Debate: Is US Support for Ukraine Costing ‘Peanuts’ or Too Much?
Western policymakers are asking themselves whether the billions of dollars in aid to Kyiv have been well spent. Two analysts offer opposing assessments in a debate co-hosted by Russia Matters: Investment strategist and Chatham House fellow Timothy Ash has argued that Vladimir Putin poses such a significant threat to the U.S., the West and the global order that the West has “no option but to support Ukraine”; meanwhile, Trita Parsi, executive VP of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, has contended that a prolonged war in Ukraine has dangerous hidden costs—namely, it increases the risk of a “direct Russian-NATO war” and the “use of nuclear weapons.” The key points of their Feb. 24 debate, that RM co-hosted with the Monterey Initiative in Russian Studies, are summarized below, followed by a full transcript.
Why it matters: Since Russia’s full-blown invasion of Ukraine a year ago, the U.S. alone has poured over $75 billion in aid and weapons into Kyiv's war effort, by one count. The assistance has helped Ukraine to stop and reverse much of Russia’s territorial gains, but there is no end to fighting in sight, with neither side close to a victory. Meanwhile, Western public support for assistance to Ukraine has waned, and NATO munitions stockpiles are reportedly dwindling, stoking debate over how much more support the West can and should provide.
Parsi's arguments that the costs of a prolonged war in Ukraine outweigh the benefits:
- “Keeping the war going will increase the risk of a direct Russian-NATO war as well as the use of nuclear weapons”;
- “The more the war drags on, the more it contributes to the formation of a Russian-Chinese-Iranian alliance”;
- “The war in Ukraine … solidified the ‘West versus the rest’ configuration of the world”; and
- “The war has been a disaster for the climate and for the climate agenda” because it has undermined international collaboration and focus on addressing climate change.
In Parsi’s assessment, it is time to aggressively pursue diplomacy, even if arms supplies continue. He argues that a purely economic argument—that aiding Ukraine weakens Russia at a cost to the U.S. that's considerably lower than the cost of direct U.S. military engagement with Russia—ignores the many other costs of a prolonged war: mounting casualties, destruction of Ukrainian cities, geopolitical and climate costs, escalation risks and the risk of low-intensity war becoming the new normal in Europe after decades of peace.
Ash's arguments in favor of continued U.S. support for Ukraine:
- “Through this conflict we've learned that Russia was an even bigger threat … [to] NATO and the West [than we had thought]”;
- “[Putin] is attacking us [the West] in our system, and it needs stopping”;
- “Diplomacy is one option, but we tried that. … The Russians didn’t really want to negotiate”; and
- “Problems [associated with the war] are not caused by the West arming Ukraine. These problems are caused by Russia invading Ukraine.”
In Ash’s assessment, the West had no viable option but to support Ukraine when Russia launched its full-scale invasion in February 2022. Were it not for Western military support, he believes, Russia might have taken all of Ukraine and continued its military offensive into former Warsaw Pact countries, dramatically altering European security.
Current state of the war in Ukraine: Parsi has argued that the war is at a stalemate, “a bloody and destructive war of attrition”; he has agreed that Moscow has been left without a realistic path to victory but disagrees with those who say this is a positive development for the West because it weakens Russia further. Ash does not see the war "as a stalemate," seeing instead "the Ukrainians having their momentum, time on the Ukrainian side”; he has interpreted recent Chinese involvement as a sign that Russia is heading toward “a devastating defeat” and “regime change.”
Should the West press for diplomacy and negotiations? While Parsi does not believe the West should stop arming Ukraine, he has maintained there is an urgent need for a diplomatic strategy. Otherwise, he believes, the West risks finding itself in a position similar to the one it faced with Tehran before reaching the 2015 "Iran nuclear deal," when, for about a decade, it focused on sanctions instead of negotiations; it was only after the U.S. made concessions in secret talks in Oman, prompting mutual concessions from Iran, that the foundation for the deal could be laid.
In Ash’s view, diplomacy is certainly an option, but unrealistic at present: The West, he believes, has repeatedly tried to engage Russia without success: “Minsk 1, Minsk 2, the Normandy Format, years of appeasement by continental European politicians.” He has also cited U.S. diplomats' attempts to engage Russia before the war and their impression that Moscow “didn’t really want to negotiate. Putin had already decided to invade Ukraine.” Thus, the West should continue its support for Ukraine until a decisive defeat of Russia, according to Ash.
Moderator Kate Davidson: One year ago, Russia invaded Ukraine. Since then, the United States has poured billions of dollars in aid and weaponry into Ukraine's war effort. While some argue that Western support has been cost-effective, others believe that the benefits do not outweigh the costs. Our speakers today are Timothy Ash and Trita Parsi.
Timothy Ash is an associate fellow in the Russia and Eurasia program at Chatham House and a senior sovereign strategist at Blue Bay Asset Management in London. He received his B.A. and M.A. from the University of Manchester, and he has had a long career in investment banking and covered Russia and Ukraine for over 30 years.
Trita Parsi is the executive vice president of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. He received M.A.s from Uppsala University and the Stockholm School of Economics and his Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. He has published several books, most recently “Losing an Enemy: Obama, Iran and the Triumph of Diplomacy” on the Iran nuclear deal.
So, to begin, we'll have them introduce their arguments, beginning with Trita.
Trita Parsi: Thank you so much. It's a great, great pleasure to be here with all of you. Great thanks to Harvard, to Russia Matters and the Monterey Initiative in Russian Studies for bringing us together on this sad one-year anniversary of Russia's illegal invasion of Ukraine.
It is critical to have a thoughtful debate on the costs of a prolonged war. And I'm honored to have been invited and hopefully can contribute to this conversation together with Professor Ash. As support has been waning in the West, particularly in the United States, when it comes to the continued war, new arguments are popping up, presumably to justify a continued war to win it on the battlefield rather than to end it at the negotiating table.
And rather than just arguments that we saw in the beginning of the war—such as that this is about the rules-based order, that this is about the democracies versus autocracies—now we're seeing new arguments that appear to be aimed at allaying these growing fears in some parts of the West that the cost of this war is starting to become uncontrolled.
And now we're told that on balance, continuing the war is a good strategy because it costs the West next to nothing compared to what it achieves, which is a deep defeat of Russia. Anthony Cordesman of CSIS wrote that [the costs of] a proxy war with Russia and a war that can be fought without any U.S. military casualties that unites most of the world's democracies behind a common cause, and that deeply punishes Russia for its aggression, are at the end of the day low. The costs are low in grand strategic terms. My esteemed counterpart in this debate wrote in a piece titled “It's Costing Peanuts for the U.S. to Defeat Russia,” that a Russia continually mired in a war that it cannot win is a strategic, a huge strategic win for the United States. Why would anyone object to that?
I want to emphasize the word “continually.” It means a prolonged war with more killings, more death and destruction that goes on for years. That is not only beneficial to the West geostrategically, but it's actually coming at a very low cost, "peanuts." This is what I reacted to when I wrote my piece because I profoundly disagree with it, both on moral and on strategic grounds.
So, my argument today is not that support for Ukraine has not been warranted, that the Ukrainians are not in their full right to defend their territory and their country. It is not to argue that Russia is not the aggressor. It clearly is. I'm not entering into the discussion as to what happened before, what didn't happen before the war. But rather, my focus is solely on the idea that opting for a prolonged war, perhaps an endless war, rather than finding a way out of, it is a low-cost proposition, and that it actually brings more good than bad.
So, if we look at the background of where we are now, a year into this war, Russia has actually failed in almost all of its strategic objectives. As Mark Milley of the U.S. Central Command has said, Russia has already lost, echoing an argument that one of my colleagues, Anatol Lieven at the Quincy Institute, has been making for some time.
Yet the war is at a standstill. Neither side seems to have much of a momentum, and a bloody and destructive war of attrition has now set in. The cost is shooting up and while enthusiasm and the support of the public has been strong early on, there are clear signs that it is waning. … Chicago Council came out with a poll that shows that Americans are now closely divided on whether Washington should support Ukraine “as long as it takes” at 48%, down from 58% just last summer. [An] AP poll shows that support for sending weapons to Ukraine is slipping as well. Those who strongly or somewhat support providing weapons dropped from 60% down to 48%. My own polling at the Quincy Institute showed hints of this already last fall, where 57% of Americans that we polled show that they preferred a diplomatic solution to this war, even if it came at the cost of territorial concessions. Now, that poll was done at a time when almost none of the other polls even included a diplomatic way out of this war as an option for people to choose from, but that's a different conversation.
Now, various calculations have been presented showing that the cost so far to the West is small in terms of the damage that has been done to Russia's power. And I don't dispute that … those numbers speak for themselves. My argument [is] that those numbers do not show us the totality of the costs or the full picture of this war, because on the face of it, the economic argument is quite valid.
The cost of degrading the Russian military would've been infinitely higher had the U.S. fought Russia itself. And Biden recognized the mood of this country early on, and from the outset established a very strong red line saying that there would be no U.S. troops on the ground. He knew that if American body bags were coming home from Ukraine, support for the war in Ukraine would evaporate rather quickly.
The only chance of having some form of a sustained support for Ukraine in this would precisely be because there wouldn't be any American casualties in this war. So, the war had to be … fought with our weapons, but with Ukrainian blood. Now, in my view, this is incomplete accounting of what the cost of a prolonged war would be.
First of all, let's not for a second disregard a massive cost to Ukraine itself, and it is immense. We're talking about more than 130,000 military casualties, more than 7,000 civilians, 35% contraction of the Ukrainian economy, an infrastructure destruction of 40% of Ukraine's energy capacity and a displacement of civilians, 13.4 million.
Now, will there be anything left of Ukraine if this war goes on for years and years? I think that's a valid question to ask because miring Russia in a war that it cannot win does not mean that Ukraine will not come out of that war utterly destroyed. And let's not forget for a second that this so-called massive geopolitical win, the defeat of Russia, was not even a priority in Washington.
Prior to its invasion of Ukraine, Russia was seen as a rather secondary geopolitical priority. All focus was on China. Russia was considered a dying power, not a peer or a near peer competitor to us. Russia's failed invasion has not only shown that that was a correct assessment, it has reinforced that notion.
Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin told reporters last October that Russia can systematically challenge the United States over the long term. So even within the rather narrow framework of thinking of the geostrategic cost and benefits of the war, only from the perspective of U.S. versus Russia, even there, the benefits don't hold up because the defeat of Russia was never the prize or the priority of the United States prior to this invasion.
Instead, we're seeing a lot of strategic costs that don't easily show up on these balance sheets and oftentimes tend to be ignored. First and foremost, we have to recognize that keeping the war going will increase the risk of a direct Russian-NATO war as well as the use of nuclear weapons.
The Biden team, in my view, should be commended for having avoided these twin disasters thus far. It has managed it quite well at the end of the day. But we should be careful not to become complacent and fall under the dangerous illusion that these risks can be managed equally successfully for years and years going forward. And this is, of course, a tremendously important issue because we're then talking about a real nuclear war.
Second, the more the war drags on, we're seeing different constellations forming geopolitically around the world. That should not be seen as beneficial, and in fact should have … perhaps even been [among] higher priorities to counter. Because the more the war drags on, the more it contributes to the formation of a Russian-Chinese-Iranian alliance.
According to the U.S. intelligence, as we've now learned for just for the last couple of days, China is now weighing seriously sending lethal weapons to Russia. That is something that has not happened during the first year of the war, and it would indeed bring the war into a completely different type. Iran is already providing weapons to Russia against Ukraine. So far, it's been drones, but there is also a risk that they will be providing the Russians with ballistic missiles. Washington's objective, strategically, should be to disrupt any such alliance building rather than to hasten it, and the U.S. has long, in my view, been too dismissive of this risk.
In 1997, then Sen. Biden recounted on C-SPAN how Russian diplomats had told him that NATO expansion would push Moscow toward Beijing. Biden responded rather dismissively and said, good luck, and if that doesn't work out for you, try Iran, and added that he just simply didn't see that that actually would be a real option for Russia.
Yet that is exactly what we're seeing happening right now. And I think that is important to take into account as we are assessing what the geopolitical cost and benefits of a prolonged war would be.
Another area within that context, of course, is that the Russia-China-Iranian collaboration to try to de-dollarize their trade and find alternative financial structures for their trade and move away from the dollar is now significantly sped up by this war. And again, it's something that the U.S. itself prior to this war had identified as a very dangerous development from a U.S. interest perspective.
Thirdly, the idea that a prolonged war cost[s] peanuts—it's also latently Eurocentric. And this regards both the cost of war imposed on the rest of the world, and for the West’s geopolitical gain, but also the detrimental geostrategic shifts that can take place outside of the Russia-Iran-China triangle with particularly the "global south." In fact, a very interesting poll came out by ECFR last week that showed that the war in Ukraine had solidified the "West versus the rest” configuration of the world around this war. The war has unified the West and has given it purpose, which weirdly implies that peace does not provide the West with much purpose. But let's have that conversation at some other time. But it has utterly failed to persuade major powers of the rest of the world, such as China, India, Turkey—in a way that the authors of this report said was extremely sobering. To simplify what is happening is that the rest of the world does not see Russia as a threat or an enemy, even though they do agree that Russia clearly is the aggressor in this war. They tend to want to see an end to the war sooner rather than later. They oppose a long war and they do not see it as a defense of some sort of a mythical rules-based order and certainly do not want to make any major sacrifices for the West to be able to return to a global order that enables it—in their view, and only it—to act above and outside of those rules.
I've written about this earlier on, only months into the war, that this trend was clearly seen. It didn't get as much attention as I had hoped for, but that is because of how, in Washington and Europe, we have not really grown accustomed to taking into account the voices of the global south because we're not fully internalizing how the world truly has changed in the last decade.
Now this is a fascinating survey, and I would strongly agree with one of its conclusions … that rather than expecting the global south to support Western efforts to defend the fading post-Cold War order, we need to be ready to partner with them in building a new one. I think that is an absolutely right conclusion, but we then have to also be very clear that, if the war continues, the longer it goes, the more difficult it will be for the West to build a new order together, and partnering with the global south and avoiding this “West versus the rest” configuration that is taking place. And this is another key cost that has not been taken into account.
Fourthly, the war has been a disaster for the climate and for the climate agenda. Setting aside immediate costs for the climate in the war itself, we have to recognize that for us to have any chance whatsoever to counter climate change, we are going to need a degree of human collaboration unseen in human history.
For that to happen, we need to mean it when we say that the climate crisis is an existential crisis. "Meaning it" means that it takes priority over all other crises, including whatever benefits a weakened Russia would have if the war goes on. Clearly, we do not mean it, and we don't mean it when we say it. I would argue to say that we mean it less now than we meant it last year, and perhaps a year from now we may not even pretend to mean it any longer. The idea that a weakened Russia is more important than this, to me, comes across as obscene and extremely, extremely narrow.
My final point is this: I grew up in Europe. My family had fled a revolution and a later war that could have ended after two years but was prolonged for another six. Nothing was gained by either side in those last six years of that war, except for more death and more despair. The Europe I grew up in enjoyed a remarkable peace, to the point that it was inconceivable that Germany and France ever could go to war with each other again.
My fear is that, if this war continues, it will not be war that will be inconceivable for Europe but rather peace. Europe may find itself in a state of constant low-intensity war that cements enmity beyond generations. And as Farah Stockman wrote in The New York Times yesterday, war becomes a generational grudge that begets new generational grudges. In that new, dark normal, there's a risk that peace no longer can be imagined, let alone achieved. And the cost of that, in my view, is certainly not peanuts. Thank you.
KD: Thank you Dr. Parsi. Professor Ash, would you like to lay out your argument? Thanks.
Timothy Ash: Just to set a bit of pretext, I was supposed to lead the debate today with setting out my argument. So, the whole debate has kind of been turned on its head a bit. But anyway, I'll go on to restate my, kind of, case.
The first question, I guess: Is Russia a threat to the U.S., a threat to us? And I'd say the evidence is overwhelming. I mean, Trita basically agreed with that anyway. But I think through this conflict we've learned that Russia was an even bigger threat. I mean, Putin himself said he's at war with NATO and the West. Watch Russian state TV that is vitriolic in its attack on the West and threats to bomb the U.S., to bomb the West. Look at the malign actions of Russia and Putin since the Munich Security [Conference] in 2007 and, starting in 2008, with the invasion of Georgia, annexation of Abkhazia, South Ossetia, annexation of Crimea, military event in Donbas in 2014, shooting down of [MH17], efforts to annex Transdniestria.
Actually, Russia has used weapons of mass destruction. I know Trita kind of highlighted the threat of nuclear war, but actually Russia's already used weapons of mass destruction with the Litvinenko case and killing of a British citizen with the attack in Salisbury. Remarkable actually and not enough attention.
Let's focus on interference in elections, Brexit, U.S. elections. Putin has been backing the far right and the far left because he sees this as a battle between kleptocracy and Western liberal democracy. It's a battle for survival. He's trying to sow division in our society by backing far right and far left.
His intervention in Syria. His intervention in Syria was not about defending a military base in Syria. It was to create chaos in Syria and to force millions of migrants across Europe to, again, sow division in Europe and play to racists and fascists in Europe and right-wing parties.
The coup attempt in Montenegro in 2016. We've had massive cyberattacks. We've had Putin launch an energy war against Europe to freeze Europeans in their homes. This winter we've seen efforts by Russia to infiltrate Western business, finance, the media culture, sports and academia to capture Western society from inside.
Intervention in Turkish politics. I think to stall, to weaken NATO from within again. And now we're seeing it with efforts by President Erdogan to stall Swedish and Finnish NATO membership.
You know, again, Putin sees this as a war against us. He's escalated through this conflict. So, for me, Putin is, irrefutably, a bad actor. He wants to change the global status quo. He's attacking us in our system, and it needs stopping. Now, he is a bad actor. We kind of agree. What do you do to stop him?
Diplomacy is one option, but we tried that. Minsk I, Minsk II, the Normandy Format, years of appeasement by continental European politicians. We had the Geneva—two summits by U.S. diplomats. Biden met Putin and then U.S. diplomats later in the year. And the messaging from U.S. diplomats in the, I think, December meeting was that the Russians didn't really want to negotiate. Putin had already decided to invade Ukraine. So, we tried to [get] diplomacy to work.
What are the other options? I've presented in a separate paper by CEPA that, actually, we've had no option but to support Ukraine in the defense of its own country. Now, it's interesting, Trita mentioned some of the problems caused by this war: climate, pressures on the global south, the cost-of-living crisis. These problems are not caused by the West arming Ukraine. These problems are caused by Russia invading Ukraine. That's the fact, that's the reality. The pressure on climate change and the pressure on the global south would be stopped if Putin stopped the war.
And I questioned Trita. I mean, what do you imagine would happen if we stopped arming the Ukrainians? What would be the scenario, actually, if we hadn't given the Ukrainians the handheld air-defense systems, Javelin anti-tank missile systems? They're very low-tech weapons at the start of the war. What happens if Putin had captured the whole of Ukraine straight away?
How do you think European security would look in that instance? Do you think Putin would stop there? Read his speech in the middle of 2021, where he set out very, very clearly his ambitions for an imperial Russia, a colonizing Russia retaking lost territories. And that's how he sees this. He sees this as his battle to recreate the Soviet Union from 1991. If we hadn't armed the Ukrainians, he would push further into Warsaw Pact countries, into the Baltic states, into Central Asia. And I think it's just ridiculous to say that stopping arming the Ukrainians will somehow bring peace. It won't; it will bring defeat for Ukraine. That's the reality: defeat for Ukraine, aggression pays, Putin will continue. That is the reality.
Now, in terms of the threat to the U.S., I've argued that Russia is a threat to Ukraine. He's carrying out genocide against Ukrainians and war crimes in Ukraine. He's clearly a threat to Europe and NATO allies of the U.S., and he's a direct threat to the U.S. by his attack on democracy and Western liberal market democracy. So, we have no option but to arm the Ukrainians. It's costing $40 billion a year. Half of that is on defense. Forty billion last year, about 38 billion this year.
The way I put it in my article, you know, U.S. defense spending is $800 billion a year. If you think of threats—serious threats to the U.S.—I'd put China and Russia at the top. You could add North Korea, Iran, Islamic terrorism. There are five or six very serious threats. But dividing out the 800 billion of threat, or spending to the threat, you could probably allocate probably 100, 150 billion of U.S. defense spending … against the Russia threat.
If … you reduce it, by helping the Ukrainians take out Russian conventional capability, I would argue that is an incredible investment: $40 billion to erode the threat from a $150 billion threat a year in terms of defense spending. And it's with no U.S. boots on the ground, no threat to the U.S. military.
Now, many people argue—and I thought Trita would perhaps argue with that—you know, there were lots of competing claims for U.S. dollars from U.S. taxpayers at home. Totally get that. Totally understand it. But this war, I think, will bring benefits. It's brutal and horrible to say it, but it'll bring jobs to the U.S. through increased defense spending. NATO defense spending, because of the Russian threat, because of Russia's invasion of Ukraine, will increase to over 2% of GDP. A lot of that spending will come back to the U.S. in increased demand for U.S. armaments. It's a horrible industry, but we are facing a threat to us because Putin is an evil guy who is attacking Ukraine and attacking us. We have to defend ourselves.
Interestingly there are other wins for the U.S. I would argue that the fact that Russian military technology has performed so poorly in Ukraine means that Russia will be less able to sell its own technology to third countries: Egypt trying to buy S400s, Turkey trying to buy S400s.
Interestingly, many of those countries … feel like it's okay to have a worse relationship with the U.S. because they can buy … arms to defend themselves from Russia. Actually, now, I think the reality is there's a huge gap between the capability of Western military technology and Russian military technology, and I think we see many of those countries realized that, if they are going to be able to defend themselves, they need to access Western military technology, and they will improve the relationship with the West. We've seen that already with Pakistan, as Pakistan has improved the relationship with the U.S. because it wants to get F-16 upgrades.
There are many other benefits from the West defending Ukraine, showing that it's willing to act against bad actors globally. Imagine the message that this sends to China over Taiwan. That its military technology supplied by the Russians is not perhaps what they thought it was. Maybe they'll think twice now about going to Taiwan.
A weaker Russia exposed through this conflict is also seeing some potential benefits in terms of diplomatic solutions elsewhere. Nagorno-Karabakh, between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Serbia and Kosovo also seem to be talking together much more progressively than they were because I think Vucic and Kurti are realizing that maybe the option of being friendly with Russia rather than the West is not an option. He knows he has to improve the relationship with the West.
So, I think $40 billion a year spending compared to the threat from Russia is a recurrent win, a recurrent gain in terms of the erosion of Russian conventional military capability. So, I've already said that the question is what happens if we don't arm Ukraine? Ukraine fails to exist. That's the reality. Putin will not stop at the borders.
Now, I'm going to move on a little bit because the elephant in the room for me is this Mearsheimer kind of argument. I'm afraid from Trita I kind of got it in a way that blame has been apportioned to the West for starting this war, for fueling this war. By continuing to arm the Ukrainians, we are continuing this conflict. And certainly, Mearsheimer and people like him argue that it's all because of NATO enlargement. It's our fault. We are to blame. And I'm afraid that is complete bullshit. Excuse my French in this format, but the reality is that is just not backed by fact.
Firstly, and, actually, interestingly, Mearsheimer argues that the solution to this conflict is a neutral status for Ukraine. Well, interestingly, Ukraine had a neutral status, a non-aligned status between 1991 and 2014. That non-aligned status—and actually a military doctrine that was anti-Western and not anti-Russian—resulted in Crimea being annexed in 2014 and Russia militarily intervening, invading in 2014. The Ukrainians tried that. It failed. If you look at the opinion polls from 2014, only 8% of Ukrainians wanted to be in NATO in 2014. Ukraine had no aspirations to be in NATO. There was no realistic chance of the West allowing them to join NATO. The Germans blocked Georgian accession to NATO, right?
So, it had nothing to do with NATO enlargement. It had everything to do with Russian imperialism and Putin's desires to expand its borders. It's interesting that the reality is NATO enlargement is popular. NATO is enlarged because countries want to join to counter the threat that they see from Russia. Very few countries want to join the CSTO, the Russian-aligned security organization. There's a queue of people to join [NATO]. Ask yourself why that is. It's because Russia is aggressive in the region, it's expansionist in the region. It's intervening in other countries to further its own advantage.
And I think one of the most interesting things for me is this idea that NATO has been this aggressive expansionist organization that has been threatening to invade Russia and this is a defensive war by Russia. Let's just think about this. I mean, NATO has enlarged. Absolutely. But what we've seen with enlargement is, as countries have joined, the feeling of collective security has actually seen a reduction in defense spending. There's a lot of focus now on the 2% of GDP that countries have been encouraged to meet. Until that time, countries are spending the defense budget. Think about the U.K. military. We are at the lowest size, 78,000 British troops. That's the lowest number since before the first world war. The last U.S. tank left Germany, main battle tank, left Germany in 2013. No U.S. main battle tanks in Europe in 2013 just before the annexation of Crimea and Russia's invasion of Donbas in 2014, because of the supposedly NATO threat to Russia.
A lot of focus is on Leopard 2 main battle tanks at the moment. Germany reduced the number of main battle tanks from 2,000 in 1991 to 200. So, this NATO expansion: How is NATO going to attack and take over Russia with 78,000 U.K. troops, with 200 main battle tanks in Germany that seemingly don't work very well? I don't get it. Actually, the threat from NATO has reduced with NATO enlargement, not increased.
So, I struggle to understand Mearsheimer's view at all. He doesn't offer any solutions with respect to neutrality. Neutrality didn't work for Ukraine. The reason they want to join NATO is because Russia invaded them. That's the reality.
So, I probably used my 20 minutes, I would imagine. So, I'm probably going to withdraw and allow some questions around, I guess, what both of us have argued.
KD: Yes. Thank you. So, we're going to move to questions in a minute, and if you'd like to ask a question, you can put it in the Q&A function at the bottom of the Zoom. Ahead of that though, I'd like to give you each, if you have any brief responses or arguments, just a couple of minutes ahead of the Q&A. And we can start with Dr. Parsi if you would like.
TP: Sure. Thank you, Tim, for that. I want to avoid a disjointed conversation, as I think there may have been some misunderstandings. I'm not John Mearsheimer, so those arguments you're going to have to have with him. As I said, I came in at this because of my concern that, at this point in the war, are we doing enough to be able to translate Ukraine's military successes on the battlefield—that clearly could not have happened had it not been for the support that the West had provided, although [I] do not want to take any agency away from the Ukrainians who have fought very, very bravely in all of this.
What I'm concerned about is the belief that this current stalemate is actually a good thing, but let this just continue because the longer it continues, the weaker Russia becomes and that has geopolitical benefits to the United States compared to the cost, mindful of the fact that it is American money largely, but Ukrainian blood that is paying for it. That's the point that I am opposing here, in the sense that I believe that we actually have to do everything we can to be able to translate that military success into a strong diplomatic initiative and negotiating strength for the Ukrainians to be able to bring this to an end.
That is not an argument that Russia is not the aggressor or that Putin was not wrong, or that there should actually be a stop of arming the Ukrainians. I think in the course of these negotiations, there probably shouldn’t be. It’s about: How do we actually end this rather than thinking, as some articles at a minimum have left the impression of, which is that this is actually a pretty good stalemate because it mires Russia in a war [it] cannot win, weakens it further?
Tim's perspective is that Russia has these ambitions to take the rest of Europe, etc., at least very negative intentions. I don't dispute that, but that is, again, my argument has been that there's a lot of costs involved in thinking that this is a good situation and that we shouldn't move it toward some sort of a conclusion of this war. That is not only borne by the Ukrainians, although they will bear the most of it as they have so far, it's a disaster what has happened to Ukraine, but a whole set of other geopolitical implications that come with this, that compared to further weakening Russia, in my view, does not add up.
And I have not said “stop arming the Ukrainians.” I've said that we need to make sure that this is matched with a diplomatic strategy. Now, of course, diplomacy is not easy. There's plenty of arguments that [can] be made back and forth as to who is serious and not serious.
What this situation reminds me of is the situation that existed between the United States and Europe vis-a-vis Iran during the nuclear crisis. For roughly 10 years, the Western strategy was entirely sanctions-centric. The idea was you just had to punish the Iranian economy and you wouldn't get the Iranians to be serious about negotiations until they were hurting so badly that they were forced to become serious.
The problem was that the Iranians had an exact mirror image analysis. The West was not serious about diplomacy, in their view, because it was making demands that were completely unacceptable and outside of the international law and the NPT. And the Iranian response was to intensify their nuclear program in order to make it as costly as possible for the U.S. not to negotiate a more reasonable way and, by that, make the United States more serious.
This went on for 10 years until in secret talks in Oman, brokered by the Omanis, the United States, finally, made a major concession, accepting enrichment on Iranian soil under certain very specific circumstances, which then elicited the Iranian concessions that later on became the framework and the foundation for the JCPOA.
Now, in the case of Iran, going on for 10 years was perhaps not that costly. In fact, it wasn't for the West. It is a middle power at best. It does not have nuclear weapons. It has a nuclear program, but no nuclear weapons. What I'm seeing right now is a similar approach. We think that we can make the Russians serious by just inflicting as much cost as possible onto them.
My perception is that Putin sees it the same way. He doesn't think the West is serious for his reasons, whether he's right or wrong, and as a result thinks that he can only make that happen by constantly upping the ante. But in this case, letting this go on for a couple more years is going to have absolutely disastrous consequences, even if it doesn't lead to a direct U.S.-NATO-Russia confrontation, or a nuclear crisis.
So my conversation's morally on that. At this point, what do we do? Do we think that the current status quo is actually a beneficial one geostrategically, or do we want to double down on trying to actually find a way to end this crisis in a way that makes Ukraine whole and safe and Russia no longer a threat?
KD: All right. Thank you. Professor Ash, if you'd like to respond.
TA: Yeah, I should own up, I don't have a chair. I'm not a professor. It's very generous of you to bestow that on me, but I don't have one of those yet.
Really interesting. I mean, lots of great points there by Trita. Firstly, how about letting the Ukrainians decide, how about that? It's a very innovative kind of solution, but what are they telling us? They are telling us they want weapons to defend their country. The opinion polls are saying they don't want to negotiate, they want to fight on because it's their country. They see this as a war of survival.
Go back to Putin's essay that was written in mid-2021. Putin doesn't accept Ukraine's right to exist. He doesn't accept Ukrainians’ right to exist. Look what happened in Bucha. This is a genocide against the Ukrainians, which Russia has done before in the Holodomor in the 1930s, right? So, Ukrainians have nowhere to go. They know that if they don't get the weapons to defend themselves, Bucha will happen all over Ukraine, and we cannot stand by and let that happen. So, listen to the Ukrainians, let them decide when they want to negotiate with Putin. So that's the first point.
Secondly, on escalation and the threat of a NATO-Russia conflict. Yes, I always thought that Putin had escalation dominance when we went into this conflict. I thought he cared about Ukraine more than we did. I think what we've learned here is that Putin actually is scared of NATO, he's scared of NATO's conventional military might.
The poor performance of the Russian military. … When we went into this conflict, Russia perceived itself as a peer global power, peer with U.S. and China. It saw Ukraine as a fifth-rate military power, using second-generation NATO technology. It's beating Russia and we've seen on the red line, I mean, Putin said lots of red lines: don't supply MiG-29s, T72s, HIMARS, Patriots, whatever it is. He threatened to bomb NATO arms convoys. He didn't do anything of that, right? He doesn't do it because he doesn't want to get into a direct conflict with NATO on conventional weapons, which he would lose in a matter of days. Right? So, we shouldn't be worried about this NATO. Oh, we shouldn't be worried. I mean, we, we obviously should be worried.
But I think it's a low probability that Putin will escalate this to a conflict with NATO because he would lose that. And I think it would also lose the global south in terms of their support. He would lose China in terms of whatever support they've given.
And on China, interestingly, I think today we had the, and, and the threat, how this plays out in terms of U.S.-China relationships. I mean, the Chinese have not given that much support to Russia. I mean, it's pretty clear at the outset. Putin didn't tell Xi. The Chinese were pretty pissed off by that. This didn't work to Xi’s agenda; it caused a global cost of living crisis, made his situation at home much more difficult.
The Chinese were worried. Their main focus is getting back to the status quo, getting the global economy back onto a stable footing and not creating more problems with the U.S. than they have already. So, they've kept a distance, and I think in the middle, you saw six months or so ago, they were seeing it as an opportunity. An opportunity because they see the relationship between Russia and China as between two brothers, yes. But Russia and Putin are the much younger, weaker brother. They are the dominant partner in that relationship. Putin had at the onset thought they were twins. Not that he was the junior partner.
This conflict has worked for the Chinese in terms of making sure Putin and the Russians know exactly what the relationship is between China and Russia. Russia is dependent on China.
Now, interestingly, today—well, actually, since the Munich Security Conference—and then today, we had the revelation of the Chinese 12-point peace plan. China’s been nowhere for a year in all this. It’s done nothing to try and bring peace in this conflict, and suddenly the Chinese are interested.
Now, I would step back a bit. Trita has said that we're in a stalemate scenario. I don't see that. I don't see it as a stalemate. I see the Ukrainians having their momentum, time on the Ukrainian side. They get more access to better Western technology. They've had victories already in Kherson and Kharkiv that no one expected. And the fact that the Chinese finally got involved, tells me that, actually, they are beginning to believe what many in the West are also beginning to believe. Putin mobilized half a million troops, and he started the new offensive in, around Bakhmut, etc. It's failing. It's running into the ground. They're suffering a huge amount of casualties. The Chinese intervened because they are worried about whether Putin can survive this conflict. They're worried about a devastating defeat for Russia in Ukraine that would see regime change in Russia. That's the only reason they're now interested in peace, because they want to provide something of a backstop to Putin.
Now, I think the Chinese peace effort is to be welcomed. Trita mentioned diplomatic channels, etc. I don't think the U.S. government, NATO, Western governments, would object to peace negotiations. And certainly, Zelensky’s response to it today was reasonably open-minded.
But the first point of the Chinese peace plan was respect for the sovereignty of countries. Russia has to exit the territory it's stolen, it's invaded of Ukraine. That's the first line. The Ukrainians will not accept anything else. That's the reality though. Everything. Anything else? That's the starting point. We can then talk about—if you believe me and it was never about NATO, NATO membership anyway. The Ukrainians probably would accept no future NATO membership on the condition they get security guarantees from Western countries, and they are not disarmed as part of any peace process. A state of Israel scenario for Ukraine, that they can defend themselves against future Russian aggression because it's pretty clear that unless Putin is defeated this time around, he will come back in because he's obsessed with Ukraine and he's at war with the West.
So, I'll end there.
KD: All right, thank you. So, on that topic we have a question from Bodan Vivicky that kind of builds on that and is for both of you. What specific solution or solutions does each speaker recommend at this point in time to make Ukraine whole and safe? So, what kind of process for ending the war and what kind of perhaps post-war architecture would you recommend?
I don't know if Dr. Parsi would like to go first.
TP: Sure. Thank you. It is an extremely tough question at this point. And part of the reason why it is so difficult is because both sides are putting forward very maximalist positions. Those positions can be entirely legitimate from their perspectives, but we are at a stage in which it's very, very difficult to actually be able to truly see what are they willing to settle for? Because at the end of the day, all sides right now—because it's a war of attrition—are very adamant about signaling that they have the ability, the willingness inside. In fact, the desire to see this go on for a very long time, that's what you do when you're in this situation. Because if you don't, you are afraid that the other side is going to think that, oh, they're winning the war of attrition. They're winning the long-term will of war. You have to scratch the surface of that to actually be able to see what their reality is beyond that. And I think we see some of that when it comes to the conversations here in Washington.
Overtly, it very much will be there with Ukraine until the very end. You scratch the surface of that and there's a tremendous amount of worry about how long this will go. A tremendous amount of worry that the Ukrainians are not going to be able to take back Crimea, and that it is going to lead to an absolute disaster, a potential confrontation between NATO and Russia.
But you don't want that to be out there on the surface because right now there's a mutual belief that the other side is not serious about diplomacy. You want to put the toughest face forward. But this also then leads to a scenario in which we have very little information and knowledge about what potentially could be working.
And this is where, again, my fear is that in the sense of not having some back channels, some discussions, being able to test each other. Because that's what these, these diplomacies—there's a false belief that diplomacy means that you get to the table and you quickly cook up a deal and that's it. And you only go there when you're already 95% ready.
Most of the diplomacy is just to feel the other side out, be able to make an assessment of where are they? What do they really think about how well or badly they're doing? To be able to test ideas of, would they be open to X, Y and Z? We're not seeing … any of that happening, and that makes me very worried that it will have a higher risk of getting into a prolonged warfare in which it will become increasingly difficult to find a solution.
Now, are there specific ideas and solutions that I would propagate? No, not one that I would say, “look, I think we should impose this or that on the two sides,” particularly not on the Ukrainians, mindful of the fact that they're the ones who have been invaded. But let's not for a second imagine that this is a whole different category of conflicts. There's been plenty of conflicts in the past, plenty of creative solutions to even be able to resolve conflicts of this kind that are extremely sensitive. There's very many zero-sum variables of territory, for instance.
It is doable, but it's not doable if we think that we just have to go at it on the battlefield until the other side is so exhausted, so that they simply give up. That may work after eight years. And then the question is, what is left of Ukraine? What is left of Ukraine to make it whole and safe? And we've seen the damage so far in Ukraine. I ran some of the numbers early on of how tremendously devastating this war has been in the first year, that otherwise has been deemed as success for Ukraine. Then imagine what a second year—that potentially is not deemed as success for Ukraine—actually will look like.
KD: Thank you.
TA: Yeah, maybe. Well, firstly, I would say [I] absolutely agree. This war has been utterly devastating for Ukraine, but it's not Western weapons that are causing the damage.
TP: Nor have I suggested that, Tim.
TA: It's Russian missiles, a running Russian aggression. No, no, no. I didn't say you did. I'm just suggesting the view. Anyway. In terms of solutions, look, firstly, as you've already said, no solution unless the Ukrainians drive the process and are in agreement.
I mentioned already 87% of Ukrainians in a recent poll said no territorial concessions to Russia. That's—it's an opinion poll, you know, you can take it, whatever you want from it. In terms of solutions, firstly, this idea of ceasefire. Russia would love a ceasefire because we've seen previous ceasefires: Minsk I, Minsk II. Ceasefire means that Russia gets a frozen conflict. It buys time to re-arm, re-equip and to go in again. It's done it already, it did it in 2014 and 2015, and it didn't stop attacking Ukraine in the period from 2015 to 2021. It regrouped and then it went through a full invasion.
So, a ceasefire for the Ukrainians kind of means nothing, and I think should not be supported unless it's accompanied by substantive commitments. And I think what the minimum should be [is] a Russian withdrawal to the Feb. 23, 2022, positions. I think retaking Donbas and Crimea will be very difficult for the Ukrainian military. I think they probably accept that. But I would suggest not giving away Donbas and Crimea, going back to the Feb. 23, 2022, settings, and then talking about the long-term future of Donbas and Crimea.
I mentioned already NATO. You know, do the Ukrainians really care that much about actual NATO membership? Right? Not as long as they have the ability to defend themselves and they have sufficient security guarantees. You can think of lots of things that provide the same kind of military assurance for the Ukrainians, so that they're not going to get invaded again.
For me it’s, basically, abide by China's number one peace proposal. We need to accept Ukraine's territorial integrity and its sovereignty. Now interesting, the Chinese proposal, if you take it by its letter, would suggest the Russians actually should give Crimea and the Donbas back. Fine, if that's what the Chinese are proposing. That's an excellent solution.
But I think at this point in time, Russia has no path to victory. I mean, that is the reality. How is it going? Even if you imagine a scenario where the West stops arming the Ukrainians, what we saw in those first few days and weeks after the invasion in February was … Ukrainians’ absolute determination to resist Russian occupation with very little equipment.
So, we may stop arming the Ukrainians. They will continue to fight for every piece of their own land because, again, they know what Russian occupation means. They lived it through the 1930s. They lived it through the Soviet period. They know what they don't want. They don't want to live under Putin's rule and they're showing incredible bravery. Incredible bravery against remarkable odds to hold their territory. So, you know, I don't see how Putin can win this conflict, right? He's lost half his conventional military capability. He's mobilized half a million troops. A lot of them have already died in Ukraine. Even if he takes a significant amount, more Ukrainian territory, how is he going to hold it against a determined Ukrainian population? It doesn't make sense. Putin is losing across the board. The Chinese know it. You know, one hopes that Putin knows it, he needs to withdraw. And, you know, that is a solution.
TP: Sorry, Kate, can I come in? Because I think there's some fascinating points of agreement as well as some potential disagreement. I strongly agree with Tim—I don't see a path to a Russian victory at all. In fact, that's why I think Russia has already lost, which then makes me wonder, well, then why hesitance toward moving much more aggressively toward diplomacy?
They don't have a path to victory on the battlefield, even at ceasefire, which I agree potentially could be used for that. Nevertheless, should worry us less if we have come to the conclusion, as Tim has, that Russia doesn't have a plan toward a victory, which makes it all the more important. Let's find a way to end this war rather than prolonging a war that we've already said Russia can't win anyways.
So, what's the value of letting it go on for years and years, if we already have reached a point in which Russia has lost? What's the added value of this and, and to what extent? Again, I want to bring the conversation a little bit more globally here. There has been [a] significant cost of this war. Of course, nothing more than what the Ukrainians have endured, but for the rest of the world as well.
I mean, between Ukraine and Russia, that's the food basket of the world. And for the first year, there's been some pretty effective ways of dealing with it, so it has minimized that impact. But, you know, there were significant fears of major food shortages in the Middle East, for instance, as a result of this.
And we saw some mediation that actually was successful in reducing that pressure, which was what the Turks did and managed to get food out. But given all of this and the risk of losing the rest of the world, increasingly feeling that the only reason the West is continuing this is not because a deal cannot be struck. It's not because Russia has not been defeated yet. It's not because Russia has not been deprived of any path to victory. They have been deprived of a path to victory. They have been defeated. They cannot win this, but yet we're prolonging it. If so, in order to further weaken Russia, rather than opting for a much more robust effort to actually bring the war to an end.
I’m not arguing that it’s the West’s fault or anything like that. I'm saying the West has agency, the United States has agency. I think your number's a little bit low—depends on how you count, of course, but it's about 100 billion [dollars], 140 billion or so, that have been allocated to Ukraine. Not all of it is weapons, of course, and I think you may have been counting the weapons.
You can't give 140 billion, 140 billion in one year and not have agency. That doesn't mean that the Ukrainians don't have agency, but to pretend that the West doesn't have a decision-making power in all of this is also not entirely correct. We do. And if the Russians don't have a path to victory because of what the Ukrainians have managed to do on the battlefield, what else do we want before we say, you know what? Let's really push for diplomacy and end this war.
KD: So, I'd like to return to the Q&A, so that we make sure we get in enough questions. And I think there's a related question from Perry Bloom on, not the question of Russian defeat, but of Ukrainian victory.
And he asked, “Would it be fair to say that, given sufficient resources, Ukraine can, in a relatively short time, achieve victory on the battlefield that is not an endless or prolonged war, but a fairly short war, perhaps by the end of calendar year 2023, ending in a Ukrainian victory, is in fact a desirable outcome?”
And, so, if you'd like to start first, Mr. Ash.
TA: I was just going to push it back to Trita beforehand. I, and maybe you could answer in his response as well. I mean, just the topic of this whole debate, right? So, what are you prepared to stop or reduce financial and military support for Ukraine? And what do you think would actually happen? What would be the result of that, right? So anyway, maybe you could answer that in your response. And I’m of the view like Ben Hodges. I mean, I think with the right equipment, Ukraine has the manpower, the motivation. We've seen their incredible acumen in fighting this war for a year against this global superpower, right? I think the Russian forces are vulnerable in Ukraine, the southern land bridge is very vulnerable. The sheer level of casualties that Russia is now taking, you know, over 100,000 killed. I mean, just remember the however many years in Afghanistan, over a decade, 15,000 Soviet troops died in that period.
There will be a huge number of mobilized troops come home injured. Families who have suffered losses. A huge amount of blood and treasure has been lost by Russia in this conflict. I don’t think it’s right to assume that Russian society would just continue this conflict with suffering ever, ever increasing losses.
So, I do see a path for Ukrainian victory. We saw that in Kherson and Kharkiv against expectations. We just need to give them the counter weapons to end this war quickly.
KD: Dr. Parsi, you can respond if you’d like.
TP: Thank you. Thank you. Thank you for that question, Tim. No, I would not stop it. I’ve not argued that either. I would, however, also not continue it without coupling it with a robust diplomatic strategy that is more forward-leaning than what we’ve seen so far.
Precisely because otherwise, we will risk ending up in a prolonged state of war, which ultimately will be really bad for the Ukrainians for two reasons, because I see clear signs in American society that the willingness to continue this level of support is strongly waning. And a couple of months from now, you don’t want to have a scenario, particularly mindful of some of the changes that happened in the House of Representatives in Congress, in which the money would be blocked without having done an effort to be able to translate the current victory into a strong negotiating position. That’s one.
Secondly, because of what I already said of how prolonging this without doing something else about it is further going to decimate Ukraine in a way that is just simply morally unacceptable, in my view. But let me also bring another factor into all of this, which actually is answering the question of the gentleman from the audience.
I am not a military expert, so I'm not going to claim to say that, you know, I've made my own immensely valuable analysis and come to the conclusion that the Ukrainians cannot win. But everyone I've spoken to on the U.S. side that has that expertise, no one has come to the conclusion that the Ukrainians can. In fact, I'm hearing increasingly dire assessments of how difficult it's going to be for the Ukrainians.
If that then is the case that on the one hand, as Tim pointed out, the Chinese may be thinking that the Russians can't win and that's why they're actually intervening with some form of a peace plan, which seems to have been very much of a nothing burger so far. But bottom line is if you actually have a scenario in which the Russians are losing, and the Ukrainians in this unlikely scenario are starting to take back all of the territory, then you would actually be in the scenario that Tim spoke about early on, which is that the Chinese may actually be so fearful of a Russian loss that if their so-called diplomatic intervention didn't work, that they may actually move toward providing the Russians with military weapons. This is a concern that is quite clear on the American side right now. We have seen that the administration has now several times, referenced this saying that their intelligence suggests that the Chinese have been seriously weighing that option.
I think it would be a strategic mistake to gamble on this and think that if we just continue the war a little bit longer, we're going to be in that really much more valuable situation and negotiate then. I've seen this pattern before. When you're losing, you don't want to negotiate because why would you want to negotiate when you're losing? When you're winning, you don't want to negotiate because, hey, I can just win a little bit longer and be able to negotiate from an even better position. But he ends up in a situation in which you never negotiate at all because you don't negotiate when you win, you don't negotiate when you lose. This dynamic exists on both sides.
This is not just something for the Ukrainians, of course. Breaking that pattern is going to take some moral leadership, I would say, on both sides. And I think the sooner we move to that scenario, the better, than to think that this can just go on and miraculously something will happen, and you know, some form of an exit ramp will just fall from the sky and we can all happily take it.
KD: Alright. So, Mr. Ash, I have a question for you on armed supplies from the U.S. In fact, then I'm going follow up with a separate question for Dr. Parsi. So, an attendee asked, “The administration has said that they will continue the current U.S. policy of arming Ukraine for as long as it takes, but aren't the U.S. and NATO allies running low on ammunition? And the Western production will get to the burn rate of the Ukrainian army in about two years.” So, what's your take on that and your argument?
TA: Yeah, actually, I'll go back a little bit and again, what Trita said, certainly I'm not a military expert, but the military experts, the U.S. military and U.S. intelligence that got it spot on in terms of Russia's likely invasion, actual invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24 last year, was that the war would be over in two weeks.
We all underestimated Ukraine's military capabilities. How wrong were we all. A year later, they're still fighting against a global superpower, and they have the prospect of victory. Unbelievable. Right. So, you know, I wouldn't be so sure in the U.S. military calculations that Ukraine can't win this war. I think it absolutely can.
What is clear is Russia's already lost. Putin has already lost across the board, whether it's destruction of conventional military hits, the Russian economy, hits to Putin's prestige, you know, relationship with China. You name it. I mean everywhere Putin has lost already in this conflict.
In terms of the answerable, absolutely right. Again, I'm not a military guy. Everything I read is that both sides are struggling with munition supplies. In terms of the U.S. administration's willingness to continue to support the Ukrainians, you know, the U.S. presidential election is what, couple years away, 18 months away? Change of administration two years away. I would hope that the conflict is, is at an end by then.
But actually, what I've been incredibly encouraged by, and again, one of the ideas how Putin has already lost. I don't think anyone really expected the unity in the West, the coming together in the West, in NATO and the broader Western alliance behind Ukraine and against Russia. It's rock solid. I mean, interesting the response to the Chinese peace proposal. I didn't see any Western leaders of any significance arguing that well, the question mark was, is this serious? Are the Chinese serious? They've done nothing at all in the last year. Why should this be viewed in any way, form, as being credible, right? So, I'm amazed, I'm incredibly encouraged by the unity and why is the West unified when it wasn't, particularly in the lead up to the conflict? It's unified because what Russia has done, what Putin has done, he's started the biggest war in Europe since the second World War. He's driven a tank through international law, Ukrainian sovereignty. He's committed war crimes across Ukraine. And I think everyone gets that. Everyone finally realizes what I said at the outset of the call. Putin is a threat to us. He's a threat to our way of life.
Kind of an interesting angle. Again, something that Trita said at the start of the call. Americans didn't really get the threat from Russia at the start, you know. And Jake Sullivan, I think, was mistaken with the focus on China. Actually, I've always argued the bigger threat to us is Russia, not China.
The bigger threat is Russia because Russia is trying to destroy our system from within. It's trying to subvert and destroy Western liberal market democracy by coopting political leaders, business leaders, academics, corrupting them. He wants to destroy our system. The Chinese love the status quo. They like the political setup globally. They like the global order because they think over time, they will inevitably win the economic war if they avoid going into wars. That gives them a stronger position. Putin doesn't like the status quo. He hates the status quo because the status quo for the last 30 years has delivered Russian decline.
And actually, interestingly, through his invasion of Ukraine, Putin has accelerated Russia's decline. It's a great irony that Putin is going for greater Russia. This is a greater Russia project. Actually, because of his invasion, because of sanctions and likely defeat in Ukraine, we could end up with a scenario where you see lesser Russia, the breakup of Russia, a repeat of the Soviet Union in 1991. Lots of new states appearing in southern Russia.
KD: All right. Thank you. So, I have a separate question for Dr. Parsi. Robert Ellis asks, “The war began on unjust grounds. So, is it reasonable that a just peace is the desired end state for all parties negotiating in good faith? And so how can all parties cooperate toward supporting Ukraine in fighting a just war until that end state is reached?”
TP: Obviously it would be highly desirable to see a just peace coming out of this, a just settlement of this. But I hate to be a bearer of bad news. I fear very much that this war will end with a roughly ugly agreement because of how brutal it already has [been]. How far the two parties are away from each other and how likely it is, somewhat similar to what Tim suggested in his earlier answer, that some form of agreement that can be achieved, something that goes beyond a ceasefire will nevertheless not be a complete agreement.
There will be several issues that will remain unresolved, but the intensity of the conflict will be reduced toward not being an active conflict, but it will still be unresolved in certain aspects of it. And as a result, neither side would be particularly thrilled with it, but both sides will probably find it acceptable because the alternative of continuing the war will be increasingly unacceptable to both sides.
So, I think it's very important to not have any romanticized views about how this will end, because it's those kinds of things that I think unfairly can cause people to want to continue the fighting long after it's, you know, the marginal utility of continued fighting has become negative by having some romanticized idea of how beautiful the end result of it will be.
That is the pattern of most wars that go on for this long. I have no reason to believe that there's a high likelihood at this war, given how horrible and brutal that has been, how far the two sides are from each other, that this one will end any differently.
KD: All right, so several attendees have asked, probably most relevant to Mr. Ash, about what will happen if Russian loss in the war, Russian failure militarily, results in regime change or Putin's death, and destabilizes Russia. And so, how do you take into account that potential risk?
Well, I mean, certainly Macron, you know, made the comment that we shouldn't allow for a devastating defeat of Russia, actually. And because of the fear about what comes next, right? I would argue what comes next is unlikely to be as bad as Putin, right? This is a genocidal maniac who has invaded Ukraine, committed war crimes, genocide, killed, murdered hundreds of thousands of Russians and Ukrainians.
For what? For what? For no gain for Russia, right? He's threatened to use weapons of mass destruction. He's used weapons of mass destruction, as I mentioned earlier. I mean how worse can it get than this guy, right? My base case, I mean, I mentioned the Chinese were worried about regime change and possibly a new liberal regime emerging in Russia that would potentially be an ally of the West and would encircle China.
That's very unlikely. I think the most likely outcome is Putin will be shot, fall out of a window, pushed out of a window. You know, I don't know, suffer a sad demise at the end of an ice pick. But the next person to follow will be someone, like someone from the siloviki, but someone who I think will want to somehow normalize global relationships and pull back from the chaos that Putin has caused.
And I think the West will engage with that person. But interesting, and again, I agree actually with Trita in a lot of what he earlier said. Actually, interestingly, this idea of just and unjust war. I mean, let's imagine a scenario where, for example, we get a ceasefire tomorrow and both sides stay where they are on the battlefield, right?
Russia keeps the southern land bridge, it keeps the extra bits of Donbas, and Zaporizhzhia, Kherson, etc. Sanctions will remain in Russia. There will be no moderation of sanctions. The relationship with the West will not improve. The West is united in seeing Putin as a threat because of this conflict, right?
So, Russia's outlook in that scenario, even with a ceasefire, is dreadful: decline, stagnation. Millions, probably, of demobilized Russian troops coming back asking why did they fight this war? A huge strain on the Russian economy. A need to rebuild the Russian military, which will cost a lot of money. A need to spend money on those mobilized troops to stop them rioting. So, this is a dismal, grim outlook for Russia. And, yes, I mean, I think in any scenario now, the outlook goes socially and politically for Russia is pretty grim unless there is a reset with the West, unless there is a deal that enables a moderation of sanctions, and to bring Russia back into the international order.
KD: So, someone asked a question that I think is relevant for both of you. Jay Wilbur asked, “Isn't it a serious dimension of this conflict that there's in fact a split in the Ukrainian population? So, 26% to 40% having identified as ethnically Russian or primarily Russian speakers. So, what about this proportion of the population and how does that factor into your thoughts on a solution to this conflict based on how you view the cost to the U.S.?” And Dr. Parsi, you could go first since you haven't spoken recently.
TP: Well, it's not just them. You know, obviously it's a very important element. We oftentimes forget that folks living in Eastern Ukraine have complex identities because of a very complex history. And this is what I was hinting at early on in my opening statement that we're now seeing, first of all, Putin made a huge miscalculation.
He felt that that was going to be a population that would be on his side. It appears not to be the case at all. Clearly, he's pushed them away from him. But on the other hand, we're also seeing in the polls that I've seen, I don't remember all the numbers, that when it comes to the opinion of the Ukrainian population, when it comes to finding some form of a settlement to agreement, their openness or not non-openness to territorial concessions, etc. as well.
They're different if you're living in the east or whether you're living in the west. And I think that has something to do also with the … linguistic identity of those populations. All of this is just going to be an absolute mess to unravel and overcome. And it's already a tremendous disaster.
It's just going to make it much, much worse if the war continues without the proper efforts to be able to bring it to an end. If I could just say one thing to what Tim suggested. I remember how a lot of folks argue that, hey, what could be worse than Saddam? What could be worse than Kaddafi? Well, we learned rather quickly that there could be much worse situations, chaos, instability.
The Middle East had five active conflicts in 1998. By 2020, it was 22 active conflicts. A lot of that were derivatives of the destruction of the Iraqi state. And later Libya as well, which spread a tremendous amount of instability. A scenario in which the Russian Federation falls apart is not going to lead to a neat configuration of new states that pop up and out of nowhere apparently end up being liberal democracies. It's going to far more likely be a tremendous mess with massive human suffering and instability that it will spread in addition to all kinds of migration waves that we will have as a result of climate, add this one to it as well.
So, these are extremely dangerous scenarios in my view. It does not mean that one has a benign view of Putin in any way, shape or form. It means that one remembers not ancient history, but very, very recent history of how reasoning that, you know, it couldn't get worse than this, or we shouldn't be worried about the day after.
We should absolutely be worried about the day after. Putin hopefully has come to the conclusion that he should have been worried about the day after when he made the idiotic decision of making this invasion. Let's not repeat the big mistake he committed and the big mistake we ourselves committed by thinking that it couldn't get worse.
It certainly can.
KD: Thank you. All right. Mr. Ash, would you like to just answer the question about Ukrainians and respond?
TA: I'll stop myself going back to the other one. On the ethnic issue. I mean, I just found it absolutely extraordinary, right? I mean, the way Putin conducted this conflict, right?
I mean, Mariupol. This was a Russian-speaking city. I mean the attack, the indiscriminate attacks on cities in Eastern Ukraine that were typically Russian-speaking. Polls suggest perhaps more inclined toward Russia. Putin has devastated those cities. Actually, it's a weird, it's a strange thing that Putin thought that he was going to win Ukrainian hearts. That when he went in and killed and maimed people who actually spoke his language, right?
And also, I should point out that you know, this invasion actually united Ukrainians. I mean, think of Zelensky. Zelensky is a Russian speaker. He was elected on a mandate in 2019 for peace to talk to Russia, to negotiate.
He was seen certainly by nationalist Ukrainians as a bit of a Russia sellout. They were concerned about Zelensky, you know, he tried the peace process, he tried talking to Putin. It kind of got nowhere. So actually, Russia has united Ukraine. It's created a state that perhaps in terms of identity, that perhaps wasn't there in 2013.
You know, a good friend is a Ukrainian from Zaporizhzhia. He's a Russian speaker. He says in 2014, he'd never speak Ukrainian. Right. And, and that's in a town where 80% of people were Russian speakers. He said, now, you know, the majority of people want to speak Ukrainian, and even he does.
Numerous Russian speakers from Ukraine I talked to give the same view.
KD: Unfortunately, I think we're going to have to end there to make sure we end on time. But thank you, and thank you to both of you, Mr. Ash and Dr. Parsi, for such a thought-provoking and informative debate today.
One year after the start of war in Ukraine, Ukraine has managed to push Russia out of 54% of the land Russia occupied in its invasion with help from Western aid, both before and during the invasion. However, U.S. aid is not free, as we discussed today, and indirect costs in particular contribute to the debate as to whether or not U.S. aid to Ukraine costs “peanuts.”
To stay up to date, we encourage you to take a look at the new report card on the Russia- Ukraine War, which is going to be updated weekly on the Russia Matters website. And so, I wanted to finally thank everyone for coming. With a special thank you to Russia Matters and the Monterey Institute in Russian Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Relations, as well as our two speakers, Dr. Parsi and Mr. Ash, thank you so much.
TA: My pleasure. Our pleasure, I guess.
TP: Thank you so much. My pleasure as well. Thank you, Tim. Thank you, Kate.
This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.
Yana Demeshko is a student associate with Russia Matters and a graduate student at UCLA.
The opinions expressed herein are solely those of the debate participants.