Will Negotiations End the War in Ukraine?

Will Negotiations End the War in Ukraine?
(Emma Ashford, November 25, 2022)

Transcript available below

About the speaker

Emma Ashford is a Senior Fellow with the Reimagining US Grand Strategy program at the Stimson Center. She works on a variety of issues related to the future of U.S foreign policy, international security, and the politics of global energy markets. She has expertise in the politics of Russia, Europe, and the Middle East. Ashford is also a nonresident fellow at the Modern War Institute at West Point, and an adjunct assistant professor in the Security Studies Program at Georgetown University. 

Her first book, Oil, the State, and War: The Foreign Policies of Petrostateswas published by Georgetown University Press in 2022, and explored the international security ramifications of oil production and export in states such as Russia, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Venezuela.  

Prior to joining the Stimson Center, Ashford was a senior fellow with the Atlantic Council’s New American Engagement Initiative, which focused on challenging the prevailing assumptions governing US foreign policy. She was also a research fellow in defense and foreign policy at the Cato Institute, where she worked on a variety of issues including the US-Saudi relationship, sanctions policy, and US policy towards Russia, and US foreign policy and grand strategy more broadly. 

Ashford writes a bi-weekly column, “It’s Debatable,” for Foreign Policy, and her long-form writing has been featured in publications such as Foreign Affairs, the Texas National Security Review, Strategic Studies Quarterly, the York Times, the Washington Post, the National Interest, and War on the Rocks, among others. She is a term member of the Council on Foreign Relations, and holds a PhD in Foreign Affairs from the University of Virginia. 



Robert R. Reilly:

Hello and welcome to the Westminster Institute. I am Robert Reilly, its director. Today, we are very pleased to welcome Emma Ashford as our guest. She is a senior fellow with the Reimagining US Grand Strategy program at the Stimson Center. She works on a variety of issues related to the future of U.S foreign policy, international security, and the politics of global energy markets. She has expertise in the politics of Russia, Europe, and the Middle East. Dr. Ashford is also a nonresident fellow at the Modern War Institute at West Point, and an adjunct assistant professor in the Security Studies Program at Georgetown University. Her first book, Oil, the State, and War: The Foreign Policies of Petrostates, explores the international security ramifications of oil production and export in states such as Russia, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Venezuela.

Prior to joining the Stimson Center, Dr. Ashford was a senior fellow with the Atlantic Council’s New American Engagement Initiative. She was also a research fellow in defense and foreign policy at the Cato Institute, where she worked on a variety of issues, including U.S. policy towards Russia, and U.S. foreign policy and grand strategy more broadly. Dr. Ashford writes a bi-weekly column, “It’s debatable,” for Foreign Policy magazine, and her other writings have been featured in publications such as Foreign Affairs, the Texas National Security Review, Strategic Studies Quarterly, the York Times, the Washington Post, the National Interest, and War on the Rocks, among others. She is a term member of the Council on Foreign Relations and holds a PhD in foreign affairs from the University of Virginia.

Today we will be discussing possible answers to the question: Will the Ukraine War End with negotiations, a title I created simply by turning into a question the title of one of Dr. Ashford’s recent long essays on this exact question, so thank you for joining me.

Dr. Emma Ashford:

Thank you so much for having me and to everybody who is listening. So I thought it might be helpful just to start with a little, I guess, summary, a reminder of where we are at this point in the war in Ukraine because we have been sort of engaged in this effort. The Russians first invaded in February, [so] it has been about nine months, right, but it has not been a consistent level of conflict over that period.

Where We Are Now in Ukraine

You can roughly break the war up into three parts, the first part being the opening phases of the war when the Russians tried to make this lightning strike on Kiev, topple the Zelenskyy government in puppet regime, etc., and they failed in doing that. And you know, it was like a month, maybe two, before the Russians effectively abandoned that strategy and pulled back, and started focusing their attention much more in the east of Ukraine.

Then over the summer from April/May on to about August, we basically have this period of grinding stalemate, attritional warfare, both sides sort of shooting a whole bunch of ammunition at one another, neither side making huge gains, you know, getting very bogged down after sort of the early advances of that first period.

And then since August, and this is part of why I think this is so important to highlight, since August and September we have actually seen a serious shift in this conflict and what is happening there. We saw a series of Ukrainian advances, very surprising gains by the Ukrainians, taking back towns in the northeast of the country.

More recently, we have seen them take back the city of Kherson after the Russians abandoned it, and during that period, we have also seen significant escalation on the Russian side, Vladimir Putin formerly annexing territories in Ukraine, announcing mass mobilization among the Russian population, very much doubling down in this war. So nine months in, that is basically where we are now.

Where Does This Go From Here?

And I think, you know, the question that has begun to haunt a lot of policymakers is, you know, where does this go from here? Is there an end game here? Is there an off-ramp? Is this a conflict that we are all just digging in for and it is going to be two to five years? And I think the Biden administration has kind of had this problem, too.

Administration policy, at least from my point of view, I think has been relatively balanced. They have done a pretty good job, I think, of supporting Ukraine without it being too costly for the U.S., and without risking you know direct U.S. involvement and escalation into direct conflict with Russia, so I think they have done a reasonably good job there.

But the administration is getting increasingly wrapped around the axle of, you know, how many weapons we are sending, what we are sending, how fast, and these sorts of day-to-day technical decisions, and they are not really willing to talk as much about the end game. We saw an incident this last weekend where the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, General [Mark] Milley, made comments about [how] now would be a great time for Ukraine to lock in its gains at the negotiating table.

And then the administration was sort of forced to backpedal that pretty fast, so there has been this sort of Catch-22 where Ukraine is doing very well, [so] it might be in their interest to think about negotiations sometime in the next six months, but it is very difficult to talk about that politically because it implies that you are sort of going soft on the conflict in the West.

Indefinite Support or Look for an Exit?

So just very briefly, I guess, let me make the case to you, first, I will make very briefly the case for sort of continuing this indefinitely, and then I will make the case for sort of looking for an exit when possible. And hopefully that will set this up a little better than just one side.

The Case for Continuing to Support Ukraine

So the case for continuing support for Ukraine is effectively that the Ukrainians have been extremely successful, that they have not only blunted a Russian invasion but they are even now pushing the Russians back with Western support, that it might be in Western interests to beat Russia more thoroughly than they are already being beaten, that you cannot perhaps trust Russian intentions in a negotiation, and also, and this is an argument that I think does carry some weight, is the domestic politics in both Moscow and in Kiev will make it quite difficult to come to any kind of settlement. So that is sort of the argument for muddling through and trying to look for a better solution.

The Case for Finding an End to the Conflict

But I will also make to you the case for trying to find an end to this conflict when possible, and I do not think that is now. There is no magic diplomacy button that we press today that gets you to a workable deal, but we are starting to see reasons why we might want to look for a way to settle this conflict sooner rather than later, right, so six months to a year instead of four to five years.

Huge Costs from the Ukraine War

And partly that is the huge costs that we are seeing, energy costs, particularly in the European context, food costs throughout the world, industry shutting down, particularly in Europe, inflation that we are seeing all across the world, so there are significant costs being borne by not just the population of the U.S. or Europe but actually globally because of the continuation of this war and the impact that is having on supply chains.

The Risk of Escalation in Ukraine

We are also seeing the risk of escalation, right, so in addition to Putin’s nuclear saber rattling a few months back, we also just a week or so ago saw an incident in which Ukrainian air defense missiles, trying to intercept a Russian missile, crash landed in Poland, in a NATO member country, and killed two civilians. And it is just one of those sorts of facts of life that the longer this conflict goes, the more likely we are to see such accidents, and so there is that risk for escalation, the risk that this spirals into a broader conflict continues if the conflict continues.

And then I think a reason to sort of look for a better solution here that is coming out, particularly, I think, in the conservative side of the Republican Party, is the notion that we are seeing just extremely poor burden sharing from European allies, so the U.S. is bearing the lion’s share of the cost in terms of weapons, in terms of direct fiscal support to Ukraine.

And that is that is mostly true. There are definitely some European costs that are not getting included in those write-ups, things like increased energy costs or hosting refugees, but in general it is true that the U.S. is the country that is contributing most on a relative basis.

When Would It Be Time to Negotiate?

And so with all of that, I mean, from my point of view at least it makes sense to start thinking, again, not about how to end this today but about how do you get off this train sort of before it becomes just a long war, and the costs just get rolled into everyday life. And in the article (and we can talk a little more about this if people are interested), I talk about basically the three times when we might know it is time to negotiate.

And one would be if the Ukrainians continue to make the kinds of gains that they have been making, if they start to approach say the pre-February lines. So the Russians were obviously already in Ukraine prior to February. If we start to see the Ukrainians retake most of the territory since that February further invasion, that might be a good place to look for a negotiation. If the Ukrainians start to approach Crimea and the question of taking that back, we know it is very strategically significant for the Russians, [so] the risk of escalation might go up, might prompt a negotiation.

Alternatively, we might see the Russians – they have done this huge mobilization [and] they have lots of men in training, [so] we might see them actually manage to reverse their fortunes come spring. It does not seem particularly likely, but it is certainly possible, and if the Russians turn things around and start to gain territory in Ukraine again, then it would be in Ukrainians’ interests to negotiate and sort of lock in favorable gains now.

And then there is also, I think, a stalemate scenario in which the costs become so high, and nothing is happening on the ground. But the one thing that sort of connects all of these is that they are all about battlefield outcomes, that shape a negotiation, that eventually lead us to sort of a place where we can find a deal that all sides can, if not be happy with, then at least live with, and I think that is the formula the administration should be looking for going forward.

Robert R. Reilly:

Emma, I would love to have your comment on the two most recent articulations of the positions of the two sides in terms of negotiation. So we have from Mr. Zelenskyy the following, that he was open to “genuine peace talks with Moscow,” but then with these conditions, stating that Ukraine’s conditions included full restoration of Ukrainian control over its territory, compensation to Kiev for Moscow’s invasion, and bringing to justice perpetrators of war crimes.

If those are the conditions for the negotiation, those would seem to be things achieved through negotiations, that if they are preconditions, why would the Russians negotiate because they will already have given away everything the Ukrainians want?

Now on the other hand, the Russian Foreign Ministry made the statement from the Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova, “We are still open to negotiations. We have never refused to have them. We are ready to negotiate, of course, taking into account the realities that are emerging at the moment.” Later she said, “Ukraine’s withdrawal from the negotiating process and the conditions set forth by its leaders for resuming talks, as well as Kiev’s ban on dialogue with Russia, all this demonstrates that Ukraine and its Western patrons have completely lost touch with reality.” I suppose that is an illustration of your point, that now is not the time.

Dr. Emma Ashford:

Yeah, so take anything the Russian Foreign Ministry says with a pinch of salt because they are extremely good at obfuscating the truth, but yeah. I do think it is interesting that in the last sort of month or so, we have seen both sides effectively recommit themselves to the idea that they are open to diplomacy while not really, actually, being open to that diplomacy, right? So on the Ukrainian side, we do have one welcome change there, which is that Kiev says we will meet with the Russians, we will talk to the Russians, and it does not require regime change in Moscow before we will do that, so that that is actually a step back from where they have been before.

But you are right, many of the things that they are talking about here, reparations for the war, war crimes, even questions about the distribution of territory, those are themselves issues for negotiation. They are not issues you resolve before you get in the negotiation, so I have been somewhat encouraged by the administration making, I think, quite clear to Kiev that it needs them to be open to talking.

And then on the Russian side, you know, again, you always have to take everything the Russians say with a real pinch of salt because they will often promise things that they are really not willing to do. In this case, I suspect that they may actually be interested in talking because things have been going extremely badly for them, and the Russians would benefit probably from even a long, bogged down conflict or from kind of resolving things in their favor right now, so they may be open to talking.

Both sides are continuing to talk about lesser issues, and that is another good sign. We have prisoner swaps. We have had the grain deal in the Black Sea that Turkey helped to facilitate, so there are connections there, and they are starting to talk on some issues, but I do think we are a ways away from talking about the actual substance of a final settlement.

Robert R. Reilly:

Well, the Kremlin has also apparently said that it no longer has as a precondition for talks the removal of Zelenskyy as head of state in Ukraine, so I do not know how much openness that reflects, and Russian commentators themselves have made the point that Russia would love to begin negotiations right now, but the real purpose of them would be the pause, which Russian forces need to train and reconstitute themselves so they are ready for a major assault in the spring.

Dr. Emma Ashford:

Yeah, so on that latter point I am somewhat skeptical of that. I do think the Russians would benefit from something of a pause, but we are not where we were two months ago with the Russians sort of in a disorganized retreat, the way they were, practically a route from northeast Ukraine. They withdrew from Kherson in very good order, and they are digging in along lines that are probably more defensible than they were before. So I think a pause probably would benefit them, but I am not sure it is as big a benefit as some people have been suggesting, and certainly not as big as we might have seen before that.

On the question about [how] the Russians have also abandoned their demand that Zelenskyy go, I think it is just interesting on both sides that what we are seeing is this process of war aims changing as the facts on the ground make themselves clear, right? So the Russians came into this conflict, into this invasion, with extremely high expectations, that they were basically going to invade Ukraine, topple the government, and win, that was pretty much it. Now they are down to talking about territorial acquisitions, so they have given up on most of those ideas. They are saying it, we already knew it, but that is them resetting their war aims.

And it is kind of the same on the Ukrainian side. We are starting to see some dialing back from the most extreme positions, but since the Ukrainians are winning at the moment, they are probably going to do that less.

Robert R. Reilly:

By the way, I should have mentioned that what the spokesman for the Foreign Ministry was referring to when she said “these negotiations would be taking into account the realities that are emerging at the moment,” those realities were the declaration that those four regions in eastern Ukraine are now Russian territory, so that obviously that is not open to negotiation as far as they are concerned.

On the other hand, you have certain people who followed the war closely and who have a lot of military experience, like General Ben Hodges, who has been on this program a couple of times, saying no, we do not need negotiations, Ukraine is going to win on the battlefield, and that battlefield victory is what will bring this war to an end, so no negotiations.

Dr. Emma Ashford:

That is certainly the sort of opposing view here, that it would be better to simply back Ukraine until they have completely driven Russia from Ukrainian territory. I have my doubts about whether that is an effective strategy, in part because I genuinely doubt the ability of the Ukrainians to push Russians back out of basically every inch of Ukrainian territory, and here I think particularly the question of Crimea looms really large. It is a peninsula. It is well fortified by the Russians. They have had a military base there for decades, centuries I think, actually, technically, and it would be extremely difficult to take it, not impossible, but very difficult.

And then we also have the specter of escalation, so again, I think we know that Crimea is very strategically significant to the Russians. That does raise the prospect that they might escalate further, that they might escalate into the nuclear space if Ukraine tried to retake Crimea, so for both of those reasons, I am somewhat skeptical that simply backing Ukraine will lead to an inevitable end to this conflict where Ukraine simply triumphs, and Russia, I guess, takes their ball and goes home, that just does not seem to me to be a particularly likely outcome.

Robert R. Reilly:

On the other hand, the way the United States has characterized its support for Ukraine repeatedly is whatever it takes and for however long it takes, this open-ended commitment to supply them until the restoration of all Ukrainian territory. That by itself seems to be highly unrealistic. I mean, it is certainly good for the morale of the Ukrainian troops. And of course, the supplies that the United States and the Europeans have given them have made big differences on the battlefront, but you have pointed out certain limitations both in Europe and the United States, that whatever it takes is coming with more than just economic and military costs.

[It is] winter. It is snowing in Ukraine. Europe is still, even though its supplies of natural gas are to the point that it will get them through this winter, they are still in a panic about what they are going to do for the next winter. And again, Russia has threatened the total cutoff of gas supplies to Europe. And the colder it gets, and the more it costs as those energy bills continue to climb in Europe, Russians are counting on an erosion of domestic political support from those NATO countries.

There is worry in the United States that the depletion of our supplies, missiles, rockets, is pretty much reaching the end, that it will take us years to resupply because we simply do not have the industrial base to resupply ourselves, and that we are actually taking artillery shells from our forces in South Korea to supply the Ukrainians, so there really is a limit to whatever it takes. We and the Europeans may not have whatever it takes.

Dr. Emma Ashford:

I suppose with the reports that the North Koreans are sending the Russians ammunition, and if we are taking our ammunition out of South Korea, I guess a demilitarized Korean peninsula might be an upside here. But no, you are absolutely right. There have been and there are significant costs.

I just came back from basically a two-week swing through Europe. I went to the Netherlands, the UK, and Finland and Estonia. And while everyone that I spoke to, officials, think tankers, etc., everyone is extremely supportive of the war in Ukraine, of the Ukrainians, of trying to make this work, you do hear about the costs, right, and those are much more visible. I know people here in the United States are facing inflation for the most part, but in Europe that inflation is very visible when it comes to industry in Europe.

So you are correct that there is enough gas storage to manage consumers this winter even though it is really expensive, but a lot of German chemical firms are basically shutting down plants. There is going to be a shortage of fertilizer globally next year because of this shutdown in industrial capacity, so there are all these knock-on effects. I mean, Europe is basically teetering on the edge of a recession and is almost certainly going to plunge into it in part, in large part, because of the war in Ukraine.

Robert R. Reilly:

What about those very issues on the Russian side? Not only has Putin called up this latest mobilization of several hundred thousand men, but there is talk in January that there may be a follow-on mobilization. Now, Russia has extraordinarily deep stores of ammunition and equipment, but according to some reports they are using mostly Soviet era armor and artillery that has to be reconditioned and sent to the front. If my understanding is correct, they do have the industrial base to continue supplying artillery ammunition and other means of war. First of all, is that correct, and second of all, what about the domestic situation in Russia?

Dr. Emma Ashford:

This is a really good point because we talk a lot about the costs in the West, and we do not talk nearly as much about the costs in Russia, and they are very significant, too. The Russian government has been able to diffuse some of the earlier impacts of sanctions simply through rising energy prices. They are getting so much extra for their oil due to the turmoil in world markets that it is offsetting the loss of how much supply they are sending.

But that does not really do anything to prevent long-term damage to the Russian economy, and we are seeing there that the ruble is in a bad place. Russian businesses are struggling, and sanctions make it very difficult for Russian companies to sort of raise capital anywhere outside Russia. So all of these things kind of push Russia itself towards [a recession]. It is probably already in a recession, but it is definitely going to be there soon if not.

The question, I think, is whether that is going to actually impact Russia’s ability to fight this war.

And on the ammunition question, you are right that they are starting to use older munitions in some cases, but older systems out of the Soviet era in others. They still have a fair amount of modern equipment, too. Their ammunition lines cannot keep up. The production lines cannot keep up with the rates at which they are using ammunition, so this actually turns out to be a constant factor basically the world over in this conflict. No one is making stuff fast enough for how fast we are using it.

And the export controls, particularly on chips, are going to make it more difficult for Russia to manufacture high-end munitions, precision guided munitions, that kind of thing. There is a limit to how many washing machines you can pull these chips out of and reuse them. But all of that said, right, that does not mean the Russians cannot continue to manufacture picture artillery shells. They have lots of raw resources. They have a good defense industrial base and a government that is very committed to this conflict, committed enough to mobilize 300,000 men earlier this fall, and so again, I have my doubts about whether those sanctions are really going to impact Russia’s ability to fight this conflict in the short term, and I certainly do not think they are going to collapse the government in Moscow.

Robert R. Reilly:

Well, has this developed or is it devolving into a war of attrition, particularly as winter arrives and it will be extremely hard for the Ukrainians to maintain the kind of striking offenses that have succeeded this fall. As you pointed out, the Russians are dug in. They have got extensive trench lines dug beyond the reach of Ukrainian artillery, and they are settling in for a long winter. Russia is very good at fighting wars of attrition.

[I want to give] just a brief reference to history. Russia has often done very poorly at the beginning of a war, with high costs in terms of personnel and equipment, that would usually have broken the war effort of any other normal country, but because of, well, its geographic depth and its ability to restore itself, it then goes on to fight to victory, which is gained again at enormous losses of personnel, almost reckless losses of personnel, which they can absorb because of their larger population. And what they really care about are not the lives of their soldiers but the victory.

Now that is not the feeling on the Ukrainian side or certainly on the Western side, so perhaps it is easier to attrit us and the Ukrainians.

Dr. Emma Ashford:

Yeah, I mean, again, it is a good question as anybody that has studied history knows. I think it was the middle analyst Michael Kofman who referred to Russia as a good second half team. They typically do badly in the opening stages of a conflict and come back. Now, we do not know that that is necessarily what is going to happen here, you know, there are sanctions, there is a program from the West, and all of that has an impact, but it is definitely not out of the realm of possibility that the Russians could turn this around, or at the very least that they could make a continuing conflict costly enough that they come out of this with something, and so I do think that is a very realistic possibility.

I do also want to highlight, though, that I think in so far as this is a war of attrition, I do not think it is necessarily just a war of attrition in the military space. It is a war of economic attrition. This is a conflict that is about how much economic pain Russia can take, Ukraine can take, Europe can take. And in that conflict, I am afraid to say that for all of the robustness of our Western economies, Putin has an advantage here, which is he is an autocrat. That does not insulate him entirely from pressures on that front, but it certainly means that he does not have to worry as much about popular pressure. He does not have to worry about losing an election, for example.

And I think it might actually be in Ukraine that we see the most problematic examples of this. Ukraine is massively dependent on Western fiscal support, which is probably the kind of support that is least likely to be renewed indefinitely because it is extremely expensive. The government cannot run social services, or the war, or keep the lights on to the extent possible. Basically, nothing is possible without that Western financial support, and if that slips, and I suspect, again, over a longer period it may well slip, then that puts the Ukrainians in a very bad economic place, so I do think it may end up being the economic factors, not as much the factors on the ground, that eventually push both sides to the table.

Robert R. Reilly:

Yeah, speaking of that attrition in Ukraine, as everyone knows Russia has targeted the energy infrastructure and 50 percent of it has been destroyed or badly damaged, leaving some 10 million Ukrainians without light, Russian commentators themselves suggest that the purpose of that operation is to force the Ukrainians into negotiations. Do you accept that characterization?

Dr. Emma Ashford:

I mean, I think it is probably about trying to perhaps not undermine popular will in Ukraine because that does not seem likely, right? To somebody who grew up in the United Kingdom, heard all the stories about the Blitz and the Battle of Britain, and that is a pattern that is actually repeated through history, the more that you attack a civilian population, typically the more they support fighting the war.

But I suspect that what Russia is partly trying to do here with these strikes is take out critical parts of Ukraine’s infrastructure, so it is not about necessarily just about people being cold, it is about the ability to power anything essential, factories, cities, rail lines, all the things that you need to help support a war.

And the Russians cannot shut down the supplies that are coming in from the West easily, but they can make it more difficult to transport those to use them effectively, and so my suspicion is what the Russian are doing here is they are trying to attrit Ukraine’s capabilities to use the stuff that it is getting from the West, and that that seems more likely than that they are simply engaged in a campaign of terror.

Robert R. Reilly:

Let us discuss the way in which war aims have been articulated by the United States and the West. By the way, a number of people have commented the economic warfare in which we are engaged, and NATO countries are engaged, against Russia is in itself war. The Ukrainians are doing the fighting, but the economic warfare is a form of warfare.

Now, President Biden tries to put this conflict in the following context. He argues that it is not just a humanitarian cause for the United States but a frontline state in global war between freedom and autocracy. In those terms, he is making Ukraine a vital national security interest of the United States, whereas I have to confess in my many years working in foreign policy or foreign policy-related fields across four government agencies and in private think tanks, I had never before recently heard Ukraine mentioned as a vital national security interest of the United States. Is it now in exactly those terms that President Biden used, that this is a front line of freedom and democratic states against the growing movement toward autocracy?

Dr. Emma Ashford:

It is honestly a really interesting shift in rhetoric because we did not hear about Ukraine being the front line of freedom for a very long time. We did hear about it being a vital Russian national security interest, and the Russians have always been very clear on that, so it is kind of interesting that we are suddenly starting to talk about it in almost exactly the opposite terms.

From my point of view, I think we have an interest in seeing Russia beaten in Ukraine if only because it makes Russia less of a threat to the U.S., and in particular to the NATO allies that we have committed to defend in the future, but for me that is a limited interest, right? I do not see Ukraine as the linchpin of some global fight against autocracy.

In many ways, this is just a new form of domino theory from the Cold War, right, that if Ukraine falls, then other states will soon fall to autocracies, and soon we will have, I guess, you know, revisionist states like Russia and China, everywhere trying to conquer territory around them. And that theory just does not hold up for me for a variety of reasons, one being that actually Russia, and China, and other autocracies are all very distinct. There are a lot of differences there. They are not all doing things for the same reason.

But another problem I think here is Ukraine is not within the cordon of states that the United States has given security guarantees to. In fact, we have actually explicitly on a number of occasions placed them outside that grouping, so they are not a member of NATO. NATO did not agree to create even a Membership Action Plan, and so the fact that we are now talking about states that are outside even the alliances that the U.S. has set up, and that those are vital interests, to me implies that there is just no end to this, that American interests apparently now are everything in the world, and to me that is not strategic, that is just hopeful.

Robert R. Reilly:

But the open-ended membership policy of NATO, also, it seemed to me, would invite the same critique that you have just given.

Dr. Emma Ashford:

Absolutely, yeah, I am an opponent of further NATO expansion, although I think Finland and Sweden are slightly different cases, but yeah, I am an opponent of further NATO expansion. I believe past NATO expansion was in many ways a mistake.

And I think that while you certainly cannot pin everything in the current conflict on NATO expansion, I do think it is part of the trend lines that brought us to this place as sort of the Western institutions, NATO, the European Union, etc. pushed further and further into the space that Russia had historically regarded as its buffer zone, its near abroad, as Western countries insisted, particularly in the context of the EU, that it was a binary choice, it is the West or Russia, you cannot be partners with both, to my mind that is the sort of zero-sum competition that sets us up for this kind of conflict, so yeah, I think NATO expansion is just another case of that open-ended policy ending badly.

Robert R. Reilly:

So what do you think of the realist critique of our involvement there? We could certainly mention John Mearsheimer at the University of Chicago, who said it was our attempt to compromise the vital national security interest of Russia, including the agreement with Ukraine, the strategic agreement last November roughly a year ago in which the United States made clear that Ukraine will become a member of NATO. And that was sort of one of the last straws for Putin who had repeatedly said Ukraine and NATO is the red line for us, so cross it and I will move, which he did.

Now could you react to that realist perspective?

Dr. Emma Ashford:

Sure, yeah. I mean, I am myself a realist, albeit perhaps a little less, I guess I will just say, hard-nosed than John Mearsheimer. I do see some value to liberalism as a part of foreign policy in the sense that I do not believe that we should just tell Russia you can have a sphere of influence, and you can do whatever you want within it. And I think from the point of view of being a liberal democracy, I think that is a really problematic foreign policy, to say you are just going to sort of sell the citizens of other countries into bondage to some other great power.

That said, I am enough of a realist to know that a sphere of influence is basically a place where a great power exerts control because it is so powerful, because its interests are so great, that in that area, usually next to its borders, other great powers do not challenge it. And I think Ukraine and the war in Ukraine is the almost inevitable result of U.S. policy that has failed to consider that reality, right, so we have pushed all the way up to Russia’s borders and acted as if that is not a problem at all.

And instead, I think what we should maybe be more comfortable doing is thinking about these things in terms of gray zones, areas between spheres of influence for great powers. These buffer zones existed during the Cold War. They do not mean that states have to be controlled from Moscow. If you look at the example of Finland, they were neutral in the Cold War, but it does mean that we have to be a little more careful about where we extend security guarantees, where we make explicit commitments, for fear of provoking the very conflict you want to avoid, and I think if we had not done those things, we probably would not now be in a major land war in Europe.

Robert R. Reilly:

President Trump gave Zelenskyy the advice, ‘just make the best deal with Putin you can,’ which reflected what seemed to be his understanding, even though he was sending modern military equipment to Ukraine, that it is not a vital national security interest of the United States. Also, President Zelenskyy made the recent remark that what has to come out of any peace settlement is assurances, some kind of ironclad agreement that this would never happen again. I am having trouble wondering what that could possibly be because the one thing that will not change as an outcome of this war is geography. Ukraine will still be where it is, next to one of the largest and most powerful states in the world. Could you react to that musing?

Dr. Emma Ashford:

Yeah, so I am the mother of two small children, and when my toddlers do something that I do not like, I try to come up with ways to stop them from doing it again. I bargain with them, I bribe them, I punish them, I try to deter them just the way states do against one another.

But the one thing you would never catch me saying is ‘that is it’ and I have to guarantee that they will never under any circumstances do this again because then it would be a failure. That is just not how negotiations or agreements between parties work. It is not how international relations works between countries, so when I hear Vladimir Zelenskyy say we have to have an ironclad guarantee that this can never happen again, that is nice, but it is not possible, that is just not something we can do.

What we can do is try and find the deal that makes it less likely that this reoccurs, and I think that almost inevitably means that both sides take something away from this because we know from history that when one side is sort of absolutely defeated and humiliated, that it does not tend to work out well down the road because they come back, so we need a negotiation that produces a settlement that is somewhat durable, that both sides could live with.

We need to come up with a framework for European security going forward that makes Russia less inclined to invade Ukraine because it does not need to achieve its goals, and we need to think about [the fact that in] part of that Zelenskyy statement, he is also calling for security guarantees. And to my mind, it is just not credible to suggest that we might offer Ukraine the kind of NATO Article 5 guarantees that we have explicitly failed to give them in this conflict. We said we are not going to do that, we are not willing to do that, so offering it as a guarantee for the future is rather strange.

But we could talk about assurances to help Ukraine maintain and build up its military, so that it can deter a future Russian invasion, so these are all things that are practical steps that make it less likely that conflict reoccurs. And if we take them, I hope that is where we would go, but no one can guarantee that we are not going to end up back in a conflict.

Robert R. Reilly:

It is very interesting that a Russian said somewhat early on in this war about Russia, they came eight years too late, meaning during those eight years the United States and NATO countries were inside Ukraine, training them and arming them, teaching them how to fight effectively, which has obviously worked brilliantly because of both the tactical and strategic flexibility that the Ukrainian armed forces have shown. I think Putin was aware of, of course, what our activities were, and that was one reason why he moved. He thought if I wait much longer, I will not be able to do anything. And maybe he waited too long in his own calculation.

Now, just as the war began, Emma, you made remarks, saying it is a bad idea to isolate Russia. It seems that the outcome of this war is bound to do that regardless. You have got two new NATO members, extraordinarily Finland, with that mammoth border with Russia, and Sweden. You have a Ukraine, which, of course, would like security guarantees, which you have just spoken of, and which are not realistic, but nonetheless, its economic future will be from integration with Europe and the West, not Russia. And that, of course, was one thing that provoked Putin back in 2014, that they wanted a relationship with the European Union.

So you are going to have Ukraine facing West. You are going to have a NATO further right on the border of Russia. You have these extraordinary sanctions. That leaves Russia pretty much isolated other than, obviously, China and other countries to the south that are dependent on its energy, India and others, that may not have such a great strategic advantage for it because Russia is still in Europe. First of all, is that right, Russia will be isolated as a consequence of this war no matter how it turns out? And number two, what will be the consequences of Russian isolation?

Dr. Emma Ashford:

So there are definitely limits to that Russian isolation after the war. I think you are generally correct, but I would say there are limits just because Russia is one of the big three global oil and gas producers, and it produces a whole bunch of other resources, and even in the absolute depths, the worst parts of this conflict, the U.S. and Europe have basically been unable to get a sizable chunk of the Global South to sign on to sanctions against Russia, so they are going to have markets there, they are going to have connections with the Gulf states through OPEC+, and they are going to have their relationship with China.

But with all of that said, Russia is going to be in a much worse strategic position after this war than before they started it, I mean substantially worse. You know, you are right that they are going to be looking at more NATO countries on their flank, a Ukraine that with public opinion having shifted so dramatically is definitely in the European column now, not even leaning towards Russia at all, and a Ukraine that is likely to be militarized and quite strong on Russia’s borders.

And in exchange what the Russians have basically bought themselves [for] the loss of the European markets is they are a subordinate partner to China, that is pretty much what they are going to be able to go forward with, and that is a terrible deal. And to be perfectly honest, if this war continues in the direction that it has been going, Vladimir Putin is going to have to spend a lot of time shoring himself up domestically because it is going to be tough even among Russian elites, even among Russian elites who supported the war. They have just done so badly here.

I often get asked the question, you know, [if] you talk about concessions and what might be needed to end the war, and the people mostly talk about for the Ukrainian side what are the Russians going to give up? And the answer is if you look at where Russia started and what they tried to achieve at the start of the war, and what their aims are now, the Russians are in a substantially worse place. They have basically been beaten thoroughly, and they are not going to achieve most of their strategic goals here even if they succeed in carving away a little bit of Ukrainian territory.

Robert R. Reilly:

Well, I mean, they have 20 percent of Ukrainian territory, so it is a question of whether the Ukrainians can recapture more of their territory, which may be a very hard slog for them to do. Now, there may be some cracks showing in terms of this ‘whatever it takes for however long it takes’ position of the United States.

You mentioned General Milley making a statement about negotiations, that this winter would be a good time to undertake them. And then the administration seemed to walk back his remarks, but Ukraine cannot fight without the enormous support the United States is giving it, so it is the United States finally that is going to basically tell it when to negotiate and what to negotiate, even though almost daily the White House and State Department say no, no, that is entirely up to Ukraine, we are not going to decide for Ukraine when to negotiate. That does not seem realistic. I mean, it does not take into account the inability of Ukraine to fight without our support.

Dr. Emma Ashford:

Yeah, I mean, so the White House does keep saying this, nothing about Kiev without Kiev, and that Kiev alone will decide when we negotiate. And I mean, the problem is we already know that is not true because they have already taken steps that show it is not true, so American support to Ukraine is bounded, right? We are not providing a no-fly zone. We are not providing them with certain kinds of very advanced weapons that we think might cause escalation, so American support for Ukraine is very broad and very wide, but it is not without limits, and so I think that just saying that out loud is some kind of mantra, that American support is without limits, is simply just not helpful.

In terms of do we just tell the Ukrainians when to end it, I am not sure that is entirely the right approach, either. I think what we are talking about here is a conversation, and one that I sincerely hope the administration is already having with the Zelenskyy government, a conversation about what the U.S. is willing to support and what it is not [willing to support], what are the signs of progress that it would want to see to keep providing support, if things get bogged down, when does it want Ukraine to start talking.

To my mind, it is much smarter to have those conversations now and have both sides aware of the limits involved rather than getting to some point where it turns out public support is not sustainable, and all the support of Ukraine just vanishes. And I do not think that is particularly likely, but I do think it really is very important to have those conversations now, particularly because, again, if we are looking at a long war scenario here, we could be looking at more American elections, certainly elections in Europe, before this is all over if that is the way it goes, and so the Ukrainians should be aware that support might change in its Western partners and be aware of that possibility.

Robert R. Reilly:

Such negotiations carry great perils because of the domestic situations in both of the countries. Zelenskyy, I do not know whether it is too strong to say he has painted himself into a corner, but any suggestion that Ukraine would take something less than everything, including Crimea, which is, as you have pointed out, extremely unlikely they could ever recapture, that any kind of concession, he signaled would be his political demise.

On the other hand, in Russia, Putin has characterized this conflict as existential for Russia, that it cannot not win because of the vital strategic national security interests involved for that country, which is why he is willing to escalate and keep escalating. The consequences of losing certainly endanger him in Russia. A loss could shake the regime to its foundations, and certainly possibly be his end, so I do not know how much room he has to maneuver from the way in which he has characterized this conflict. What do you think?

Dr. Emma Ashford:

So the domestic politics of both countries is going to be really important, and I very much disagree with people that portray this as, you know, Putin can accept any deal. That is not how autocracies actually work in practice, and what we have seen over the course of this conflict is Putin coming under a lot of pressure, not particularly from people who want to end the war but from people who want to escalate it inside Russia.

I would say Putin’s strongest opposition right now is from more hardline folks than he himself is, and that is a pretty dangerous place to be for the West because it may be you do see regime change, but maybe it is worse, and that is a pretty dangerous place to be in. But in both cases, in the Ukrainian case, in the Russian case, I think this is why so many people have sort of given up on the idea of finding a negotiation. The assumption is simply that all actors just do not have the incentive to actually come to the negotiating table. From the point of view of Zelenskyy, I mean, yes, I think he is in a very difficult position. He is somewhat less popular at home than he is in the West, which is something you do not often hear about.

Zelenskyy’s Domestic Popularity

Robert R. Reilly:

Could you expand on that point for a moment because we do not hear about that?

Dr. Emma Ashford:

Oh, just that in general inside Ukraine there [is opposition]. I think in the West, Zelenskyy enjoys pretty much universal adulation. Inside Ukraine, I think opinions are somewhat more mixed on his handling of the war, people that think he should be doing more, people that think he should be doing less, so it is just that he is not as popular at home.

There are always intrigues in Ukrainian politics. We have in D.C. just this week Petro Poroshenko, the former President of Ukraine, doing a swing through D.C. and ostensibly here to drum up support for Ukraine, but it helps to build his personal brand, too, and so I think there is always going to be these problems.

I do wonder if perhaps the lesson that Zelenskyy might want to consider is the one of Winston Churchill, who managed to win a war, bring an end to the war, and then lost election almost immediately. But we still remember him for winning the war, for ending the war, and so I wonder if perhaps Zelenskyy has shown himself to be very, very willing to put Ukrainian national interests above his own personal interests, above his own life in some cases. And I wonder if perhaps he might not be willing to eventually take that approach. That would certainly be my hope, whether it would happen, I think, is an open question.

The Dangers of Escalation

Robert R. Reilly:

Perhaps we can close, Emma, by addressing the question of the dangers of escalation. A chill went down the spine of Europe and the United States when it was reported that a Russian missile hit in eastern Poland and killed those two civilians, later thought to be not a Russian missile but an anti-aircraft missile in Ukraine that strayed. And there was talk of Poland invoking Article 4 of the NATO Charter. One, big mistake could be a hair trigger for a much, much bigger conflict.

Dr. Emma Ashford:

I was very encouraged, actually. I know what you are saying, those were really tense few hours there, but I actually was extremely encouraged by the response of not just the U.S. administration but also the Polish government. If you had asked me a few months back, I would have said that the Poles might consider taking the chance to escalate the conflict against Russia, and in this case, they were all very responsible, waiting for evidence, not getting in over their skis on assigning blame to Russia. And as you say, it turned out it was an air defense missile from Ukraine gone astray.

But it does raise the risks of this kind of escalation. It is interesting that Poland could not get Article 4 consultations together. There were some states [that did not gather]. You need unity inside NATO to call those meetings. They could not get that, so they just settled for a general consultation. And I think that does speak to that, not only that there are escalation risks in that this conflict could spill over the borders quite easily into states that are members of NATO, but also, too, there are situations that might be very much in that sort of gray zone where we might see NATO not necessarily entirely aligned.

So, for example, I will give you one scenario. Say that personnel, citizens of NATO member states delivering weapons, are killed in that process. What does NATO do then? I worry that the potential for accidents just opens us up to the potential for escalation. And I think the thing that would be by far the worst outcome of this war for everybody would be an escalation into a broader NATO-Russia conflict.

Madman Theory

Robert R. Reilly:

Some people think that a danger is represented by the desperation to which Putin may be driven if it is clear he is losing this war, any more than he has been currently. They may recover with their new deployments and hold the line, or even take back some of the territory they have lost, but let us say they do not, let us say the Ukrainian arms continue in their success. What would be the likelihood of saying, well, we better cut our losses now and make a deal, or as he has so far, just say, okay, I will escalate more?

And whereas his conventional forces have shown a startling ineptitude, from what I know most of the enormous amount of money Russia has spent on military modernization has gone into very high-tech weapons, fighter planes, missiles, hypersonic missiles, quieter submarines, and so forth, so they have a huge amount of military potential to lead to something far bigger and terribly lethal. That is kind of based on some understanding of Putin’s psyche, whether that state of desperation would lead him to do something like that, or is it simply useful for him to have people see him in that way?

Dr. Emma Ashford:

This is the old Richard Nixon madman theory problem. He basically wanted other leaders to see him as a madman, so that they would not know what he was planning on doing, and it gave him a benefit in negotiations. It actually was a real strategy, and other leaders have done it, too. And the question is always for other leaders is he a madman or is he deadly serious? And there is no way to know if somebody is bluffing, or if they will really do it. I mean, I think we have seen several things in this conflict that suggest Putin is definitely willing to escalate, the mobilization, particularly the annexations, his throwing basically everything conventional Russia has into this conflict, even drawing away from other borders, but at the same time there are clearly limits, right?

I am very interested by some of the rumors that have been going around that the U.S. asked the Chinese to intercede with Putin on the question of nuclear use, and explain just sort of how serious a problem this was, and he does appear to have backed away from some of the nuclear rhetoric, so again, my hope, my own assumption is that he is rational at least to some extent and that hopefully he would not escalate to nuclear use or to broader conventional conflict unless the situation was extremely dire.

And I think for me the problem is this is a world of uncertainty, and I do not know where that line is. We know that his threats to use nuclear weapons if Ukraine took back some of their conquered territories is obviously false because they have done it. I am fairly confident his threats to engage in escalation if we go for Crimea are pretty serious, but I do not know where between those two he starts to be serious, and this is always the problem with nuclear brinksmanship.

And I think we should not kid ourselves. This is by far the most serious nuclear crisis that we have had since at least 1983, potentially earlier. And I think we got used to thinking this is a war in Ukraine, it does not really affect us, but there is that specter of nuclear use that escalates up the chain.

Chinese-Russian Relationship

Robert R. Reilly:

There is this other issue – since you mentioned China, we will close with this. Although it was already strongly headed in this direction, this war for sure has thrown Russia into the arms of China. And as the United States is facing perhaps the greatest threat in its existence, a rising nuclear China that is determined to take Taiwan back one way or the other, to dominate the South China Sea, the East China Sea, that this is sort of the worst time to have them, those two countries, China and Russia, in each other’s arms.

And what the United States should have started doing a long time ago was enticing Russia with things that would not have led Putin in that direction. I do not know would that have been possible, or within the Biden context it is just, ‘these autocrats are going to stick together against those democracies regardless?’

Sorry to just keep going on about this, but certainly Russia has to see that the level of dependence that now exists on China is not good for Russia, that that does not vote for the future of Russia strategically speaking.

Dr. Emma Ashford:

Russian elites have always been worried about overdependence on China. If you look at the internal foreign policy debates in the 2000s and 2010s, if you look at some of the negotiations they had with China over energy pipelines and things like that, they have always been wary. And they have been particularly wary about giving China more of a stake in Siberia, and so this is again long-running historical Russian fears or paranoia whatever you want to call it, but they have always been wary of this. And now we have basically seen that particularly with this war and to some extent before it, Russia and China are just getting sort of pushed together, basically through Russia’s own actions. And the Chinese are a little wary of this, too.

I do not think it is particularly plausible to suggest that we might have been able to chip Russia away from China over the last couple of decades. And I say that because I simply do not think that is compatible with where U.S. foreign policy has been. That would have required us to give up on NATO expansion [and] on European Union expansion. It would have required us to incorporate Russia into European security, not necessarily as a member of NATO, but to build up things like Partnership for Peace or the NATO Russia Council, and to involve Russia in Europe’s security in a way that we just were not willing to do. We simply were not. We were always trying to sort of push Russia to the side in European security, and so no, I mean I just do not think it is feasible under those circumstances to talk about chipping Russia away from China.

And going forward, the prospects for that kind of strategy – because I agree with you, we do not want Russia and China aligned against us. But going forward, again, that is going to be a very tough sell. I mean, we managed it during the Cold War with China, but that was 20, 25 years after the first Sino-Soviet split, so we may be looking at something that is a decades-long project here if we can even manage to create the space for us to start talking to Russia about some of these issues, so I am a little pessimistic that we can actually achieve it.


Robert R. Reilly:

Well, thank you very much, Emma, for this fascinating program. Dr. Emma Ashford from the Stimson Center has been discussing with us today the question: will the Ukraine war end with negotiations? I would like to thank our viewers for joining us, and I invite your attention to the Westminster Institute website and our YouTube channel, where you will see other programs on Ukraine, Russia, China, Taiwan, Japan, the Middle East, and so forth. Thank you for joining us today. I am Robert Reilly.