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This is an audio transcript of the Rachman Review podcast episode: What would a Ukraine conflict look like?

Gideon Rachman
Hello and welcome to the Rachman Review. I’m Gideon Rachman, chief foreign affairs commentator at the Financial Times. In this week’s edition, we’re looking at the growing threat of a war over Ukraine. Russian troops remain massed on the border with Ukraine and a week of diplomacy involving direct talks between Russia and the US, talks between Russia and NATO and the special session of the Organisation on Security and Co-operation in Europe, the OSCE, have so far failed to diffuse the crisis. My guest this week is Samuel Charap, a political scientist at the RAND Corporation think-tank in Washington, and the author of a book called Everyone Loses: the Ukraine Crisis and the Ruinous Contest for Post-Soviet Eurasia. So in the current Ukraine crisis, is war now the most likely outcome?

[MUSIC PLAYING]

The failure of talks between Russia and America to find a diplomatic way forward over Ukraine increased the fear of conflict. After the last round of talks, Zbigniew Rau, the Polish foreign minister and current chair of the OSCE, warned that Europe was closer to conflict than at any time since the end of the Cold War.

Zbigniew Rau
The risk of war in the OSCE area is now greater than ever before in the last 30 years.

Gideon Rachman
The failed talks were followed shortly afterwards by intense cyber attacks on Ukrainian institutions, widely attributed to Russia.

[NEWS CLIP PLAYS]
Ukrainian officials are assessing the damage done by a massive cyber attack on government servers. The US has condemned the attack and vows to help with the investigation. The hack comes as Ukraine faces a potential invasion by Russia. Some Ukrainian officials feared this type of cyber attack prior to Russian military action.

Gideon Rachman
There are still diplomatic moves afoot, and Sam Charap at the RAND Corporation is known as someone who argues that there is room for the West to make more diplomatic concessions to ward off a conflict. But before we got on to his ideas about what those moves might be, I started by asking him what conclusion he drew from the first failed round of diplomacy.

Samuel Charap
Well, it would have been a diplomatic miracle if there had been an agreement, given that this was essentially the first round of talks about issues that are incredibly politically fraught and strategically significant. So on the one hand, it’s not surprising that we haven’t had some sort of breakthrough crisis resolution coming out of these meetings, particularly given the stakes and that this is the first time that these issues have been discussed. On the other hand, it’s clear that the Russians have put at the fore an issue that both the US and its Nato allies have explicitly said they’re not going to touch. That is further enlargement of Nato. And I think the way the Russians have framed it is that any discussion of other issues needs to come after that specific one is resolved to their satisfaction. And so the messaging coming out of this week in that context is a little bit disconcerting in that the Russians are not saying that we see a way forward for diplomacy. It’s a bit darker, the messaging. And given that this is a crisis of their making and they’re the ones who can either escalate it or de-escalate it, that doesn’t raise hopes that we’re on a path towards avoiding a military outcome.

Gideon Rachman
Yeah. And in fact, the stuff coming out of Washington was also quite chilling in its way. I mean, from what I’ve read, sort of background briefings, there is talk that Russia may attack sort of any time, really, with the early February talked in as a likely time with their logistical issues that they’re resolving and the Americans also raising the possibility that Russia is going to try and stage some sort of provocation, a kind of false flag attack that would allow them to justify an assault. So is it your reading, since you’re in Washington, that the Americans do now expect a war?

Samuel Charap
I think the concern about Russian preparation for conflict and the hints that the US government has been able to divine in some way that planning has been pretty steady, you know, at least since early December, and that this was really the kind of build-up and planning that we hadn’t seen before, the thing I would say about military action, right, in this context, it’s pretty clear that Russia is not interested in territory for territory’s sake. It’s going to be a military operation with a purely military goal, like taking a hill, right? They have political objectives and of political military. And so until the lead starts flying, I wouldn’t rule out the possibility that war can be avoided. But it does seem that Russia is prepared to act.

Gideon Rachman
So, I mean, putting percentages on things can be a bit of a fatuous exercise, but people are interested. I mean, do you think the chances of war now are over 50 per cent?

Samuel Charap
Well, I hate to go on the record about this, but in the world of people who focus on Russia all the time, there’s a lot of talk about this precise issue and that is the likelihood of a negative outcome. I would have to say it’s over 50 per cent now. 60/40? It’s hard to see what a diplomatic solution looks like. It’s hard to see how Russia just packs up and goes home, militarily that is, without some sort of diplomatic victory. And therefore, the third option is some sort of conflict. So it is very concerning.

Gideon Rachman
So when we say some sort of conflict, there are numerous options again. And sorry, I realise I’m pushing you to give answers on questions that are very difficult to be definitive about. But what kind of military option are we talking about? I mean, you suggested that they’re not looking to stage some sort of new annexation on the lines of Crimea in 2014. So what might they be looking to do and how extensive do you think the operation would be? Are they going to send tanks deep into Ukraine or do you think it’ll be something more limited?

Samuel Charap
Well, I think we can probably say with a degree of confidence what it won’t be like. It won’t be like what we’ve seen for the last, essentially eight years in and around Ukraine, with Russia essentially conducting military operations with the equivalent of like one arm and one leg tied behind their back, relying on separatist proxies for the most part to do the fighting, only really directly intervening with the Russian regular military twice and very quickly, and quick operations in August, September 2014 and January, February 2015. What they’re preparing for now looks qualitatively different than that. It would be a major military operation conducted the way the Russian military would want to conduct that, as opposed to the sort of within the political strictures that they’ve been confined to over the last eight years. And so, you know, I think that the Russians are giving themselves a range of options with the build-up in multiple directions around Ukraine. So from the north, north-east, the direct east, south-east, from the Black Sea, the Sea of Azov, they’re effectively surrounding Ukraine with this build-up. So it’s hard to say exactly what happens when the fighting begins. One thing we probably can say with a degree of confidence is that if the sort of veil of plausible deniability is going to be done away with and Russia is no longer concerned with that, the operation will probably begin with an air campaign. So Ukraine’s air defences will be taken out. The remainder of its air force would be taken out and then Russia would, with control over the airspace, be sort of free to conduct air strikes to soften the Ukrainian defences before moving on the ground. And just for historical reference here, the Russian Air Force has never engaged in the fighting in Ukraine. So this would be just a huge departure from what we’ve seen before. And sadly, it’s not the war that the Ukrainian military has been preparing for for eight years. They’ve been essentially engaged in trench warfare in a basically, a static conflict. And here they’re about to be surrounded from all sides, being pummelled by one of the world’s leading air forces. It’s not going to be pretty.

Gideon Rachman
Do you have a view of how far Russia might want to go territorially? I mean, I’ve heard military strategists saying they’re going to go all the way up to the Dnieper River, quite close to Kyiv, but will probably try to avoid occupying any major urban centres because then they’d get sucked into guerrilla warfare.

Samuel Charap
You know, thinking through what that would look like makes me think really about how poorly thought out this whole thing seems just from the Russian perspective. I don’t know what they imagine as the day after unless they’re planning on annexing half of the country, which seems highly unlikely given the burdens it would impose militarily and economically. If they’re really going to go that far, the only thing that makes sense as a sort of outcome is deposing the leadership and somehow imposing their own, which, you know, I don’t see how that works in Ukraine politically. You know, I don’t see how it works in terms of the mechanisms. So it’s hard to answer these questions because even if we can talk about a military strategy that yes, it doesn’t really make sense to go past the river, with the exception of Odesa, which is on the other side of the Dnieper but could be presumably attacked from the sea, as a coastal city so to speak. You know, I don’t know what that looks like. It would require the kind of prolonged counterinsurgency slash urban warfare that the Russian military hasn’t faced since Chechnya, I suppose. My assumption is that we’re unlikely to get that far before the government in Kyiv cease for peace. You know, it only took the surrounding of one unit in January 2015 for Poroshenko to be cajoled into signing Minsk II. So it’s unclear how far they will need to go to get what they want or what even that looks like the day after. We’ll be living in a different world. Certainly, the Ukrainians will first and foremost.

Gideon Rachman
OK, well, you’ve sketched out some very bleak scenarios, but obviously ideally one would avoid those. And I know you think that the West’s approach to diplomacy led by Washington has not yet tried everything and specifically that the US could make an offer on Nato enlargement and specifically Ukraine that might get somewhere. Can you elaborate?

Samuel Charap
Sure. So, you know, I think that the Russians have made the issue of Ukraine’s prospective Nato membership the sort of sine qua non of any further discussion. You know, they came originally in December with this laundry list of dozens of grievances, but they’ve sort of narrowed it down to three and in a way said that one, that is Ukraine’s potential membership in Nato, is the most important. And the irony here, of course, is that Nato has no intention of offering Ukraine membership, despite the promise made in 2008 that Ukraine will become a member of Nato. Ukraine hasn’t even been offered a membership action plan. And that reflects the lack of a consensus to provide one within the alliance. So the idea that we’re going to essentially be in a situation of not acknowledging the reality of existing policy as a matter of principle that is, you know, Ukraine is not on a membership track right now, seems to me a little bit short-sighted given the stakes. I mean, under other circumstances, maintaining ambiguity and keeping adversaries and partners alike guessing might make sense. But the stakes are now so high that it seems to me there wouldn’t be a concession to find a way of formulating current Nato policy, which is that, you know, Ukraine is an enhanced opportunities partner to use the technical Nato jargon. It is not on track for membership. And of course, that would have to be not just the US statement. It would have to be a statement of alliance policy is my assumption because the US doesn’t decide Nato policy, and I’m not sure that that will do the trick, but I think it’s certainly worth trying. I don’t think Nato should rule out Ukraine’s membership. I just think it should be clear about where it stands today and see if that is a way of opening a door to a de-escalation and withdrawal of Russian forces from the border.

Gideon Rachman
Do you think there is any prospect of Nato or the US offering it, uh, something like that? Because if they were going to, last week would have been quite a good opportunity. On the other hand, I should say that one of the reasons I asked you to come on the show today is that people said to me that, you know, you’re associated with this viewpoint and that it has got some quite influential adherents in Washington. So what’s your reading of the internal debate in the Biden administration on this?

Samuel Charap
Well, I mean, they’re in a tough spot. This issue has become incredibly politicised. You know, Congress is pushing from one side and, you know, the Ukrainians have a lot of sympathetic ears in Congress. And the Ukrainians, of course, are quite hard line on this issue of Nato membership. In fact, they’re demanding a membership track, which Nato is not providing. And you know, on the other hand, they’re facing the stark reality of a conflict. And the, you know, sort of tragedy of Nato’s policy actually being not so far off from what Russia is demanding it be. So I think there are those who are, I would imagine, trying to find ways to be creative without crossing any red lines to address this, but clearly there’s no consensus on that within the government, let alone within the alliance.

Gideon Rachman
So the ideas that you put forward sound like a good way of testing whether there is a diplomatic way out of this conflict. But you’ll be very familiar with the objections so let me put them to you: that this is appeasement, that Russia’s demands are probably insincere anyway, that they’re looking for a conflict. But if we show weakness, it will just encourage them to pocket whatever we give them and then move on and stage a whole new round of threats. How do you respond to those arguments?

Samuel Charap
In the case of Russia, it has been pretty clear for decades now that Ukraine occupies a unique space in their national security thinking. It’s somewhere like close to national survival in their priorities. They annexed Crimea and invaded and supported insurgency in the Donbas, and have seen a lot of their economic ties with the West cut off for the purposes of maintaining some degree of influence and control over events in Ukraine. So Ukraine is uniquely important to Russia and Russian thinking. So that’s what leads me to the conclusion that there’s a reason that this crisis is happening around Ukraine and that addressing the Ukraine problem does not mean that there’s going to be, that Russia’s appetite doesn’t grow with the eating, to use that silly expression. The other thing about what I’m proposing is that it’s not actually a concession to say that you don’t plan to do something that you didn’t plan to do. So I’m not quite sure exactly what we’re giving up in this context. It is true that it might be possible that Putin has never intended to reach diplomatic settlement to resolve this crisis. But again, I don’t see what we lose by trying to test the proposition that something short of war and short of crossing, you know, stated red lines would allow us to avoid what would be a really catastrophic outcome.

Gideon Rachman
So let me try another argument that again is chucked at people such as you, which is that what essentially you’re arguing for is to grant Russia a sphere of influence and that that is somehow repellent thinking because it means that smaller countries such as Ukraine, or later somebody else, are not able really to have control of their own destiny, that they are always fated to be in the shadow of a large country. And if that large country happens to be an oppressive authoritarian power such as Russia or indeed China at some point, you’re kind of writing them off. How do you respond to that no-spheres-of-influence argument?

Samuel Charap
So the people making this argument presumably think that our current policy on Ukraine’s membership in Nato is somehow denying Russia’s sphere of influence, which I find unconvincing because we’re not actually offering Ukraine a path towards membership. You know, what Russia has been able to achieve through the use of force has been already to limit Ukraine’s options. I mean, that is just the reality of what has happened.

Gideon Rachman
Just let’s finish by talking about Ukraine itself, which can be kind of forgotten in this great power diplomacy. What’s your read on the state of Ukraine? I mean, I’ve heard various takes. Some say, look, this is a deeply corrupt, very dysfunctional government that will collapse quite quickly when put under a lot of Russian pressure, including the kind of military pressure you’re discussing. Others say, actually, Ukrainian nationalism is quite strong. The Ukrainians will fight, and the Russians don’t really know what they’re getting into.

Samuel Charap
I worry about the way this conflict will go in terms of its impact politically on Ukraine. I mean, I think in the south-east, there was a lot of enthusiasm for the Zelensky presidency initially, but that has faded pretty quickly. And I think there’s a sort of passive, silent majority that might acquiesce to whoever is in charge, particularly given the economic circumstances which aren’t good in the south-east. And the increasing culture wars problems that they’re facing. You know, just a couple of days ago, the latest round of language laws went into effect that are further restricting the use of the Russian language, which of course is quite widely used in the south-east. So in the areas most likely to be subject to a Russian military invasion, the Ukrainian government is not suffering from a surplus of legitimacy, to put it mildly. And I think that extends more broadly because, you know, Zelensky is not in the strongest position domestically, and there are a lot of seams that could be exploited, let’s put it that way. And Ukraine, of course, does itself no service by engaging in a lot of political infighting as the prospect of Russian aggression grows. Just this week, Poroshenko, the former president, and Zelensky, his main political rival, is in court facing charges of treason. And you know, it’s that kind of infighting that will ultimately be a major distraction from countering Russia in this context. The other thing I would say in terms of Ukrainians are prepared to fight, this is not going to be a fair fight. And so I don’t think we should feel assured by the bravery of the outmanned, outgunned, surrounded Ukrainian military and civilian resistance. There are going to be, if this turns out to be a fully fledged conflict, a lot of Ukrainian casualties. And there might be some Russian casualties, too, but that doesn’t make me any more confident about the outcome of the conflict or any more sanguine about its implications for Ukraine. I mean, it’s not a fair fight.

Gideon Rachman
That was Samuel Charap ending this edition of the Rachman Review. Thanks for listening. I hope you’ll be able to join me again next week.

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