Joe Biden’s Putin Problem

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S1: If you Google around enough, you can find these satellite images of stuff building up on the border between Russia and Ukraine.

S2: You know, it’s publicly available, it’s not classified

S1: slates, Fred Kaplan says military folks. They know what this stuff is battalions of troops, weapons of war.

S3: But these latest satellite images from Russia suggest Moscow is now engaged in an unprecedented buildup near the Ukrainian frontier, enough to mount an overwhelming invasion.

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S2: Well, it shows that a lot of about ninety thousand troops, a lot of tanks, some of which have been moved to the Ukrainian border from as far away as the far southeastern part of Russia.

S3: The front line between Ukraine and Russia is on high alert tonight. All leave cancelled for the troops who will be spending the holidays in the trenches muddy today.

S1: Yeah, I mean, if this was happening on our northern border with Canada or southern border with Mexico,

S2: yeah, it would be alarming. It would be alarming.

S1: If you’ve heard anything about this troop buildup around Ukraine, alarm is probably what’s resonated the most alarm that Vladimir Putin is testing the West alarm that Russia might expand an ongoing military operation inside Ukraine. But I wanted to talk to Fred because alarm was not his first reaction to this news.

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S2: What I’m about to say is the kind of thing that, if I’m wrong, could be played back six months from now and make me look really stupid. But I don’t think that he’s going to invade Ukraine. I don’t think that’s what’s going on. Why do you say that if they were really going to invade Ukraine from the east and from the West through Belarus? Kind of a pincer movement and then occupy the place, they would need a lot more than 90000 troops. Second, there will be it’s not going to be going in and crushing the place, there would be armed resistance. There will be Russians coming back in body bags. And finally, as is in general, Putin has been quite cautious in the use of military force.

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S1: So this doesn’t fit the pattern.

S2: It doesn’t fit the pattern

S1: today on the show. What a buildup of troops on the border with Ukraine really means, and how a diplomatic approach might change the way this story ends. I’m Mary Harris. You’re listening to what next? Stick around. Fred says to understand this tug of war over Ukraine, which is really a fight about whether Ukraine is allied more with Russia or the West, it helps to understand a little something about the Russian psyche. Fred lived in Russia in the early 90s. The USSR had just broken up, and Ukraine had gone its own way. Fred says he looks at Vladimir Putin’s actions now, and he can see how the loss of Ukraine still stings.

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S2: I was there from 1992 to ‘95, some in early post-Soviet. The economy was was really in the gutter. Huge industries like one of their biggest missile and space companies was making sleds and bicycles. Western economists were coming in advising them. There were billboards all over the Ring Road in Moscow, advertising Western companies in English, and I can imagine someone like Putin proud Soviet nationalist who thought that the dissolution of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical disaster of the 20th century. He felt like his country was being occupied.

S1: Yeah, like an invasion. A corporate invasion.

S2: Yeah, yeah, absolutely. Just that invasion, linguistic, all kinds of things. Now, I’m not justifying any of this. What he did there was horrible. Whether or not he considers Ukraine part of Russia, the international community regards Ukraine as a sovereign nation, and it is. But I’m, you know, I understand where where he’s coming from. And I guess part of that comes from from living in Russia at the time of year, just after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

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S1: Even if this troop buildup along the border doesn’t result in all out war, Fred says what’s happening there is a reflection of an ongoing push and pull. Putin is fostering a push and pull that is not going away anytime soon, because when Vladimir Putin looks at Ukraine, he does not see an independent nation.

S2: Someone like Putin doesn’t regard Ukraine as a country. It’s part of Russia. It used to be part of Russia. He thinks it’s still part of Russia was part of the Soviet Union. Russia is the Soviet Union, and so it’s still part of Russia.

S1: And I’ve heard that it’s also it has great cultural significance for a lot of Russians.

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S2: Well, I mean. I mean, dating back a thousand years, Ukraine used to be a part of Russia. Most people in Ukraine speak Russian.

S1: A deeper history.

S2: Yeah. Another historical thing that’s worth pointing out, I think, is that when the Soviet Union was falling apart. Bill Clinton, this this administration pledged to to Yeltsin, to Boris Yeltsin that after the unification of Germany, that Naito would not move any further eastward. And then over the next few years, Naito takes over just about every country that used to be in the Soviet Union’s Warsaw Pact, the Baltics, Poland, Czech Republic, you know, all these countries. And in terms of Ukraine, four administrations have considered whether to invite Ukraine into NATO and have decided no, not a good idea, mainly because it would be seen as extremely provocative to Russia.

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S1: This fight over natto membership has come to define the back and forth between Russia, the United States and Ukraine. Naito was formed to defend European allies from Soviet threats, and Ukraine has faced plenty of those. But Naito and the West more generally, they’ve been hesitant to extend themselves on Ukraine’s behalf. You can see that hesitancy. If you look back to 2014, that’s when Ukrainian demonstrators helped drive their Putin approved president out of power and in response, Russia annexed Crimea and started a war in the eastern Donbass region of Ukraine. The U.S. looked at all that was happening a violation of the international order and said, I think we’re going to sit this one out militarily. Seven years on that war in the Donbass region, it’s still raging. Over 14000 people have died.

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S2: The reason why Obama, when the annexation of Crimea happened and the incursion into eastern Ukraine, the reason why he responded mainly with economic sanctions instead of counter military punch. He said this explicitly. He said, Well, look, Ukraine is a lot more important to Russia than it is to the West and everybody to the United States, and everybody knows this. So I’m not going to get into a military escalation that I’m going to lose. Russia will respond to whatever we do on a military way. And even now, nobody that I know of. I mean, even even if if if Russia does invade the rest of Ukraine, nobody’s talking about sending US troops to to defend. Nobody’s nobody’s saying that.

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S1: OK, so I have a good understanding of how Russia feels about Ukraine. I have a good understanding of how the West feels about Ukraine, which is kind of lukewarm. How does Ukraine feel about Russia in the West and how has that changed?

S2: Well, I mean, I think there’s a big difference between western Ukraine and eastern Ukraine and eastern Ukraine, especially in the Donbas region. There are many people who would be fine with just rejoining Russia or joining Russia. I mean, the fighting going on in the Donbas region is it’s mainly Ukrainians versus Ukrainians. It’s Ukrainian army versus separatist

S1: militants funded by Russia,

S2: funded by Russia. Yeah, absolutely. So it’s not a terribly unified country in that regard.

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S1: Huh. But my understanding is you looked at polls like before 2014. Yeah, the Ukrainians didn’t really want to join NATO, the right sort of fine with it as things were. But then after 2014 and after, you know, this incursion by Russia, which is continued, opinions changed.

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S2: That’s right. Well, yeah, again. Yeah. Before 2014, they didn’t want to join NATO. They kind of felt comfortable having this kind of neutral position within the center of Europe. But yeah, let’s say that what I’ve been saying is absolutely right. And people took some assurance from that that, oh, well, Putin isn’t really going to invade. He’s just trying to put a lot of pressure on the political future of Ukraine. That’s that’s a that’s a concerning thing. That’s an alarming thing. You know, he he certainly is doing things that have he did want to invade. This is the sort of thing he would be doing. And so, yeah, people in Ukraine are more likely to say, you know, it would be nice to have a big military alliance headed by the United States behind me, which has this article five of its charter that an attack on any one country should be treated as an attack on all of the countries.

S1: Well, earlier this year, the Ukrainian president started to really say more loudly, I want to join NATO’s.

S2: Yeah, yeah. He said, Yeah,

S1: yeah, and that’s not a crazy request. Since in 2008, NATO’s promised Ukraine that they could join at some point in the future. So, you know, they’re saying that some point is now, please.

S2: Yeah. Well, see, I think and I’m not I’m not alone here and again. I I do not follow the Russian line on anything, but I think this was a this was a bad mistake. It does nobody any good to hold out promises or even possibilities that are just not going to happen, and they’re not even in your interest to happen. And and again, it doesn’t explain Putin’s motives. It it leads, provides a nifty rationalization, a rationale, a public rationale for why he’s doing what he’s doing. You know, I’ve read columnists saying, Oh, he’s just making this all up where we’re not going to let Ukraine join NATO. And yet there is that commitment that George W. Bush signed in 2008. Huh.

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S1: And I feel like over the summer, you could kind of see Vladimir Putin responding to this not new request to join NATO, but sort of renewed vigour, I guess, on the behalf of Ukraine. Like, I think you mentioned that over the summer, Putin wrote a whole article about how there’s historical unity between Ukrainians and Russians, essentially laying out his case that like, we’re one family, let’s keep it together. I don’t know who the audience was for that, but it did find it interesting.

S2: It was mainly domestic and urgent, but it was also Ukraine, and it was also a warning.

S1: And then the troops started moving and I read I read this really interesting dispatch it believe it was in foreign policy where it talked about how the week before the Thanksgiving holiday. The Ukrainian defense minister just came to Lloyd Austin in the Pentagon and said, I just need weapons systems because we’re seeing this amassing of troops on the border and I need them fast, which is a dramatic way to describe it that all of a sudden it’s like, Nope, we need to go now. And of course, that’s a big request because the United States has been hesitant to provide real weapons systems to Ukraine in the past.

S2: Yeah, it’s mainly anti-tank weapons, but there’s a lot of a lot of things like night vision equipment and better radar and intelligence assistant, which sounds minor, but but isn’t. But look, if Russia really did mount an invasion, a full blown invasion, you know that that kind of stuff is isn’t going to be terribly helpful. But what it does do it, it lays down a marker. It says, yeah, the United States by providing these weapons to you. And these are the kinds of weapons that we quite deliberately have not provided to you in the past. We’re saying that, yeah, we we we’re backing you. We’ve got your back to some degree in some way. It’s kind of like our situation with Taiwan, which you know, we actually do not recognize as a separate country, unlike the situation of the Ukraine. And yet we have an agreement that we will provide weapons to Taiwan and actually way more advanced weapons than we provide Ukraine as a deterrent for China to just, you know, come in and take over Taiwan.

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S1: Yeah, these these agreements are kind of hedges against autocracy.

S2: These two countries, Ukraine and Taiwan, they’re examples of what some people call strategic ambiguity. I mean, were we sort of have a commitment to them, but not quite for many years. These relationships have been allowed to keep things stable. They’ve never really been tested. And now, you know, at least some people are saying they might be tested, and we don’t really quite know what we’re going to do about it

S1: when we come back. Some analysts say war between Ukraine and Russia could be right around the corner, but Fred is not convinced. That’s our only option. As I have sort of read about what’s happening, Ukraine in the papers, I’ve noticed there are basically two schools of thoughts here for what America does now. There’s the full throated defense of Ukraine. You know, just the fact that this country is asking for help and we’ve agreed to help them and we morally owe it to them. And then there’s the idea of compromise with Russia because war would be a bad outcome for everyone. It just isn’t. It isn’t good for anyone, except maybe Vladimir Putin. Although, as you’ve said, war would involve a lot of risk for him in terms of his citizens being injured and killed. So you’ve you have this modest proposal you’ve laid out for how you think the U.S. could navigate all of this? Can you explain?

S2: Well, it’s long been thought that what Putin really doesn’t want is to keep Ukraine out of any Western orbit at all, including the European Union and democratic some democratic system that works. That makes Russia look bad, maybe, but that’s not what he’s saying right now. All that he’s saying right now, he talks about he wants to keep Ukraine out of NATO’s. He doesn’t want a Western military infrastructure to be laid down inside Ukraine. So my my idea is to take him at his word, say this is what he really wants and to work out a way to satisfy that on condition that he also gets all of his troops out of Donbass region and to work out some kind of long range solution. But with some security guarantees on on the border and also some kind of non interference with politics in Kiev. You know why? Why have a war start over? Pressure not to do something that you’re not going to do anyway.

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S1: People who support democratic processes in Ukraine might hear a proposal like this and say, You are selling out the people of Ukraine. The majority of them want to join NATO’s. They want the protections of a democratic society. Isn’t this abandoning them?

S2: Well, again, I don’t know anybody I’ve asked around. I’ve said, Is there anybody in the councils of, you know, high officials in the administration now, many of whom are very keen? Biden himself is very keen on on Ukraine. When he was vice president in 2014, he wanted to do more to help Ukraine than than Obama did. He wanted to send some lethal arms even then. But I asked, Is there anybody who is saying that what we need to do is to let Ukraine into NATO’s right now? Or is there anybody who is saying if Russia invades, we have to send us troops to counter them? And what I’m hearing is, no, nobody’s saying that. So why base your whole position on an insistence for something that that you’re never going to do anyway? Look, I have no idea whether this approach will meet success. I don’t know. But this is what Putin has laid down on the table. Let’s take that as a premise and go from there and see if it’s if it works.

S1: Earlier this month, when President Biden and Vladimir Putin had this video call, was there any evidence that the Biden administration was thinking through what you’d proposed?

S2: I mean, not that I I wouldn’t necessarily know. But no, nobody. Nobody’s called me up and said, Hey, we’re we’re we’re taking up your idea. No, nobody. I not that I know. I think I think it’s way premature. I don’t think, you know, to the extent there are going to be serious negotiations. They’re just beginning.

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S1: Does it seem like Russia is worried about a backlash from the West or from the U.S.?

S2: It seems they certainly don’t want to get into a war with the United States. They Putin what Putin has been doing for the last several years is is, you know, disrupting and interfering with, you know, American democracy and disrupting ties between the U.S. and countries in Western Europe, especially when Trump was president that were provocative and destructive in ways that were indirect and subtle, and therefore not likely to provoke a direct response from the United States. So he he he goes for the indirect approach, which is much harder to deal with.

S1: You know, difference with Ukraine that it would be more direct. It’ll be more of a real shot across the bow.

S2: Yeah. No, no, if he really does do, but the more alarmed people think he’s priming to do, then yeah, this is going to provoke a tremendous backlash from from the West, which is one reason why I don’t think he’s going to do it because he can’t afford that.

S1: If Russia is not about to go to war with Ukraine, why is it important to pay attention to what’s happening there right now anyway?

S2: Partly because Ukraine is rattled. And you know, hey, it’s not nothing that they’re amassing ninety thousand troops on on the border that ordinarily aren’t there and making all kinds of noises. But I think it’s not helpful for a lot of officials and officers in our country to act like this is the, you know, we’re on the precipice of some catastrophic event. I don’t think it. I think that plays into the Putin’s political strategy here. I mean, I don’t think Putin is just going to wake up one day and say, OK, I’m giving the green light. Let’s go. But I can imagine a series of tense moves and countermoves, feints and counter feints that make both sides feel paranoid and defensive enough that that something does happen, things can escalate. And then the next step becomes almost inevitable as part of some escalation dynamic that that’s what I worry about more.

S1: Fred Kaplan, I’m always really grateful for your perspective here.

S2: Anytime, thank you.

S1: Fred Kaplan is Slate’s war stories correspondent, and that’s the show. What next is produced by Elena Schwartz, Danielle Hewitt Mary Wilson and Carmel Delshad. Each and every day, we get help from Alison Benedict and Alicia Montgomery. And I am Mary Harris. If you want, go track me down on Twitter, say, Hi, I’m at Mary’s desk. In the meantime, I’ll catch you back in this feed tomorrow.