What you probably haven’t heard about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine with Kadri Liik

March 28, 2022

Kadri Liik, European Council on Foreign Relations, discusses Europe's view of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, on International Horizons.

Kadri Liik appears to the right next to a map of Ukraine with red paint spilled

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has created a military stalemate, perhaps soon to be called a quagmire, and a humanitarian crisis of a magnitude last seen by Europeans during World War II. NATO leaders are preparing for a long conflict and one that may involve chemical, biological, or nuclear weapons. Meanwhile, Russians are fleeing their country or resigning their official posts out of opposition to the war or remorse for their roles in it. Thousands have been arrested in Russia for their opposition to the war. What comes next after the NATO Summit and the plans to strengthen troop deployments to NATO's eastern flank at the very borders of Russia? 

Kadri Liik, senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, talks with Ralph Bunche Institute Director and Graduate Center Presidential Professor John Torpey  about the prospects for ending the war in Ukraine, the possible end of Putinism, the risks of an economic crisis in the West as a result of energy shortages, how Russia is becoming even more repressive than the Soviet Union, and how its economy is moving backwards.

International Horizons is part of the New Books Network of academic podcasts. Subscribe to the RSS feed or find it on Spotify and Apple Podcasts. A lightly edited transcript follows below. 


John Torpey  00:14

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has created a military stalemate, perhaps soon to be called a quagmire, and a humanitarian crisis of a magnitude last seen by Europeans during World War Two. NATO leaders are preparing for a long conflict and one that may involve chemical, biological, or nuclear weapons. Meanwhile, Russians are fleeing their country or resigning their official posts out of opposition to the war and their roles in it. Thousands have been arrested for their opposition to the war in Russia. What comes next after the NATO Summit and the plans to strengthen troop deployments to NATO's eastern flank at the very borders of Russia? 

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 Kadri Liik, who's an Estonian journalist and political analyst with the European Council on Foreign Relations. She focuses in her work on Russia, Eastern Europe, and the Baltics and she was recently in Russia in late 2020. Thank you so much for joining us today, Kadri Liik.

Kadri Liik  01:34

My pleasure.

John Torpey  01:35

Thanks. Thanks so much. So let's start with the NATO Summit, which has just concluded, and its consequences. I mean, what did the NATO leaders agree to at this meeting? And where do you think things go from here?

Kadri Liik  01:48

Well, NATO was discussing several things: they were discussing how to beef up the defenses of its own Eastern members, including the Baltic states, as I understand these discussions are going to continue. They were discussing how to further help Ukraine, taking into account also the possibility of chemical or nuclear attack. And finally, they prolonged the term of office for NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg for another year. Yeah, I guess it was a useful summit at a tense time, but no big takeaways to report in the sense that all these discussions will have to continue.

John Torpey  02:34

Right. I mean, they do seem to be wanting to send the message that if Putin steps over certain so called red lines, there really will be a NATO response. I don't know if that's the way you read it. But that's certainly the sense that I got from the event itself, and from this joint statement that was released afterwards. But I mean, all of this in part depends on what is the real military situation. And as I mentioned in my introduction, the term now that seems to be applied pretty widely to what's happening is that there's a stalemate going on; that the heroic Ukrainians have responded to this attack on their country in an unexpectedly successful way and are at least holding off the Russians and sort of defeating what seems to have been the original battle plan, which is to have kind of made a lightning strike, so to speak, and to take over Kyiv fairly quickly, and the country as a whole within a relatively short time. And none of that seems to be happening. So, you know, maybe you could comment on whether you think that's an accurate rendering of the situation on the ground and what you think the consequences of that may be?

Kadri Liik  03:52

I think that is accurate for the time being. Yes, exactly. As you say, Russia has not achieved a false victory; that could be partly because they started the war based upon wrong intelligence. They didn't expect Ukraine to resist the way it does. But it's also not visible but this fact is reshaping the war aims. I do not see Moscow modifying its aims yet, rather vice-versa. President Putin has borne all the costs of the war already, both in terms of Western sanctions, in terms of unrest in his own country - ever more draconian measures they need to resort to to keep society in check. But actually it gives him incentives to continue with war until he has also achieve the aims because otherwise it would be a loss to him. And meanwhile, Ukraine is of course not ready to sign the peace treaty in Russia's terms. They are emboldened by their own success, and they hope to continue.  So yes, it is tragic in the sense that so many people are suffering, so many people are dying, but it is hard to see how this could be stopped until one of the sides gets decisive advantage on the battlefield that would allow it to dictate the terms of of peace. For as long as we are not there, I cannot see that war is stopping.

John Torpey  05:37

Well, that's certainly a worrisome evaluation of what's happening. But it's consistent with what President Joe Biden said, I guess yesterday to the effect that the Europeans have to get prepared for this to be a long conflict. I mean, I don't see any of the kind of battlefield advantage that you've just referred to taking place in the near future. And, what appears to be in the offing is a kind of siege, of besieging of Ukrainian cities, of Kyiv in particular, and lots of deaths. And of course, in the meantime, enormous numbers, growing numbers of Ukrainians leaving the country, apparently between the internally displaced there are six and a half million internally displaced and another three plus million, so nearly 10 million or something like 10 million displaced Ukrainians, many of them heading into parts of Europe, including, I guess, Estonia. So, that may indeed itself be part of the strategy, right, is to create this enormous refugee crisis. So I guess the question is to what extent do you see the possibility of this kind of battlefield advantage, and how would it come about?

Kadri Liik  06:58

I guess Russia has still reserves. In fact, they have about the reserve of new intake into the army, the conscripts whose training period ends on first of April, they can now join the army on the contract. So my colleagues who focus on military affairs, they suggest that, yes, Russian forces might be tired and demoralized, but there are some fresh ones coming. And Ukraine, they're doing very well but even so they have difficulties too. They have lost many of their fuel depots. These have been burning one after the other after Russian strikes, they have lost equipment, it is a struggle to resupply Ukraine with a speed that is needed from the West through from Poland, from Romania.  So, at the moment, you would still expect Russia to slowly gain an upper hand. 

Though that said, certain tasks they have set to themselves, such as conquering Kyiv will probably prove impossible, because for Kyiv, you'd need many more people than Russia will have even as the first of April when new people will have entered the army.  So yes, I think it will drag on for long. As concerns refugees, I do not know if it has been Russia's calculation to create another refugee crisis that would upset political balance in Europe. But even if it was, I don't think they are succeeding, because Europe is very happily and with amazing helpfulness receiving Ukrainian refugees. It is not opening up the sort of cleavages among societies as the previous refugee wave from Syria. And yes, I think I need to apologize to the Syrians. Ukraine, it is somehow, it feels very logical and really the only possible thing to do is to give shelter to these people and offer them work and so forth. So I can see that also the European countries that were not eager to receive Syrian refugees in 2015, they are now receiving Ukrainian refugees in in great numbers and without the complaint. So it is surely a burden to social systems, etc., but on societal level, so far, it seems to be mobilizing societies rather than splitting.

John Torpey  10:01

Right, the two key words there are maybe so far, depending on how long all this goes on, and how many more refugees flee Ukraine. I mean, obviously, the Ukrainians are already scattered throughout much of Eastern Europe and further west, no doubt. And so, it's a different kind of refugee flow, than the flow of people from Syria, the Middle East, from a further distance away, culturally more different language problems, religious differences, all those kinds of things. So, you know, in a certain sense, of course, it's a happy thing that Ukrainians are being welcomed. However, one might explain that, but part of it is that they've already got a certain amount of footprint in in the countries that they're fleeing to.  

In any case, what I wanted to really ask about is Europe and NATO, in particular, with regard to the concerns about chemical weapons that might be used, that obviously wouldn't respect national borders insofar as they're airborne and blown around by winds, they might end up in Poland and other NATO countries. The possibility of an errant missile landing 12 miles further west than one did a few days ago that didn't quite land in Poland. I mean, what do you think was the kind of message that came out of the NATO Summit in terms of what they were going to regard as a violation of NATO integrity and something that would trigger the Article 5 requirement that an attack on one is perceived as an attack on all. Do you have any sense of that?

Kadri Liik  12:03

Well, President Biden has been fairly consistent on that one; he has always said that when Russia attacks NATO territory, that'll trigger NATO response. That really has been his message all along; and that is very, very clear. The new statement from this week concerned chemical weapons. He did say that if Russia uses chemical weapons in Ukraine, then the US would react. The manner of reaction will depend on the manner of use. So that statement leaves a lot to guesswork how exactly the US would react, but that is something. And it's quite obvious that the United States doesn't think that this is completely unrealistic. Rather, the officials tend to emphasize the likelihood of such an attack ever more frequently, and also, as I understand, they are trying to figure out how to help Ukraine deal with consequences.

John Torpey  13:12

So there's a lot of talk about the sanctions and the extent of the economic sort of pressure that the West, that the United States, the EU, etc., are imposing on Russia. But there's also this odd conundrum that Western Europe and Eastern Europe, I suppose, depend heavily on Russian gas and oil for the functioning of their economies. And perhaps the most obvious case of this is Germany, where Olaf Scholz has said that lots of people would lose their jobs if we stopped buying Russian oil and gas. I think Germany gets something like 55% of its gas from Russia. So I wonder what you would say about the kind of strange vise that Europe seems to be in with regard to these sanctions. I mean, they hit less hard for Americans who don't rely on Russian oil and gas nearly so much. So the pressure to get out of supporting Russian oil and gas interests is not so great here as it is there. How can we understand that situation?

Kadri Liik  14:33

Well, yes, that is true. Germany relies on Russian gas as it concerns much of its heating system. If it stopped buying Russian gas then many homes would go unheated, and that's, in some ways, worse than job losses. If you lose your job, you can look for another one, but cold homes in the middle of winter is a problem in a country like Germany. And it cannot probably be changed overnight. Germany has been making its coal fuel power stations use gas instead, because gas is cleaner than coal, and you can switch easily from coal to gas, but not to sort of proper clean energy. It's impossible to use wind power or solar power for that, just like that.  So it is a problem. And that means that objectively, Germany needs some transition period. The intention right now is to become independent from Russia by 2024. And that is actually fairly soon, I mean, that is exceeding its expectations. 

But I think that's also what one can expect, then it would be stupid to try to push Germany to do anything more or faster, because I sometimes worry that in our maximalism to impose as painful as possible costs on Russia, we will end up hurting ourselves. So if we launch another economic crisis in the West? And should that be the case, then, of course, Russia will have the last laugh. So throughout the process of imposing sanctions I have sometimes been worried if there are enough adults in the room who would make sure that Russia suffers more than burn oil, because long term that is a smart way. It's the voice needs to need to suffer somewhat. So it's none of these sanctions are cost free. And I don't think anyone disputes the need for some hardship. But one should keep an eye on on proportions.

John Torpey  17:05

Absolutely. So maybe you could tell us a little bit about what you think is going on in Russia. I mean, there's of course, a major debate going on about who might put pressure on Putin to change course, whether it's the oligarchs, which I think are mostly dependent on Putin, rather than the other way around. The "Siloviki," these sort of regime insiders who are believers in kind of Putin's project in general, but maybe not in this particular undertaking. And then I mentioned in my introduction, the fact that many Russians are leaving the country feeling like there's no country left for them to live in. The resignation of various important figures in media, government; Anatoly Chubais, a former Yeltsin associate who's resigned his post because of his disagreements about the war. Could you tell us how you think things look in Russia? And how are the sanctions biting ordinary Russians?

Kadri Liik  18:15

Well, Russia is another country from what it was a month and a half ago. That is no exaggeration. It has moved from an authoritarian country to a pretty totalitarian one. Sometimes punishments for disagreement are harsher than in the Soviet Union, you can see that. But also in terms of economy, I mean, Russia has moved backwards, sometimes close to 30 years in terms of what its economy is like, and what are the things that are available in Russia. And really, whole branches of economy are simply disappearing. I mean, closure of Instagram, that was of course, done by the Russian authorities, not by the West. But that actually means that many people have lost their sort of internet-based livelihoods; be it as bloggers, or very many have used Instagram for marketing and they are not useful for consumers for brief advertising platforms anymore.  So there is a sort of big de-digitalization happening. Even more strict restrictions also on media freedom. 

So, it's not an exaggeration, I think, to say that a new Iron Curtain or a new curtain of -I don't know of which material - is descending because it is ever, ever more hard to reach Russian information space from here. Being a professional on Russia watcher, I need to follow that news, but it's technically hard because both sides have had major difficulties. And it's the same for them. And soon it will affect consumer goods that are available, production chains, everything.  So it is really major de-globalization in some ways. And I think that all consequences of it will only slowly emerge; I'm not sure that we are even aware of all the consequences we are going to see. 

But as concerns the political climate and society, I'm not sure if there is anyone who could stop President Putin now, because the people who could have told him that this war was a bad idea, they are very few. Basically, defense chiefs, Defense Minister and Chief of General Staff, maybe heads of FSB, which is domestic intelligence and SVR foreign intelligence services. But that's it. And if they didn't say so in the run up to a war, then I don't think that they will be able to say so now, especially given that the war is not going as well as it should. And Putin might well think that to resist is bad for it. That actually creates incentives for them to double down and try to deliver what is expected from them.  

And society, I am afraid, is also powerless. Indeed, many are leaving. While it is still possible, for the first time very serious talk about Russia not allowing people to leave for much longer, I wouldn't be surprised if it comes to that. Yes, at the moment, I don't see light at the end of the tunnel. Longer term, of course, it is clear that Putin's regime has entered its final stages. Up until February, I was wondering if Russia will find an evolutionary way out of the Putinist phase of its politics? Or will it be some sort of revolutionary shakeup? And I had no clear answer. Now. I think it is quite clear that this is a dead end. And at one point, it will result in a major shakeup, but that could still be many years down the line.

John Torpey  22:40

I see. Well, that's not a very encouraging diagnosis, I’m afraid, but I'm sure you knew that. And it suggests that what's going to happen is going to happen really outside of Russia on the battlefield or at the negotiating table, but not really so much within Russia itself. But apropos outside of Russia, I mean, one of the things that has been interesting is, in sort of collateral reaction to this invasion, has been the effects on populism in Eastern Europe and elsewhere.  So the question is sort of what are the consequences of the fact that Putin has now made himself and Russia kind of international pariah, whereas he used to be this kind of point of reference for populists who wanted to sort of criticize the government of the country that they were living under. Does this have sort of important positive ramifications perhaps for politics in other European countries, I'm thinking perhaps, especially of Hungary here, where Viktor Orban has presented himself as a good friend of Vladimir Putin, and now people are changing their tune about that kind of thing. So what are the consequences of this for internal politics in Eastern Europe?

Kadri Liik  24:04

Well, I think it has less consequences for Eastern Europe, because I mean, where you see populist government, Poland has been furiously anti-Russian all along, regardless of other things that it is doing. And Hungary, yes, Hungary is positioning itself as as friend of Putin, and they continue doing so, even now. Why I mean, that's beyond me. Hungarian politics is something that I fail to understand, and have always failed. Very funny country, though Estonia is supposedly related. 

But I think this war might be, yes, having its impact on politics elsewhere. In France, I think, the outcome of a presidential election is now fairly certain. I mean, Macron's chances have gone up and everyone else's, including Marine Le Pen's, have gone down. So, you can surely see how it has constraining effect on pro-Russian populists. But then again on other populists, it can also have an emboldening effect. I mean, look at Boris Johnson, who is actually benefiting from what is happening. Everyone has forgotten the crisis he had about Downing Street parties, and now he's trying to position himself as this principled leader of a Western country, fighting Russia and succeeding to some extent. So, yeah, alright effects, but these really depend from country to country.

John Torpey  25:51

Understood. So perhaps just a final question. I mean, it seems to me that your analysis is basically suggesting that we're in this for a long time. But any thoughts about near term developments? I mean, Zelenskyy seems to be pleading really for negotiations to take place, and Vladimir Putin seems to be simply uninterested in negotiations. And insofar as that's the case, everything I see suggests that everybody sees the situation as one in which Putin is really kind of in the driver's seat. Our position is relatively reactive. I mean, is there anything that can be done to change that calculation?

Kadri Liik  26:34

Well there are sorts of negotiations of sorts happening, but yeah, I don't think we should expect much from those. And, yes, Zelenskyy stresses that he is open to negotiate, and he's actually also ready to concede some ground, for instance, promise that Ukraine will never join NATO, I mean, but actually, he was ready to do also without the war. So for that, Putin never needed to launch that war. But of course, for as long as Ukraine is successful on battlefield, I am not sure about even the society in Ukraine would be ready to accept even the peace terms that Zelenskyy might offer.  So Zelenskyy is also under pressure, both from Russia and from its own society. And that is why I think that this war will continue for a while more, at least until the balance tilts so it becomes visible what the realistic terms for a peace deal will be. 

And then of course, after that it will continue in another form for as long as Putin remains in office. And that's already probably a standoff in the shape of sanctions, restrictive measures, and mostly between Russia and the West. President Biden has been signaling to Putin that if when he ends the war, some sanctions could be lifted, having in mind probably restrictions on central bank reserves, etc, the really tough measures. But I think the relationship between the West and Russia will never go back. And it will not presume a sustainable, cooperative model for as long as Putin is in office. I mean, we are now really talking about regime change in Russia for as long as the ideas that stand behind this war keep being the guiding ideas of Russian politics, for that long the West will have incentive to weaken Russia by sanctions of various kinds, financial, technological, etc. And yeah, I think that will continue for a number of years.

John Torpey  29:04

I'm not sure exactly, I think it was Ivan Krastev, who said "we're in Vladimir Putin's world now'. And it sounds like you'd largely agree with that. Not to put words in your mouth, but it does seem like we're probably going to be in this for a while. And we're going to need sober analyses such as yours. 

So I want to thank Kadri Liik for sharing her insights about recent developments in Ukraine and Russia.  Remember to subscribe and rate International Horizons on SoundCloud, Spotify, and Apple podcasts. I want to thank Oswaldo Mena Aguilar for his technical assistance, as well as to acknowledge Duncan Mackay for sharing his song "International Horizons" as the theme music for the show. 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.