Your Russia-Ukraine questions, answered (part 4)
You asked, I answer.
Note: This is the last installment of a four-part series responding to reader questions on Russia-Ukraine. You can find the first part here, the second part here, and the third part here. Some of the questions that follow have been slightly edited for clarity. If you have questions you want answered, ask them in the comments section below or follow me on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn and look out for future AMAs.
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Did Putin miscalculate, or is what's happening all part of a plan? (Arno V)
He massively miscalculated. He was convinced his army could take Kyiv and remove President Zelensky within at most a couple of weeks. He did not think the Ukrainians would put up a fight. And he certainly didn’t imagine the West would respond so strongly and cohesively. Accordingly, the war has turned out to be a disaster on most every front. There’s no conceivable scenario in which Putin—and Russia—comes out of this war stronger than before he decided to invade Ukraine.
What impact does this war have on Russia’s ability to project force and control its near abroad? (Alexandre M)
It depends on how the war goes. What we can say for sure is that at a minimum, Russia now has a very serious enemy in Ukraine, a country that even 15 years ago was well-disposed toward Russia. Combined with the substantial loss of military capabilities (equipment and personnel) Russia has suffered thus far, which will take a minimum of 5 years to rebuild, that creates a big (and entirely self-inflicted) security problem in its own backyard.
Does a weaker and poorer Russia strengthen Putin's grip on power? (Hugo A)
Not necessarily. Deep economic and identity crises of the kind Russia is about to experience can either strengthen or weaken the tyrant in power. The key question is whether Putin is perceived by his people as weak. That’s the worst thing that can happen to an authoritarian leader like him. And it’s one reason why declaring a domestically credible victory in Ukraine is essential for his political survival. It’s also why he insists he’s fighting NATO rather than the much weaker Ukraine, which he should have beaten swiftly. So far, that narrative has been promoted by Russian media and is largely believed by the Russian people.
Aside from a Russian attack that triggers Article 5, do you see any other scenarios where the U.S. or NATO draw a “red line” and commit troops? (Ben H)
The only conceivable scenario is if Putin goes “scorched earth” and uses chemical weapons or tactical nukes. But even then, it’s a tough call and on balance I’d say still unlikely. The fact is that the U.S. and NATO (rightly) have no appetite for a hot war with the Russians unless their vital interests are directly attacked.
Can the West sell seized Russian assets to fund aid to Ukraine? (John H)
It can and it very likely will. Just last week, President Biden asked Congress to pass a legislative package authorizing the government to liquidate assets seized from sanctioned Russian oligarchs (though not the frozen Russian Central Banks reserves) and use the proceeds to pay for the defense and rebuilding of Ukraine. The House passed the bill in a symbolic vote with overwhelming bipartisan support, so it should get through Congress sooner than later. And it’s not just the U.S.— the EU is also considering a similar measure.
If Russia manages to win in the Donbas region and ceases hostilities claiming that the “special military operation” has been a success, what happens next? Do you see the Kyiv government ever accepting Russia's claim on further territory in Donbas (beyond Crimea)? (Peter W)
I don’t see that, no. Zelensky will remain unwilling to cede anything to Putin as long as he sees prospects for improving Ukraine’s position through military means, while Putin will only settle for major territorial concessions in addition to Ukrainian neutrality. Which means that there won’t be a diplomatic solution or a negotiated ceasefire. The fighting will continue for the foreseeable future, most fiercely in southern and eastern Ukraine, and the Ukrainians will launch counteroffensives on places like Kherson city and Kharkiv oblast. Western sanctions will ratchet up and Moscow will retaliate. The conflict will settle into an unstable stalemate with no prospect of a climbdown.
Does India’s stance on the war change its standing in the West? (Sandeep K)
Not really. Yes, India’s ongoing ties with Moscow highlight the limits of its strategic alignment with the West and make clear that the relationship is transactional rather than ideological or values-based. Their common interests on the issue of China are more important for both sides and trumps any other disagreements they have, though. Plus, the West doesn’t have much of a leg to stand on when Europe continues to fund Putin’s war to the tune of $1 billion per day in energy imports.
What lessons has China learned from the Russian invasion of Ukraine and how will this impact China's strategic approach to taking over Taiwan? (Andrew S)
The Chinese have learned that the West is perfectly capable of responding to threats strongly and together, including by weaponizing interdependence—even to come to the defense of a country (Ukraine) that isn’t a treaty ally. This will make China (far more economically integrated with the West than Russia) think twice about the potential consequences of making a move on Taiwan, which unlike Ukraine is a vital U.S. national security interest. I’d expect Beijing to take a much more cautious approach, especially after witnessing how unprepared for large-scale war a military that hasn’t faced significant combat in decades (Russia’s) can be—something that Chinese leaders must be worrying about themselves.
What long-term effect do you think this war will have on our “pivot to Asia”? (Danielle M)
In the long term it should help, as a weaker Russia and stronger Europe will allow the U.S. to shift more attention and resources toward the Indo-Pacific theater. But the U.S. is (understandably) very focused on Russia/Europe right now, and it will be for the foreseeable future. We want to get out, but they keep dragging us back in... Sure enough, the U.S. has the capabilities to walk and chew gum at the same time. Although the US hasn’t been great at multitasking in recent decades, so there’s no question that Ukraine makes the pivot more challenging in the short run. But the bigger concern about the pivot to Asia isn’t the Ukraine war, it’s American political dysfunction at home.
How does the war affect global food availability? (Jason G)
When the world’s largest wheat exporter (Russia) invades the 5th largest (Ukraine), global food availability is bound to get strained. The world’s poorest—especially in low- and middle-income countries—are already experiencing shortages of staples and rising food inflation, driven not just by reduced exports of grains and vegetable oil from the Black Sea region but also by increased energy and fertilizer prices as well as adverse shipping conditions. The shock is especially pronounced because it comes 2 years into a pandemic that had already taken food prices to record highs, at a time when climate change is already having an impact on yields and productive capacity. Countries in the Middle East, North Africa, and the Levant are most at risk of increased food insecurity.
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