I’m Ezra Klein. This is “The Ezra Klein Show.”
Russia invaded Ukraine on Thursday, Feb. 24. And everything we know about that invasion at its launch implies that Vladimir Putin expected a lightning victory. That’s what the battle plans seemed to be built for. And to be fair, that’s what many of the world’s intelligence agencies and military analysts thought that he would get — he did not get it. And then the conventional wisdom changed.
Russia had misjudged, its military was weaker than we thought, but still, its size and power and money and might would overwhelm Ukraine, probably within a couple of months. And then that didn’t happen either. And at the beginning, Russia did conquer territory — quite a bit of it, particularly in the East. But then their advance slowed by a lot. And then in early September, Ukraine showed it could take territory back. It launched a counteroffensive in the Northeast that regained 3,400 square miles.
And to put that in perspective, that is more land than Russia had gained in the past five months. The war today is not the war of February. The armies are different, both because of how many soldiers have been lost and also how much has been learned. The psychology of the two sides is different. The economies of the two sides are different. The weapons that Ukraine is receiving from the West are different.
President Zelensky and President Putin’s positions, both internally with their people, and then externally, in terms of what they want, are different. And so I wanted to have a conversation about both where the conflict stands now, but also about how the balance of power, how manpower and money and equipment and geopolitics have changed, how the structure of the conflict is now different.
Andrea Kendall-Taylor is director of the Transatlantic Security Program at the Center for a New American Security. She is a former intelligence officer, who from 2015 to 2018 led strategic analysis on Russia at the National Intelligence Council. When we spoke, she was very recently, as you’ll hear, back from Ukraine. And I should put one note here. We recorded this podcast on Monday, Sept. 19. We talked, as you’ll hear, about Putin’s clear reluctance to expand his army through conscription, but the fact that he might need to do it anyway.
On Wednesday, Putin announced that he would call up roughly 300,000 reservists. It’s not full conscription, but it does underscore Kendall-Taylor’s analysis here. Russia is struggling in this war, and that’s forcing Putin to make more and more desperate and politically dangerous — for him — decisions. As always, my email, [email protected]
Andrea Kendall-Taylor, welcome to the show.
It’s good to be here, Ezra.
How would you describe the state of the Russia-Ukraine war in early August? And how would you describe it now?
I think looking at this war in early August, we were all prepared for a very long, grinding war, one that would continue for months and months, if it had any kind of resolution at all. And I think although we’re still expecting that the war will be long, we’ve had some developments in the last several weeks, notably, the counteroffensive that the Ukrainians have waged in the north of Ukraine, that have really shifted the momentum in Ukraine’s favor. They’ve really been able to seize the initiative in this war.
And so I would say even though there’s a lot of challenges that the Ukrainians have ahead of them, I think that their ability to successfully recapture territory has shifted the tone of the war. And I would say it seems ever more clear to me that the trajectory of the war is now working in Ukraine’s favor, that they will eventually win this war. I was just lucky enough to travel to Ukraine, and to be there, and to be on the ground.
And really for me, that trip, in combination with the victories that we’ve seen by the Ukrainian military on the battlefield, has strengthened my assessment that Ukraine will win this war in the end. And of course, there’s still questions about how long it will take to get there, and what will happen in the intervening period. But I did walk away more convinced that the trajectory of this war now favors Ukraine. And I think that’s really different from what we would have said in August.
Tell me a bit about why, because something I always want to be alert to is — it’s always hard for me sitting here to know when what I’m looking at is a temporary change in narrative and story line, or a genuine change in the direction of a war. You use terms here like the tone of the war and the momentum. Those feel very shifty to me. What changed here, substantively, that you are actually predicting a shorter timetable now for the conflict?
Well, I think there’s multiple things. I want to get at the shiftiness, though, because I do think even though that can be elusive — when I left Kyiv, I think one of the biggest takeaways that I had was this confidence in Ukraine’s ability to win the war. And of course, that is being played out also on the battlefield. And we can get back to the counteroffensive.
But what I took away was much more on a societal level. And to me, that feels permanent and lasting. And I’ll give you a couple of anecdotes. The first for me was this awe of the resilience of Ukrainian society. So as part of this trip, we were able to travel out to Bucha and Irpin, which were two of the towns that were really torn apart by horrific Russian atrocities earlier in the war against Ukrainian civilians.
But you’re there, and you can see that they’re putting the pieces back in place. People are returning. The life continues there. And of course, there’s bombed out buildings and rusting Russian tanks on the side of the road, but people are returning. And the same was true in Kyiv. There’s traffic, shops are open, and people are out at restaurants. And I think I understood that at an intellectual level — I know if you look at the polling, it’s something like 97 percent of Ukrainians believe they will win the war.
And a very large proportion favor no concessions to the Russians at all. But being there, you can see that Ukraine as a society is prepared to weather this. And there was a cognitive dissonance about that, but it was this normalcy, I think, that gave me a sense that eventually Ukraine will be able to come out on top. And I think the second anecdote, which was really telling for me, that stuck with me, because it speaks to Ukraine’s resolve — and that is that many in the West here in the United States and Europe are really worried about Putin’s willingness to use a nuclear weapon, and I think rightfully so.
But multiple people that I spoke with there in Ukraine were totally undeterred. To the person, they said that Putin’s use of a nuclear weapon will not change the outcome of the war, nor how Ukraine fights the war, that it will only increase the cost that they’re going to have to incur to get there. And so for all of these reasons, I left feeling like over time the Ukrainians will come out on top.
There’s lots of other military reasons that we can delve into, too, when you talk about morale of the services, when you talk about the sustained support. Ukraine has the backing of the international community. Weapons continue to flow in. I think there’s lots of different reasons that to me point to a Ukrainian victory, although I am fully cognizant that it still may take a very long time until we get there.
What does Ukrainian victory mean? Does that mean Russia is fully ejected from Ukraine? Does it mean they only hold a very small rump of land in the East? What would count as a victory as opposed to an unhappy settlement?
I think there’s still a lot of open questions about that. As of right now — and you can see both side’s war aims have shifted as this war is continued. So Russia came in saying that they were going to basically de-Nazify Ukraine, that they were going to take over the entire country, to erase Ukraine as an idea. They were looking for the full thing. And given the blow that they were dealt in Kyiv, they had to kind of redeploy forces to the East.
And you watched Putin, at least for the time being, downsize his war aims. I think that the momentum has shifted to Ukraine’s side. I think that their aims and their objectives are also shifting. So initially, we in the West, I think along with the Ukrainians, were thinking that a victory would be that Russia doesn’t occupy any Ukrainian territory that they didn’t hold prior to the invasion. Zelensky now talks in much bolder, grander terms. He is talking about very seriously restoring all of Ukraine’s territorial integrity, including Crimea, and including taking back the territory that Russia has illegally held in the east of the country.
So those war aims are shifting. And based on where we are now, I think President Zelensky’s definition of victory is that he will restore Ukraine’s borders to where they were prior to 2014. I think that is the vision of victory that he has in mind.
But as we were talking about, things do change on the battlefield. And I do think that shifts, then, the goals that each side holds, as we’ve just discussed. And so it is possible that that could be walked back over time, and it could be that Zelensky and that the Ukrainian people are willing to settle for a victory that entails Russia not holding any additional territory prior to February 24.
So I think it’s mercurial. It’s very closely tied to how they’re doing on the battlefield. But given where we are at this moment, those are the terms that President Zelensky is speaking in.
I’m going to come back to the way that the definitions of victory are changing, but I do want to talk a bit about the counteroffensive. What was it, and why did it matter so much?
I think it’s major. The Kharkiv offensive is the most consequential military action of the war since Russia lost Kyiv. As Zelensky has said, they liberated over 2,000 square miles of territory, and that includes some gains that they’ve had in the south near Kherson where they’re waging a concurrent counteroffensive. But I think this is important, because it’s the first time that we’ve had such clear evidence of Ukraine’s ability to go on the offensive and to retake territory.
So what happened? There has been talk for weeks and maybe even months that Ukraine would wage a counteroffensive in the late summer or heading into fall. And President Zelensky himself has really been pushing for this, because he’s been very worried about his ability to sustain Western support for the war, given that we’re going into a very long, cold winter. So Zelensky was foreshadowing this because he wanted this counteroffensive to boost morale, both in Ukraine, but also among his Western backers, and to show people that Ukraine can retake this territory.
And I think his theory of the case was that if he could show that, then he assumed that Western support would be more robust. And I think so far, he’s right. But back to the battlefield — so basically, Ukraine is broadcasting that they’re going to do this counteroffensive in the south. And so Russia in turn begins to redeploy their forces, moving them from the north and the eastern Donbas region down into the south to reinforce Russia’s positions there.
And as they did this, as they moved their forces south, it creates these new vulnerabilities that then the Ukrainians were able to exploit. So this was extremely opportunistic. And it was a real surprise to the Russians. They achieved surprise, which is key. They broke through, and they routed these Russian forces. A lot of them fled. And Ukraine took back its land. I think that the reason why this counteroffensive was also important, other than demonstrating that Ukraine can do it, is it does have some strategic value.
The territory that they took breaks up Russian supply lines that will make it harder for Russia to resupply other parts of the battlefield. And in particular, there is the town of Izium, where Zelensky just was last week. And by taking that town, I think it now makes it impossible for Putin to be able to achieve his stated goal of capturing the entire Donbas region. So that’s big. And as we’ve said earlier, this counteroffensive now has shifted the initiative to Ukraine.
And so I think it says a lot about the future and where we’re headed. And the shift in perspective really is energizing military and economic support for Ukraine. And that’s key.
Part of the counteroffensive, as I understand it, is that you don’t just have to feint that you’re going south. You also have to effectively move reinforcements up north so that you have the strength to run that play. Now, you’d think that Russia has satellites. They have at least some wartime intelligence, but it doesn’t seem that they had enough good battlefield intelligence to see what Ukraine was doing. So on the one hand, that might be a very sophisticated operation by Ukraine.
But on the other, it seems — and it has seemed, actually, throughout the war, that Russia’s information isn’t very good. Why not?
Well, that’s one of the things that we heard over and over on our trip to Ukraine. And we had the ability to talk with several senior officials in Ukraine’s Ministry of Defense. And one of the things that they did talk about is, just as you said, Ezra, that the intelligence, the reconnaissance on the Russian side has been extremely poor. I don’t know why that is. I mean, there are so many things that have been surprising about this war.
I think we have overestimated Russia’s capacity to do certain things that seem like basic tasks, so I don’t know why it is. The other thing that we’ve heard on our trip is not only have they done a poor job with the intelligence and reconnaissance, but there has been an inability on the Russian side to exploit opportunities as they’ve arisen. And so I think a lot of this has to do with the command and control, and the culture of the two militaries.
In Ukraine, on the one hand, they have passed a lot of responsibility down. They have trust in different levels of their military. And they empower people who are lower on the chain — they empower them to make decisions on the spot, which allows the Ukrainian side to be much more nimble and agile, and take advantage of opportunities as they arise. The opposite is true for the Russians. It’s extremely rigid. They don’t have good command and control. They don’t delegate responsibility down. They don’t trust their subordinates.
And so the Ukrainians talk about how there has been so many opportunities that they as a military have identified, where Russia could have leaned in and exploited opportunities that they just didn’t have the ability or the agility to do. And again, we’re talking about — why do I believe that over time Ukraine will have the ability to win this war? It’s stories like that, these anecdotes about the differences in the military culture and the morale of its soldiers, and their ability to do these different things where, again, it all points in Ukraine’s direction, and their ability to see this through.
I know that you worked for many years in the U.S. intelligence service, so I say this with caution — but before this, my estimation of our intelligence capabilities had gotten quite low. We had a lot of failures in Iraq. We had a lot of failures in Afghanistan. We seemed to consistently get very big things about the world wrong, and wrong in consequential ways. But my sense is that with Russia, we’ve actually been pretty right — that it’s clear now that the U.S. understood that Russia was going to do this invasion before really anybody else.
The Europeans were skeptical. Ukraine was very skeptical, and that’s been well reported and talked through. And from my understanding, a lot of what has given Ukraine a reconnaissance and battlefield intelligence superiority is that we’ve been able to share quite effective intelligence with them. Why do we have such a strong bead on this one when we’ve had so much more trouble in other theaters?
That’s a good question. I do just want to underscore that the U.S. intelligence community was way out in front of Putin’s invasion. That is a major success of the U.S. intelligence community. They understood that Putin was going to in fact go through with this war, and they were very proactive and forward leaning with declassifying and releasing intelligence to support their case, and share it with the world, but also very importantly, European governments.
And it’s just a huge success. It’s one of the reasons — I think it kept Russia, in the early days, when we were all wondering if they were going to do it — I think it got the Russians, put them on the back foot. But really, the key success was that it enabled the United States and Europe to be prepared. So before Putin went in, a lot of the sanctions work, the sanctions packages had already been drawn up. And it’s one of the factors why we’ve seen such a cohesive Western response to what Russia did, is because we were prepared. We weren’t surprised.
And so it is a huge success of the U.S. intelligence community. So it’s not just all of the weapons that we see flowing into Ukraine — and that’s really, critically important. But the intelligence support has also been critical, I think, in allowing the Ukrainians, again, to seize opportunities as they arise, to be agile. And that’s not to take anything away from the Ukrainians, because it’s them who are on the front lines, and their bravery is admirable.
But the United States has played a really important role not just with the provision of weapons, but also with the provision of intelligence. The one thing I want to note, Ezra, though, is where we did get it wrong. And I think what we got wrong was Ukrainians’ resilience to the Russian invasion. If you remember, in the early days of the war, the U.S. intelligence community, I think, assessed that Kyiv would fall just in a matter of days.
The United States was out there offering President Zelensky help in getting out of the country, so we could keep him safe and he could lead from abroad. And that had consequences. And I think it continues to have consequences, because if we didn’t believe that the Ukrainians could defeat the Russians, and if you don’t believe that the Ukrainians can win, I think it really shapes your willingness of what you’re willing to do to support them.
You’re not going to provide sophisticated weapons systems to a side that you believe is going to be the loser in a war because it wouldn’t be an efficient allocation of resources, and also because those weapons could end up in enemy hands.
I’m glad you went there, because that was exactly where I was about to take us. I want to talk more about what we got wrong with Russia, because it wasn’t just the intelligence community. Almost everybody I reported with in the early months of the war believed it was a matter of time until Russia won. Maybe it was going to go a little bit slower than they initially thought, but Russia had such an overwhelming superiority in force numbers, in economic might.
The sanctions, at that point, were understood to be punishment for Russia. They were going to endure pain for what they were going to take in Ukraine. There was a sense that if Putin needed to — and to some degree, this is still true, but he keeps not doing it — he can move to conscription and expand the size of the Russian force dramatically. We got something wrong not just about the resilience of the Ukrainian people, but about the strength Russia could bring to bear on an invasion that was directly on their border.
What did we get wrong about Russian might?
I think we first and foremost got this wrong because we didn’t know that Putin would concoct such a terrible plan. And for me, that’s largely a product of the type of political system that Putin built. This is a highly personalized, authoritarian regime. And I’ve studied a lot of autocracies. My lens on Russia is very much through an authoritarian, kind of comparative politics lens. And the Putin regime ahead of this invasion was by far one of the most centralized autocracies that I have seen.
And in that kind of system, good information does not float to the top, right? They’re based on loyalty, and it’s not in anyone’s career interest to tell the boss bad news. So Putin, for one, was operating with terribly flawed assumptions. And so I think that’s number one for me of why we got it wrong. These personalist dictators make mistakes. So first of all, Putin and Russia misunderstood Ukraine entirely. They hold these very derogatory views of Ukrainians.
And I think the Russians have entirely missed what’s been happening in Ukraine since 2014 — that Ukraine has built up a stronger national identity, that they have had this commitment to moving to the West. You know, Putin believed that they could get to Kyiv, decapitate the regime, and that the whole country would fall like a house of cards. So they fundamentally misunderstood Ukraine. We talked about them — along with the United States, the Russians also obviously underestimated and misunderstood Ukraine’s willingness to fight.
So again, for me, I think we got it wrong because we failed to consider the weaknesses that begin to accumulate in these longtime, personalist autocracies. These countries, they’re inclined to make mistakes, these personalist dictators. And over time, these guys, they run their countries into the ground. And so the plan was bad, and the plan was bad because it was the product of Putin’s personal system. And I think we just didn’t factor that in.
We were wrong about all sorts of things on the Russian military front too. And just quickly, I’ll say corruption was a really big issue. I think we failed to see the rot in the Russian military. We didn’t see just how pervasive it was. So yeah, we overestimated Russian capabilities, but I also think a lot of it was just misunderstanding how terribly wrong and disastrous the decisions that these personalist, authoritarian regimes can make.
Back in June, you wrote that over the previous three months, Russia’s equipment had just been mauled. It had lost 25 percent of its active tank force. It had lost more than 30 aircraft, more than 10,000 troops. It has only gotten worse for Russia since then. So how has the balance of equipment, matériel, personnel changed since Russia invaded in late February?
So I don’t know exactly where we are in terms of how much equipment Russia has lost, but it’s been a lot, as you just said. And there is actually a joke in Ukraine that the Russians have been the single largest donor of tanks and armored personnel carriers than any other country. And sometimes, it’s even a little more derogatory than that. They’ll say that the Russians have donated more tanks than the Germans.
I want to tag that. We’re going to come back to the Germany question.
OK. They’ve lost a lot, but I think it would be misguided to believe that Russia is running out of stuff. And I think that’s something that the Ukrainians understand. I was actually surprised to hear from a senior military leader in the Ukrainian military, their belief that Russia will and does have the capacity to continue to regenerate forces. I think they are very realistic about the reality that Russia can continue this war for a really long time.
Now, it is true that equipment is being run down. Things like their precision guided munitions are definitely on shorter supply. But it then means that they pull out less precise weapons that can cause more civilian harm. So I think yes, Russia has lost a lot. But they have the capacity to sustain this for a very long time. The Ukrainians, on their side, still don’t have enough military equipment. And that was something that we talked at length on in this trip.
We had the ability to visit the transit hub in Poland, where a vast majority of NATO’s military aid comes through and flows into Ukraine. And we learned that that center is only operating at about 60 percent capacity. So they have the capacity to get a lot more weapons in. So for Ukrainians, they have the advantage in manpower. They have the whole country of military age men who would be willing to fight in the military. But what they lack is equipment. They don’t have enough equipment to train their soldiers.
They’re now having problems sustaining the military equipment that they have, so spare parts and maintenance. And all of that is a shortcoming. So they have these reciprocal problems. Russia doesn’t have enough manpower, and that is a big question that’s looming, about whether or not Putin will call for a mass mobilization or not. Russia doesn’t have enough manpower. They have a lot of equipment. And then the opposite is true for Ukraine. Ukraine has a lot of manpower, but they still need more equipment in order to kind of do the job that they need to do to defeat Russia.
Let’s talk about the manpower question. So I’ve seen estimates that Russia has had 80,000 killed or wounded since the start of the war. Most people seem to think that is larger than the casualties on Ukraine’s side, though the numbers are a little fuzzier there. Why is Russia suffering such heavy manpower losses, and what does that mean for them? Are the people they could call up, particularly through conscription — are they as well trained, or are they capable?
What is their morale — because replacing one soldier with another is not always a one to one trade. So where does Russia stand? And why are they losing so many people?
I think the other interesting thing to add to that is that a lot of Russia’s best soldiers were killed early on in the war. Again, they’ve been depleted. The people that Putin is sending now tend to come disproportionately from poorer regions in Russia. It comes from these private military organizations, like the Wagner Group. And it comes from a lot of forces from Luhansk and Donetsk, the LNR and the DNR in Eastern Ukraine, where a lot of people are being forcibly mobilized.
You see terrible pictures on social media of men on the streets in those regions of being beaten and forced into war. There’s all of these stories about these efforts by Russia to take people out of prisons. They’re coming from mental institutes. So they’re coming up with all of these informal, ad hoc, piecemeal ways to try to sustain the manpower that they need. But as you’re saying, these people aren’t motivated to fight compared to Ukrainians who are defending their homeland.
And so morale is a huge issue. In talking to some of the Ukrainian officials that we saw — we know in the counteroffensive in the north that many of the Russian fighters there just readily abandoned their positions. They flee — they ran away very quickly. And we heard that the morale of Russian soldiers in the south around Kherson, where the counteroffensive is still continuing, that the morale of the Russian fighters there is even lower — and they would say because at least the Russians who were fighting in the north had the Russian border behind them.
They had some place where they could retreat or flee to. The fighters in the south have nothing but the sea. And so their morale, their propensity to abandon their positions and to surrender, is much higher. So again, these are the factors — when you’re looking at these things in terms of quality of troops and the morale, and their motivation to fight, this is another key area where I think it favors Ukraine. This is an existential question for Ukrainians. They are defending their homeland. They have no other choice but to fight.
And these people who are being sent in on the Russian side, they don’t have that same motivation. And I think they increasingly see the disasters that are happening in war. By the way, there’s a bunch of people inside Russia now who are talking about the disasters that have been unfolding in Ukraine. Military bloggers are talking about just how disastrous the performance have been. So when you compare these two things, again, the Ukrainians have — they’re just much better positioned, I think, over the long term than in Russia.
There’s been this fear for a long time that Putin would turn to conscription, which in theory could radically increase the size of Russia’s forces. At the same time, without in any way suggesting he won’t do it, it’s clear he doesn’t want to do it. He didn’t do it at the beginning. He’s not done it yet. I’m not saying that his regime can’t survive doing it. I don’t want to make any claims larger than simply this. It doesn’t seem like a favored option for him. It seems like something he’s only going to break glass on if he really needs it.
And to everything you’re saying, that implies to me that the people who could be conscripted would not obviously be well trained, but also would not want to be there, which is a pretty profound weakness on the battlefield. So how do you at this point assess the question of conscription on the Russian side?
It’s a really hard question, and one we’ve been thinking about for a really long time. I mean, I think you’ve laid it out perfectly, that Putin really faces a very difficult choice. If he forgoes conscription, if he insists to continue fighting this war that he will only call a “special military operation,” he is going to face significant problems regenerating the forces that he would need to accomplish his objectives in Ukraine. That much is clear.
And just a word about that — Putin really has gone to great lengths to protect Russians from this war. He wants to shelter them. He wants Russians to believe that life is normal, because I think he understands deeply that this is a very politically unpopular war for large swathes of Russians. So he really is caught between a rock and a hard place, because as I said, if he doesn’t do it, he will have problems regenerating the manpower that he needs in order to accomplish his political objectives.
And if he loses this war, it can also destabilize his regime. So he’s kind of flanked by these two sources of opposition — those Russians who don’t want to be in Ukraine, who oppose this war, but because of the repression are having to keep quiet. But on his other flank are very hawkish, nationalist Russians who are very vocally, including on state run media, calling on Putin to call this a war, to mobilize the public, to fight on a wartime footing so that they can accomplish these maximalist objectives that Putin set out in the beginning.
So he’s really caught between a rock and a hard place, between those two things. And so watching and seeing what decision he ultimately makes, I think, is something that we’re all paying very close attention to.
Early on, we heard a lot about how punishing Western sanctions would be for ordinary Russians, for the broad Russian economy, for Russian oligarchs. There was an outside, though always unlikely hope that it could even destabilize Putin’s regime or convince him to withdraw.
I get the sense now that people believe — certainly, his regime is weathering the sanctions more or less fine, but that the bigger effect is that a lot of the more targeted sanctions — not the big, macroeconomic ones, but the ones restricting the supply of things like microchips — are over time making it hard for Russia to resupply its more technologically sophisticated munitions, and that the longer the war drags on, the more effect that could have on Russia’s capability on the battlefield. Is that about right?
Yeah, I think that’s the goal of a lot of these sanctions. I think we had hoped that there would have been a broader kind of economic effect that would have made it more difficult for Russians, so that there would be more pressure on Putin. But there was also a secondary objective, which was to kind of constrict and constrain — and really, as Secretary Austin kind of controversially said earlier in the war, to weaken Russia. And I do think that is an objective.
These sanctions, and especially the export controls, are designed to diminish Russian capabilities so that Russia cannot sustain aggression beyond its borders. And those things, as you said, Ezra, will have effect over the longer term. It will take time. The full brunt of those measures have not yet been felt. The thing that I worry about, though, is that Russia will pursue all sorts of efforts to bypass those export controls. They’ll use espionage and illicit trade networks.
They may eventually try to develop things jointly with Russia or India or some of these other fence sitting countries. So Russia is going to work very hard to try to bypass those sanctions and to dilute Western support. And so as we look forward, things the United States will need to do is to invest very heavily in the enforcement of those measures. That’s kind of the next step of what people will try to do, is to try to tighten up sanctions and export control regime.
And it underscores, though — and this broader idea for me is that a lot of people look at how Russia has fared in this war, and it’s been a military disaster. And we can see that it’s been kind of a strategic blunder for Putin. You’ve got Finland and Sweden joining NATO, and great Western resolve, and there’s a lot of people saying, oh, if Russia can’t even defeat the Ukrainians, then what do we really need to worry about?
But I think that’s misguided. And one of the things that I continue to write about is this idea that Russia is down, but not out. And even if Ukraine and its backers are wildly successful in defeating Russia, it does not mean that the Russia problem will be resolved. They will continue to go after Ukraine. They will continue, even with a more vengeful — and nastiness. They’ll be less of a stakeholder in the international community, with the rules of the game.
They’re going to be acting out, I think, in an even more egregious — and emboldened in the way that they use the tools that they have. So yes, the Russian military has been degraded significantly. But there’s all sorts of non-conventional tools. It’s things like cyber, like biological weapons, like nuclear weapons. They have a full arsenal of things that will continue to create challenges for the West. And so again, it’s just — I keep trying to advance this idea that Russia may be down, but it’s not out.
And Ukraine and the international community is going to have to keep dealing with Russia over the longer term.
Let’s talk about the state of the Russian economy, then. I have seen wildly varying, wildly, wildly varying analyzes of where they are and where they’re headed, everything from one team of researchers saying economic oblivion looms, others saying they’re really managing to skirt around the kinds of recession or collapse that people thought was likely a couple of months ago. What is your sense of where they are now and where they’re going in the nearest term?
So the Russian economy has definitely taken a hit. I think the estimate that I put the most confidence in is the I.M.F.‘s estimate, which estimates that the Russian economy — that Russian G.D.P. will shrink by 6 percent in 2022. And as we’ve talked about, though, that will likely continue as export controls and other sanctions are continued to be felt in the coming years. And you can see the economic effects inside Russia on a lot of their industry. Car manufacturers, for example, don’t have parts.
Lada is no longer being produced with airbags. I mean, they’re having to do all sorts of shortcuts. The airline industry inside Russia in particular has been hit especially hard. So there are economic ramifications, and there are kind of real economic effects of the sanctions that have been put in place. But I think it is wrong to assume that the Russian economy will implode. I mean, let’s not forget that Russia is still selling oil and gas.
And even though the European Union, European countries are investing heavily in diversifying away from Russian oil and gas, that will take some time. And other countries, like India, China, they continue to buy Russian oil and gas, such that Russia’s government revenues haven’t been especially hit. I am seeing that they are declining over time, but it hasn’t been disastrous. And so I don’t think that in the near term we’re going to see an implosion of the Russian economy — but rather, it’s kind of like a slow asphyxiation.
And the thing that I worry about which relates to this “Russia down, but not out” is as Russia is kind of written out of the economic international system, as they are no longer a stakeholder in that economic system, it allows them to flout the rules in different ways. I think it will only kind of embolden more aggressive behavior. And so that’s the thing again — yes, it will be economically weaker. The other thing we should remember, Ezra, is that Russia has never been an economic powerhouse, and yet they’ve still been able to challenge U.S. interests seriously in the past.
I mean, people love to say that Russia’s economy is the size of Italy, or whatever small European country. But I think these raw economic indicators have never been a good measure of Russia’s ability to wreak havoc and to complicate and to challenge the United States. And so yes, it is important to focus on its economic fundamentals. And we do hope that sanctions will constrict and constrain, and make it more difficult for them to build and grow their defense, industrial base, and their military.
But I think we have to understand that this threat doesn’t subside even as the Russian economy declines.
One thing you see is that Putin has a theory of maybe what the shock could be in the West. He’s thought that Russian energy exports are significant enough, particularly to Europe, that if he really ratchets the pain up on Europe, maybe support for Ukraine will crumble. So far, it’s been a consistent miscalculation, I think, that the West has been willing to take more upheaval economically than he anticipated.
But Russia did just cut exports to Europe pretty substantially, saying the big Nord Stream pipeline — number one — is having technical issues, and so they can’t put the gas through it, which nobody really seems to believe. What do you think of that move, both in its potential to affect European support for Ukraine, but also for what it means for Russia going forward? I mean, it does seem like a way in which they are long term detaching themselves from exactly the kinds of economic supports that have kept them afloat in recent decades.
Yes. And you are right again. We’ve talked about all the ways that Putin has miscalculated. He has most certainly miscalculated on the West’s cohesion and resolve to stand up to him. What we understand now is that Putin is banking on this winter. He is trying to make this winter as painful and as cold and as expensive as possible for Europeans, in the hope that they will pressure their governments to stop providing military and economic support to Ukraine. That’s the play.
And that was what President Zelensky was acutely aware of when he wanted to wage this counteroffensive, to try to demonstrate that Ukraine can win. He understood Putin’s playbook. He was genuinely worried that it could be effective, and he wanted to pre-empt that. And I think he’s done that very successfully. The thing I will say, in Europe — I mean, we shouldn’t kid ourselves. It will be a long, hard winter for most Europeans.
And we’ve already seen some protests in the Czech Republic, and in some places in Germany, where because of very high inflation with energy prices and all of these things, that people are dissatisfied with their governments. And some are questioning whether or not their government should continue to provide support to Ukraine. So it’s already happening, and it hasn’t even gotten terribly cold yet. So we shouldn’t be fooled that this isn’t a really important time for this war, and for sustained European support.
That said, if you look at polling in places like Germany, where Putin has just cut the Nord Stream 1 pipeline, you hear from most Germans, for example, that they are willing to pay a cost in order to support Ukrainians. You have a lot of governments in Eastern Europe who are telling their publics that we might have to pay a little bit out of our pocketbooks, but the Ukrainians are paying dearly with their lives and the destruction of their country.
So I am optimistic. I think this is another time where Putin will have grossly miscalculated. I am optimistic that even though we might have some turbulence ahead in Europe, and maybe in the United States, that the support for Ukraine will persist. To your next question, though, about is this in Russia’s long term interests, or are they kind of cutting themselves out of the system? That’s exactly right, and it raises all sorts of questions about what Russia’s future will be.
Because they are cutting oil and gas, they have obviously now demonstrated that they are not a reliable supplier of oil and gas. If there were any questions in Europe, which there were, it is painfully obvious now. And so they are moving away from Russian oil and gas. And that will be consequential for Russia, not just in terms of lost revenues over time, but it also takes away Russia’s leverage that it once had over Europe. And that too will leave Russia in a weaker position over time.
I just think the future now of the Russian economy looks unbelievably dire. They have proven themselves an inconsistent and dangerous supplier of energy to their main customers. So those customers are not going to come back at the level they were. They’ve accelerated the decarbonization efforts of the West. They’re seeing a huge brain drain of talented Russians who want no part of this, and are trying to get out and get their money out.
They are under punishing and at this point indefinite sanctions that are reducing the technological and productive capacity of the economy, so innovation and specialization and all the other things you need to grow and be competitive are weakened. When you think about what this has cost them, not just now, but in 10 years and 15 years, it seems fundamentally catastrophic to me. But at the same time, it has also been catastrophic for not just Ukraine’s people, but the Ukrainian economy.
And I want to read a quote here from the economic historian Adam Tooze, who’s been tracking the financial flows of the war very closely. And he writes, quote, to put it simply, Ukraine cannot afford the war it is fighting. The aid it is receiving, the substantial, is an order of magnitude smaller than Russia’s fossil fuel earnings, and is entirely inadequate to cover the running costs of the war. As a result, Kyiv is resorting to financing the war by printing money.
It can only be a matter of months before Kyiv faces crippling choices between continuing to fight the war and upholding any semblance of normal economic life on the home front. How do you assess both Ukraine’s economy, but also its economic resilience to continue fighting this war?
I think this has been a very overlooked aspect of this war. The Western media really has not focused so much on the economic picture as it has the conditions on the battlefield, and the need to provide Ukraine with more military aid. And this idea about a weakened Ukrainian economy is not lost on Vladimir Putin. I mean, I think this is, in fact, part of the plan, that if you can undermine Ukraine’s economy, it leaves Ukraine vulnerable for a very long time to future Russian aggression and to Russian influence.
And so it is, I think in many ways — and people have framed this conflict between Russia and Ukraine as a competition between democracy versus autocracy. I subscribe to that. And this period of, a, in the immediate kind of economic support to Ukraine, but in the longer term, reconstruction, is really critical. And we’re all going to have to think so much harder about this, because in the end, the goal is that we walk away — that the Ukrainians are given an economically successful, strong democracy.
That’s kind of the stakes with this. And I think we shouldn’t underestimate just how impactful an economically strong, democratically successful Ukraine can be. In a lot of political science literature, there’s this great finding that regime type — so autocracy versus democracy — that regime type tends to converge in certain regions. And so if the United States and the Western backers working with the Ukrainians can get Ukraine into an economically viable, democratically successful place, it is likely to have ripple effects that emanate throughout the region.
And so I’m thinking of Moldova, which has made its democratic transition, but is still, I think, a vulnerable democracy — but especially other countries in the region, like Armenia, like Azerbaijan, like Belarus. And with a successful anchor in Ukraine, it could help bring democracy to this region, which is so sorely needed in a time where we’ve talked for the last 15 years about democracy being in peril. Freedom House has talked — for 15 years straight, we’ve seen a decline in democracy scores.
And the way that these things tend to work is in cascades, right? Huntington talked about the waves to and from democracy. And we know that democracy has been in peril for a very long time. But if we can help Ukraine finish the job and ensure it is resilient to future attacks from Russia, and a successful democracy, I think it has the possibility that it could kind of trigger a wave again towards democracy, or at least leave that region a better place.
I think that’s actually a pretty rich point. So before we keep going to the Ukrainian economy, I want to talk about it for a minute — this idea that this isn’t simply a humanitarian impulse on the part of the West, but actually something is owed to Ukraine here, that they’re playing at incredible, incredible human cost a really important geostrategic role. The historian Timothy Snyder has a new essay out in Foreign Affairs, which I really recommend people read.
He makes this analogy to World War II, which I’m always careful about doing, about how differently things might have gone if Czechoslovakia hadn’t fallen so easily, if the leaders had held, if the Allies had held, if the Nazis had gotten bogged down there instead of having a lightning victory that convinced the world of their power and strength.
And I don’t want to overdraw that, but I think if you — in addition to the question of showing a model, both in terms of values and, ultimately, in terms of rebuilding of democracy, but also as being a warning to other autocratic states thinking about expansion. If you imagine China here, the difference between Ukraine falling in days and the quagmire that Russia now finds itself involved in, it can’t make China feel a lot more excited about invading Taiwan.
And to the extent it pushes a conflict there off, it’s of tremendous global value to the rest of the world. So there’s something here about what Ukraine has borne for everyone else that I do think should change the calculus a little bit, from something where we look at this almost as charity, to — this has been a very cheap form of national defense and international limit reinforcement.
Yeah, I agree. I love Tim Snyder’s work. I haven’t read that essay, and I will. But I think it is such an important point. And the way that I’ve talked about it, which maybe sounds similar to the way Tim Snyder did, is — I mean, I think that Ukraine has given Europe, the United States and liberal democracies a great gift. And I think to understand just what a gift it’s been, you have to imagine the counterfactual, which is kind of what you were talking about, Ezra.
Imagine that Ukraine fell quickly in the earliest days of the war, as many people thought. If that had happened, I think we would be living in a very different world. We would have a Putin who was emboldened. Like, he would be even more convinced now that might makes right, and that borders can be changed through the use of military force. I think he would be entirely convinced, if he hadn’t been convinced already, that the West will not stand up to him.
Like, he had already learned that lesson. There was Georgia in 2008, Ukraine, 2014, his attack on the U.S. election in 2016. But now —
His intervention in Syria.
And the intervention in Syria. I think he understood that, but here, with the stakes so high, he would have deeply understood that. And so he would have been ever more confident to step up his efforts to undermine liberal democracy. We know this is a Putin goal. We know that he fears democracy. We know that he sees democracy as something the United States does just to spread its own influence. We know that he views liberal democracy as a threat to his own regime.
If Ukraine had fallen, we would be facing an ever more aggressive Russia. I think if Ukraine had fallen, it also would have been a disaster, or at least a tremendous strain, on the trans-Atlantic alliance. We already see some divisions now, but it would have been far worse. And so Putin, again, would have succeeded in another objective, which is breaking the cohesion in Europe, and between the United States and Europe.
And just as you said, Ezra, it would have been a very clear signal to other autocrats, especially Xi, that again, this point that might make right, and that you can change borders by force. So for all of these reasons, it really is a tremendous gift that Ukrainians have given. And it’s up to us to help make something of it. And we’ve talked about the ripple effects it could have in the region. But I think that point is really important.
Some countries — the Poles, for example — understand this acutely. It’s why they’ve been so forward leaning in sending military aid to Ukraine. They understand that their own security is at stake. And so I hope that the rest of Europe and liberal democracies everywhere can understand how important it is.
So I want to put some numbers to this. In August, inflation in Ukraine reached 23 percent year on year. By the end of the year, the central bank has warned it could reach 30 percent. Prior to the war, severe poverty, which we’re defining here as making below $5.50 per person, per day — that’s obviously very, very little money — that was pretty rare in Ukraine. At this point, the share of Ukrainians falling below that poverty line is expected to increase tenfold, to at least 21 percent in 2022.
So 21 percent of people in Ukraine will be making less than $5.50 a day. A third of Ukrainians have been displaced, either internally or outside of Ukraine’s borders, by the war. I mean, this is just a tremendous amount of human suffering, even beyond the direct cost of the war, even beyond being killed by a shell or being wounded on the front lines.
And then you read stats like these: so Foreign Policy magazine in early August wrote that total aid provision to Ukraine here is about $11 billion, still an order of magnitude less in payments to Russia for its hydrocarbons over the same period. A lot of the promised European aid isn’t materializing. They promised about 9 billion euros. They’ve only delivered about 1 billion. Why? Why particularly has European aid been so poor, even as they are spending so much money on Russian hydrocarbons?
Oh, Ezra, I wish I knew. I don’t have a good answer. I don’t know why — again, that point about the difference between the kind of aid that has been provided to Ukraine versus what’s been paid in oil revenue, it just blows my mind every time I hear it. Just two quick points — because again, it’s something that President Zelensky understands very well — I mean, he’s obviously fixated and focused on getting the job done on the battlefield.
But he’s also working very hard to get commitments from Western backers, including the I.M.F. and World Bank and other multinational institutions. But one of the things we talked at length about, and he even brought this up in the meeting that we were able to have with him, is underscoring the importance of air defense. And so of course, our discussion was more focused on the military picture, but he brought this back to the economic and human toll that Russia’s war is having on Ukraine.
And he highlighted how important it is for the United States and European backers to provide missile and air defense, because he said he needs to protect Ukraine’s most important asset, and that is the Ukrainian people. So you can’t disentangle kind of the battlefield with the toll that it is having on Ukrainian society, but for him, I also think top of mind is the economic picture. He needs those displaced Ukrainians, the women and children who have left, to return to Ukrainian cities so that they can engage productively in the economy.
So that’s really key. If there’s one area that I hope that the United States and its European backers can continue to increase, it is on the air and missile defense, because that will be key to not only preventing future destruction, but giving Ukrainians some peace of mind that it’s OK to return and to be productively engaged inside Ukraine. The other point is, I think the right frame — again goes back to our conversation — is this is an investment in our future.
And it’s that idea that by investing in Ukraine’s economy to get them back on their feet, and to see that they are democratically successful, it’s not just — it’s not a feel good thing. It is an investment in our own future. And I hope that is a frame through which, or a lens through which, people are seeing this challenge through.
But that makes the European response here weirder, because as much as it is an investment in our future, this is a land war in Europe. It’s really an investment much more directly in their future. And they’re being much worse on the aid. I mean, the excuse from the Europeans is that it has been held up in wrangling over the exact form, and loans, and grants.
Zelensky has been searing on this. I want to read a quote from him: “Every day and in various ways, I remind some leaders of the European Union that Ukrainian pensioners, our displaced persons, our teachers, and other people who depend on budget payments cannot be held hostage to their indecision or bureaucracy. Such an artificial delay of macro financial assistance to our state is either a crime or a mistake, and it is difficult to say, which is worse in such conditions of a full-scale war.”
And something he’s pointing out there — it’s not like Europe is not promising this money. It is not like they have said this is not worth doing. Their excuse is that they are haggling over its form. There was a lot of hope early on that we were seeing a new Europe emerging. Germany was making this big investment in defense. There was a move towards decarbonization. And in many ways, it seems like the old Europe is re-emerging. Which of those narratives, if either, do you think is true?
I think a new Europe is emerging, but it’s different than what you said. I think it’s a Europe in which the center of gravity of Europe is moving east. You hear that a lot, when you talk to especially East Europeans, who have been on the forefront, banging pots and pans in trying to cajole the Western Europeans to step up and do more. We’ve talked about the cohesion and the strength of the trans-Atlantic response. And I think that’s true. That is part of the story, for sure.
And especially early in the war, I think Europe was even out in front of the United States in some cases with some of the sanctions packages. And at the beginning of the war, it was amazing to watch that the Western democracies could move as quickly and as boldly as they did. But that has given way — and as you said, there have been promises that haven’t been followed through.
So now what I think we are seeing is a new Europe, where — and especially if the European Union is going to bring Ukraine into the E.U., we are seeing the shift in the center of gravity away from France and Germany, which have historically been the engine of European politics. Those two countries have been incredibly discredited within Europe by this war. People in Eastern Europe have been disappointed by Macron’s sustained desire to maintain dialogue with Putin, when it’s been clear for a very long time that we have nothing to talk to him about at this moment in time.
And the Germans, even though they’ve moved towards more robust support for Ukraine, I mean, we’ve seen a very tremendous shift inside Germany. But most Eastern Europeans just say they’re disappointed and find that it’s not enough. And so those two countries, I think, in many ways have been discredited in the eyes of East Europeans. They’ve lost a lot of trust in their leadership within the E.U.
And you do see this new collection of the Poles, the Finns, the Czechs — a lot of these Eastern Europeans who have been at the forefront in support for Ukraine pulling the rest of Europe along. And I think that is likely to have a lasting impact on the Europe that emerges from this crisis.
I want to go back to something that we touched on a bit at the beginning, which is how as the war has changed, the negotiating positions, the possible end games that could be accepted by the two sides have changed. And I think for much of the war, we saw Putin as the primary actor here. But I think Zelensky is now very much — or if not the primary actor here. So you are saying that his war aims have expanded, up to and including taking Crimea back from Russia.
How has that changed?
I mean, do you think that where Zelensky is, given where his politics are, given how many of his people have been killed by the Russians, do you think there is a settlement the Russians could ultimately accept, that he could accept — or this really does have to be either a battlefield victory, loss, or stalemate now to find equilibrium?
It’s the million dollar question. Yes, I think his position has changed. I think back earlier in the war, there was a moment in time where the Russians and Ukrainians had the contours of some notional deal. And there was at least some sort of agreement there that they were at least discussing, that I think involved some sort of territorial concessions and exchange of Ukrainian neutrality.
At that time, it was the Russians who felt emboldened in the war, who thought that they were on the march, who thought that time was on their side, and had no interest in moving forward with those types of negotiations or discussions. You had Lavrov, the foreign minister of Russia, not so long ago before the counteroffensive, talking about how the kind of geography of the battle had changed, and that therefore Russia was actually looking not just to take all of Donbas, but was interested in territory outside that region.
So again, the war aims are often tied to what’s going on in the battlefield. And as you mentioned now, things have very much swung to the Ukrainian side. And Zelensky has moved in his position. As I understand it, his line now is that he’s not willing to seriously negotiate with the Russians until they are off of all Ukrainian soil. And that’s his going in position. And I think it reflects his confidence in Ukraine’s ability to militarily defeat Russia over the longer term.
Again, we can debate that. It’s probably optimistic to say that the Ukrainians have the ability to repel Russians from all of their soil. But in this moment in time, that’s where we are. So it’s hard to say exactly where we will come out. It’s still very difficult for me to imagine that the Ukrainians would agree to give Russia any territory beyond what they held prior to February 24. But again, at this moment in time, the Ukrainians are looking past that. And Zelensky is talking very confidently about bringing Crimea back into Ukraine, because Crimea is Ukraine. And he is intent at this point in time on restoring Ukraine’s territorial integrity.
If I go back to the theories of how the war could worsen from early on, though, as much as I understand — and his case, I’m sure, would have the same position as Zelensky, although not his bravery or courage or capabilities. It does seem like you can imagine a danger there. I think a strong early view was that the one thing Putin cannot accept is humiliation. He cannot accept something that in Russia would be seen as a true loss, and that he will do anything — and you’ve talked about this broader range of armaments he actually has and could put into play — to forestall that.
And it also sounds like what you’re saying is that there is very little Zelensky at this point could accept — and I think morally, this makes total sense — than Russia’s complete humiliation and a total loss. And when you try to match those two together, it is hard to imagine an endgame to this war, while it is easier — maybe, I’ll say — to imagine ways this war could turn yet more catastrophic.
So I’m curious how you see those ideas matching up.
I think you’ve put your finger on why it’s so hard to forecast how this war will evolve into the future, because I can imagine different scenarios — one in which Putin really could change his definition of victory and bring the war to a rapid end. I mean, I do think that is possible. Putin has such control over his domestic media. So few Russians are actually paying attention to what’s happening in Ukraine.
I was shocked at some recent Levada polling. And I don’t remember what it is off of the top of my head, but a declining number of Russians are even paying attention at all to the war that is raging on their border. So in my mind, if perhaps we get to a point where Putin really does see that this is going badly, that he’s never going to accomplish his objectives, maybe he strings it out for a very long time to ensure that Russians aren’t paying attention, and then tries to somehow extract himself from the situation while calling it a victory.
That’s plausible to me. It’s also plausible — what you said, Ezra — is that there are a series of ways that Russia could escalate this war, including through the use of a nuclear weapon. And it’s the Crimea question that probably makes me the most nervous about those possibilities, because Crimea is so kind of personally important to Putin. It’s how he has staked his legacy, that he’s brought Crimea back. And Russians approved of that.
So when he illegally annexed Crimea in 2014, Putin’s public approval went through the roof, up into the high 80 percents. And that’s something that made Russians feel good about themselves, and that Russia was a power to be feared, and that they could stand up to the West. So I think Crimea plays a different role in the psyche of Russians. And so losing Crimea, for Putin, could be catastrophic for him. And I think he would likely see that if he lost Crimea, he would have lost his legitimacy as a leader. I think he would potentially see it as calling into question the persistence, the viability of his own regime.
And so you do get into scary territory where you worry about his use of a nuclear weapon. I come back to the point that I made earlier, which is that Ukrainians are undeterred by that. And again, you heard to the person that if Russia uses a nuclear weapon, it will not change the outcome of the war. It will not change how Ukrainians fight the war. It will only increase the costs.
And so that’s where we are. But there are these scenarios, and it is extremely difficult to assign probabilities to which way it could go. And again, that’s what you get with these personalist dictators. I mean, these decisions are being made by Putin. And an incredibly small group, if anyone, is even weighing in at this point, on that level. And they make volatile decisions. These decisions are up to their own personal whims.
And so getting into the head of Vladimir Putin and trying to understand, will he mobilize? Will he use a nuclear weapon? It’s really, really hard to game that out. And that’s why so many people have been reticent to make predictions about how the war will go, because it’s really hard.
One thing I find difficult to assess is the extent of Putin’s control of the narrative. So he controls Russia’s media. He’s jailed journalists. He has shut down independent media. At the same time, you hear a lot about narrative challenge that is emerging on his right from these battlefield bloggers and ultra nationalists who are the true believers. And in part, because they’re the true believers, they’re the most angry, and in certain ways I think the hardest to censor.
Igor Girkin, who’s this ultra nationalist who led Russia’s offensive in Donbas in 2014, he predicted to his almost half million subscribers on Telegram a complete defeat for Russian troops, where he said, we’ve already lost, the rest is just a matter of time. You hear now a lot about this revolt from Putin’s right, from these people who are angry because they believed in Putin’s more maximalist vision of an expanded Russia, or Russia restored to something like a former glory.
And all the reporting, I hear, is that they have become bolder. And so I wonder if Putin really has the ability to shut down the pressure on his right.
Yeah, that’s again such an important question. And the way that I’ve thought about it is the way we talked about earlier. You know, he’s flanked by these two potential pockets of opposition. There’s all the Russians who have been cowed, I think in many ways, by the repression because the costs have been so significant for saying anything. So it’s hard to understand the discontent that is on that end of the spectrum.
But as you said, and this is kind of a mystery to me, why the Kremlin hasn’t tried to shut down the opposition that’s coming from the right. And as you’re saying, you know, Igor Girkin — I read that quote, but it’s also permeated into Russian state media, where you see some of these talk shows where analysts are critical of the war, and saying that Putin hasn’t gone far enough. And so to me, it’s a mystery why the Kremlin has allowed that to flourish or to continue the way that it has.
That’s part of why I believe that Putin’s hold on power is less than it was before the war started. He faces challenges coming from multiple different directions. And I do think that he will have a hard time managing those groups. That said, the big question is, what would be their capacity to unseat Putin? Do they have ties with the security services, to people who have access to weapons? So I think that’s where we are, is Putin facing these two pockets of opposition. And it’s really hard to gauge where it will go from here.
But my sense is that Putin’s hold on power is far less secure today than it was before he launched this invasion. And when I’ve looked at how these longtime autocrats leave power — so I’ve done a bunch of research with a colleague of mine, Erica Frantz at Michigan State. We looked at, well, how do longtime autocrats, these personalist dictators like Putin — in power, 20 years and more — how do they leave office? And the most likely trajectory, and this is what I would have told you before the invasion, is that they die in office, right?
That they stay so long, they’re so secure, the regime is in such equilibrium that they’re able to hold on until the very end, until they die in office. And that was actually the case in 40 percent of the post-Cold War cases that we looked at. And if you actually looked at older dictators, these guys who are 65 years and older, personalists in power 20 years or more, half of them, 50 percent die in office. So that’s what I would have told you before this war. But my sense now is his hold on power is less than it was.
I think we often understand wars as narratives or as stories. We read military histories, and they’re about something that begins at one point and concludes at another. I think a lot of the narrative of this war, the way it gets reported in the media, lends itself to story line — right, who will win? Who will lose? What will the end be?
But something that can happen for — I mean, this is a pretty young conflict — something that can happen for years, for decades, is simply stalemate, that there is a defensible amount of territory Russia has gained, that there is an offensive that Ukraine has been able to make, and it’s able to hold most of its country. But that nothing really ends — the sanctions on Russia simply continue. The fights on both sides, and skirmishes, go to a lower level, but they continue. The threat of total war is always present.
How do you rate the possibility of no real end here in the foreseeable future, but a very, very unhappy stalemate?
Ezra, I think that’s the most likely outcome. You know, of course, we’ve talked about Ukraine’s ability over the very long term to win this war. It could happen sooner rather than later. But I do think that most likely, we are still looking at a long, grinding war. And of course, the counteroffensive was a huge success, but we have to be realistic and acknowledge that Ukraine still has a very long way to go in terms of taking back territory. Russia still holds large swaths of Ukrainian territory.
You take the counteroffensive that Ukraine is waging in the South as an example, Russia has more advanced, more capable fighters who are fighting in the south. The positions that they hold there, they’re more dug in. They have more defensible positions than they had in the north, where they were overrun. So I think it is also plausible that looking at Ukrainian momentum, that Russia could retreat to more defensible positions and hold that line for a very long time.
Again, getting back to the winter, maybe if they can retreat to a more defensible position, hold those lines, and make it through the winter, then if they’re able to regenerate some of their forces, then maybe Putin would be willing to try to reclaim more territory again sometime next year. So again, yes, Ukraine has seized the initiative, that momentum at this time seems to be on their side. But we do have to be realistic, to say that they have a long way to go.
And so again, your scenario of a long, grinding kind of borderland war to me is still the most likely scenario.
I think that is a sobering but realistic place to end. As always, our final question, what are three books that you would recommend to the audience?
In large part, I’ll say — I have three kids at the moment, Ezra, and I don’t do a ton of reading. But the book that I have just started, and it’s a long slog, so I’m not so far through it is Steve Kotkin’s first in his series on Stalin. And I have just started that, and it’s remarkable. I love reading that book because it’s one where I feel like I can hear the author almost like narrating — I hear Steve Kotkin in his writing, which is amazing.
So that is a remarkable one — again, gives a lot of context, a lot of fodder for understanding where we are today. And then, Ezra, that’s kind of all I’ve read in a really long time. And I hope people appreciate my honesty of being in this phase of my life. I am so inundated with this war for the last kind of nine months or so, focused so much on reading kind of the day to day and keeping abreast of what’s happening that I have honestly let my longer reading slide.
Well, let me ask you one alternative question here, which is are there things that you read to keep up on the war that a casual consumer, but an interested consumer of the news may not? Are there sources that you’ve come to really trust that you would commend the rest of us to bookmark?
I have learned who to follow on Twitter. And I think that having that has been a remarkable resource. I obviously listen a lot to Mike Kofman, to Rob Lee. I listen a lot to Mick Ryan. I think the I.S.W. has done a remarkable job putting out regular installments and updates of the war. So I have found that kind of following trusted sources to help curate what’s going on has been remarkably helpful, so that’s kind of how I keep up.
And we’ll put those Twitter accounts in the show description. Andrea Kendall-Taylor, thank you very much.
Thank you for having me.
The Ezra Klein Show is produced by Annie Galvin and Rogé Karma — fact checking by Michelle Harris, Mary Marge Locker and Kate Sinclair. Original music by Isaac Jones, and mixing by Sonia Herrero, Isaac Jones and Carole Sabouraud. Audience strategy by Shannon Busta. Special thanks to Kristin Lin, Kristina Samulewski and Emma Ashford.
This story originally Appeared on NYTimes