March 11, 2022
March 11, 2022

As escalation ratchets higher between Russia and the west over Ukraine, Open to Debate examines a core question: Is a confrontation with Russia worth it? And what effects have sanctions really wrought? Kurt Volker, a former U.S. Ambassador to NATO and former Special Representative for Ukraine, argues that defending Ukraine is very much in the west’s security interest. Emma Ashford of the Atlantic Council argues that it is not. And yet both acknowledge that for Russia, the stakes may be considerably higher.

12:00 PM Friday, March 11, 2022
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Background (5 RESOURCES)

Friday, February 25, 2022
Source: New York Times
Thursday, February 10, 2022
Source: New York Times
  • 00:00:06

    John Donvan

    Hi, everybody. John Donvan here. And welcome to Intelligence Squared. And we have put together, given the crisis in Ukraine with the Russian invasion, a special urgent debate. And there are, of course, uh, a lot of things going on. This is a very, very fluid situation. The facts on the ground are changing on a daily basis, an hourly basis, even sometimes a minute-by-minute basis. But, there is one persistent and fundamental question confronting what’s happening and figuring out a response on the part of the West. Back in 2015, then President Obama asked this question out loud, according to the New York Times, when he said, “Will someone tell me what is the American stake in Ukraine?”

  • 00:00:49

    Well, that’s what we are going to be exploring, but we’re going to be doing it from the broader framework of the West. Our debaters, Kurt Volker, who is former Ambassador to NATO and former US Special Representative to Ukraine. And Emma Ashford, Resident Senior Fellow at the Scocroff Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. One note, this program was recorded before a live virtual audience. So, let’s do it. I’m going to ask each of you the same starting question. Kurt, you are up first. Here is the question. Is Ukraine of such strategic importance to the West’s own security, such strategic importance to the West’s own security that the ongoing conflict demands deeper, broader, more robust intervention by the West? Kurt?

  • 00:01:36

    Kurt Volker

    Yes. Uh, absolutely, Ukraine is of strategic importance to the United States and to all of Europe. And what’s happening there is critically important for a number of reasons. Uh, first off, uh, there is a moral obligation to help civilians who are being targeted and killed by Putin’s forces. Uh, there are almost two million refugees already outside the country, millions more displaced inside the country. And we are likely to see more and more civilian casualties over the course of this week as Putin’s tactics have shifted more and more towards targeting the civilian population. Second, what Putin is doing is he is trying to recreate a Russian Empire on the territory of the former Soviet Union.

  • 00:02:16

    Uh, this is not something that threatens only Ukraine, this is something that threatens all of Europe. And countries on his target list are going to be Moldova, and Georgia, and then presumably he’ll be demanding some kind of demilitarization of the Baltic States, which are of course NATO allies. So, we find ourselves in a position that if Putin succeeds in Ukraine, we may be obliged by treaty to do more in terms of intervention. And it’s in our interest to stop Putin in Ukraine when we have a Ukrainian government and a Ukrainian military that is willing and able to do so if they get the help they need.

  • 00:02:50

    John Donvan

    Thank you, Kurt. So, Emma, the same question to you. I’ll- I’ll state it again. Is Ukraine of such strategic importance to the West’s own security that the ongoing conflict demands deeper, broader, more robust intervention by the West?

  • 00:03:03

    Emma Ashford

    No, I don’t believe so. Um, Ukraine is- is undoubtedly an important country, um, a- a wonderful country filled with wonderful people. Um, but it is not strategically important to the United States or to to our NATO allies, um, in the way that other countries in Europe have been over the years. So, Ukraine is not as important, for example, as Germany was during the Cold War. Um, and our commitment to Ukraine, uh, I think in contrast to what Kurt argues, um, I would say says nothing about our commitment to our NATO allies. Um, it’s important to remember Ukraine was not in NATO prior to this crisis, um, and that was for a number of reasons. Um, you know, some domestic political factors, corruption inside Ukraine, um, you know, they were a- a growing democracy. They weren’t fully democratic. Um, economic problems.

  • 00:03:51

    But perhaps most importantly, because of Russian pushback, Ukraine is the place where, um, a long history of NATO expansion, um, ran into Russia’s sort of resolve that Ukraine not be included in that process. Um, and Ukraine is the place I think we find where the West’s interests in that kind of expansion, in ideas, um, in, you know, protecting liberal values, um, where we find that we do not have the balance of resolve when it comes to Russia. Um, and if we’re thinking about this in sort of a Cold War mindset, um, I think it’s important to remember that we always balanced interest and ideals in our approach to the Cold War. This is precisely the reason why at the start of the Cold War, the US didn’t push for every country to be part of the Western block. There were countries like Sweden, or Austria that ended up in some middle ground. And I think that is the level of importance we should attach to Ukraine today.

  • 00:04:48

    John Donvan

    Kurt Volker, you- you laid out what I- I guess in Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War period would’ve been called a domino theory, uh, type of, uh, cause and effect. That if Ukraine goes then, uh, uh, President Putin’s ambitions would lead him to the- the Baltic States for- for a start. And then potentially others. Um, the argument has also been made that Ukraine is, even for him, a different case. That there is a strong sense of identify, that, uh, that goes to the fact that they have an overlapping history, overlapping peoples, overlapping use of languages. I- I remember as a reporter, uh, based in Moscow, I went down to Ukraine at the time of the dissolution of the Soviet Empire and so integrated were the two, uh, nations that the border actually ran through the middle of a beauty parlor in the middle of a town.

  • 00:05:37

    It was, it was so invisible at that point. My point being that, uh, his ambition … The argument is made that his ambitions for Ukraine have much more to do with that sense of connection. That he actually cites, uh, then it does towards a desire to continue to expand borders to other- other former, uh, Warsaw packed nations. So, I wanted you to take on that question, that- that in his calculation, Ukraine actually is different.

  • 00:06:04

    Kurt Volker

    Right. Well, Putin, uh, of course is a Russian nationalist and a chauvinist and believes that Russia is somehow superior to Ukraine and that the Slavic civilization of Belarus, Ukraine and Russian are really one civilization that Russia should be in charge of. Talk to any Ukrainian, or look at any history, and this is upside down. Uh, Ukraine predates Russia. Uh, when Ukraine was, you know, building the cathedrals that define u-, the Kiev landscape today, um, Moscow was empty woods. And this was something that, uh, ca- was basically developed … The- the Duchy of Muscovy was developed, uh, by Ukrainians who went there, uh, and built up a- an empire. It became strong and during, uh, the years of the czars, uh, this Russia then took over Ukraine and was part of the Russian Empire.

  • 00:07:00

    They gained their independence when the Russian Empire fell again. So, restored their independence. And then, uh, the Soviet Union took them over again. And when the Soviet Union fell apart, Ukraine again regained its independence. But you have a very, very strong sense of national identity as Ukraine, not defined by language by the way. You can speak Russian, you can speak Ukrainian. You still feel yourself to be a Ukrainian and that country, and culture, and society is different from Russia itself. So, Russian pretensions to say there is no such thing as Ukraine is, uh, just a form of imperialism, uh, under another guise.

  • 00:07:40

    John Donvan

    Emma?

  • 00:07:40

    Emma Ashford

    Eh, so, you know, I think that we can, we could have a whole debate about, um, what is driving Vladimir Putin’s actions in Ukraine. Indeed, there is quite an active debate publicly on- on what is driving it. Whether it is, as Kurt has suggested, um, some form of Russian nationalism or chauvinism. Whether it’s, um, Russian threat perceptions. Um, you know, that is to say NATO expansion, um, Russia feeling like NATO is encircling it. Um, and I think there’s probably, um, a little truth in both of those. Um, but I would argue to you that it doesn’t really matter. From the point of view of the decision that we’re having right now, um, we may not be able to tell what is driving Vladimir Putin.

  • 00:08:24

    Uh, Vladimir Putin himself may not know. Um, but what matters is the question of, whether it is better to fight for Ukraine now, um, whether Ukraine is so important that we need to step in and intervene in some way, um, or whether we’re better keeping our powder dry and waiting to see whether Russia decides that it’s wanting to take future steps. Um, and- and again, I would argue to you that it, that it really doesn’t matter at this point whether Putin has further intentions. Um, it matters more whether we respond to that better, um, by acting now or later.

  • 00:09:02

    John Donvan

    Emma, what I, what I think I hear Kurt saying is that if Ukraine goes, it’s kind of too late. That it’s too late to start watching what will happen, because Putin’s appetite will have been so wetted and he w- … Wetted and he will have established the- the West’s reluctance to get involved, that it’s going to fire his ambitions and- and inevitably lead to more trouble, more ambitious actions. So, you do not agree with that characterization.

  • 00:09:27

    Emma Ashford

    No, I- I’d say two things in response to that. So, um, the- the first is that, um, I think what we have seen since the end of February is a Russia military that is substantially weaker than we had long assumed. The Russians are having serious difficulty, um, you know, biting off chucks of Ukraine. Um, that suggests, you know, doesn’t suggest they couldn’t fight NATO countries, but it does suggest that perhaps we have overblown the- the conventional threat from Russia somewhat. Um, but then the second point that I would make is that, um, even if that weren’t true, um, we have a commitment to our NATO allies. We’ve seen forces from the United States flow into the region in recent weeks, um, designed to bolster NATO defenses. Um, we have never had that level of defense commitment to Ukraine. We are not sending US forces to defend Ukraine. These are differences in kind. Um, and so, I don’t believe that simply letting Ukraine now signals to Putin that he can take whatever he wants.

  • 00:10:26

    John Donvan

    Kurt?

  • 00:10:26

    Kurt Volker

    Yeah. Well, I think there … She’s right. Emma’s absolutely right. We have treaty obligations and I think we are doing a reasonable job of showing that we will meet our treat obligations to our NATO allies. We also have moral obligations, which is to protect humanity, to protect civilians. And if we wait and see what happens, we’re going to see tens of thousands of Ukrainians killed, millions and millions of refugees, a civilization, uh, attacked, extinguished, a country that is put under Russian domination. That itself is a horrific outcome, which after World War II, we said we would never allow to happen again.

  • 00:11:02

    John Donvan

    But- but Kurt, but Kurt, do those things represent a strategic, a vital strategic interest in the United States, as opposed to a moral interest?

  • 00:11:07

    Kurt Volker

    Yes, as- as John McCann, uh, very succinctly said, “Our values are our interests and our interests are our values.” Uh, it’s essential for the United States and for our European allies to live in a world where h- our human values are protected. And to the point about Ukraine not being a NATO ally, I’ll just point out, u- UK was not an ally of the United States at the onset of World War II. And yet, we did everything we could to help the UK survive German’s onslaughts. Uh, we entered into that war without alliance relationships. We created these alliances after World War II to prevent those things from happening.

  • 00:11:44

    Uh, Ukraine, at that time was part of the Soviet Union. They’ve since become independent, as of many states in Europe. Many of them have joined NATO, but Ukraine did not, largely for reasons of their own making, uh, that they had not done sufficient job on democracy reform, reform of the justice system. Uh, but, uh, w- they deserve the same opportunity to survive, to have security as a nation, uh, as any other nation in Europe.

  • 00:12:16

    John Donvan

    I’m John Donvan. This is Intelligence Squared US. We’ll hear more from our debaters right after this.

  • 00:12:31

    Welcome back to Intelligence Squared US. Let’s get back to our debate.

  • 00:12:35

    Emma Ashford

    I don’t agree that the United States has a moral obligation to defend people all around the world against whatever may come their way. Um, and again, we have drawn this very clear line between NATO states and non-NATO member states prior to this conflict for a reason. The states that are currently in NATO, um, you know, we can question the wisdom of that expansion. Um, but, we have been planning to defend them. We have US forces in place. Um, Ukraine is a completely different situation, one in which we’re not prepared to defend them. One which is hundreds of miles closer to Russia’s borders. Um, and is, again, a very different situation. So, um, you know, I- I agree that we need to do what we can to minimize the humanitarian impacts of this conflict, um, but I don’t necessarily think that is an argument in and of itself for the US getting involved in the conflict.

  • 00:13:30

    John Donvan

    So, Kurt, Emma’s saying, number one, that we’re not really well positioned to intervene in a way that would have a material impact on what the Russians are doing. I want to ask you that question. Do you foresee a se-, a set of interventions that can turn this thing around for Ukraine and- and what are they?

  • 00:13:46

    Kurt Volker

    Yes. Uh, I actually think we are well positioned, because we have a Ukrainian government that is showing extraordinary bravery and determination and resolve to defend their country. And a Ukrainian military that has done an exceptional job defending Ukraine against a massive Russian army. Uh, so, this is a very good position to be in by flowing arms to Ukraine, as we are doing, uh, by providing air defense systems, anti-tank systems, intelligence. I would like to see NATO allies provide the MiG-29 aircraft that have been discussed. I’d like to see the US provide a 10 aircraft, where there are trained Ukrainian pilots who know how to fly them. I think there’s a lot more we can do. And as Emma pointed out, the Russian military has had a disastrous time trying to invade Ukraine for a- a large number of reasons. And this is the opportunity to stop Putin when we have a Ukraine that’s willing to do the fighting, rather than having to do it directly.

  • 00:14:43

    John Donvan

    I- I understand you’re saying there is a potential to put up a kind of resistance and support a resistance. But my question was, uh, resistance to the point of victory, where Putin actually walks away from this battle.

  • 00:14:56

    Kurt Volker

    I suspect that Putin may be carried away from this battle. Uh, that you’re going to have military defeats in Ukraine on a consistent basis over a period of time. And the economic sanctions that the West has a- applied to Russia are going to take a significant toll. He’s actually driving his country into the ground and I think many people in Russia are now seeing this and realizing this. So, I don’t believe that he will go down in a military defeat, but I do think that there will be others in Russia who insist that this has to stop.

  • 00:15:27

    John Donvan

    Emma, we- we- we’ve heard from Kurt some discussion of potential military interventions, and I want to discuss those. But there are, there’s a whole range of inventions, including sanctions, economic sanctions, the US banning Russia oil, for example. Um, are those interventions as … In fact, all of the interventions up to this point, are you okay with those or are you talking about, “This is okay. Let’s not do anymore?”

  • 00:15:48

    Emma Ashford

    I’m broadly comfortable with the interventions that we’ve done so far. I have some concerns about the level of sanctions that we have levied on the Russian economy. Um, which are effectively unprecedented when it comes to major global economies. Um, but- but mostly, what I’m concerned about is that we are, we are in a place where we’ve used most of the available nonmilitary options. Um, we are supplying arms. We have issued extremely harsh sanctions. Um, we’re offering a variety of humanitarian measures, diplomatic measures. Um, what- what’s left is the military options that are substantially riskier. And I think that is something that is, that is often left out of this, um, discussion.

  • 00:16:30

    You know, we say we should do more to support Ukraine, um, but if the steps that we’re talking about are, um, sending US, uh, nationals into that fight directly, if we’re talking about setting up a no fly zone, as some people have, those are incredibly risky steps that risk this escalating to a broader war between NATO and Russia. Um, and I’m not convinced that that is worth the risk. Um, and to go back to an example Kurt made earlier, he said, you know, “The US helped Britain, uh, during the second World War.” Um, that is absolutely true. They helped Britain prior to Pearl Harbor by doing all the things that we’re doing for Ukraine now, by giving them arms, by helping with, um, sanctions. We’re already doing those things. And so, even back then, you can argue Britain was more important during the second World War. That was the pre-nuclear era and we were still doing broadly the same things. So, again, I think that highlights just how big a step we would be talking about taking here.

  • 00:17:28

    John Donvan

    So, Kurt, I think Emma, if I were to put a period in everything that she just said, is the kinds of interventions you’re talking about could put the United States in war with ru-, with Russia, direct conflict with Russia if we’re going to in fact be talking about domino effects. So, what about that critic, that fear or that concern?

  • 00:17:45

    Kurt Volker

    Uh, she’s right, uh, that that, uh, is a risk. Uh, as she also said, the Russian military is not what it appeared to be. They are not doing well in the ground. The last thing that Russia wants or that Putin wants is to draw us into the war, which is why I think it gives up more op- … Gives us more opportunities to raise the stakes, or raise the pressure on Putin in Ukraine. Uh, it’s a limited conflict, uh, and I think that Putin’s interest and capacity to make it a bigger conflict with NATO or the United States is going to be chastened by the fact that this would be even worse for Russia than it currently is. They’re in a very difficult stretch. Um, two, um, the point that Emma made about, uh, protecting civilians.

  • 00:18:29

    You know, I was thinking about that and we did this in Bosnia. We did this in Kosovo. Uh, we have had a tradition of protection of civilians and willing to use some military forces in a limited way to do it. Um, and in the case of UK that we were just, uh, talking about. She’s right that w- what we are doing now f- to help Ukraine is similar to what we did to help the UK before World War II. It’s just that we were doing a lot more risky things then as well, including escorting ships and sending, uh, American pilots to fly British planes and so much. There was a- a lot more direct involvement than we have with Ukraine at the moment. And in the end, we did end up having to confront Hitler. I suppose, uh, I was not there at the time, of course. I suppose everyone was trying to figure out how to avoid that. But in the end, we saw that it was unavoidable.

  • 00:19:17

    John Donvan

    But to my question, is the risk of war with Russia worth the undertaking?

  • 00:19:21

    Kurt Volker

    Well, I guess my answer to that would be, we are going to have to confront Putin at some time. He is taking over countries. He is creating a- a human catastrophe. Uh, he is, uh, rebuilding a Russian Empire, which is a threat to Europe as a whole, it’s a threat to the European security architecture that has kept Europe safe, uh, really since the 1950s.

  • 00:19:41

    John Donvan

    So, let me, let me just take the, take the point that I think, uh, you just made. Y- you were saying the vital security interest of Ukraine in terms of Putin is we can fight him now, or we can fight him later. Either way, it’s inevitable that we’re going to have to fight him. And I want you to take- take that question on, Emma.

  • 00:19:54

    Emma Ashford

    I think, I mean, that- that is effectively the argument that I’m, that I’m hearing here, is that, um, well, we have to fight Putin sooner or later, so we might as well fight him now. Um, and, you know, I w-, I would pose it to you that fighting a war now to prevent a war that might happen someday is not a good trade-off. Um, and, you know, again, we- we can talk about whether Russia poses a threat to Europe. Um, I’m not convinced it poses the level of threat to most of Europe that- that Kurt suggests. Um, certainly, um, you know, Russia today is not the Soviet Union, right? It is, um, you know, it is starting from borders 1,000 miles further to the East. Um, it does not have the same level of military capabilities.

  • 00:20:40

    Um, and, you know, it is not the- the sort of superpower that we dealt with during the Cold War. And so, again, I think, you know, p- presenting Russia as, you know, this level of it is massively threatening to Europe, we have to fight a war now to handle it, I think is quite misleading. Um, and just before moving on, again, I would also point out the difference between the World War II example and what we’re talking about today is that there is the potential for this to escalate to the nuclear level.

  • 00:21:06

    John Donvan

    Emma, if- if Putin gets away with this, if there’s not sufficient intervention, or other factors that cause him to back away and he presses forward and ultimately Ukraine fully capitulates, what are the consequences for Western security in that regard?

  • 00:21:22

    Emma Ashford

    I actually don’t think this is … That would necessarily be a terrible thing for the security of countries that are members of NATO. Um, it is perhaps a little callus to put it this way, and my sympathies are with the Ukrainian people in this fight. They’ve been incredibly brave. Um, but the fact is that Putin is not going to have an easy time occupying and controlling Ukraine, um, if indeed that’s what he ends up t- even trying to do. Um, a- a conflict in Ukraine that bogs Putin down for a number of years, if anything, weakens the threat that Russia presents to the rest of Europe. Um, it’s- it’s not so much that Putin’s appetite may grow with the eating, as he made us find that he’s bitten off more than he can chew already.

  • 00:22:05

    John Donvan

    Kurt, there- there’s some discussion of the scenario being that if Putin is further and further isolated and in fact finds himself in a military challenge with the West, he gets even closer to China. China, of course, are up and coming global rival already in the past several weeks. China and Russia have gotten together and talked about tightening and deepening their relationships. Um, China may be standing by to buy Russian oil, to arm Russia, et cetera. Gives the Chinese a position in all of this that they didn’t, wouldn’t have had before, some have argued. I want you to take that larger geopolitical consequence on.

  • 00:22:43

    Kurt Volker

    So, I think China has different interests here than what Russia has. Uh, Russia or Putin, I should say, not Russia. Putin is bent on taking territory, destroying Ukraine as a, as a country and so forth as we’ve already discussed. I would like to come back to that. China h- has no interest in that at all and I think has tried to distance itself a little bit from Russia’s military actions, including, for instance, by abstaining at the UN, rather than supporting Russia. China’s interest in Asia revolve around regaining Taiwan, which they do not view as a parallel with Ukraine. Putin may think they’re parallel, but China knows and has recognized Ukraine as a sovereign state, as a member of the United Nations. And what Russia is doing is attacking as sovereign state and trying to wipe it out. That is not something that China is interested in doing or being associated with.

  • 00:23:35

    China also looks at Russia as a declining power. Uh, small in, uh, economic scale, small in population, and not getting better. And not taking good care of its own people, very much of a thug-ish regime. China sees itself as so much better than that. It sees itself as a country that has lifted hundreds of millions of people out of poverty and- and taken care of its population. It cares about advancing the state. Uh, it, uh, cares about regional stability and security. It feels time is on its side as a rising economic power. Where they align with Russia is not wanting the West to dominate the global order. Uh, whether it’s the economic order or political order, or even security in Asia.

  • 00:24:16

    There China and Russia share a common interest. But this is something where I think it doesn’t translate into a direct alliance, that, uh, Russia has much to help China with or China’s going to help Russia. It’s a- a shared sense of trying to push back on the West. I think what we’ll see is as this continues, the war in Ukraine, China will, uh, display a lot of patience with respect to Taiwan, because it doesn’t want to be tarred with the same brush of sanctions and reprobation that, uh, Russia has made itself tarred with.

  • 00:24:49

    John Donvan

    Emma, I- I suspect you might agree with a lot of that analysis that, um, Kurt just laid out in regard to China.

  • 00:24:54

    Emma Ashford

    Actually, yes. I- I think we … You know, what we have seen, um, since the invasion of Ukraine is, um, both the- the strength of Russian/Chinese ties, right? The Chinese have gone further than they would have for almost any other country in- in this level of support. Um, but we’ve also seen very much the limitations of that support. So, we’re not going to see the Chinese help the Russian circumvent sanctions at any large level. Um, they’ve been limited in their public declarations of support. So- so we’ve seen both that this is a- a fairly formidable, um, alignment between the two countries, um, but one with- with limits.

  • 00:25:30

    Um, that said, um, just from a larger strategic point of view, um, over the coming decades, you know, it’s long been a pillar of US grand strategy, um, to avoid having one country or countries that are allies that dominate, um, what sometimes described as the Eurasian Heartland. So, much of the eu- European and Asian continent. Um, and what we are seeing, again, is Russia and China getting closer together here. Um, sanctions will only push Russia closer to China. Um, in the long run, that is going to make things a lot more strategically difficult for the US. It’s not clear to me how we can avoid that in the immediate term. Uh, but- but this is a longterm a- a very poor strategic move.

  • 00:26:12

    John Donvan

    I- I also wonder, um, whether … Where each of you are in terms of being concerned about Putin’s ability to hurt the United States directly. I mean, he made a veiled threat to use of nuclear weapons, which I don’t think anyone is taking seriously at this point. But- but he’s made, he’s made the veiled threat. And there’s a- … They’re very, very good at cyber warfare. Do either of you have a concern that if the stakes get higher, if we escalate, that that sort of damage could come home to roost here in the United States? I’ll let you go first, Emma.

  • 00:26:45

    Emma Ashford

    Absolutely. I mean, I think we should be very cautious here about, um, what scholars call the escalation ladder, or you might, sometimes they’re called- called a security spiral. So, you know, the notion that if, um, you know, we hit Russia with, you know, perhaps oil sanctions, um, as regard to Europe, um, or, you know, a cyber attack or something like that, or we send in fighters into Ukraine that the Russians may respond in kind. Um, and, you know, I think, again, it’s unlikely that this goes nuclear. Um, but we are very much back in the space we were in during the Cold War where that is a persistent possibility.

  • 00:27:22

    Um, and what we, what we learned from the Cold War is that after the very early days, after the first crises of the Cold War, you know, Berlin, Cuba, policymakers on both sides in the US and the Soviet Union took a lot of care to prevent themselves from ever getting into crises in the middle of Europe again where that was a possibility. You know, a lot of the wars, uh, during the Cold War played out in these proxy spaces around the world, like Vietnam. It didn’t mean they weren’t very bloody, um, but it did keep the risks of nuclear escalation lower. And so, again, I think we should be extremely worried, um, about the potential for escalation here. Not because I think the US wants it or Putin wants it necessarily, but because we know from history, we know from international relations, scholarship, that these things escalate accidentally.

  • 00:28:07

    John Donvan

    Kurt?

  • 00:28:08

    Kurt Volker

    Uh, so a couple things here. Let’s break it down a little bit. Um, in terms of cyber attacks, so, uh … Well, let me back up even from there, because there’s a point that’s important to make that kind of got lost before. When we talk about fighting Putin now versus fighting Putin later, fighting Putin now means giving supplies, arms, equipments, support to Ukrainians, so they can fight Putin. Uh, that is different than a direct US military intervention into u-

  • 00:28:34

    John Donvan

    Can I, can I p- … Stop you for a moment, ar-

  • 00:28:36

    Kurt Volker

    Yeah.

  • 00:28:36

    John Donvan

    Would- would you say that y- your … You have advocated a no fly zone.

  • 00:28:40

    Kurt Volker

    Yes.

  • 00:28:40

    John Donvan

    Would that not be in, over that line?

  • 00:28:43

    Kurt Volker

    Uh, it gets right up to the line. You can debate if it’s one side or the other, but the way you would communicate this to the Russians is to say, w-, “This is a humanitarian action to protect civilians, uh, from aerial bombardment. We have no intention and will not strike Russian ground forces unless we’re fired upon. We have no intention and will not strike Russian aircraft, you know, fixed wing, rotary wing, unless they enter the zone and refuse to be escorted out. If they enter the zone and attack civilians, that’s the only circumstance in which we would respond. And this is not a wider war against Russia. No attacks inside Russia or on Russian landmass. The boundaries of such a zone should be kept far away from Russia’s borders.” Uh, this is, uh, something that I think can be described.

  • 00:29:31

    John Donvan

    But- but high- high- … Much higher potential for mistakes to be made-

  • 00:29:31

    Kurt Volker

    Yes.

  • 00:29:34

    John Donvan

    … in that situation.

  • 00:29:35

    Kurt Volker

    Yes. That is correct. I agree with that. It- it raises the level of risk substantially.

  • 00:29:39

    John Donvan

    Okay.

  • 00:29:39

    Kurt Volker

    Um-

  • 00:29:39

    John Donvan

    So, I interrupted you when you were responding to the question about … Yeah.

  • 00:29:42

    Kurt Volker

    Yeah. So- so the first one is, we’re not intervening directly against Russia, we would be supporting the Ukrainians, which is what we’re doing with the javelins, the stingers, the aircraft and so on. Um, second, um, if we’re thinking about, “Well, does Russia retaliate against the US or the West in some way?” Well, economically they have very little means to do so. Uh, con- conventional forces are not realistic either. We- we would … As we’ve seen, their conventional forces are vastly overrated and ours are superior. Uh, cyber attacks is indeed a worry. They have engaged in cyber attacks, uh, against the United States repeatedly. Uh, we have some familiarity with that, but we also know they have great capability. The fact that they haven’t done so I think is based on two things.

  • 00:30:25

    One of them is they don’t want to draw us into the war, as Putin’s bluster is to threaten us. But the reason he’s doing it is because he’s concerned that if we did s- do more to support the Ukrainians, it would make it harder for him. So, he’s conscious not to draw us in. And second reason is that he knows that we have offensive cyber capabilities that are superior to Russia’s. So, if they did launch serious cyber attacks against the United States, they would expect that we would do more against them and that would actually hinder their economy and their war effort even more. And then the final one, you already mentioned, um, John, is nuclear. And a similar dynamic. Uh, they don’t want to use nuclear weapons because they know it would be devastating for Russia. We don’t want to use nuclear weapons. We have to be very clear that we are not seeking a nuclear confrontation and we will not condone any nuclear use.

  • 00:31:22

    John Donvan

    I’m John Donvan. This is Intelligence Squared US. We’ll hear more from our debaters right after this.

  • 00:31:39

    Welcome back. I’m John Donvan and this is Intelligence Squared US. Let’s jump right back into our discussion.

  • 00:31:50

    I want to take a very brief pause to ask our audience who are watching us right now to take a look at this poll that we’re popping up on your screen with the question, do you support further Western intervention in Ukraine? If you can give us a response to that, we’ll gather your responses and later, a little bit later on I’ll share, uh, what the sense of the audience is here. I also now want to shift to welcoming in some members of the journalist profession, uh, who are following this story, experts in this story and very, very interested in putting some questions as well to, uh, our debaters. But I want to begin first, um, with Nina Burleigh who is an independent journalist and an author and a documentary producer. Nina, thanks for joining us and, um, this is your moment to ask a question.

  • 00:32:36

    Nina Burleigh

    Oh, thank you so much, uh, John, and thank you, uh, Ambassador Volker and Dr. Ashford for your very interesting conversation. Um, I guess my question is something you have not addressed, either of you. Um, Transparency International has listed Ukraine as the second most corrupt country after Russia in Europe. Um, uh, last week, Robert Service, a, uh, Russia historian with the Hoover Institution in, uh, in Oxford, uh, wrote a piece or spoke with the Wall Street Journal and said, um, the war here, uh, has resul- is a result of what he called, “Shambolic mismanagement,” by the West of, uh, eh, diplomatically handling, uh, Russia. Specifically, he pointed to two events.

  • 00:33:29

    On November 10th, uh, ’21, the US and Ukraine signed a charter on strategic partnership, asserting th-, uh, Ukraine’s right to pursue membership in NATO. And that was, that was preceded five months prior by another, uh, assurance of that sort. Uh, I’d like to ask both of you, you didn’t address at all the question of the precipitating events before this. I mean, you did try to figure out what Putin was- was after. But could you address, uh, this allegation that, um, that there was shambolic mismanagement by the West of Russia that led up to this?

  • 00:34:11

    Emma Ashford

    Uh, sure. I- I will jump in first here.

  • 00:34:13

    Nina Burleigh

    And thank you.

  • 00:34:14

    Emma Ashford

    Um, so, I- I don’t know that I would call it shambolic (laughs) mismanagement, um, but I, but I would say that I think, um, you know, we have done no favors in the West by blurring the lines, um, between NATO members and non-NATO members for- for a long period of time. Um, and in particular, I think, you know, the United States, um, under the Bush administration, um, held out the prospect that Ukraine and Georgia might have been able to join NATO, even though there were many sort of good reasons to- to suspect that that would not happen in the near future. Um, and I think the results have been pretty catastrophic. You know, we have seen, um, relatively small scale Russian wars in Georgia and in Ukraine in 2014, including the seizure of Crimea. Um, obviously designed in part to create this conflict on the soil of Ukraine and Georgia to prevent them from joining NATO.

  • 00:35:08

    Um, and then over, you know, the last few months again we’ve seen this, um, strong unwillingness in the West to say that- that Ukraine would not join NATO in any near term. Now, obviously that is not the cause of this invasion. The cause of this invasion is Vladimir Putin decided to invade. Um, but I think we should be realistic, um, about the fact that our actions over the last few decades, um, in expanding NATO, expanding the European Union, um, without considering what would happen, um, when we eventually sort of brushed up to Russia’s borders, um, when we put this as a very zero sum, you know, Russia or the West choice for many of these states, um, we didn’t I think adequately consider the ramifications of those policies over the last few decades.

  • 00:35:57

    Kurt Volker

    So, uh, needless to say, I- I- I have a fundamentally different view of all of this. And I think that Russia has done a brilliant job … I should say, Putin has done a brilliant job of establishing this narrative and getting people in the West to repeat it. Um, starting with the article that was referenced by the questioner, there was nothing new in this ne- November 10th essay or agreement, I should say. November 10th agreement, uh, with Ukraine and, uh, the United States. There was nothing new over the summer either. In fact, it was in 2008, so we’re talking 14 years ago, uh, that NATO said, “Some day, Ukraine will be a member of NATO, but we’re not making any plans now. There’s no membership action planned.” And nothing had advanced for 14 years. Uh, so there was no immediate prospect of this and Russia knew that as well as everybody else.

  • 00:36:49

    And- and the reasons were some of the ones that you stated, which are the, uh, immaturity of the political system, the economy, corruption, uh, not governing itself like a NATO country, so not ready to join NATO. Uh, and that was the principle reason. So, no progress on NATO and Putin knew that very well. Uh, there was likewise very little progress on the EU, but there was a desire by the EU to at least say, Ukraine can associate with the EU. And, uh, the former President, Yanukovych, refused even to do the association agreement. Uh, that’s what brought people out into the streets in Maidan, not NATO. And that’s what caused Yanukovych to kill 100 of his own people and then flee the country. Uh, so this is what, uh, Putin calls a military coup, when it’s anything but that.

  • 00:37:38

    Uh, when it comes to the broader issue of NATO enlargement, uh, you’ll remember that, uh, we were working together with, uh, Russia through NATO. We did the NATO Russia Founding Act in 1997, the same year we invited Poland, Hungry and the Czech Republic to join NATO. We reinforced that and strengthened the areas of cooperation and the mechanisms in 2002 with the NATO Russia Council, several months before the prox summit when we brought in the Baltic States and others. And Putin, he was there … I was there as well. Uh, knew very well that the plan was to bring in those countries in the Baltic States. We’ve had interviews from Gorbachev, who was there at the time of unification of Germany, saying there was no commitment about no NATO enlargement to, uh, either all of Germany or to any other states.

  • 00:38:26

    Uh, just about NATO military infrastructure on the territory of the former East Germany. Uh, we’ve had, uh, Boris Yeltsin visiting Poland after being a NATO member and, uh, basically reconciling that, “Okay, we are, you know, we are going to live as neighbors.” Uh, accepting borders with the Baltic States as they joined NATO. Uh, so this is, this NATO being to blame is a rationalization put on after the fact for Russian grievances, uh, and for supporting Putin’s designs to recreate a Russian Empire.

  • 00:39:00

    John Donvan

    Uh, we have the result of the poll that we had you, uh, take just a few minutes ago. And it’s really lopsided. Again, the question was whether the West should further intervene in Ukraine. And 74% said yes, 26% said no. I want to go to our, uh, founder, Robert Rosencrans who’s standing by, would like to ask a question. I’m just wondering, Bob, do you, did you find that result of 74% of the audience favoring intervention surprising?

  • 00:39:00

    Robert Rosencrans

    Uh, frankly, no. I mean, I think the, uh, the, uh, leadership in, uh, Ukraine and the courage that they’re showing and the articulation of, uh, uh, of- of their desire to, uh, to maintain their- their independence and their freedom, uh, or, as- as a sovereign … Their sovereignty, I should say, is- is, uh, inspiring. And I think people are reacting to that. But, uh, the question that I’d like to put to- to both the participants here, uh, relates to what I th- have understood to be terms on which Russia would withdraw its troops from Ukraine.

  • 00:40:09

    And would there … I believe saying is that, if the Ukrainian government recognizes [inaudible

  • 00:40:19

    ] as independent, uh, territories, recognizes the facts on the ground in Crimea, and says that it will not join NATO or, uh, the EU, that, uh, that Russian troops would- would- would withdraw. And my question is, does that seem to the panelists to be a reasonable basis for an end game here? And if not, what do they see that would be better in terms of- of, uh, the interests of the West’s financial security and the interest of, uh, the Ukrainian people in terms of their own sovereignty and, uh, and the humanitarian suffering?

  • 00:41:05

    John Donvan

    Thanks for the question, Bob. And I meant to thank Nina Burleigh for her question before as well. Emma Ashford, why don’t you take that one on first.

  • 00:41:11

    Emma Ashford

    Yeah, sure. Thank- thank you for the question. And I mean, I think this is the most important question right now, is, um, where do we find the off ramps from this conflict? All conflicts end through some form of negotiation. Um, the sides coming to an agreement that both can live with. Um, and, you know, we need to figure out where that is and I think it’s in, it’s in everybody’s interest, Ukraine, Russia’s, the West, um, to end this conflict sooner rather than later. Um, so, as I, as I understand it, what the Russians are proposing is, um, a little less stringent than some of their demands before the conflict started might’ve suggested. Um, so, you know, they are talking about, as you say, the independence of, um, [inaudible

  • 00:41:54

    ]. They’re talking about, you know, a neutralization of Ukraine.

  • 00:41:58

    Um, but they also notably seem to have stepped back from the demand that Ukraine voluntarily, uh, demilitarize or, you know, give up all its weapons. Um, and, you know, there- there are unclear indications, um, about whether they want some kind of power sharing agreement in Kiev. So, I think that latter point is the one that would prove most, uh, a sticking point for the Ukrainians and I don’t think we’re likely to see a deal until, um, you know, the Russians perhaps back off that a little. Um, but I do think that some deal along the form of independence and anatomy for some of these regions of Ukraine, a recognition of Russia’s seizure of Crimea, um, and neutralization of Ukrainian might be something that both sides could actually live with.

  • 00:42:44

    Um, the absolute tragedy of course of all of this is that this is pretty close to the plan that was being proposed by people like CFR, uh, fellow Tom Graham prior to the conflict as something that the West should be encouraging Ukraine to think about, because it could prevent this kind of catastrophic conflict.

  • 00:43:02

    John Donvan

    Kurt?

  • 00:43:03

    Kurt Volker

    Well, I, uh, again, uh, several differences of view here. Uh, first of all, and just imagine the parallel here that Russia attacks the United States and says, “Okay, we’re going to keep Alaska, uh, but we’re going to stop fighting you as long as you agree that Texas is independent again.” This- this is not something any country can agree to. Uh, second, uh, the terms that Putin has used to describe his war goals here are denouncification, and demilitarization of Ukraine. Uh, this is about removing the government of Ukraine. Uh, third, uh, it didn’t … They didn’t say they would withdraw their forces. They said, “These are their demands that [inaudible

  • 00:43:41

    ] are independent, that Crimea is recognized to be part of Russia now, and that Ukraine will be a neutral country.”

  • 00:43:49

    Not specified if that means demilitarization or not. And not specified that Russia will remove its forces. So, I- I don’t think any of this is quite realistic at the moment. And concerning off ramps, again, Putin has, uh, basically put himself on a plank. Uh, he has l- launched a military operation that he believed would take a few days and would be successful. Uh, anything but the case. His military is- is having a very hard time in Ukraine. They’ve lost thousands of soldiers, lots of equipment and having a hard time reconstituting their offensive. And they brought on massive sanctions against the Russian economy, which are going to hurt very, very deeply. So, his only way of success, his only way to stay in power is to pursue a military victory. And that is so far in these talks that have been held, there have been three, uh, sets of talks now between Ukraine and Russia. And you talk to the Ukrainian delegation, the Russian delegation is saying, uh, they, uh, want a Ukrainian surrender first.

  • 00:44:50

    Robert Rosencrans

    Can I just do one- one just followup, uh, to Kurt? Which is, so what do you see as the most realistic end game here?

  • 00:44:50

    Kurt Volker

    Yeah. I think the most realistic end game is we give the Ukrainians all the support we can and they hold off the Russians. And this becomes a grinding war for Russia. Uh, one scenario is the Ukrainian government and military fall and there’s internal resistance, but no organization, uh, or no government. The other far preferable is the government survives, the military survives as an organized entity and they continue to fight. And the Russians then, and I don’t mean Putin, I mean the other elite in Russia, see that this is destroying the country, destroying Russia and, uh, move to do something about it.

  • 00:45:36

    John Donvan

    Emma, you wanted to answer that as well.

  • 00:45:39

    Emma Ashford

    Yeah. I- I just wanted to- to jump in. To- to Kurt’s point that this is the kind of deal that no country could accept, um, I- I just don’t believe that’s born out by the historical record. Um, I mean, how- how do you think the United States got Texas in the first place? Um, in the UDA PIAN context, though, I think the more apt example is that of Finland after the Winter War with the Soviet Union. Uh, which actually played out remarkably similarly to what we’re seeing now, um, a Soviet advance with overwhelming force held off by a small brave country. Um, and then, they eventually, um, agreed that they would, um, embrace neutrality in order to end the war. So, this is a much more similar comparison.

  • 00:46:20

    John Donvan

    Okay. Kurt, I know that you have to go in about seven minutes. So, I’m going to ask one final question and it’s, it would be in your interest to be as terse as possible (laughs)-

  • 00:46:27

    Kurt Volker

    (laughs).

  • 00:46:28

    John Donvan

    … in answering it. Uh, and then I think that actually is something that can b- happen. So, I want to wrap up with this question. If we picture it this way, that hostilities end that are based on some sort of settlement, uh, yet there’s been so much bloodshed, and there’s foreign fighters in the country, and there’s arms in the country, everything that’s still there now. How do Ukraine and Russia get to coexist? And what would happen next with the West? Kurt?

  • 00:46:51

    Kurt Volker

    Okay. You want succinct. Robert Frost, “Good fences make good neighbors.”

  • 00:46:58

    John Donvan

    Okay. I need you to elaborate a little bit more-

  • 00:46:59

    Kurt Volker

    (laughs).

  • 00:47:00

    John Donvan

    … for those of us who- who may not get the reference.

  • 00:47:02

    Kurt Volker

    So, uh, essentially there is, there is no, uh, there- there is no effective relationship between Russia and Ukraine. Uh, rus- … The Ukrainian people see that Russia has been attacking them for eight years, seizing their territory and now on a genocidal mission to exterminate Ukraine as a country. There is no way they can live with or deal with Russia, other than to have a very hard border between Russia and Ukraine, with the Russians on the other side of it.

  • 00:47:36

    John Donvan

    Emma?

  • 00:47:38

    Emma Ashford

    You know, again, I come back to the Finnish model from- from during, uh, the- the sort of the interwar period, the- the post-war period. Um, you know, Finland, uh, you know, was nominally neutral, um, but it was very well armed and able to resist invasions. And I- I think that that is going to be the model for Ukraine going forward, if they succeed in coming out of this war, is, um, you know, a Ukraine that is to some extent capable of defending itself, but has also, um, you know, committed to perhaps staying neutral with regard to NATO, which should, um, you know, help to minimize that risk of future interventions.

  • 00:48:14

    Um, and in terms of what this means for- for NATO and for Europe more broadly going forward, there I would start to agree with Kurt and say that, you know, “Good fences make good neighbors.” And, um, NATO is almost certainly going to engage in a process of rearmament, Europe moving to take on more of the d- burden of its own defense and- and be able to defend itself more effectively. Um, so, you know, I think that the- the future of Europe, unfortunately, looks a lot more militarized than we might have thought six months ago.

  • 00:48:44

    John Donvan

    All right. At- at least a note of harmony and a note of poetry at the end there. I want to thank Emma Ashford and Kurt Volker both for taking part in this conversation that is extremely timely and important. Doing it with civility and, uh, with facts and logic, which is a hard trademark here at Intelligence Squared. If, uh, those of you who are listening would like to know more about Intelligence Squared, please visit us at iq2us.org. For now, I’m John Donvan thanking both of our debaters and saying, we will see you next time.

  • 00:49:11

    Emma Ashford

    Thanks, guys.

  • 00:49:11

    Kurt Volker

    Bye.

  • 00:49:12

    John Donvan

    And I just want to also note that we had a virtual live audience for this particular recording and that’s the audience that was actually taking part in our live poll. We would love to have you join us and that’s a, that’s a member’s privilege, a member’s benefit. And if you would like to be a member, please come join us and you can do that by going to iq2us.org. And once you get there, you can set up an account to join our community. I would love to see you at our next debate. Intelligence Squared is a nonprofit that is generously funded by listeners like you. Members of Intelligence Squared, academic institutions and other partners, and by the Rosencrans Foundation.

  • 00:49:50

    Clay O’Connor is our CEO. David Arostowiz is our Head of Editorial. Amy Kraft is our Chief of Staff and Head of Production. Chal Marra and Marlette Sendoval are our Producers. Kim Stremple is our Production Coordinator. Damon Witamor is our Audio Producer. And Robert Rosencrans is our Chairman. Our mission here at Intelligence Squared is to restore critical thinking and facts and reason and civility to American public discourse. We would love your support in that effort. Please visit www.intelligencesquaredus.org to join the debate and hear from both sides, at least both sides of every issue. I’m John Donvan. Thanks so much for listening.

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