Defense One Radio, Ep. 97: Putin's long war

Two experts look to history for some clues about the possible future of Russia's Ukraine invasion.

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Guests include:

  • Candace Rondeaux, director of the Future Frontlines project at New America (at the 3:16 mark);

  • And Paul Poast, associate professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Chicago (at 17:12).

A transcript of this episode is below.

I’m Ben Watson and welcome to Defense One Radio.

It’s been four weeks since the Russian military began invading Ukraine. Most observers didn’t expect such a conflict to last one week. Twenty-eight days later, NATO leaders are meeting in Belgium to hammer out how they want to keep the pressure on Russia’s autocratic leader Vladimir Putin. 

As we discussed in our last episode, there aren’t that many options left short of Europe completely cutting its reliance on Russian gas and oil. And European leaders don’t think that can happen until maybe the end of the calendar year. Which feels very far off.

Sullivan: This war will not end easily or rapidly. 

That’s White House National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, speaking to reporters Tuesday in Washington. 

Sullivan: There will be hard days ahead in Ukraine — hardest for the Ukrainian troops on the frontlines and the civilians under Russian bombardment.

Here’s his boss, President Joe Biden, speaking to reporters Monday. 

Biden: Now Putin’s back is against the wall. He wasn’t anticipating the extent or the strength of our unity. And the more his back is against the wall, the greater the severity of the tactics he may employ.

So that’s the backdrop as we begin month two of Putin’s invasion. An invasion that appears poised to grind on for several more weeks, likely killing thousands more innocent people. And in that time, Russia could resort to even more disturbing tactics in Ukraine in order to terrorize the country into submission. 

NATO officials this week announced they were sending chemical and radiological warfare protective gear to Ukraine, just in case Russia decides to attack with nuclear, chemical or biological weapons. 

Stoltenberg: This could include detection, protection, and medical supplies, as well as training for decontamination and crisis management.

That’s NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, speaking Thursday at NATO headquarters in Brussels. 

Stoltenberg: Allies are also equipping Ukraine with significant military supplies, including anti-tank and air defense systems, and drones, which are proving highly effective.

So effective, in fact, that NATO officials told reporters in Brussels that they estimate at least 7,000 Russian soldiers have perished during the invasion so far. After just four weeks. Thousands of Russian vehicles have been documented as destroyed or abandoned. It’s been remarkable to witness the military of such a so-called “Great Power” like Russia—that military has been battered like no other in recent memory, certainly in such a short period of time. 

And that, too, is why many observers think the worst is yet to come. What might some of that look like in the near term? I called up two experts this week to ask them what might lie ahead. 

We’ll begin with Candace Rondeaux. She’s the director of the Future Frontlines program at the New America think tank based in Washington, D.C. She’s been watching and reporting on the Russian military for several years now. You may remember her from our episode on Russia’s Wagner mercenaries. Candace, welcome back to Defense One Radio.

Rondeaux: Thanks for having me, Ben.

Watson: There's so much ground to cover with this conflict; we've had two episodes already. I assume we'll have a little bit more. I guess I'll begin by asking what's been on your mind here lately, now that we are exactly one month into this Russian invasion of democratic Ukraine?

Rondeaux: I think three things are on my mind. One is the potential for miscalculation between us, NATO forces and, and Russia now that the war seems to be in stall mode. We see that the Russians are having difficulty pressing forward; their attrition rates are very high—for everything from their vehicles to their actual combatants and their soldiers. And I think there is a real danger that as this goes on, and we find that Russia is unable to make the progress that it intended toward Kiev—and we've already seen rumblings around biological and chemical weapons, nuclear [and] tactical nuclear weapons, so that is a real concern. It is not clear that NATO yet has an answer for what would happen in that instance. The summit that is occurring now in Brussels, with President Biden and NATO is, of course going to be important for determining that response; but I don't have the sense that we have a concrete way forward in the event that things do get stickier. So that's one thing. I think the second question is to what degree does a potential Russian default on its debt trigger even more panic within the Kremlin, and more desperation? That is a big concern for the same reasons, which is it can always lead to greater escalation in the Ukraine theater or beyond. And we don't want to see that, but it is possible. And I think the last thing is, of course, you know, how long can the Ukrainians hold on? This has been a tremendous onslaught. And we've seen so many civilian casualties, it's almost unreal the amount of pounding that the Russians have delivered on civilian targets quite clearly in an intentional way. That's worrying for more than just sort of the near term. One, we have to worry about reconstructing Ukraine at some stage. But also, the psychological toll—the social toll of that kind of devastation tends to trigger other reactions. And we saw that in Chechnya in the 1990s. That created an insurgency that ultimately affected Moscow. So that's also a big concern. So those are the three things that are on my mind in the near term.

Watson: Yeah, thinking about thinking about that. A lot of those I mean, I keep envisioning a video that I think I saw yesterday, in Lviv [actually Kyiv] of the military training, ordinary Ukrainians as young as what looked to me to be like 12 years old, and applying tourniquets. And that's when I think it finally hit me the extent of the comprehensive reach of this, and the thought of insurgency, as you pointed out. Do you see any kind of light in the tunnel at all, when it comes to negotiating with Vladimir Putin in terms of ending this invasion? Do any kind of episodes from history comfort you at all?

Rondeaux: I think it is interesting that we have not seen yet a meeting of the minds or at least some sort of effort on the part of Russia to connect at the military level. Of course, there was today's story in the Washington Post, which we have been hearing rumblings about for a while that the United States has been unable to connect with higher-level Ministry of Defense officials. Sergei Shoigu, who of course, is Minister of Defense for Russia, and Valery Gerasimov, who is the Army Chief of Staff. So that's worrying. That would be a first. Even in Syria, there was some connectivity between higher level Russian military figures. And again, it comes back to this question of if you do not have that connectivity, if you're relying on the deconfliction cell that is mostly run by colonels, sort of mid level officers who don't have the kind of experience or, frankly, the political heft, to handle a situation—if it does get out of control, not having those lines of contact at the higher level between Moscow and Washington? It's very troubling. So that's one piece. And it is, I think, a clear indicator that the Kremlin and Putin in particular, sees the United States as really, genuinely the main adversary here. You know, still, despite the kind of evidence to the contrary on the ground and Ukraine, that the chief adversary is the Ukrainians. Right behind all of this is this idea that knocking over Ukraine will lead Russia to NATO's doorstep, and finally put the United States on notice that it can no longer so-called “bully” Russia. That is a very troubling trend. I don't see how we get out of that situation without the beginnings of a conversation between military officials at the higher level. I do think one thing that is also troubling is the rumblings and the reporting that we've been seeing about the internal purges of some of the security agencies in Russia. So in particular, the FSB, which is the premier intelligence agency for the Kremlin. That is also very troubling with the kind of firings and enquiries is a sign that internally, the Kremlin is not very confident in how things are going. And again, a lack of confidence means that you cannot go out there and represent the interests of the country in a diplomatic setting. So while many, I think, analysts and then, of course, journalists may be tempted to think that we're looking at maybe a month more, and then it will be all over, [then] there'll be some sort of peace deal. I think we're in for a very long haul, possibly more than a year.

Watson: Wow. You were a reporter at the Post, what kind of considerations do you think are missing from the policy community and maybe even from the Western media covering this war so far? 

Rondeaux: Well, I do think that some of the focus on some of the more technical aspects of the war, you know, there have been some great analysts out there, you know, Michael Kofman is one; Robert Lee is another, they're doing a great job of, you know, delivering the daily tick tock on what's going down on the field level and what it might mean important for, for both sides in this war. At the same time, I think there's still some more work to be done around the logistics analysis around the security services purges. You know, inside Russia, I think there's a lot more work to be done there to probe into why does the Kremlin feel like now is the time to crack down inside the FSB? What's the effect of SVR which is, of course, the Foreign Intelligence wing? What do we know about the GRU? You know, for four or five years, the GRU was the frontline boogeyman in a lot of reporting on Russia, largely because of what had happened with the Internet Research Agency and of course, the 2016 elections. So I think there could be a lot more work done on probing into how did this intelligent failure happen? Clearly this was an intelligence failure for the Russian government, more than anything, right? They had the impression that the Ukrainians would not resist; they had the impression that they had people inside who would rise up and join their side. So probing into that intelligence failure, I think, is going to be one of the most important parts of understanding the psychology of the diplomacy that's coming.

Watson: What's your sense of the trajectory of war-crimes investigations? I think it was just yesterday; we're talking on Thursday, March 24. I think it was just on Wednesday that U.S. State Secretary Anthony Blinken accused Russia of war crimes. And I think there's already three different judges that have announced open investigations, including the International Criminal Court, which of course, I believe I saw a footnote from the Associated Press yesterday, it said, you know, neither Russia nor the U.S. recognize the jurisdiction of that court. Still, I'm wondering, what are you kind of expecting on this front, especially given what we experienced from the Syrian conflict?

Rondeaux: Well, neither Russia nor us need to be party to the Rome statutes for the ICC to investigate, because Ukraine has made the request. And so technically, under international law, it's all copacetic to move forward with an investigation. You know, I think we know that the one question surrounds the idea of a crime of aggression. That is, the pre-planning and intentional seizure of territory is essentially a crime under international law. Difficult to prove. Although in this instance, I think there's lots of evidence to show that there was some pre-positioning of people and materials well before the invasion officially began in February, inside Ukrainian territory, and I mean well beyond also Donbas. So I think there was plenty of evidence of that. And I think that'll be very interesting to see how that plays out—whether the ICC chooses to pursue that line. We know that the ICJ (the International Criminal Court of Justice) has also been probing this area, again, on Ukraine's request. I expect that, on the one hand, this will be the first time that the community of interests—human rights groups, you know, local NGOs that are involved in documenting war crimes on the ground in Ukraine—have had a chance to actually coordinate and that we're in a sort of an interesting position where there's more expertise in gathering, audio and video from social media than you had at the beginning of this year, even more. So actually, I think, there's a lot of potential for these cases to move forward, because there's a lot more kind of coherence around what is needed to make the case against Russia in this instance.

Watson: Yeah, I agree. I was absorbed yesterday in New York Times reporting, multimedia reporting of intercepted phone calls between Russian officers. And I was amazed at the rapidity with which New York Times team put all of this together; I was thinking similar thoughts that you just elaborated on a moment ago. It's an apparatus, you’re right, to respond to this stuff in a way that there was not 10 years ago. 

Last question, do you think Xi Jinping is looking at his military a little bit more cautiously now?

Rondeaux: That's a very good question. I can imagine this has for many leaders around the world, but especially for Xi, has triggered a sense of introspection, and a need to kind of check all the brass tacks and get down to it and see is the PLA ready? Should it be called on? Because I think the lesson here from Russia is that, clearly the Russian military was not ready. And although, I mean, there is some historical precedent here. Going back as far as the 1780s with Grigory Potemkin, who famously stood up a fake village to show to Catherine the Great that the Russian military had conquered in Georgia. So, I mean, I think that there's a little bit of a difference there. But I definitely think that Xi is, if he is not compelled to really do a top to bottom and inspection of the military capabilities of the People's Republic of China, he should be doing that immediately. I would be very surprised if he wasn't. I also think that it has probably given Xi pause in terms of the relationship with Russia. Perhaps they did not expect this kind of embarrassing military stalling and failure, really, on the battlefield. And I think that that also must make Xi and his coterie reconsider their diplomatic positioning vis-à-vis the United States. They clearly are also doing a very careful dance. You know, on the one hand, they're saying one thing to Washington, another thing to Moscow, and a third thing to the rest of the world. They're in a very delicate position. And I don't know, though, that the position is so delicate that we will see them reverse course, and suddenly embrace and kumbaya with the United States. I don't see that happening.

Watson: Yeah, well, it's all been intriguing. And of course, who knows what's being what's going on with the Chinese military, but I certainly would be looking at things a little bit more cautiously. For sure.

Rondeaux: Yeah.

Watson: Wild bit of wild bit of changes in the last 30 days and how the world views Russian power, that's a certainty. Alright. Candice Rondeaux, director of the Future Frontlines program at New America. Thanks again so much for speaking with me. I really appreciate it.

Rondeaux: All right. Thanks, Ben. Take care.

Watson: Paul Poast is an associate professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Chicago. He's also written three books that are fairly apt for the things that we've been talking about lately. And those books are entitled "The Economics of war," "Organizing Democracy," and "Arguing About Alliances." Paul Poast, welcome to Defense One Radio.

Poast: Thank you so much for having me.

Watson: One month into this invasion, do you anticipate anything at all that could convince Vladimir Putin to withdraw his forces from Ukraine?

Poast: If you look at the nature of the demands that Putin made at the beginning of this invasion, or indeed, the week prior to the invasion, he's talking about recreating the Russian Empire. At minimum, he's looking to achieve regime change—or at least he was looking. We should put that in the past tense, he was looking to achieve regime change in Ukraine. And neither of those objectives look like they're going to be accomplished, at least not anytime soon. Having said that, though, he's also in a situation where, does he really want to just simply go back to the status quo? Can he afford to just simply say, ‘Oh, this was a mistake, we weren't prepared for it, I made an error. So let's just go back to where we were, and pretend this didn't happen.’ And he's not in a situation, I don't think where he can do that. And so with this is setting up for is the potential for a quagmire from the perspective of Russia; but really a stalemated conflict, a protracted conflict. It may not be at the same level of intensity as we've been witnessing right now. But I don't see a situation where this ends anytime soon, because I can't see where there's an offer that could be made to Putin, at least right now, that he would find acceptable, that would also be acceptable to Ukraine. Now, eventually, we might be able to get to a point like that. But I'm having difficulty seeing where we would have something of that nature in the short term.

Watson: Now you've written a book called "The Economics of War." And I want to ask you something that Andrew Weiss of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace put forward rhetorically yesterday. He said, How long will it take to starve the Russian war machine? And what do you think when you hear that question?

Poast: On the one hand, it's absolutely the case that the sanctions that are being placed on Russia are unprecedented in scale in scope—I mean, just truly hammering the Russian economy. That would lead one to think that it's only a matter of time before indeed, Russia is starved to where it can't afford to keep the Russian war machine going, and they have to withdraw. But on the other hand, I have a lot of concerns about the sustainability of the sanctions. It's one thing to put on sanctions and have them go for two weeks, have them go for four weeks. But what if we’re starting to talk about two months, four months, six months, eight months? If we get into a situation, going back to my previous answer, if we get into a situation where we have a protracted stalemate-type conflict, then this conflict is not going to end anytime soon. And if that's the case, what is going to be the willingness of countries to continue to have these sanctions put on Russia? Because that's the key; when it comes to economic sanctions, the reason why they work, if they work at all—there's a lot of evidence to say sanctions don't often work—but a big reason why they're at least intended to work is that you are essentially doing harm to yourself. You are saying this is so important that I am willing to cut myself off from economic exchange with you in order to change your policy. But that requires a willingness to do that for a protracted amount of time for a long time. And I have a lot of concerns about the ability to keep this sanction coalition together long term. If it starts to fracture, which I think could very well happen, then that's going to create the type of relief, economic relief, if you will, that Russia needs to be able to keep the war machine going. And my sense, maybe you could say it's my fear, but my sense is that Putin is making this calculation. He knows that right now, there's economic harm; but I think that he views it as time is actually on his side in terms of the willingness of this coalition to stay together to keep the economic pain going.

Watson: Yeah, right. Yeah, it certainly does seem that way. Andrew, made a kind of a similar point. He said, "Can Joe Biden tolerate an uninterrupted spike in energy prices and the pass through to inflation from other disruptions in global commodities, markets and supply chains?" So yeah, definitely, this seemed like a bit of a time game. Do you have any idea what so-called neutrality would look like for Ukraine? It's one of the chief things that Russia wants, so its official say, and we would seem to have no choice but to take them at their word.

Poast: Yes, neutrality would be part of a potential package of items that could be offered to Putin to try to reach a settlement. Other aspects of that package would be recognition of Russia actually controlling Crimea, downstream provinces, perhaps even allowing Russia to have some influence into Ukrainian politics. And then yes, this policy of neutrality where Ukraine will make a formal declaration that they will never seek to join NATO. Now, the extent to which Ukraine would be willing to accept an offer like that, or even the extent to which a NATO ally, say the United States, would advise [Ukrainian President Voldymir] Zelenskyy to accept something like that, because it could be a situation where Zelenskyy would say, ‘I'm willing to sign on to that’, but he could actually receive pressure from his own allies to say, well, ‘You signing on to that that could set a bad precedent,’ etc, etc. So this would be part of a package that potentially could be acceptable to Putin, even if it may not be acceptable to Ukraine or any of Ukraine's allies. What would this neutrality look like? Well, it would be, in some ways, just an expression of what was the status quo. And by an expression meaning like a written, explicit statement, saying that Ukraine is not a member of NATO and Ukraine won't ever be a member of NATO. Now, you might say, ‘Well, why is that even needed?’ Especially if we view that international law and international treaties oftentimes are—well as the same once was made, ‘international laws to law what professional wrestling is to wrestling,’ right? You sit there and you say, Well, what good is it to actually have a written agreement like this; but I think where it would be at least symbolically important and can potentially give Putin some sort of face saving measure is that NATO does have documents as specifically as the Bucharest memorandum for 2008, where they said that they were open to membership of Georgia and Ukraine. So being able to create some sort of agreement, either one by Ukraine itself, or even having NATO come out and say, ‘We will never admit Ukraine,’ that would be what this would look like. Of course, I don't see that as being something that will actually be offered at most you could see Ukraine be willing to make a statement like this. But I can't see NATO being willing to say, ‘You know what, right. In order to end this conflict, we will sign an agreement like that.’, I think they would view that as a bad precedent of starting a war using aggression can get you what you want. So this kind of goes back to again, why I'm not optimistic about a settlement will be reached anytime soon.

Watson: Yeah, it reminds me of what borth Prime Minister Boris Johnson of the UK said today, ‘We cannot stand idly by while Russia grinds cities to dust.’ Now in terms of negotiating with Putin, you've mentioned it, but you also had a Twitter thread this week. Are any particular episodes from history—you talked about "off ramps" and World War Two—does anything there inform any way forward, do you think? Or do you think any parallels of the past are impossible because of nuclear weapons?

Poast: Yes. So this is where things get tricky. I think that if they aren't already tricky, right? On the one hand, it's very hard to see what would be a deal, if you will, a settlement that could be acceptable both to Russia, into Ukraine, as well as allies of Ukraine. On the other hand, the reality is that we're going to have to accept—and by we, I mean, everybody involves the West, NATO, Ukraine, Russia—everyone involved is going to have to accept that the way this is going to end is going to be some sort of settlement. What that will look like, we don't yet quite know. And as I was saying earlier, I don't see it as coming anytime soon. But the reality is that when you see rhetoric, people talk about how because Putin is evil, we can't make any concessions at all, ever. We have to fight until Russia has been completely defeated. Like, that's just not reality. My reality is that wars don't typically go that way. And instead, wars almost always end either in a very non-deterministic type outcome; like, oh, it seems like both sides could kind of claim some victory. Or they end in a settlement. And a good example, in the example that I drew from history was the example of Japan's surrender at the end of World War Two. And I intentionally pick this example, because it's an extreme example. It's an extreme example, in the fact that Japan was absolutely in a losing position. Japan had just had the atomic bombs dropped on it. Of course, prior to that you had the firebombing of cities, it's absolutely devastated. You have the Soviet Union now invading; it is clear that Japan is up against the ropes, and it's going to be over. That would seem like the exact situation where the other side could just simply declare complete victory. And indeed, the Allies going into World War Two, or at least not going into World War Two, but eventually said that the condition for Japan to surrender was unconditional—that they were calling for “unconditional surrender,” that they must completely and fully capitulate. Very similar to kind of some of the rhetoric around here around how we should be viewing Putin right now. So you have a situation where Japan is up against the ropes, it is very clear to both Japan as well as the allies fighting Japan that they are going to be defeated, they are incurring massive devastation. And you've had the Allies actually saying there will be no conditions for surrender. And yet, there was a condition. Japan said, we will surrender if we can keep the Emperor. And this was something that—there's a little bit of ambiguity about to what extent did the Allies actually promise this explicitly, or at least acknowledge that, ‘Yes, we will consider it.’ But the reality is that Japan made a conditional request for their surrender. And the United States—primarily the United States, though it was the U.S., along with its coalition of allies—said, ‘Okay, we'll consider that condition.’ And so my point is that even in this extreme case where the side that is winning the victorious side could have easily said, ‘Nothing, we are giving you absolutely nothing!’ Even in this case, they were willing to give something just to get the conflict over. And so if you look at that extreme case, everything else kind of comes down from that. And I don't see this war ending up in that extreme case of where it is clearly going to be a victory on the part of Ukraine and NATO against Russia; instead, it's going to be somewhere far short of that. And if that's the case, then we're going to have to accept that there's going to be a need to make some sort of concession towards Russia, in order to be able to just simply end the fight.

Watson: Interesting. Well, I guess sort of extending that on and really kind of bringing an end to our discussion here—but also, I like to think anyway, playing into your strengths—amid all of these sanctions, what Putin has called an economic “blitzkrieg,” can you tell me how a possible Russian default concerns you?

Poast: There's a very real possibility that Russia could default on its foreign debts. Now, that can take a lot of different forms. It could take the form of just flat out completely refusing to pay any debt whatsoever. And that is, of course, your full sovereign default. But a lot of sovereign defaults don't fall into that category. And I don't know if Russia's would actually fall into that category. They could do something along the lines, and they say, ‘Well still pay it, but we're only going to pay out in rubles. And so you have to either take it or leave it.’ That would be another possibility. 

Watson: I think they did that today. 

Poast: They may not formally default on the debts but simply ask for, or simply say there's going to be a delay in payments. And of course, that will delay payments would actually make sense. If you go back to what we were talking about earlier, if you think that it's only a matter of time before Russia receives some relief in terms of sanctions, then they could possibly just kick that can down the road. But I think that there is a real possibility that Russia would default. And if they do default, there's a couple things to keep in mind with respect to a sovereign default—really in any situation, but particularly in this situation. First of all, I'm of the view that sovereign defaults are almost always a political decision. They're not really a financial situation. And the reason why is because when it comes to the finances, sovereign countries always have something that they could offer to be able to make payment. They could sell off land. Now, of course, you might say, why would they sell off land? That makes no sense? Well, it doesn't make sense politically, but financially speaking, yes, they could actually do it. But of course, politically, that would be untenable, so they're not going to do it. So even in an extreme case like that, it still points to the politics of it. But more importantly, a lot of times defaults are done to send a message. And when we look at a lot of defaults in history, there's oftentimes where the leader that decides to default is a leader that came to power through irregular means. And this is actually—Russian history has a key example of this, which was when the Bolsheviks actually came to power. Lenin made the decision to default on Russia's debt, but it was primarily done to discredit the czar. To say that was the czarist debt, it was ‘odious debt,’ was the phrase that you sometimes hear. ‘And that is not to be associated with us; that was not acquired in the interest of the Russian state and therefore, we are going to distance ourselves from it by refusing to pay those debts.’ Well, in this case here, that wouldn't be what's happening. Putin would actually be making the authorization to default on debt that's been acquired by his own regime. And so in that sense, he would be discrediting himself. That's one reason why we wouldn't expect a full-on default, but instead, maybe something that's more of a partial default or renegotiation of it, because he wouldn't quite have the same incentives, as the Bolsheviks did to default on the czar’s debt. But the other thing to keep in mind is that if they were to default in this way, it would also be unusual, because it would be defaulted in the midst of a war. And it turns out that when you look at history, you see that most countries when they go to war—first of all, debt is a key way of financing war; but secondly, most countries win or lose, tend to be able to honor that debt. So this would also put Russia in a very unusual situation of defaulting on debt in the midst of war, a war that would be a very expensive war. So for them to go to a full-on default, I don't think is likely; but there is the possibility for them to do something, again, more of a partial default renegotiation or delay of payments. Those kinds of situations I could see them doing because again, they would be doing that with the expectation that they would have time later to actually recover economically.

Watson: Interesting. Paul Poast is an associate professor of political science at the University of Chicago. Paul, thank you so much for speaking with me. I really appreciate it.

Poast: Thank you so much for having me.