How Does the War in Ukraine End?
‘If you really study history, all conflicts really end at some sort of a table.”
By Jill Dougherty
Center for Eurasian, Russian and East European Studies (CERES)
By Gen. Philip M. Breedlove
Distinguished Professor of the Practice and CETS Senior Fellow
Georgia Institute of Technology
By Dr. Charles A. Kupchan
Professor of International Affairs
By Dr. Alina Polyakova
President and CEO
Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA)
Experts discuss the U.S. policy options available in Ukraine and how the current military situation on the ground affects what the United States should do next to achieve its goal in the region.
DOUGHERTY: Welcome to everybody to today’s Council on Foreign Relations meeting. And the subject de jure is “How Does the War in Ukraine End?” Not a simple subject. (Laughs.) I’m Jill Dougherty, an adjunct professor at the Center for Eurasian, Russian and East European Studies at Georgetown University, and I’ll be presiding over this in-person and virtual discussion, better known as hybrid discussion.
So how the war ends is a very broad and I think very controversial subject, and we have three people who will help us to examine the possibilities and also the pitfalls of that: General Philip Breedlove, whom we can see on the screen—he is virtual—there joining us; and Charlie Kupchan, right here; and Alina Polyakova. And their bios, as everybody knows, are in the materials that we’ve distributed.
So I want to start—General Breedlove, I think we’ll start with you. And just a couple of minutes ago, I was reading—not to be too current, but I was reading about the downing of the Reaper drone, and this is becoming a very serious incident. So I wonder, with your military background, what do you think the United States should do right now? The Russians just, I’m sure you know, within the past few hours said that they are going to try to retrieve it and study it. So what do we—what do we do?
BREEDLOVE: Well, thank you for having me, first of all, Jill. Thanks for the—
DOUGHERTY: I think we’ve got some sound problem.
BREEDLOVE: They muted me. Can you hear me?
DOUGHERTY: Now we can, yes. Thank you.
BREEDLOVE: OK. Great. Thank you for having me, Jill, and thanks for the relevant question.
I think the first thing we have to do is determine what we believe happened. There are really two courses of what happened. One is some very bad airmanship and some poor flying skills resulted in a collision, and there are many who believe that now, and that would be the easier way to go forward from here. The other is that Russia made a policy decision and/or an operational decision to interfere with a U.S. flight physically. And as we learn more and more about what happened in the Black Sea, it looks like that is what actually happened. The collision did not happen, actually, during the intercept. The airplanes were out in front of the Reaper at one point, dumping fuel ostensibly to try to cause the engine to malfunction, et cetera, et cetera, and then went around behind the aircraft and came into contact with the propeller blade. This looks a little bit more deliberate, and I think that’s going to cause our government to have to consider their actions going forward.
As far as recovering the Predator, we should get there first and we should recover the Predator.
DOUGHERTY: Mmm hmm.
Now, on the broader—thank you for that. On the broader issue that we’re here to discuss today, I think we do still have to begin with the military side of it. And there is a widespread opinion that the war will have to be won militarily, and that would mean the utter defeat of the Russians/President Putin. But at this point—at least to the West—but at this point there is no indication of any type of victory or defeat on either side. So, General Breedlove, getting back to you, do you agree that the military result will define the resolution of this conflict?
BREEDLOVE: Well, if you really study history, all conflicts really end at some sort of a table. Sometimes the military determines the settings of that table, and you have a defeated force and you have a winning force that sets the conditions of that—the end of that conflict.
We’re not sure where this will go yet. When asked, I typically say the following, and that is that this war will end the way that the West wants it to end. Western policy will absolutely determine whether Ukraine wins or is defeated. What we have seen on the battlefield is that when a Ukrainian military force that is well-equipped
meets a Russian force, it wins every time. Two strategic defeats of Russia in the north of Ukraine, north and west of Kyiv and west, northwest, and northeast of Kharkiv. They’re in the middle of an operational defeat of the Russians in Kherson that was interrupted by the winter. And now they’re in a—sort of a tactical fight in and around Bakhmut, which is yet to be determined. But the fact of the matter is when the West supplies Ukraine what it needs, it wins.
And so I think there’s three possible outcomes.
The West gives—changes its current policy and gives Ukraine what it needs to win, and Ukraine will win and set the terms of the peace.
If we—if we remove our support to Ukraine, Ukraine will lose and Russia will set the terms for peace.
The tough part is what happens if we keep doing what we’re doing now, which is to supply them enough to remain on the battlefield and remain viable but not enough to win. That is a much more dicey ending. And again, I think that the conditions on the battlefield then would set the table for how the peace is made.
DOUGHERTY: Can I turn to Alina on this? General Breedlove is saying, basically, Ukraine has to get everything that it wants right now; that it must be supplied, otherwise it will lose. Let’s start with that. Do you agree—well, is the United States providing enough right now or is there more that it should be doing?
POLYAKOVA: Thank you so much for the question, Jill. And it’s great to be back here at CFR, as always, for this very timely discussion given the current events that we were just discussing, Jill.
If I may, just one quick point before I get to your direct question. And I told Sam that I was going to do this, but I think we do need to be very precise about how we talk about the war. And the title of this event—you know, “How Does the War in Ukraine End?”—doesn’t actually accurately reflect what is happening on the ground, because what’s happening on the ground is a Russian war against Ukraine, which is very much a victim that did absolutely nothing to be embroiled in this conflict. So I think we do need to acknowledge the aggressor here. This is not a war between two willing parties over a dispute of some kind.
So, to your direct question, Jill, I tend to agree with how General Breedlove outlined the scenarios we have ahead. And to my mind, this year is the critical year. It seems there has been momentum from the alliance to get Ukraine more weapons. The tanks were a big breakthrough, obviously, most recently with Germany. We’re still not quite there in terms of all the allies providing the Leopard tanks in particular in a timely manner. But clearly, to my mind there’s been probably some informal consensus reached, it seems, by the alliance that let’s give the Ukrainians what we can now. And the expectation is that the Ukrainians will make some serious gains and counteroffensives with the systems they currently have through the spring and summer fighting season, and then we’re going to see where we are in the fall because, one, in the U.S., obviously, there’s an election coming up. There’s an election in the U.K., which has been another leader on the policy side. The Russians are very aware of these political dynamics, and so are the Ukrainians. And we don’t have a budget for 2024, so we don’t know what the U.S. government will be willing to give to the Ukrainians the following year. So this is very much a decisive year.
And I think it’s this year the war has to end. How does the war end, right? And to my mind, the most optimum scenario not just for Ukraine but for the United States and the future of our global leadership, including ramifications and consequences in the Indo-Pacific, is a decisive military win for Ukraine. Do they have what they currently need to make a decisive military win? I’m sure General Breedlove will have some thoughts on specific systems, but if you talk to Ukrainians they will say they don’t. They don’t have enough tanks. They don’t have enough long-range systems that are not modified to shoot at a shorter distance then they are potentially capable of. They don’t have some other more basic supplies, for example counter-UAS/counter-UAV technology. You know, those cheap Iranian-made drones are causing a lot of damage and the Ukrainians are shooting multimillion-dollar missiles at them. That’s not a sustainable model. Munition is a huge issue;
we’ve heard about those shortages. So do they have what it takes to win, meaning to launch a counteroffensive and take back the land bridge, at least, in the southeast? No.
And I think the question to my mind—and I think we’ll get to this conversation—is it seems to me that our policy right now is calibrated to primarily avoid one thing, and that is potential escalation. But I think what we’ve set ourselves up for with this current policy unless something changes is a much greater, potentially more dangerous outcome, which is protraction, because the longer this war goes on, you ask any Ukrainian and they will say the higher the chances of us losing because the Russians will double down, they’ll rebuild, they’ll throw more people at this. They don’t care how many Russians die in this war. They’ll do everything they can to hold on. So if this—if we don’t bring this war to an end this year, the chances of this going on in a forever war kind of way increase, I think, quite exponentially.
DOUGHERTY: So, Charlie, we have escalation versus protraction. Escalation—(clears throat)—excuse me—has been a very serious issue for the Biden administration, and we all know kind of that debate—you know, nuclear weapons, World War III, et cetera. Is it really—do you agree that that’s—those are the two possible ways this can go, you know, danger of escalation but in fearing escalation the war can be driven on forever?
KUPCHAN: I agree with Alina that a protracted war is not in Ukraine’s interest or in our interest. I come out in a different place about the consequences of that assessment.
And let me begin just by putting on the table what I take to be our interests because I think we too quickly jump to: Should we give them ATACMS, F-16s? What’s the next move? And I think one of the key challenges we face moving forward is keeping American interest in sync with the nature of our commitment. And that’s going to be difficult moving forward.
And so three quick observations.
One is that this strikes me as a war that lies somewhere in between a vital national interest of the United States and a conflict in which we have very little skin in the game. It’s not a vital national interest because otherwise we’d have boots on the ground and we’d be talking about bringing Ukraine into NATO. Neither of those is happening, at least now. And as a consequence, we have to find that middle ground between helping Ukraine defend itself and a full-scale war between NATO and Russia.
A second observation is I think, you know, for me, the key goal here is a defensible, secure, prosperous Ukraine. It’s not necessarily that Ukraine with a hundred percent of its territorial integrity, and I fear that we could lose Ukraine in trying to save Ukraine. And as a consequence, I would focus more on making sure that the Ukraine that’s out there, whether it’s 90 percent or 95 percent or 99 percent or a hundred percent, is a—is a viable country. And that’s a question mark for me when the Ukrainian economy has already shrunk by 30-plus percent and its infrastructure and cities continue to get hit.
A third observation I would make is I think we as Americans—foreign policy community in Washington—need to be careful not to overstate the stakes. I hear on a daily basis this is the frontline of democracy, this is the last defense of the rules-based international system. I think those are overstatements, and I think we ought to have a sober conversation in this city about exactly what the stakes are.
Two final comments.
On escalation—and I do think this is probably a place where we differ—I think the chances of escalation to a wider war, including a nuclear war, are not insignificant if Ukraine tries to take back Crimea by force. Now, I might say the chances of nuclear use are 40 percent, General Breedlove may say 20 (percent), Alina may say 10 (percent); to me, the question is, is it worth it? Is getting Crimea back to Russia—back to Ukraine now worth running that risk? And my answer to that is no. I would rather try to end this war sooner rather than later and try to restore Ukraine’s territorial integrity down the road through negotiations, probably with a post-Putin Russia.
So, finally, my—you know, where do I come out? We give Ukraine what they need to get as far as they can in this fighting season. We then try to broker a ceasefire and a diplomatic endgame toward the end of 2023. If that is less than a whole Ukraine, then that is where we will see a new line of contact. The goal here: Make sure the Ukraine that is there is a strong Ukraine and let’s bring this war to an end sooner rather than later.
DOUGHERTY: General Breedlove, you know, we’re back to that issue of Crimea and some of the other territories—the Donbas, certainly. One of the fears about escalation is that if the Russians were to attack Crimea you’re kind of on a different level of fighting. But how far do you think that the Ukrainians should go, with the help of Western weaponry, in taking back territory? Should they attack Crimea? Should they try to literally take it back? Should they go over the border into Russia? Because, after all, they’re being attacked. How far do they go?
BREEDLOVE: So let me answer by making two points.
The first point is this fear of escalation is exactly what Mr. Putin wants. Mr. Putin’s army is failing him in the field. As we talked about before, it has suffered two strategic losses and on the verge of an operational loss, and it’s making no ground in its current push.
And so what is working for Mr. Putin is the war of intimidation, or as we say in military parlance deterrence. He is—we told him early in this war we, the West and certainly the United States, in our statements we said we’re going to—not going to go to nuclear war, we’re not going to escalate to World War III. And so this is what Mr. Putin plays back to us over and over and over again. Three, four, five times a week a major Russian somewhere talks about nuclear war, and what our research shows us is on about a seven- to eight-day recurring basis they talk about World War III and Western soldiers dying in Europe. So they’re playing back our fears to us and the deterrence is working. It’s his most successful tool right now.
I would agree with Charlie that—and he sort of played back, you know, what the administration has said, the defensible, prosperous, and secure. I think those are great goals. I do not believe that defensible and secure is viable in any way, shape, or form if Crimea remains in the hands of the Russians. As long as Russia uses Crimea as a large military base, it dominates every port that Ukraine has. We saw that demonstrated here recently. And so if Russia remains there and can use that as a military launching base for both air and sea power, and as we saw most recently a place to refit and refurbish their defeated land forces that left the south and went into Crimea, as long as that sanctuary and that military platform is there for them I do not believe we will ever have a defensible and/or a secure Ukraine. So I am among the ilk—and I don’t—I don’t hide from it—that Crimea has to be retaken, or else we can’t achieve these things that the administration wants to achieve.
DOUGHERTY: Alina, I have to ask you, what do you think about that idea? And then, also, is there a moment—is there a moment in this that the United States or the allies in general should push President Zelensky to make some type of—well, to go into negotiations with Russia? But let’s get the Crimea question off the table.
POLYAKOVA: Well, exactly what General Breedlove said, I think, is we’ve seen the evidence for that statement that Ukraine’s viability in the long term is a hundred percent dependent on the outcome of the battle that’s happening today. There are not two different scenarios here. There are not two different dynamics. If Ukraine cannot regain control of the so-called land bridge to Crimea and they cannot regain control of Crimea, and that remains Russia’s staging ground as it has over the last nine years, it will not be a viable country. And that has not just consequences for Ukraine—I’m hope I’m stating the obvious—it has massive global consequences. We saw this with the Russian blockade of Ukraine’s grain exports and other agricultural goods, how that affects the entire global economy, how that affects us in the United States—you know, average Americans’ pocketbooks, right? So this is not a contained conflict. It cannot be contained because there are massive ramifications.
Now, the Ukrainians themselves has put out a peace plan proposal which actually has more of a long-term diplomatic negotiation for Crimea. So they themselves, at least some months ago, did not propose a military solution to Crimea. And I think when the administration says the Ukrainians have to tell us what victory means, well, they’ve told us a couple of times. But the premise for that to be a viable option where we can have a genuine negotiation means that the Russians want to come to the table.
And despite our efforts at diplomacy, in Ukraine before Russia launched this full-scale invasion, despite the Ukrainians’ frankly shocking willingness to sit across from the Russians at the negotiation table in Turkey and elsewhere, they’ve shown zero genuine interest in reaching some sort of diplomatic solution. In fact, what they keep doing is what they did just yesterday, which is these little pokes and provocations to see how the West is going to respond, and based on our response they understand how far they can go. Crimea has to be part of Ukraine. It is Ukraine. So when we’re talking about should the Ukrainians have the ability to attack Crimea, it’s their territory. It’s their territory. So the fact that we are talking about in those terms is sometimes really shocking to me.
And then the last point I’ll make here when it comes to some sort of ceasefire, you know, negotiated settlement that you brought up, Jill, you know, obviously the answer to your question in a very basic sense is no. We should not be, you know, strongarming Ukrainians into any kind of negotiated solution. They are the victim him. And the reason I say that does way beyond that. You know, we’ve seen over and over again—I mean, sometimes we forget that history exists, even though it’s very recent history. That there’s no such thing as a frozen conflict.
If we think we can increase the conflict along some line in Ukraine and that’s going to remain the status quo, you know, over and over again the Russians have used those territories to be staging grounds to launch more and more aggressive attacks. This is what they did with the so-called LNR and DNR. That’s how they used the base they have in Crimea. That’s what they’ve done in other scenarios. Look at Moldova, right? Look at some of the recent attempts to basically depose the government—the democratically-elected government of Moldova. Look at Georgia. Look at Nagorno-Karabakh. I mean, there’s many, many examples. This isn’t just an isolated conflict. So we are delusional if we think some sort of frozen settlement is going to lead to a long-term solution. It won’t.
And in fact, I fear that if this is the direction that the alliance eventually takes, because we get disgruntled, because we see public opinion going in a specific direction, it’s going to actually leave us in a far, far, more dangerous situation, you know, five to ten years down the line, right? Imagine a scenario in which, you know, the war’s still going on in Ukraine, we’re in a protracted battle, we’re still supplying—you know, policy is relatively the same—we’re supplying billions and billions in support for Ukraine to maintain the line. In the meantime, the Russians are rebuilding their military. They’ve adapted to the sanctions. And then there is a military action by China on Taiwan.
That is a far more dangerous scenario, to me, than what we are in today. So that behooves us to end this now, throw whatever we need to throw into Ukraine to help them win, to take back their territory, to force Russians to the negotiation table at the very least. And the only way that’s going to happen is with a show of force. Like, we know the Russians, you know? The only thing they respond to is brute military force. And that’s very, very unfortunate, but it’s the truth. And I think as long as we live in some other world where we don’t realize that it’s the reality, then I think we are going to set ourselves up for that very dangerous scenario I described.
DOUGHERTY: Charlie, President Putin has been really maximalist in this. And even according to Russian law, as I understand it, they cannot give back territory that they have taken. Which means that all of those four republics in Crimea, Donbas, and Zaporizhzhia, et cetera, they can’t give them back. Putin says, you know, legally I can’t do that. On the other side, you have, I think, the latest statistics that I saw looking at Ukrainians, that 84 percent of Ukrainians do not want to give any territory back. They want to keep their own territory. So I guess I’m asking you to solve this, cut this knot. (Laughter.) But how do you? Even legally neither side says that they can do it.
KUPCHAN: Yeah. I mean, I think that the positions of the Russians and the positions of the Ukrainians obviously don’t overlap. And so right now, if you sit down at a table nothing is going to come of it. And as a consequence, to begin to move toward some kind of diplomatic push now is premature. I do believe that we will get to something that resembles a military stalemate later in the year in which both Zelensky and Putin realize that their maximalist aims may not be attainable.
And I disagree with General Breedlove and Alina that a Ukraine that doesn’t have Crimea is not sustainable. Ukraine didn’t have Crimea since 2014, and it was doing OK. I mean, it wasn’t ideal. There was a boiling or low-grade conflict in Donbas. But the country was doing OK. So I don’t think we should set certain kinds of visions that if we achieve this, everything will be great and Russia will behave itself. And if we don’t get back to the—or, let’s say, the 1991 borders, then Russia will just be coming at us again. Russia’s going to be a troublemaker forever, or at least as long as Putin is alive. And as a consequence, I think we have to ask: How can we end this in a way that is consistent with a strong, viable Ukraine, whether or not it’s 100 percent of Ukraine?
The final comment I would make, and we haven’t talked about this much yet, I do think that we need to always keep in mind the global blowback effects of this war, which are very considerable. I worry—and we can talk about this when we move to discussion—about what’s happening here. I’m very impressed with how steady the Biden administration and its European allies have been over year one. I don’t know that it’s going to last with the Republican in control of the House. I thought it was very interesting that Ron DeSantis, who’s always putting his finger up to say which way is the wind blowing, has aligned himself more with Trump than with the hawkish wing of the Republican Party. My understanding, my guess is, that’s because he’s going out and he is talking to Republican voters, and that’s what he’s hearing. That’s an important data point.
Europe, I think, we’re seeing steadiness, but how long is that going to last? Is it conceivable to me that the next president of France could be Le Pen if things continue on their current course? Maybe. What about the global south? They’re not on board with this war. There’s a starvation looming in the Horn of Africa. Most of the countries of the world are sitting on the fence, right? I think we need to make that broader picture part of the conversation when we talk about what our strategic aims are and when we think it’s time to try to wrestle this conflict to an end.
DOUGHERTY: Mmm hmm. OK, so we’re at the point where we are going to turn, please, to inviting members to our conversation with their questions. And a reminder, this is on the record. And if you have questions, we can do it here physically in the room by raising your hand, identifying yourself. And then we also can take questions virtually.
So why don’t we start—I’ll start with Elise Lavage (ph)—(laughs)—over there. Thank you.
Q: Hi. Thank you so much for this excellent panel. It’s really a dream team of voices and so much insight.
I’d like to pick up on Charlie’s comments about that there needs to be an honest conversation in Washington about what the stakes are. Could I draw you out on what the stake stakes really are? Because on one hand, the administration, and others in Europe, they talk about Russia as, you know, this ultimate threat, like you said, the front line of democracy. You know, as the general pointed out, we’re certainly not dealing with it as a situation of that. So where—what are the stakes for the U.S.? And then if the general could respond in terms of, you know, given those stakes, how should the U.S. be responding? Thank you.
KUPCHAN: You know, as I said, I find that this conflict puts us in the gray zone. If Putin were, you know, at the Brandenburg Gate, if he were rolling into France and marshalling an amphibious invasion of the U.K., I would say, you know, let’s go, right? This is a direct attack on vital interests of the United States of America. We should pull out the stops. I don’t think we’re there. And I particularly don’t think we’re there because the
U.S. and its allies have succeeded in dealing already a significant strategic blow to the Russians. They have tried to swallow Ukraine whole and topple the regime in Kyiv. They have failed. And I don’t believe that they will be able to regenerate the combat capability to make another run at swallowing Ukraine.
So given that that objective has been blocked, I think we need to have, as I said, a sober conversation about where we would like to see this conflict go, and where it might end. And, you know, I do think that the conversation is starting to change in this town. There is a greater multitude of voices. But I do have to say that I don’t think we have been having the rich conversation that we have, in some ways because it has become politically taboo to say let’s negotiate, let’s try to end this war short of a quote/unquote “Ukrainian victory.”
Q: It’s not—but it’s not to neutralize—it’s not to neutralize Putin from going against Estonia, or Moldova, or some other country?
KUPCHAN: I do not believe that if Putin ends with a slice of Donbas that he is more likely to go after Estonia. Those sorts of arguments, I think, need to be examined very carefully.
DOUGHERTY: General Breedlove, do you want to answer the first question?
BREEDLOVE: So I’ll just pitch in on a couple of things. You, Jill, and others, have used this thing, we’re going to end in a stalemate, or we could end up in a stalemate. I just want to restate that if we end up in a stalemate it is because we have made a policy decision to end up in a stalemate. We are able, and Ukraine is able, to not end up in a stalemate if we choose to give them what they need to get there. So if we end up in a stalemate, it is because we have been deterred and we are choosing to end up in that stalemate.
I guess I will just respectfully disagree with Charlie about the regeneration piece. I mean, in ’08 our response was inadequate to take. He came back in ’14. Our response was inadequate to task. And now we’re here in ’23 and we’re talking about, yet again, rewarding bad behavior by giving Mr. Putin even more land. So much like my kids and my grandkids, if you allow bad behavior to stand, or if you reward bad behavior, you’re going to get more bad behavior, and Mr. Putin will be back again. And so we need at some point to choose to change the paradigm that Mr. Putin sees works with the West.
The stakes, I think there are some important stakes. I mean, the United States has forgotten that U.S. security is dependent on European security a couple of times in history, and it has cost us dearly. And I think the number-one stakes here are that we need to create a world where we don’t reward bad behavior—i.e., Mr. Putin using his military to cross internationally recognized borders, and seize and hold the land of his bordering countries.
DOUGHERTY: OK, I think we have—
POLYAKOVA: Can I comment on this very quickly?
POLYAKOVA: Just a couple quick comments. One, the only—the only way we’re going to have a Europe that is secure is if we have a Ukraine that is secure. And that this war that’s happening right now, the only reason why, you know, it’s not moving further is because Ukrainians are dying to protect not just their own sovereign territory, but all of European security. I think we need to be really clear about that, is that people are laying down their lives not just for themselves and their own country and their land, but for Europe’s security architecture which, by definition, is also our security architecture, as the U.S. is part of NATO, of course.
And I think if we want to pain a scenario into the future, you know, there is no—there is no gray zone here. You know, Charlie used the term, we’re in a bit of a gray zone. There is no gray zone. I mean, the truth is that if Russia wins here, or is seen to have won by the majority of the world, think about the disastrous consequences that would have not just for Europe, for countries in the frontline, but also for U.S. global leadership.
You know, we have an opportunity here to basically get rid of what we have seen as either a competitor, or an adversary, or an acute threat, to use the most recent language, to the United States, Russia. We are spending a measly amount of our GDP. If we—if the Ukrainians are willing to fight and they’re willing to basically defeat Russia, and we can help them get there, it’s costing us peanuts to do it.
KUPCHAN: How does that get rid of Russia?
POLYAKOVA: It doesn’t get rid of Russia, but if we see a defeat—a clean, clear military defeat for Russia, that will send a very clear signal to the rest of the world. And but if we lose and we are seen to have lost in Ukraine, as Ukraine’s allies, that will send a very different signal about U.S. leadership and U.S. power in the world. And trust me, and I think we agree here, Charlie, perhaps, that this—what happens in Ukraine will have profound consequences for our other concern, which is, of course, Taiwan.
DOUGHERTY: OK, so that—you’re seeing the debate right here.
We do have one virtual question online.
OPERATOR: We will take our next question from Aaron David Miller.
Q: Great panel, Charlie, General Breedlove, Alina, it’s good to see you—all of you.
Just two quick comments and then a question. Any number of examples in a Middle Eastern context where military defeat, decisive military defeat, has not ended conflict. 1967, the Israelis defeated Arab armies. By 1970, you had a war of attrition. By 1973, you had a full-fledged Egyptian and Syrian assault to recover territory. Saddam Hussein pushed out of Kuwait. It basically took an American deployment—the largest projection of military force since the ’91 Gulf War, to take care of Saddam. So the notion that a, quote/unquote, “decisive” military defeat is going to somehow lead to a chastened or a Russia that is somehow less bellicose and less aggrieved, I think—well, I think you need to take a serious look at it.
Now the question, for you, General Breedlove. I mean, Churchill said: Give us the tools, right? Well, it didn’t work out for Churchill, did it? The fact is, we had to deploy. And without an expenditure—a massive expenditure of American force, lives, treasure, and total victory, right? So here’s my question—and I tend to agree with Charlie about the need to have an honest and open conversation without being somehow hammered for being an appeaser or defeatist—whether Ukraine is the fulcrum of Western civilization? I don’t know. But I ask you, General Breedlove: What does it mean to give Ukraine the tools to decisively defeat Russia? And by that, I mean pushing them out of the Donbas and regaining Crimea? What would it take? And when would we have to—how does that fit into the current battlefield dynamic? Sorry for droning on, but that’s my question.
BREEDLOVE: So let me agree with you on a few things, and then let me show—point out a difference from where I think you are. I do not believe that a decisive defeat inside of Ukraine is going to change Russia. It may change the leadership in Russia. I believe this battle is not existential for Russia, but I believe it may be existential for Mr. Putin. What I think needs to be corrected about history is that the West is not going to stand by for a former, or maybe still, world superpower using its military to cross internationally recognized borders and defeat, and seize, and occupy the lands of its neighbors. If we—if we enable Ukraine to push Russia out of their lands, that is demonstrative that the West will stand up for that.
And I think that’s important because, again, I go back to my theory that if you continue to allow bad behavior to stand or, worse yet, as we did in ’08, and ’14, and looked like we might do in ’23, if you reward bad behavior, you’re going to get more bad behavior. So you just need to get ready for it, and understand if we just listen to the two documents he sent us to sign before the war, it’s pretty clear that Ukraine is step one. We’re already seeing actions politically and money in Georgia. And we’re seeing some actions, including military, in Transnistria and Moldova. So, I mean, this is—we either stand up to it or we allow it to continue to happen by reinforcing bad behavior one more time.
As far as giving them what they need, I really don’t think they need our land forces. I know that’s what you’re bringing to the picture based on what happened in World War II, but the fact of the matter, right now the Ukrainians have shown that they can defeat Russia on the battlefield if they’re given the equipment they need. And I am not picking out things. I’ve stopped talking about things. I think we should talk about capabilities. And if we give them the ability to strike deeply into the sanctuary that the West has created for them in Belarus, Russia, Crimea, and the northern Black Sea, if we give them the ability to strike into those areas, I think the war will fast become untenable for Russia.
DOUGHERTY: I think we’ll go to questions in the room. Yes, sir, in the middle there. Yeah.
Q: Steve Flanagan from RAND and Georgetown.
I wanted to pick up on Alina’s point about the Ukraine’s government’s initial position with regard to Crimea in negotiations last year, which was very much the notion that that was maybe a phase two of any kind of negotiated settlement. And indeed, they even suggested that the Donbas did not—or, complete control of the Donbas didn’t have to be part of the initial settlement. And I wondered—I take General Breedlove’s point that Crimea makes defense of Ukraine, or Ukraine’s self-defense, or any kind of NATO assistance to Ukraine’s defense, pretty formidable.
But, on the other hand, Ukraine, as you just discussed, is going to have probably the largest army in Europe, Poland not far behind. NATO has expanded its presence along the eastern flank tremendously over the last—certainly, and it possibly could get bigger. That, to me, seems to set up a pretty effective line of deterrence. If you couple that with the compact—the Kyiv Security Compact that Secretary General Rasmussen and Yermak have been working on with some kind of realist security guarantees, it seems to me you could have some sort of strong guarantee, and leave Crimea and maybe even the Donbas to a phase two, especially if we—if you all are right, that this is the decisive year and a war prolonged beyond this year could get very dicey for Ukraine. So, thank you. I’d like your—
DOUGHERTY: Was that a question for one person in particular, or just—
Q: No, whoever wants to go.
DOUGHERTY: Just comment. Alina.
POLYAKOVA: Yeah. Well, I’m happy to pick it up. Look, I think the Ukrainians have shown that they understand reality. You know, despite the kind of public pressure that Zelensky obviously has, that we were talking about earlier, what they proposed, to my mind, for a country that has lost so much and is under constant brutal attack, is quite impressive, right? The peace plan that was proposed last year, to my mind, it does require a genuine actor on the other side of the table, of course, to actually engage in negotiations. We saw what happened to Minsk-2. You know, and that was a very unfortunate experience because Minsk-2 ceasefire never truly held. There were violations by the Russian side, some by the Ukrainian side as well. And then, again, those territories became the launching ground for a full-scale invasion.
And I think sometimes we think, OK, well, a year or two years—I mean, the Russian timeline, certainly Putin’s timeline for this war, is much longer. Unless there is a forcing mechanism to inject a need to start to negotiate. That pressure can come from inside of Russia, whether it’s among the political elite, so far they’ve stuck with Putin, whether that’s among the Russian people. So far, they’ve shown, you know, no desire to really push back in a significant way, given the kind of repression we see in Russia today. Somewhere, that pressure has to build. Where we have the ability to put that pressure on is in Ukraine. I would argue we don’t have the ability to put that pressure on among Putin’s loyalists. We don’t really have the ability to put that pressure on from the Russ
And so this is our avenue to force the Russians to shift. And I think at the end of the day, that’s where this has to go. But it has to be on Ukraine’s terms, as you said. And I think they’ve shown themselves to be, you know, very, I think, rational, in fact, for a country that is suffering a huge, huge amount, given the circumstances.
KUPCHAN: Let me just pick up on Steve’s question, if I could, because I’m uncomfortable with the dichotomy that seems to be being put out here, that, you know, if we get back to Ukraine’s borders and we teach Russia a lesson, then they’re not going to do this again. If we let them have X square miles of Donbas and Crimea, then they’re going to do this tomorrow, right? That doesn’t just strike me as the way the world works. And I think the Russians will do this again no matter how this particular war ends. And it’s that assessment that leads me to be more flexible and more pragmatic about bringing the war to an end sooner rather than later.
DOUGHERTY: Hmm, OK. We have another online. I know there are a lot of questions, but we’ll go online, please.
OPERATOR: We will take our next question from Trudy Rubin. Ms. Rubin, please accept the unmute.
Q: Yes. So thank you for doing this. It’s really so helpful.
What I want to ask, Charlie said that Ukraine didn’t have Crimea after 2014 and the country was doing OK. It seems to me that this is the crux of the matter. Crimea since 2014 has been used as a staging ground, as has been described. Ukraine’s economy is destroyed. And also, 15,000 people, Ukrainians, were killed fighting in the Donbas since 2014, before the current war started.
So I’m trying to understand how people who think Ukraine should be pushed to compromise on territory believe that you can get a strong and viable Ukraine that way. Russia will never negotiate away Crimea unless Crimea becomes unviable under Ukrainian guns. So if you have a basket case economy, which the U.S. will not support forever—no steel exports, grain exports at Russia’s permission, destroyed economy which no one will invest in if you can’t export, and there’s a threat of another war—how do you have a strong, viable Ukraine? So I’d like to ask Charlie that. And I’d also like to ask Phil, even assuming Ukraine has a sort of territorial victory, what does Ukraine need from the West to be strong and viable? Can it be, without NATO membership?
KUPCHAN: Trudy, the rump Ukraine, if you will, that existed after 2014 was a viable country. And I don’t know the exact number now, but somewhere around 90 percent or 85 percent of Ukrainian territory is under Ukrainian control. If the Russians were to be expelled from Crimea, that does not somehow inoculate Ukraine for the rest of time. There’s a 1,000-mile border between Russia and Ukraine. Russia can mount another invasion from the north, or from Belarus, or from wherever they want to. So, again, I don’t understand quite why the—we identify Crimea as the fulcrum—we get it back, and then Ukraine will be safe from Russia, we don’t get it back, Ukraine is a basket case. That just strikes me as a false portrayal of the choices.
DOUGHERTY: General Breedlove, will deal with that other question. The word “NATO” came up. And, you know, there is, to pick up from what Trudy was talking about, there is a question. Haven’t they shown—hasn’t Ukraine shown that they actually should be members of NATO? In effect, they kind of are, goes the argument. What do you say to that?
BREEDLOVE: Well, first, I would just like to, again, respectfully disagree with Charlie. As long as Crimea is in Russian hands, they dominate all the ports of Ukraine. And they have all—we don’t have to guess whether they will use that. We have already seen them use that. And they have hundreds and hundreds of grain ships stacked up now as they’re waiting for their inspections for the Russians to allow them to move out through the Black Sea. So Crimea controls Mariupol, which is obviously in Russian hands now. It controls Odesa. And clearly the military port on Crimea, Sevastopol, is incredibly important. So I just, again, respectfully disagree. As long as Russia holds Crimea, I don’t think anybody is going to invest much in Ukraine, because they know
that Russia has the complete, absolute, 100 percent ability to turn it off or turn it on, anytime they’re not happy with how the world is handling them.
But I do agree with Charlie in that winning this land back now does not inoculate Ukraine from Russian mischievousness. I think that is in our future, and we have to now consider those security arrangements which might inoculate Ukraine from this mischievousness. We know that the models of Budapest in ’94 are failures. We failed them. The United States failed them. And the agreement failed them. So it’s got to be more than that kind of agreement. Now, whether it’s NATO or not, it would have to probably—NATO would have to change its internal rules of order, because as long as Russians are occupying Ukrainian land, they will not be brought into NATO. And so it’s kind of a moot point about NATO. But they certainly have shown that their military can act responsibly, in a Western way, to be a good military partner in NATO. I will not speak to the economic and political pieces, but I believe I am qualified to speak to the military pieces. And they have shown that they are ready to do that.
DOUGHERTY: Let’s go back to the room. Ariel, do you want to jump in here?
Q: Ariel Cohen with the Atlantic Council and the International Tax and Investment Center.
First of all, as we’re monitoring the Russian discourse and talk to people who talk to the Russians, it is clear that the Russians are not ready for a serious conversation about peace. They are very interested in a ceasefire or armistice, that they view as a chance to regroup, upgrade their military technology and battlefield tactics and strategy that proved to be inadequate. So when we’re looking at how this war ends, the question is: Does it end in a peace agreement or it ends in an armistice that serves Mr. Putin and his main goal, to stay in power?
Secondly, what happens with the sanctions? Because while Putin says now that, hah, the sanctions are not doing anything to Russia, we know that the deficits of the budget are in trillions of rubles and many billions of dollars. And in the long term, the technology, the management expertise, economic partnerships, and probably the most important thing, the markets for hydrocarbons in Europe, are gone. So we need to see it in a longer-term strategic perspective as well as what Alina pointed out repeatedly, in the context of the limitless friendship partnership with China. And that is what we should be talking about here. Thank you very much. I would be very much interested in hearing the opinions of the panel. Thank you.
DOUGHERTY: OK, well, we haven’t talked about sanctions, and we’ve only got five minutes to go. Alina, do you want to—
POLYAKOVA: Yeah, thanks for bringing that up, because I think a missing piece of this conversation has been—we’ve been focusing a lot on a military solution, but truthfully there’s a suite of tools that we have already deployed as the Western alliance to impose consequences on Russia for its aggression against Ukraine. Economic sanctions are part of that. Are we doing a good enough job on sanctions enforcement? No. Is there a lot more room to do more there? Yes. So whatever—however this war continues, we need to understand that there is a suite of tools that are not just military that we need to use much more effectively. And there’s room to escalate there on our end as well, especially on the export control side, which I would argue we haven’t done enough of there.
There are still American companies who are providing specific components that Russia needs for some of its military systems. And they’re doing so either in violation of sanctions or in compliance with them through various loopholes. This is where our focus needs to be. You know, having a very, very aggressive approach to sanctions violation, really putting pressure on Western firms, 90 percent of which by some estimates have not ceased their operations in Russia, this is where I think the conversation needs to go.
And just one quick comment. You know, on the security guarantee side, NATO, to my mind, has to remain on the horizon. It is enshrined in Ukraine’s constitution. If we recall, before the full-scale invasion Zelensky even at some point said: We’d be willing to negotiate within our constitution. The Russians obviously didn’t care,
because this was never about NATO to them at the end of the day. But right now, we need to be thinking about what do we need to do in the short and medium term? NATO is a long-term potential model for security. What do we need to do now to make Ukraine a hard target, not just militarily but also economically?
And I just really do deeply disagree with this idea that Ukraine was OK, you know, since 2014. If you were following what was happening in Ukraine, the Russians were squeezing Ukraine economically through their control of the Sea of Azov and all the Ukrainian ports there, for years. And the Ukrainians were losing massive amounts of money because they weren’t able to export, because their ships were being harassed. Not just commercial ships, passenger ships. So this is, like, just skipping, you know, nine years of that is just misrepresentation of reality. And the only reason Ukraine was maybe a little OK, right, in nine years is because the Russians let it go. And they can turn it up whenever they want to. So that’s why, at the end of the day, the roads lead back to Crimea.
And lastly, I think we’re just really underestimating the ramification of what’s happened in Ukraine. You know, Ukraine used to feed 400 million people globally—400 million. We think that we have a solution now because they can export now, and the Russians have agreed to the export, or it’s being negotiated right now, from Ukrainian ports. Ukrainian farmers are not replanting their harvest because, why? The Russians are mining agricultural fields. They are targeting grain silos. They understand what kind of damage they’re doing. They’re doing this in a very strategic way, in a very targeted way.
So this is the reality we’re going to be living in for a very long time. There’s not going to be, you know, a Ukraine that is the breadbasket of Europe and the world again. And, you know, we just don’t really fully discuss that, I think, in a real profound way, what the consequences of that are. So, to my mind, this is not just about Ukraine. And to just go back to Charlie’s point, and I’m sorry to go on, this is the final thing I’ll say, that Ukraine is not a vital interest of the United States but somehow Europe is, because of NATO presumably. I would, again, make the argument that European security is dependent on Ukraine’s security. So Ukraine is a vital interest of the United States if we agree that European security is a vital interest of the United States.
DOUGHERTY: On that note—(laughs)—I know if we went for even five more minutes, we’d have a lot more robust debate. But I want to thank everyone very much for joining the meeting and for the good questions. Thank you to General Breedlove, to Charlie, and to Alina, as always. And please note that the video and transcript of today’s meeting will be posted on CFR’s website. Thank you very much and to be continued, more debate. (Applause.)
Originally published by the Council on Foreign Relations, 03.15.2023, under the terms a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International license.