Assessing Putin's Invasion of Ukraine

Assessing Putin's Invasion of Ukraine

To launch a new season of the World Class podcast, Michael McFaul discusses recent developments of the war in Ukraine and how those will impact Ukraine's future, Russia's standing in the world, and the responses of the global community.
Vladimir Putin at a Victory Day rally in Moscow. Vladimir Putin at a Victory Day rally in Moscow. Getty

Events on the ground in Ukraine are shifting quickly. In the east and south, the Ukrainian military continues to make progess on its counteroffensives. In Russia, thousands of draft-aged men have left the country in repsonse to the Kremlin's call for a limited mobilization. Across the NATO and the West, allied nations have reinforced their positions of solidarity and support for Ukraine.

To delve deeper into recent developments, former U.S. Ambassador to Russia and FSI Director Michael McFaul joined Ray Suarez for a special crossover episode of the World Class podcast and the World Affairs podcast. They spoke Just before Putin's military mobilization order on September 21 and discussed what the world can can expect from the war in Ukraine in the coming weeks and months, and how it may impact Russia's domestic politics and international standing.

Listen to the full episode here, or browse highlights from the conversation below.

Click the link for a transcript of "Putin's Failed War."

The following commentary from Michael McFaul has been excerpted from his original conversation and edited for length and clarity.

Russia and China’s Relationship

Publicly, there’s still support and solidarity between XI Jinping and Vladimir Putin. But we have to look at what’s happening between the lines. I think it’s pretty tense. At the most recent Shanghai Cooperation Summit in Kazakhstan, Putin acknowledged that one of his agenda items was to address Chinese concerns about what he called “the Ukraine crisis.”

“Concerns” is not a very friendly word. In the Russian readout of that meeting, Putin expressed his appreciation for Xi’s “balanced approach” to Russia’s operations in Ukraine.  But a “balanced approach” is hardly a big sign of support. In the Chinese readout of the meeting, Xi doesn’t even mention Ukraine.

Putin miscalculated. He miscalculated how the Ukrainians would fight. He miscalculated How the West would react. He's miscalculated how his own people have reacted. I think it will be the blunder that will erase his entire legacy.
Michael McFaul
FSI Director

I think the Chinese are shocked, quite frankly, by how poorly the Russian Armed Forces are performing. So many countries, China and the U.S. included, assumed that Russia had the world’s third most powerful military. But it turns out that just counting tanks and the GDP per capita spend on your military does not capture the full extent of its capabilities. If you’re China and you thought you had a loyal, powerful partner, I think this is raising a lot of doubts right now.

Conflict, Economics, and Energy

I have a hard time thinking of a single Russian living in Russia, who's benefiting from this war.

Some people say that sanctions aren’t working. Right now the aggregate numbers do look good for Russia, and that’s because the price of oil and gas went up as a result of their war. But that’s only a short-term gain.

Over 1,000 Western companies have left. That means the innovation, that technology that comes with those companies is also being pulling out. When Exxon Mobil pulled out of Russia, that means technology for their oil industry that we would have been seeing the results of for decades and the future is going to be lost.

While Putin is in power, I see no option whatsoever to go back to integration between Russia and the West. After Putin, we can prepare for that possibility. In the meantime, we have to do everything we can to make Ukraine successful.
Michael McFaul
FSI Director

And it’s important to remember that the biggest sanctions haven't come yet. Those will happen in December when the Europeans are going to reduce their imports of gas from Russia by a significant amount, and the G7 countries are going to lead an effort to put a price cap on all exports of Russian oil.

Russia thinks it can use energy to blackmail Europe and the West. I think they’ve miscalculated on this. I think they're underestimating the reaction many Europeans might have to being coerced. Nobody likes to be extorted. Nobody likes to be blackmailed.

I thinks it’s a basic psychological thing that when someone is trying to extort you, your response is not going to be, “Oh my goodness, we’ve got to lift sanctions and be friends with this guy that's freezing us.” I think it will be just the opposite, that people are going to be a little colder and be willing to pay a little more to get back at the guy who tired to do this to them.

The War Ahead

I sometimes get accused of being a warmonger. I see it exactly the opposite. Putin will not stop fighting until the Ukrainian army stops him on the battlefield. So if we really want peace in Ukraine, we must continue to arm the Ukrainians.

Putin has already radically failed in this conflict. He thought the Russian army would be embraced as liberators, and it didn’t happen. He thought he could take Kyiv, and it didn’t happen.

Nobody has done more to unify the Ukrainian people, nation, and culture than Vladimir Putin. I just wish it wasn't at such a tragic price.
Michael McFaul
FSI Director

This is a horrific war. The Russian Armed Forces attack civilian targets. That's terrorism. I'm not an expert; I don't know what the exact definition of terrorism is, but that feels like a terrorist act to me. They're not counter attacking the Ukrainian Armed Forces. They're literally trying to shut down the electricity grid and literally trying to drown people.

Putin doesn't care about basic human existence, and he's demonstrated that by the way he is fighting and by the way he is shipping innocent people into his country. He doesn't play by basic rules of the game that we thought were in place after 1945.

A month or two into the war, the Ukrainian government in Kyiv was talking in a much more limited way. Now that they've had these achievements and these victories, they're much more optimistic about their capabilities. And who are we to judge whether they're right or wrong? Because we've been wrong in judging their capabilities several times before. So, who am I to say, and who is anybody to say, that they don't have the capabilities to achieve these bigger objectives?

Michael McFaul, FSI Director

Michael McFaul

Director of the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies
Full Profile

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