Ukraine on the Offensive

Recently back from Ukraine, scholar and researcher Rajan Menon shares his observations.

Photo illustration: Elise Swain/The Intercept; Photos: Getty Images

The Ukrainian military’s counteroffensive against Russia is underway. Aided by the U.S. and other Western powers, Ukraine is making a push to expel Russian troops. This week on Intercepted, Jeremy Scahill and Murtaza Hussain are joined by Rajan Menon, the director of the Grand Strategy program at Defense Priorities and author of several books, including “Conflict in Ukraine: The Unwinding of the Post-Cold War Order.” Menon was recently in Ukraine, and he describes the developments in the country, more than one year since the Russian invasion began. Menon breaks down the regional differences in Ukraine and the geopolitical challenges to ending the conflict.

[Intercepted intro theme music.]

Jeremy Scahill: This is Intercepted.

Welcome to Intercepted. I’m Jeremy Scahill.

Murtaza Hussain: And I’m Murtaza Hussain.

The war in Ukraine, now dragging into its second year, has entered a critical phase. The Ukrainian military is currently in the midst of a counteroffensive aimed at pushing Russian troops out of its territory this summer. The most conservative estimates say that the war, triggered by Russia’s invasion in early 2022, has killed tens of thousands of people on both sides, and perhaps far more.

Despite widespread suffering and destruction, including to civilian areas in Ukraine, the conflict still has no end in sight. The outcome of the summer offensive as well as shifting political tides in the United States will have a huge influence on the final outcome of this bloody conflict, whenever it does come to an end.

JS: We’re joined now by Rajan Menon. He’s the director of the Grand Strategy Program at Defense Priorities; that’s a thinktank. Most recently, he was a professor at City College of New York and, before that, at several other universities.

Rajan, it’s great to have you with us. Thanks for being here on Intercepted.

Rajan Menon: Thank you, Jeremy, thank you, Murtaza.

JS: So you just got back from a trip to Ukraine. You’ve gone back and forth to Ukraine a number of times since the Russian invasion escalated last February. Tell us where you were in Ukraine, how long you were there for, and the purpose of this visit.

RM: So, this was my third visit and, on this particular one, I spent some time in Kyiv, because there were a number of meetings that I had scheduled and a conference that I attended, at which there were various American military experts, including some former generals. After that, I drove with a friend of mine who runs an NGO in Kyiv, about 350 miles east to Kharkiv, which used to be, until 1934, the capital of the Soviet Republic of Ukraine.

Now, when you get from Kharkiv further east — that is Eastern Kyiv province — you are in what is, or what used to be, a conflict zone. And from there I went to various towns that may be familiar to you, certainly to those who follow the war very closely. In no particular order: Izyum, Sloviansk, Kramatorsk, Balakliya, Kostyantynivka. And I was within about three miles of what they call the “zero line” in Bakhmut.

JS: And your trip was over the course of how many days? How long were you there?

RM: Just shy of three weeks.

JS: I think this would be really helpful for a lot of people, because you indicated before that it might be familiar to people who follow the situation closely, a lot of people are not following it on the granular level that you are. But what I think would be really helpful is, give people a sense of where things are at right now. There’s a lot of talk about a coming Ukrainian counteroffensive against Russia. Vladimir Putin – and you’ve written about this – doesn’t seem to show any indication that he’s going to quit this invasion and occupation anytime soon, but give us a sense of where things stand right now on the ground with this war.

RM: Sure. Just some wider context, and I’ll be very quick. Ukraine in land area, European Russia aside, is the largest country in Europe, so it is a very big place. Getting there is hard because you can’t fly in, the airspace is closed, so you have to land in Warsaw. And you can’t go straight from Warsaw to Kyiv, which is 16 hours, not because one might not be physically capable, but there’s an overnight curfew, so one stays in Lviv and then drives the rest of the way.

On the way to Kyiv, you would not know that this is a country at war. When you approach Kyiv, you see more checkpoints, you see busted up bridges and damaged homes, but you really get to the war zone when you are east of Kyiv and start entering an area that’s called the Donbas.

The Donbas consists of two provinces: Donetsk and Lugansk, and Lugansk is totally under Russian control, and has been for some time. Donetsk is contested, about half/half between the Russians and the Ukrainians. So I was in the Ukrainian occupied part of Donetsk. The other major conflict zones are in the provinces of Kherson and Zaporizhia, which are to the south.

So, the main conflict areas, to sum up, are in the east, in Donbas, and in the south, in Zaporizhia and Kherson. So, I’ve also been to Kherson.

MH: Rajan, you’ve been to Ukraine several times since the conflict started, and your last trip was at this very critical moment, as Jeremy mentioned, of the Ukrainian counteroffensive. So many people in the United States and elsewhere have been discussing this counteroffensive as a possible turning point in the war, an effort to expel Russia from some of the regions it’s occupied since the war began, or almost two years ago.

Can you tell us a bit about the environment in the country at the moment? How are Ukrainians experiencing this current mobilization, and what success or lack of success have the Ukrainians experienced so far since the counteroffensive began?

RM: Right. So, just again, quickly, some wider context. This is my third visit. I was there in August, and then I was there in late December to January. That is, as you may recall, the time when the Russians were taking aim at big Ukrainian cities to turn the lights and the water off. This time, I was there to see the counteroffensives, and my timing is always impeccable; it was declared [as] starting by President Zelensky about a day after I left.

Nevertheless, what has been misleading is, people think, well, when the counteroffensive begins, you know, there will be some guy with a sandwich board saying the counteroffensive has begun. For the last month, there has been enormous Ukrainian activity in one of the provinces I mentioned, Zaporizhia. Which is important because, if you drive south of Zaporizhia and reach the coast of the Azov sea, if the Ukrainians do that, they cut in half the land bridge, the land corridor that, in this war, the Russians have built connecting the mainland of Russia to Crimea.

And so, that is the name of the game. I expect a lot of the activity to occur in Zaporizhia. We’re already seeing signs of it. We will also see some signs of it, and have recently, in Southern and Western Donetsk province,

JS: You’ve written a lot about the prospects for a negotiated settlement to the war, and you remain very skeptical that that is in the cards, at least in the near future.

Talk a bit though about how you see the perspective from Ukraine’s side and from Russia’s side of why such a resolution is not in the cards for the very near future. Like, the Russian perspective on things, and then what you’re hearing from people on the ground in Ukraine, that leads you to believe that we’re not going to see a negotiated settlement anytime soon.

RM: Right. So we are about 16 months into this war, and people, first of all, didn’t expect the war to last this long. They thought the Russian Army would overcome Ukrainian defenses and take Kyiv within a matter of [weeks], some said even fewer. So, here we are in a place we never expected. For a war to end, and that applies to this particular war, one or more of the warring parties – in this case, two – have to decide that negotiation is better than the alternative of fighting. Neither side, for wholly different reasons, is at that point, and I have seen no indication on the Ukrainian side or the Russian side that they believe their best option now is to negotiate. In other words: each feels that it can win.

Now, whether that’s true or not is beside the point. So, those people calling for a halt to the fighting, I understand completely their intentions. There has been a war that has been horrific in its consequences; we can talk about it. But, as far as the Ukrainians see it, that would essentially partition their country, because it would leave the areas which are fairly substantial that the Russians hold in their hand. So, those areas, once again are Lugansk Province and Donetsk Province – part of the Donetsk Province. And then, Southern Kherson and Southern Zaporizhia. Northern Kherson, the Russian army was evicted from by the Ukrainians in September. So, a ceasefire call is seen as a partition.

Now, Putin believes he can have it all, that is he can take all of these provinces, and that time is on his side, because he simply has more firepower, and the Ukrainians are backed by a 30-Coalition Alliance; namely, NATO. And that, over time two things will happen: their stocks will begin running low and they’ll worry about their own preparedness, but, inevitably, collective action problems will develop. That is to say, they will be pulling and pushing in different directions. And some arguing that a negotiated settlement is necessary, pressure will be put on Ukraine, and Putin will come out ahead. That is his calculation.

JS: One common theme that you hear from Russian commentators who are supporting Putin’s so-called “special military operation in Ukraine” is this almost ominous sense that Russia hasn’t deployed its big guns yet. Hasn’t really, seriously, attempted to quote-unquote “win this war.” I’m not just talking about the specter of using a nuclear weapon. I mean, just in terms of tactical military hardware and sort of all-in strategy on the part of Putin.

Is that just bravado or wishful thinking? Or is it the case that Russia hasn’t really played its best cards yet, militarily, in its effort to conquer Ukraine?

RM: Right. So this is a very good question, and we should break it down, because it’s complicated.

In terms of firepower – that is artillery, tanks, armored personnel carriers, aircraft, any weapon you name – the Russians have overwhelming superiority. Certainly quantitatively, we can talk about the qualitative balance in just a bit. That leaves the number of soldiers. Now, in theory, because Russia has a population of 141, million and Ukraine has 44 million, even the mobilizable component of that population is so large on the Russian side that the Ukrainians can’t match it.

So, the question is, have the Russians withheld large number of recruits that they’ll throw into battle at a time of their choosing? I’m skeptical that they have. So, I have talked to a lot of people in the Ukrainian government, and different ones, so I could crosscheck what they were telling me, and I said, how many Russian troops are there now of various sorts in Ukraine? And they said about 300,000-plus.

Now, what I didn’t follow up asking – which I should have, I didn’t have my wits about me, I guess, then – is, does that include regular units, non-combat units, and private militia such as the Wagner Group, and the fighters of the Chechen warlord, if you will, Ramzan Kadyrov. But, also, a private army of the energy giant Gazprom, that people don’t hear much about.

But, no matter how you slice it, there are a large number of Russian troops in the country. Now, do they have more? I’m skeptical, because when they started attacking the electricity grid in the winter and early spring, that would’ve been the time to really put in large additional numbers, and they have not. So, the idea that they have this huge force waiting that they can throw into battle doesn’t persuade me. And I’ll give you one example of why I am skeptical.

So, recently, as you may have heard, there were two anti-Putin insurgent groups operating from Ukrainian territory, obviously with the full knowledge of Ukraine, quite possibly with the full support of Ukraine; nothing happens there that the Ukrainian government doesn’t know about.

So, they went into Belgorod Province, which is just to the north of the Ukrainian border, the Russia-Ukrainian border, and nobody showed up for about an hour. Not the police, not the interior ministry troops. And they created a swath of about 20 kilometers wide. Now, this is the Russian Federation, the other superpower.

So, the Russians rotated troops from Donetsk in the East where they’re fighting, Bakhmut in particular, and wheeled them around to Belgorod, and backfilled the deficit by calling the private militias that exist in Donetsk and Lugansk to Bakhmut to hold the line. Had they had large numbers of readily deployable troops, they wouldn’t have done that.

MH: Rajan, there’s something that’s very interesting to me, that in February, 2022, when the Russians invaded Ukraine, it seemed very obvious that this was intended to be a short conflict on the Russian part.

RM: Yes.

MH: And now, you know, we’re over a year and a half into it and the Ukrainians are launching a counteroffensive. It seems that a stalemate of sorts developed or, at the very least, the Russians have entered into a conflict from which there’s no obvious endgame for them. From your own observations, being from abroad and in the field in Ukraine, can you tell us – I [have] two questions.

First of all, what do you sense of the Russian strategy for the conflict going forward? If there is a path to victory for them, how do they envision that happening, or what is the desired end state that they’re looking for? And, secondly, in terms of the Ukrainian counteroffensive, can you give us a sense of their aims, as well as the morale and the perception of Ukrainians themselves on how they plan to use this offensive to change the trajectory of the war?

RM: So, first, on the Russian side, the two of you may remember during the Afghan war were, the Afghan mujahideen said, essentially, the Americans have the advantage over us in just about everything, except in one thing: they may have the watches, [but] we have the time.

What they meant was, over time, they were prepared to fight and die in larger numbers, and that the United States would simply decide to wind up and call it quits. And they were correct. Something similar happened in Vietnam, although it’s not an exact parallel.

So, part of Putin’s belief is, he has the resources, industrially and militarily and in terms of soldiers, to continue fighting this war. There has been no sign of demonstrations in big cities that the regime cannot either corral, manage, or intimidate. The war seems not to have become a huge political problem; he hasn’t ever called it a “war” or an “invasion,” he’s called it a “special military operation.” He mobilized about 300,000 people in September but, since then, has not called for general conscription. And he’s been very careful. I think he’s mobilized more outside the big ethnic Russian cities to other places.

So he thinks he can continue fighting this war, and he’s convinced that sanctions have been an inconvenience, but they haven’t brought the Russian economy to its knees. So, his belief is, eventually the West will believe that Ukraine cannot win this war, and there will be some negotiating, and he will have the upper hand.

The Ukrainians are in a dicey position, because they have to prove at every turn that they’re a good bet, that they can keep advancing, that they can keep the confidence of the West. Because, unless they do so, the weapon supplies might dry up.

So, for example, everyone said it was a crazy idea for them to hold this town in Donetsk called Bakhmut, but they stayed there, took enormous punishment, but also killed a lot of Russians, because they felt that a retreat would have two consequences. First, they would have to defend a place further west, the Russians were not going to just stop at Bakhmut. And, secondly, that however one spun it, that it would be seen as a Ukrainian retreat against superior firepower. So, they’re under pressure.

Now, what do they hope to gain? Well, maximally, they’ll tell you they want to liberate all of their territories, going back to 2014 – that is, including Crimea – plus all the territories that have been taken since February 22nd, 2022. Personally, I think that is not going to happen, but that’s not an argument you want to make in Ukraine, because people are almost in a state of religious fervor about needing to do this, and how they have been wronged, and Putin is an aggressor, and so on.

But I think that if they were able to gain significant ground in Donetsk, and also in the south in Zaporizhia and in Kherson, that will be a fairly substantial victory. And, minimally, that is not beyond the cards in my view. It’s not a done deal, and I’m always leery about predicting things in this invasion, because a lot has happened, frankly, that surprised a lot of people, including me. So, take under advisement, this is the best I can tell you, based on what I have observed and the facts that I follow.

JS: One of the recent incidents that’s been in the news a lot, and where you have very starkly competing different narratives, is the destruction of the Kakhovka Dam in Ukraine that was destroyed, I believe, on June 6th, sometime between 2 and 3 a.m. Ukraine has accused Russia of destroying it, also saying it’s a war crime, because of the type of infrastructure that it is. Russia is saying that Ukraine blew up this dam.

What can you tell us about what you know about that right now, or your analysis of this back and forth of accusations?

RM: So, let me tell you very quickly, if I might, what the consequences of this are. It’s released an enormous amount of floodwaters to the South, into Zaporizhia, and especially into Kherson. The water has submerged, for instance, the burial grounds of infected cattle, and so there’s potentially an anthrax threat looming. It has ruptured sewage systems, there is possibly a cholera epidemic. There are mines and other ordinance that are now floating in the water, and that poses a human hazard. It’s also led to mass evacuations and submerged or washed away houses entirely. So, this is a classic disaster.

Now, one narrative that’s been put up by the Yale professor Timothy Snyder, whom you may have heard of, who is a very strong supporter of Ukraine and has rallied support for Ukraine in this country is, there is no reason for Ukraine to do this. While it is engaged in the southern offensive, why would it flood the territory that it is about to invade? So that’s one side.

The other side is, why would the Russians do this? Because they have spent months and months now, erecting multi-layered, fairly sophisticated defenses of all [types], all the way from the conflict zone in the east, in Lugansk province, making a kind of halfmoon to Kherson. And why would they allow what has happened, their own defenses to be swept away, their own soldiers to be retreating in panic; some, by the way, having commandeered dinghies of civilians. I saw one picture, which is very poetic, as it were, of two soldiers in a dinghy, one colored yellow and one colored blue, which is exactly the color of the Ukrainian flag. So, the question is, why would they do this?

I know enough about war – and the two of you do, too – that, you know, truth really is the first casualty. And I’m not in a position yet to pronounce on what exactly happened, who did it. Now, this makes people on both sides really angry, because you’re supposed to take a position.

Another theory is that there was simply an engineering failure and a rupture of the dam. I would give that some credence, because accidents happen, but the timing strikes me as just too extraordinarily coincidental and peculiar. So, I’m not in a position to tell you who did it, but it has created a disaster. One other thing, by the way: gallons and gallons, tons and tons of oil have been dumped into the river and it’s contaminated water supplies, and the water is not drinkable.

So, that’s where we are. I wish I could tell you that I know for certain who did it. I’m very careful about what I say about these things, and so, I’m not going to say that, I can just tell you the competing narratives. If you pushed me and said, well, in your gut, what does it tell you? I would say probably more the Russians, because they control the area, but that doesn’t mean the Ukrainians couldn’t have done it, but my money would be on the Russians.

MH: The images of the impact of that flood were really devastating. It seemed that the towns flooded and so forth, and the widespread destruction of what seemed to be agricultural lands in Ukraine as well.

Rajan, just from the time you spent there, can you give us a sense of, in addition to the flood, the level of damage and destruction that has been done to Ukrainian infrastructure and cities as a result of this conflict, and what you’ve observed of that impact on the Ukrainian population?

RM: I’ve seen a lot of it. And, without being melodramatic, I will tell you that, like you, I’ve seen many pictures but, until you see it up close, you have, really, no visceral sense of how much damages have been done, and what awaits Ukraine by way of post-war reconstruction, which is going to be a huge task. And if you’d like to, we can talk a little bit about what post-war Ukraine faces, no matter how the war shakes out.

So, I was in the city of Kramatorsk, which is about 40 miles, maybe fewer than that, from Bakhmut, right? The city that everyone’s probably heard of. It was a city of about 180,000 before the war. The number of people there dropped in about three months to about 40,000. Kramatorsk is a big rail junction, and so, people from surrounding areas rushed there and tried frantically to get on trains. One day the Russians hit the place with a missile carrying cluster munitions and killed about 60 people. There’s a real memorial there for the children who were killed, stuffed animals and stuff, the platform is guarded. And then there’s building after building in Kramatorsk that’s been destroyed. And, by the way, I’m mentioning Kramatorsk, but this is what you’ll see in other towns as well. Schools, houses, administrative buildings, factories, you name it, you see it.

The other thing that’s really evident when you enter Kramatorsk, there seems to be nobody around. This is a big city, it’s a kind of an ugly Soviet-styled industrial city, so it doesn’t have much, but nobody is around. And, when you do see people, they seem disproportionately to be older people who have nowhere to go, or who are too ill or physically disabled to go anywhere. The younger people, the people most needed for economic revival, have left.

Now, this is the situation in other towns I’ve been to. For example, places Izyum or Kostyantynivka, which is the closest I got to the frontline in Bakhmut. So, the destruction is immense. Now, it is localized, in the sense that, when you go west of Kyiv, you see nothing at all, you might even imagine that you’re not even in a war zone. In Kyiv itself you see some evidence of destruction but, by and large, the defense has been really quite good. So, we’re really talking about the south of the country and the east of the country; I’ve seen the south as well, and there’s been huge destruction.

Now, that doesn’t even include the Russian-occupied part. So, take a city like Mariupol, which is on the sea of Azov, in the south, that the Russians have taken. They basically took it by leveling it and turning it into a parking lot. Their signature approach to the war is to reign down artillery, which they have a lot more of, destroy a city, and then send in the infantry.

So, to give you an example of the exchange ratio – that is, how many artillery shells the Ukrainians fire versus the Russians – in Bakhmut, on certain days, it’s been 10,000 incoming artillery shells for every 1,000 that the Ukrainians can send toward Russian lines.

So, there’s nobody in the American military, no officer, who has faced this kind of thing. Because the adversaries we’ve tangled with – Libya and Iraq, for example – were just not able to respond in this fashion. So the Ukrainians are fighting a war that – and so are the Russians – that we have not witnessed since World War II. This is a wholly different kind of thing. This was the kind of war that Europe was supposed to have put behind it, because the era of democracy, and peace, and the end of history, and so on, was upon us. But we’ve been revisited by all of the stuff that we were supposed to have left behind.

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JS: You know, this, like all wars, there’s just this dominant propaganda that gets emitted from all sides, and this is true. You mentioned some of the more recent U.S. wars. I mean, let’s be clear, the U.S. engages all the time in its own propaganda, and, obviously, Russia is swimming in a whole pool of its own propaganda right now. But Ukraine has proven itself to be a pretty sophisticated propaganda disseminator itself.

There have been recent reports about Ukraine cracking down, not just on its own citizens freedom of expression and movement, etc., but also on international reporters and news organizations that Ukraine believes are not sort of toeing the line. But I wanted to ask you a more nuanced set of questions about the geopolitical propaganda battle here.

The New York Times recently did a report that was focusing on some of the Nazi imagery that’s been on some of the patches of Ukrainian troops, or troops fighting on the Ukrainian side. And, of course, the Azov Battalion is a regular talking point, of people who are defending Russia’s operation, or just raising questions about the political nature of some of the political factions in Ukraine and how that’s manifested in various military units or battalions.

So the first thing I wanted to ask you is: is Putin’s contention that the real issue here is to fight against fascism, or fight against neo-Nazis in Ukraine? Is it entirely without merit, or are there elements to this that you think are worth discussing or dissecting?

RM: So, there is no question that there are groups – you mentioned the Azov Battalion – that exist in Ukraine, and they can be called fascistic or Nazi-istic, whatever the term of art you want to. And there are other such groups and there are also groups that you see flying the red and black flag, which is associated with the Ukrainian’s insurgent army which, in turn, is associated with one Stepan Bandera. What the Ukrainian insurgent army did when the Nazis invaded the Soviet Union and came into what is now Western Ukraine was to collaborate with them, not so much because they bought hook, line, and sinker, Hitler’s worldview, but they wanted to create a separate Ukrainian state, which meant purging it of Poles and also Jews. And this has cast kind of an ugly stain on certain periods of Ukrainian history. So, there’s no question that there are such groups.

Putin’s view, however, is that this is the denazification operation. Now, I’ve spent a lot of time in Ukraine, and to say that the country’s politics are defined by these groups is a vast exaggeration. They are simply not. On top of that, the government of Mr. Zelensky, who is a Russian-speaking Jew from the southern town — not deep south, but south from Kyiv – called Kryvyi Rih, or Krivoy Rog, as it used to be called in Soviet times. Zelensky is a Jew, and some of his relatives were people who died in the Holocaust. The Prime Minister, Denys Shmyhal is a Jew. The most important person next to Zelensky, his top advisor, Andriy Yermak, is a Jew. And I could go on and on and on.

So, I think the idea that this is a government that is dominated by Nazis is simply false on its face, but Putin, I think, needs to have a narrative where he suggests that this is somehow a war that is akin to World War II. So, one can concede two things, right? One can concede, yes, there are right-wing groups in Ukraine. You do see the Bandera flag.

When I went to Kherson, for example, that had just been retaken by the Ukrainian army in December when I was down there, there was still fighting going on, on the town square there was a Bandera flag. And sometimes you see soldiers wearing Bandera patches. So, there is this element. But to say that what we have in Ukraine is a Nazi government, and that it’s being backed by the United States, I think is a vast exaggeration. I just have not seen any evidence of that, and I’ve spent a lot of time in the country.

MH: So, in July, Rajan, there’s a NATO summit taking place which, obviously for Ukraine, is very pivotal, because the Ukrainians rely very heavily on U.S. and other western countries’ arms and political support in this conflict. Can you get a sense of how Ukrainians perceive their relationship vis-a-vis NATO at the moment, and how they feel about potential political changes in the United States and elsewhere, and how important that is to their own ability to keep fighting the Russian invasion of their country?

RM: If you visit there, it won’t take you very long to realize that joining NATO has become not just an article of faith among Ukrainians, it’s become almost like a religion, right? They believe that they’re owed this because they have stood up to the second most powerful military machine on the face of the earth. Nobody thought they would be able to withstand the Russian assault. They’ve not only withstood it, but they’ve repelled it from certain areas. And then they will tell you that this is a war not just about Ukraine, but about Europe and Western civilization. There’s this whole narrative about how significant this resistance is. That leads them to believe that they have earned a place in NATO. But I’m cynical enough to believe that countries, at the end of the day, calculate what their interests are.

Now, fast forward to this summit that’s going to happen in Vilnius, Lithuania, in July. The Ukrainians, I think, would like to get into NATO. I think there’s absolutely no chance that they’ll be admitted as a full member. And, in fact, Macron is on the record as having said so. Annalena Baerbock, the foreign minister of Germany, has said so. And, interestingly enough, Biden has never stood up and said, folks, you are wrong, I actually am going to persuade you that Ukraine should be admitted.

The most pro-Ukrainian group in NATO are the Baltic Trio – Estonia, Lithuanian, Latvia – and Poland. But they don’t have the capacity to swing the entire alliance, because the Washington Treaty of 1949 has an article in it – I forget precisely which it is, you can look it up – which says, in order to admit a new member, there has to be unanimous consent. So, one country – and high on my list would be Hungary – could still muck this up, from the standpoint of the Ukrainians.

There’s another complication. In 1995, before NATO actually started implementing expansion, it had become a concept, and implementation hadn’t started; that started in 1997. NATO published a document about what is going to be our procedure for admitting new members. And there is an article in it which says, if a country has a territorial dispute, or is engaged in a hot war with another country – that’s not the term that was used, it’s the term I’m using – that that would be taken into consideration and could be a factor in its admission. Now, it doesn’t say, we’ll never admit such a country, but that clause could be used by countries in NATO that say, it’s not time yet. So, I think it’s a long shot at the moment.

There’s talk of a security guarantee, but what does that really mean, exactly? Because a security guarantee would tell Ukraine, if you’re attacked, the countries that issue the security guarantee – some subset of NATO presumably – would come to its defense. Well, Ukraine is already being attacked.

Now, some Ukrainians have suggested, well, a security guarantee can just apply to the areas Ukraine now controls, because the Russians never controlled it, or the Ukrainians have, quote, “liberated it.” The problem with that, of course, is that battle lines shift. And so, what if there’s an area that is now controlled by the Ukrainians that the Russians then enter? Then, does the security guarantee kick in? So, if a country is issuing the security guarantee, that would be a big consideration to think about.

So, it’s a very complicated thing. But I think it’s very difficult to have a conversation with the Ukrainians where you try to explain to them the scenarios under which they may not get into NATO or they may not get a security guarantee. That doesn’t go over very well, because of the emotional intensity of hatred toward Russia.

And I should add one other thing: it’s wrong, I think, to see this as a conflict where Ukraine is fighting Russia, but there are two Ukraines. There is ethnic Ukrainian Ukraine, Ukrainian-speaking, and so-called Russophone Ukraine in the eastern south. I’ve met now so many civilians and soldiers who are Russian speakers, or ethnically Russian, who are 100 percent of the mind that this is a war in which their country, Ukraine, is facing Russian aggression.

So, there’s an enormous sense of outrage and hatred, even the belief that this is not just a Putin war that the Russian people by and large supported, why aren’t they demonstrating? And so, you come along as an outsider and say, well, here are the complications that might prevent you from getting into NATO or getting a security guarantee. You know, that doesn’t really go very well. But I’ve had discussions like this.

JS: I wanted to ask you because, in much of the discourse in the United States – and, in fact, in much of the discourse in Europe – the entire context of the war focuses on this as a naked act of aggression by Vladimir Putin. And I think there’s no question — and you write this quite eloquently in your recent Substack piece – is that Vladimir Putin chose to do this. He bears the responsibility for it. I think any reasonable person who’s been monitoring these events will accept that as established fact.

However, there is value to understanding the mindset and the perspective that led to this moment of Putin making the decision to escalate so dramatically, to throw so much military hardware, to commit what I think you can only describe as systematic war crimes for a sustained period of time in Ukraine. But none of that erases the fact that there actually is a political context and a historical context to this, and I would really appreciate hearing you describe, from Russia’s perspective. why Putin believed that this was a justifiable course of action.

RM: Right. So, my good friend John Mearsheimer and I have debated this a lot. And this program ought not to be about me, but let me just give you a sense of my own intellectual peregrinations from NATO expansion to this war.

From the get-go, I thought NATO expansion was a terrible idea, because I thought that the Russian economy was down and out, about a 30 percent contraction in the 1990s. The political system was chaotic. The war in Chechnya was not going well, all this under Boris Yeltsin, and the country was just really a wreck.

But we tell them, the Cold War is over, Russia is a partner of the United States, but we’re going to take this Cold War Alliance and march it towards your borders. Now, this has been seen as a fixation of Vladimir Putin, but the historical record shows without question that Yeltsin was opposed to it with every fiber of his being, and made it very, very clear.

So, in my mind, there was no case to be made that this would be seen – that is, NATO expansion – as a benign act from the United States. Nobody saw it that way, and I think it was a complete fantasy to believe that the Russians really wouldn’t mind. Or, as a former ambassador to Moscow, and the American Ambassador, Mike McFall says, that this has got nothing to do with Ukraine.

So, we should have expected some reaction. Did I expect a reaction in the form of a full-blown invasion of Ukraine? I absolutely did not. But 2014 was a bit of a bellwether or warning that Russia took this very, very seriously, and Ukraine in particular, because of its location, and its culture, and linguistic connections with Russia was a place that was really important to them.

Now, where people like Mearsheimer and I part ways is that, in 2008, at the Bucharest Summit of NATO, NATO basically opened the door in principle to Georgia and Ukraine. Now, fast forward to 2022, February 24th, 2022, which is when the war, the special operation began. NATO had kept Ukraine waiting for 14 years, 14 years, without even giving it a membership action plan, despite repeated entreaties by Ukraine. So there was no sign whatsoever, as far as I can tell, that Ukraine was about to enter NATO.

Now, if you ask me, OK, why then did Putin wage this war at this time? I can only give you speculative answers, but this is a question that historians will have to look at and explain in terms of timing. So, the reason I oppose this war is that I do not like preventive wars of regime change. Not preemptive wars, where you see the adversary gearing up and taking palpable step steps to attack you, and you decide, I’m not going to wait, I’m going to respond, because clearly there’s a war coming.

A preventive war is just an imagined situation where you say, at some point down the line, a country might be hostile to me. It’s doing nothing that makes me think that it’s really hostile now, but it might, and I’m going to attack. So I was 100 percent against the Iraq War – not that the two wars, Iraq and Ukraine, are the same – because it was a preventive war of regime change. I think the world becomes just much more of a dangerous place if this happens.

So, this was a preventive war of regime change. I don’t think it was the case that Russia faced a mortal peril, or an existential threat, as people say, that necessitated this war. I also think, by the way, that this war is going to be a strategic disaster – strategic in a broad sense, not just a military sense – for Putin. So, my own views have evolved, and some of my friends who were with me in the battle against NATO expansion are not particularly pleased, and I find myself in a strange situation, but this is where I am, for better or for worse.

Now, why did Putin do it? My own hunch is that during the Covid period nobody saw him. He was in isolation, he was asking for Russian archives to be sent to his palatial residence, and he was marinating himself in the histories of Peter the Great and Catherine the Great. He was penning these essays, arguing that Ukraine and Russia were one people, casting doubt on whether Ukraine was truly a separate country. And there emerged a separate Putin. This was not a war that he took after wide consultation with his group.

You may remember this rather Saddam Hussein-like video, where Putin is sitting at a table about 50 yards almost, it seemed, from his major advisors, and each of them was called to the podium to say why they believe this war is necessary now. So, this is a lot. I mean, I generally am not somebody who believes that history turns on individual figures, there are broader forces at play, but I think this is really Putin’s war. He owns it, and he cannot really, therefore, let go of it. Which is another reason, by the way, that he is determined to fight and eke out something that he can bring home called success.

MH: So Rajan, since the start of the war, one thing that observers have been very concerned about is the possibility of escalation, between Russia and Ukraine, but also between outside powers in Ukraine, including the United States. And one thing you mentioned earlier was the issue of Crimea which, in 2014, Russia annexed, and Ukrainians are keen to take back at some point in the future.

Would a Ukrainian attempt to take back Crimea be construed as a red line for Russia? And, if not, what would be Russia’s red lines? And how may Russia respond, beyond what they’ve done so far, if they felt that a very critical interest was at stake, or if Putin himself felt had his own political stability or ability to remain in power and Russia is threatened?

What may Russia do, and what could trigger that response?

RM: Again, if I might, some wider context. So, when we talk about the counteroffensive, it’s now officially declared as having begun by Zelensky, but a lot of kinetic activity, as it were, was happening before that.

So there are three axes along which this counteroffensive will be fought. In Donetsk, to take back the part of Donetsk that Russia still occupies. And, if that goes well, the neighboring province of Lugansk; Donetsk and Lugansk, again, comprised the area known as Donbas. So, the east is one possibility.

The South, there are two areas: Zaporizhia, and then Kherson further west. If there is an attack on Crimea, it is liable to come from Kherson, where the Ukrainians sliced through, and arrive in northern Crimea. There is a big supply hub called Dzhankoi in the northern part of Crimea. Once there, they could announce their presence, that would really rattle the Russians, especially if they took down the Kerch Strait Bridge yet again. I’m not saying this is going to happen, but this is one scenario that one can imagine.

Now, what would Putin do? I’ve told friends of mine not to send me any more articles on nuclear escalation, because I don’t learn anything from them anymore. Because here’s how we do it, right? We sit down and try to think, OK, I’m Vladimir Putin. I have nuclear weapons. If the war goes south, goes badly, under what circumstances might I escalate the threat of nuclear weapon use or actually resort to it? And you map out certain possibilities: scenario A, scenario B, scenario C, and you arrive at a certain scenario that you think is the scenario.

The problem with that is its deductive logic, and our deductive logic may or may not mirror Putin’s own calculation. We simply have no way to know, because we don’t know what he thinks about this. It’s very closely held, maybe even his advisors don’t. But it gets even worse.

Even, let’s assume, that, at this moment, the three of us could game out and come to an agreement on what sequence of events might lead to nuclear escalation. Two weeks hence or three weeks hence, the situation on the ground may change, so that Putin’s calculations may change.

So the answer I’m about to give you is an unsatisfactory one: we don’t know. What we do know is that we are dealing with a nuclear power, and the possibility of escalation always has to be kept in mind. Which is why the Biden administration has been very careful supplying weaponry but not doing things or providing weaponry that edges across that line and provokes Putin. Anthony Blinken, who’s no slouch when it comes to backing Ukraine, on at least two occasions, has said that Crimea could be Ukraine’s red line.

So, the big question that has to be asked is if the Ukrainians look like they’re gearing up to take Crimea – let’s assume we have a situation where that looks like it’s going to be the case – will there be pressure on them not to do it because of the worry that there could be a nuclear war?

One final point. The most likely scenario would be tactical nuclear weapons used on the battlefield to bust up Ukrainian troop concentrations, but that would also contaminate the surrounding ground and affect Russian forces as well. Putin’s escalation would not mean an attack on the United States, because the United States would strike back, and that would be completely irrational.

So that’s what’s likely to happen if it happens, but I’m not in a position to tell you how close we are. I am in a position to tell you that, of all of the areas, Crimea is certainly the one that has a certain valence for Putin, where we could really, seriously see this and would have to think about it.

JS: On this program we’ve had a number of guests recently, including Professor Alfred McCoy, the historian from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and McCoy doesn’t claim to be a specialist on Russia or Ukraine, but he was speaking about China’s role in the world. And one of the points that he raised with China becoming much more assertive in the world, engaging in very big scale diplomatic offerings, particularly of late in the Middle East. But also pointing out that China has very good and deep relationships with, not just Russia, but also with Ukraine. And he was suggesting that you could read the tea leaves and believe that China is contemplating trying to be the main broker of an end to this war between Russia and Ukraine.

I wanted to ask [about] your reaction to that, but also, what does a negotiated solution look like at the end of the day? I’m not a Russia or Ukraine expert, but I know a bit about war and, particularly, U.S. strategy in war. It seems as though what General Milley, the outgoing chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has indicated before that Ukraine’s going to have to give something up at the end of this, seems like the most likely scenario.

But I want to hear from you. Your reaction to the possibility of China playing a role in brokering the end of this, in part because of the immense influence it has over Russia, not just politically, but economically. Its relationship with Ukraine, but also, what Ukraine and Russia might have to give up in a real end to this thing.

RM: Alfred McCoy is a very good historian. I know his work and have great respect for him.

Now, let’s look at how the Chinese look at this. There is, on the one hand, a strategic partnership between China and Russia bound together by arms transfers, energy supplies, trade, which has increased significantly after the Western sanctions. China, along with India, has significantly increased its energy imports from Russia. So, the question is, how do the Chinese see this?

My own reading of this is that Xi Jinping is not an idiot and, well over a year into this war, he believes that Putin has gotten himself into a mess. He won’t say this. His main interest in the war, I believe, is not some ideological sympathy with Putin or some sense of fraternal love for the man. It is that, if Russia is defeated, let alone collapses – I’m not saying that’s about to happen, but let’s assume that Russia is taken down not just one peg, but by several pegs – then the United States will focus full bore on China, and China does not want that to happen.

On the other hand, I think Xi Jinping does not believe that Russia can, in a meaningful sense win this war, he may not think Ukraine can win this war. He is a possible mediator. I think this is the position that Professor McCoy has taken and, I think, with some good reason. But Xi Jinping wants to pull off something dramatic, such as the diplomatic normalization that he brokered between Iran and Saudi Arabia. He doesn’t think, I believe, that conditions are conducive now, for the reasons that I mentioned they weren’t conducive to a peace settlement at the top of the show, but I think he’s certainly a likely candidate.

It’s important to realize that the Chinese have significant stakes in Ukraine as well. They are Ukraine’s largest trade partner, they import large amounts of grain from Ukraine. They’re building a new subway line in Kyiv, they’ve refurbished some ports. And so, to some extent they’re all in with Russia, but not as much all in as one might think, and I think it would do them enormous diplomatic credibility if they were to pull this off.

So, they’re waiting in the wings. I can’t see the United States, obviously, mediating. Some people mention India or Indonesia. I just don’t think they have the heft to do this. I think it will be China, if it happens. But we’re a long way from there, because I think the Chinese read the tea leaves and they realize neither of these parties thinks that a settlement is necessary now, because they think they can win. And, as long as they think that, they will not agree to the hard compromises that will be necessary.

Now, what will those compromises be? I wrote a piece in Foreign Affairs some time ago that said, if Ukraine could get back 85 to 90 percent of its pre-war territory, it might want to think about a settlement because, otherwise, it faces potentially years of destruction that will take decades and decades to resolve, and it might want to bite the bullet. Now, again, this is not a proposal or a suggestion that goes over well in Ukraine, because the belief is that the wind is at their back and they can win it all.

In the end, this will require some kind of compromise by both parties. Who will give how much, and where, remains to be seen, and I think we’ll have a much better idea of this come the end of the fall. I don’t think the maximalist version of Ukrainian victory is simply achievable in any reasonable time span.

The question is, will Putin be convinced that time is, in fact, not on his side, and will there be an inclination on his part to negotiate. And will there be, simultaneously, a Ukrainian belief that they haven’t been able to take it all, the West is not in the market to support an open-ended war, and therefore they have to bite the bullet and come to some kind of an agreement. I’m not saying that that will happen, but that’s one scenario to think about.

MH: Rajan, thank you so much for joining us on Intercepted today.

RM: Thanks very much. It’s been a pleasure.

MH: That was Rajan Menon, the Director of the Grand Strategy Program at Defense Priorities.

[Intercepted end-show theme music.]

JS: And that does it for this episode of Intercepted.

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Thank you so much for joining us. Until next time, I’m Jeremy Scahill.

MH: And I’m Murtaza Hussain.

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