U.S. Gen. Mark Milley recently stated that Ukraine’s prospects of vanquishing Russia in battle are “not high,” and suggested that it should consider negotiating with the Kremlin. What do you make of this assessment – would you agree or disagree?
I do not have access to the privileged information that General Milley has, but when the invasion began, leading military leaders in the United States, United Kingdom, and elsewhere doubted Ukraine’s ability to resist Russian attacks. The fact that these predictions were flawed should induce some humility, since Kyiv proved itself to be resilient and capable in fighting Russia on the battlefield. If its forces are supplied with the necessary platforms, and have their ammunition stocks replenished, there is no reason to think they cannot push Russia out of Ukraine, at least with respect to the lines that held on the 23rd of February. Additionally, Kyiv is still retaking territory, even after the overdue triumph at Kherson. Whether it can restore the status quo antebellum that existed before 2014 is another question.
Furthermore, Ukraine already put forward conditions for a negotiated settlement, but the fundamental problem that undermines the possibility for peace is that Russia tends to break its promises. If Russian troops are in Ukrainian territory, Kyiv has little assurance that Moscow will not use a ceasefire to regroup or to consolidate its position in occupied regions. As long as this issue persists, the war will continue. To be sure, Ukraine has a commitment problem of its own, in the sense that no government in Kyiv will survive a ceasefire with Russia, because concluding one prematurely could be deeply unpopular. The Russian government also knows this, and from the perspective of both sides, there is no deal to be had there. This is not to say that there are no negotiations taking place, as there have been with respect to flows of grain and prisoners-of-war exchanges, but the prospect of a long-term settlement to conclude this war remains elusive.
Do you think NATO’s response to the Poland missile strike revealed anything about its solidarity? If the war spilled over into NATO territory again, do you think there would be a more unified response?
The main lesson to draw from this incident is that governments within NATO are keen on making the right decision while considering the risks and costs stemming from Russia’s war on Ukraine. When news reports indicated that the fatalities in the village of Przewodów were possibly due to a Russian strike, the Polish government was careful to resist concluding that Moscow was responsible. Indeed, the Polish Ministry of Affairs’ official statement on the night of the incident allowed the possibility of a Ukrainian interceptor having gone astray amid efforts to defend against Moscow’s massive missile attack. This event reveals that even Poland, which is typically regarded as inveterately hostile and even reckless towards Russia, was keen to collect as much information as possible and to confer with its allies to discuss the merits of invoking particular clauses of the Washington Treaty before coming to what was arguably a sensible decision. There were some voices in and outside of Poland that called for a strong response based on the presumption that Russia is to blame. There remains still plenty of uncertainty as to what exactly happened. Regardless, these events demonstrate that governments within NATO are not hot-headed, as often presumed. In actuality, they take managing escalation very seriously.
To what extent should we be concerned about war fatigue, given the fears of escalation and potential for a winter energy crisis in Europe? Furthermore, is it possible that an escalation over Taiwan in the future could force NATO allies to divert their attentions and resources from Ukraine to the Indo-Pacific?
War fatigue is a real possibility. Even observers who do have strong personal attachments to Ukraine feel exhausted because the news has been relentless. However, it seems that governments across NATO are still willing to support Ukraine. In some cases, we are seeing countries like Sweden, the United States, and the United Kingdom increase their military assistance, perhaps with the goal of helping Kyiv win. With respect to Europe’s winter energy crisis, it looks like it will not be as severe as initially feared. Europe has been importing loads of liquified natural gas, filling its stores quicker than expected and in a manner that few anticipated. Ukraine’s winter, however, will be very difficult, considering that Russia made a concerted effort to target critical energy infrastructure. Nevertheless, Ukrainians still have resolve to push through. For them, life is better without electricity than life with Russia.
That the United States, the United Kingdom, and various NATO partners are digging deep into their own military stockpiles to help Ukraine might create a degree of exposure regarding Taipei. Its situation, however, is much different from Kyiv’s. Unlike what Ukraine has done over the past several years, Taiwan has not done a good job in addressing its core security needs. Therefore, its main issue is not related to the possible lack of Western support that could arise, but that it would be unable to resist a determined Chinese invasion, in a manner similar to Ukraine’s fight against Russia.
You mentioned in your MLI commentary paper that Canada could have helped Europe reduce its reliance on Russian hydrocarbons. Since Ottawa produces 16.1 billion cubic feet of natural gas daily, are there still opportunities to alleviate European energy shortages? Also, considering the challenges Ukrainians will face this winter, is there a role Canada can play in helping them pull through in the coming months?
Canada certainly missed its opportunity but could still invest in infrastructure to export liquefied natural gas. Even if its resources do not reach European markets, it is still in Canada’s interest to pursue this possibility. Since Europe has been importing large volumes of natural gas, which could have otherwise gone to other consumers elsewhere in the world, the resulting price increases have had knock-on effects on less prosperous countries that now have to endure reduced supply. In that regard, developing Canadian energy infrastructure could alleviate energy security concerns for consumers outside of Europe in the medium-to-long-term, if not in the short-term.
Concerning Ukraine’s winter challenges, one critical area that demands attention is the provision of spare parts, component pieces, power generators, and anything else that Ukrainian companies would find essential to repair damaged equipment. This issue may not be as newsworthy, compared to providing military assistance, but since Canada does not have much more materiel to give—due to years of underspending—providing these alternative forms of support would be a big boost for Ukraine. Moreover, the sorts of escalatory and end-use considerations that have often stymied the provision of military assistance to Ukraine are absent as regards to supporting the reconstruction and restoration of Ukraine’s energy infrastructure. There is an essential need for providing this sort of assistance, not least because it will tangibly alleviate a lot of the suffering and hardship that Ukrainians will experience in the next several months.
Reports say that Putin has been unable to placate competing factions in Russia, who are putting pressure on his regime. What are the prospects for his survival, depending on the war’s outcome? Could there be backlash from the Russian elite?
Revolutions are inherently unpredictable. If, as a ruler, you can predict that one will occur, then you could mitigate the likelihood of it taking place. It becomes a self-defeating prophecy. I suspect that Putin’s hold on power remains secure. In fact, despite expert commentary saying that the loss of Kherson would be humiliating for Putin and damaging to his regime’s prospects, it seems that ordinary Russians do not see this defeat as a source of major concern. We are also not seeing major pressure on Putin either. Of course, he is visibly nervous. His motorcade now drives at high speeds in Moscow, as if to escape any possible attempt on his life. Nevertheless, even though there is some infighting within the Russian security services, it seems to leave Putin largely immune. It is really a struggle between Yevgeny Prigozhin, who leads Wagner, and Sergei Shoigu, the Minister of Defence. Additionally, we have seen on social media that ordinary Russians still appeal to Putin to address the country’s economic problems and poor military performance despite how he bears the lion’s share of responsibility for these issues. They still look to him for solutions as if he is not to blame. It calls to mind an old saying about Russian politics: the Czar is never wrong and wants what is best. If there are problems, it is because his subordinates are not implementing his will properly.