The state of play today
Samuel Charap: I think the big change came probably just after we spoke, at the very end of March and beginning of April, when essentially Russia decided to dramatically shift its war aims, gave up on taking the capital and taking several other major north and northeastern cities, and concentrated the majority of its war effort on the Donbas.
Samuel Charap: But at that time, it had already taken control over most of the two southern regions that you mentioned: Kherson, which is essentially the first region north of Crimea — so when Russian forces moved north from Crimea, Kherson was the first place they ended up — and they met quite little resistance there. And then they went east through Zaporizhzhia to the first major city where the fighting got intense, which was Mariupol, technically part of the Donetsk region but adjacent to Zaporizhzhia. And the areas in Kharkiv that they still control are, in significant part, lines of communication for their effort in the Donbas.
Samuel Charap: So essentially the war effort really shifted east, but Russia ended up with these two southern regions as well. And I think we’ve seen a fair amount of improvisation in Russian strategy, involving what to do with those two regions. Which is a bit disconcerting, because given that this is the largest-stakes effort of the use of force by Russia outside of its borders arguably since World War II, you’d think they’d want more concrete objectives. But if the objectives were really about the Donbas, as has been stated, at least until recently, then why have these two other regions as well?
Samuel Charap: The Russian effort in recent weeks has centred around taking the final population centres in the Donbas macro-region, which are mostly in the Donetsk province. There are only a few left, but they are extremely well defended, because they’re the areas relatively close to where the frontline was for eight years, and Ukraine had the opportunity to build a lot of defensive positions there. So it’s not going to be easy. In fact, there’s a question as to whether Russia is in a position to really finish the job there.
Samuel Charap: In the meantime, it’s trying to maintain control of those two regions in the south and keep what it has in Kharkiv to supply its effort in the Donbas. So I think what we’re going to see, and we’ve already started to see, is that Ukraine is attempting a counteroffensive in the south, potentially to try to retake the Kherson region. So far there have mostly just been strikes behind enemy lines, small efforts at probing, but nothing big. If we are to believe the advertising, there’s a major counteroffensive to come in the next couple of months.
Samuel Charap: And so that’s where I think we are. Russia is stretched pretty thin, so it’s not impossible that the Ukrainians will have some tactical or even operational success with a counteroffensive if they try one. But it’s also possible that they won’t. We haven’t seen much capacity to retake areas that the other side has taken by force. We’ve seen retreats, but we haven’t seen that kind of force-on-force engagement that really pushes one side or the other back since the very early weeks.
What's motivating Putin and the Russian state
Rob Wiblin: Having learned a little bit more about Eastern European history since then, I’ve learned more about the very long-term history, over hundreds of years, of Russia just consistently being very interested in intervening in other Eastern European countries whenever it got the chance. And maybe its general sense of entitlement, perhaps, that these are countries in its sphere of influence or naturally part of its empire. Maybe, reconsidered, Putin is just telling the truth when he says that he’s motivated by these cultural factors — like thinking that Ukraine is just a made-up country, that the idea that it’s a foreign state is a ridiculous notion — all of that kind of stuff that he says in his speeches, at least in the speeches back in February. Do you have any reaction to that?
Samuel Charap: Sure. It is certainly the case that the current Russian elite’s attitude towards many of its neighbours, and particularly Ukraine, is a big part of the problem, so to speak. They have never fully come to grips with their neighbours as fully sovereign, equal states — there’s a significant imperial hangover in that respect. And you could make the case that this is something of an imperial war, or a post-imperial war.
Samuel Charap: But first of all, I think it’s a bit too deterministic to say that just because there were Russian wars against its smaller neighbours in the past, therefore that is why this is happening. And second, on Putin’s dismissive attitude towards Ukraine, which is certainly present, I think the question is: Is that why he went to war? And is Russia, more generally, willing to fight over that?
Samuel Charap: I think that is where I might diverge from the cultural or imperialistic explanation of Russian behaviour. I do think that that attitude is present, and could be an important secondary factor. But without the primary ones — realist is probably not the right term, but at least these security-driven factors — I wouldn’t see the cultural factors in themselves producing this outcome.
Samuel Charap: And I think that’s really important when we want to think about Russia more broadly. It might have sort of imperialistic dreams, or Putin might fantasise about X, Y, or Z — but the key question is not what he would want in his ideal world, but what he’s prepared to act upon. And in the heat of war, it’s obviously easy to be distracted by the rhetoric that we’ve heard. But that I think is the key thing to focus on: what he’s capable of doing and what he’s willing to use his capabilities to do.
Samuel Charap: I think this entire process, and particularly with the weapons shipments, has been a learning process about the nature of what potentially drives escalation. In a sense, we’ve learned that nuclear deterrence works, that Russia is deterred from attacking NATO countries, even when they do things that end up killing a lot of Russian soldiers. We’ve also learned that it works the other way around, and that NATO countries are restrained in what they’re prepared to do in terms of getting involved — although we are far more involved than anyone would have imagined back in March, in terms of the quantity and quality of weapons being delivered.
Samuel Charap: The narrow takeaway in terms of what might prompt escalation that I would tentatively make from all of this is that essentially, so long as Russia is winning — from Russia’s perspective — their incentives to really dramatically escalate aren’t there. I think that they would really have to be in a position of desperation to do that, given the consequences of horizontal escalation, particularly involving NATO. And they’re not.
Samuel Charap: And I think that that gets at the way in which ultimately, when we say words like “deterrence” or “escalation,” we’re talking about psychology here — the psychology of the decision-makers and where their mindset is, essentially. And what we’ve learned is that there’s an extent to which so long as things are broadly going well from Russia’s perspective, they’re not going to dramatically rock the boat. At least that’s where things are right now.
Has Russia learned from its mistakes?
Samuel Charap: The Russian military was so wrong-footed by the terrible plan that they were told to execute, essentially. Where they were prepared for a three-day war and it didn’t turn out that way; where there would be minimal resistance from the adversary military, and this would just be about sort of taking the capital and installing a different government. That obviously was a total catastrophe. Of course, what they have done, arguably since maybe May, is fight like they train. And that has had a pretty devastating effect, because the saying about the Russian military is that it’s an artillery military with lots of tanks, and they have used that artillery to devastating effect in the Donbas. And yes, I think basically they have put themselves in a position to take advantage of their strengths.
Samuel Charap: Now, they were so wrong-footed by that initial mess that they put themselves in that they really lost a lot of equipment. And the morale factor I think has been pretty big in all of this, because we’ve learned that soldiers didn’t even know that they were going to Ukraine until they were in Ukraine, and the narrative around why they were doing this was not really coherent. So that has had a lasting impact. But yes, I think that they’ve adopted a more sensible approach. There seems to be more senior leadership and coordination.
Samuel Charap: That it is no guarantee of success. And we’re also learning some things — and this is still to be examined more deeply once we have a better sense of what’s actually going on — about the limits maybe of land warfare, and maybe it’s harder than we thought.
A possible way out
Rob Wiblin: In June you wrote an article for Foreign Affairs titled “Ukraine’s best chance for peace.” In there, you promote a proposal from the peace negotiations that Russia and Ukraine were engaging in back in March in Istanbul. It’s an idea that both sides seemed at least lukewarm to, or possibly open to, at the time, which you think might be our best shot at ending the war and preventing it from just starting again at some point in the future.
Rob Wiblin: The key pieces in the proposal are that on the one hand, Ukraine agrees not to join NATO and not to allow foreign militaries to operate on its territory. And in return, for remaining neutral in this way, Ukraine gets agreements from the US and Europe that they will help it if militarily attacked, and Russia accepts that promise, basically. Russia will also in principle drop its opposition to Ukraine joining the EU. On the potentially really hard sticking point of accepting territorial annexation, the proposal doesn’t require Ukraine to accept Russia taking its territory, but it also wouldn’t apply to the areas that Russia already controls, so it wouldn’t require them to leave necessarily either. Why do you think this is a promising starting point for a possible agreement?
Samuel Charap: Well, first of all, because the parties themselves came up with it and made positive noises about it themselves, so it wasn’t a sort of peace plan that I came up with, sitting here in DC. So that’s the first advantage. I think the second is that it offers a potential vision for what a settlement could look like that Russia has bought into. One of the key challenges with any settlement is to ensure that this [kind of aggression] doesn’t happen again, and that Ukraine is able to recover without threats to its security that undermine any economic recovery. And if Russia is determined, no matter what kind of territory is taken, to threaten the rest of Ukraine, then its long-term economic viability is going to be a serious challenge. So getting Russian buy-in to the settlement, as counterintuitive as that might seem — because of course Russia has committed war crimes; it is the aggressor here — is potentially the way you get to a settlement that really produces stability over the long term.
Samuel Charap: And it [the March Istanbul proposal] seemed to be an innovative approach whereby every party can kind of claim victory in one way or another. Ukraine gets these security guarantees. Russia gets this commitment, including international legal commitment, to Ukraine being a permanently neutral country. The West gets a green light for Ukraine’s eventual EU membership, and thus, I think, really a fulsome exit of Ukraine from Russia’s so-called sphere of influence.
Samuel Charap: So you could see how everyone might come out of this thinking that they had gained something. Of course, this was before the war crimes around Kyiv in towns like Bucha became public. This was before the rocket attacks on other Ukrainian cities that have occurred in the last few weeks and the really brutal fighting in the Donbas. And the parties have walked away from it to a certain extent. But I think it was important to just bring it forward, because it was this moment when they were actually talking and they did produce something that might be at least incorporated into something that could be used in the future.