Ukraine, solidarity protest, Berlin
Ukraine solidarity protest in Berlin. Photo credit: Leonhard Lenz / Wikimedia (CC0 1.0)

Like the “Mouse That Roared,” Ukraine should try for a total victory: foreign policy expert Gideon Rose.

The Ukrainian counteroffensive is in full swing, and the world watches with bated breath. 

This week’s WhoWhatWhy podcast features a conversation with Gideon Rose, former editor of Foreign Affairs and a member of the Clinton administration’s National Security Council. Rose provides a detailed analysis of the ongoing Ukraine-Russia conflict, challenging the widely held expectation of a stalemate. 

Rose sees a potential pathway for Ukraine to reclaim its entire territory, drawing historical parallels with the Yom Kippur and Korean wars.

He applauds Ukraine’s strategic utilization of resources and Western aid, which has not only bolstered its resistance against Russia’s advances but also strained Russia’s military resources. Contending that the Western powers’ investment in Ukraine has reaped substantial returns on the battlefield, he advocates for an increase in this support, which he believes could tip the balance in Ukraine’s favor.

While Rose acknowledges that the conflict can be seen as a proxy war between the West and Russia, he downplays the risk of nuclear escalation or a direct confrontation between these powers. He argues that as long as Western aid to Ukraine remains indirect, the situation will not devolve into a broader war.

Rose envisions the best outcome as Ukraine’s regaining control of its territory, thereby sending a strong message that aggression does not pay — and bolstering the foundations of regional and global security. The West’s robust support of a nation resisting blatant aggression is a rare instance when we are commendably on the side of nationalism.

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Full Text Transcript:

(As a service to our readers, we provide transcripts with our podcasts. We try to ensure that these transcripts do not include errors. However, due to a constraint of resources, we are not always able to proofread them as closely as we would like and hope that you will excuse any errors that slipped through.)

Jeff Schechtman:  Welcome to the WhoWhatWhy podcast. I’m your host, Jeff Schechtman. The Ukrainian counteroffensive has begun, and the world holds its breath. Will independence prevail? Will democracy survive? Sometimes even life-and-death events need the context of fantasy to bring them into bold relief. In the modern-day saga, Russia, global powerhouse, has sought to erase the independence that Ukraine, much like the fictional Duchy of Grand Fenwick, had painstakingly carved out for itself.

As the war began, the world watched with a sense of impending doom as the vast disparities in size and strength between the two nations seemed to spell out a clear outcome. But much like the Duchy, Ukraine, the underdog in this fight, has been surprising everyone with its tenacity and resilience. The narrative that was originally painted was one of inevitable defeat for Ukraine, but as we’ve seen in The Mouse That Roared, the underdog can surprise us.

Ukraine has defied expectations, successfully thwarting Russia’s attempted land grabs. The war has been seen, as we have discussed here previously, as a military deadlock likely to end with a negotiated settlement far short of each side’s original goals. But Ukraine’s remarkable ability to wage war and to transfer Western military support to battlefield success suggests that a stalemate is not inevitable.

What if Ukraine really can succeed in pushing Russian forces back to its internationally recognized borders? This would not only liberate Ukraine, but also establish a solid foundation for security.

But what are the real potential outcomes of this conflict? Can we draw parallels with the Yom Kippur War and the Korean War, and what’s the future of democracy in Ukraine, really — the war’s second front and a struggle that will continue long after the guns are silent? This war is a story of the resilience of the human spirit and of a nation’s fight for its right to exist. Much like the Duchy of Grand Fenwick, Ukraine is proving that even the smallest mouse can roar.

We’re going to talk about this today with my guest, Gideon Rose. He’s the former editor of Foreign Affairs, a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, and served as associate director for Near East and South Asian Affairs on the National Security Council in the Clinton administration. He’s currently the Mary and David Boies distinguished fellow in US Foreign Policy at the Council on Foreign Relations, and the author of How Wars End: Why We Always Fight the Last Battle. It is my pleasure to welcome Gideon Rose back to the WhoWhatWhy podcast.

Gideon, thanks so much for joining us.

Gideon Rose: Thanks for having me.

Jeff: Well, it is a delight to have you here. In your current article in Foreign Affairs, you talk about that we need to start thinking about the possibility that Ukraine can win this war, which is a different mindset from what I think people have been talking about for a while. Talk about that in a general sense first.

Gideon: So one of the fascinating things about war in general is that you don’t know what’s going to happen until things actually happen. And this war in particular has been surprising on a variety of fronts.

Very, very few people expected Russia to attack as aggressively and completely as it did. The US government was picking up signals on troop movements, and actually called in the intelligence communities. But very few people, including until very late in the game the Ukrainians themselves, believed that Russia would try to conquer the entire country and eliminate its independence.

Once the attack was launched, very few people believed that the Ukrainians had a chance. It seemed that the disparities and strength between the two sides was such that the Russians would just roll over the Ukrainians and take the country — that it would be a tragedy, but that the heroic defenders would be overcome.

And what happened, yet again, was a surprise, which is the Ukrainians performed better than anybody expected, and the Russians performed worse than people expected. And very gradually, the Ukrainians fought off the initial attacks.

They pushed the Russians back. They prevented the Russians from consolidating their games in the east. Last fall, they managed to take back territory in the Kharkiv region. They pushed the Russians out of Kherson. The Russians launched a big offensive in the spring and the winter with lots of new troops they had mobilized, and with prison conscripts that they sent through the Wagner organization. But the Ukrainians managed to hold the line, and now we’re in—  And the Ukrainians managed to survive a punishing air attack on their civilian infrastructure, and their air defenses, and across the country.

And so now we have a situation in which the Ukrainians are launching their latest counteroffensive to push back the Russians and take even more territory, and perhaps even threaten areas like Crimea, which were taken not in this phase of the war but back in 2014. So it’s a very surprising and fluid atmosphere in which anybody who is dogmatic about what has happened or can happen, is probably going to be proven wrong. Very, very few people have called this one consistently correct.

And in that situation, what I’ve tried to do as I’ve watched the conflict and as I’ve visited Ukraine a couple of times, and as I’ve talked to people, is to update my analysis based on the facts that I’m seeing. I like to think of myself as an empiricist, and I’m trying to basically update my judgments about what is happening and what can happen based on what I’m seeing.

Jeff: Are there specific things that you can point to that lead you to these conclusions?

Gideon: Four things have convinced me that the possibilities for Ukrainian victory are higher than people thought.

The first is that the Russians have under-performed consistently. They’ve just been terrible throughout this war militarily. They are fighting like the old Soviets. I mentioned in the piece that they’re fighting like the Arab armies back in ’67 and ’73. Not quite that badly. But essentially, they have a lot more people and a lot more weaponry, but they don’t know how to use it effectively. It’s a lot of brute force and unimaginative tactics that haven’t turned their potential power into actual outcomes.

The Ukrainians, on the other hand, have been extraordinarily impressive in using whatever resources they have at hand to do much better than anybody expected.

Early in the war, it was civilians using drones and handmade Molotov cocktails to take on Russian tanks. And increasingly as they’ve gotten more sophisticated weapons — from stinger missiles to the HIMARS artillery, to the Patriot anti-missile and air-defense systems, and other kinds of weaponry — they’ve managed to do ever better and use whatever they’ve been given, and turned it effectively into outcomes.

A lot of wars involve the transfer of military aid. We gave lots and lots of aid to the Afghans. We gave lots and lots of support to the Iraqis. We gave lots and lots of support to the Vietnamese. And in all those conflicts, all that aid didn’t really achieve that much.

What’s striking to me about Ukraine is not just the heroism of the defenders; it’s not just the righteousness of their cause; not just the nastiness of the people attacking, but the extent to which there has been an excellent return, as it were, on the investment that the Western powers have made in Ukraine. Because whatever we’re giving them, they’re turning around and using effectively to defeat the Russians on the battlefield. And I, in effect, am betting that that will continue to happen.

Another thing that has changed my mind— Well, that hasn’t changed my mind. Early on, I decided that there was probably much less risk of nuclear escalation than many felt, not because it was hypothetically impossible, but because nuclear weapons are lousy at actual war fighting.

They’re good to threaten with, but they’re so strong and powerful and so indiscriminate that they’re not really good at doing things. It’s like trying to fish with a grenade. You don’t really get a targeted result, you destroy the entire environment around you, kind of thing. Since this war involves close-in fighting on territory right next to Russia — which the Russians themselves are claiming to liberate, and the populations there, rather than conquer — it is not at all clear to me that there would be any gain made by actually using nuclear weapons, and there would be a lot of costs.

And so I early-on argued that the Russian red lines supposedly were bluffs rather than actual promises of nuclear use, and everything that’s happened over the course of the war has convinced me that I was right on that. In other words, that we’ve blown through all sorts of Russian red lines and they haven’t responded with escalation. And again, I don’t think it’s because they’re holding back; I think it’s because that was always something of a bluff.

And finally, when I’ve been to Ukraine, there’s been this indomitable will that you see in the Ukrainians. Much of my adult career has been watching the United States fight in various wars with local partners in which we have triggered nationalism on the other side. And we have been seen as an outside invader, as the person who’s causing the problem. Even if we didn’t think that was the case, a lot of the locals felt that way, whether in Afghanistan, or in Iraq, et cetera.

And in Ukraine, what’s amazing is, when I go there, there’s nationalism on our side this time. And there is the will of the underdog on our side this time. And there is the sense that we have a patriotic cause to fight back and take our country. And the extent to which that is motivating differential performance among the troops involved is really astonishing to me.

The Russians are not bad soldiers, but this is not their fight. They don’t have a particular stake in it. It was one man’s war. It was Putin’s desire to do this, and he didn’t even tell the troops and the soldiers. He just sent them into battle.

Most recently, you’ve had prisoners who are basically offered a pardon if they’ll risk—  if they can get out of jail free, try to survive an attack, and if you survive being cannon fodder, you’ll be free afterwards. That’s what was happening in Bakhmut. And those troops may have a little bit of desperation in the short run to save their skins, but they’re not doing this because of ideological belief in the cause. Whereas the Ukrainians are fighting to take back their own territory, to avenge their fathers, to liberate their mothers. Everybody has been affected by this war. They know that it really is existential for them.

In Russia, it’s about a dream of a past empire being regained. In Ukraine, it’s about life or death as a sovereign country. And that’s an incredibly powerful motivator. And that, combined with the skill of the Ukrainian leadership and troops, has changed my mind as to what is possible.

I was always in favor of supporting Ukraine and helping it defend against the attack. Earlier in the war, I thought the most that could probably be gained, was the status quo ante lines in February 2022 — in other words, at the beginning of this war. But the more it’s gone on and the more I’ve watched it, I’ve come to think that it is both necessary and possible to shoot not just for the 2022 lines, but the 2014 lines, the 1991 original recognized borders.

Because if you could do that, if you could get to that point, you would’ve restored international order. You’d have essentially shown that aggression doesn’t pay. And if you could reach and hold those lines, then you’d have a solid foundation for regional and global security. Just as happened in Korea, just as happened in Kuwait, you would’ve pushed back an invader, restored sovereign borders, and sent the message that aggression doesn’t pay.

And I now think however costly and however difficult, that is a possible outcome, and that that would be the best outcome to shoot for.

Jeff: And does that outcome take place in entirely on the battlefield, or is it the strength of the Ukrainians and the success of the Ukrainians on the battlefield that leads to some kind of negotiated settlement that enforces those lines?

Gideon: So it’s a great question, and the answer is, it’s both, right? Which is you can control some things but not others. And war is ultimately political, and it’s ultimately a matter of choice. And so the war won’t fully end until the Russians decide to end it. They can always hypothetically keep trying to attack, but the way to affect their decision calculus is to present them with a military fait accompli, and eventually make them realize you cannot achieve your goals, and trying to continue doing so will be ever more costly for you, and so just give up.

And I think that if you mount a credible threat to push the Russians all the way back to their borders, two things can happen. The first is the very fact of the threat. Let’s say this current offensive isn’t going to end the war. It’s not going to take back all the territory. But what it could do is leave the Ukrainians in a position that is further along than they were at the beginning of the offensive, and in a position to shell and threaten and pressure the remaining Russian-held areas of Ukraine. Whether it’s anything they might still have in the Donbass in the east, whether it’s Crimea in the south.

So if the Ukrainians can get to a point where they take back some territory and put themselves in a position to threaten the remaining Russian territory, that puts the Russians in a dilemma. They have a choice: They can continue fighting, or they could try at that point — if it were a sane government in Moscow, and you realize, gee, we bet on this, but it didn’t work, now it’s time to cut our losses and trade our remaining military capacity, our remaining positions for some kind of negotiated settlement that allowed us to achieve something.

So for example, in 1973 the Egyptians attacked, along with the Syrians, they attacked Israel, and the Israelis had a close call for a while, but with American help, they were able to resupply themselves and push the invaders back, and they managed to go all the way to the Suez Canal and encircle the Egyptian Third Army, threatening a complete and total annihilation of Egyptian forces. And that created a situation in which the US then jumped in and said, okay, now we have the ceasefire, and now we can trade in effect. We’ll help the Egyptian army escape, and we’ll even promise that they can get back some of their land, in return for negotiations for an ongoing settlement.

And so a ceasefire segues to negotiations over a longer regional settlement, which ultimately produces Camp David, and ultimately produces the bedrock of Middle Eastern security, which is the Egyptians and the Israelis are not going to fight each other anymore. For all the ongoing things going on, you don’t expect Egyptians and Israelis to fight.

So it’s conceivable — I’m not saying it’s probable, but it’s conceivable — that if you put the Russians in that situation, threatened them with military catastrophe in Crimea, let’s say, you could get a situation in which they traded off that in return for going back to something like, oh, the situation prior to 2014, in which there was, the Ukrainians and the Russians both used the naval base at Sevastopol, the Russians had a Black Sea fleet that was based there, but they weren’t directly threatening Ukraine.

So that could be possible, but even if that’s not what’s possible, you could then go to what I call the Korea analogy, in which you fight your way back to the starting lines, and then you say, look, we are going to hold this indefinitely until you agree to give up. In 1951, after a year of warfare, the UN forces took back, as it were, all the territory that the North Koreans had seized. And then they said, look, we want to stop it now, status quo ante, and they kept fighting for a long time for various other issues, but only essentially to defend and protect those lines. And eventually in 1953, you had an armistice that codified those original lines, the starting lines of the war back in 1950, which remain the division between North Korea and South Korea today. Seventy years on, you still have that.

And that’s the plausible scenario here as well. So in my opinion, you take back the Ukrainian territory, and you essentially help the Ukrainians guard it the way you’ve helped the South Koreans guard the 38th parallel, and then you wait for the Russians to accept that they’re never going to get it back.

Basically, the root cause of this problem is that Russia feels that it was gypped out of its empire. It feels that it has a right to exert dominance in its region beyond its borders of Russia, and it’s prepared to use force to achieve that. And what has to be done for the long term for this problem to be solved, is that Russia has to be convinced that is not possible. And so I’ve reluctantly come to think that helping Ukraine teach Russia that lesson is the right course of action.

Jeff: Might this not have been more possible for Ukraine, had they had more military equipment earlier, had the military equipment that the West has provided not been given out in the piecemeal way that it has?

Gideon: So, yes and no. In one sense, yes, which is the West has been supplying Ukraine with enough aid to help it not lose rather than to help it win. And they’ve been very careful both to—  The Biden administration has worried very much about the risks of possible nuclear escalation. So they’ve put a whole bunch of limits on the conflict. Some of which I agree with and some of which I don’t.

One they’ve put in is no involvement of NATO forces directly, which makes total sense. Some people, for example, suggested, “Oh, you should have a no-fly zone.” The problem with that is it creates the risk of actual encounters between NATO forces and Russian forces, which could conceivably get you into a direct NATO-Russia war, which could escalate to nuclear stuff. So I agree that indirect rather than direct support for Ukraine makes sense.

A second thing that the West has done is they’ve said to the Ukrainians, you have to limit the scope of the battlefield, the extent of it. You can’t attack Moscow directly. You can’t go into Russia directly. You have to just keep fighting them on your own territory.

Now, this seems unfair, and in fact the Ukrainians have been fudging around the edges of this recently with some drone attacks in Moscow and some little incursions into Russian territory around the areas. But by and large, this war has been confined to Ukraine. And again, I think that is largely sensible, not because it wouldn’t be good to make the Russians pay and that couldn’t change their calculus, but you do want to leave Moscow the sense that it is secure in its regime, in the sense that you don’t want to create a situation in which they feel they have absolutely nothing to lose, and therefore they might as well launch a nuclear strike.

And so by saying, look, this war is about Ukraine, not about Russia, it makes it harder for Ukraine, but it does ease Russian anxieties enough to make nuclear use even less likely.

The third kind of restriction that the West has put on, though, has been on the types of weapons they’ve given. They’ve given Ukraine, in effect, weapons that can be used to defend more than weapons that can be used to attack. Now, this is a hard line to draw because in fact in modern warfare, especially with things like air defenses and artillery, the farther you can push your enemy back, the better, and so attack and defense are combined. But by and large, what the West has not done is given Ukraine the absolute best weapons, that the Russians might imagine could be used to invade or attack Russia.

And what I’m saying is these are the restrictions that we should ease up now. We should give them more conventional weaponry because it’s pretty clear, a few drone attacks and other things on Moscow aside, that the Ukrainians are acting responsibly in this war, and that they are indeed using the weapons to push the Russians back, not to go after Moscow.

So for example, the F-16s. There was a lot of talk earlier this year about whether Ukraine should get F-16 planes and other, what are called fourth-generation fighters. And the West has been reluctant to give these, because you could do a lot of damage with a plane like that. You could potentially attack Moscow or attack Russia or various kinds of things with your advanced fighters and bombers.

But the Ukrainians want it not so that they can launch offensive operations, but because the Russians are using artillery and missiles, and attacking platforms on their territory to attack Ukraine. And you need the F-16s and comparable planes to extend the defensive perimeter of Ukraine, as it were, further back into Russian territory, to push off the Russian planes and ships and drone bases so that the Ukrainians can actually attack forward on the ground in their own territory. So you’re using the F-16s in effect as high-level air defenses to cover the battlefield rather than as weapons that can attack. That could also be used in the future for the Ukrainian Air Force to defend against Russia once you have a settlement. That’s a separate question, though.

So I think it makes sense to retain the restrictions on the warfare that keep Western aid indirect. And I think it’s sensible to limit the battlefield to Ukraine. But I do think we should increase the conventional help given because a little bit of extra conventional military aid is not going to trigger— Even though the Russians have tried to say, “Oh, that’ll trigger our red lines,” I don’t think it will.

An interesting paradox of this is however brutal and vicious and unpleasant the war has been, the limitation of aid may have actually played an unintended role in helping bleed Russia — which is that the continued surprise of the war in terms of Russian under-performance and Ukrainian over-performance has surprised everybody, including Russia. And so the limitations on aid that the West has enforced may have given Moscow the sense that it could still win if it just kept exerting a little more effort. And so throughout the war, Russia has consistently upped its own game — has had to up its own game and mobilize more and send more forces into battle.

And the result has been, like the Sicilian expedition in the Peloponnesian War, that what started as a relatively minor attack for Russia, has consumed vast amounts of Russian blood and treasure, and is already a world-historical strategic defeat for Russia.

There’s no question that this has set Russia back a generation, militarily, economically, strategically, no matter what happens going forward. And that’s in part because the aid that we’ve doled out incrementally has never been enough to make them think, “Oh, now we really can’t possibly win.”

But if we were to start increasing the aid now, or continue to increase it, and if the Ukrainians can continue to push forward, you might have bloodied the Russians enough that they realize, “Gee, now we’ve exhausted so much of our capabilities that we don’t really have any more options in the short term,” other than something as dramatic as nuclear stuff, which I don’t think they’ll do.

So, perversely, the limitations on aid, even though they’ve increased the cost of the war, could have suckered the Russians into devoting more forces than they ever expected, and more blood and treasure to what will become one of the historic strategic defeats.

Jeff: And finally, Gideon, bringing it back to the nationalism that you talked about at the beginning, how does the calculus change, if at all, to the extent that this is perceived as some kind of a proxy battle between the US, or the US and Europe, and Russia?

Gideon: So it’s an interesting question. The question is “Perceived by whom?” By keeping it limited — by keeping the aid indirect, and by keeping the battlefield limited — even if it is perceived as something of a proxy war, in practice, it’s not an actual combat. In Vietnam, in Korea, in many other conflicts, Afghanistan, the danger in it being a proxy war is that it brings in the outside powers behind it.

But there’s a lot of evidence, over the last 75 years, that great powers can fight and give aid to fighting other powers. If you think about the wars that America has been engaged in for the last generation — in Iraq, in Afghanistan, in Vietnam — the other side got aid in ways that we didn’t like.

In effect, we were fighting proxy wars against Russia and China in Korea. Open direct conflict in Korea. In Vietnam, our enemies were being supplied. In Afghanistan and Iraq, there was cross-border aid being given.

We are now playing the role of the people on the other side of the border helping somebody resist aggression. And it turns out it’s much better to be in that role than it is to be the schmuck who blunders into another country and triggers a nationalistic reaction by trying to take it over. We are Pakistan helping the Taliban. We are the Iranians helping the Iraqis against us. And you could call that a proxy war, but as long as we keep it indirect and just supply weaponry, there’s every reason to believe we can get away with it.

Jeff: Gideon Rose — his article, Ukraine’s Winnable War: Why the West Should Help Kyiv Retake All Its Territory, appears in the current issue of Foreign Affairs. Gideon, I thank you so much for spending time with us here on the WhoWhatWhy podcast.

Gideon: Thank you, Jeff.

Jeff: Thank you. And 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.

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