A former foreign service officer and US Ambassador to Georgia and Kazakhstan looks at why Russia today is more repressive internally and more aggressive externally.
As the media has reminded us repeatedly, last week marked the one-year anniversary of the war in Ukraine. However, amid the focus on weapons, battles, and speculation about how the war might end, we risk losing sight of the broader historical and geopolitical issues that led to the Russian invasion.
In this week’s WhoWhatWhy podcast, former Ambassador William Courtney joins us to discuss the complex history underlying the conflict. Courtney has extensive experience in foreign service, having served as ambassador to Kazakhstan and Georgia; as a special assistant to the president for Russia, Ukraine, and Eurasia; and as special assistant to the under secretary of state for political affairs. He is currently an adjunct senior fellow at the RAND Corporation.
Courtney first draws parallels between Russia’s failure to adapt on the battlefield and its inability to adjust to diplomatic challenges. He attributes this in part to Russia’s current internal repression and penchant for external aggression, which he argues resembles the authoritarianism of both the czarist and Soviet periods.
Courtney also assesses the West’s responsibility for the current situation in Russia, citing decisions made after the collapse of the Soviet Union. At the same time, he compares Putin’s actions to those of former Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev, who, he says, “basically ran the Soviet Union into the ground.”
According to Courtney, Russian history indicates that the country will not back down in Ukraine — regardless of the human and economic costs — until a more liberal regime takes power in Moscow.
Courtney also explains China’s limited influence, Europe’s security concerns, even in the face of a weak Russian military, and why Ukraine must shift from a defensive to a counteroffensive military strategy.
Ultimately, Courtney believes that even with tighter sanctions, a united West, and a strong Ukraine, Russia could remain engaged in the war for a very long time.
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Jeff Schechtman: Welcome to the WhoWhatWhy podcast. I’m your host, Jeff Schechtman. As the media has reminded us over and over again, last week marked the one-year anniversary of the war in Ukraine. But what are we actually marking? The war goes on, complexity piles up, and in the focus on weapons battles and the speculation of how the war might end, we perhaps lose sight of the 30,000-foot view of the issues that got the world here and the history of Russian conflict and what it tells us. Relations with Russia are as bad as almost any time during the Cold War.
The 1970s US diplomatic efforts to try and divide Russia and China have been reversed. And again, the US finds itself even without troops on the ground in a proxy war with Russia. And more than just providing aid to Ukraine, the war has become a catalyst for rearranging the global chessboard. Far from the end of history, the world seems to be repeating all the worst aspects of 20th-century history: the ground war in Europe, Cold War, talk about nukes and shifting global alliances, not about globalization and trade, but about power and nationalism.
Well, it seems at times like history is repeating itself. Perhaps we can actually learn something from that history. And we’re going to do that today with my guest, Ambassador William Courtney. Ambassador Courtney was a foreign service officer at the Department of State. He served as ambassador to Kazakhstan, Georgia, and the US-Soviet Bilateral Consultative Commission to implement the Threshold Test Ban Treaty. He was a special assistant to the president for Russia, Ukraine, and Eurasia, and deputy negotiator in the US-Soviet Defense and Space Talks.
He was deputy executive secretary of the NSC staff and special assistant to the under secretary of State for Political Affairs. He is currently an adjunct senior fellow at the RAND Corporation. He holds a PhD in Economics from Brown University, and he is chairman-emeritus and a member of the Board of Trustees of the Eurasia Foundation. It is my pleasure to welcome Ambassador William Courtney here to the WhoWhatWhy podcast. Mr. Ambassador, thanks so much for joining us.
William Courtney: Jeff, happy to help.
Jeff: Well, it is a delight to have you here. As we look at the way things are playing out today, there is this sense that we hear over and over again that part of the problem for Russia and Ukraine is their inability to adjust, their inability to adapt to what’s happening on the battlefield as a result of things that are inherent in the Russian system. Is the same true, I wonder, for Russia’s ability to adapt or adjust on the diplomatic level? Is it going to be just as difficult for them to adjust to the changing geopolitical landscape as it is to what’s happening on the battlefield?
William: At this point, Russia has never been more repressive internally in three decades of independence than it is now. And it has never been more aggressive externally than it is now. So we’re seeing a phenomenon that’s driven really mostly by changes in Russia itself. Russia is reverting back to more authoritarian rule of a kind that, of course, persisted in a period of autocracy prior to the Bolsheviks and then in the Soviet period.
Both of us who were around at the time the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, we knew that political struggles would be difficult. That emerging from running an empire to trying to build a nation in Russia would pose problems with a lot of people in Russia, who thought that Russia deserved to control an empire. But we never expected that Russia would go this far back over a period of decades to a circumstance now in which people are locked up inside Russia for really any expression of opposition to the government. This is a very different circumstance than the West had hoped. And it’s one that does suggest, as you point out, that Russia’s having some difficulty adjusting.
Jeff: To what extent does the West have to take some responsibility for the way Russia has really gone back into its shell?
William: When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, the West rushed emergency supplies of medicine and food to the former Soviet Union, both Russia and the other non-Russian republics, and went out of its way to provide assistance to help all those countries emerge from really a totalitarian system in which the state owned all the economic assets to help these countries develop more market-oriented economies and more open political systems that hopefully will evolve into democracy. So the West has really, quite helpfully, tried to help these countries overcome a burden of history and a legacy of Soviet oppression that everyone knew would leave scars.
We, in the West, undoubtedly made some mistakes along the way. We may not have criticized corruption strongly enough in some cases. We may not have urged the Russians to clean out their security organs, the KGB, and so they’re now stuck with a post-Soviet KGB that is quite akin to that in the Soviet era. So there were some things that we did, but by and large, we treated the people of Russia and the other non-Russian republics as essentially victims of Soviet repression. We tried to bend over backwards in every way. NATO, for example, we made special arrangements to try to bring this republic closer.
Russia especially created a NATO Russia commission that was a high-level commission to try to help Russia move closer to the West. And we probably could have done more in some respects, but looking back, it’s hard to know what we could have done. For example, some people would argue that we should have provided more generous subsidies to Russia to help with transition to a market economy. Well, that’s possibly true but the absence of market mechanisms in most of the cases would’ve made much of that assistance ineffective.
So we tried to do what we could. And the IMF, International Monetary Fund, World Bank, European Bank for reconstruction development, all tried to help out, and certainly, the European governments as well. So I guess I look back on this and it’s hard to find really systemic flaws in the way the West dealt with the former Soviet Union.
Jeff: When we look at it today, the degree of repression that you talked about earlier, is there a way that that repression and the fact that Putin maintains such tight control of all of the information in Russia, can that turn out to be an asset in finding an end to this war? That if things get tough enough, there’s really nothing to prevent Putin from just declaring victory and shutting it down because he controls all the sources of information directed at the Russian people.
William: That has not been the past experience. So the closest analogy, in a more recent time in the early 1980s, the British regime dominated by Leonid Brezhnev, who was a general secretary of the Communist Party, and his cohort, basically ran the Soviet Union into the ground. They couldn’t feed their people. Their economy was deteriorating rapidly. There was a decline in morale of ordinary people that was quite palpable. Relations with the West, which the Soviets were trying to blame the West for their own problems, or the Kremlin was trying to blame the West for their own problems, so they had very difficult relations with the West.
They had a more repressive rule then but that did not lead them to include that they needed to open up. What happened was because the country was running into the ground, they brought a younger, more liberal leader, Mikhail Gorbachev. And Gorbachev then was the one who reversed the repressive and status policies of the Brezhnev era by opening up what you call glasnost, which is allowing more freedom of expression and perestroika which was restructuring policies and government to allow it to operate more effectively. So it was regime change that made the difference.
And if we go back in history, there’s often some calamity that might occur that forces the Kremlin to liberalize. So after the Russian Empire lost the Crimean War in the 1850s, they freed the serfs. After they lost the Russo-Japanese War in 1904, 1905, they had their first constituent assembly. It’s too late, they took power. After Stalin died, they freed one or a couple million prisoners. So what we see is the openings come, not by the toughest leaders like Stalin, but by their successes who are a bit more liberal or a bit more open.
Jeff: Are there parallels to what was going on after the Russian defeat in Afghanistan?
William: So the defeat in Afghanistan, the Russia or Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979, and they were there for a decade and then pulled out in 1989. It was the Brezhnev regime that made the decision to invade Afghanistan, and the defeat was evident pretty quickly. But the Soviets persisted and the Soviets helped the mujahideen, the Afghan guerrillas who were trying to oppose Russia’s invasion, and that made a significant difference.
But the Soviet Union did not withdraw from Afghanistan until after this liberalizing leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, had come to power. And he took him, he was the power for four years, plus years before he was able to pull the troops out of Afghanistan, which suggests something about the power of the military and the KGB to persist in losing aggressive policies, but losing policies. So it was withdrawal under a more liberal regime, that was important.
Jeff: And should that tell us something about what we can expect from Russia’s actions in Ukraine now?
William: It is very difficult to predict the future, so we should bear in mind or we should be humble about what we can expect. But if one had to guess, it would be that the Kremlin will not pull troops out of Ukraine until there is regime change and a more liberal government there. No one knows if or when that will happen, but Russia’s losing the war. The human costs, extremely high. The economic costs are significant as well. Russia is isolated from the West, which is something that traditionally is a concern in Russia, the Soviet Union. It’s not isolated from all the global south, and of course, China has some ties with China.
But even with China, there are problems. Now, China just offered a peace plan. The first plank of that plan is that the sovereignty, independence of territory and integrity of Ukraine must be respected. The commonwealth is not so happy to hear about that plan, and so they’ve had a tempered reaction. Well, we are likely to be in a situation, maybe close to the end of the Brezhnev era, if you will, in which the Kremlin is running the country into the ground now, and things will not get better until there is a more liberal, more open government that treats people with greater respect.
Jeff: Is China the one element in the global landscape now that is different, that might have some influence to turn that around? We were looking in those days at a bipolar world, now arguably, we could say we’re talking about a tripolar world and that China has perhaps some influence.
William: China does have influence but it’s mixed in several respects. So on the one hand, China and India are buying large volumes of Russian oil because it is available at a discount now on the global market as compared with other oil. So China and India are benefiting economically from that, and of course, Russia is losing. But nonetheless, Russia is selling enough to produce the oil and make some profit. The Chinese may be providing semiconductor chips, other technology, dual-use technology, dual-use meaning civilian and military, but which could be used by Russia for its military effort.
Secretary of State Blinken has recently warned that China may be on the verge of making a decision whether to supply lethal arms and that could be something like artillery shelves of which Russia is short. We don’t know whether that will happen yet, but at the same time, as I mentioned, this new China peace plan has a key feature which is contrary to Russia’s view. And the second part of that peace plan is saying that nuclear weapons must not be used in a conflict. Well, President Putin has been talking for months now using language occasionally that implies that Russia might consider using nuclear weapons.
In fact, last fall in Samarkand in Uzbekistan, there was a large summit meeting. And at that meeting, publicly, both Xi Jinping of China and Narendra Modi of India publicly warned Putin not to use nuclear weapons in Ukraine. So the relationship is not one of unadulterated no limits as Xi Jinping and Putin agreed weeks before the war commenced. Putin was in Beijing and they announced a no-limits partnership. Now, that’s not the way it’s turned out, and the new Chinese peace plan underlines that.
Jeff: A lot’s been made lately that Putin is playing for time, that if he can just hold out long enough, maybe something will happen, something will change in the geopolitical landscape, the politics of Europe, the politics of the US, or what have you. What is the real harm by buying time? What is the downside of time for Russia?
William: So the Russian economy is going to be increasingly hurt by sanctions. Russia’s political isolation from the West is going to exact greater tolls. And then many tens and hundreds of thousands of Russian soldiers may be dying if the war continues in Ukraine. Russia will probably lose some support, further support in the global south, and probably China and India will be more concerned as time goes on. So there will be a number of costs to Russia, but the assumption that Russia can outweigh Ukraine and outweigh the West may be flawed.
When we look back in history at other circumstances in which controversial efforts were made and cases of aggression like this, the West toughed it out. So a good example is the Korean War, which was like this one, a war of unprovoked aggression of the north against the south. The war was controversial. There was concern in the West about how costly this war was, but the West stuck it out. And today, South Korea is a prosperous vibrant democracy. In Europe, even in the 1970s, there was a movement by Senator Mike Mansfield, a prominent senator to pull the US troops out of Europe, that we were having some fatigue if you will. Well, that didn’t happen.
The US stuck with it all the way through to the end of the Cold War. So our record on cases of aggression like this where fundamental interests are at stake and there’s no questioning, this is a fundamental issue of European security because Europeans are allies of the United States, it makes it a fundamental issue for American security. So I think those who think that somehow fatigue is going to come in and upend support for the war are mistaken.
Jeff: Are you surprised at how unified the West has been in response to this?
William: I’d certainly say I think people in Washington are pleased that it has worked out, but it’s taken a lot of work by Western leaders. In the past, sometimes in Washington, people were given to think that the US was a strong leader, and we had to lead the Europeans because they tend to be less tough than the United States. This case certainly shows that that’s not true. Europeans have been very firm on this. They see this war, this aggression as a direct threat to European security. The biggest threat since the end of World War II, the United States shares that for you, and again, most of the Europeans are NATO allies.
So Europe and the United States have worked together very closely on this, and it’s been a very successful effort, but it takes a constant amount of work. So for example, the Secretary of Defense Austin meets regularly in Ramstein, Germany with his counterparts and other countries that are part of the coalition supporting Ukraine and this is an intensive consultation effort. That’s the kind of thing that makes these things a success. It’s not just shared interest, although that’s the fundamental aspect. It’s working hard to consult, to take into account the views of all the allies.
Jeff: Given Russia’s failure thus far in Ukraine, does it cast a different light on the concerns about European security? If Russia is incapable of even conducting this war in Ukraine, why is there concern in terms of broader European security?
William: Well, there’s concern that circumstances could differ in other places. So the most obvious example is the Baltics. The Baltics are NATO allies. They are small in the geographical sense and a surprise attack is what’s called a standing start attack, Russian forces might be able to make some headway in those countries before NATO reinforcements arrive. So that’s one of the kinds of concerns. And then other concerns are at other ports along the border that Russia could be militarily threatening to try to use intimidation or coercion to achieve its goals.
But as you point out, the weakness of the Russian military offensive, in this case, does hearten. I think to a lot of countries in Europe, a conventional military threat from Russia might be less than had been thought before.
Jeff: Has there been some surprise, and you’ve watched this historically for so long, has there been some surprise at the absolute weakness of the Russian military, of Russian command and control?
William: There has been surprise but we saw the war in Afghanistan in the 1980s. We saw that aggression, but that was a more challenging environment, because of the mountainous terrain and Afghanistan had resisted outside rule for several centuries as the British discovered. So, it wasn’t clear that it was representative of other circumstances. But I think we are surprised but except in Afghanistan, we haven’t seen Russia fight a large war of aggression against other countries. So we weren’t quite short.
I think a lot of people believe that if Russia were fighting a defensive war with aggressors attacking Russia, the circumstances might be different, though Russians might be more effective in a defensive mode than in an offensive mode when they’re defending their own territory. And of course, we saw some of that in World War II, although the results were mixed in terms of quality of Soviet opposition but the Soviets applied enough mass and achieved their goals. So there just weren’t enough fair historical examples to enable in the West to draw a clear conclusion about how effectively Russia would fight.
Jeff: And I guess the flip side of that is Ukraine, which has been so effective in a defensive posture, whether or not on a counter-offensive they can be as effective.
William: As you correctly point out, counter-effect offenses require more talent. And we’ve seen the West, the training Ukrainians, I think in Germany, among other places maybe, in that. The counter-offensive requires coordination between infantry, armor, artillery, aviation, as well as intelligence, electronic warfare. And that is a more elaborate effort than defensive where you hide behind fortifications and make it more complicated for the adversary to advance, but without having to coordinate quite so much your artillery armor infantry.
So what we’ve seen so far is that in contrast to Afghanistan or even Iraq, the Ukrainians have used Western military assistance, western arms, western training more effectively than in other circumstances. And so this is encouraging, I think, the West to believe that Ukraine can carry out effective counter-offensive operations.
Jeff: What are the things that you are looking at that are playing out now, whether it’s in Russia, Ukraine, Europe? What are the things that you think are the most important to keep an eye on in terms of how this will all unfold?
William: Well, just a couple of aspects. One is in some respects what we are likely to see now over the next number of months, a year or two or three, whatever, is a contest between Ukraine having qualitative superiority in the sense of better-trained soldiers, better motivated to fight using weapons from the West that are better than the Russian weapons, versus a Russian strategy as in World War II, World War I relies more on mass and sacrificing soldiers’ lives, if you will to accomplish its purposes. So it’s qualitative edge in Ukraine versus perhaps a quantitative edge in some aspects of military potential on the Russian side.
Then, with regard to the wider European picture, what we see now with such striking unity among European countries, I think we are likely to see that persist. We’re not likely to see Ukrainian fatigued because for Europe, this is an existential fight. It’s an existential defense of European values that have become so widely accepted after World War II that countries cannot invade other countries. So these are principles on which the United Nations charter lays out, and which Europe is by and large firmly embraced since World War II.
Russia, Soviet Union may have missed out on some of that understanding of European security, particularly during the Soviet period. The Russians may underestimate the strength of European resistance, but I think we’re going to see Europe do just as well as it’s done now and it’s done quite well.
Jeff: And one last question. How bad can the Russian economy get? How much worse can it get?
William: Fairly this depends on leakage and sanctions. Some of the countries around Russia are exporting a lot more laptop computers with semiconductor chips and things like that into Russia than they normally do. We should expect to see some tightening of that leakage and I think that’s one of the reasons why Secretary Blinken is in Central Asia this week, one among several reasons. But I think we’re going to see more tightening of the sanctions. So the problem for Russia is, not only the loss of the market in Europe for energy, this gas market was the most lucrative gas market before Russia, and its largest market was in Europe, and now that’s pretty much disappearing.
Europe was a big market for oil. So, that’s one key issue. And then another issue for the Russian economy is going to be the effect of what we call the foreign direct product role in the US, which are bands on specific products going to Russia, so, semiconductor chips being an example. So, in Russia, Russia has since the time of Peter the Great, imported some technology from Europe to help overcome some backwardness. Russia has depended a lot on European machinery and Western machinery for much of its industry. For example, all the commercial aircraft or Airbus or Boeing, or at least up until quite recently.
All the, I don’t want to say all, but much of the equipment in manufacturing, extraction, transportation, and even agricultural circuits, much of the equipment in those sectors depends on Western equipment, Western services, Western software updates, and other kinds of Western spare parts, if you will. So, if those sanctions are enforced more effectively, we may see over time the Russian economy being, I would say, losing its productivity of the economy, so reduced productivity of the economy. We’ll have to see. Then living standards, living standards have gone down dramatically since 2013 before Russia invaded Ukraine the first time and the Western posed to important financial sanctions on Russia.
So, we don’t know. It’s hard to measure these things, but living standards for ordinary people may be somewhere between 15% and 25% below what they were then. Those living standards are likely to go down, and they may go down faster to a greater extent, as the overall economy goes down. So in several dimensions, the Russian economy is likely to suffer pretty substantially as the war goes on.
Jeff: Ambassador William Courtney, I thank you so much for spending time with us here on the WhoWhatWhy podcast.
William: Okay. You’re very welcome. Take good care.
Jeff: Thank you for listening and joining us here on the WhoWhatWhy podcast. I hope you join us next week for another radio, WhoWhatWhy podcast. I’m Jeff Schechtman. If you like this podcast, please feel free to share and help others find it by rating and reviewing it on iTunes. You can also support this podcast and all the work we do by going to whowhatwhy.org/donate.
The image above was created by DonkeyHotey for WhoWhatWhy from these images: President Of Ukraine / Wikimedia (CC0 1.0), President Of Russia / Wikimedia (CC BY 3.0), Government of Ukraine / Wikimedia, Government of Russia / Wikimedia, and US Army.