Putin’s war is a nightmare for the Ukrainian people and for Russia, expert warns: NPR

A building burns after a shelling in Kiev, Ukraine, March 3, 2022. Russian forces have stepped up attacks on crowded cities in what Ukraine’s leader has described as a blatant campaign of terror.

Efrem Lukatsky/AP

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Efrem Lukatsky/AP

Putin's war is a nightmare for the Ukrainian people and for Russia, expert warns: NPR

A building burns after a shelling in Kiev, Ukraine, March 3, 2022. Russian forces have stepped up attacks on crowded cities in what Ukraine’s leader has described as a blatant campaign of terror.

Efrem Lukatsky/AP

Michael Kimmage, an expert on US-Russian relations and a former State Department official, said the war in Ukraine was not going as Russian President Vladimir Putin had expected.

“The war has gone surprisingly bad for the Kremlin,” Kimmage said. “He didn’t fully understand the politics of Ukraine. He didn’t expect Ukrainians to fight, didn’t expect Ukrainians to support their government, didn’t expect than [Ukrainian President Volodymyr] Zelenskyy to become the hero he became.”

Kimmage joined the State Department’s policy planning team examining Ukrainian-Russian issues in 2014, shortly after Russia annexed Crimea to Ukraine. He left the State Department the day President Donald Trump was sworn in in 2017 and now heads the history department at the Catholic University of America in Washington, DC.

Kimmage says Putin’s actions in Ukraine are a reflection of extreme hubris: “[Putin] just believes he can do a lot of things. He is isolated. He doesn’t get a lot of interesting information, I guess. And he thinks he can accomplish more than he can.”

Kimmage and co-author Liana Fix warn Foreign Affairs that a Russian victory in Ukraine would mean “that a new era for the United States and for Europe will begin”. He says the political war is likely to go on indefinitely.

“I don’t see how [Russia] can succeed politically,” he says. “I think they have already created a huge nightmare, obviously for the Ukrainian people, but a huge nightmare for themselves. … [Putin’s] destroying the very thing he wished to take or create in Ukraine.”

Interview Highlights

On the wartime role Ukrainian President Zelenskyy took on

I think [surrender is] unlikely at this stage. I think his surrender, if it had taken place, would have taken place in the early days of the war, which indeed looked very bleak for Ukraine. Now the military situation is not good for Ukraine by any yardstick, but it is possible that they could hang on for a while. And I also think, that’s my understanding of Zelenskyy, it’s just a guess, I think he devoted himself to the future of Ukraine, to the Ukraine that is going to be built after the war and potentially after the occupation. So in a sense, he’s sacrificing himself for this future country and for that, he really can’t surrender. He must continue to fight until the end, until death, if necessary.

What a Russian “victory” might look like

Looking at the world from Putin’s perspective, there are two levels of victory: The first which I would call negative, and that blocks certain outcomes. And among these results, Ukraine would join the NATO alliance. And more broadly, what Putin really wants to block is the military relationship between Ukraine and the United States and between Ukraine and Europe. And this goal – pardon the seriousness of my analysis – this goal can be achieved by destroying the Ukrainian state and bringing chaos to the whole country. This is a lower level objective and can be achieved by very brutal means.

There is another layer to Putin’s ambition and kind of second-order goal that he has that is more positive in nature, and that is to build a structure, a political structure in Ukraine that is Putin taste. And that would be a political structure, maybe a partitioned country. I doubt that it is on the whole Ukrainian territory, but [it would be] a political structure respectful or subservient to Moscow.

This is a much more ambitious undertaking. It would involve occupation and what will be needed now is also the reconstruction of the country, a huge outlay of resources, and I don’t want to be overconfident in my predictions, but I will predict for now that this endeavor is doomed to failure to failure.

On the possibility of a partition of Ukraine

If I had to say right now, judging by the way the war is going, I think that’s the Russian plan. … I am surprised that they decided to invade Kiev, the capital of Ukraine. I am surprised by the radicalism of the Russian war plan. So that suggests to me that they’re going to try to build an eastern Ukraine and put Kyiv as their capital, and it will, of course, be defended by Russian military force and it will take tremendous coercion to make the population of that area a part of this new political structure. I say that’s the plan. I’m very skeptical of their ability to do this, but I think that’s the intention.

[If the country was partitioned] the rest of Ukraine would be in very poor condition. It is a country that depends on access to the Black Sea. It is a trading country. It exports a lot of goods. The economic effects would therefore obviously be catastrophic. Of course, the country would also be decapitated in many ways for losing the capital and losing that amount of territory. … It would be hampered and, to some extent, a country in ruins.

On the dangerous instability that would result from a Russian partition of Ukraine

[It means] we won’t know exactly where Russia ends. Russia has absorbed a neighboring country, Belarus, into its military orbit over the past two weeks. This places a kind of Russian military perimeter right on the border of Lithuania, Latvia and Poland. This is a new development that would be shocking in itself were it not for a major war going on in Ukraine.

Ukraine itself, let’s imagine the country is divided along the lines of what a “Russian victory” might look like, then you have a Western Ukraine that will be armed to the teeth. This will be the site of a huge conflict and there is no doubt that he will try to seek a military advantage against Russia wherever she is stationed in eastern Ukraine, and he will try to destabilize the situation , that he will try to destabilize the situation with the help of the United States Member States, NATO and many European countries.

I don’t know how to describe this other than as a war with Russia. If that happens and if we have a war with Russia, we have all the things we worry about in terms of a war with Russia, a conflict between two nuclear powers, the United States and Russia on opposite sides.

It is therefore in this sense that the fluidity of the situation leads to instability and very quickly to danger. We are certainly back in the atmosphere of the cold war, and it is an atmosphere of uncertainty. It’s an atmosphere of fear and it’s tragic to see. It is also an atmosphere in which we erect walls again. …

We have thought… that the crown jewel of American foreign policy is European order and stability. It was a great success after 1945, the first round, then after 1991, the second round. And now we are back to where Europe was and in many of its darkest times, historically, as a place where things are quite uncertain, unstable and exceptionally dangerous.

On a scenario in which Ukraine defeats Russia

I think there are such scenarios, I think they are not probable, but they are possible. … The Ukrainian strategy is not to defeat Russia on the battlefield. It is simply not possible. But they can delay, and in a way, the failed Russian strategy is very helpful to Ukraine right now, because Russia thought they could get what they wanted without taking the cities, that she would simply eliminate the government and install someone new and the population would comply with this plan. It turned out not to work already.

And so Russia is now obligated, it has surrounded the city of Mariupol in southern Ukraine. There is heavy fighting around the city of Kharkiv in eastern Ukraine, and then you have this huge military column that has gathered around Kiev, the capital.

Kiev is a city of 3 million inhabitants. The fact that Russia has not taken the city yet means that it is armed, [Kyiv is] Being trapped. It is set up for urban conflicts. So it could take months and months for Russia to take the capital over the course of this…Moscow’s appetite for war could diminish. Putin could face real pressure from his people, from the economy, to back down, and I don’t think he would call it a retreat, but maybe he would accept and try to find something diplomatic. He is quite far from that at the moment, but that would be the scenario in which Ukraine would win.

Sam Briger and Thea Chaloner produced and edited the audio for this interview. Bridget Bentz and Molly Seavy-Nesper adapted it for the web.


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