The War in Ukraine: How Will It End?
(Prof. Andrew Latham, June 14, 2022)
Transcript available below
About the Speaker
Andrew Latham is a professor of International Relations specializing in the politics of international conflict and security. He teaches courses on international security, Chinese foreign policy, war and peace in the Middle East, Regional Security in the Indo-Pacific Region, and the World Wars. He was formerly the Nonproliferation, Arms Control, and Disarmament Fellow at the Canadian Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade, and a lecturer at the Canadian Armed Forces School of Aerospace Studies. Professor Latham regularly writes — and speaks to the media and community groups — about war, disarmament, and strategic affairs, with a special focus on issues related to arms control and weapons of mass destruction (North Korea), great power rivalries (U.S. vs. China; U.S. vs. Russia), conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, the transformation of war (cybersecurity, space, hybrid war), and U.S. defense policy.
Robert R. Reilly:
Hello and welcome to the Westminster Institute. I am Robert Reilly, its director. Today, we are very pleased to welcome to the Westminster Institute, Dr. Andrew Latham, who is a Professor of International Relations at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota, specializing in the politics of international conflict and security. He teaches courses on international security, Chinese foreign policy, war and peace in the Middle East, Regional Security in the Indo-Pacific Region, and the World Wars. He was formerly the Nonproliferation, Arms Control, and Disarmament Fellow at the Canadian Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade, and a lecturer at the Canadian Armed Forces School of Aerospace Studies. Professor Latham regularly writes about war, disarmament, and strategic affairs, with a special focus on issues related to arms control and weapons of mass destruction (i.e., North Korea), great power rivalries, for instance, the U.S. vs. China and the U.S. vs. Russia, the transformation of war and U.S. defense policy. Dr. Latham received his PhD in International Relations and Strategic Studies from York University in Toronto.
He has served as Assistant Director of the Center for International Security Studies, York University, Nonproliferation, Arms Control, and Disarmament Research Fellow with the Canadian Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade, lecturer at the Canadian Armed Forces School of Aerospace Studies, Winnipeg, and as Senior Policy Associate with the Canadian Department of Foreign Affairs.
He has published articles in a variety of academic journals, including the European Journal of International Relations, International Studies Quarterly, Contemporary Security Policy, and International Journal. His recent book is titled, Theorizing Medieval Geopolitics: War and World Order in the Age of the Crusades. Dr. Latham also wrote a recent article for The Hill titled, “The unpalatable truth in Ukraine,” of which he will speak today under the topic heading: The War in Ukraine: How Will It End? Welcome, Professor Latham.
Well, thank you for that warm welcome and very gracious introduction. The topic today really will be how this war between Russia and Ukraine is going to end, not how we might wish it would end, not a moral case for it ending this way or that way, but a sort of cold-eyed, realist take on what the most likely outcome will be.
Now, I always preface talks like this by saying that all wars end in one of two ways, either there is a decisive battlefield victory, which results in a decisive victory at the negotiating table, or there is some sort of negotiated settlement, typically the result of a mutually hurting stalemate, a situation in which neither of the protagonists feel that they are likely to prevail on the battlefield, and the costs of prolonging the conflict are rising and they are becoming unsustainable. And when both sides get to that point, then you have the circumstances, the conditions are ripe, for some kind of negotiated settlement.
Now, I should say at the outset that we are not there yet in Ukraine. Both sides continue to harbor delusions perhaps that one more push is likely to result in some kind of victory, or on the Ukrainian side, just a few more of this kind of weapon or that kind of weapon from NATO [or] the United States and they are likely to prevail on the battlefield. There is also in both cases some internecine political dynamics, which make it difficult for either Vladimir Putin or Vladimir Zelenskyy to at this point enter into good faith negotiations.
So that is almost parenthetical, but the basic takeaway at the opening needs to be that we are either looking at some kind of decisive victory on the battlefield for one side or the other, which I think is unlikely for reasons I will talk about, or we are inching our way towards a negotiated settlement based on this condition of mutually hurting stalemate.
Now, I just said I think that neither side is likely to win a decisive battlefield victory. And I feel obliged at this point to mention one of Clausewitz’s famous dicta. There are innumerable, of course, but we always have to make allowances for the play of chance, as he called it, which is another way of saying one just does not know. There might, in fact, be some miracle weapon delivered to the Ukrainians, which changes the battlefield correlation of forces decisively in their favor. There may be some collapse of morale on the part of the Ukrainian military. Anything, almost anything could happen, which will sway that.
A Decisive Russian Victory is Implausible
But if we can bracket those imponderables out for a moment and simply look at the battlefield circumstances, I think we can begin to, as I did in the piece for The Hill, eliminate certain impossible outcomes. And the first of those is the outcome of decisive Russian victory. We saw four months ago now, that this was the assumption on the part of the Russians and on the part of many observers in the West, that this ‘special military operation,’ in quotation marks, would be over in 48, 72, 96 hours, and that Ukraine would be reduced to some sort of vassal state of some reanimated Russian Empire, that the Russians would engage in a thunder run towards Kiev and perhaps a few other major cities, and as was the case in 2014 with Crimea, that Ukrainian resistance would collapse. Russia would be in a position to dictate the political outcome of the conflict at a minimum cost to itself, and that [would be the] preferred Russian outcome.
A lot of the discussions of Russian imperialism, and Putin being ill, and all of that on the side, I have no need of those abstractions to make sense of what is going on. If I look at the record over the last [eight years], just since 2014, maybe 2012, maybe 2004 at the earliest, I can see that the Russians’ maximalist preferred outcome, kind of perfect outcome, on February 24 would have been a quick and decisive battlefield victory at extremely low cost, negligible cost in fact, that would result in the following: Donbas would be rendered ungovernable from Kiev, that Crimea would be quote unquote, ‘restored’ to Russia, that the rump Ukrainian state would be, in fact, reduced to a kind of vassalage. It certainly would be neutralized in that it would not be drawn into the geo-economic orbit of the European Union or the geopolitical orbit of NATO in any formal way. So, it would be reconstituted as a kind of buffer state within a revived sphere of influence around Russia’s periphery.
Now, that was in my judgement based on watching this since 2014 what I think the Russians really wanted to achieve. They are not going to achieve all of that. They are not going to reduce Ukraine to a vassal state. It is not going to be reincorporated into some formal or informal Russian Empire, at least not along those lines. It certainly is not going to be disarmed at this point by the Russian military.
For reasons we can talk about perhaps a little later, I just do not see it within the realm of possibility that Russia’s maximalist objectives on February 24 of this year will be realized either at the negotiating table or even on the battlefield. So that is the first impossible outcome that I think we can take off the table.
A Decisive Ukrainian Victory is Implausible
The second impossible outcome that we can take off the table is a decisive Ukrainian victory on the battlefield, translating into a decisive Ukrainian victory at the negotiating table. It simply is not going to happen, notwithstanding all of the – I am going to use the word euphoria that many observers in the West experienced a week or so after the invasion of February 24 when it seemed as if the Russian military was being handed its hat, that it was being decisively defeated, that it had proven to be a paper tiger, and that the Ukrainian military was going to liberate not just the territories that Russia grabbed in the opening days and week or so of its invasion, but was going to liberate all of Donbas, it was going to liberate all of Crimea, and it was going to restore Ukrainian sovereignty to the Ukrainian borders that existed and are still internationally recognized in 2013, let us say. That is not going to happen.
Ukraine Cannot Expel the Russians
The Ukrainian military is not strong enough today to defeat the Russians in Donbas. It is not strong enough to defeat the Russians and expel them from Ukraine. We should not expect any sort of re-run of the successful defense of Kiev and the pushing back of the Russian army back into Belarus, for example. It is not going to happen. There are some very good structural reasons and operational planning reasons why the Russian military did so poorly in the opening phases of the war. But the Russian military now has found its footing. It is now fighting the kind of war that it is trained and equipped and ideally suited to fight the kind of war that it has liked to fight at least since the Second World War if not before. And having found its footing, it is now experiencing, not breakthrough and dramatic successes, but significant, considerable battlefield successes around Severodonetsk, for example, but elsewhere as well.
The Ukrainians, barring some miracle, and by that, I mean acquiring and then becoming proficient in the use of some miracle weapon from the West, is simply not going to be in a position to defeat in detail and expel the Russians. It is not even going to be in a position to raise the costs of the conflict in the short to the medium term to the point where Russia simply says, you know what, we really would like to win this, but it is just not worth it.
The War Will End With a Negotiated Settlement
So now I have taken two possible, once-upon-a-time plausible outcomes off the table; decisive Russian victory and decisive Ukrainian victory. And by decisive, I mean achieving their maximalist goals at acceptable, reasonable costs. And that leaves us, I argued in The Hill piece, and I will argue again, with really only one, possible outcome, a negotiated settlement, and a negotiated settlement which on balance strongly favors the Russians.
Now, we are not there yet as I indicated in my opening remarks. We are not at the point where Kiev and Moscow are experiencing this as a mutually hurting stalemate. It is mutually hurting alright, but the back and forth on the battlefield, and the prospects on the Ukrainian side of some miracle intervention on the part of the West, and the prospects on the Russian side of prevailing in this kind of grinding, artillery-predominant war that they are best suited to, the costs to both parties have not yet risen to the point where they think that it is too high, and the prospects of ultimate victory do not seem to have entirely evaporated. Although having said that, one can detect a kind of vibe shift on the part of the Ukrainian leadership and on the part of many of its heretofore almost unquestioning supporters in the West.
Ukrainian Casualty Rates Are Unsustainable
We are hearing now a great deal from President Zelenskyy and his representatives of Ukrainian casualty rates. We never heard a word about that for the first three months of this war. We heard about the – from the Russian’s perspective, terrible casualty rates on their side. Minimal conservative estimates are that Russia has already suffered more casualties in four months in Ukraine than the United States suffered in twenty years in Afghanistan and Iraq. I mean these are tremendous numbers.
But now, as I said, [there has been a] vibe shift. We are hearing much more about one hundred battle deaths – this is from Zelenskyy himself – one hundred battle deaths a day being suffered by the Ukrainians. And that means, rule of thumb, four or five hundred debilitating casualties, casualties who are now hors de combat. They are no longer able to fight, so we are looking at five, six, maybe seven hundred Ukrainian soldiers, combatants, out of action every day, day in and day out. And these are not just the ill-trained, ill-equipped and increasingly poorly motivated conscripts or territorial volunteers. These are disproportionately the very best, the best trained, the best equipped, and most experienced forces that the Ukrainians have to offer.
These are unsustainable casualty rates on the Ukrainian side.
Where We Are on the Battlefield Today
Now, they have a lot of people, but what they are increasingly experiencing is shortfalls in combatant soldiers who are well-trained, highly motivated, disciplined, and well-equipped, the kind of forces they need if they are going to stem the most recent Russian offensives. Those people are bleeding out disproportionately. The Russians now seem to have, as I said on a few occasions already, recovered their footing, and are using their combined arms tactics, especially their heavy, long-range artillery supported by drones used in observation mode, and a variety of other combined arms tactics, including something they did not do in the opening stages, using air power to great effect.
They are beginning to push back, not just inflict unsustainable casualties, and these two are related, but actually pushing back Ukrainian forces from important positions, in Donbas at least. And to me what this says is that the Russians have lots of equipment. They have little manpower, relatively, despite the mythology of the Soviets and now the Russians having unlimited manpower. They really do not, but they have enough to fight the kind of war they like to fight. The Ukrainians have lots of manpower, but it is poorly trained, increasingly poorly motivated (desertion rates are going through the roof as a result of Russian artillery fire more than anything else).
And nothing that the West has offered by way of materiel, weapons and munitions, to support those troops is going to be anywhere near enough, so for example, a figure that is circulating the last few days, the Russians are firing fifty to sixty thousand artillery shells a day, and the Ukrainians are firing five or six thousand artillery shells in return per day. Now, you do not have to be a Clausewitz or even a mathematician to suss how that is going to turn out at the end of the day.
The stocks of ex-Soviet materiel, weapons, that was available in the former Warsaw Pact/now NATO countries is being depleted. The rate at which American and other NATO forces are able to send their cutting-edge equipment and munitions is decelerating. What we have in other words is a situation on the battlefield in which the Russians have found their balance and are maximizing and leveraging their advantages against an increasingly weak Ukrainian military. And that is beginning to show up on the battlefield. So much so that once again we are again beginning to hear from the Ukrainian side signals that maybe the time is ripe now for some kind of negotiation.
That is where we are on the battlefield. And right now, again, no major breakthroughs on the part of the Russians, but the correlation of forces, the balance of forces, is shifting very much in their favor. That is beginning to translate into battlefield successes, and that is beginning to generate pressure on the Ukrainians. It is getting them pretty close to the point where the stalemate, such as it is if it can still be called a stalemate, is hurting them quite a bit.
Now, it gets complicated again because President Zelenskyy is not in a position given the nationalist fervor that has been generated by this conflict, given some of the hyper nationalist forces, the Azov Brigade and their connections to government, he does not have an entirely free hand to sit down and begin negotiations, negotiations that are inevitably going to involve trading away sizable chunks of Ukraine, Ukrainian territory, Crimea, Donbas, the coastline, the Azov coastline, which links Crimea to Donbas.
The Final Outcome of the Conflict
Ukraine Armed, but Neutral
And this I guess gets me to the sort of final disposition, the final outcome of this conflict. Russia will not get everything it wanted at the outset, but it will get an acceptable minimum in my judgement. It will get a neutralized Ukraine. Ukraine will be an armed neutral to be sure, it is not going to disarm, but it will be neutral in the sense that no sort of affiliation, formal or even informal, with NATO is going to be a possibility. I think that it is unlikely that any kind of European Union relationship will be a possibility, although I am a little bit more persuadable on that score. There might be some scope for some kind of fudge there.
Ukraine Will Lose Territory
Ukraine is not going to get back the Donbas. In fact, it is going to lose big chunks that it held on February 23 of this year. It is going to lose big chunks of that. It is going to lose a big chunk of the Azov coastline. It is going to not recover the Crimean Peninsula. Those both before and after February 24 were core objectives, core interests of Kiev. They are not going to recover those. They are going to lose those, so Ukraine is not going to achieve any of its war aims except for the barest of minimums, which is existential. There will be a Ukraine after this war is over, but it will have lost all of that territory and it will have been reduced, not to a vassal of Russia, but to an armed neutral.
Russia Will Have a Buffer State
Russia, on the other hand, if the trend lines simply play out over the next month or two or maybe longer, is going to get what it needed if not what it wanted, a neutralized Ukrainian state, which acts as a kind of buffer between it and NATO, not that NATO was ever planning to invade Russia. I know that, most of you know that, but the insecurities in Moscow around this, which have been on prominent display since 1998 paint a different picture, I would say. Russia is going to get what it needs and what Putin can live with. Ukraine will get the barest of minimums.
The Tragedy of the Conflict
But I cannot see President Zelenskyy surviving this episode. I cannot see him surviving the inevitable outcome of this war, which is to accept, ironically, exactly what was on offer from Russia on February 23; armed neutrality, Donbas remaining nominally independent, Crimea annexed to Russia, and no relationship between Ukraine and NATO or Ukraine and the European Union. And that, I think, if I can switch gears a little bit and talk about the tragedy of international relations, is the true tragedy of this. All of this death, all of this destruction, all of this displacement is going to result in a political outcome that was available to all parties on February 23 of this year. And if that is not a tragedy, I do not know what is. I think I will end it there, Bob, if that is okay.
Robert R. Reilly:
Sure. Thanks so much, Andrew. Why do you think that that offer was not accepted at that time? I mean within a week of the start of the war in February, President Zelenskyy put on offer Ukraine’s neutrality. Rather than say that two weeks prior, he did say it then, but presumably that was too late because the Russians were already in the field.
It is very interesting to hear the terms in which this conflict is characterized by various Western powers, including particularly the United States. As you know, Defense Secretary Austin at the annual Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore recently said that the Russian invasion of Ukraine, I am quoting him here, is “a preview of a possible world of chaos and turmoil” and he said Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine is “what happens when oppressors trample the rules that protect us all.” And as you know, President Biden has said that this is a conflict that goes beyond Ukraine because it is autocracies vs. democracies, so a kind of global import to the stakes in Ukraine has been expressed by various heads of state of NATO countries and others. What do you think of that?
Well, to the last point I think it is a mis-framing of world politics at this current juncture. I think there are many people in the American foreign policy establishment, especially in the Biden administration, who did not get the memo that the unipolar moment is over, that that post-Cold War moment when the United States bestrode the world as the kind of leviathan that was the only remaining superpower, or as the French like to refer to us, the hyperpower (it sounds better in French). For those twenty-five or thirty years, the mythology that dominated in Washington was one of a liberal international order had been established. There were a few states that had to be forcibly incorporated into it, Afghanistan and Iraq, for example, but for the most part, looking at China, looking at Russia, they were slowly becoming more like us, they were internalizing liberal democratic norms, and human rights, and open and free markets, and eventually this process would culminate in a planet-wide liberal order in which everybody looked like us and played by the same rules. And when they did not, the United States would be global cop.
And that may or may not have been true for that quarter century, but it is not true now, and we are now in an era of great power competition. It is more multipolar than unipolar. It is not even bipolar despite the rise of China. And what we see is a lot of countries around the world that if President Biden and his team are correct, and if what you quoted from the Shangri-La Dialogue was correct, they should have rallied behind the United States in their condemnation of Russia, and they should have signed up enthusiastically for the sanctions regime that was imposed on Russia, and yet this did not happen.
India has basically said, you know, we are going to continue to buy Russian oil and we are kind of dependent on them for their military kit that we use in our armed forces. We might issue some displeasure, we might wag our fingers, but we are not going along with this. And the same is true of China. And the same is true of a lot of countries that are pursuing their own national interests and saying to themselves, you know what, this is nothing more than a regional war in Europe, it has nothing to do with us.
So although there are many in the West who like to frame this as an existential threat to this liberal international order, which has been rebranded now as the rules-based international order, almost nobody else outside of NATO and Europe, and of course the United States, Canada, Australia, buys this. It is not persuasive to them. So I think that kind of language is an artifact of a worldview, which is simply out-of-date. The world has moved on, and it has moved beyond the point where its dynamics can be captured by that kind of language. And I am fearful that if people in positions of power in the Western world do not sort of wake up to this changed reality, and continue to think that this is 1999 as opposed to 2022, some serious misjudgments are going to flow from that.
Robert R. Reilly:
Nonetheless, you do have some Western analysts and members of some NATO countries who are saying that the invasion of Ukraine by Russia is really just the beginning, that they have ambitions beyond that, whether that means Moldova or Poland or the Baltic states, they say emphatically that this is just the first step. How do you respond to that?
Well, it may be the first misstep, but I do not see it as the first step. Let us assume for the moment – I do not, by the way, but let us assume that Vladimir Putin has been seized by this idea that he is Peter the Great, and that he has to reconstitute the Russian Empire at its height, and that the Soviet Union was not even the model, but it is Czarist Russia and its great imperial moment that he is trying to recreate. The Baltics, which were part of that, are part of NATO, and therefore enjoy the benefits of Article 5 guarantees in a way that Ukraine did not. The first Russian soldier that crosses that border, Russia is at war with the United States more-or-less. There is some wiggle room there, but more-or-less.
Not only that, but Finland, for example, another state bordering [Russia], which is clamoring to get into NATO, and is likely to succeed, President Erdoğan’s objections notwithstanding, [has] built a robust military, far stronger than the Ukrainian military, and the Russians could not really decisively beat the Ukrainians. So, it is not clear to me that the Russians have interests in Europe that are likely to drive them in the direction of attacking any other country in Western Europe.
Now, Moldova is slightly different, and we can talk a little bit more about that.
And then if you look at the rest of the Russian periphery, I would be a little more concerned. There are things that are already going on, have been going on since 2008 and are again taking place in Georgia, for example. Russia is acting like every great power has acted in most of human history, which is to say asserting its right to a sphere of influence around its border.
Now, sometimes that is inflected with some imperial nostalgia or dreams, but it is always the case. The United States has been that way with the Monroe Doctrine, for example, and people know that story fairly well. That does not equal a revanchist project geared towards conquering all of Europe. I mean that is the move I find hard to follow. Ukraine is different than France in Russia’s geopolitical imagination. And then you factor in that the realities of NATO membership for the Baltic states, and soon to be Finland and Sweden, and I see neither the imperative, [nor] the impulse, nor the possibility or prospect of Russia posing a serious threat to anybody else in Europe.
Robert R. Reilly:
On the other hand, Vladimir Putin did make this interesting statement recently while asserting Russia’s sovereignty, and I am quoting him here, “There is no state in between. A country is either sovereign or a colony. It’s impossible – do you understand – impossible to build a fence around a country like Russia. And we do not intend to build that fence.” What do you think he meant by that?
Well, I would tend to look at the longer history of Russian official announcements, and I do not mean back a thousand years or a hundred years, maybe sort of back, not even to 1991, but back to the early 2000s when the Russians were making clear that it was one thing for the Czech Republic, for example, or Bulgaria to join NATO. It was another thing for Ukraine. I mean that was the line that was drawn, that was the bridge that could not be crossed. So, when I look at those pronouncements over time, that is the basis upon which I draw my judgment that there is really no imperial ambition beyond Ukraine, and even that has been stymied.
As to his more recent comments, again, I am not qualified to judge his health, physical or mental, and that matters. And I would also look at the audience. Who is he talking to there? Is it an internal audience, which he is trying to placate or convince of something, or is he really talking to an external audience? In other words, how reflective of the reality of his thinking are those most recent statements? And I do not know the answer to that, but I would not invest it with too much significance.
Another way of saying that is, of course he is going to say things like that because he is speaking to an internal audience, and he is speaking in a register of kind of hyper nationalism, which I think is working for him. Of course, he is going to say things like that. That long, 5,000-word piece that he wrote on the Russian Empire, the content was similar, but these are out of keeping with last fifteen or twenty years of his pronouncements and official Russian pronouncements on this topic.
I might be wrong, and if I am wrong, NATO is right there, increasingly armed to the teeth, backed by American nuclear guarantees, not to mention French and British as well. I just do not see the scope for any further indulgence of whatever imperial ambitions, delusions that he might have.
Robert R. Reilly:
Curiously, when the prospect of NATO membership for Finland and Sweden came up, Putin more-or-less brushed those aside as not being a matter of tremendous importance to Russia, whereas before he had suggested that Finnish membership in NATO would be something against which Russia would have to react and perhaps with another special military operation. So that attitude seems to have shifted a bit.
Yeah, and it has shifted, not in a linear way. It is one thing one day, it is another thing the next day, right? That particular statement came after the 5,000-word imperial manifesto, so he is a little bit back-and-forth here. And he may just be reflecting some realities, which is to say that Sweden and Finland have been not part of NATO but partners with NATO for a long time. They are well-armed, more than capable of taking on the Russians.
His caveat in that statement was as long as there are no NATO infrastructures, so joining NATO is one thing, but having say an American military bases in Sweden and Finland would be another altogether. I do not think the Finns or the Swedes are talking about anything like that, so again, speaking to an audience, I am not expecting too much consistency given that he has multiple audiences, internal and external, and he is telling them what he thinks they want to hear at any given point. I am not sure that these comments are a window on his soul, as it were. I am not sure I would want to look through that window to be honest. But I am not sure that they tell us really much about, not just his, but the Russian leadership’s sense of its core interests, its core objectives, and how it is likely to go about trying to achieve those objectives.
Robert R. Reilly:
It is very interesting to examine the terms in which the stakes that led to this conflict were expressed. For instance, the NATO Secretary General made clear that this was about the open-door policy, which was absolute, and that no one could dictate to a sovereign nation like Ukraine that it could not join NATO, and that is what this was about. On the other hand, you have the über-realist at the University of Chicago, Professor Mearsheimer, saying what this war is about is whose buffer state Ukraine will be, NATO and the United States’ or Russia’s, and Russia’s position was and has been it is not going to be your buffer state, it will be ours in some way or another. What do you think of those views?
Yeah, well, without getting fully into the Mearsheimer controversy, because as you know he has become a controversial figure in a way that he has always been a little controversial, but it has gone – somebody dialed it up to eleven around this. I think, though, in a sense, he is correct. We have two spheres of influence, a historical, Russian one, and an emerging European Union one.
And unfortunately, they overlapped when it comes to Ukraine.
And in a sense, to me that is the heart of the issue. A status for Ukraine like Finland during the Cold War, or Austria during the Cold War, or Belgium during its first seventy years or so of existence prior to the First World War might have allowed us to square the circle of these potentially overlapping spheres of influence, and we might not find ourselves where we are today.
But because I think there were intransigent and intractable people in Moscow, but also in Brussels and European and NATO capitals who were absolutists on this, that on the Western side, Ukraine had a right to determine for itself. Now, of course, it does, but just because a state has a right to do something does not mean it is right to do it. It can actually be counterproductive in terms of its existential interests. That is what we saw playing out here.
So, when I said earlier that the offer that was on the table [on] February 23 or so ([it] might have actually been off the table a little before that), but in the runup to this war, that a neutral Ukraine, no longer being led down what I think was the garden path of NATO membership, and not even talking seriously about an Association Agreement with the European Union, we could have had [an agreement] that could have resolved this clash of spheres of influence.
It would have resolved it mostly in Russia’s favor, but in retrospect it would have certainly been in Ukraine’s favor because Ukraine, unless a lot of people pony up a lot of money once this conflict is over, is going to be a failed state. Its population was dropping before the war, over the last fifteen years from 53 million to 41 million. We have got 14 million or so displaced persons, either refugees or internally displaced [persons]. We have got massive destruction of infrastructure. If I were an insurance company, I am not sure I would insure too many investments in Ukraine given that this might happen again in the not-too-distant future.
We could have avoided all that had we simply accepted what is in fact something of a timeless logic of spheres of influence. It is not to be preferred or desired. And yes, technically, every state has a right to join whatever alliance it wants to, but again, just because a state has a right to do something does not make it right to do it. And so, here we are.
Robert R. Reilly:
What are the consequences for the rest of Europe if Ukraine is left as a permanently impoverished country that loses a great deal of its access to the Black Sea, and therefore the means to export its grain, and it has lost its most heavily industrialized eastern part of the country in the Donbas? What might that do to the political stability of the rump Ukraine that is left? How subject to future Russian influence will that be? And how should Europe react to that prospective scenario?
Well, Europe is going to find itself in a very uncomfortable situation. It is already [in a very uncomfortable situation]. The fissures in Europe, whether the European Union or NATO, are already on prominent display. There are those, let us call them frontline states, who want to support Ukraine to the hilt, and there are those like Germany and France, who are thinking about the medium to long term in terms of the cost of rebuilding Ukraine, in terms of access to hydrocarbons. I mean President Macron has been pretty clear on this, but Chancellor Scholz is not far behind. They want this to go away. They want this to be ended. And if it means serious concessions on the part of Kiev, they are willing to pay that price because, of course, they do not really have to pay a price.
So, we see these fissures beginning to open up, and I think Putin is counting on these to open up even more. But let us look a few years into the future, and we have this failed state, a rump Ukraine on Europe’s borders. You have got a refugee problem, which will not be resolved. Nobody would go back to that Ukraine who did not have to, so that is going to be a problem, a long-term problem.
This conflict has revealed some of the limits of American leadership as well, which factors into this. I mean the United States really thought, I mean the Biden administration, that everybody would line up behind them in opposition to this obvious violation of international law and the rules-based international order, and it did not happen.
So, the shortish version of the answer is I think this is going to open up some fissures both within the West and more broadly within this rules-based international order, the long-term consequences of which I think are almost impossible to foretell. There are some countervailing dynamics at work here. A lot of European countries now look at Russia and no longer see a partner, no longer see a future in which Russia could be incorporated into the West fully, and so you see Finland and Sweden trying to join NATO, for example. But I think the centrifugal forces will outweigh the centripetal forces in Europe in ways that will have really unforeseeable consequences.
Robert R. Reilly:
One thing NATO membership has meant for many of its members is disarmament. Germany disarmed in a big way, Great Britain [disarmed] to a large extent, and a number of other countries [also disarmed] because they think they get a free pass because of Article 5 and the U.S. guarantee to come to their rescue. In fact, I find it notable, ironically amusing, that when this war broke out, the United States had to airlift 12,000 troops to Europe for NATO countries, which have a far larger combined population than the United States itself, yet they needed the reassurance of 12,000 American troops. They are saying now they have learned a lesson because of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and even Germany is going to increase its defense budget. Do you think that determination will last long once a negotiated settlement of Ukraine is reached?
If German politics are any indication, no. I mean they are already wavering on this €100 billion and meeting the 2 percent floor for spending. We have already seen the prevarication on the part of the Germans, and the war is not even over yet. Because there is this free rider problem, that Europeans since the end of the Cold War – we should remember at the end of the Cold War, the West German military was a formidable fighting force. And it is not now, it is a hollow force. It has got a couple of pieces of kit that are very capable, but it is not a sort of capable combat force.
From an American perspective, here is the best possible outcome. This will serve as a wakeup call to the Europeans. They will get their act together. They will meet their spending obligations, and that spending will not be misspending, it will be properly spent, and they will build either a European military (I do not think that is in the offing), or they will rebuild their various national militaries in ways that can interact and interoperate within NATO and possibly within a European Union security and defense sort of arrangement as well.
And that would allow the United States, not to leave Europe, but to reduce its presence, to pass the buck, as it were, to the Europeans and say, look, you are wealthy, you have something of a martial tradition (if I am reading history correctly, the Europeans have proven capable of fighting wars in the past), you can take care of this part of the world, and whatever residual Russian threat there is after this, and the Russians might well reconstitute and pose more than a residual threat. It might pose a real threat, but the Europeans are capable of looking after Europe.
And that would allow the United States to redeploy its resources, its military resources, to parts of the world where there are not local forces capable of standing up to emerging threats, the Indo-Pacific region and the western Pacific region in particular. So, if the United States has these global interests, and I think it does, and there are threats to those interests, and I think there are, the principal threat is no longer in Europe, and such threat as still exists in Europe can be handled by the Europeans, it is not in the Middle East for reasons we can get into, it is very much in the western Pacific or more broadly the Indo-Pacific. That is where the United States needs to invest in a careful, prudential way, balancing, not dominating, but balancing China. And if that does not happen, then I am fearful of long-term American interests.
But it all turns on the Europeans learning the right lesson from this conflict, which is that we, the Europeans, have to step up and step in, and do what is needed to maintain peace, order, and stability in Europe. We cannot expect uncle sugar daddy to do it any longer.
Robert R. Reilly:
Now, under what terms would the sanctions on Russia, which are quite severe, be removed? I think if Russia able to impose a solution even along the lines you mentioned, where it does not get everything [that] it wants, there would be no incentive for those countries to remove the sanctions on Russia. And if those sanctions are not removed, how seriously does that degrade Russia? I mean Russia to some extent is an autarky, or capable of functioning as one in terms of energy and food. But in high tech it is not because it cannot continue its military modernization without imports from the West. What do you think about that?
I think the Russian economy has already to some extent begun to adapt, but you are right, in the medium to long-term, it needs access to Taiwanese microchips for one thing. Taiwan produces most of them in the world, and it just needs that, but that is just the tip of a very big iceberg. Sanctions always take a long time to really bite and work when they work at all. And I remind people that it did not work very well against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, just as an example. And I am not sure that it is going to have the political impact.
Another aspect of the question or the issue is even if governments in the West, the United States, friends and allies, were to dial the sanctions down or turn them off altogether, would McDonalds really return to Russia? Would a lot of Western companies now thinking that this might happen again in the future, in the not-too-distant future, how attractive would they find this now unsanctioned Russian marketplace? Some would, I think. The Germans would be happy to buy oil and gas again, that would not be an issue. But I guess what I am driving at here is that the damage to some extent is already done, that even if the various states in the West were to turn off the sanctions, there would be a residual impact on the Russian economy, but I think the Russian economy is already adapting.
And then to further complicate things, if you left all the sanctions in place, what do you have to threaten Russia with in the future? What leverage do you have? I could never understand in the runup to the invasion, people, serious people in the West, arguing that we should sanction Russia right now to prevent them from invading. President Biden was very bad at articulating this, but in his own stumbling way I think he got the idea across that sanctions are leverage for deterrent purposes. You do not use them proactively, you wait, you hold them as a threat so that if someone does something that you do not want them to do, you can say, okay, now we will put these in place. And it is meant to act as a deterrent.
But if you leave the sanctions in place, it is not clear to me that there is any further scope for deterrence, economic deterrence, in the future. I find that whole issue about sanctions in the runup to the war, now, and in the future to be incredibly complicated and fraught with all kinds of issues that I think have not been thought through fully.
Some of it, by the way, not so much the government sanctions, but the way in which companies from Apple to Zoom reacted resembled more of a moral panic than a rational cost-benefit analysis. Moral panic is a technical term. People just get caught up with this notion that there are Satanic rituals everywhere or that, you know, we have been through moral panics in the West, in the United States often enough to know what they are. That is what this looked like to me. I wrote about this in The Critic magazine.
But now the damage in a sense is done there, and as I said, I do not see how you simply return to that marketplace. The Russians are going to be a bit wary. Your insurers are going to be wary about insuring any kind of investment in Russia. Russia is already beginning to look to alternatives, China, for example, as both a source of certain materials that it needs and as a market for things that it has to sell. But it is an important dimension that deserves a lot more attention than I think it is getting.
Robert R. Reilly:
The other question that comes to mind is in regard to these sanctions – by the way, you mentioned that these sanctions did not work against Saddam Hussein, we might also mention the sanctions did not work against Imperial Japan, or actually, that was an oil and steel embargo when it was going to keep vital supplies from Japan. In reaction to which, it chose not to comply with U.S. wishes in China and elsewhere, but to attack the United States.
Robert R. Reilly:
Were you ever worried at some point due to the severity of the sanctions imposed on Russia and the capturing of some of its foreign currency reserves, that this was going to be a trigger for this conflict to expand? Do you think that danger is still there?
I think it is less of a danger now. I was very concerned about both horizontal and vertical escalation. Horizontal meaning expanding beyond just Ukraine, putting pressure elsewhere. And the vertical piece obviously being the nuclear threat, right, that if things are to continue to go as badly for Russia as they went in the first couple of weeks of the war, and if the maximalists in the West were to keep pushing, we have got to liberate Donbas, we have to liberate Crimea, we have to humiliate – this was Anne Applebaum’s piece a couple of weeks ago in [The Atlantic], we have got to humiliate and crush the Russians, and humiliate and crush Putin in particular, the rational/irrational thing to do at that point is to say, okay, you are not taking me seriously, I am losing the game, I have to shake things up a little bit. How about I drop a low yield nuclear weapon in some field in Ukraine, just to shake things up? I think that moment has passed, largely because the Russians are not faring as badly and none of those worst-case scenarios are likely to come about for them.
The Japanese case in World War II us very interesting and I have been thinking about this early on because the standard view, I think, for many people is that countries leap through windows of opportunity, when in fact, they do not, often. If we look at 1914 and 1941, we see that countries, Germany in one case and Japan in another, said to themselves, if we attack now, we have maybe a 50-50 chance of prevailing, but if we wait any longer, our chances go down to zero. So, the logical, rational thing to do is to move now. That is what happened in Germany in 1914 once they had the pretext of the Franz Ferdinand assassination, and it was the American oil embargo on Japan that in a sense caused the attack on Pearl Harbor.
I am not sure that there is a direct parallel here, but there is a lesson to be learned, which is that you can push countries only so far at the moment where you seem to have the upper hand, and you can overplay that hand and push them too far, and you get a perverse and counterproductive reaction. And as we are thinking about ending this conflict, this gets back to the sanctions piece, I think we need to be mindful of that, that we should not be looking to extract the absolute maximum concessions from Russia if Ukraine gets the upper hand on the battlefield or if the sanctions begin to bite.
I have argued almost literally from day one that we need – the conventional term is off ramp, but I like Sun Tzu’s golden bridge. We need to offer Putin a way out of this, not right away, not cost free. He needs to be attrited and his capabilities need to be reduced, and there needs to be a lot of factors that go into this, but at some point, he needs to be offered a way to exit this gracefully rather than roll the dice, perhaps with a nuclear weapon, perhaps in some other way, cyber, a threat to really unleash Russia’s cyber capabilities, which they have not done thus far, which may be very destructive for everybody. We may not be there. We are definitely not there yet, but when it comes time to sit down at the table, I think we need to be mindful of the fact that we could really push the Russians too far, and not get the kind of outcome that we want at the end of the day.
Robert R. Reilly:
It is rather extraordinary. I have always wondered why Russia has not employed to a greater extent its cyber capabilities.
Yeah, and that is an open question, I mean are they like its much-vaunted military capabilities, [where] there was not much there in the opening days of the war? Maybe. I have not got a good handle on this. Is it the case that the Russians tried to unleash their cyber capabilities, and they were defeated, and it is just below the radar, we just have not seen this, it is all kind of a black ops-kind of thing, or are they holding that in reserve, and are they saying this is the equivalent, this is a kind of nuclear option? And we know, we, the Russians, know that you, the Americans, have similar capabilities, and right now, it is like mutually assured destruction on the nuclear side.
It is a last, desperate thing. It is meant to deter, but if you actually push the button and start the cyber thing, who knows where it will end. And I just do not know, and I am not sure that anybody – I am not sure that open sources have kind of painted an adequate picture of that, but it is a bit of a mystery to me, too, why they have not used this sharp power capability that they have demonstrated they have.
Robert R. Reilly:
In light of what you were suggesting, an off ramp or a golden bridge, when President Macron of France recently said we should not be seeking to humiliate Russia – of course, he has received a tremendous amount of scorn from the President of Poland and many others to say nothing of what the reaction in Ukraine was like. So, there does not seem to be a widely shared understanding amongst Western powers that that ought to be the objective.
Yeah. I cannot believe I am about to say this, but President Macron has been the voice of reason on this particular topic. I am not sure exactly what his motives are, but he has been clear at the outset that humiliation is not going to get us what we want, that we have to find a way to live with Russia after this is over, that we do not want to push them too far in the short term, that we know (this is Macron) that the outcome is going to involve negotiations and it is going to involve concessions, and we better wrap our arms around that, and just come to a shared understanding that this is going to happen.
And the sooner we do that, the sooner we end the war, which as President of France he knows would be best for France, but for me, it is not just best for France, it is also best for the people of Ukraine. I mean this war has gone on long enough, and if the outcome is not going to change if we drag it on for another two or three or four months, let us not drag it on for another two or three or four months.
But you are absolutely right, other leaders, I think partly because of principle, on the basis of principle, and partly because of domestic political considerations, here I am thinking of Boris Johnson have been adamant about supporting Ukraine to the hilt, and no compromise, and these sorts of things, with the Biden administration actually somewhere in between, you know, not imposing a no-fly zone early on, for example, I think was an act of restraint and sensible prudential restraint on the part of the Biden administration that surprised me a little bit, to be frank.
Robert R. Reilly:
When one goes back to the beginning of this war, you wonder why Putin chose the moment to start it when he did. There was not any imminent event that led him to have done it, so the explanation that I have heard that makes the most sense is he made the kind of calculation that Japan did back in ’41. He sees the United States and other NATO countries inside Ukraine, training their military, providing weapons, which they have been doing for the past eight years. The longer Putin waits, the stronger the Ukrainian military will be, and the harder it will be for him to reach his objectives, so move now rather than later. And it is interesting that a Ukrainian reaction was to the fact that he moved then: well, he should have invaded eight years ago. It is too late now because we have received this training and we have received these weapons.
Yes, I think that is absolutely right. I am not sure why he chose February 24, but the bigger picture is exactly that, that the Ukrainians have been getting stronger. They have learned a lot of lessons. Recall how easy it was for the Russians to roll the Ukrainians over in 2014. They had learned a lot of lessons. I am not sure they learned them from the U.S. forces. I think they taught the U.S. forces a few things to be honest, but equipment – last December, the United States, again making sounds about Ukraine joining NATO, serious, credible sounds about Ukraine joining NATO, drifting ever more into the European Union orbit.
So that is sort of the perfect trifecta right there. They are becoming stronger militarily, enmeshed possibly in NATO, and increasingly enmeshed in the European Union. And if I were in Moscow, I would look at this and say, you know what, it is now or never because if we wait any longer, [it will be too late]. And I think your Ukrainian observers were correct. They already waited too long.
Robert R. Reilly:
In fact, in November, the United States signed a strategic agreement with Ukraine that included strong protestations that Ukraine would join NATO, which certainly was an act almost designed to incite Putin.
That is exactly what I was talking about, that document. I mean I am sitting in Moscow, and I am looking at that document, which is unambiguous about the trend lines, I am listening to noises from the European Union, I am listening to Zelenskyy, who was elected, ironically, partly at least on a platform of détente with the Russians, but was pressured by his own rightwing, the Azov people, who enmeshed themselves in the Ukrainian state. Fairly rightwing extremists enmeshed themselves in the Ukranian state in ways that give themselves a lot of influence and power, and really pushed him in a direction. And the Russians are looking at all of this.
This is not to let Putin off the hook morally. He started the war, he said go, he pushed the buttons, but if we are asking ourselves why it happened on that time frame, and how it could have been avoided, then I think we need to say that there is a big picture here, it is not just evil Putin. It is that, but it is also some incompetence or some – I am not quite sure what the adjective is, but something else going on in Washington, in Kiev, and in Brussels as well that contributes to [this, it] creates the conditions of possibility within which it was rational for Putin to say, okay, it is now or never.
I could see, you know, counterfactual history is always a bit of a mug’s game, but I can see rerunning the historical tape with a few changes, and we would now find ourselves in the uncomfortable compromise situation that the Minsk Accords had left us with, right, which was the resolution to the last invasion, the 2014 invasion, which basically allowed the Ukrainians to believe they were going to get back the lost territories, and allowed the Russians to believe that they were in a position to prevent Ukraine from drifting farther westward, and everybody was not perfectly happy, but they were happy enough. And that was stable, bordering on unstable, but it was a stable political arrangement. And then though there were forces that upset the apple cart, and kind of, again, created the conditions of possibility within which Putin does the things he does, and we end up where we are now.
Has Putin Been Contaminated?
Robert R. Reilly:
Well, Putin, having done the things that he has done, has left him, I would say, permanently contaminated. How does that affect his future and the future of Russia even if there is a kind of compromise settlement along the lines you have described?
Well, I do not think he will be going to any more G20 meetings. I do not think he will ever leave Russia again because he will be branded a war criminal, and appropriately so, not only [because] he invaded a sovereign country, but [because of] the war crimes that are being perpetrated by the Russian forces. There is no way he could travel without fear of being arrested by somebody somewhere. And that is part of the humiliation thing. You know, yes, he is a war criminal. Should we make a big deal of hunting him down and prosecuting him? Well, if that gets in the way of some kind of half just, half decent peace, I would say no, but the clamor for his blood on the part of many in the West is almost irresistible at this point.
Could Putin Fall?
Robert R. Reilly:
Well, there also seems to be a hope on the part of some that Russians will see his removal in their self-interest, and some forces within the upper reaches of Russia who might have the capability will retire President Putin. Do you think there is any [chance of that]?
Yeah, I that is wishful thinking. It is something one could hope for, although believe it or not, he is not the worst of a bad bunch, and we do not know who his successor would be and what that would entail. We do not know what the transition would look like, how turbulent it could be. But from everything I have seen, there really is no movement afoot. I mean [with] these things, it is not going to happen until it happens, but there seems to be very little prospect for this happening in the short to medium term. And then the other thing that people invest a great deal of hope in is that he is terminally ill with something, and that will resolve the situation. You know, time will tell, I suppose.
Robert R. Reilly:
Well, I am afraid we are out of time, and I would like to thank our guest, Professor Andrew Latham from Macalester College, for discussing today with us: The War in Ukraine: How Will It End? I invite our viewers to go to the Westminster Institute website or to our YouTube channel to see what other discussions we have available, some of them on this very question of Ukraine and Russia, a good deal of programming on China, and other foreign policy issues. Thank you for joining us today. I am Robert Reilly.