Defense One Radio, Ep. 95: Vlad the Invader

Now that Putin has launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine, what are the smartest responses to a bellicose and revanchist Russia?

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Guests include:

  • Richard Fontaine, CEO of the Center for a New American Security (beginning at the 3:28 mark);
  • Graham Brookie, senior director of the Atlantic Council's Digital Forensic Research Lab (12:48);
  • Dmitry Gorenburg, senior research scientist at CNA (19:03).

A transcript of this episode is below.

This week, the Russian military launched a major invasion of its neighbor, the free and democratic country of Ukraine. And Russia did this with its Tsar-like leader Vladimir Putin claiming that Ukraine—a country of 41 million men, women and children—is run by Nazis. And those Nazis must be rounded up and brought to justice.  

Biden: Well, good afternoon.

This is U.S. President Joe Biden speaking to reporters Tuesday at the White House, just hours before Russian convoys were spotted by news organizations like Reuters moving into eastern Ukraine. 

Biden: Yesterday, Vladimir Putin recognized two regions of Ukraine as independent states and he bizarrely asserted that these regions are no longer part of Ukraine and their sovereign territory…And if we listen to his speech last night — and many of you did, I know — he’s — he’s setting up a rationale to go much further.

For outsiders monitoring from a place like Washington, D.C., the invasion—Russia’s second invasion of Ukraine since 2014, in fact—it’s been almost as bold as it has been obvious. For 11 months, beginning last March, the Russian military has incrementally surrounded Ukraine with eventually somewhere around 190,000 troops—including ships, aircraft and tanks. 

All along, U.S. officials have been gradually warning allies and the public that Russia was clearly up to something different this year. White House National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan was among the most visible leading up to the invasion.

Sullivan: We believe there is a very distinct possibility that Vladimir Putin will order an attack on Ukraine...and an invasion could begin, a major military action could begin by Russia in Ukraine any day now...We have been saying for some time that we are in the window could take a number of different forms...that includes this coming week, before the end of the Olympics...we have continued to say that every single day, and we hope that Americans will make the responsible choice.

And Sullivan wasn’t the only one talking as Russian troop numbers continued to rise—the New York Times described it as a “sickle” around Ukraine. 

I’m not sure anyone necessarily predicted Putin would claim to be hunting Nazis. Especially when the president of the country…is Jewish. 

Ukrainian President Volodymir Zelenskyy reminded Russians of that in a video address once the invasion had begun. It’s unclear many in Russia actually saw the video. 

According to President Zelenskyy, 137 Ukrainian citizens — both soldiers and civilians — died on Thursday. And the Pentagon? Officials there believe this is just the first phase of a wider Russian military incursion in eastern Europe. 

One very basic question that I’ve wondered over the last several days is: All along, Russia’s Putin assured everyone that he did not plan to invade Ukraine. Well now that he’s invaded Ukraine, how do you plan around that kind of a guy? 

Putin being the leader of Russia, of course—a country with about 4,500 nuclear warheads—he left a note for “whoever tries to interfere with us,” as he put it in a message broadcast on state-run TV as tanks rolled across the border. “Know that Russia's response will be immediate and will lead you to such consequences that you have never experienced in your history,” he said. 

If you’re the U.S., what do you do from here? 

To help answer that question, I called up several people on Thursday—including Richard Fontaine, the CEO of the Center for a New American Security, based in Washington. 

Ben Watson: Richard Fontaine is the CEO of the Center for New American Security based in Washington. He served as foreign policy adviser to the McCain 2008 presidential campaign. And later on the Senate Armed Services Committee. Richard, welcome to Defense One Radio.

Fontaine: Thanks for having me.

Watson: Very good. All right. Busy, a busy week. Certainly a busy day. A lot of things happening. One of the things that happened this morning, as you the D.C. policy community was processing these events. Fred Kagan, of the American Enterprise Institute, said today that, "Americans need to know that the world has changed," by which he meant NATO members have renewed reason to be worried, since Putin has been talking about restoring territory of the old Russian Empire well, before even Stalin. From your vantage point, where does U.S. policy toward Russia and Putin in particular, go from here?

Fontaine: I think there are two prongs to the current policy approach. One is the response to what we're seeing happen in Ukraine, the Russian invasion of Ukraine, this war of aggression that Putin has launched there, and the responses that the United States and a bunch of allies and like-minded partners have imposed—sanctions and economic costs on Russia, with the aim, ultimately, of weakening Russia's ability to project power over the long run; and in the short run, imposing costs to the greatest degree possible for this activity. And then the other is to arm Ukrainians to the degree possible in terms of military equipment. And if it gets to this point, [and] at some point [becomes] an insurgency against a potential Russian occupier, the other prong, I think, of the American policy response is on NATO territory and the president. The administration made clear that the United States will, in fact, defend native territory, including with military means, and is willing to incur great risks and great costs if necessary in order to do so. So there's the red line in terms of military defense runs along the NATO border; but in Ukraine itself, there are these other tools that are being used, as we sort of watch this appalling war proceed.

Watson: Are you concerned about that element of providing assistance to Ukraine, which I imagine Russia to be very eager and very ready to turn into some kind of PR debacle where it's like, the U.S. is escalating or something? 

Fontaine: Now, I don't worry about handing the Russians a PR victory. I mean, this is the same government that is accusing the democratically-elected Jewish leader of Ukraine of being a Nazi. So they don't need pretexts. And they can just make up the facts as they would like. It's much more important to get assistance to the Ukrainians so they can defend themselves to the greatest degree possible. The issue there is that, given the Russian onslaught, that Ukrainian military is coming under obvious pressure right now. And I think that pressure is likely to get more severe and therefore the ability to provide assistance to fighters in Ukraine is going to become more difficult. And so that's going to be something that the United States and other countries that are trying to supply military assistance to Ukraine are just going to have to deal with as this war proceeds. 

Watson: So you have experience, of course, on Capitol Hill. What are your thoughts on how this shakes up the thinking on Capitol Hill?

Fontaine: Well, you know, it was not a particularly terribly productive debate until about a day ago, where you had at least some of the Republican side, some who were kind of traditional internationalists, who believe in standing up for the violation of international rules and for America's role in leading responses to violations of regional and global order. Senator McConnell and Senator Romney and people like that. And then you had these others who either expressed some very strange admiration for Vladimir Putin or said, you know, this doesn't matter. Or kind of my favorite: 'Ukraine doesn't matter, but this never would have happened if Donald Trump was president anyway.' So that was—you heard a lot of that. [It] seems like a lot of that's been washed out of the water over the past 18 hours or so just because this attack on Ukraine is so unprovoked. It's so brazen, it's so risky, it's going to be so brutal that it is very hard to look into the face of events and think and claim anything other than what this is, which is a war of aggression that seems to be aimed at forcible regime change in Ukraine, to overthrow a democratically elected president, and to, at a minimum, detach territory on the east side of Ukraine—because the president of Russia doesn't like the way things are. And we can't live in a world where that goes unpunished and unaddressed. And I think it would take someone really kind of putting their head in the sand not to come to that conclusion. And so what you’ve seen is a kind of latter-day conversion on these points.

Watson: Are there long-game considerations that you think U.S. officials in the policy community maybe ought to start thinking about a bit more? Now along these lines, China's Foreign Ministry on Wednesday emphasized that, “Taiwan is not Ukraine.” 

Fontaine: Well, one thing is to think about how we deal with too, broadly-revisionist powers in both China and Russia. There has been a pretty strong desire to disengage from the wars in the Middle East, to let Europeans take care of their own neighborhood to a greater degree, and to sort of stabilize relations with Russia. So the United States could focus on the long-term challenge of China on the priority theater of Asia. But you know, events of late are quickly upending that. And so, how is it that the United States can deal with a power in Moscow and a power in Beijing, both of which chafe at what they believe to be an American dominated international order, but don't give them their rightful place and their rightful kind of influence, and are determined to do something about it, even use violence or coercion in order to change that? There's no easy answer to that. And in fact, some of the things that we're in the process of doing, like sanctioning Russia, throwing them off the international financial system and so forth, is likely to push them further into the arms of the Chinese just because they will have fewer economic options. [Also] To the degree to which we really reinforce NATO's eastern flank, it may use up some military resources we otherwise would deploy to the Indo-Pacific. Those aren't reasons not to do those things; we should do those things, because the downside of not doing it would be worse. But how to balance a global portfolio of foreign policy interests when you have China and Russia both taking actions to try to upend elements as the way things are, and working together more closely? That's got to be at, if not the forefront, then at least in the middle of policymaker brains now. And I think part of the answer to that is not to see this as America on one side, and China and Russia on the other. But America and the EU and Japan and Australia and India, and many other countries around the world all who display a real interest in not seeing the fundamental rules of international order violated in a way that Russia certainly and China may wish to do—so to work more closely with them on a variety of regional and global issues, rather than just try to focus on China, China, China or Russia, Russia, Russia, right now.

Watson: Understood. Well, any parting thoughts?

Fontaine: No, I mean, I would like to think that this opening hours of the war in Ukraine are the ending hours, too; but I'm afraid they're just the opposite—just the opening hours, and that the situation is likely to grow more severe. And I think we all just have to really feel for the people of Ukraine who have suffered a lot over the decades and even centuries, and once more have a very severe test in front of them. And through no fault of their own. All they want to do is to be sovereign and independent and democratic. And this is a situation that they're in. So I think there'll be more to say about this war, unfortunately, in the days and maybe even the weeks to come.

Watson: Richard Fontaine, CEO of the Center for New American Security. Thanks so much for speaking with me.

Fontaine: I appreciate it. Thanks for having me.

Watson: Graham Brookie is senior director of the Atlantic Council's Digital Forensic Research Lab in Washington, D.C. Graham, thank you so much for talking to me on Defense One Radio.

Brookie: Happy to. Thanks for having me.

Watson: All right. So Russian analyst Michael Kofman of CNA said the U.S. and its allied intelligence communities—this morning in a tweet he said the U.S. and the intelligence community got this right, he said, and they deserve a round of applause. Now, Graham, you're deeply immersed in the open source intelligence world. And if I'm not mistaken, Russia's 2014 invasion of Ukraine kind of helped kickstart the Council's Digital Forensics Lab. What has been most surprising to you about what pretty clearly is this second Russian invasion of Ukraine?

Brookie: Well, what we're seeing is more of the same. And so, you know, one of the things that stuck out is this strategy by allies and partners—the U.S. government, the UK government, partners across the EU partners, of course, and the NATO alliance—is the strategy of, of rapid declassification and disclosure, the intelligence risk assessments that you just mentioned, and especially the U.S.’s willingness to talk openly about them as a way to kind of preview what they think will happen to limit Russia's ability to use this information to do things like justify an attack. And what we've seen in the information environment from Russia in particular is an enormous effort using influence operations to preemptively justify a military offensive. And so what we've seen over the last, what 24 hours, is the beginning of an invasion. But what preceded that was an enormous effort to justify what can only be categorized accurately as a military offensive—as opposed to what they've tried to position, they being Russia, has tried to position this as, which is defending their territorial integrity or Russian-backed separatists specifically. And so disinformation and influence operations, as kind of this vanguard of military activity, is not new. But the way we've seen it in this conflict so far has been somewhat different than before.

Watson: Yeah, it's been interesting. That point reminds me of the Vice News article from two days ago on February 22, and titled, “The Internet is debunking Russian war propaganda in real time.” And made me think about how these kind of like, systems, I guess you call them that, things like Bellingcat, they're a lot more robust than they were eight years ago. 

Brookie: One thing to keep in mind about this strategy, especially by the U.S. and the UK, and others of rapidly declassifying intelligence assessments as a way to kind of what we would call in the disinformation space “pre-bunk” Russian disinformation justifying an attack—is that that strategy isn't necessarily measured in success by whether or not it averts war. But it certainly does introduce friction, for sure, in how they're able to position in public. I would also say that it's a way to bind allies and partners together, right? Just internally coordinating among allies and partners against Russian disinformation as a prelude to war. That is, I don't think, something that Vladimir Putin or the Russian kind of system that supports him really expected. And then the third component is that it's a very good way to, accurately, transparently and consistently engage with domestic and international publics about the real cost of war. And so what I would expect to see in this space is where we've seen Information Operations that include this information from Russia, attempting to justify a military invasion, and now that a military invasion has started, I would expect to see more disinformation from Russia that that denies or deflect responsibility for a lot of the inevitable costs of war. 

Watson: All right, this is kind of a big picture question. AEI’s Fred Kagan said this morning that Americans need to know that the world has changed. He also said it seems apparent that Putin has gone crazy in the past several months. Do you think it's too soon to start saying stuff like that? Or is that just the cold hard truth as each nation is trying to move past a global pandemic, and here we have this new invasion? 

Brookie: To the question of whether Vladimir Putin is losing it, I'll leave that to others. Whether or not we're in a different world? I think that's, I think the obvious answer is yes. I mean, what is categorically different about this is that this is a war that is occurring in a hyper-connected information environment. We have a global information environment, or a globalized information environment that's not lightning that I think is going to be put back in the bottle anytime soon. And so with that amount of access Information, some accurate and some not, during a very real crisis situation, the responsibility is on us. I mean, we can't turn away from direct evidence of what happens in war. And that's what we're going to be seeing on our TV screens, on our social media feeds, and any number of other places in the coming days for sure.

Watson: Graham Brooke is Senior Director of the Atlantic Council's digital forensic research lab. He spoke to me today from London. Graham, thanks so much for talking to me.

Brookie: I really appreciate it. Thanks for having me.

Watson: Dr. Dmitry Gorenburg is Senior Research Scientist at CNA, based in Washington DC. Dr. Gorenberg, welcome to Defense One Radio.

Gorenburg: Thanks for having me.

Watson: Very good. All right. So it's been a busy week for a lot of people. Fortunately, you and I are doing a lot better than many Ukrainians are doing this week. I was wondering, I was looking around, I had a friend, an army friend mentioned this to me a couple of weeks ago, and he Long story short, he mentioned Putin's age. And so Vladimir Putin 69 years old. And my friend was saying, you know, these previous Russian leaders, they didn't last much longer after they left office. And so I was looking and I thought, well, let's see how long they did last, Yeltsin died at 76. Gorbachev, which is a bit of an outlier, lived to 90, but the ones before him, their ages of death were 73, 69, 75, 77 and 74 for the rest, going back to Stalin. So I was just wondering, Putin, apparently, if you go by that, he may not have but about a decade left? Who knows. So I wonder if we're in his bucket-list phase now, in the twilight of his power, restoring lost dreams.

Gorenburg: I don't know how much of it is his age. So I think more of it may be length of rule, right? Like people who are in power for a very long time, especially kind of in a kind of system where they have absolute power, they can lose touch with sort of normal normality, let's say, right. And I sort of wonder if there's some aspect of that, and what's happening, we know that Putin has over time become increasingly isolated in terms of just fewer and fewer people having access to him. And it's been particularly the case during the COVID pandemic, where he has really kind of cut off access to just about everybody, even advisors, they used to have regular access to him find it, they don't anymore. And few people that he talks to are increasingly, members just have that sort of the the hardcore security, leadership, let's put it that way. People like Patrushev, the head of the superior Security Council. And so whereas before, I think there was a little bit of a strand of contrary opinion, let's say were people who are more focused on economic issues, and modernization and that sort of thing. Were able to counter some of the more hardline ideas that Putin was getting from the security folks, I think those people now no longer have access. And so I speculate that it may be that that's been part of what's been driving him into more hardline positions, together with this apparent increasing interest in, in history, right, where he or his own version of history, where he's been publishing articles on the Russia Ukraine relationship, and various things like that, and the Russian national idea. So I think that that's the kind of thing that is perhaps driving him more than, you know, just simply age.

Watson: I'm wondering, what is your read on this next generation of power brokers in Russia, and their interest in Putin's kind of, you know, revanchist tendencies here?

Gorenburg: It's, you know, it's really hard to tell what, how things, you know, what any of these next generation people really think. And, you know, one movie that I think is well worth watching, not just for the history, but also for just when you start thinking about how a bunch of psychopaths interact with the Supreme Leader's, is the “Death of Stalin.” And you see that kind of cow-towing, right? But also, what the actual history of that time tells us is that the survivors, the people who stuck around in positions of power became very good at hiding their true beliefs while Stalin was around. And so, we don't really know what a lot of these people think, because the ones that had clear positions that were contrary to what Putin wants have been sidelined. Now, we can make some guesses. I think, given all the interviews and all the writings of [Secretary of the Security Council, Nikolai] Patrushev on these kinds of issues. It's hard to imagine him being anything other than a hardliner. But Medvedev, he was a liberal moderniser when he was president. He's turned himself into a hawk, recently. I suspect it's in order to retain some semblance of influence. Among the population, he's seen as a bit of a laughingstock for, you know, both first tendency to sleep through meetings, and because he was—the way in which Putin took power back from Medvedev in 2012, was seen in Russia as very kind of emasculating. So a lot of Russians don't take him seriously. And he's been trying to regain some status by showing off as a hawk. But what, you know, what happens next? There's also a possibility that Putin is around long enough that none of this current generation or the next generation—who knows.

Watson: What are the long-game considerations that maybe the U.S. officials in the policy community may not have been thinking about as much as perhaps they ought to? 

Gorenburg: Well, I think we're heading into clearly a time of NATO-Russia confrontation. A lot will depend on how this goes. If this goes well and easily for Putin, then I think the appetite may increase. If it becomes complicated and painful, then there'll be a time of reckoning, recalculation, or even just a time of trying to assimilate what's been gained. But if it does go well, then I worry a bit about Moldova, honestly.

Watson: Yeah. I was looking over there on the map thinking, ‘Boy, it would just take a short little trip, just to clamp that in there and have it as a whole piece.’

Gorenburg: I mean, especially with Tranistria already. I am no China expert, but my sense is that, from China's point of view, this is only only to their benefit. Because what the U.S. has been trying for—how many, you know, 10 years now, more?—to pivot to Asia. Anything that keeps U.S. attention focused on Europe, versus China, just gives China more time to grow and develop and strengthen, and therefore is a benefit. At the same time, Russia as Russia becomes, you know, kind of more and more of this pariah on the international scene, and does these horrible things. The horrible things that China does, less horrible, no, right, right, like, who's gonna be paying attention to Uighurs

Watson: Just a couple 100,000 people; you got 40 million in Ukraine.

Gorenburg: Yeah, it seemed like China doesn't want to go too far in supporting Russia because it has valuable economic ties with Europe and the U.S. And so it has an interest in maintaining that and it also doesn't want to strongly support a precedent of a recognition of separatist enclaves and border changes and so forth, because from its perspective, that undermines the “one China” policy.

Watson: Dr. Dimitry Gorenberg is Senior Research scientist at CNA. Dr. Gorenberg, thanks again for talking to me.

Gorenburg: You, too; take care.