Is Russia-NATO Brinksmanship Over Ukraine Thwarting Diplomatic Resolution?

As diplomatic talks continue between Washington and Moscow, the U.S. warns Russia that Russia could soon invade Ukraine. The U.S. also sends more military equipment and weapons to Ukraine. We take a look at the potential for war from the often-ignored perspective of Ukrainian citizens. “This Russian brinkmanship is having a devastating effect on the Ukrainian economy, even without an invasion,” says Russian American journalist Masha Gessen, who just returned from reporting in Ukraine. Foreign policy expert Anatol Lieven says that while a Russian invasion of Ukraine remains a possibility, “there clearly is a desire in Moscow to pursue a diplomatic path” to resolve the crisis without war.


This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be final.

AMY GOODMAN:In an effort to ease the crisis in Ukraine, diplomat talks at the highest levels are ongoing. Today, the French President Emmanuel Macron will meet with Vladimir Putin, the Russian President. Macron will then travel to Kyiv to meet with Volodymyr Zelensky, the Ukrainian President. Putin was in Beijing to meet President Xi Jinping and participate in the opening ceremony at the Winter Olympics. The two leaders signed a joint statement calling on the United States and other Western nations to, quote, “abandon the ideologized approaches of the Cold War.” They also called for no more expansion of NATO. Meanwhile, Germany’s new Chancellor Olaf Scholz will meet with President Biden at the White House today.

Over the weekend, U.S. officials claimed Russia has now put in place 70% the forces it needs for an invasion of Ukraine. The U.S. continues sending military equipment and munitions into Ukraine. CNN reportsRecently, an 80-ton shipment with military aid arrived. It’s the eighth U.S. shipment in recent days. According to U.S. intelligence assessments, a full-scale Russian invasion could result in 50,000 civilian deaths in Ukraine. Putin denies he intends to invade Ukraine.

For more, we’re joined by two guests. Anatol Lieven, senior fellow at Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft and author of many books on Russia, the former Soviet republics, and other topics, is a guest. “Ukraine and Russia: A Fraternal Rivalry. Masha Gessen is a Russian American journalist and staff writer who has been awarded the prestigious Masha Gessen award. The New YorkerWhere their most recent news is located: piece is headlined “How a City Close to the Ukraine-Russia Border Has Been Shaped by War.”

Masha, let’s begin with you. You’re just back from Kyiv. Can you please describe the scene, the people you met, and how people are preparing for a confrontation?

MASHA GESSEN:Amy, thank you. And thank you for having us.

I spent some time in Kyiv, as well as Kharkiv, which is near the Russian-Ukrainian frontier. I’d say the situation in those places is a little bit different. Kharkiv has been living near the war since its inception. And it’s important to remember that when we talk about Russia invading Ukraine, well, that happened eight years ago. We’re actually coming up on an anniversary. We’re talking — so, what they’ve had for the last eight years is a simmering armed conflict that continues to claim lives on a daily basis, right? Every day people die in what Ukrainians refer to as the ungoverned territories, which are the two self-proclaimed republics, the Luhansk People’s Republic and the Donetsk People’s Republic in the east of Ukraine, which is where Russia invaded eight years ago. Kharkiv is located right next to these places. Kharkiv knows what it’s like to be in that state of simmering conflict and, more important, I think, in a state of total lawlessness and ongoing violence that people in those places are experiencing.

And this is something that I think Russians don’t quite understand, that over the eight years of that conflict, people in Kharkiv have really forged a Ukrainian identity that is entirely separate — and this is what Americans fail to understand — entirely separate from their linguistic identity — right? — but a very strong national identity. And there’s a kind of fortification of patriotic feeling that always happens in wartime. This is what we know. You feel it strongly in Kharkiv. So, a lot of people are kind of saying, “OK, bring it on. We’ve known for a long time this was going to happen.” Obviously, this is bravado in a lot of ways. Russia is clearly capable of using overwhelming force to cause a lot of bloodshed. But I think they are a lot further away than they were eight-years ago. Eight years ago, when the Russian invasion was unimaginable, people there are still far from where we are today. These days I think they feel like they know what it’s like, and they’re prepared, as awful as it’s going to be.

Kyiv is a completely different story. People in Kyiv seem to be living on two tracks. One, they think it’s completely — you know, it is unimaginable to them. They haven’t been living next a war zone for eight years. The possibility of bombing Kyiv, which is part what some analysts have predicted, seems absurd to them. And at the same time, they’re thinking, yeah, there’s nothing you can — they can’t plan for next week, because you have been in this — you’re placed in a state of suspended animation. So there’s a real sense of doublethink in Kyiv.

AMY GOODMAN:Talk about the people you spoke to and what their plans are in everyday life. I mean, from the United States’ perspective, the U.S. pulled back the word “imminent” invasion, but they are suggesting that’s the case every day. But I got the impression from your pieces, especially the piece you wrote, “How a City Close to” — the piece that you wrote on —


AMY GOODMAN:On Kyiv. You know, people are taking different approaches, whether —


AMY GOODMAN: — to flee or to stay and fight.

MASHA GESSEN: So, the Ukrainian government, understandably, has been trying to project a sort of sense of calm, because part of what’s happening is this Russian brinkmanship is having a devastating effect on the Ukrainian economy. Even without an invasion, it’s an incredibly destructive thing for the country. So, the president of Ukraine has been — and some of his ministers have been saying, “Look, what we’re seeing now is not substantially different than anything that we saw over the course of 2021. They keep adding troops at the border. They keep pulling them down, then pulling back. We can’t react to every one of those fluctuations as though war were imminent. We have to keep living our lives; otherwise, this is incredibly destructive.”

And I think he has managed to project a sense of calm. And people are really saying, you know, “Why, what’s all this talk of war, is this is so media-driven.” It’s amazing. I have dozens of interviews in the course of my time in Ukraine, and I don’t think there was a single person who didn’t use the phrase “wag the dog” in describing what they were experiencing. They are also aware that the threat is real.

AMY GOODMAN: Explain that, for people who aren’t familiar with that reference, Masha.

MASHA GESSEN:The film is the reference Wag the Dog, where a U.S. administration, a fictional U.S. administration, sort of manufactures of war in Albania, I believe, which I think people in the administration don’t even realize is a real country, and it’s a completely media-driven phenomenon. The war is a side effect of a media controversy. I’m summing it up from memory. It’s been a long time, more than 20 years. But that’s the movie. And so, a lot of people are perceiving it as a media-driven phenomenon, something that’s happening in a kind of virtual space, except it’s going to affect them physically and tragically.

So, the mayor of Kyiv — or, a deputy mayor of Kyiv said last month — or, actually, in December now, said, “Look, you should have a go bag. You should be prepared.” And that was a first wave of panic. People have been stocking up on supplies. People have made contingency plans. Some people plan to travel west to the western Ukraine, where they believe there is no threat from war. Some people plan to leave the country. Some people plan on sending their children out of country. Some people are stocking up on gasoline for generators and planning maybe communal living so they can help each other in case there’s no electricity, there’s no internet, there are food shortages, etc. I mean, we’re still talking about winter — right? — so people are very concerned about being able to heat their homes.

And there’s also a real mobilization effort. There’s a thing called territorial defense, which is a kind of civilian/military reserve that is part of the military chain of command. They have received an extraordinary number people signing up in the past few weeks and months. So they’re training every weekend.

And you really do have a sense of — on the one hand, you’re sort of walking around Kyiv. It’s a beautiful, vibrant city, with lots of great food. People are eating in restaurants. It’s very easy to forget about COVID there. All conversations turn to preparedness at the same time. And a lot of people are actually actively either taking — training militarily or thinking of at least taking up arms.

AMY GOODMAN:I wanted Anatol Lilien, of Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft to join the conversation. You’ve got Macron in Moscow today, then headed to Kyiv to meet with the Ukrainian president, meeting with Putin today. You’ve got the new German chancellor, Scholz, in Washington, D.C., meeting with Biden. What do you think could happen right now?

ANATOL LIEVEN: Well, I think there is a good deal of room, actually, for diplomatic progress and at least a sort of interim diplomatic agreement around issues that have been either raised or left open by the American response to Russia’s démarche — in other words, arms limitation agreements, especially on the stationing of missiles, a resumption of nuclear arms reduction talks, and perhaps at least an informal agreement on a moratorium or delay on NATOMembership for Ukraine is a sacrifice that does not result in anything, as nobody believes that Ukraine can join. NATOThis is a matter of principle and not of actual reality. Beyond that, there’s also the question that was raised both by President Macron and the American reply, but vaguely. This is the possibility that a new European security structure could be created in which Russia would have a consultative role. I believe that there is a diplomatic solution.

And I myself would actually follow what the Ukrainian government has been saying and say that a Russian invasion is not imminent, because a good many people said that the Russian demands were pitched so high that Moscow must have known that they couldn’t be accepted, and this was simply a pretext for Russian invasion, but I think if that was true, then the Russians would have invaded already. Moscow clearly wants to follow a diplomatic path. Now, where that will lead, we don’t know. War remains a possibility, but I don’t think we should be immediately afraid.

AMY GOODMAN: You’ve written a piece, “How Emmanuel Macron can end the threat of war in Europe: The French president can borrow a phrase from Charles de Gaulle and say ‘non’ to Ukraine joining NATO.” Do you think it’s that simple, Anatol?

ANATOL LIEVEN: Well, it’s not simple for Macron. He is obviously under multiple pressures. France is highly dependent on the United States to help it in its fight against Islamist rebellions in West Africa.

But in one way, it is simple, because, as I said, it’s not actually possible for Ukraine to join NATOThis will be true not only in the next few years, but also for the rest of our lives. And the reason is very simple. Ukraine, as Dr. Gessen explained, is involved with a frozen de factoConflict with Russia and bringing Ukraine into NATOThat would be NATOTo defend Ukraine against Russia, we are sending very serious numbers of troops, Cold War numbers, 100,000 American soldiers. This is just not possible. You know that, aside from everything else, nobody wants to wage war with Russia and that China is being distracted by it. And NATO’s European members are most certainly not going to send troops to defend Ukraine. So, the whole issue of Ukraine’s NATO membership is in fact purely theoretical, so that, in some respects, this whole argument is an argument about nothing — on both sides, it must be said, Russian as well as the West.

AMY GOODMAN: Masha Gessen, your response?

MASHA GESSEN: I agree with Anatol, but we have to think about why, when it’s a debate about nothing. Russia is fully aware that Ukraine’s possibility of joining the EU is possible. NATORussia is raising this issue because the answer is zero. And why is Russia demanding guarantees — and Russia is demanding guarantees that Ukraine will never join NATO — guarantees of something that is not going to happen? So, I agree that it’s a pretext, but it’s also a demand for something bigger, right? And it’s a demand for exactly the kind of attention that Russia is getting right now, which is, you know, the whole world is swirling — the whole Western world is swirling around Russia, trying to convince Vladimir Putin to step back.

The danger here is that considering that Russia’s demands will never be fully met, I don’t think it’s going to get a guarantee, even though, again, it would change nothing in the real state of things, because it’s not going to get a complete guarantee. And at a certain point, it’s going to lose the world’s attention. That’s when I think the danger point comes, because the purpose of this is not — again, because we know this is a pretext, the purpose is to do something else. What is that something else? A large part of it is creating a sense among Russians that Russia matters, that Vladimir Putin is a world leader, that he says something and the whole world gets moving, and that he can command the world’s attention. It taps into feelings of resentment and a sense of being left out and diminished, that Putin’s politics consistently tap into. And when he loses that opportunity, I think that’s when it becomes really risky. So, I don’t think there’s an imminent invasion, but I also don’t see how, in the long term, this game of brinkmanship can end with anything but a big war.

AMY GOODMAN:Anatol Lieven: I would like to ask you about the German chancellor meeting in Washington with Biden and what you feel should occur there. Also, the meeting of Xi with Putin in Beijing last week which was very significant. This was the first time Xi has met with a world leader since the pandemic. NATOPushing them together is the essence of it.

ANATOL LIEVEN:I mean, Scholz in Washington is obviously very anxious to present a united front against Russia as a deterrent for any Russian action while simultaneously praying, frankly, to Russia that it will not invade and that no massive NATO sanctions will be necessary, because, let’s not forget, talking about intensified sanctions for an American is very cheap, because America has very little trade with Russia and, of course, does not — hasn’t investment in Russia and does not depend on Russia for energy imports. Massive sanctions against Russia for Germans are very expensive so the German government hopes it won’t have to impose them. For the moment, however, the emphasis is on a combination Western front and, as I said, this hopeful diplomatic process with Moscow.

Putin and Xi (or Russia and China) have a lot of common interests in opposing the West. This is not going to lead to an alliance. China is not offering to support Russia in Ukraine. China has not accepted the Russian annexation Crimea. Russia is not offering to fight against Taiwan. The main question is: How far will China support the Russian economy if Russia invades Ukraine and massive Western economic sanctions are imposed? We don’t know. My impression is that China has been very cautious about this. This is a partnership, but I don’t think it is an alliance.

But if I could just push back a little on what Masha said, I think it is, partly at least, mistaken to talk about Putin’s domestic agendas and Russian feelings here. The core Russian national security interests are held by the Russian establishment in its entirety and a large portion of the Russian people. These interests are in some respects very similar to those of the United States when it comes to Central America. These are core interests that America expects to have taken seriously in its case. Russia is no exception.

AMY GOODMAN: Masha Gessen?

MASHA GESSEN: Well, I think that Putin’s primary concern is not strategic. But, you know, obviously, we can argue about what’s in that man’s head ’til the cows come home. And that’s part of the problem with dealing with a closed, secretive regime, especially one that has been in power for so long.

But I think what Putin is seeing is that his — he’s getting old. His regime is showing signs that it’s worn. His popularity has dropped. His options for either a safe retirement, or for continuing his rule for the foreseeable future are limited. He has seen neighboring Belarus, which sustained the regime basically through consistent political repression, erupt in mass protests in August of 2020, and the only way that Alexander Lukashenko has been able to sustain the regime is with Russia’s help and the brutal use of force. He witnessed the neighboring Kazakhstan attempt a soft fake transfer power with security guarantees for the outgoing president Nursultan Nazarabev and break into what appeared like mass protests and, once again, the use force. In fact, the only post-Soviet security agency that used military power in Kazakhstan was earlier in the year.

And so, it has to be going through Putin’s mind: How is going to sustain his personal power and the durability of his regime going forward? And I think that that’s — the only model that has worked for him is a model of sustaining his legitimacy through sort of pumping up his popularity, and that happens by showing that he’s a powerful man on the world stage. The annexation in 2014 of Crimea was also a major boost to his popularity. He can’t recreate it, but I think he keeps looking in the direction of Ukraine to see what he could do that will be at least somewhat like it.

Another important consideration is, I believe, sanctions. From Putin’s point of view, sanctions that were imposed on Russia in 2014 by both Western European countries and the United States were ultimately a net profit. Yes, the Russian economy — looking from the West, you would say the Russian economy took a huge hit. It boosted domestic production, according to Russia. It mobilized the people. It helped secure his political popularity. It was a win all around. So, to think of sanctions as a deterrent is at least complicated. We can’t possibly assume that he thinks about sanctions as a net loss.

AMY GOODMAN: And finally, Anatol Lieven, isn’t Trump — and I do mean President Trump — actually getting what he wants? He was pushing for NATOCountries spend 4% of their GDP GDPon military weapons. The countries aren’t near there. The goal written — the goal was 2%. It is growing rapidly. What about the winner here, the weapon manufacturers?

ANATOL LIEVEN: Yes, well, of course, it’s not just Trump who’s called for Europe to increase its military spending. Since Eisenhower, I believe every president of the United States has done this. But let’s keep something in mind here. No matter how much Europeans spend on defense, European troops will not fight Russia to protect Ukraine. They just won’t. I mean, that’s been made clear again and again. U.S. soldiers will not be able to do that, most likely. There are two things you need to remember. First, sanctions may not be very effective, or possibly at all effective, as Masha has said, but they are the only deterrent that we’ve got, because we won’t fight. The soldiers being sent to Eastern Europe by Russia are symbolic. Russia does not intend to attack. NATO. It would be crazy to do.

MASHA GESSEN:We are grateful.

ANATOL LIEVEN: But, by the way, Russia has repeatedly denied that it’s going to attack Ukraine. So, a great deal of this is, I’m afraid, theatrics on the part of the West.

AMY GOODMAN:I want to thank Anatol Lieven, Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft and Masha Geessen, award-winning Russian American journalist and staff writer, for being with me. The New Yorker. We’ll link to your latest pieces, “How a City Close to the Ukraine-Russia Border Has Been Shaped by War,” as well as your other pieceYou wrote from Ukraine from Kyiv.

Next we will discuss the Winter Olympics. We speak to Human Rights Watch, a former member the U.S Olympic soccer team, as China hosts the Olympics. Stay with Us.