The Russia-Ukraine Crisis: What Comes Next?

Over the last few days, there has been a flurry of diplomatic activity between Russia, Ukraine, the United States, Germany and France — among others.

Meanwhile, the messaging coming from the White House indicates that they believe a Russian attack on Ukraine is imminent.

I am joined by Melinda Haring of the Atlantic Council who offers some context and analysis of the recent diplomatic maneuvering. We spoke via Twitter Spaces just after President Biden concluded remarks from the White House.

After I ended my interview with Melinda Haring, I noticed that the former US Ambassador to NATO Ivo Daalder was in the audience listening in, and he graciously agreed to take a few questions from me, impromptu.

If you have 20 minutes and want to better understand the current state of play in the Russia-Ukraine crisis, have a listen.

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Transcript lightly edited for clarity

What is the Current State of the Russia-Ukraine Crisis?

Melinda Haring [00:02:27] This week is supposed to be a game week, right? Everyone expected Vladimir Putin to roll in on the 16th, tomorrow, Wednesday and we woke up this morning to news reports that the Russian troops that have been surrounding Ukraine on three sides are beginning to withdraw. Now, the U.S. has not verified that, and NATO hasn’t verified that. President Biden just said that the reports that Russia has withdrawn troops near Ukraine are not verified, and we’re going to be watching that space very, very closely. But this this this definitely de-escalates the situation, right? The pressure has been building and building and building and U.S. intelligence and the national security adviser, the president had been saying almost every single day that the threat is imminent. Well, it looks like Vladimir Putin is playing games. So, Mark, I was one of the analysts who thought that Vladimir Putin was going to go into Ukraine again. And we need to say again because Vladimir Putin went into Ukraine in 2014 and he illegally annexed the Crimean Peninsula, and then he went into the Donbas in eastern Ukraine, in Luhansk and Donetsk Oblast, and he occupies about seven percent of mainland Ukraine now in the east. So, look, it looks like he’s backing up, and he wants the world to forget about Ukraine for a little while, and then he will probably increase the volume again and again. And I hate to say it, but this crisis is not going away. It looks like the immediate crisis has been dashed a bit, but I agree with the White House that this crisis is not over and we’re not out of the woods.

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:03:59] The news that Putin is perhaps taking soldiers away from the front is, though not yet confirmed, is something that you think is actually happening?

Melinda Haring [00:04:10] Look, I don’t know. I think everyone’s still waiting for verification on that. And, you know, Vladimir Putin says he’s not going to invade Ukraine and I say, you know, trust but verify. So, you know, let’s wait and see. I think the bottom line, though, is that it looks like, and we heard this yesterday from Moscow, they want to negotiate. I think that’s interesting. What that signals is that Putin realizes that if he goes in, he loses a lot of leverage. So, if he sits on the border and just menaces Ukraine, he drives the economy into the ground. If he sits on the border menaces Ukraine three to six months later, the economy is going to be in really bad shape, and he will definitely have hurt Ukrainians resolve. He’s not going to kill Ukrainians resolve, but he will have massively hurt the economy. You know, he could shut down airports. He could shut down normal life just by menacing, by sitting on the border so he doesn’t have to invade, and he avoids, you know, another package of international sanctions. That’s the smart play.

Will Russia eventually invade Ukraine? Could this spark the next World War?

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:05:10] So I saw this speech, while I’m no Ukraine expert, I’ve seen presidents give speeches from the East Room before, and this seemed at least to me to be a speech you give if you are convinced that Putin will in fact invade or reinvade in the near term in the near future. Now the speech you gave after the invasion is, you know, primetime from the Oval Office but I don’t know, this seemed to me to, like, be priming the American public for potential consequences of an imminent invasion.

Melinda Haring [00:05:42] Look, that’s possible. I have a different, more cynical interpretation. So, Biden says invasion remains distinctly possible, right? And know the intel that has been reported from The Washington Post to CNN—I don’t I don’t have a security clearance, I don’t have access to the intel—but from what we know, that’s been reported it’s scary as hell, right? And it’s not just menacing troops, it’s a huge amount of equipment. I’m sure that we’ve heard intercepts, I don’t want to speculate what’s there, I don’t work in the national security space, but it’s really scary. I’ve never seen the president and the national security adviser come out and make these kinds of warnings before. It’s really unusual, but it’s politically driven. This this is the piece that we need to dig into. So, it is 2022, and Biden has had a big screw up with Afghanistan and he can’t afford another big screw up and Ukraine could be an enormous screw up. If things get out of hand in Ukraine, we could have another World War. That’s the worst-case scenario. And Biden knows that if Putin wins in Ukraine, Biden’s going to look very, very weak and it’s going to give the Republicans more ammunition in the midterm elections. So, I think that’s part of it. And you also have to remember President Biden was there in 2014 when we had Crimea the U.S. wasn’t ready for this, we were caught off guard. So, I would give the Biden administration high marks for being open, for issuing a warning after warning. And we’re getting the allies together and putting a sanctions package together. They’ve done a great job on that, and they’ve been very, very clear about the threat. Now, Kiev is not happy with him, Kiev is very unhappy. And when we were in Kiev two weeks ago our delegation met with the president, with many Rada members, with a lot of ministers, and we heard it over and over again and they said, ‘You know, we love you guys, thank you for the military equipment, but you’re driving our economy into the ground. Can you guys knock it off? Can you stop engaging in excessive threats?’ Kiev does not disagree with our intelligence assessment, but they disagree with the interpretation of it. That’s sort of the area of disagreement between Kiev and Washington.

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:07:52] So there was an interesting moment I saw today in which Biden very explicitly promised the shut shutdown of Nord Stream 2 should the invasion proceed. Meanwhile, earlier today, Olaf Schultz and Putin met for a long meeting. What do you know of what came from that meeting between the Chancellor of Germany and Vladimir Putin?

Melinda Haring [00:08:19] Honestly, I don’t know. I’m not privy to any juicy information there, I’m sorry to report. I do know some juicy stuff about the Macron-Putin meeting, and I’m glad to talk about that.

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:08:31] Spill the juicy Macron-Putin news, s-il vous plait.

Melinda Haring [00:08:33] Okay but one point on this the Schultz meeting. If Biden is finally saying that he’s going to cancel Nord Stream 2 if the Russians go in, that’s beautiful. He should have done it before. it should have happened a long time ago but let’s see if he can get Schultz on board. So, you know, Schultz is in bed with the business community in Germany, and it’s going to be a really bitter pill to swallow. So, you know, if Biden is able to get the Germans on board, bully to him. So, with the Macron-Putin meeting, I’ve heard some juicy stuff. So, we all saw that the ridiculous pictures with Macron on one side and Putin on one side at this enormous table. You know, IKEA has made a joke about selling this enormous table with people on one end of the table not talking to each other. So, we know that there were multiple rounds of PCR tests demanded before Macron could see Putin. I believe it was three. It was many. We know that Putin is increasingly isolated, and he has seen very few people during COVID. We also know that he wanted to talk a lot about Russia’s historic grievances, and he wasn’t interested in negotiations. When Macron would try to push him back to discussing the Minsk agreements, this is the peace accords that were signed in 2014 and 2015 that haven’t yet been implemented, Putin wanted to go straight back to Russia’s historic grievances. So, there’s a lot of speculation that that Putin may be sick, and that’s why he has these sort of excessive COVID protocols. You know, when the rest of the world is moving away from PCR tests, and two weeks of quarantine before you can see each other, Putin’s regime doesn’t seem to have changed, so there’s some speculation that either he’s sick or that he’s just gotten increasingly paranoid because of COVID. I don’t know, I’m not a doctor but that’s the gossip that I’ve heard.

What tactics might Russia use to weaken Ukraine including cyber-attacks like Distributed Denial of Service attacks?

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:10:21] So another development today were apparent DDoS attacks. These are Distributed Denial of Service attacks, basically not the worst kind of cyber-attacks, but the kind of cyber-attack you launch when you want to shut down a website and make websites inaccessible. Well, do you know specifically the targets in Ukraine of these DDoS attacks?

Melinda Haring [00:10:46] I only saw the headlines. There were reports that they were headed at banks, but I haven’t seen anything confirmed Mark, I’m sorry.

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:10:53] Well, other than what was concerning to me about those attacks is that we’ve heard from for months now that a common tactic used by Vladimir Putin is to launch, you know, cyber-attacks ahead of like actual kinetic attacks.

Melinda Haring [00:11:10] Yup.

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:11:10] And you know, this seemed to fit into that pattern, which is like another ratcheting up of concern that, again, an attack might be imminent.

Melinda Haring [00:11:20] No, that’s true. Everyone expects cyber. So, you know, if you’re looking at what might Putin do short of a full-scale invasion, I expect major cyber, but he’s been doing this for a long time in Ukraine. This is not a new tactic in Ukraine. I expect him to cut heat, I expect him to cut power, he can do all those things pretty easily. And you know, those are moves that he can take without incurring any additional Western sanctions. Look, the president’s right, he can do what he wants, he can strike when he wants. Vladimir Putin, people don’t want me to say this, but Vladimir Putin can take as much of Ukraine as he wants, but he’s not going to be able to hold it. So that’s one of his fundamental problems. There are some constraints on what he can do. So, 45% of Ukrainians have told the Razumkov Center, which is one of the most reputable polling firms in Ukraine, that they will fight if Putin invades again and I think that number is actually pretty low, I think it may be higher than that. But we know that Ukrainians will resist and there are some other geographical constraints on how far Putin could go. So, if he wanted to roll in and he says, ‘I don’t care about these sanctions, you know, it’s going to hurt, but I’ve already priced it in. I have 600 billion in the bank.’ His maximalist demand is going to be the Dnieper River, and that’s about a third of Ukraine. So, he would take Kharkiv in the north, which is not very well defended. He would try to take Kiev, the capital which is on the Dnieper River and there I think he’s going to encounter enormous resistance. Then he would go down to the Dnipro and try to take Odessa. You know, if he used the Air Force, he could do it, but he’s not going to be able to hold it, so I don’t see him trying that. I think that the more clever tactic is what he’s doing now, try to disengage a little bit, de-escalate, get the world focused on other problems. You know, get off of the front page of the New York Times and CNN every day and then when he’s ready, he’ll increase the pressure on Ukraine again when no one’s watching.

Could the tensions in Russia and Ukraine be solved diplomatically?

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:13:25] Given the current situation and the dynamics that you just outlined, are there any like elements of a potential diplomatic way out of this? I mean, it’s been said many times that the security guarantee that Putin wants is an explicit guarantee that Ukraine will not become a member of NATO. I’ve seen other commentary suggest that really what concerns Putin is not whether or not they are explicitly or implicitly a member of NATO. Rather, it’s sort of the process of democratization on Russia’s border. Either way, I mean, do you see at this moment like elements of a way out of this situation of a diplomatic sort of off ramp?

Melinda Haring [00:14:12] Mark, I really wish I could say yes, but I do not. I think diplomacy has been on life support for a couple of weeks, and there’s a couple of ways, you know, the ideas that have been floated. One is the Minsk agreements, and I mentioned those. it’s the peace agreements that were signed in 2014 and 2015 by Russia, Ukraine, Germany, and France. And now these agreements were signed when Ukraine was really, really weak and Ukraine in general, just to give you the top headline, Ukraine will not accept the Minsk agreements. They were forced on them and they will destroy Ukrainian society if they’re implemented. Now Russia has broken the Minsk agreements time and time again. There’s been no progress made on them. You know, so Macron was really hot to trot on the Minsk agreements, and he was pushing and pushing on that, but Ukrainians will not. So, the other basic problem with Minsk is that they’re very subject to interpretation. The Ukrainians have an interpretation of them. The Russians have an interpretation of them. And the Ukrainians will not accept the Russian interpretation of Minsk. They think that it would give Moscow a veto over Kiev’s foreign policy, and that’s an absolute red line. It ain’t going to happen. So that’s one of the areas where negotiators tried and then, of course, the Neato issue is really the big issue. So, we need to go back to 2008 and we’re in Bucharest and we have a NATO’s summit, and Georgia and Ukraine are being voted on and they’re offered an open-door policy. And what that was, it was an empty promise that the door to NATO’s open, but they were not given a timeframe and that allowed Vladimir Putin to drive a tank through both of these countries. And I think that was a grave, grave mistake. You know, the Ukrainians and Georgians both still want to join, but they’ve never been given real dates and timelines and that’s one of the big mistakes that the West made. But to answer your question, no, there’s no way to negotiate on NATO membership. NATO gets to decide who is and who is not a member. Russia does not get any say over that.

How is NATO implicated in the Russian-Ukrainian crisis? Why do Ukrainians want their country to be a member of NATO?

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:16:21] So what concessions would Putin be comfortable walking away with? If this question on NATO is off the table for the West, what other off-ramps exist?

Melinda Haring [00:16:40] I don’t see any honestly like we can debate some of the smaller things, we could talk about some arms, we could talk about reassurance, but there’s still a fundamental problem about NATO and there’s no way to dance around it. There’s no cute diplomatic formula. Some people have proposed maybe asking Ukraine to suspend its NATO aspirations for 10, 20, 30 years. It ain’t going to happen and people who suggest that are so out of touch with public opinion in Ukraine. Ukrainians have lost 14 thousands of their brothers and sisters since 2014, and Ukraine has massively changed. It is decided firmly that it wants to be part of the West. So that’s, you know, a solution that I’ve seen some a pretty smart people float. But it ain’t going to happen, you know, you can’t negotiate Ukraine’s foreign policy without Ukraine.

What could trigger a de-escalation or escalation of violence in the Russian-Ukrainian crisis?

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:17:30] Okay, lastly, and I know you have to go in just a couple of minutes, so I want to ask you one last question. In the coming days or even hours, what are you looking towards to suggest to you what the next iteration of this crisis might look like?

Melinda Haring [00:17:46] Yeah, that’s a great question Mark. So, a couple of things I’m watching. So first is, you know, can we verify, can the USG or NATO verify that the Russians have actually started to de-escalate? So that’s number one, that’s the immediate thing. I’m watching the Ukrainian economy as well. So, the Ukrainian economy is being artificially propped up right now because of what this escalation has done and because of the sort of scare mongering around the escalation. I’m also watching the Donbas. So today, the Duma, the Russian parliament passed a new bill about the status of the LNR and the DNR, and Russia wants to annex these places. What I think is going to happen next is that we’re going to move from being obsessed with Russian tanks and troops and what will Vladimir Putin do next militarily to what kind of trouble is he going to stir up politically? So, I think he’s going to try to stir up trouble through these people’s republics out in eastern Ukraine. There’s a lot of different things he could try. He could try to assassinate Zelenskyy, he could try to put in a pro-Russian thug, they could try to jam Minsk down Kiev’s throat. There’s a lot of different things that they’re going to try so I would just say, watch the Donbas, that’s the really hot place right now, and that’s where they can easily cook up a pretext. There’s several hundred thousand Ukrainians who have Russian passports out there and you’ll remember that’s the pretext Putin used before. He has to defend his Russian countrymen, so you know that those are all those sorts of triggers that I see to watch for.

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:19:25] Well, Melinda, thank you so much for your time. This is very helpful, and I will let you go now. Thank you. I do see a former United States ambassador to NATO in the audience. Please feel free to request to speak and I’d call you up. I’d love to get your perspective on both Biden’s speech today and also more broadly, how you see Nieto responding to this crisis. There you go, Ivo Daalder.

Ivo Daalder [00:19:53] Hey, thanks. Sorry, I only joined a couple of minutes ago as is one of the natures of this thing. But glad to say a few things. On Biden’s speech I think we need to understand the context of it. I think we’re in the middle of an information war in which both sides are trying to make the case they want to make. Clearly the narrative that folks were reading in the last few 24 or 48 hours coming out of Moscow suggested that there might be a way out of this through diplomacy. The staged event with Putin and Lavrov and yet another one of these very long tables, with Lavrov saying that there was some scope for diplomacy and there was still room for that and Putin saying good then followed up with the announcement that some troops might be moving back to barracks and that after the exercises were done, they would continue to move back to their home bases suggests that in the last 24 hours perhaps things were changing. I think Biden went out with a very clear sense that when we look at the reality of what’s on the ground as opposed to the rhetoric that’s coming out of the Kremlin, the reality doesn’t point to anything less. Fundamentally, diplomacy remains stuck by Putin demanding things that he knows he cannot and will not get, by the way, shouldn’t get. But it also is the case that we now have 150,000 Russian troops who are in the midst of a very, very large-scale exercise in the north of Ukraine, in the south of Ukraine, in the Black Sea and to the east, ready to invade if and when they decide and only, they decide. I think it was important for the president to make clear that a bunch of statements coming out of the Kremlin from people we cannot trust isn’t sufficient to change that. So that’s I think the reality we’re watching today. I don’t think things have changed much from Friday when Jake Sullivan went out in something that national security advisers generally don’t do, to say that war was imminent. Final point just to agree fully with Walter, Ukraine has been at war with Russia for the past eight years, it’s lost 33,000 people as a result of that war and has been at war without anyone in any way posing a threat to Russia, whether that is the U.S. or NATO or anywhere else. And if there is a threat that is posed by that, then let’s have a negotiation, not the kind of ultimatums and blackmail that we’re seeing in in the region at the moment. Thanks.

Is NATO operating any differently than normal in regard to the Russia-Ukraine crisis?

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:22:57] Well, so having served as U.S. ambassador to NATO for pretty much, what, the entirety of Obama’s administration?

Ivo Daalder [00:22:59] Just the first term.

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:22:60] Okay, sorry, I’m inflating your resume, I’m sorry. Now you’re the head of Chicago Council on Global Affairs. Let me ask you, have these last few months revealed anything new or different to you about NATO? Have you learned something new about NATO over the last several months?

Ivo Daalder [00:23:31] No, not really. I mean, I think I’ve learned more about Putin than about NATO. I think NATO is an organization that functions best when it is most needed and when one of its members or more than one of its members in this case feels threatened. And particularly when the threat comes from the largest military power in Europe that has spent the last 15 years modernizing its military capabilities. By the way, exactly at the same time that the Europeans for the past 15 years have significantly cut their defense expenditures, those investments and whatever, real expenditures have been ongoing were for operations in Afghanistan that is far away from Russia under those circumstances when they are threatened. And importantly, we have the United States that is willing to lead the alliance by providing information, by suggesting strategies for a way forward. NATO unites, and I think part of what we’re seeing playing out here is Putin’s miscalculation, believing that Biden post-Afghanistan and the fissures within the alliance first caused by Trump but not really healed by Biden in the first few months of his presidency because of Afghanistan, because of the ruckus over […] and a variety of other things that he could somehow show further divisions, and he’s finding NATO more united today than frankly, it has been, certainly when I was there in ’09 to ’13, but in a very, very long time reminding many people why NATO exists and why it is important that remains a strong military but also political actor in the center of Europe.

What are the possible solutions to the Russia-Ukraine crisis?

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:25:33] If it’s okay, can I ask you one last question? If you have time, I know we didn’t plan to have you as a speaker, but if you are able to answer one more question.

Ivo Daalder [00:25:40] I’ve got one more. Yeah.

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:25:41] OK, great. Do you see at this point any potential diplomatic answer or what opportunities might you see coming from diplomacy in the near term? You know, is there any concessions that NATO or the West might offer Putin to enable that off ramp? Is there like a diplomatic way out of this that you see, perhaps coalescing, if not in the near future, sometime down the road?

Ivo Daalder [00:26:09] So I think there is a possibility for a diplomatic outcome, but it would require Putin to change not only his tactics, but perhaps his goals. What Putin wants, which is to control Ukraine, it’s not about NATO, this is about Moscow’s control of Ukraine, whether that’s direct control by incorporating Ukraine back into a Russian Empire or whether it’s indirect control by assuring that its government does its bidding is uncertain, but control is something it wants. It’s not about, in that sense, NATO. What he wants with NATO, which is that NATO disappears from central and Eastern Europe in all practical purposes, which in effect means either two tiers of membership: those who would be defended and those who won’t, which would fundamentally transfer NATO. Or having 14 members who have joined since the late 1990s, voluntarily departing the alliance. And ultimately, what he wants is the United States removed as a source of influence in Europe and indeed in the world. Those things aren’t negotiable. They either happen organically because of changes in the balance of power or other ways, but they’re not negotiable. And so, the only question is, is Putin willing to settle for anything less? Perhaps a set of arms control, confidence building measures, regulatory military activity regulations that indeed Biden again talked about today, we’ve put on the table for a long time, and there are legitimate Russian concerns about some of the things that NATO and the United States have done over the years, and let’s have a conversation about those. But there’s also a legitimate U.S. and NATO’s concerns about what the Russians are doing, most importantly, having 150,000 troops at the highest posture of readiness we’ve seen really since the end of the Cold War and the prospect of a military confrontation that we haven’t seen in Europe since the end of World War II. That’s of concern too, having nuclear missiles in Kaliningrad, which is a small area in between Poland and Lithuania is of concern, violating past arms control agreements is of concern and yes, the US has walked out of some of these agreements, and I think the Biden administration is saying, you want to have a discussion about that, let’s have that. But on your core demands, that’s not negotiable.

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:28:45] Well, Ivo, thank you so much for your time and for your impromptu interventions here today. I’ve been following your work since the early 2000s since, like the Dean campaign era. I so appreciate your contributions. Thank you so much.

Ivo Daalder [00:29:00] My pleasure, Mark.

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:29:02] All right. Thank you all for listening. Thank you to Melinda Haring for speaking with me on short notice and to Ivo Daalder for speaking with me at no notice. That reference I made at the end was to the Howard Dean campaign in the early 2000s. Ivo Daalder was one of just a very small number of establishment foreign policy people who opposed the drive to the Iraq War and opposed Bush’s decision to invade and occupy Iraq. He served as a policy adviser to the Howard Dean campaign, which was like the explicitly anti-Iraq War presidential campaign. The other, I think, key foreign policy figure around that time to come out against the Iraq War was Susan Rice and it’s no surprise, I think, that both Daalder and Susan Rice went on to serve as senior officials in the Obama administration. Anyway, a little foreign policy history for you. I will see next time. Bye!