How to avoid more damage from the Russian war on Ukraine? with Marcus Stanley

October 6, 2022

Marcus Stanley, Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, discusses public opinion about the Russian War on Ukraine, on the International Horizons podcast.

Marcus Stanley's image to the left of Vladimir Putin crossing a red line and a missile in the background

The Western coalition supporting Ukraine in its war with Russia has so far been thought to be solid and reliable, but there may be vulnerabilities in that support. Even as Russia seems to be in disarray on the battlefield and elsewhere, it's been believed all along that Vladimir Putin would use his control over oil and gas resources on which Europe depends to assert leverage over the West in the conflict, and heating costs are indeed rising just as the cold weather is descending. The U.S. is less affected by the vicissitudes of energy supplies, but it is hardly immune to these concerns.

This week on International Horizons, Marcus Stanley from Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft discusses with Ralph Bunche Institute Director and Graduate Center Presidential Professor John Torpey the attitudes of Americans towards the war on Ukraine and how they seem to be more concerned with inflation than the war. Stanley delves into the challenges of reaching an agreement between Russia and Ukraine and the possible solutions where mediation seems the only way out. He also warns about the need for intervention before an escalation with devastating consequences for Ukrainians and effects on the U.S. and NATO, the prospects of winter without gas in Europe, and the consequences for Russia of the sabotage of the Nord Stream pipeline.

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John Torpey: The Western coalition supporting Ukraine in its war with Russia has so far been thought to be solid and reliable, but there may be vulnerabilities in that support, even as Russia seems to be in disarray on the battlefield and elsewhere. It's been believed all along that Vladimir Putin would use his control over oil and gas resources on which Europe depends to assert leverage over the West in the conflict and heating costs are indeed rising just as the cold weather is descending. The US Is less affected by the vicissitudes of energy supplies, but they are hardly immune to these concerns either. How are Americans and others viewing the Ukraine-Russia conflict now? How long will their support hold up?

Welcome to International Horizons, a podcast of the Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies that brings scholarly and diplomatic expertise to bear on our understanding of a wide range of international issues. My name is John Torpey and I'm director of the Ralph Bunche Institute at the Graduate Center of The City University of New York. 

We're fortunate to have with us today Marcus Stanley, who is the advocacy director of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. Prior to joining the Quincy Institute, he spent a decade at Americans for Financial Reform, where he played a leadership role in policy formulation and advocacy to reform regulation of the U.S. Financial system. Before that, he was an economic and policy adviser to Senator Barbara Boxer as a senior economist at the U.S. Joint Economic Committee. While there, he produced War at Any Price, a seminal study on the full costs of the Iraq invasion that was used to build political support to end the U.S. role in the war. He has a Ph.D. in public policy from Harvard with a focus on economics. Thanks so much for joining us today.

So we're having this conversation because you had Data for Progress conduct a poll for the Quincy Institute assessing Americans' attitudes towards the Ukraine-Russia war that suggests American support for the ongoing conflict may be more limited than was previously thought. What did the poll find?

Marcus Stanley: Well, I have to disagree a little bit with your framing of both the poll and the sort of introduction where you discussed whether American support will hold up for Ukraine. This poll was really not focused on support for Ukraine. I think we're in line with previous polls and finding substantial public support for Ukrainian resistance to the Russian invasion. But what this poll did, what I don't think any other poll the U.S. population has done so far, is that it asked about public support for efforts at diplomacy and negotiation to try to reach a peaceful solution in the war.

Right now, we are pumping weapons into the Ukrainian conflict, where, as you say, the Ukrainians have done –and continue to do– very well in defending their country from Russia's illegal invasion. But we do not have a diplomatic or negotiation track to try to reach a ceasefire or bring this war to a peaceful conclusion. And what we found in this poll is that there is very strong support for trying to open that diplomatic track; to try to actually engage with Russia diplomatically and through negotiations between the United States and Russia to try to avert some of the more extreme outcomes that could result from this war, up to and including potential nuclear conflict. And we found very strong public support for negotiations and talks with Russia by a margin of 20 plus points among the public. But again, I do think it's important to say that this was not counterposed to support for Ukraine. The idea of engaging to try to reach a ceasefire and a peaceful solution is not something that contradicts support for Ukraine; it's something that complements support for Ukraine and has the potential of sparing Ukraine more death and devastation in this war.

John Torpey: Right, but one of the findings, if I understand correctly, was that people want to see a negotiated solution sooner rather than later, even if that entails that Ukraine makes some concessions to Russia. And I guess one question is, that seems to me in some sense of kind of backing off to some degree from the sort of full-throated support for Ukraine and in its defense and its territory and sovereignty and that sort of thing. But maybe you could clarify for us –since I didn't really see it in the report– what exact concessions are indicated or suggested there, insofar as I think the question was simply framed around the idea of concessions to Russia if necessary.

Marcus Stanley: Well, there are a number of questions on diplomacy. There was one asked hypothetically: would it be worth trying to reach a diplomatic solution even if some concessions were involved? And we continue to find a strong public margin for that. There was no specification in the poll of what those concessions might be. I think the fact is that, especially when a country has defined a conflict as sort of an existential conflict (critical to its sort of national security interest) as Russia clearly has, especially in this recent mobilization, diplomacy and the effort to reach a negotiated solution generally involves compromise and concession on both sides, at least to some degree. In this case, I don't think that Ukraine should be making concessions around its independence or core issues of national sovereignty. I think Ukraine has decisively defeated Russia's attempt to conquer Ukraine and eliminate its independence, and I don't think Ukraine should be making any concessions around that. But there are issues around Ukrainian neutrality, membership in NATO, other kinds of issues that may come up. And also, frankly, even if Ukraine does not make territorial concessions, it may be necessary to keep some of these territorial issues open. Like for example, the status of Crimea open or unresolved in order to reach a ceasefire or reach peace. I mean, the bottom line is that in any diplomatic engagement where you're not simply demanding unconditional surrender, there are concessions and compromises that are involved and that's what we were gesturing towards in that question.

John Torpey: I see. So another finding of the survey, again if I understood correctly, was that people, roughly a majority of Americans, are finding that they think anyway that their own financial situation is affected negatively by the war. Is that indeed your understanding that people are taking this into their calculations? Because it seems to me, as I said in my introduction, we're relatively immune, not totally. But to some degree immune from a lot of these kinds of considerations certainly compared to the Europeans who are dependent on Russian oil and gas and such things.

Marcus Stanley: Well, as I said, we did find it's a bit of a mixed bag. People do support Ukraine, and the responses in this poll and the majority say that they're concerned about the invasion and the war. But the level of support does go down when you ask people if there's an economic cost to be paid. So, for example, when higher gas prices and a higher cost of goods in the US are mentioned, people's support goes down and actually a majority of respondents oppose it to Ukraine if they believe that the cost will be greater inflation in the US. And that sort of accords with people identifying the economy and inflation as an extremely important issue for them, which also came up in the poll. And people find the economy, or people find inflation actually, as one of the most important issues to them. Any identified inflation is a critical issue to them than the war in Ukraine as a critical issue. In fact, only 6% of the population said that, or 6% of respondents to the poll said that the Russian war in Ukraine was one of the top three issues facing the country today, whereas 46% said inflation was one of the top three issues facing the country today. So, we've seen some decline in gas prices after the initial spike around the initial invasion and it's sort of unclear what the effect on energy prices is going to be in the US of an ongoing war. We know that there's a massive effect on energy prices in Europe of this war, but in the US it's less clear. But I do think that it came up in the poll that people are very concerned about kitchen table issues, like inflation and taxes, more so than the war in Ukraine 

John Torpey: Right so they have, one might call, a kind of rational attitude about this; it's not affecting us directly anyway as much as it is Europeans. 

Marcus Stanley: Right. The things they perceive as affecting them personally are more important to them.

John Torpey: Exactly. So as you sort of hinted, I think, a minute ago, Russia's forces and its military posture have been portrayed, in recent days, as in disarray and with growing domestic unrest and discord back in Russia. Yet this has been seen as potentially pushing Vladimir Putin into a dangerous corner. And there's more talk about, as you've also done, sort of the worry about a possible nuclear conflict. How do you think Americans are interpreting what's going on on the battlefield?

Marcus Stanley: Well, I think that the war, for those of us who follow foreign policy –and we're following this very closely– there's no question that Ukraine is showing impressive successes on the battlefield. But at the same time, Russia appears to be responding by greatly increasing its combat power that it's devoting to this war and also amplifying its rhetoric, at least its rhetorical commitment, to the conflict to the point where I think one can really be concerned about what the next steps on the escalation ladder could be, both for Ukraine and even for the United States as well.

Russia mobilized 300,000 in a partial mobilization, and it appears to be preparing more people to mobilize. And even that first 300,000 is going to more than double the combat power that it has in Ukraine. And it also has been threatening more direct attacks on Ukraine, ramping up its war economy internally, and even making nuclear threats if other countries intervene. So the Russian rhetoric seems to clearly indicate that they view this as a critical matter of their national security, and they're going to respond, at least in the foreseeable future, by escalating this war instead of backing down if things continue to go badly for them. And the Ukrainians, to the credit of their courage, are willing to run some of those risks to take back their territory, clearly. But I think that it increases the importance of opening a diplomatic channel to prevent some of those more extreme outcomes – as I said, even considering a nuclear war – and try to reach a ceasefire or a peaceful diplomatic solution for this war and one that preserves Ukraine's independence as a nation. Since, as I said, the Ukrainians, with United States’ help, have definitively defeated Russia's attempt to conquer them completely. 

John Torpey: So where do diplomatic efforts stand? I mean, for a time, Mr. Erdogan in Turkey was kind of overseeing or facilitating some kind of discussions, but one doesn't hear much about diplomatic efforts at the moment. I mean, are you aware of what's going on, what's happening?

Marcus Stanley:  Well, we've been going somewhat backwards. You're right. I mean, early in the war, in March and April, it appeared that Ukraine and Russia were close to an agreement (or had even sort of informally decided to pursue an agreement) that was based on the idea that Ukraine would become a neutral nation, not join NATO, [that it] would receive security guarantees from various countries on the UN Security Council, and [that] the territorial issues would be postponed. The final settlement of the territorial issues would be postponed, but there would be a ceasefire based on Ukrainian neutrality.

And then it appears that the West – there was a sort of a combination of factors of the West, the UK especially – apparently actually discouraged Ukraine from going ahead with that agreement. And also when the Russians retreated from the area around Kyiv, there were apparent war crimes; that sort of lessened the willingness of the Ukrainians to reach a compromise. And since that point, the Russians have continued to say that they are open to negotiation. But at the same time, they've done these moves, like annexing more of Ukraine, that make negotiations more difficult. 

We've had some limited diplomatic successes. We had an agreement [that] concluded to export grain from Ukraine over the Black Sea that was mediated by Turkey. We had – even in this very, very sort of fiery and extreme speech that Putin made announcing the annexation of this Ukrainian territory – he brought up diplomacy and negotiations and referenced the fact that they had almost reached an agreement in March and said Russia remained open to negotiation, but not over these territories they're annexing. So that makes it much more difficult. 

But I don't think that Putin, in the midst of this very extreme speech, would have been mentioning diplomacy, negotiation, if Russia wasn't open to the idea of talks. And on the Ukrainian side, they've moved away after talking about the necessity of diplomacy early in the war. They have really moved away from talking about negotiations. In fact, the Ukrainians said just last month that the Russians had reached out to them for negotiations and they had rejected the possibility. But I think the first step here is the US talking to Russia, because so many of the issues in this war, like Russia conceives itself as involved in a proxy war with the US and NATO. I think they don't really conceive themselves as involved. Obviously, they are involved in a war against Ukraine, but fundamentally they believe that the US is the main threat to their security and [that] the US is, from their perspective, driving this conflict.

So step one in trying to lay the groundwork for a potential agreement, I think, is the US talking to Russia about what might be possible. And we have not been doing that at all; there is no diplomatic track from the US side. We've been very successful in supporting the Ukrainian military and arming the Ukrainians and really actually helping with command and control of the Ukrainian military, in terms of the intelligence we give them and helping to plan their activities. But we have not paired that military effort with any diplomatic effort with Russia because in part, I feel like a lot of people in DC feel, “let's see how far we can drive this. Let's see how much we can weaken Russia. We've had this success in working with Ukraine to defeat Russia on the battlefield.” 

The United States has spent a lot of money, but we have not had to commit our own troops to do it. We've weakened Russia, which is a geopolitical goal of the United States, and let's see how far we can push this thing. And I actually think that's how far we can push this thing without opening that diplomatic track. And I actually think that's quite dangerous because, sure, we've had success so far, but if you cross a red line, you don't know until you've crossed it; whether you've crossed that dangerous line involving some form of escalation that's going to be even more destructive to Ukraine, that's going to draw in the US or NATO. That could involve sabotage of infrastructure or even escalation to a nuclear conflict. We have weakened Russia. We've defeated Russia's initial work. We've worked with Ukraine to defeat Russia's initial war goals. We've shown up the Russian military as much weaker than anyone thought. And I think that this is a time where, rather than pushing on to try to achieve regime change in Russia or overthrow the Russian government, we need to think about what kind of settlement would work to defend the independence of Ukraine and defend European security without doing even more damage in this war. 

John Torpey: Interesting. So this is, to me, a very different interpretation of Putin's speech than has been generally reported. That is to say, as you suggested, it's mainly been seen as this kind of declaration of antagonism to the West.

Marcus Stanley:  Well, it is that. I'm not contesting that. It is that. It was a very radical speech. I'm just saying, for the issue of diplomacy and negotiations to come up twice in a speech like that indicates that's a bit of a signal that even there, 

John Torpey:  It's on his mind.

Marcus Stanley: He's mentioning it twice.

John Torpey: Right, so I just hadn't seen that reported at all, which seems an interesting and significant fact in terms of the interpretation that you're advancing generally. Because in the aftermath of that speech, in the aftermath of their battlefield woes and mobilization are all. Generally, it seems to me it has been said that Putin always escalates, and we should look for him to escalate in this context. But what you're saying is that there seems to have been a kind of not an olive branch, but a kind of opening in that speech to a diplomatic track, which, as you say, is not really happening now. That, to me, as I say, was a kind of significant addition to our understanding of what he was saying in that speech. 

Marcus Stanley: Yeah. And you probably also didn't see the coverage just in mid-September where the Ukrainian deputy prime minister said that Russia had informally reached out to them for negotiations. That also was not really covered in the US. We've kind of seen a very much sort of one note propaganda barrage in the US. That doesn't really even raise diplomacy as a possibility in this war.

John Torpey: Right. You've offered an interpretation of the speech which, to me, is novel and interesting and important. But as we get into the winter, what do you think is going to happen? I mean, there's been a lot of talk about how you can't fight wars so much in the winter and in that part of the world that we're likely to get into a kind of frozen conflict sort of situation. Is that how you see it?

Marcus Stanley:  Literally 

John Torpey: Yeah, literally. Exactly.

Marcus Stanley: No, I'm not going to guess what happens on the battlefield. I mean, once the ground freezes, there's all kinds of operations that you can do. I think the US so far has been pretty insulated from the immediate fallout of this war, obviously, as compared to Ukraine, but also as compared to Europe. I think in the winter, the biggest impact is going to be on Europe and also Ukraine. If Russia strikes at Ukrainian energy infrastructure, that provides heat. But Europe is facing disastrous economic outcomes here economically from the cutoff of Russian gas. And I think the Russians were sort of counting on potentially driving a wedge between some of the NATO allies in the United States on this war and having some of the NATO allies potentially pressuring, at least behind the scenes, for a diplomatic solution if Russia would resume gas deliveries. 

But the sabotage of the Nord Stream pipelines has really kind of thrown a wrench in that Russian strategy, because, basically, Russia had those pipelines loaded up with a whole bunch of gas that they could have started to provide to Europe at the touch of a button. So, during the winter, they could have made the offer to Europe, start a diplomatic process with us, and we will turn on the gas for you right away. And within a week, you'll seek assistance for your population and your economies. But now that those pipelines have been sabotaged, that Russian tactic is no longer really is available. And it's something that just in September, Putin was saying that he was going to do and now it's off the table. So whoever sabotaged those pipelines, it was not helpful to that Russian strategy.

John Torpey: Do you have any thoughts about who might have done that?

Marcus Stanley: Well, I don't know.There are a number of actors. But the claim that it was Russia that sabotaged its own pipelines, it seems to be very non-obvious. Let's put it that way, because they were Russia's own pipelines. And just in September, we had Putin publicly saying that gas was available if Europe eased off on its sanctions and moved toward making peace. And just a few weeks later, those pipelines are blown up. So it certainly doesn't seem very rational on Russia or Putin's part.

John Torpey:  Right. Well, we'll have to see how that all develops. But that's it for today's episode. I want to thank Marcus Stanley of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft for sharing his insights about recent developments in Americans' attitudes towards the Ukraine-Russia war. Look for us on the New Books Network and remember to subscribe and rate International Horizons on Spotify and Apple podcasts. I want to thank Oswaldo Mena Aguilar for his technical assistance as well as to acknowledge Duncan McKay for sharing his song “International Horizons”. This is John Torpey, saying thanks for joining us, and we look forward to having you with us for the next episode of International Horizons.