporting sanctions. So Russia is still able to offload its oil. Russia's still offloading its coal and oil, even though we're not importing any energy from Russia. And even though the Europeans have announced, they're no longer accepting coal, I think they're in the process of no longer accepting oil. Gas though is different. Gas is not easily moved around. Either you have to have pipelines to ship it or you have to liquefy it, put it on boats and then un-liquify it. That is easier said than, and to build up the capacity to do the latter, either one can take years. Either you have to build new pipelines or you've got to build ways of liquefying and both exporting and importing the gas.
HAASS: So that's the one commodity Russia exports that makes hundreds of millions of dollars a day from, that Europe can't find, in near term, a substitute for. And at the moment have not been willing to go without. But we are financing this war. Russia is making well over $500 million a day. So whatever the costs of the war, whatever the costs of the sanctions, Russia's doing okay. It can sustain a long war in particular because the price of energy, even though it's come down a little bit in the last couple of days, has gone up dramatically over the course of the last year. So Russia can actually export less energy, but still get as much or even more money for it, given that the price is going up.
SIERRA: To go back to something dark that you mentioned, you know, there are a lot of atrocities going on. So there's been a lot of coverage on war crimes and I'm still trying to figure it out. So Russia seems to have like no guardrails in this war and the attacks against civilians have been, as you said, brutal and ruthless. But war is brutal and ruthless, right? So where does the distinction lie between war and war crimes? And also when is the time to talk about this?
HAASS: Okay. Two good questions. There are rules and codes and laws of war. What we're seeing now is a violation of every one of them. War is meant to be fought between combatants, people in uniform, on battlefield, with proportionality and so forth. Lots of traditions, religious and legal traditions, to do this. You are not supposed to target non-combatants. Now it's one thing if it happens accidentally, this is not accidentally. Accidents don't happen six times a day. Accidents may happen once or twice. This is the purposeful, intentional targeting. So this is a war crime. And what we're also seeing is unlawful treatment of people who are taken, these mass executions. This is happening with a regularity and on a scale, this is not an improvisation. This is clearly ordered. So let's just say that. The question then is what do you do about it? And I would say, I don't know any way of doing something about it now. And I hope that doesn't sound bad or callous because again, it's horrific, these images, it's hard to sleep after you see them. The problem is the Russians are doing it. It's central to their strategy. So until we can stop the war, I don't know how we stop this. Now the day will come and it should come where there's accountability and that's why there's War Crimes Tribunals, and the rest. And you gather the evidence, and ultimately there's international court of law, but that always comes afterwards, often years after this. You can talk about it now and you can document it now, both to prepare for that day. Also, hopefully it will discourage or deter some individuals on the Russian side from participating in these activities because they will be held accountable. But I don't see a lot of evidence of that. They're going to say they were ordered or they're more frightened about not following the orders than they are about being held accountable down the road. So I don't have any answers for you. And I think the best thing that can be done is to fight the wars effectively is it can be fought, to end the wars as soon as it can be ended. And then we can turn to this, but I don't see any way to effectively address this now.
SIERRA: Even though it's being recorded, even though it's being shared?
HAASS: Even though it's being recorded, even though it's being shared, even though it is as horrific as it is. Again, it's not incidental to the Russian style of war. In some ways it is the Russian style of war.
SIERRA: Ok. Well then on the other hand let’s talk about the Ukrainian style of war. They seem to be doing well - better than anyone expected. And, with all respect to their bravery, I want to ask you, why is Ukraine doing so well?
HAASS: Well, some of the reasons are accrued to Ukraine itself, the leadership, the spirit, the motivation. Armies are not just about what's called orders of battle, the number of tanks and Howitzers and planes and the rest. It's also about the commitment of the troops, the cause, the quality of leadership. And I think there, they have clear advantages over the Russians. They're obviously getting enormous material help from the United States and NATO and other countries. We've also helped them with two other things. One is intelligence, they are getting regular inputs of intelligence. I don't think all these Russian Generals have simply met their end coincidentally, I think there's been some pretty good intelligence support with that. And then also training. It wasn't talked about a whole lot, but the 2014 experience when Russia took Crimea and entered the Donbas, it showed the disparity between Russia and Ukraine and Ukrainians knew they had a real problem on their hands. And quietly, but consistently over these eight years, there's been a large training effort, largely from the United States, also some others to really help Ukraine improve the quality of its armed forces, changed a lot of the management and leadership structures, almost the culture, the way I'd put it. And in some ways became less Soviet, less top heavy, less anti-initiative and much more adaptive and flexible, a little bit more like the American model. And I think we're seeing some of the dividends of having done that.
SIERRA: I have a question that I don't think we touched on last time and I've been hearing less and less about it, but it was something that we all were taught to be scared of, which is Russian hacking. And I've heard they were really good at hacking, but it doesn't seem like we've seen major cyber attacks. So is it that this just isn't a concern anymore? Or is it that they weren't as good as we thought?
HAASS: It's curious. The old Sherlock Holmes line about it's the dog that didn't bark in the night. This is what hasn't happened that so many people including me expected. And traditionally, if you were going to put on a piece of paper, Russia's comparative advantages, we would've put cyber. Mr. Putin does not seem to be the kind of guy who holds back. So why don't we see a lot out of cyber? So either they're not as good as we thought, we're better protected than we thought, or he's worried about our ability to retaliate. I don't know the answer to that, but I am struck by what hasn't, or at least appears to have happened there. You also read lots of stories about how Ukraine has been really good at organizing with international as well as domestic support there, almost a counter hacking.
SIERRA: Right. Yeah.
HAASS: Which has been helping their defenses, but also going, so I don't know if the Russians have been simply pushed on the back of their feet and off balance or some combination of all these things, but you're right. If you had asked me, would we be two months into the war and we would not have seen massive cyber attacks? I would've said no, we would've seen them. And so it's striking by its absence.
SIERRA: In line with that, it seems like a lot of coverage has just been expressing surprise that Russia isn't doing better. So does that sort of mean that Russia is weaker than we kind of thought.
HAASS: I think the answer is yes. And again, that'll be an interesting thing afterwards, which is why did both Western intelligence and Vladimir Putin both overestimate the strength of the Russian military? And he was getting fed presumably bad information. Obviously, there's more corruption, a lot of the money wasn't going to certain things. A lot of things don't seem to work. The failure rate appears to be extraordinarily high, the quality or lack of it, of military leadership, the Russians are also, they seem to be, if you think about Russian history, much better at resisting invasion than invading. They're not good at improvising. They get very locked into… And again, this is not a culture politically and otherwise we're improvisation, shall we say is rewarded. So for a lot of different reasons, they're doing worse than pretty much anybody predicted. So I think we need to go back and basically ask, why did we get that wrong? And what does this tell us about the future? Because I think it's part of the explanation of why Russia after this war, whenever that day comes, or if this war continues against the backdrop of this war is going to be weaker, then we thought. I'd love to know, and I don't know the answer to this, what the Chinese make of it. About what the Chinese not just make of the Russians, but whether this has forced them in some ways to reexamine themselves.
SIERRA: Oh really?
HAASS: What are their assumptions about their abilities? I mean, think about it. What's the biggest strategic goal of China? Taiwan. What hasn't China ever done? A large amphibious operation. So what do they assume about their abilities to fight a war? How confident are they of their own estimates of their own capabilities? And so this has taught us again to, to be somewhat skeptical of assumptions and to ask questions. And I'm hoping the US intelligence community, when all is done, does an after action report or a so-called postmortem and looks at it and says, "Okay. Where were we right? Where were we wrong and why? What does that tell us about things like confirmation bias, about assumptions? Is it that we didn't have the right information or is it that we interpreted the information we had incorrectly?" I'll be really interested in that.
SIERRA: All right Richard Haass, we’re coming to the end, so I have to ask why does the war in Ukraine still matter?
HAASS: It should matter for several reasons. One is the humanitarian. It's hard to watch this and not have an answer to that question. It may not affect people directly in terms of affecting our lives, our work, our families, but as a human being, it's hard to watch this and not be moved or outraged or some combination of all of that. Second of all, when president Zelenskyy says, "We're fighting for all of you," he's right. If Russia isn't stopped in Ukraine, does anyone think that Mr. Putin is the kind of guy who self-stops? I don't think so. I think he pushes and where he finds weakness, he continues to push. Where there's pushback, he stops. In the Ukraine, for example, he's again, revised his goals down because he met with extraordinary resistance. But why does anyone think for a second he wouldn't revise them up? And the indirect thing, when the North Koreans, the Chinese, the Iranians terrorist groups and all that, they look at this and they go, "Okay. What does this tell us?" And if we don't stand up here, why do people think they won't be more likely to challenge us? And then there's things like energy, there's connections, supply chains. So this has all sorts of economic consequences. I think consequences for war and peace, obviously human consequences. So I think this is a good example, this may be 4,000 miles away, whatever the distance is, 5,000 miles away, but it's a good example that things can, and do matter. Two months ago, Gabby, very few of us could have looked and either found Ukraine on the map, or even if we found it could have said, "This is Odessa. This is Mariupol. This is Lviv. This is Kyiv." We didn't even pronounce it Kyiv several months ago. And I think what we're learning is that this country in the center of Europe, the cities in that country, we are now beginning to see the associations between what happens there and what happens elsewhere in the world and including here. So yeah, that's why it matters.
SIERRA: Well, this has been great and you know always good hanging with you.
HAASS: I look forward to coming on your show one day and where we can leave people happier at the end than they were at the beginning.
SIERRA: All right. So we'll plan for that in the future.
HAASS: We'll just leave it out there as a tease for people.
SIERRA: Thank you.
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Why It Matters is a production of the Council on Foreign Relations. The show is produced by Asher Ross and me, Gabrielle Sierra. Our sound designer is Markus Zakaria. Rafaela Siewert is our associate podcast producer. Our intern this semester is Roshni Rangwani.
Robert McMahon is our Managing Editor, and Doug Halsey is our Chief Digital Officer. Extra help for this episode was provided by Claire Felter.
Original music is composed by Ceiri Torjussen. Special thanks go to Jeff Reinke and our co-creator Jeremy Sherlick.
For Why It Matters, this is Gabrielle Sierra signing off. See you soon!
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