Putin's war is a nightmare for the Ukrainian people and for Russia, an expert warns
Putin acted out of hubris and "didn't get the politics of Ukraine right" when he decided to invade, says Michael Kimmage, an academic who formerly served at the State Department.
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Russia's invasion of Ukraine isn't its first incursion there in recent years. In 2014, Russia annexed Crimea, which had been part of an independent Ukraine for 23 years. Putin also sent forces into the part of eastern Ukraine known as the Donbas region and tried to take it over. Shortly after Putin took over Crimea, my guest Michael Kimmage joined the State Department's policy planning staff overseeing the Ukraine-Russia portfolio. John Kerry was secretary of state. Obama was president. Kimmage left the State Department on the day Trump took the oath of office.
Kimmage has been writing about what Putin wants to achieve in Russia's new invasion and what it would mean for Ukraine, Europe and the U.S. if Russia wins. Kimmage is now chair of the history department at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., and a fellow at the German Marshall Fund. We recorded our interview yesterday.
Michael Kimmage, welcome to FRESH AIR. So there's two wars going on now. There's the military one and the economic one being waged through sanctions. Russia has the stronger, better-armed military, but Russia is losing the economic war. The sanctions are just already devastating the Russian economy. Which war do you think is more likely to determine the future of Ukraine?
MICHAEL KIMMAGE: The problem with these two wars is that they're going to be taking place on two different timetables. The sanctions are a very effective and powerful tool, and they've never been levied with as much force against Russia as in the last couple of days. But I think, even in the most optimistic assessment of the sanctions, that they will change the Russian calculus perhaps in three, four months, possibly over the course of several years. And the war is occurring, you know, absolutely in real time. It's only the sixth day or so of the war as we speak. And, you know, three months is too long in the sense for Ukraine. So it's not to say that the sanctions are ineffective but for the full force of the war that is going to be conducted, I suspect, from - by Putin without much fear of the effect sanctions are going to have.
GROSS: You wrote a very interesting article called "What If Russia Wins?" And I'm not sure what a Russian victory would look like. What is winning in this situation?
KIMMAGE: I think looking at the world from Putin's perspective, there are two levels of victory. The first I would describe as negative, and this is blocking certain outcomes. And among these outcomes would be Ukraine joining 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 that goal, you know - pardon the grimness of my analysis. That goal can be achieved by destroying the Ukrainian state and introducing chaos throughout the country. That's a lower-level goal and can be achieved through very brutal means.
There's another layer to Putin's ambition and sort of the second-order goal that he has, which is more positive in nature. And this is to build a structure, a political structure in Ukraine that's to Putin's liking. And this would be a political structure, perhaps a country partitioned - I doubt it would be over all of Ukrainian territory, but a political structure that is deferential or subservient to Moscow. You know, this is a vastly more ambitious enterprise. It would entail the occupation. And what will be necessary now is also the reconstruction of the country, a huge outlay of resources. And, you know, I don't want to be overconfident in my predictions, but I will predict at the moment that that venture is doomed to failure.
GROSS: Do you think there's a chance that Zelenskyy would surrender?
KIMMAGE: I think it's unlikely at this point. I think his surrender, had it come, would have come in the first few days of the war, which looked very bleak indeed for Ukraine. Now the military situation is not good for Ukraine by any standard of analysis, but it's possible that they can hang on for a while. And I think also - this is my understanding of Zelenskyy. It's just guesswork. I think he's dedicated himself to the future Ukraine, to the Ukraine that's going to be built after the war and potentially after the occupation. And so in a sense, he's sacrificing himself for this future country. And to do that, he really can't surrender. He has to keep on fighting till death if necessary.
GROSS: Is there a possibility of Ukraine being partitioned and Russia takes over part of it and leaves the other part as an independent state?
KIMMAGE: If I had to say at the moment, you know, judging from how the war is going, I think that's the Russian plan. I myself was surprised. Although, you know, I wrote before this predicting that there might be an invasion, I'm surprised that they've decided to invade Kyiv, the capital city of Ukraine. I'm surprised by the radicalism of the Russian war plan. So it suggests to me that they are going to try to build in eastern Ukraine and will put Kyiv at its capital. And it will be obviously defended by Russian military force. And there will have to be enormous coercion to make the population of this area - you know, to sort of make them a part of this new political structure. I'm saying that this is the plan. I'm very skeptical they'll be able to carry it out, but I think that's the intention.
GROSS: If that happened, what would happen to the rest of Ukraine?
KIMMAGE: Well, the rest of Ukraine would be in very bad shape. This is a country that does depend on access to the Black Sea. It's a trading country. It exports a lot of goods. So, you know, the economic effects of this would be self-evidently catastrophic. Of course, the country would also be, in so many ways, decapitated to lose the capital city and to lose this amount of territory. It would be absolutely cataclysmic. I mean, it would enable the survival of something that wouldn't be under Russian control, and I think that that would be, under the circumstances, a welcome outcome. But in every other respect, it would be, you know, sort of hobbled and, to a degree, a ruined country.
GROSS: You know, it just seems like Putin is destroying the country that he hopes to inherit while being sanctioned and while having the Russian economy tank. I mean, what good is it going to do Putin to inherit a country that he's physically destroyed and with people who hate him?
KIMMAGE: Well, I think that one can give the simple answer that it will do Putin - and especially Russia, which will long outlast Putin's reign - will do no good. We could back up just for a moment, though, and sort of imagine what Putin was attempting to accomplish with this. I think we can, again, glean from the war plans that they thought this would be a very quick invasion. Their hope was that they could decapitate the government, that Zelenskyy would indeed surrender, that the Ukrainian population wasn't really behind its government - maybe not completely welcoming of a Russian invasion but unsupportive of the existing government - and that it would be possible to sort of cow people into submission, shock them into this new political order, and then create it relatively low cost, low casualties.
And I think Putin's bet also in this very optimistic war scenario that he developed before the war - that under those circumstances, there really wouldn't be massive sanctions because there wouldn't be that much of a war. I think it's only with those plans in mind that he could have signed off on the war itself. I can't imagine that Putin would have planned and intended the kind of war that he's now obligated to fight. But as a matter of logic, I think you're exactly right. He's destroying the very thing that he wished either to take or to create in Ukraine.
GROSS: Do you think that Putin sees Ukraine as a - just as a stepping stone to other Eastern European countries?
KIMMAGE: I don't. I think Ukraine occupies a very unique significance in the mind of Vladimir Putin. And also in Russian military doctrine, in Russian culture, and Russian history, it's really not possible to compare it to Poland or to the Baltic republics. It's a very, very large neighboring country. It does have real strategic significance for Russia. It's a country in which there are lots of connections and bonds.
And it also plays - in the mind of Putin, we've seen this, you know, very prominently in his speeches of the last couple of weeks. It plays a kind of civilizational role in his imagination, a place where Russian orthodoxy was born, a place, in a sense, where the Russian state was born, a place that is indigenously Russian. Obviously, Ukrainians would differ on that point, but, you know, sort of there it is in the imagination of Putin and the people who are closest to him.
So I think the level of risk, level of investment, the level of connection that is expressed vis a vis Ukraine is just different in light of many other European states and especially European states that are members of NATO. So I wouldn't infer from this invasion that he would go further, but he has undertaken enormous risk in the last couple of weeks. And so we can't be sanguine about what his plans may be going forward.
GROSS: Do you see any scenario in which the Ukrainians can win militarily or any scenario in which the Russians would retreat?
KIMMAGE: I think there are such scenarios. I think they're not likely, but they're possible. I think the Ukrainian strategy now - and, of course, arms are flowing in from the United States and from many other countries into Ukraine. The Ukrainian strategy is not to defeat Russia on the battlefield. That's just not possible. But they can delay. And in a way, the failure of Russian strategy is very helpful to Ukraine at the moment because Russia thought it could get what it wanted without taking the cities, that it would just eliminate the government and install somebody new and that the population would be compliant with that project. That proved not to work already.
And so Russia now is obligated. It's surrounded the city of Mariupol in the south of Ukraine. It's fighting heavily around the city of Kharkiv in the east of Ukraine. And then you have this huge military column that's gathered around Kyiv, the capital city. Kyiv is a city of three million people. The fact that Russia hasn't taken the city yet means that it's being armed. It's being booby-trapped. It's being set up for urban conflict. So it could take Russia months and months to take the capital city.
In the course of that, since you're asking about retreat, the appetite for war in Moscow might diminish. Putin might face real pressures from his population and from the economy to backtrack. And I don't think that he would call it a retreat, but maybe he would come to terms and try to work out something diplomatically. He's pretty far from that at the moment, but that would be the scenario in which Ukraine wins.
GROSS: I keep wondering if there's any scenario in which the military leaders who feel betrayed because Putin forced them into a very damaging war - damaging for the Russian military - or if the oligarchs who are being sanctioned come up - you know, are really disappointed with and angry at Putin and if the military or the oligarchs come up with a way to remove him from office because they feel threatened by him or their wealth or their power feels threatened by him.
KIMMAGE: Let me offer you two contradictory points in return. The problem with opposition to Putin at the moment, whether it comes from the elite level or the popular level, is that he has built a system, a machine - a political machine in Russia that only he knows how to operate. Everything revolves around the unique autocratic power that he wields, so there is a built-in disincentive for everybody. However much they might dislike Putin's policies is a built-in disincentive to destroying that machine because nobody knows what would come afterward. It would probably not be a, you know, decent, intelligent, democratic leader. It would be something very, very different.
So I think it's hard. It's hard for any of these people to envision their livelihoods, their careers, perhaps even their lives in a Russia that doesn't have Putin. To that degree, you know, Putin has succeeded in ensuring the security of his power. So I think that's the one obstacle that I see to the situation you're describing. On the other hand, if you look at the behavior of Russian soldiers on the ground in Ukraine, if you look at the planning for the war, I think we can infer that Putin told a very small number of people about this war. They sent Russian soldiers to Belarus with round-trip tickets, saying that they were going to do a military exercise, and then they were sent into real battle in Ukraine. The Russian soldiers have not fought well in Ukraine. Morale seems to be low.
And I think it just is sinking in now in Russia, although it's a different media landscape, to be sure, from our own. But it's sinking in what a horrific humanitarian disaster all of this is when there's no clear explanation for the war. There's certainly anything but a Pearl Harbor to explain what Russians are doing in Ukraine. So in the absence of that, with this humanitarian suffering in a neighboring country to which Russians have many ties, plus the economic situation, plus the fact that Putin is 20 years in power and there are built-up frustrations and grievances on that account, you will have rising incentives in the population at large and in Putin's inner circle to find another leader. So the question is, which point is sort of stronger? Is the political machine that he's built stronger, or is the disaster of this war going to be stronger?
GROSS: I guess we'll have to wait to find out.
KIMMAGE: I'm afraid so.
GROSS: Let me reintroduce you here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Michael Kimmage, and he oversaw the Ukraine-Russia portfolio in the policy planning staff of the State Department from 2014 until the Trump presidency. He's now a professor of history at Catholic University. We'll be right back after we take a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Michael Kimmage. He oversaw the Ukraine-Russia portfolio in the policy planning staff of the State Department from 2014 until the start of the Trump presidency. He's now a professor of history at the Catholic University of America and a fellow at the German Marshall Fund.
Do you think Putin has changed since you were in the State Department?
KIMMAGE: I think so. When I go back over the course of the past year, I think that there is a progression that happens. It's not shocking. You know, Putin begins the military buildup around Ukraine in the spring of 2021. So we're one year into this crisis. We're not eight days into it. We're one year into it. And it's not shocking that Putin would do such a thing. He understood in Syria, I think, that he can gain a lot through military force. What he could gain through military force was diplomatic leverage.
So he moves into Syria, and that forces Israel to deal with Russia in a very practical way. He moves into Syria, and he becomes a factor in the diplomacy of the Middle East. So I think he entertained that equation then, and he believed it was successful afterwards. So he builds up military force in Ukraine over the course of the year, and my interpretation based on 2015 is that he's going to use it for diplomatic leverage. And for a while, it seemed like that was a plausible explanation. But then the kind of diplomacy that he did is not like what Russia has done before, or it's much more extreme than what Russia has done before. He brings Emmanuel Macron, for example, to Moscow and humiliates him - doesn't give him a party to meet him at the airport, lies to him, just burns that bridge completely.
So the diplomacy was a kind of madcap, crazy, extremist diplomacy. I think we now realize that it was basically just a ruse. It was a way to keep our attention on the diplomacy while they finalized their military buildup. But then he engages in this enormously risky military venture. So he seems more erratic. In his speeches, he strikes me as more emotional than he's been in the past. And he has undertaken a kind of risk in the course of this invasion that he never undertook in the 20 years of his reign in Russia. So that has to be a very sharp break with the past.
GROSS: I know American intelligence is trying to figure out if Putin is still sane, you know, if he's still, like, a rational actor. How do they do that? What are your insights into how that judgment is made about whether Putin is still sane or whether he's really kind of crossed a line?
KIMMAGE: Well, my guess is that they would do very, very close analysis, including body language. And there's some speculation that Putin is not in good health. I think we can all acknowledge, as many of us have, he's had a bad pandemic, and he looks, you know, sort of jittery and certainly very nervous about COVID conditions. So I think they would take all of that into account just from whatever the public record is. But I'm sure they're also scanning a lot of the conversations that are going on around Putin, to which they seem to have very good access. That's one of the insights of the last couple of months - that a lot of the military planning was discussed over cellphones and such.
And so I think if there are comments to the effect that he seems unstable from people who know him and wouldn't necessarily want to believe that, I think that would be very important corroborating evidence. But he does - to my eyes, you know, I think insane or irrational is too strong a way of putting it. He just doesn't look well to me.
GROSS: If he is unwell or if he is unstable, do you fear that that increases the likelihood that he would use a nuclear weapon because he just wasn't thinking in a rational, sane way?
KIMMAGE: I think it's improbable. I think that, you know, he has children. I think he has grandchildren. You know, to go down a suicidal nuclear path, it seems very, very unlikely to me. I don't think that's the nature of his madness, if he's mad. I think the nature of the madness is different. It's not a desire for a kind of Wagnerian world destruction. I think with the madness that he has - and it's not uncommon to leaders who are in power for a long time - is much more akin to hubris. He just believes that he can do a lot of things. He's isolated. He's not getting a lot of great information, I assume. And, you know, he thinks that he can accomplish more than he can. I mean, you have some of that reasoning that goes into the Iraq War of 2003 among the leadership cadre that was, you know, not insane at all, you know, very much capable of deliberation.
So this can hit governments, this can hit individuals, this sense of hubris, especially when governments have a lot of military power. And the simplest interpretation, I think, is the right one. He just overstepped. He made a very, very bad decision but not, I think, out of insanity.
GROSS: But I think he knows that one of the reasons why NATO, including the U.S., is reluctant to have Ukraine join NATO and is reluctant to actually send troops into Ukraine is the fear that, you know, Putin could use a nuclear weapon. Like, we're facing a major nuclear power here.
KIMMAGE: I think that's very true, and I think that's very wise on the part of the Biden administration. And I think that the core aspects of U.S. and allied conduct here is not so much fear of, you know, sort of a rogue or unpredictable nuclear attack on the U.S. or on Europe. I think it's more the sense that the rules are different when you engage a nuclear power. You really do have to be careful. And what you don't want in any sense, you know, whether it will be Putin in charge or some much more benign figure, what you don't want is a soldier in uniform, a U.S. soldier in uniform, engaging directly with a soldier in Russian uniform, especially in an age of social media where emotions are very easily fanned in the course of a war or a conflict. You just can't get these two countries directly engaged in one another.
So the U.S. is obligated - although it's supporting Ukraine in many ways, it's obligated to hold back. And we got indications of that from the State of the Union address on Tuesday evening, that there are limits that the Biden administration sees. And if we look back, historically, those were the same limits that were in effect during the Cold War. Both the Soviet Union and the U.S. felt that there were borders that couldn't be crossed and thresholds that couldn't be crossed. We have to stay there, on our side, and we have to hope that Putin will stay there on his side.
GROSS: Meanwhile, though, the Soviet nuclear arsenal is on high alert. What's your understanding of what that means? I've heard different interpretations of what that means.
KIMMAGE: I think it's pure bluster. I think the war has gone surprisingly badly for the Kremlin. You know, the media narrative, which they've been lazy and listless about trying to inform or to control - the media narrative, internationally, has gone completely against them. And I think this was just a way of refocusing people's attention on the military powers that Russia has and perhaps attempting to intimidate the populations of the U.S. and the populations of Europe not to support the Ukrainians in the course of this struggle. But I think it's pure bluster.
GROSS: Let me reintroduce you. If you're just joining us, my guest is Michael Kimmage. He oversaw the Ukraine-Russia portfolio and the policy planning staff of the State Department from 2014 until Trump's inauguration. He's now a professor of history at The Catholic University of America and a fellow at the German Marshall Fund. We'll be right back after a short break. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to the interview I recorded yesterday with Michael Kimmage. He oversaw the Ukraine-Russia portfolio in the policy planning staff of the State Department from 2014 until Trump's inauguration. He's now a professor of history at Catholic University and a fellow at the German Marshall Fund. He's been writing about Russia's invasion of Ukraine, the possible outcomes and what the consequences would be for Ukraine, Europe and the U.S. if Russia wins.
You write that if Russia gains control of Ukraine or destabilizes it on a major scale, it will mean a new era for the U.S. and Europe. What do you mean by a new era?
KIMMAGE: Well, we can look back historically here. During the Cold War, it was definitely tense and difficult and scary in Europe from start to finish. But there was an Iron Curtain. There was a line of division. And throughout the Cold War, that Iron Curtain was never fundamentally challenged. After the Cold War ends in 1991, you have this, for U.S. foreign policy, a magical period where the walls come down, and the world opens up. And you get this extraordinary extension of the European Union, of NATO. And the vision that the U.S. had at that time, from the words of George Bush Sr., was a Europe whole, free and at peace. It was never 100% true, but it was a very plausible vision for quite a while.
What we face now if Russia finishes the military campaign it's conducting in Ukraine to its own satisfaction and stays - I don't think it's going to be throughout Ukraine, but in some portion of Ukraine. What we have now is something, really, completely new. It will be a Europe in which there is no dividing line between Russia on the one side and whatever we define as the other side of the conflict, whether we call it the West or NATO or the transatlantic alliance. And it is going to be a border that will be fluid, that will be enormously dangerous, that will be very difficult to define and very difficult to control. So you would have to extrapolate that - from that, I'm afraid, that the instability of that uncertain border is going to flow in two different directions. It's going to flow eastward, into Russia, in many ways, and it's going to flow westward, into Europe.
And there are many ways in which the conflict could, through accident or, perhaps, through Russian frustrations, could start to spread beyond that border. In which case, one would have to contemplate a conflict between NATO and Russia, which is not anything that we've been thinking about. Even the most pessimistic of us were not thinking in those terms a few weeks ago. But I'm afraid this situation demands that kind of thinking. We have thought this is the crown jewel of American foreign policy is European order and stability. It was a wonderful achievement after 1945, sort of first round, and then after 1991, the second round. And now we're back to where Europe was in many of its darkest moments historically as a place, where things are quite uncertain, unstable and exceptionally dangerous.
GROSS: When you talk about a fluid boundary, what do you mean?
KIMMAGE: What I mean is that we're not going to know where exactly Russia ends. You know, Russia has absorbed a neighboring country, Belarus, into its military orbit in the last couple of weeks. That puts a kind of Russian military perimeter right on the border of Lithuania, Latvia and Poland. That's a new development. That would be shocking in its own right if there were not a major war going on in Ukraine. Ukraine itself, you know, let's imagine that the country is partitioned along the lines of what a "Russian victory" - in quotation marks - might look like.
Then you will have a western Ukraine that will be armed to the teeth, that will be a site of enormous conflict and, no doubt, will be trying to seek military advantage against Russia, wherever it, you know, sort of parks itself in eastern Ukraine - and will be trying to destabilize the situation, will be trying to destabilize the situation with the assistance of the United States, of NATO and of many European countries. I don't know how to describe that other than as a war with Russia, if it comes to pass. And then, if we have a war with Russia, we have all of the things that we worry about in terms of a war with Russia, a conflict between two nuclear powers, the U.S. and Russia, on opposite sides. So it's in that sense that the fluidity of the situation leads to instability and, very quickly, to danger.
GROSS: Do you think it's fair to assume that as long as Russia keeps up its invasion of Ukraine, or if it declares victory in Ukraine, that the economic sanctions against Russia will continue? So what impact is that going to have on the world economy, do you think? It's not - because, you know, we're targeting Russia. But Russia is part of the world economy. So it's not like Russia is just going to be the only country suffering.
KIMMAGE: That's very true. I mean, I think the easy thing to predict is higher inflation and higher commodity prices. And it's not just oil and gas, it's also wheat, which both Ukraine and Russia export in large quantities. And that may not have a huge effect on the American economy or on American consumers. But it could well have an effect on, you know, the cost of food in Egypt and places like that, which consume Ukrainian and Russian wheat. So there's that sort of knock-on effect that's easy to predict. And I suspect it's already happening. You see the price of oil going up in the last 48 hours.
You would assume, I think, a closer relationship between Russia and China. Although, that's a little bit difficult to assume at the moment because I think China is not very happy about this invasion. But I think economically, China will seek to take what it can from Russia, given its isolation. And a lot of the assumptions we had about globalization are going to be challenged by this conflict, you know? That was the baseline assumption of the last 20, 30 years - certainly, in Washington, D.C., it was - that there's going to be greater integration. And we'll work together on the rules. And commerce and trade will sort of flow to a greater and greater extent.
Of course, the pandemic has been one challenge to that. And now we have a major war that's going to be another challenge to that. And as we said earlier, this is going to be a war of attrition. So you're going to have economic warfare or economic measures that resemble warfare coming from the United States, from Europe, from Australia, South Korea, Japan - all intended to change Russia's military calculus. But you're also going to have Russia lashing out in its own ways, perhaps, through cyber or other measures that it could take, you know, to impose costs on its adversaries. And that war of attrition is really going to be costly for everyone. There's no beneficiary to this conflict that I can see, including Vladimir Putin, which is the insanity of this particular war.
GROSS: Let me reintroduce you. If you're just joining us, my guest is Michael Kimmage. He oversaw the Ukraine-Russia portfolio on the policy planning staff of the State Department from 2014 until Trump's inauguration. He's now a professor of history at Catholic University and a fellow at the German Marshall Fund. We'll be right back after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Michael Kimmage. He oversaw the Ukraine-Russia portfolio on the policy planning staff of the State Department from 2014 to 2017. He's now a professor of history at Catholic University, where he chairs the history department. He's been writing about Russia's invasion of Ukraine, the possible outcomes and what the consequences would be for Ukraine, Europe and the U.S. if Russia wins.
I keep wondering, how does the war in Ukraine and the sanctions that the West has imposed on Russia - what does all that mean for Russian interference in our upcoming elections - the midterms and then the presidential election in 2024?
KIMMAGE: It may mean a lot in the sense that I don't think Russia feels now any inhibitions. One of the misfortunes of the sanction regime, which I support and I think makes a lot of sense - but one of the misfortunes of it is it gives Russia very little to lose now. And in a way, the further one goes with the sanctions regime, the less Russia has to lose. And we know from past precedent that Putin is not passive in reaction to what he perceives as setbacks or challenges. He will respond in some proactive fashion. And he's going to seek out certain kinds of political advantage.
But what's curious about this situation from Putin's point of view - I'm not quite sure if he sees this at the moment, but I think this is the case for him - is that he's really undermined his political tools in the U.S. and Europe by the war that before he could manipulate - you know, if one side of the political spectrum is, is pro-Putin, he could manipulate that - if - the other side of the political spectrum, he could do that. You see that in France, where Putin will support parties of the far left and the far right for the sake of some kind of political gain. And he's going to look for vulnerabilities and advantages in American political culture. But he's just made it a lot harder for anyone, wherever they are, to support his cause and to sort of push in a Russian direction.
You've seen in the last couple of days that the far-right political leader in France, Marine Le Pen, has taken photos of herself with Putin down from her website. You know, I just think he's given himself less to work with. So I suspect that his ideas going forward when it comes to interference - they're going to be less about politics. He's lost the political fight with Europe and the U.S. for the foreseeable future. He's discredited his country in the most extraordinary of ways. And there's not going to be any easy recovery in that regard.
So I think he's going to focus on critical infrastructure and cyberattacks on our financial system and things that would, you know, disrupt daily life - electrical grid, that kind of thing. I think if he moves, I think he's going to move in that direction. But the 2016 election meddling - I think that belongs to a different and, if one can believe it, more innocent past.
GROSS: I'm wondering how it strikes you emotionally to - on the one hand, your policy side says, we cannot send troops to Ukraine. There's things we just can't do because it's too risky. It's too risky that we'd get into a war with Russia. And that could be truly catastrophic. At the same time, emotionally, I know you're really siding with the Ukrainian people and with their desire for freedom and democracy and for freedom from Putin. So do you feel like your emotional side and your policy side are in conflict now?
KIMMAGE: Well, one has to do the best that one can do with that. I mean, we've had, you know, horrible humanitarian crises in Syria. And, you know, we have an ongoing one in Afghanistan. And, you know, there's a great role to be played by what we would describe here as civil society. You know, we have philanthropy, you know, humanitarian assistance to the migrants. In my corner of the world, in academia, I think there's a lot that can be done to take in Ukrainian students and scholars. So there's everyday things that I'm sure all of us will be doing on a large scale.
When it comes to the formation of policy - you know, I think that much as the emotional issues capture us, it's very important to retain a cool head. I do think that the primary obligation of the United States in this crisis - perhaps it will sound odd to put it this way, but the primary obligation is to avoid a nuclear conflict with Russia. So that is not a sort of felt moral need, perhaps, in the way of supporting in the way that supporting refugees is. But that's very important.
And then we have to begin to conceptualize. In some respects, the most helpful work we can do at the moment is intellectual. We have to begin to conceptualize what a livable, viable Ukraine is going to look like five years from now, 10 years from now. I am quite convinced that this Russian effort is going to fail. I see no way in which it can really succeed, despite having written a piece about what happens if Russia wins.
It may fail three, four years from now, which is three, four years of utter catastrophe for Ukraine. But perhaps we can begin conceptualizing now what the outlines of this better Ukraine look like. And so I think in that sense, you can bring together, perhaps, the policy side of this, which is often, you know, highly rational and constrained by circumstance, and the emotional side of this, which makes you want to do everything you can to help a population that didn't deserve this conflict at all. But I think maybe patience and a long view of the crisis can help to reconcile these two sides of a, you know, immensely challenging and complicated problem.
GROSS: What makes you think Russia will fail in the long run, i.e. in four to five years?
KIMMAGE: You know, I think that we could look back at U.S. foreign policy in the last 20 years and come up with a pretty clear answer. You know, the military side of things for countries that have big militaries, like the U.S. and Russia - military side of things is not that difficult if you're willing to, you know, sort of follow through on the use of military force. And, you know, in Iraq and Afghanistan, the military aims were achieved more or less. It took time, but they were achieved. And what was so difficult in both in Iraq and Afghanistan for the U.S. was the politics of it. And, you know, that stemmed from certain kinds of overconfidence that were felt in Washington before these conflicts and also just from the difficulty that's involved in managing and running countries that are recovering from war.
I think Russia has created on its doorstep a massive crisis - unnecessary, unprovoked - and has shown already in its military planning that it didn't get the politics of Ukraine right. It didn't expect the Ukrainians to fight. It didn't expect the Ukrainians to support their government - didn't expect Zelenskyy to become the hero that he's become. They thought of him as just a comedian puppet of the United States. And they were wrong about that.
So having gotten the politics wrong, it means that, yes, they can lay siege and lay waste to Ukraine cities. And perhaps if they're willing to do it, they can subdue a portion of Ukraine's population. But how are they going to govern it? And how are they going to deal also with the resistance that the war itself has provoked? So I see no way in which they can succeed politically. And if they don't succeed politically, I'm not sure what the military battlefield successes ultimately mean. So I think they have created already an immense nightmare obviously for the Ukrainian people but an immense nightmare for themselves.
GROSS: Let me reintroduce you. If you're just joining us, my guest is Michael Kimmage. He oversaw the Ukraine-Russia portfolio and the policy planning staff of the State Department from 2014 until Trump's inauguration. We'll be right back after we take a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Michael Kimmage. He oversaw the Ukraine-Russia portfolio and the policy planning staff of the State Department from 2014 until Trump's inauguration. He's now a professor of history at Catholic University, where he chairs the history department, and he's a fellow at the German Marshall Fund. He's been writing about Russia's invasion of Ukraine, the possible outcomes and what the consequences would be for Ukraine, Europe and the U.S. if Russia wins.
Let's get to Trump's first impeachment and the now-infamous phone call that Trump had with President Zelenskyy. And Trump basically tried to shake down Zelenskyy, saying, you want arms to help fight against Russia. But first, you have to do us a favor. And the favor was basically find dirt on Hunter Biden, Joe Biden's son. And, of course, at the time, Joe Biden was Trump's opponent in the presidential election. What was your reaction when you first heard about that phone call?
KIMMAGE: Well, you know, we all read the transcript of the phone call eventually. I thought that Zelenskyy conducted himself well. Of course, he's a political leader in a country that's quite dependent on U.S. military and financial aid, so, you know, he couldn't cross Trump. But he, you know, sort of dealt with him as kind of graciously and effectively as possible.
And I would just take a step back from the phone call itself. And I would say that the four Trump years, which did reflect lots of fairly zany storylines - some of which caused by Trump, some of which created about him - related to Russia. The four Trump years - when you think of Ukraine, when you think of the terrible crisis that we're all entering into in Ukraine - were four wasted years. You know, Trump, you know, accepted two new countries into NATO. He did send lethal military assistance to Ukraine. He increased the U.S. military budget vis-a-vis Europe.
So it's not that Trump, you know, sort of backtracked on the fundamentals of the U.S. commitment to Europe. But at the same time, he muddied the waters unbelievably with all of these strange statements about Putin. He had a horrific press conference with Putin in Helsinki where he seemed to be sort of kowtowing to Putin, insulting the American intelligence community. And, you know, that is what it is. I don't know what it means in the end - I don't think a great deal. But it was wasted time in terms of U.S.-Russian relations that not much was clarified or accomplished, but it was perilously, crucially wasted time in terms of doing things for Ukraine.
You know, I think the whole reform agenda that I spoke about - that was something we devoted a lot of attention to in policy planning between 2014 and 2016. I don't think Trump was the figure to promote reform in Ukraine, so I think that there was backsliding there. And I think, you know, all of the defense issues, the security issues, just were not well-handled. They were deferred. And, you know, it's tragic that, from an American point of view, we just wasted as much time as we did.
GROSS: You lived through part of the Cold War. You lived through the end, the collapse of the Soviet Union. Now, I mean, you're a history professor. One of your areas of expertise is the Cold War. Your students did not live through the Cold War, so you have to explain to them what it was like for people who did live through it. There was a lot of fear then about nuclear war. This was the period when, you know, children were taught to hide under their school desks in case of nuclear attack. So do you feel like you have to communicate this history that you lived through that your students didn't?
KIMMAGE: I think it is very important. You know, I feel now, as sort of, I suppose, many people my age do - age 50 - a nostalgia for the 1990s in the sense that when I was a student - you know, I began college in 1991. That's the year in which the Soviet Union collapsed. In fact, I remember the coup in the Soviet Union in August right before I went to college August of 1991. And, you know, when the Soviet Union collapsed, it really did feel like Europe opened up. And so all of us had the opportunity to travel in places like Prague and Warsaw, you know, Russia itself. And there was this sort of extraordinary feeling of a new openness, of walls coming down and a relaxation, really, a relaxation of those tensions. And that lasted for quite a long while. And, you know, I think we all kind of got used to that in many ways, but I suppose it wasn't destined to last forever.
So we are - exactly as your question suggests, we are back to a degree. Whether there is an Iron Curtain or not or whether the situations are identical or not, we are back certainly in the atmosphere of the Cold War. And that's an atmosphere of uncertainty. It's an atmosphere of fear. And it's tragic to behold. It's also an atmosphere in which we are putting up walls again.
So I suppose we can celebrate President Biden's statement from the State of the Union address that the U.S. is closing its airspace to Russian planes, and most European countries are doing the same. I suppose we can celebrate the sanctions because they'll weaken the Russian war machine. But it doesn't hearten me or cheer me to see that we are putting up a kind of new wall - not the Berlin Wall, but a new wall between ourselves and Russia. And so that sort of separation of peoples, in addition to the nuclear fears and the anxieties and the military fears - but that separation of peoples was one of the real Cold War dynamics, and it's obvious that we're heading back in that direction.
So, yes, those of us who are in the business of teaching the Cold War, we have a lot to teach now and we have to bring that information and we have to bring the patterns of the Cold War to the attention of our students so that they can really think through the momentous transition that has imposed itself on us in the last seven days.
GROSS: So one more thing. I assume you have friends or colleagues or contacts in Russia as well as Ukraine because you dealt with the Russia-Ukraine portfolio in the State Department. And in a lot of ways, so many Russian people are just collateral damage right now, because so many Russian people don't support Putin, but they're going to be the victims of economic sanctions. They're going to be suffering. The ruble has tanked. There's lines at banks and ATM machines. So what are you hearing from people in Russia who don't support Putin and know that they will be collateral damage?
KIMMAGE: Well, I have many friends in the foreign policy expert community in Russia, and they have been, you know, with a few exceptions, completely silent for the last eight days. I think they've just been completely shocked by the war, which was not expected by many, I think, in Moscow, outside of the smallest Kremlin circles. I think that this question opens up what will be one of the most important and one of the most difficult questions for the United States, for U.S. policy going forward. We have to tabulate a record of the war crimes. We have to think of who's to be held accountable, if we can hold these people to account, and that will be army officers and people who execute the commands and make the commands to bomb cities or to shell civilian areas. That's a necessity. There are lots of, you know, ethical questions that come into play when you have a war of this nature.
At the same time, as we talked about earlier, it is very important to continue to do a kind of diplomacy with Russia, if that's at all possible. That's on the government level. But that's necessary. And it's also very important not to demonize the Russian population. I haven't seen much evidence of that. Somebody came in Washington and threw stones through the window of a restaurant called Russia House, and I hope we don't see more of that kind of behavior.
But in a deft way, I think without preaching to Russians or telling them what they should think or what kind of political system they should create, we have to find ways of maintaining those ties to the people of this country. There will be a Russia after Putin. That's an inevitability. And how we can, perhaps through academic exchange or through, you know, the world of culture, the world of ideas - I'm really at a loss at the moment for how to think about it and how to put forward these suggestions. But we just have to keep trying in this regard.
You know, we've mentioned the beginning of the Cold War and the feeling of anxiety and fear and the nuclear fears and the construction of the Berlin Wall in 1962. But let's also remember the end of the Cold War. Nobody expected it to happen. Nobody thought it could occur. Nobody expected, in some ways, the Russian population to respond to programs like glasnost and perestroika, opening and restructuring, that Gorbachev called for. And in very rapid and sudden ways, the situation improved. And it was possible to mend some of those bridges. So let's at least bear that in mind at the moment as a possibility and use that as a bit of a counterweight to the very understandable outrage and upset that people feel in the wake of this war.
We're going to have to juggle all of these different balls. I mean, we as, you know, the policymakers in Washington, D.C. - but we as a country are going to have to juggle all these different balls in terms of the U.S.-Russian relationship because it really is one of the fundamental relationships in world politics. And we've got to try to, you know, bring it up to the best age possible under these punishing circumstances.
GROSS: Michael Kimmage, thank you so much for your time and for your expertise.
KIMMAGE: Thank you so much.
GROSS: Michael Kimmage oversaw the Ukraine-Russia portfolio at the State Department's Policy Planning Staff from 2014 through early 2017. He's the chair of the History Department at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. Our interview was recorded yesterday.
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