How does a war … end?
When the conflict in Ukraine first started, a lot of people predicted that Russia would win. But that hasn’t happened. In fact the Ukrainian army, backed by the West, has succeeded in holding off Russian forces and even reclaiming territory.
But as Putin faces losses on the battlefield, he appears to be growing more volatile. Things have not stopped escalating. And this got me thinking, how can a war like this …end? How does any war end?
I’m Gabrielle Sierra and this is Why It Matters. Today, we turn once again to our very own Richard Haass, to ask some big questions about war, compromise, and all the shades of gray involved in negotiating peace.
The following interview is largely uncut.
Gabrielle SIERRA: All right. Richard Haass, welcome back.
Richard HAASS: Always good to be with you, Gabby.
SIERRA: Season six of Why It Matters and you've stopped by for your what's-up-in-the-world update. Unfortunately, we are still discussing the war in Ukraine. I just sort of want to start by saying that it seems like Putin's not doing as well as he thought he would, we all thought he would, which is a good thing in theory, but it seems to be that it's becoming more and more volatile as defeats pile up and it's kind of getting scary even though he is losing. So just this morning, he launched a large-scale missile attack that struck at least 10 cities in Ukraine. So, is it good he's losing? Is it bad? Is he losing?
HAASS: There's 10 questions in there-
SIERRA: You're welcome.
HAASS: Let me say a few things. The trends in the war on the battlefield or against Russia, that is true. Ukraine knows why it's fighting more. Its troops are better trained, they're better motivated, seem to be better armed, certainly better led. Every day that goes by, it looks like Ukraine is regaining control of a bit of territory, but they've got a long, long, long ways to go and it's always or normally, it is more difficult to take territory than it is to hold territory. It's more demanding to be on the offensive than the defensive. So even though the trends are going against Russia on the battlefield, it could be a very long playing out. There's nothing that's necessarily imminent. And just because we saw some pockets of collapse in the Northeast, I don't believe it would be right to generalize and say that the Russian Army writ large is about to collapse. Point one.
What I think we're seeing though from Mr. Putin is what I would term or dub an indirect strategy. He can't prevail on the battlefield against Ukraine. So what he is trying to do is essentially extend the battlefield, literally and figuratively. By that I mean with Ukraine, which had gotten used to the idea that the war is something that takes place on a front, but not in downtown Kyiv. And indeed, when I was in Kyiv pretty recently, a few weeks ago, it felt like any other European capital. People were sitting around drinking coffee in the cafes and going out for dinner and strolling and so forth. These recent renewed missile attacks against civilian targets are psychologically tough. Not just physically tough, given the casualties, but psychologically tough. Plus they will likely make it more difficult for Ukraine to economically rebuild. It adds a tremendous degree of risk.
You can never be sure when there might not be another attack. One thing that Putin is doing is taking the war again to Ukrainian cities. Secondly, he's taking the war to Europe and his principal weapon is natural gas, and what he's hoping is that in a long cold winter, the Europeans will come to regret their support economically and militarily for Ukraine. And then thirdly, by his nuclear threats, he's hoping he can get the United States to think twice. He wants to hear more and more voices in the United States saying, "This game isn't worth the candle. Yes, we care about Ukraine. Yes, we care that territory is not acquired by force." But Putin is hoping that a lot of people say, "Is this really worth a nuclear exchange?" And what Putin is obviously hoping is Americans decide not. So that's his strategy.
We'll see how it plays out. I don't think, at the moment, he will succeed in that, if I were a betting man, which of course I’m not. But if I were a betting man, though I am sorry, I did not bet on the Giants recently. But if I were a betting man, I would think this war continues.
SIERRA: I mean to bridge off of that, people seem to be talking a lot more about nuclear weapons, which honestly is kind of a first for me in my life. How scared should I be? And also, if a nuke is used there on the battlefield, would it affect us?
HAASS: Look, Russia could use at least in imagination or a principle, small nuclear weapons sometimes called tactical nuclear weapons. They could be used on a battlefield or they could be used in some demonstration area over the ocean. It would be a way of backing or further reinforcing these threats. If you use them over a battlefield, it could have an immediate effect. There would be some radioactive particles and all that. The wind could blow it in any number of directions. It wouldn't affect us, but it could affect other parts of Ukraine, other parts of Europe, other parts of Russia. Again, my own view is that Putin is more likely to be threatening these than actually using these. I understand the logic of the threat more than I understand the logic of use, though I could see the logic of a demonstration test, not in a populated area.
And one of the things we are doing, by we I mean the United States government, to the best of my knowledge, is communicating to him with some degree of specificity why he would regret any use of nuclear weapons. There's various ideas that have been bandied about. I've talked about removing the constraint on the use of American air power over Ukraine. Others have talked about, I think it was General Petraeus, about taking out the Russian Black Sea Fleet. But the idea would be, we have fought this war indirectly through arming Ukraine and if Russia crossed the threshold, we could end that self-imposed restraint and we could say, "The Russian forces in Ukraine would be decimated." Now, the danger there is obviously if we were to do that, does that contribute to escalation?
HAASS: I can't sit here and tell you there's no chance it wouldn't. That is always though the case, and that was the case in 1962 during the Cuban missile crisis and so forth. And the only thing that is particularly worrisome now is that this leadership of Russia, Vladimir Putin, operates we think with fewer constraints than his predecessors did, what 60 years ago, which is quite a remarkable statement. But again, we've got multiple norms here and we don't want the threat of nuclear use to totally immobilize us because that will simply encourage further threats of nuclear use by Russia or others. We don't want to put sweeteners on the table so Ukraine or anybody would say, "Wow, you guys are only offering this up because you want to avoid a nuclear exchange," that teaches a terrible lesson, and if that were the case, they would be right. So Putin has actually made it more difficult for diplomats to do their work because there's the danger now that it would look like a reward for his threats, which is not something we want to be doing.
SIERRA: So I guess my bigger question is, how do wars end? Like I actually don't know. And from what you're saying, it's not very simple. It's not like packing up and going home. How does this end?
HAASS: Look, wars can end in multiple ways. One is that one side prevails over the other. Originally, it looked like Russia might do it over Ukraine. That seems out of the question now. Could one imagine it going the other way where Ukraine routes the Russian forces? Maybe, but we're not there. The more likely scenario is neither side can totally dominate the other. The costs of continuing are judged to be high by both sides, the human economic military cost. And that creates at least the possibility of a negotiation. This is something I've done as a diplomat, not as successfully as I would like. I've written about it as well. But negotiations only succeed when you have leaders who are willing and able to cut a deal. Willing is a question of disposition. Able is a question of political strength. Now Mr. Putin clearly has the political strength to cut a deal, though I expect he worries that if he were to cut a deal that looked overly generous towards Ukraine, he could face a real challenge from the right. I think he's more worried about a challenge from the right than he is from anywhere else. But because of that, I'm not sure he's willing. He also worries about any sign of weakness. Indeed, the whole war was fought, I think, less because of territory or Ukraine joining NATO or anything like that. I believe Vladimir Putin saw the example of Ukraine. This liberal, Slavic, tied to Europe country on Russia's border, as an example that posed an existential threat to Russia and therefore, he wanted to pose an existential threat to Ukraine.
For Volodymyr Zelensky to compromise right now would be hard. Ukrainians are not disposed to compromise. I came away from my time there and I was there just when the military trends were shifting in Ukraine's directions. The combination of the war itself, the atrocities at Bucha, Izium, and elsewhere and then the military progress, there weren't a lot of doves left in Ukraine. Indeed, the prevailing view is not only that Ukraine wants to recover all of its territory that it had in 1991, but also that it wants economic reparations to pay for the cost of the war and wants accountability for war crimes. So you have a situation where right now, I think, there's precious little that's diplomatic talk for no overlap between what Ukraine and Russia could compromise on. Now, could that change at some point? Yes, and I can think of all sorts of formulas. Lots and lots of things but the bottom line is at the moment, what usually prevents agreements from happening from wars from formerly ending is less the lack of imagination about a deal than it is again the willingness and ability of the respective leaderships to sign onto one. They have to believe they are better off with a deal or worse off without a deal. And at the moment, I don't think that's the case. I actually think both of them prefer an open-ended war right now because that way, they don't have to put their name on the dotted line of any compromise.
SIERRA: Right. I mean, do you think that the US is going to stay involved and interested in the war? I mean, you don't look forward to something that drags on for years and years, which we're familiar with.
HAASS: Well, one of Vladimir Putin's hopes is that the answer to your question is not, that either after the midterm elections here, there could be a changed political landscape in the United States. Simply Americans have sometimes a collective case of ADD. There might be other international situations, more likely domestic situations, that absorb a lot of our energies, that, plus Europeans might, during a cold winter, basically say, "The costs of supporting Ukraine alienating Russia aren't worth it." Ukraine itself, Putin's hoping gets somewhat demoralized by the renewal of shelling of civilians. So Putin is hoping that time does for him what his army has not.
SIERRA: Have there been situations like this before where we had to provide someone with an offramp or had to really balance between giving someone some concessions while also not, I don't know, negotiating with terrorists type thing?
HAASS: Let's take the historical parallels in two ways. One is, could you have a somewhat open-ended war? Well, history is filled with wars that go on a long time. And even now, the situation between North Korea and South Korea, there's not formal peace; there's an armistice, and it's more the absence of war than anything remotely looking like peace. In lots of situations, you have open-ended conflicts that may flare up Israel and Palestinians, Israel and Hamas. And what happens is you have certain signaling, ground rules almost about how you conduct it. And every once in a while, one or the other sides breaks one of those understandings or ground rules, pursue some option. There's a flare up, there may or may not be some diplomatic contacts and then things get tamped down again. A lot of the Middle East, parts of Asia, have that kind of, neither peace nor war. Right now, we clearly have war between Russia and Ukraine, but we could have something that's not as intense. I think again, there's a lot of precedent for that.
The idea of offramps, which is an unfortunate expression, but look, every negotiation, unless it's unconditional surrender, and even those have something in it for the other side. So any agreement, by definition, usually has concessions. Either it's necessary to forge the agreement or it's judged as desirable for what you want to do afterwards, what your post-war goals are. Because very quickly, your goals post-war might be different than your goals during the war. That happened in Europe and Asia after World War II because suddenly the Cold War became the context in which a lot of diplomacy was carried out.
So, there's always things that are thrown in. I've been involved in negotiations in the Middle East, India and Pakistan. I was the US envoy to the Cyprus crisis for years. I was the US envoy in Northern Ireland. And in all of those, you think of compromises. In any negotiation, people have to be willing and able, as I said, to agree. Well, able, the ability of people to sign a deal sometimes depends upon, you're giving them something they can go back to their own constituency and say, "Hey, I didn't get everything but I got this and I got this critical feature." So you have to decide if you value or sincerely want an agreement, it's preferable to you than not having one.
HAASS: So the idea that you structure peace agreements in that way in order to calm a situation and provide the various parties with what they need to enter into it, that's what the diplomacy's all about,
SIERRA: Right. But we're saying Russia, we're saying administrations, but it's really Putin. So how can I possibly feel safe in a modern world where one dude can hold all this power and decide whether or not he wants to say yes to this? It's one person.
HAASS: Well, there's many people in Ukraine who would agree with you. When I had conversations there, there were literally members of the government who said, "Why in the world would I want to sign an agreement with this guy?" Or to use your technical word, dude, as Jeff Bridges might put it, given that it wouldn't be worth the paper it's written on. There are clearly a lot of people in Ukraine who think that, and my bet is, there's more people who think it now than did a couple of weeks ago because of atrocities in Izium or the recent shelling of cities. That's a legitimate concern. When Henry Kissinger spoke here at the council recently, he warned against over personalizing this and he said, "Just deal with Russia," essentially.
HAASS: Because we can't control whether Vladimir Putin or somebody else is there. So if you're worried about cutting a deal with Vladimir Putin, and you should be, then the question is, how do you construct it in such a way that you build incentives for his not breaking it and you build penalties in if he were to. I would think that entering into an agreement with Vladimir Putin would have to take into account that trust of him is, shall we say, negligible. His track record speaks for itself.
HAASS: It's hard for me to imagine any agreement with Vladimir Putin and Ukraine. But if one were to happen, it couldn't be one, shall we say, that was faith-based, that is out of the question.
SIERRA: And you think that this conflict could keep going post Putin?
HAASS: Well, that depends upon what would a successor government look like. Look, every time a war ends, particularly when it ends poorly, you will have those on the center left in Russia who say, "This was a war that never should have been started." You will have those on the right who will say, "The problem was not that Putin started the war, it's how he and the generals fought it." And if you're of the latter school, if you think the problem was how the war was prosecuted, then the emphasis I think would be on improving Russia's military.
You don't want to normalize with Ukraine. With that kind of a successor leadership, I don't see Russia becoming, needless to say, reintegrated with Europe, at peace with Ukraine. Now, I can imagine whether it's immediately after Putin or maybe one step after that, things don't necessarily go in a linear way, a leadership coming to power that does want to reintegrate Russia a bit with Europe, wants to get out from under sanctions. Indeed, I think it's a question of when, not if, such a Russian leader comes out and one of the things we ought to do is say and do things that make that more likely. We ought to talk about our future vision of Russia's relationship with the West and the United States.
We ought to talk about a relationship between Ukraine and Russia that we believe, at least, takes into account certain Russian concerns. We ought to talk about our support for the integrity of Russian territory. We ought to respect Russia's right to choose its own leadership. Again, what matters to us is not who leads Russia, but how those individuals act, what kind of policies they pursue. We want to deter Russian escalation, but we also want to reassure Russia that our goals are limited and our policies are conditioned upon Russian behavior. We do not want a Putin or anyone like him to basically say, "We have no choice or we have nothing to lose by acting recklessly because there's nothing in it for us if we act differently." We always want them to understand that there is something in it for them if they were to act responsibly.
SIERRA: Do you think that it's just really hard for people to understand these types of situations, to fully comprehend what has to be given and taken?
HAASS: I once had a conversation with the president that I was working for in the government and I outlined something that was at least as complicated as this and he gave me a withering look. I said, "I know, I know. There's a lot of nuance there." But I said, "I work for the Department of Nuance," since I worked for the Department of State at the time. He did not find that a winning argument. But it's complicated. It's going to be complicated to design. Even more, it's going to be complicated to sell, to sell it domestically here, to sell it to the Russians, to sell it to Europe, to sell it to Ukraine. This is going to be extraordinarily difficult to orchestrate. And it may not be possible, but it's certainly worth trying. Look, diplomacy is an instrument of national security. We've got to do it. I think we've got to think, consult. Ultimately, we'd have to explain it and not everyone's going to agree. Okay. that's always the way it is. But I take your point, and there might be a lot of grays and people may not be in the mood for grays. They might want a lot of black and whites. There'll be a lot of people, particularly in Ukraine, understandably a hundred percent, who have zero disposition to forgive and forget, to compromise, to let people off the hook on war crimes, on reparations, on sanctions, on this on that, on accepting any limits on what Ukraine can do on its territory. That's something we're going to have to take into account. Could there be some differences of opinion between the United States and Ukraine? Absolutely. That could happen. We've had differences of opinion between the United States and close allies before, we have it all the time. Being a close ally doesn't mean you have identity of views. It means you have a commitment to a larger relationship and to larger purposes despite the absence of identity of views. We could have that with Ukraine, we could have that with Europe. That's okay. That's why God invented diplomats.
SIERRA: Not nearly as satisfying though as a...
HAASS: No, but Russia's a sovereign country. It doesn't have a terribly capable conventional military, but it does have a meaningful nuclear arsenal, has significant energy resources. It's an important country in the center of Europe and Asia. So it is in our long-term interest that Russia is reintegrated in the world on terms that we can mutually live with. And that's going to be a very difficult conversation with ourselves, with Ukraine, with others because Russia under Putin has caused and will continue to cause enormous damage to people, to property, to principles. But we may need to have that conversation one day. We're not there yet, but indeed, we're very likely to have to have that conversation one day. It'll be difficult in the consultations in private, it'll be extraordinarily difficult in public in terms of explaining what will look to some people as a compromise or even an abdication of principle. All you can do in those situations, I believe, is get out there and explain why you believe, however flawed or imperfect this proposal is, it is less imperfect than the alternatives that would come to pass if you didn't go down that path. That is the best you can do. It's not satisfying.
SIERRA: It is not satisfying.
HAASS: I hear you. I hear you. That said, I look forward to the day we are there because that would be considerably preferable to where we are and are likely to be for some time.
SIERRA: Well, I have one sort of last big picture question for you and a comment which is, talking about the world makes my friends very unhappy. They feel very bleak about the outlook of the world.
HAASS: Is this where I tell you, you need new friends?
SIERRA: Yes, exactly. So short of getting new friends, I mean, are we always going to live in a world where there's a war, there's a war going on? Is this just the way that it's going to be forever?
HAASS: So much I could say, a couple things. One is, if you look at the last 75 years since World War II, one of the remarkable things of this era is there was not a war between the major powers of the day. Yes, there were wars in Vietnam, Iraq, I understand, but there was not a war between the United States and the Soviet Union or the United States and China. After the Chinese Civil War, France and Germany and Britain integrated in the European Union. I mean, look at the contrast between the first half of the 20th century on the second half of the 20th century, night and day. Also, during the last 70, 75 years, you can tell your friends, that there was remarkable progress. A lot of the world became democratic. The colonial period came to an end, not always peacefully, but it came to an end. The average lifespan increased by decades around the world. Tremendous scientific progress in medicine, health across the... Living standards multiplied by orders of magnitude. So there was enormous progress. So I don't believe that history is simply bad or negative. In some ways, it goes back to my favorite book in the field, this book by an Australian called Hedley Bull, The Anarchical Society. At any moment in history, you have forces of anarchy the things that tear us apart, centrifugal forces, conflict, and you have forces of society, things that bring us together. One of the phrase we always hear is international community. Well, things that do make a little bit more of a society or community around the world where we team up to deal with aggression or we team up to deal with disease or to regulate the internet or whatever the particular causes, or to stop the spread of nuclear weapons.
At any moment in history, there's always a balance between these two. To me, one way to think about foreign policy is how do you shift the balance away from anarchy somewhat in the direction of more society. It's really turning a dial. It's not a switch. You're never going to get all good stuff. God willing, you'll never get all bad stuff. What you want to do is change the balances, you want to shift things slightly in a good direction. And I think for a big chunk of the last 75 years, we did just that. I don't think we've done just that over the last 10 or 15 years. I think the dial's moving in the wrong direction. And suddenly here, this conversation we've had, it's actually one of those hinge moments.
And I believe a lot of lessons are going to be learned about whether aggression pays, whether might makes right. Whether the West is a concept that actually has meaning, whether alliances still work and so forth. This is one of those moments, tell your friends, that if we get this right, it could yield significant benefits. It's not peace for the rest of time, but it could move things in a better direction. If we get this wrong, bad situations could become worse. What Russia would do elsewhere in Ukraine or Europe, what the Chinese might do, based upon this, against Taiwan, what North Korea might do, what an Iran might do. So this is one of those moments where there's a lot of lessons being learned. What we want to make sure is that the right lessons are learned. And if that's the case, then I believe as awful as this has been, this act of aggression, some good will come of it.
SIERRA: You heard it here, folks. Richard Haass, optimist. It's happening. This has been great. Thanks for chatting.
HAASS: Thanks for having me back.
SIERRA: Of course, anytime.
For resources used in this episode and more information, visit CFR.org/whyitmatters and take a look at the show notes.
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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. Our intern this semester is Mormei Zanke.
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Our theme music is composed by Ceiri Torjussen. We’d also like to thank Jeff Reinke and our co-creator Jeremy Sherlick.
For Why It Matters, this is Gabrielle Sierra signing off. See you around!
As the war in Ukraine enters its eighth month, Why It Matters explores whether an end is in sight. What does ending a war look like? Host Gabrielle Sierra checks in with CFR President Richard Haass on the latest developments and all the shades of gray involved in reaching a diplomatic resolution.
This conversation took place on Monday, October 10 and was only lightly edited.
Elliott Abrams, “Amnesty International’s Attack on Ukraine”
Jonathan Masters, “Ukraine: Conflict at the Crossroads of Europe and Russia”
Matthias Matthijs, “Ukraine Could Become an EU Member. What Would That Mean?”
David J. Scheffer, “The Case for Creating a Special Tribunal to Prosecute the Crime of Aggression Committed Against Ukraine,” Just Security
“Ukraine’s Counteroffensive, With Max Boot,” The President’s Inbox
From Our Guests
Richard Haass, “Ukraine’s Coming Winter of Decision,” Project Syndicate
Chris Cameron and Helene Cooper, “U.S. Shores Up Ukraine Support as Energy Crisis in Europe Looms,” New York Times
Keith Gessen, “How the War in Ukraine Might End,” New Yorker
Watch or Listen
“Could the Ukraine War Go Nuclear?” Al Jazeera
“Russians Push Back on Putin,” Axios Today