Mary Elise Sarotte, Marie-Josée and Henry R. Kravis distinguished professor of historical studies at the Henry A. Kissinger Center for Global Affairs at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies, leads the conversation on Russia’s global influence.
FASKIANOS: Welcome to today’s session of the Fall 2022 CFR Academic Webinar Series. I’m Irina Faskianos, vice president of the National Program and Outreach here at CFR. Today’s discussion is on the record and the video and transcript will be available on our website, CFR.org/Academic. As always, CFR takes no institutional positions on matters of policy.
We are delighted to have Mary Elise Sarotte with us to talk about Russia’s global influence. Professor Sarotte is the Marie-Josée and Henry R. Kravis distinguished professor of historical studies in the Henry Kissinger Center for Global Affairs at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies. She is also research associate at Harvard University’s Center for European Studies. She previously taught at the University of Southern California and the University of Cambridge and served as a White House fellow.
She is the author or editor of six books. Her most recent book is entitled Not One Inch: America, Russia, and the Making of Post-Cold War Stalemate. And it was published by Yale University Press. Thank you, Mary. She has already won the Pushkin House Prize for the best book on Russia, and she is shortlisted for CFR’s Arthur Ross Book Award, and the Cundill History Prize. So we’re very excited to have you here with us, Professor Sarotte, to talk about this and to be with us. And congratulation on your accolades for prior books as well as this one. So best of luck with those two upcoming book awards.
So I thought we could perhaps start with you giving us your analysis of what exactly is happening to Russia’s global influence as we are watching the war in Ukraine and Russia, obviously, on the world stage.
SAROTTE: Absolutely. First, let me just say a quick word of thanks to you, Irina, to your staff, and to all the people who have taken the time to sign on. At a time like this, which is a time of war, the Council is more essential than ever. It’s essential to have a place where we can meet, either in person or virtually, and talk about these utterly critical issues. So thank you for doing this. And thank you to all of the students and educators who have made time to Zoom in today. I was looking through the list last night and, as of last night, we have people signed up from eleven time zones—from London, to Hilo, Hawaii. So in these days where there’s a lot to be worried about, it’s a silver lining that there are smart young students and that there are smart educators taking time to inform and learn about this.
Yeah. So the name of today’s session is Russia’s global influence. My feeling is that as—what’s happening is that Russia’s global influence is decreasing as the Ukraine war’s global influence is increasing. So in other words, they’re on opposite trajectories. So as the duration, significance, brutality and bloodiness of the war increases, Russia becomes more and more isolated. You can go through this in a number of factors. If you look, for example, in energy terms, this is going to be the last winter that Russia could plausibly put Europe in the cold and in the dark. Europe is making great strides towards finding alternative sources of energy—whether that’s alternative suppliers, or renewables. Dramatic changes are happening.
There’s a famous saying, I think it’s attributed to Lenin, I believe, that there are some decades when nothing happens and then there are some weeks when decades happen. And there’s been many, many weeks this year where decades happen. And I think we’ve seen decades of progress in terms of energy renewables, and so forth.
So, one of five. So, number one, energy terms. Russia is going to have decreasing influence over Europe. Number two, in trade and economic affairs we’ve already seen what’s being referred to as the great decoupling of Russia being cut off from what used to be formerly major trading partners. In military terms, the recent retaliation against Ukraine for the putative attack on the Kerch Strait Bridge—putative in that they’re subscribing authorship of that to Ukraine—that is, again, also self-defeating for Russia. It’s using up a supply of precision-guided munitions that, in military terms, would be better used against military targets, not against kindergarten playgrounds. And to say nothing of the incredible moral crime of doing that. Just in pure military terms it doesn’t make sense. Also, what it has done is further solidified Ukrainian opposition. As historians, we see this again and again. When you bomb a people—like, for example, the Blitz in London, the reaction tends to be a sense of solidarity and a sense of hanging together to survive and persist. And that’s happening in Ukraine as well.
It's also given such credence to Ukraine’s request for air defense systems that the New York Times just now, as I was just getting ready for this session, just reported that Germany is now shipping an air defense system that is so new, it has never been used in Germany or anywhere else. It’s called the IRIS-T SLM system. It has already crossed Ukraine’s border from Poland. It apparently includes mobile launchers, a 360-degree radar, and a separate command vehicle from which you can operate the system.
This was in development in Germany, and it was—it’s capable, apparently—it’s effective at distances of up to twenty-five miles. It can strike targets twelve miles up. It was basically still in development, but now they’ve let Ukraine jump the queue and shipped it right to Ukraine. The idea that that would have happened even, you know, a week ago is unthinkable. So to recap, in terms of energy, economics, military, Russian influence is actually declining because allies are banding together to fight against it. Soft power from before, that is—in the West, Russia’s soft power is basically nonexistent at this point.
The fifth and final category, and that’s the real wild card, is nuclear. That’s, obviously, the big worry. There, Russia’s global influence in that category remains strong. There are only two strategic nuclear powers, and that’s the United States and Russia. More than thirty years after the end of the Cold War, Russia and the United States still control 90 percent of the world’s nuclear warheads. They are the only two states with civilization-ending capabilities, with the ability to kill most life on earth, within practically a matter of minutes, if they choose to do so. They are in a nuclear class by themselves. So that is why we are now hearing so much nuclear saber rattling from Russia.
So just to sum up, because of the immense self-inflicted harm of this war to Russia—to say nothing of the terrible harm to the Ukrainians who are fighting bravely against a truly brutal aggressor—because of this war, Russia’s global influence is decreasing, which, of course, raises the risk that they’ll lean heavily on the one way in which they still have global influence, which is as a strategic nuclear power. So I think you’ve chosen exactly the right topic for us to talk about today.
FASKIANOS: Great. Thank you, Mary, for that. We want to get to all of you and your questions. So we’re going to turn now to you.
(Gives queuing instructions.)
And we already have four hands raised, so I’m going to go first to Morton Holbrook.
Q: Professor Sarotte, a somewhat obscure question. Russia early on purported to recognize two new countries in eastern Ukraine, which Russia did not do with regard to Georgia or with regard to Crimea. And the question is, is it a complete charade? Or has anyone actually, besides Russia, recognized them. Someone like Belarus, maybe, or China, or any other country? Or is it just a completely charade, these two new countries?
FASKIANOS: Morton, can you give us your affiliation?
Q: Kentucky Wesleyan College in Kentucky.
FASKIANOS: Thank you so much.
SAROTTE: OK. Thank you for calling in from Kentucky. So we’ve got one time zone down, for those of you doing a time zone bingo chart. We can tick that one off. Thank you, Morton Holbrook, for your question.
Yeah, things have been moving so quickly, it’s hard to keep up. Initially, as you indicated, Putin indicated he was going to recognize people’s republics in eastern Ukraine. But now things have moved on, and now he’s said he’s annexed those areas. There’s a little bit of a gray zone because, of course, no one’s quite sure what the annexed borders are, what the borders of the annexed area are. Obviously, no other countries have recognized this. So this is, obviously, all very contested.
I would actually, rather than trying to parse the recent terms—whether it’s a recognized republic, or a country, or an annexation—I actually would go back to a vote that took place in 1991, while the Soviet Union still existed, although it was falling apart. And in December 1991, Ukraine held what was essentially a free election to decide—to basically confirm among the population the decision of the parliament to depart from the Soviet Union and become an independent state. And that vote, that Ukrainian vote for independence, was enormously successful. It was over 90 percent in favor of independence.
And the relevant fact here for your question, Morton, is that in no electoral district was support for independence below 50 percent. In other words, there was majority support for independence in every single part of Ukraine—whether that was Crimea, whether that was Donetsk, whether that was Luhansk, whether that’s the areas that Putin is now calling new countries, or new annexations. And so if we take that as an expression of popular will about whether or not Ukrainians want to be part of Russia, it was really clear that the desire was overwhelmingly to be independent.
So that is, I think, an important data point. That when that question was actually put to a vote, an overwhelming number of Ukrainians voted to be independent, and a majority voted in every single district. Now, obviously, there are Ukrainian separatists who feel—sorry—there are pro-Russian people inside Ukraine who feel differently. But I think that that election is the information that we should really look to when we’re trying to figure out the sentiments of the people.
FASKIANOS: Thanks. I’m going to go next to Julian Reich. And you need to unmute yourself.
Q: Yeah. Hi, professor. Yeah, I’m Julian Reich from the Macaulay Honors College at Hunter College.
I’ve read some of your articles about NATO enlargement and the post-Cold War settlement. Do you think Russia’s renewed revisionism is as much a sense of their inability to achieve economic growth post-Cold War? Or do you think it largely rests on the unsatisfactory nature of the post-Cold War settlement?
SAROTTE: Hmm. Yeah. Thank you, Julian, calling from Hunter College. Yeah, so as I like to say to my own students—so if any of them are on this call, they’ll groan when they hear me say this—the one phenomenon that I have never observed as a historian is mono-causality. Important events happen for multiple reasons. They’re not necessarily significant reasons. There’s a huge role for accident and chance in history. But there’s usually a mixture, often a dramatic mixture changing over time, of reasons.
So I don’t think there is one simple answer for why what’s happening now—why Putin has become an aggressive invader of Ukraine. Certainly, the economic difficulties of Russia in the 1990s, the economic difficulties of other parts of the Soviet space, those are all a factor because they then gave Putin a base of support. When he came in and the economy started doing better, setting aside for a moment the question of whether or not he was responsible for that, people then associated him with moving beyond a really terrible time.
The 1990s were an awful time in the post-Soviet space. Any of the indicators that you look at are just truly depressing. For example, the life expectancy for men decreased in Russia in the 1990s. The population decreased. Those are numbers that conceal a great deal of suffering. And so Putin coming in and the economy improving meant there was a certain base of support for Putin, which then meant when he started dismantling the fragile democracy in Russia, he had support for what he was doing that put him in the position that he’s in.
But of course, you also have to look at his personal beliefs and fixations. It seems that he spent sadly, tragically, far too much time alone during the pandemic obsessing about the history of what he thinks belongs to Russia. I’m hearing reports from archivists out of Russia that there were all kinds of requests from the Kremlin, presumably from Putin personally through his subordinates, for evidence and documents. And he, Putin, has been publishing articles, or at least allowing articles to be published under his name, about the history of the Second World War, the history of ties with Ukraine. I’m not agreeing with any of them; I’m just noting that he is fixated on history. And so he has this fixation on the idea that he can restore the Russian greatness, he can restore land that belonged to Russia. So that’s a factor as well.
Then there is, of course, the factor that the post-Cold War settlement didn’t define a place in its security structure for Ukraine. There were early discussions about that, and I talk about that in my book Not One Inch, but those did not result in a fixed secure birth for Ukraine in the European security structure. So that meant it was left outside of what was essentially the new frontline in Europe, which was the Article 5 frontline. Article 5 is, of course, the heart of the North Atlantic Treaty. It’s the article that says every member state should treat an attack on one state as an attack on all. It’s a very, very strong security guarantee. And NATO, of course, as I describe in my book Not One Inch, expanded, enlarged, in the 1990s, and expanded and enlarged its Article 5 territory, but not to Ukraine.
One of the bigger surprises of my research was that President Bill Clinton in the early 1990s recognized, as he put it, that Ukraine was the, quote, “linchpin” of Europe, the key to Europe. I’m paraphrasing, but the exact quotations are in my book, Not One Inch, if you’re interested. So in early discussions of NATO enlargement, Clinton went to Central and Eastern Europeans and said: I understand. You have every right to want to join NATO. You are new, free democracies. We admire hugely how you threw off Soviet control. But you have to understand, if we give you Article 5, we’ll draw essentially a new line. We just got rid of the Cold War line. If we give you Article 5, we’ll draw a new line, and that will leave Ukraine on the wrong side.
And Ukraine is a huge country in terms of geography, in terms of population. At the end of the Cold War, it had a population over fifty million, which meant it was on the size of Britain or France. It’s geographically enormous. It was becoming a new democracy as well. And Clinton said, you know, we can’t leave Ukraine in the lurch like that. It’s too big a leap to put it in NATO right away, but we can’t just leave Ukraine in the lurch like that.
But then Boris Yeltsin, Putin’s predecessor, made a lot of self-harming, bad mistakes. He started using bloodshed to fight what should have been political fights. In October 1993, Boris Yeltsin decided to have tanks fire on his own parliament. I mean, we think about in the United States we had January 6. Imagine if Trump had sent tanks to fire on the Capitol, right? Then Yeltsin allowed a very brutal invasion of Chechnya. There’s some question as to whether he understood quite how extensive that invasion would be, and quite how brutal it would be. But he allowed it. He was president of the country.
And so once he started shedding blood again in Russia, so soon after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Central and Eastern Europeans, who had been willing to listen to what Clinton said about Ukraine, who had been willing to agree, through clenched teeth, to perhaps try to find some intermediate solution for Ukraine as well, said: No. Forget it. We need Article 5. And you see this kind of parting of the ways between the post-Cold War path for the Central and Eastern Europeans and the Ukrainians. And so then Ukraine gets left out.
So I could continue. There’s, like, five more reasons. But basically, when you’re looking at a history, you try to look at what the main factors are and how they interact with each other. So I think that there are a lot of factors, and the ones that you mention are part of them, that led to where we are today.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. I’m going to take the next question from Victoria Williams, who has written her question out. But why don’t you ask it?
Q: Hi, how are you? Hello. So I’m very curious to understand how we can deescalate the situation and move away from the sort of nuclear option or nuclear threat. How can we do this without basically empowering him and allowing him to just take Ukraine—take pieces of it?
FASKIANOS: Victoria, you’re with Alvernia University?
Q: In Reading, Pennsylvania, that’s correct. So I’m East Coast zone. (Laughs.)
SAROTTE: East Coast, OK. (Laughs.) All right. Well, thank you, Victoria. And, yeah, obviously that’s the huge question. So the huge question is how do we avoid nuclear escalation. That is the essential question. The challenge is to balance that against responding to Putin, who is essentially an aggressive bully, right? And who at this point, it’s clear, only understands the language of force. What has happened in the past couple weeks has really, unfortunately, foreclosed options for de-escalation. The announcement of annexation of territory, what I was talking about in response to Morton Holbrook’s question, that removed, for example, the option that there could perhaps be a negotiated settlement. Because now Putin is saying, no, no, that’s Russian territory. It’s not even Ukraine anymore. And Ukrainians obviously don’t accept that.
So the possibilities for de-escalation unfortunately became fewer in the past couple of weeks. And that is really tragic because, as I said, we’ve got the nuclear shadow hanging over all of this. So the real challenge is how to push back against a bully. And this, by the way, is not just, of course, about Ukraine and Russia. Obviously, there’s discussions about what the People’s Republic of China might do to Taiwan in the wake of its de facto takeover of Hong Kong. So there are other countries around the world that are looking at this to see what could happen. So it’s important to push back and be firm, but to do so in a way that doesn’t lead to nuclear escalation. That is a very, very difficult task.
The one thing that heartens me is that we do have some experience with it. The experience was called the Cold War. So we do have a track record of dealing with this challenge. Some of the big differences that make me nervous are that the Cold War evolved over decades, and there was time to build guardrails, which were arms control agreements. We seem, by contrast, now to have spun back up to Cold War-like conditions in a matter of months, but we’re missing guardrails. We’re missing—and we’re missing popular understanding of what that means.
Let me talk a little about both of those. So during the Cold War, there were a whole host of arms control agreements that limited the kinds of weapons that Washington or Moscow could build, and where they could be deployed, and a whole host of things. At present, there’s only one nuclear treaty that constrains Washington and Moscow in any way. It’s going to expire soon. And my guess is it’s probably not going to be renewed. And then Moscow and Washington will be in, in nuclear terms, completely unconstrained. That is jaw dropping and immensely frightening.
So during the Cold War, of course, you had the ABM Treaty—the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty—Intermediate Nuclear Range Forces Treaty, and a whole bunch of alphabet-soup treaties that at least put some guardrails on. We don’t have those. What we also had during the Cold War was a greater cultural understanding of what nuclear war would mean, the sheer devastation that would be involved. I remember as a kid seeing a film called The Day After, about the nuclear devastation that would ensue if Soviet missiles hit the United States. I was actually just listening to Ian Bremmer the other day. And Ian Bremmer said he woke up and started thinking about that film, The Day After, for the first time in decades.
We, as kids, those of us who are old enough, at least have memory of the potential horror of nuclear war. My students now do not have that at all. There’s really no understanding of that. And that’s not their fault, but it means there’s just not a cultural awareness of just how risky this is. As a matter of fact, I heard a report—it must have been on the BBC, just some stray report. But someone—it was a couple months ago—something about Russia tested some nuclear systems, but they didn’t—and the journalist added: But they didn’t actually have nuclear weapons on them. They were just testing the systems. And I was thinking, of course they didn’t have nuclear weapons on them. (Laughs.) I mean, you know, of course they didn’t blow up large segments of Europe in a test. But just the fact that the person kind of didn’t know what she was saying I though, wow, we really just lost, like, the cultural understanding of what it means.
So we have these risks and we don’t have the guardrails, and we don’t have the cultural understanding. So we need to move forward carefully. I think the Biden administration has been doing a good job with this immense challenge. I think the answer has been to move incrementally, which is what has been happening. So there has been a gradual escalation of the amount and sophistication of weaponry provided. As I said, literally just in the past couple of hours there was a big step forward with Germany now delivering air defense systems. There has been, obviously, meetings of the G-7 and NATO. I think the incremental approach has been a strong one in a very, very dark situation.
The Finnish and Swedish memberships in NATO are advancing incrementally. And it seems that this incremental approach so far has, at least for the prospects of the wider world, kept the conflict constrained. Now, obviously, it has not kept it constrained in any way for Ukraine. And I really have to express my admiration for the Ukrainians for how bravely they are fighting, for what they are suffering. It really is remarkable. And these recent strikes, with precision-guided munitions hitting kindergartens, just, unspeakable. So obviously the war is not constrained for Ukraine, but it has not become a global thermonuclear war. It has not become a bigger war.
I am worried about this pipeline destruction that has been going on. I heard reports this morning about some kind—I don’t even know if this is accurate, so don’t quote me on this. I haven’t even had time to look at this. But I heard reports this morning that there was pipeline damage in Poland. If that’s true, that’s Article 5 territory. That would be—things that start to happen in Article 5 territory increase the risk of escalation. So the best way to keep it from escalating is to keep it away from Article 5 territory, to give Ukrainians the means to defend themselves, to keep ratcheting up the pressure incrementally.
I don’t really know that there are many offramps more for Putin. I think at this point we’re probably looking at some kind of a grinding to a stalemate process. I think that’s probably the best-case scenario. It’s not a good one, but it’s probably the best of bad options. Obviously, the worst option would be escalation in some way to nuclear use. So thank you, Victoria, for the question. Long-winded answer, but it’s an important and complicated question.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. I’m going to go next to Manuel Montoya at the University of New Mexico.
Q: Hello, Dr. Sarotte. I’m Manuel Montoya. I’m a professor here at the University of New Mexico, here in Albuquerque. So Rocky Mountains, Mountain time zone.
SAROTTE: All right, thank you. (Laughter.)
Q: Yeah, thank you very much for your presentation. And thanks, everybody, for all of your questions. I’ve been thinking recently about the health of international institutions in the next chapter of whatever follows what is happening now. And my question is about Russia’s global influence, not in terms of its military power or even its social power, but also the influence it will have on the stability of international institutions, like the International Criminal Court.
If there is a political will to try Russia in the International Criminal Court system or to hold them accountable through any other political devices that the international global governance community has, what do you perceive being the vulnerabilities or the risks associated with that? And how is that going to influence the stability or legitimacy of those institutions moving forward?
SAROTTE: All right, Mountain time in the house. Excellent. Thank you so much.
Q: Thank you.
SAROTTE: Yeah. Thank you, Manuel, for your question. Yeah, it’s a good question. I guess I would answer your question two different ways, short term and long term. And, preview, I’m actually going to duck answering the long-term part. So short term, I think one of the silver linings is—of these terrible events that are happening—one of the silver linings is that Putin’s actions have created a new sense of solidarity, purpose, mission, and togetherness in international organizations. And this is not uncommon. Theorists know that having a clear enemy concentrates minds. Having an enemy the size of Russia really concentrates minds. So this is not surprising, but it is heartening.
NATO, in particular, has a new sense of purpose and mission. There’s some speculation on this—back in February—oh, there’s a sense of unity now but it will fall apart as soon as leaves start turning in the fall. Well, the leaves are turning, at least here in Washington, D.C., and that sense of unity has not fallen apart. And I think other international institutions are feeling new life in their limbs, feeling new power in their veins, feeling a new sense of purpose. So in the short run, I think what is happening—although, it is again, I can’t say this enough, it’s deeply tragic for the world, incredibly dangerous, awful for Ukrainians—there are some silver linings, such as this new sense of solidarity.
Now, your question about holding Russia accountable, I would put that in the category of longer-term questions. Because right now what’s essential is to prevent loss of life in Ukraine, to somehow find a way to end the violence and the bloodshed. That’s the most pressing path. But obviously holding Russia accountable and pursing what has happened here, the war crimes that are happening, is obviously hugely important. It’s a little hard right now to predict exactly how, when, and where that will happen while the conflict is still ongoing. Because obviously the continuation of the conflict itself makes it difficult to gather evidence and so forth.
So your question is an insightful one. It’s an important one. But it’s just really hard to answer right now. As a historian, I am interested in the interplay between contingency, so individual decisions, individual actors making decisions, and structures. And right now, we’re in a war. And a war is a time when contingency dominates. Many unpredictable factors come into play. So it’s just a little bit—a little bit—it’s a lot hard to say what the conditions, what the parameters will be for the kind of accountability initiative that you’re talking about. So I think it’s the right question, but I just think I’d be lying if I said I had a good answer for you. The only thing I can say with certainly is it’s not a question that can be answered right now. It’s an important question, but it’s something that has to be on hold for a little while.
FASKIANOS: Great. I’m going to go next to the University College London. I don’t know who is asking the question, but please say who you are and unmute yourself.
Q: Yes. Hello. We are from UCL, from the IPP master’s program. My name is Dr. Aboudounya and I have a number of students who have really interesting questions. They are just on their way, just one second. (Laughs.)
SAROTTE: All right. So we’ve got British summertime in the house, excellent. Very good. How many people have you got there in your classroom?
Q: So at the moment we have around eight people attending.
Q: And we have a number of questions. So the first one will—
Q: Hello. I have two questions.
The first question is, is our world still in the process of globalization, especially with the United States’ economic pressures to the Russia and as Russia set war to Ukraine and they cut off the energy to Europe, and also add in the situation of the spread of COVID-19? This is my first question.
And then my second question is, without Russia, how can Europe solve its energy problem?
Q: Thank you very much. We just have another question, sorry.
FASKIANOS: One more and then we will go answers, and then we have so many other questions we’ll have to keep it at that.
Q: Hi. I also have a question. That is, if the war continues, will Russia change its public policy with other developing countries, like Malaysia or India? Will they cooperate together to solve their current issues, or they will take other actions? Thanks.
SAROTTE: All right. Well, thank you, UCL, for making a good showing there. You can check off British summertime.
Let me—first, let me say—so, the second question first was Russia and its attitude towards developing countries. Obviously, because Russia is now decoupling itself, and also being decoupled from, the Western economy, that increases the importance to Russia of countries that are not in Europe, countries that are not in the United States, and so forth. So there is new leverage now for basically other countries. Obviously, , I wouldn’t call China a developing country, but obviously China and India have enormous leverage right now with Russia.
So in a sense, there’s a kind of recalibration happening in the international system as the energy and economic ties between Europe are being cut, it’s then going to be creating newer ties or stronger ties to developing countries. So there’s a large realignment going on. Again, as with the previous question from Manuel, it’s a little early to foresee the outcome, but it’s clear that process is underway.
And then the previous question about without Russia, how can Europe solve its energy problem, that’s obviously the right question. The Europeans have had now a lot of this calendar year to think about that. So one of the self-harming choices that Putin made was to play his energy card too early. In other words, he started threatening and actually cutting off supplies—energy supplies—to Europe in the early spring, when the invasion didn’t end in three days, as he hoped. And that actually gave Europeans the whole summer to start to make plans, to try to find alternatives, to do things like build floating harbors to get liquefied natural gas to their customers, to find alternative sources.
The sense, for example, from Germany, which is a country where I was recently, is that while it might be a difficult winter, no one is going to freeze. The supplies will be enough. There might—they’re not going to be able to keep lights on, perhaps, in stores in the evening, and maybe the Christmas markets won’t be as bright, but no one is going to freeze. And they’re ready for it. And that feeling seems to cover other European countries as well. And if there are some difficulties, people are ready for that. And, as I said before, this will be the last winter where Russia will able to threaten to put Europe in the dark and in the cold.
And renewables are going to come online in a major way. Germany had to reverse course on some of its use of coal. It’s also has to reverse course on cutting down some nuclear plants. There is going to be a shifting, but it will—Europe will be able to provide for its essential energy needs. There may be some non-essential things that go away, but Europe will make sure that nobody freezes. And I couldn’t quite hear the first question, but I understand there are other questioners, so you’ll forgive me if I pass on the first question and move onto the next questioner. But thank you for ticking off the British summertime box.
FASKIANOS: Great. I’m going to go next to Zachary Hammerschmidt.
Q: Hi. I’m Zach Hammerschmidt from Mankato State—Minnesota State University in Mankato.
So my question to you is: Should we be viewing this more of a continuation of the Cold War? Proxy wars have been more noticeable of late—as in Syria and the Ukraine, with NATO’s influence. And if so, wouldn’t the expansion of NATO into Scandinavia and our support of Ukraine as a pro-Western democracy further exacerbate the problem with Russian aggression? Because that definitely does mimic Putin’s rhetoric, of late.
SAROTTE: OK. OK. Are you Central time?
SAROTTE: All right. We can tick off Central time. Excellent. Very good. All right, so, all right, Zachary, thank you for your question. Historical question. I love it. I’m a historian, so history, the one true discipline. All your political science students out there, nobody’s perfect. All right.
So, yeah, Cold War. That whole thing has really come up again. My colleague, Stephen Kotkin, the author of the biography of Stalin, has recently said—I think actually in Foreign Affairs, Irina, I think, or at a Foreign (Affairs) event—that the Cold War never ended. That it’s been continuing. That we are kidding ourselves that we had a break in it. I’m not entirely sure I agree with that. I believe that we are once again now in cold war-like conditions. But in contrast to my colleague, Stephen Kotkin—I disagree with him with great hesitation—but I believe that the thaw between the last Cold War and this new cold war was real.
The problem is that cold wars are not short-lived affairs. So thaws are precious. And neither Russia nor the West made the best use of the thaw that we had, that is now over. For example, it would have been wonderful if there had been more progress on disarmament than there was. That didn’t happen. It would have been wonderful if it had lasted longer. That didn’t happen. This indeed is what I investigate in my book, Not One Inch. So since I know this is not meant to be a seven hour, or an eleven hour event, I’m not meant to cover all the time zones, I won’t describe all the arguments in my book right here. But if you are interested, you can definitely look at it more.
I think what has happened is we—the Cold War ended. We had a genuine moment where it would have been possible to establish lasting cooperation. I know there are other people who think differently, but I believe that there was a real moment of optimism. Perhaps that’s because I experienced some of it personally. I was studying abroad in West Berlin in 1989. That is ultimately the reason I do what I do. That is the reason why I became a historian, why I am interested in Cold War history, the history of the end of the Cold War, the history of what is happening now, because of the experiences that I had living in West Berlin and traveling behind the Iron Curtain and then, obviously, the experience of seeing that Iron Curtain open, unexpectedly.
So I think that there was a genuine thaw. I do not agree with Stephen Kotkin. I do think, as I was saying before, that we are spinning back up to cold war-like conditions, but with some important differences. There are important differences both in the surrounding structure and context, and there are important individual differences. And the surrounding structure and context, obviously the previous Cold War was a lot more bipolar, Moscow-Washington. Now China’s a much—a major player, certainly in economic terms, also in military terms. So that is different. There are just—India, Brazil—it’s not as bipolar as it was. It's also not an ideological conflict. Putin is not a communist. He’s far too rich for that. (Laughs.) He’s not trying to restore communism.
So I grant that there are many, many differences to the previous Cold War. And yet, the key factor of the previous Cold War was the rise of this thermonuclear conflict—a potential thermonuclear conflict between Washington and Moscow which, to repeat, would be a civilization-ending conflict. It would kill most life on Earth. That, for me, is a significant threshold in history. We crossed that with the development of thermonuclear weapons. And so that nuclear conflict between Washington and Moscow is, to me, what defines the Cold War, what made it unique and different from previous eras. The fact that we are now once again talking about a nuclear conflict at that level—again, I hope very much this does not happen, but the rhetoric is bad—means that we are once again having a cold war.
And then, as you mentioned, Zachary, there’s also this idea of proxy wars. That there is a stalemate between Washington and Moscow directly, or Moscow and NATO countries, but then there are other countries where there is hot war, not cold war. The Cold War is a bit of a misnomer. There’s an excellent book by Paul Chamberlin called The Cold War Killing Fields. Talks about all of the people who died in hot wars during the Cold War. And so, yes, you’re right to say we’re seeing this phenomenon again of a stalemate between Moscow and Washington, for now, but with a lot of bloodshed and fighting in a proxy war situation.
And then, to get to the last part of your question about NATO enlargement, I think that you have to differentiate sharply between peacetime and wartime. So as you’ll see, if you have a look at my book, I am not an opponent of NATO enlargement, right? If you’re looking for the person who says everything that’s happened is NATO’s fault, that’s John Mearsheimer. That’s not me. So you can ask Irina to organize an educator’s event with John Mearsheimer and have at him.
I am not opposed to NATO enlargement. I think the problem with NATO enlargement was how it happened. There were ways not to leave Ukraine in the lurch, for example. There were alternatives known at the time, that I describe in my book. And I wish that those alternatives had dominated, those alternative methods of enlarging NATO. NATO enlargement was not one thing. There were multiple possibly ways to expand it known at the time, including ways that would have involved Ukraine. And I wish that those had happened. So I think how it happened was problematic.
But—and this is a big but—my criticism referred to this peaceful thaw that I genuinely believe was a real thaw, a real opportunity for cooperation between the last Cold War and the one we’ve got coming up. That time has changed. We are now in a time of war. War changes everything. So now that we’ve seen that Putin will know no limits, that Putin will respond only to force, now that we’ve seen the brutality of what happened in Bucha, now that we’re uncovering the atrocities every time Ukraine liberates another city, now we need wartime actions. It’s clear that what we need to do now is to defend Ukraine, to make it clear either to Putin or people around Putin that there is no point in continuing this conflict, and to try to somehow move beyond this bloodshed.
And in the first instance, that requires showing as much military resolve as possible. And, as I said, also, in response to an earlier question, that also shows playing up alliance unity, creating new opportunities for people to join, like Sweden and Finland. So in the context of the war, now that we are in war, I think that it is the right and appropriate thing for NATO to keep enlarging and for it to push back forcefully against Putin to hopefully get back to a place where we’re not in wartime, we’re in peacetime, and then diplomacy can take over again.
FASKIANOS: Great. So we did have a written question from Gail Evans, who’s at Georgia Tech, who referenced—and I don’t know if you saw it—the event that CFR hosted with Dr. Henry Kissinger, Mary, in which he suggested that we needed to be aware of how the Ukraine war ended would determine whether Russia was the far end of the West or the beginning of the East. And she wondered what your reaction is to that.
SAROTTE: Hmm, interesting. So, no, I did not see that event. I mean, obviously Henry Kissinger is very—is a smart man. I think whether Russia is the far end of the West or the near end of the East is up to the Russians. So I don’t know that it is in our hands to decide that. I’m also not sure that’s a meaningful distinction. Obviously, there’s a lot of countries between Europe and China. So what about them? I would—but I do agree with him, absolutely, that the way this war ends is of monumental significance. The problem is, it’s hard to say how it will end. We can talk about how it won’t end, right?
So, for example, it’s not going to end with Putin saying, oh, I don’t know what got into me, sorry. And everyone saying, OK, no problem, let’s go back to where we were before February, 24, 2022. That is not going to happen. I mean, even if—I said this in a television interview recently—even if—and this is not going to happen. But even if we get off this Zoom and we find that somehow, miraculously, while we’ve been on the Zoom, Putin said: You know, what? Forget it. Let’s stop this sill invasion. Call it off. That’s not happening. And even if it did, no one is going back, right? No one is going to say, oh, OK, all right. Let’s, you know, start the oil flowing again. I mean, even though despite there’s holes in the pipelines now.
This is a real breaking point in history. So the question is, how is the war going to end? And it will be something new. I don’t know what it will be. It could be worse. But it will be something new. Russia, as I said, has been largely decoupled from the Western economy. That’s not going to change immediately. There will be questions, obviously, huge questions, about the internal domestic politics in Russia. It seems that Putin has decided to really attach his fate to the fate of this war, which is yet another tragic decision. He seems to have foreclosed other options for himself. So it’s not clear—it is not clear to me how this war ends. But it is clear to me that it will be hugely significant. And so I would agree with Dr. Kissinger that how this war ends is hugely significant.
FASKIANOS: Great. I’m going to go next to Konstantin Tkachuk. Please excuse my pronunciation.
Q: Yeah. Thank you a lot also from myself. My name is Konstantin. I’m coming from—I’m half Russian, half Ukrainian. And that’s a very insightful talk for me. I’m dialing from Schwarzman College at Tsinghua University in Beijing, China.
SAROTTE: All right, Chinese time zones. Excellent. All right. All right. Very good. (Laughs.)
Q: And my question is, we provide well—or somehow covered already the topic of the war and what is happening in the short term. I’m more curious that, given the situation will resolve in some time which we obviously cannot predict right now, and the war was definitely a political suicide for the current government in Russia, what do you think would be the settlement process worldwide for Russia, given the size of Russian resource markets, given the need in those resource markets still in many other countries, and the remaining impact on the various other industries? So how would you, from a historical perspective, see that?
SAROTTE: Hmm, OK. Well, first of all, so thank you for adding the Chinese time zone. Secondly, thank you for sharing your personal background. I hope that your family members are safe. And I’m so sorry about the experiences that the Ukrainian side of your family is obviously going through.
On your third point, your statement that this war was political suicide for the current Russia regime, I wish that were obviously true. I hope that will be true. I hope that we are approaching the post-Putin moment. It is not yet clear to me, however, that Putin has committed political suicide. When you’ve had a country in personal rule for decades, as he has—or, let me put it this way—when you’ve been at the top of a country for decades and you have created a situation of personal rule, you’ve established deep roots through the institutions of loyalties and supporters. Obviously, there’s no longer freedom of the press, there’s no longer freedom of association.
And among the tragic effects of the war for Russia is that it has caused mass flight of people who might have led opposition. So certainly the outbreak of the war caused journalists and other writers to flee because the use of the word “war” was criminalized, and so their writing could have landed them in jail. More recently, the botched efforts at mobilization have caused some enormous number of young Russian men to leave Russia, as I’m sure you know. I haven’t—it seems like there are estimates that are bouncing around, but it looks like the number is clearly in the hundreds of thousands. So I’ve seen estimates that as many as half a million Russian men have fled the country because of the mobilization.
So in a system that already has a dearth of venues to express opposition, to call for change, the war has depleted the supply of people who might be brave enough or inclined enough to make those calls. So it’s not clear to me that in domestic Russian terms Putin has committed political suicide. I think what has happened is grim for Russia as a country, as I said at the outset. I think as the global impact and influence of this war grows, the global impact and influence of Russia declines. I think many of the people around Putin are starting to realize they may be living in a very large version of North Korea. But again, the leader of North Korea has held on for a long time.
So it’s not clear to me that this is political suicide for Putin. That then relates to the second part of your question, which is, you know, what kind of settlement comes out of this. And this goes back to the earlier question we had about, you know, the ICC and holding Russia accountable. You wisely mentioned, Konstantin, Russia’s resources. Obviously, Russia’s resources—its oil, its gas, and so forth—along with its strategic nuclear power, give it a certain weight in the international system. Russia is just simply too big to ignore, right?
Before the war broke out I would often go to give talks and I would say: You know, there’s growing tensions with Russia, and they really worry me. And I would often face audiences who would say, well, why does Russia matter? It has the economy—it only has the economy the size of a small Chinese province or Spain. And I would respond, well, number one, Spain’s economy is not that small. And, number two, Russia’s a strategic nuclear power, right? That doesn’t change whether its economy is the size of Spain or not.
So, you know, can’t just ignore Russia. It’s just too big and too nuclear to ignore. So it’s not as if the world is just going to be able to ignore Russia. There will, as you rightly said, have to be some kind of settlement. But as I’ve said with some of the other previous questions, I think we’re in a moment of contingency right now. And I think it would be—I’d be lying if I said, oh, I know absolutely what’s going to happen. It’s clear there is going to have to be a settlement.
It’s clear Russia is just too big a factor, a player in the international system to simply write off. But what kind of settlement is going to come is going to depend on whether this really does turn out to be political suicide for Putin or not. And I don’t think that that is clear yet. But thank you for the insightful question. And thank you for adding in some Chinese time zones to this call.
FASKIANOS: I’m going to go next to Zinadid Simpson Crasiyah (ph).
Q: Hi. Good afternoon and thank you for this talk, Professor. I am a law student at the University of Oklahoma.
I had a question regarding one of the articles you attached in your invitation to this, The World Putin Wants. And I was particularly interested in the talk about Putin’s influence on the global south and, as the article described it, the rest of the developing world, and how he has been winning the information war with them. So my question is, how does the West, the global west and I guess the United States, fight the information war if they’ve already started doing that? And how that could, in a sense, resolve at least some issues?
SAROTTE: Hmm, yeah, all right. So, excellent. University of Oklahoma. I’m guessing Central time, yes?
Q: Yes. Yes.
SAROTTE: All right. Central time. All right. We’ve got another good—(inaudible)—from Central time. All right.
Yeah, so the—I’m trying to remember how old that article is, I can’t remember exactly. I don’t think right now people would say Putin is winning the global information war. I think that headline has to go to the Ukrainians, right? Pro tip, don’t go to war against a very online comedian who knows how to communicate effectively. The Ukrainians have used information warfare very, very skillfully. As they should. They are at war. Again, wartime is different than peacetime. And so the terms of the information war have shifted greatly since that article was written.
Obviously, another big factor, which is a little bit outside the topic here for us today but is worth mentioning, is the impact of, of course, the Chinese in the global south, the Belt and Road Initiative, their actions there. That, I think, has had much—had had more traction than the Russian approaches, and especially now because of the war Russia, as I—sort of just come back to my theme—Russia’s global influence is, I would submit, declining. So I think if that article were written today, it would have a little bit of a different focus. But that is a little bit outside of the area that we’re focusing on today. But thank you for the question.
FASKIANOS: Mary, there are a lot of questions about China. So I guess maybe just to talk a little bit. You know, Russia’s relations with China, with a view to its global influence, and given its growing—China’s growing bargaining power. What opportunities does this create for China to reshape the power dynamic? And do you see this as a factor pressuring Russia to find an offramp?
SAROTTE: Yeah. All right. We’re just going to assume that was, you know, questions from eleven time zones here and tick them all off here, as we wrap up.
Yeah. So I actually—on the subject of Moscow’s relationship with Beijing, I co-authored an article with Sergey Radchenko for Foreign Affairs. So for those of you who are interested, please search—I don’t know, maybe one of the staff here could put it in the chat or, you know, the link to it. Sergey Radchenko and I, a colleague of mine at SAIS who is actually himself, Konstantin, he’s actually Russian-Ukrainian as well. We looked at historical parallels to the current relationship between Moscow and Beijing. And Sergey and I, we saw a cautionary tale. It’s a tale of a country that supported its crumbling neighbor in an effort to menace a smaller power. And in historical terms, that was rising Germany at the beginning of the 20th century, supported the crumbling Austro-Hungarian Empire, attacking Serbia. That did not end well for imperial Germany. That ended in World War I, which dragged down Germany as well.
Germany, at the end—at the beginning of the 20th century was on course to be the dominant industrial military technological power of the century. If you at the beginning of the 20th century had tried to guess which country will dominate this century, the answer would have been Germany. And as a result of its foolish decision to support a crumbling neighbor in its effort to restore a lost empire, imperial Germany itself was dragged under. That’s not a good precedent for a current rising power, namely China, supporting a former imperial neighbor, namely Russia, trying to restore—trying to launch war and restore imperial glory in a small country, namely Ukraine.
So we think that it is not wise for Beijing to be supporting Russia to the degree that it has been so far. There seem to be a lot of signs that Beijing is starting to have second thoughts itself. There seem to be a lot of signs that Beijing is trying to communicate to Putin that this war did not go well, is not going well, wrapping it up would be a good idea. I suspect that Xi Jinping regrets the statement that his partnership with Russia had no limits, made before the Olympics last fall—sorry—earlier this year. So I think the relationship between Moscow and Beijing is hugely important. As Russia gets more and more cut off from European countries, its economic relationship with China becomes more and more important. Beijing has leverage over Russia right now. Beijing is also enjoying getting, you know, gas and oil at a discount. Beijing is able to exploit Russia right now. That’s not really in Russia’s interest.
So the relationship is hugely important. I hope that Beijing will continue on the trend line it is on, which is—which appears to be behind the scenes pressure on Moscow to start wrapping this up. I don’t think China, let me put it this way, would, you know, try to engage in some kind of muscular coercion of Putin. I think there are limits. But I think it’s at least—heartening is the wrong word—but less terrible if Beijing is saying to Moscow—if Xi is saying to Putin: This is really not a good idea. That’s better than what was being said earlier this year, which is, our friendship has no limits. Do whatever you want, right?
So it’s an important relationship. Beijing has leverage. I hope Beijing will see that it is ultimately not in Beijing’s interest to be on the wrong side of this war. That is—I hope that very much. Again, like with so many other things, because we’re in a moment with such contingency, it’s a little bit hard to predict. But it’s definitely essential to keep an eye on Beijing and on China.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. We just dropped the link to that Foreign Affairs article in the chat. So I commend it to all of you. We have so many questions, raised hands and written questions. I’m sorry we couldn’t get them all. But I’m going to reserve the right of the moderator to ask the last one.
So, Mary, you did mention a little bit earlier about why you became a historian. So could you say a few words about, even if you don’t aspire to become a historian, why history is so important for all of us to have in our lives?
SAROTTE: Yeah, absolutely. I believe that history is the—understanding history is the best way to prepare for the future. I don’t believe that it, or any other discipline, lets you accurately, to the last detail, predict the future. I think anyone who tells you students out there, I can predict the future, don’t believe them. But I think you can prepare for the future, right? If you think, for example, about, I don’t know what a soccer team, a football team, an American—you know, the New England Patriots and Detroit Lions, and in, you know, England it might be Manchester United. The fact that they hold a practice on—you know, in advance of the big game does not guarantee that they will win the game, but it greatly increases the chances, right?
The fact, to use another example, that a pilot might spend many hours in a flight simulator before actually getting into a cockpit does not mean that the pilot will do everything personally—that he or she will do everything personally—but it does greatly increase the chances, right? And so, similarly, I would like to leave students with this thought. History doesn’t provide us with clear and obvious lessons, a clear, you know, checklist of what to do. But it does greatly increase the chances that we can meet the challenges that are coming. And, sadly, we are, once again, in an era of some very, very dangerous challenges—indeed, potentially existential challenges—for our planet.
So I’ve been making a joke of it, but it actually really does mean a lot to me that the students have called in from around the globe to talk about these issues, because our globe needs you and needs your efforts to keep us away from disaster. So thank you for calling in to think about this, and helping create a global community to talk about these issues.
FASKIANOS: Wonderful. Well, thank you, Mary, for this terrific hour, and to all the students and professors who are trying to get everybody interested in history on the call. We appreciate your participation and I’m sorry, again, that we couldn’t get to all your questions. Again, I commend Mary’s book to you, Not One Inch: America, Russia, and the Making of Post-Cold War Stalemate. And we will keep an eye on those book prizes. Hope you are the winner.
So the next Academic Webinar will be on Wednesday, October 26, at 1:00 p.m. Eastern time. Zongyuan Zoe Liu, fellow for international political economy here at CFR, will talk about global economics. And in the meantime, please do check out our CFR fellowships for educators at CFR.org/fellowships. The deadline for that is October 31. It IS a unique opportunity to come to the Council for nine months, or to go work in the government. Follow @CFR_Academic on Twitter and visit CFR.org, ForeignAffairs.com, and ThinkGlobalHealth.org for research and analysis on global issues.
So again, thank you all for being with us. Thank you, Professor Mary Elise Sarotte. And we look forward to having your join us again in a couple of weeks.
SAROTTE: Sounds great. Bye-bye.