Defense One Radio, Ep. 98: Arming Ukraine and ‘The Return of Conquest?’

Defense One's Marcus Weisgerber discusses the multi-national effort to arm Ukraine, and Tanisha Fazal shares her concerns about international norms, Putin's legacy, and a possible return to an age of conquest.

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A transcript of this episode is below.

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

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine just entered its ninth week. This is the sound of Russian missiles hitting the far-western city of Lviv, about 40 miles from the Polish border, on Monday. At least seven people died in those strikes, which were the first of its kind for Lviv. Some saw it as Russia lashing out after its Black Sea flagship suspiciously sank last week in an incident Moscow said was just some ammunition that caught fire. Ukraine says it sank the ship with a brand-new missile. 

This week, Russia’s invasion has evolved into what Ukrainian officials are calling a second phase of fighting. Putin has seemingly given up on capturing the capital city of Kyiv, and replacing President Zelenskyy. Now his generals are trying to capture the southern city of Mariupol, which could fall in a matter of hours; and it’s no secret Putin intends to fully seize the eastern breakaway regions of Donetsk and Luhansk. 

But Ukraine is huge. To travel from west to east would be like driving from Times Square to Wrigley Field in Chicago. And that new Moscow offensive in the east? Russia hasn’t tried something so large and ambitious since the Second World War (Operation Uranus). So this thing could grind on for many more weeks or even months still. 

That’s why the U.S. and its allies have been spending the last several days sending more and larger weapons to Kyiv. The U.S., for example, has sent almost $4 billion in arms since the invasion began. That includes another $800 million last week and $800 million again this week

America’s donations had largely consisted of anti-tank weapons like Javelin rockets, and anti-aircraft items like Stinger weapon systems. But those shipments are increasingly involving larger stuff like howitzer artillery, which could give Ukraine the ability to strike behind Russia’s current front lines. And of course the U.S. is just one of several different nations trying to fend off Russia’s invading forces by arming the hell out of Ukraine’s military. As a share of economic output, or GDP, Estonia is leading the way for Kyiv’s donors. Poland is next. Lithuania is third, followed by Slovakia and Sweden. 

Sweden, by the way, might apply for NATO membership by the end of the summer. And if that happens, Finland says it’s right there behind them. 

These are truly remarkable developments, really. But so much about the invasion has been since it began in late February. It’s prompted so many meetings and discussions that were virtually unheard of just three months ago. 

And one of those developments concerns just how many weapons the U.S. can afford to send Ukraine. Those Javelins? The U.S. only has so many in its inventory. And by some accounts, the U.S. has already burned through a third of its entire inventory in just the last eight weeks. 

I rang up a colleague of mine on Thursday to get a better read on how Russia’s invasion is shaking up the arms industries on both sides of the Atlantic.

Watson: Here to talk with me now is Defense One Global Business Editor, Marcus Weisgerber. Marcus, how you doing?

Weisgerber: Hey, Ben, how are you? It's good to be with you.

Watson: I'm good, I'm good. It's just I think the biggest struggle is keeping up with the amount of new developments that are happening, like every day that are related to Ukraine.

Weisgerber: Don't put down that phone or that computer for five minutes, everything's gonna change.

Watson: There's probably more weapons coming; more weapons from the U.S. were announced today. Another $800 million batch of weaponry, maybe a little bit more artillery-focused this time. But looking ahead, what's kind of notable to me is that this third $800 million package has nearly emptied the amount of money that Congress authorized in March to support Ukraine. So the U.S. is kind of burning through this stuff really quickly. And the U.S. is burning through how many javelins? Javelins are anti-tank weapons. We've given almost 6,000 of them to Ukraine already, according to a tally that the Pentagon put out last week. So far, the U.S. has given about a third of its inventory of javelins to Ukraine. How long would it take to make some of those? Do we have any idea?

Weisgerber: You know, this all depends on money. If you throw money at this, you can you can build these, these anti tank weapons very quickly. As long as you have the parts and the supplies, which just you know, like, you know, consumer goods that you and I buy for our families like it, the supply chains are very, very fragile. So Raytheon and Lockheed who built the Javelin, as long as they're able to get the materials, they could probably crank these things out pretty quickly if depending on one of them, too. There's this misconception that, you know, Lockheed Martin has a, you know, a warehouse full of Javelins waiting for somebody to buy them.

Watson: That's in Area 51; we all know it is.

Weisgerber: Remember, a few years ago, you and I talked about how, at the height of the counter-ISIS campaign—

Watson: They were 'running out of bombs.'

Weisgerber: Right. And the U.S. was raiding its stockpiles from all over the place.

Watson: I remember in the Pacific, right?

Weisgerber: Right.

Watson: So the war against China would suffer because of ISIS.

Weisgerber: What it appears to be here is they don't want—they being the Pentagon leaders—don't want to get back to a situation there. Where you were you weren't there where you actually are, are, you know, hurting readiness, so to speak. They don't want to have given away critical stuff that would help the U.S. military directly.

Watson: Are there any particular weapons that have been surprising to you? I'm looking over a pretty long list right now, of what's been provided so far. Like there's one in particular, I will say called an 'unmanned coastal defense vessel.' I don't really know anything about that. But it sounds very exotic. Do you have any idea what that exists?

Weisgerber: It sounds very exotic to me as well, just all we've all we know is that it's coming, but it's come from the Navy. And then till today, we just had the Phoenix Ghost, which is a kamikaze-style drone. And all of a sudden, you know, hey, lo and behold, the U.S. Air Force has had these things, and it's going to give them to Ukraine. So the weaponry, clearly the U.S. has stuff in it has weapons in its arsenal, that it doesn't talk about and that, you know, it's kind of these surprise, if you will, if it ever had to go to war against a, you know, again, against a peer competitor, but it's perfect for the Ukrainians. And that's been the key of this, you know, that the U.S. has wanted to give Ukraine simple to use weapons, stuffed it, unlike us weapons, which have huge logistics tails. You know, you can't have us contractors going in and out of Ukraine to to maintain these weapons that are being given. So this, the red line so far has been these fighter jets with Poland and these mags that they want to, you know, give to the U.S. and then have the U.S. then in turn transfer to Ukraine instead, you know, the U.S. has opted for parts and stuff to help more Ukrainian aircraft that exist in Ukraine in the air. So that's something I know that I'll be personally watching as the, as the days continue to tick on in this horrible war.

Watson: Yeah, that aircraft thing was a new development, along with I guess, European nations, like the Czech Republic, chiming in to offer their garages from their militaries to do repairs on tanks, like a T-64, for example.

Weisgerber: You know, one other thing, you know, we we've talked about wanting to give the Ukraine simple weapons. And a lot of old Soviet weaponry and arms exist in, you know, NATO members that were once Soviet republics. And one of the big things you have there, if they do give up these weapons is you have to backfill them. And as I mentioned earlier, it's It's not like you can just, you know, call up defense contractor X and tell them, you know, say, oh, I need, you know, 20 F-16s, and they have 20 F-16s that they could just pull off the lot and send over to Poland; they don't. So you the only way to quickly backfill is to deploy U.S. or NATO assets. So say that, say the Poles decide, you know, they're gonna, they're going to actually give the MiGs directly to Ukraine. That means it's up to the U.S. or, or NATO writ large, which has a lot of F-16s—Poland flies F-16s—to say, 'Okay, well, you're gonna give up your 30 some odd MiGs; we're gonna have to backfill you.' Because they have a real threat; they have a war going on right next to their border. So that means a U.S. squadron, or U.S. aircraft along with NATO F-16s would would likely have to deploy to Poland, while those Polish pilots and maintenance workers are retrained on the F-16s. And whether that be in-country, which they probably could do, because Poland has, like I said, F-16s; but backfilling takes time. The same with surface-to-air missiles, the same thing. One of the stories I wrote earlier on in this war was about how the U.S., it can't give Patriots, [which are a] really good surface-to-air missile interceptor, they can't just give it to the Ukrainians because it takes months, if not longer to train; it's going to take time. So what do they know how to use? The S-300. So get all the S-300s you can find among your allies and get them into the Ukrainian hands, because that's something they could use here now.

Watson: Well, just last week, the CEOs from almost 10 different defense firms went up to the Pentagon to hang out with the Defense Department's number two official. What do we know about that meeting?

Weisgerber: You had eight of the largest defense companies were there for this meeting with Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks. And one, she likes these group doing these group meetings. And she does it with all types of CEOs, whether they're big companies, or small companies, she likes the group setting the big companies this, it's rare, because typically, they don't like to show their cards to their competitors at the table. But to me, this kind of underscores the significance of the situation we're in right now. The U.S. is planning to keep continuing to support Ukraine for as long as as they need to. And companies tend to respond to two things: money and signals from senior officials. If the senior official is that number two civilian, and the Pentagon is telling you, 'Hey, we are going to buy these from you, even though you know, perhaps it's not in the budget,' or 'Hey, we need this type of stuff,' companies are going to make investments in such type of weapons. So just from a signaling standpoint, to these companies that, 'Hey, we're gonna support Ukraine, this is our commitment from this administration that we're going to support them.' She's telling the companies that, okay, that means we're going to need you to be able to build these weapons, and have them ready to go quickly. Because, I mean, you could look at it this way to a lot of those Javelins were actually purchased for if the U.S. ever had to fight Russia, and they're being used to actually defeat Russian tanks. So they're taking those tanks off the battlefield. Another irony of this whole entire conflict is that the State Department for years has been helping pay for the former Soviet countries to get rid of their Soviet arms and buy American and, you know—

Watson: It seems like that might accelerate.

Weisgerber: Oh, yeah, well, and interestingly enough, those Soviet-made weapons are being sent and being used against the country that made them. So—

Watson: It points towards our next interview, which is going to be talking about the return of conquest, and how, of course the U.S., the West is dealing with Putin now, who quite clearly is not interested in playing by any rules. And sounds like it's already shaken up the U.S. defense industry. And it sounds to me like it's going to be shaking up the European defense industry as they look to shed these MiGs, pickup F-16s, et cetera. Well, that's all I got; anything else you want to add or anything before we go?

Weisgerber: No, just thanks for having me. Thanks for dealing with some puppy background noise today.

Watson: What's the puppy's name? Not a puppy anymore, I know.

Weisgerber: Her name is Brooklyn. She's going to be to very soon—she's destroying a tug rope that has a hockey puck on it. She absolutely loves it, but new her new favorite thing to do is for me to stick handle with the with a puck and she is very good at grabbing it and picking up the puck and running away and hiding it.

Watson: Well good luck getting her to learn fetch, I guess. I have a dog who only halfway knows; he knows that he knows the get-the-ball part, but not the bring-it-back part.

Weisgerber: We have the same problems, and she's a golden retriever. She's supposed to go be able to, you know—

Watson: Right. It's in her name.

Weisgerber: Retrieve. Nope? Okay.

Watson: All right. Marcus Weisgerber, global business editor for Defense One. Thanks so much for talking to me.

Weisgerber: Thanks for having me.

We’re gonna turn now to the bigger picture. And for that we’ll need someone we last heard from almost four years ago when we asked why the Afghan war was taking so long. That would be—

Fazal: Tanisha Fazal, a professor of political science at the University of Minnesota.

She’s written a book called “State Death: The Politics and Geography of Conquest, Occupation, and Annexation.” Her latest essay is entitled, “The Return of Conquest? Why the Future of Global Order Hinges on Ukraine.” 

Watson: So I was reading your essay in Foreign Affairs this week. And I began thinking about an inflatable globe that I bought six years ago. Now, I have two small kids. And so it was, of course for them. But I've looked at it a lot more than they have. Sudan is still unified on that one, for example. And shortly after I bought that globe, I visited a high school where my wife works, and I found a globe with the old USSR and the old Soviet Republics on it. I bring this up, because you write about a particularly tumultuous time, not all that long ago, when borders were being redrawn over and over and over again. So I'm wondering, can you describe this volatile period that seemed to begin shortly after Napoleon's defeat at Waterloo? And can you develop that idea of state death within that window?

Fazal: So the way that I define state death is as a state formerly losing control over its foreign policy to another state. So that's the technical definition. But I think that the more understandable definition is along the lines of what you're talking about with respect to the inflatable globe, and the border is changing, which is essentially erasing a stat a state from the map of the world. And before 1945, and in particular, in this period in the 19th and early 20th century that you're asking about violent state death in particular. And by that I mean, one state, attacking another state and actually erasing it from the map of the world, was pretty common. And so we saw this, we see this a lot of times in the context of war, we certainly saw it in World War Two, we also see it in the context of some state formation. So think about Germany and Italy unifying in the 19th century, as well. And they unified by acquiring other states by absorbing other states. So those are some examples. But you can even go back before 1816, and you can think about imperialism. And you can also think about states like Poland, which was slowly absorbed by its neighbors, Russia, Austria and Prussia over a number of years in the late 18th century. And a distinguishing feature of that period really is the prominence of violent state death. I do want to note that not all state death is violent; some states die nonviolently. After the war, there's consent of actors within the state. A really good example of this is Czechoslovakia, which famously had the “velvet divorce” right after the end of the Cold War, and became two states. 

Watson: I found the topic you’re talking about fascinating. We often don't have time to assess big picture things. And this is really kind of a big-picture take seemingly; but it also resonated with something that I'd heard recently. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson had this to say about Russia's autocratic President Vladimir Putin. On the day the invasion began, February 24.

PM Boris Johnson: Now we see him for what he is a bloodstained aggressor, who believes in Imperial conquest.

Watson: Has anything that's happened since February 24 led you to disagree with the prime minister?

Fazal: Not necessarily. I mean, I think that the fact that Putin began the war, questioning Ukraine's legitimacy as a state suggests a call back to Russia's Imperial past and also the, you know, some nostalgia for the borders, not only of Imperial Russia, but also of the Soviet Union. And I think it's really striking, also to think about the fact that Russia doesn't even seem to be pretending to abide by international law. And it's really interesting to think about the difference between the invasion of Crimea in 2014, which is also a territorial aggression, but one where Russia tried to create some sort of deniability for itself be plausible or implausible with a little green men, as opposed to what happened this year and what's happening what's continuing to happen this year where or Russia's aggression is just blatant. And it's a very clear violation of international law and also the norm against territorial conquest.

Watson: I find this stuff fascinating because of course, with two small children, I'm thinking about right and wrong. And I'm thinking about how to communicate right and wrong. And for example, one kind of thing that I think is probably a shared value. We don't like thieves. We don't want we don't want to reward theft. But you highlight what might be called some of the perks of globalization. And there is sort of an incentive package discouraging a return to the age of conquest. You mentioned that wider trade gives states access to other nations resources that you know, in this way that don't have to start a war for them. Well, it reminded me of what Lulu Garcia-Navarro of the New York Times said about three weeks into the invasion, when she wrote, Putin is betting that the unity of the Democratic West, that that unity will buckle and break under the weight of refugees and high gas prices, high food prices. And she said on the other hand, the West is betting that sanctions and isolation will pressure the authoritarian Kremlin to buckle. And so this is a fight over which of those systems is going to win? Granted, nobody knows, of course, what the future looks like, but are you optimistic?

Fazal: I don't think I am optimistic. As you say, we don't know what's going to happen. My best guess I don't know if it's a good guess. But my best guess is that Russia will end up either acquiring or occupying the Donbass in some way. And that is, of course, a territorial aggression. It's not as extreme of territorial aggression, as if Russia were to try and absorb all of Ukraine and erase the entire country from the map of the world. But then the next question is, what are the consequences of this kind of outcome for the norm against territorial conquest, and really, potentially, for international order? Because part of what's valuable about the norm against territorial conquest is that it's kind of a club good. If you become a member of the club, then your existence is assured, or is meant to be assured. And I think it's maybe useful to use Iraq's invasion of Kuwait as a comparison here. Because in response to that invasion, there was a very strong military coalition that gets Iraq out of Kuwait. This, of course, has not happened in this case. The response has been much more limited, and for good reason: Russia is not Iraq, and it would be dangerous to respond in the same way militarily. But I do think that it would be very dangerous to the health of the norm against territorial conquest, if the response to Russia weakens over time. And one concern that I have in this regard is that support from the Global South, for, as you rightly put it, the West's response to this conflict is not as strong as you might expect. And all you have to do really, is to look at sanctions, who's actually imposing sanctions, and also to look at the various extensions, in particular, among the UN votes. And I think that that raises real questions about the future of the norm.

Watson: Yeah, that's an interesting point. And of course, I've been trying to make note of the various votes at the United Nations, at least three that I'm aware of, since the invasion began. There’s been some condemnation. And then of course, the abstentions. It's been fascinating to see where India falls as a democracy, as well. And the kind of bigger, presumed ideological struggle of democracy versus autocracy.

Fazal: Ben, can I just mention one thing, I mean, that's sort of interesting about this war—or, well two things: You know, we mostly think about Russia as violating international law in this in this conflict, which is, of course, the case, there's no doubt that Russia is conducting and committing Major violations of international law, not just in terms of use ad bellum, but also in terms of use in bello. So for example, with respect to targeting civilians, but it's interesting that, and I was saying this, because a colleague was asking me why it is that we know so much about the civilian casualties in this war compared to other wars. And I think the reason is because NGOs that document wartime atrocities, they typically need to have the permission of the government in order to enter the country. And most wars, as you know, in recent years have been civil wars. And so the government doesn't really want to let these groups and either because it's going to document their own atrocities or because they don't want to give any kind of legitimacy or a platform to their opposition. But the Ukrainians have a really different incentive structure. They very much want the wartime atrocities to be documented. So I just think that I just wanted to flag that as kind of a. An interesting note of though, of course, accountability for the war crimes is a completely different question.

Watson: Related to that, I talked to Candace Rondeaux of New America a couple of weeks ago. We were talking about the war crime situation, the trajectory for that. But she brought up the sort of open-source apparatus that is kind of got trained up on Syria, and now it's been sitting at home for two years in the pandemic, staring at a computer. And now they're ready to bounce on another war.

Fazal: I've been thinking a lot about how this war is, in what way is this war is actually different from other wars? Because, you know, going back to what I was saying, about the global South, I think that people in the global south are rightly saying, you know, the other way the war is different is that Ukrainians are white. And people from the global South are really saying, ‘Well, how come you're paying so much attention to Ukraine, but not to these other conflicts?’ And so this is not to justify that disparity and attention; but it is to say that the interstate nature of the war, I think, is a difference. That matters.

Watson: These are very important points that we have as an editorial team, like every Monday when we meet. Well, one of our topics was what you're talking about. And of course, that was an early consideration. Terrell Jermaine Starr, I think, is an Atlantic Council person of color who's been in Kyiv for a while and just left a week or two ago. And he's been, of course, talking about this sort of thing as well. But it ties into another interesting point. I think that's also difficult to talk about. And it's that this invasion, at a fundamental level feels like, I think it relates to my super simplistic point about theft, it feels fundamentally different. Because somebody, one of my colleagues was like, you know, the Middle East has been seen by people as variously blowing up for the last several years, and certainly in the 21st century. Now, you know, U.S. involvement in that? The bigger point is people perceive it that way. Kyiv wasn't seen as blowing up in that way. And of course, the people are white. So this whole thing feels fundamentally different as well, like the, I guess the implication here, the crude one would be like the white value system has been threatened or something in a way that it wasn't.

Fazal: Right. And, you know, what I would sort of layer on to that is that one of the things that I found in my book, and that I mentioned in the article is that states that had less international legitimacy or recognition were more likely to be conquered. And so when people say, ‘What about Palestine?’ This is not to justify the outcome, but it is to say that the system is set up such that Palestine is not a member of the UN, right? But Ukraine is.

Watson: Right. I mean, I think of Kurdistan, too. Though Palestine is probably a much more clear-cut example. But I've for a while thought about, you know, statehood for them, certainly since the Syrian civil war had broken out. 

Fazal: Yeah. And just to sort of bring in some political science jargon: It's all 'endogenous.' There's a reason that certain states don't have that kind of international recognition. It's partly to make it easier to conquer them. And that is also the reason why you get the you see, the narratives you see from would be conquerors. So Saddam Hussein called Kuwait ‘the 19th province.’ And Putin again at the beginning of the war was just questioning the legitimacy of Ukraine's existence as a state.

Watson: I mean, it's why Sweden and Finland are acting the way they are, let's be honest, right?

Fazal: Yeah.

Watson: Tanisha Fazal is professor of political science at the University of Minnesota and she’s the author of “State Death: The Politics and Geography of Conquest, Occupation, and Annexation.” Her latest essay, “The Return of Conquest? Why the Future of Global Order Hinges on Ukraine,” can be found in the May issue of Foreign Affairs. Tanisha thanks so much for speaking with me. I really appreciate it.

Fazal: Thanks, you too. Take care.