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

A building burns after shelling in Kyiv, Ukraine, March 3, 2022. Russian forces have escalated their attacks on crowded cities in what Ukraine's leader called a blatant campaign of terror.
Efrem Lukatsky
/
AP
A building burns after shelling in Kyiv, Ukraine, March 3, 2022. Russian forces have escalated their attacks on crowded cities in what Ukraine's leader called a blatant campaign of terror.

Michael Kimmage, a specialist on U.S.-Russia relations who formerly served in the State Department, says the war in Ukraine is not going the way Russian President Vladimir Putin had planned.

"The war has gone surprisingly badly for the Kremlin," Kimmage says. "It didn't get the politics of Ukraine right. It didn't expect the Ukrainians to fight, didn't expect the Ukrainians to support their government, didn't expect [Ukrainian President Volodymyr] Zelenskyy to become the hero that he's become."

Kimmage joined the State Department's Policy Planning Staff examining Ukraine-Russia issues in 2014 — shortly after Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine. He left the State Department on the day Donald Trump took the oath of office in 2017 and now chairs the History Department at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.

Kimmage says Putin's actions in Ukraine are a reflection of extreme hubris: "[Putin] 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 he thinks that he can accomplish more than he can."

Kimmage and co-author Liana Fix warn in 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 see no way in which [Russia] can succeed politically," he says. "I think they have created, already, an immense nightmare, obviously for the Ukrainian people, but an immense nightmare for themselves. ... [Putin's] destroying the very thing that he wished either to take or to create in Ukraine."


Interview highlights

On the wartime role that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has assumed

I think [surrender is] 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 of Ukraine, to the Ukraine that's 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 to do that, he really can't surrender. He has to keep on fighting till the end, till death, if necessary.

On what a Russian "victory" might look like

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 — 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 [it would be] a political structure that is deferential or subservient to Moscow.

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 I don't want to be overconfident to my predictions, but I will predict at the moment that that venture is doomed to failure.

On the possibility of Ukraine being partitioned

If I had to say at the moment, judging from how the war is going, I think that's the Russian plan. ... 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're going to try to build an 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 a part of this new political structure. I'm saying that this is the plan. I'm very skeptical that they'll be able to carry it out, but I think that's the intention.

[If the country were partitioned,] 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 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 hobbled and, to a degree, a ruined country.

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

[It means] we're not going to know where exactly Russia ends. 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, let's imagine that the country is partitioned along the lines of what a "Russian victory" 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 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.

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

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 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. 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. ...

We have thought ... the crown jewel of American foreign policy is European order and stability. It was a wonderful achievement after 1945, the first round, and then after 1991, the second round. And now we're back to where Europe was and in many of its darkest moments, 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're not likely, but they're possible. ... 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 the population would be compliant with that project. That proved not to work already.

And so Russia now is obligated — it has 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 3 million people. The fact that Russia hasn't taken the city yet means that it's being armed. [Kyiv is] 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. ... The appetite for war in Moscow might diminish. Putin might face real pressures from his population, 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.

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

Copyright 2022 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

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