Ukraine in the Balance: A Battlefield Update on the War in Ukraine

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This transcript is from a CSIS event hosted on February 22, 2024. Watch the full video here.

Seth G. Jones: Welcome to the Center for Strategic and International Studies. My name is Seth Jones. I’m the director of the International Security Program. It’s been two years since the Russians invaded Ukraine. We’re here to discuss a range of military, intelligence, political, and other issues about the invasion, the state of the war.

And I’m joined by Eliot Cohen. Eliot is the Arleigh Burke chair in strategy at CSIS, former counselor at the U.S. Department of State, and the author of multiple books. Emily Harding, the director of the Intelligence, National Security, and Technology Program, and deputy director of the International Security Program at CSIS. Also formerly at CIA, the National Security Council, as well as the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. And the honorable Mike Vickers, former undersecretary of defense for intelligence, assistant secretary of special operations, former green beret, CIA operations officer. But, most importantly, the author of the recently released memoir, “By All Means Available” from Knopf, which was – which is a great book. Mike, thanks for doing that. And we’ve had – we’ve had a session on that as well.

Let me just start – if we could pull up the map of the battlefield. This is earlier this month. We pulled us from the U.K. Ministry of Defense, Defense Intelligence. And what I wanted to do is remind everyone where we’ve come from. So you can’t see it in the map itself, but if you sort of visualize the initial Russian pushes on at least five axes, they did control territory, some of which we can see here. They also attempted to push down from Belarus and parts of Russia to take Kyiv, which they failed. Kharkiv City, which, as you can see, is not under Russian control, which they failed.

Then we saw multiple phases where the Ukrainians were effectively able to retake some of this territory, here in Kharkiv, with an offensive operation. Last year, we saw the Russians retake territory, including down in the south, in Kherson. And where we are at right now is a couple of things. Recently, we’ve seen the Russians retake Avdiivka. I would say they are on the offensive. They have military initiative right now. They haven’t regained a lot of territory. We’ll talk about the specifics in a moment. And we’ve also seen a lot of activity, Ukrainians targeting Russian vessels, infrastructure in Crimea, and in and around the Black Sea.

So with that really brief overview, a little bit of where we have come, Eliot, I wanted to turn to you first and ask you how you would characterize this stage of the war right now.

Eliot A. Cohen: Well, I think we’ve gone through three phases. First phase, obviously, the Russian invasion and the successful Ukrainian defense. But bear in mind that during that phase, they were able to get to the gates of Kyiv, get a large chunk of the area around Kharkiv, and they were actually able to take Kherson and get over the Dnieper. You had a second phase, which was a Ukrainian counteroffensive, which was really remarkably successful. Drove them back from Kyiv. The Russians ended up pulling back. Ended up clearing the area around Kharkiv, some more minor advances in the areas around Slovyansk. They retook Kherson City.

And now you’re in the third phase, which has gone on for some time, which has consisted of a series of attacks and counter attacks. Russian attack on Bakhmut, which they eventually took at horrific cost. A Ukrainian offensive, I wouldn’t call it a counteroffensive, that was – achieved minor successes, but not a whole lot; the initiative sort of shifting back here to the Russians as they’ve taken Avdiivka, again, at horrifically high costs.

This is a phase of positional warfare. I think it’s a mistake to talk about it as stalemate, which is how some people talk about it. It is positional warfare that seems quite familiar to military historians where the initiative shifts back and forth but where there’s a lot of adaptation and innovation and change with the initiative going back and forth.

And we don’t know how long this positional phase may last. It may last quite a while. The other point that I think is important to make is it’s easy to get fixated on the land campaign, which has different parts because this is a – that’s very long front line that we’re talking about here.

There is in parallel a substantial naval campaign going on where the Ukrainians actually have been remarkably successful in doing a lot of damage to the Black Sea fleet saving, of course, its flagship but also I think five out of nine of its landing ships, effectively pushing the Russians back beyond the Crimean peninsula to some extent, freeing up the sea lanes so they’ve been able to export grain, even striking further to the – where the Russians have shifted some of their naval bases. So that’s another campaign.

There is a deep strike campaign in which the Russians are attacking Ukrainian infrastructure. They’re attacking Ukrainian cities, power plants, and so forth as well as just kind of terror bombing. But with the Ukrainians also striking into Russia to a lesser extent but still with real effect with both missiles of different kinds but also Special Operations forces.

And then there’s a kind of information war campaign that’s going on where the Russians and Ukrainians are both trying to convince publics of different kinds in the West, in the Global South, and elsewhere who has the advantage, what direction is this going, what is this all about.

I think it’s very important to keep in mind we’ve got – there are multiple campaigns going and each one is in a different place.

Dr. Jones: So if we can pull up the map again I want to focus a little bit – I want to stay on this topic and just ask both Mike and Emily, looking at the map I want to hone in here. Some of the more recent activity we’ve seen is here in Avdiivka, which the Russians have retaken at great cost. We’re hearing casualty numbers, with a grain of salt, of upwards of 15(,000) to 17,000 Russian casualties, which is enormous if that’s true.

Russian pushes around Bakhmut as well. How do you – Mike, for you first and then Emily, I mean, what’s your general sense about how important or successful this has been to the Russians? I mean, some people have made a big deal about this. that the Russians are now on the offensive. They’ve retaken Avdiivka. But what is your sense?

The Honorable Michael G. Vickers: Well, the Russians are probing in five directions along this line and Avdiivka, I think, had symbolic importance to Putin before his election because they hadn’t taken anything in a year since Bakhmut, essentially.

You know, it has some value. But you mentioned Russian losses. The exchange ratio was probably on the order of five to one or so – you know, a fairly small garrison of Ukrainians as in other locations were able to hold off the Russians for quite a period of time until they ran out of ammunition and personnel.

Dr. Jones: Emily, how important is this Russian, at least, limited success?

Emily Harding: It’s hard to call it a success for anybody. If you’ve lost 17,000 troops – and we should mention had to murder one of your pro-Kremlin bloggers to cover up the fact that you lost 17,000 troops – that is not a success for Putin.

I think that what Mike’s saying about a small Ukrainian garrison holding out is absolutely true. There were some sad numbers about 800 to a thousand Ukrainian troops that might have been captured as they attempted to pull back and I think a lot of really unfair criticism of the way that the Ukrainians pulled back.

I mean, unless you’ve been in that situation I find it very difficult to say that they didn’t execute it as well as they possibly could have. But I think that the Ukrainians and the European should be pushing the fact that, yes, the Russians got Avdiivka but at what cost.

And look at the rest of that map. Are they going to be able to pay that cost all along that front?

Dr. Cohen: I think I’d just, you know, jump in on this for a moment.

I think part of the Russian intent in all this is, first, that I agree with Mike; Putin wanted a symbolic win of some kind before the – before the election. We may want to talk a little bit about how Russian politics affects all this.

But I think what the Russians are – what the Russians want to do now is to convince everybody that the Ukrainian case is hopeless.

Ms. Harding: Yeah.

Dr. Cohen: And that – you know, and therefore, I think that what they would probably like to do, ultimately, is put this to a negotiated settlement which would not be permanent, which would just set them up for another offensive somewhere down the line. So that, in some ways, I think is the real target. You know, the center of gravity, to use some military jargon, is public opinion and the opinion of political elites, particularly in the United States, to persuade them that, look, Ukraine just can’t win; you know, the Russians are relentless, have resources that are essentially infinite and an infinite willingness to suffer. Now, I don’t think any of those things are true, but I think that’s a large part of what the Russians want us to believe.

Dr. Jones: So, Eliot, you mentioned the front. If we could pull up just this rates of advance, so we pulled this together, rates of advance for selective combined-arms offensives between 1914 and 2023. I mean, I think it’s certainly true that the rate of advance of the Ukrainian offensive last year was relatively slow. We assess between June 4th and August 28th, 2023, they were getting about 90 meters per day, which is – which is pretty slow. They were facing heavily fortified Russian defenses with minefields. Then the Russians also were able to bring in fixed-wing aircraft, helicopters, and drones against forward-moving Ukrainian tanks, armored personnel carriers, and even dismounted infantry. But some people have raised the specter that this looks – the situation looks like World War I. So how do you respond to that?

Dr. Cohen: Well, I’d respond in a number of ways.

I’d begin by saying actually that’s a misreading of what happened in World War I. You know, we – our mental image of World War I comes from a number of movies where it’s just all a bunch of guys huddled in a trench, then they go over the top and they all get shot down by machine guns. Actually, World War I was a very interactive war in which both sides are innovating all the time. It was a positional war.

And then what happens – and this can be a little bit misleading. You know, armies don’t move at their average rate of advance. What happens is they’re slugging, slugging, slugging, and then, boom, there’s a breakthrough and all of a sudden they’re going very deep. That’s like the German offensives in 1918. It’s true of a lot of – it’s true of a lot of wars. Even like the First Gulf War, there’s, you know, 40 days of bombing and then all of a sudden the ground war opens up.

I think the other way in which, though, the World War I analogy is misleading – and again, it’s because people don’t know the history, the real kind of tactical and operational history of World War I – is the assumption this is just butchery and there are very heavy casualties – I don’t want to minimize that – and it’s mindless and there’s, you know, no particular innovation. Actually, this is a war in which there’s a lot of innovation, in which the – I would put it this way. I think the Ukrainians innovate from the bottom up and the Russians tend to innovate from the top down. The Russians have a very top-down command system, so they can be flexible and learn and so on. The Ukrainians, it’s a free society, so you get a lot of guys with kind of interesting ideas who go out and try stuff and they experiment. Both ways of doing it have their advantages and their disadvantages. But it’s – what it’s certainly not is, A, it’s not static; and, B, it’s not a conflict in which it’s just people battering their heads against each other without genuine kind of innovation and improvement on either side.

So there’s – and what that means, ultimately, is there is the potential for, you know, serious instability going one way or the other at any time, but certainly over the next year or so. You know, we shouldn’t assume that this will just stay this way forever, because it won’t.

Dr. Jones: So, Mike, big surprises so far that you’ve seen?

Hon. Vickers: So, first, let me agree with Eliot on the misleading parallels of World War I. One area where I think there’s a bit of similarity is this also has attributes of a war of relative industrial capacity and the staying power of societies until you get the breakthroughs that Eliot was talking about and the continued innovation.

So the big surprises are straightforward. There are really two.

One, how poorly the Russian military has done, especially in the early stages but even the last year, of this war of position, Eliot talked about. And you know, attritional combat, they’ve suffered much greater losses and just, you know, haven’t performed well from a military perspective. The converse side of that is how well the Ukrainians have done. Not only in defending their territory early on, but then taking it back. And Kharkiv and Kherson, as Eliot mentioned, and some of the innovation. You know, for a military without a navy, sinking a lot of the Black Sea fleet, taking some of the fight into Russian territory as well in the past week. Shot down, you know, seven Russian aircraft. So that’s gone very well.

I wish there were actually more big surprises. There are two in particular I have in mind. One, if I could wind back the clock that the U.S. didn’t pursue an incremental strategy. I think the Ukrainians would be much better off if we were bolder early on.

Dr. Jones: With what? Like, long-range fires, or?

Hon. Vickers: Long-range fires, a range of air defenses, a range of things that could have put the – you know, things we’re doing now we should have started a couple years ago and done them more across the board. And then the second one is the declining support in the United States. I wish I could say I was surprised by that, that so many, particularly in the Republican Party, are now turning against the war, and Ukrainian aid may be in jeopardy. But it’s not a surprise. But it’s certainly tragic.

Dr. Jones: Well, that is a good segue to Emily. How would you assess the American response, including the debates in Congress? And actually, before you answer, I just want to pull up some of what the U.S. has provided so far. So we can go to the maps. About 2 million-plus 155-millimeter rounds, 2,000-plus Stingers, Javelins, 31-or-so Abrams tanks. These are all DOD numbers. You see Bradley Fighting Vehicles, Howitzers, HIMARS, one Patriot battery, NASAMs, Strikers. So we get a sense of what the U.S. has provided since the invasion began. But what’s been the American response most recently?

Ms. Harding: Yeah, if this graphic is supposed to assuage my frustration, it’s only kind of working. (Laughs.) I would call it dithering. The U.S. response has been dithering. I think, uncharitably, you could say that we’ve been fiddling while Rome burns. We’ve been debating amongst ourselves, like, exactly what tiny weapons system is going to push us over the top or not now for two years. And I think Mike’s absolutely right. If we had not been dithering early on, if we had actually provided the things that we should have provided, we would have been much better off now.

I would classify the debate inside the U.S. as partially self-deterrence. There’s a bucket of that. And then partially self-centered. And the self-deterrence piece is this constant convincing ourselves that if we provide the next system or additional capability, then that is going to be the thing that tips Russia over into widening the conflict. It just hasn’t happened. Russia’s just as interested in keeping this restricted to Ukraine as we are. And the more that we let them continue to push forward without pushing back, the more they’re going to push. Russia’s a bully. They respond to strength.

The self-centered piece is this completely self-defeating debate, where you have people saying, well, why are we sending all of these resources off to Ukraine? Why are we spending all this money on Ukraine, when we really should be keeping it here for a fight in the Pacific? Or, we really should be keeping it here for domestic priorities? It’s just the wrong way to look at it. First of all, from a basic numbers perspective, I think Angus King of Maine has a really good speech on this, the money that we spend on Ukraine doesn’t leave the U.S. It goes to the U.S. defense industry. It goes to U.S. companies that send aid to Ukraine. The vast majority of it stays here.

The other piece is that it’s not either/or. We’ve done some great work here at CSIS, I know some of our colleagues around Washington have as well, that the kinds of weapons that you need in a Pacific fight are very different than the weapons that you need in a Ukraine fight. Further, we just saw Japan step up and agree to give Ukraine all kinds of aid. And as they pointed out in the press this morning, they share a common neighbor. Both Japan and Ukraine border on Russia. And Japan understands that this is not a Europe or a Pacific fight. This is a global message to a bully superpower. And that’s where we have to think about it here, too.

Dr. Cohen: Could I jump in on this? This is a really interesting table. So, you know, order of magnitude, something like 10,000 javelins, that makes sense. That’s the antitank missile that you need. The number on the Abrams tank however, or on the Patriot batteries, that’s ridiculous. I mean, and the problem is we tell ourselves, oh, well, we’ve given them, you know, high-end air defenses, Patriots. But one battery? Thirty-one tanks? By the way, we have hundreds of Abrams tanks sitting in storage. These are older-model Abrams. They’re not the ones that our soldiers use. They’re available. They could have gone there long ago. And I think it’s – it reflects as failure to think at – we have failed to think at the right level of urgency. I agree with both Mike and Emily on that. But we’ve also just failed to think on the right scale.

Hon. Vickers: Scale.

Dr. Cohen: And part of this we – it has been a very long time, really since Korea, maybe some parts of Vietnam, but that we’ve engaged in really what’s a war in which there – attrition happens all the time. You know, I think we sometimes make a false dichotomy – and I’m afraid even some of our military thinkers approach it this way – between maneuver and attrition.

Attrition is – it’s not so much it’s a strategy; it is a condition of warfare. You know, I think in –

Dr. Jones: And no one wants to be in an attrition war.

Dr. Cohen: But every – but if you’re in a real – if you’re in a real war, you are in a war of attrition. You know, I think of, say, in 1967, the Six-Day War, you know. The Israelis lost about a quarter of their air force. And it’s important – or if you look at, say, you know, the Germans rolling through France in 1940, they lost, like, a fifth of their tanks, and you know, even higher percentages, I think, of their air force. It just – if you’re in a serious war against a serious opponent – and it would happen to us, too, by the way – you’re going to take heavy losses, and that means you need to think on the right scale. And there has been, unfortunately, a systematic failure, I think, on our side to think at the right scale, with a few exceptions like, for example, the 155-millimeter rounds, where we’re finally scaling up production – something you know a lot about.

Dr. Jones: So – yeah. Yeah.

Ms. Harding: Can I two-finger that, too? So because I can hear the screaming coming from the interwebs, the Patriot batteries, I actually kind of understand that because of the dearth of production on that system and because I know so many of our partners in the Middle East desperately need those to do things like fight back against the Houthis, who are firing into Saudi Arabia. That is a reason, not an excuse. And this is where you insert the speech about the defense industrial base and how we haven’t been signaling enough to the people who make things like Patriot batteries that there will be a demand for them ongoing into the next two years, five years, 10 years, so ramp up the production to meet the demand; and even if, let’s just say for a second, that peace breaks out across the globe tomorrow, we will still fulfill those contracts, so please build them.

Hon. Vickers: Yeah. And I would add, you know, as my old boss Bob Gates would say, you know, you have to win the war you’re in, you know.

Ms. Harding: Yeah.

Dr. Jones: My old boss Mike Vickers said that, too. (Laughter.)

I do want to come back to one point, Emily, you made about – you raised the prospect of other countries, including some of our adversaries. I think people may either forget or not realize that when it comes to the Russians, you know, the Russians have also expended significant amounts of munitions in this war as well. So the question, in part – and that goes through drones and – where are the Russians getting help from? And for those who want to focus or think we can focus – the U.S. can focus on only one theater at a time, so we really should be focused on Taiwan, or even just Israel, or – and that we can’t do that, the reality when you’re looking at cooperation is the Chinese have provided significant assistance to the Russians. And it’s been across the board, not wholesale weapons systems but a range of technology for Russian weapons systems including everything from microchips for weapons systems to parts for ammunition. The North Koreans have provided rockets, ammunition to the Russians. The Iranians have provided the Shahed-136s and other drones. So we’re actually seeing the Russians getting a range of assistance from the Chinese, from the North Koreans, and from the Iranians, which makes the U.S. withholding of aid right now stunning because we haven’t seen the Chinese backing off in that sense from providing assistance to the Russians.

I wanted to get your sense also, Emily, along these lines of Europeans and where the Europeans are at in providing aid to Ukraine. There have also – there’s also been some talk about, you know, the Germans providing Taurus, for example, which is a longer-range munition. What is your sense of where the Europeans are and how helpful they’ve been in providing aid to Ukraine?

And then, you know, if you can add on to that. We’ve heard a lot of criticism about the Europeans from a number of politicians about their spending on defense including 2 percent of gross domestic product.

Ms. Harding: Mmm hmm. So to add on to your excellent China point, we also shouldn’t forget the extent to which China has bought cheap Russian fuel, which is keeping the Russian economy afloat and allowing them to do all the things that they’re doing. More to say on that.

But when it comes to the Europeans, you know, I spent the first year of this war reassuring European allies that the U.S. is in this for the long run, that Biden has said we’re in this for the long run.

The Russians are an old foe. We understand that this is going to be important not just to the security of Ukraine but the security of Europe. Yes, there’s some talk on the extremes about people, you know, waffling in their support for Ukraine. But those are the tail ends of the bell curve. We’re in this for the long haul.

And then after a year went by some of those tail end bell curve voices got a little bit louder and a little bit more central and then I found myself saying it’s going to be OK. It’s going to be okay. People like to score political points but they’ll come around.

I now find myself where I have to look at the Europeans in the face and say I really don’t know what’s going to happen with the current aid package. I still am hopeful that the House will come to their senses and pass it because it is critically important for security in a lot of ways.

It can be both good for Ukraine and also good for the U.S. at the same time. But I think the Europeans are really starting to ask hard questions of themselves – what does European security without a U.S. presence look like?

Former President Trump’s unfortunate comments the other day about NATO I think really shook them in a way that’s hard to ignore and they are starting to look at things from defense production all the way up and through, you know, communications with each other.

We’re seeing quiet defense production in some places and louder defense production in others. They’re a long way from actually being able to, you know, run NATO without the U.S. but they are asking themselves some very difficult questions.

And I want to finally point out that some of our colleagues here at CSIS have done some really good work on NATO and are working on a project right now on whether the 2 percent threshold is actually relevant, whether there are other ways to measure what NATO contributions really should be and whether the 2 percent thing is just a total red herring.

Dr. Jones: Yeah, I think it’s mostly a red herring, frankly. I think the issue, at the end of the day – and I’ve written about this, too – is to what degree and how helpful are the Europeans and in high-end warfare, for example. So that leads you to air capabilities, ground capabilities, naval capabilities, including anti-submarine warfare. That gets you out of percentage issue and much more to capabilities to conduct operations.

Dr. Cohen: Let me disagree with that. I think, on the one hand, it is important to be able to measure in a, you know, more reasonable militarily relevant way operational contributions.

A 2 percent figure of GDP, which is too low – I mean, I would say be shooting for 3 (percent) or –

Dr. Jones: U.S. is closer to – is in the 3 percent range, right?

Dr. Cohen: It is politically significant and it is a message to the publics involved and to the governments involved that we expect you to put serious resources against your own defense and not to make excuses and say, well, we host your forces – that’s a contribution, too.

You can’t – I don’t think we can ignore the psychological dimension of it. I wanted to add, if I might, just two other things. One is American production is absolutely critical because we do have the biggest military industry and despite my scathing criticisms earlier we can scale stuff up and get stuff over.

But it’s also critical because we provide the leadership and the kind of central focus for this. These are two – there are two kind of competing industrial coalitions here. You mentioned one, Russia – Iran, China in the background with components and stuff, North Korea.

With us it’s the Europeans, obviously, with the U.S. But, you know, the South Koreans play a role and the Japanese play a role and the United States is critical to that. So if – you know, and the South Koreans sell us 155(-millimeter) shells so that we can then give ours to the Ukrainians – they’re effectively part of the game. We have to be at the heart of that.

Now, I do think it’s important because – I mean, I think the four of us are inclined to be quite critical of, and appropriately so, of our own government. The Russians are actually in a different way in a world of hurt. They are – you know, they are in a state of mobilization. It is not clear that they’ve really been able to ramp up military production in a tremendously significant way. They still struggle with the production of advanced pieces of military equipment. You know, for example, they’ve had this T-14 Armata tank which they’ve talking about for years. It’s supposed to be an incredible system. They’ve had trouble just getting it fielded. They’ve had trouble getting it produced. Their fossil fuel revenues have been going down. Yes, the Chinese buy that oil. The Chinese are good traders. And so they get that oil cheap and they – you know, they don’t have the same pipelines, and stuff like that.

So I think that, you know, the Russians – the very fact that they have to rely on the North Koreans for 152-millimeter shells, which have, like, a 30 percent dud rate, it tells you something about their military industry. So, you know, we should remind ourselves that if we – if the United States is in the center, and we put our minds to it, and we hold our European allies’ feet to the fire, we can easily out-produce these guys in both quantity – quality, for sure, but I would argue even in quantitative terms. But there has to be a lot of political energy put into it. And unfortunately, that I don’t see.

Dr. Jones: So, to go back to your European point, yes, it is important to spend more on the ministry of defense. That 2 percent threshold in a sense just highlights that. But at the – at the end of the day, I think it’s also important how they’re spending their money. So if we can pull up this. I’m going to go to Mike in a second with a question. But if we can just pull up the picture here. I just want people to see here. So this is one of the Iranian drones, the Shahed 136. This was shot down in Kyiv, and now under the possession of the Ukrainians. You can also see here that this is an Iranian drone. And here is the Iranian flag on the side. So this gives us a sense of some of the other countries that have been providing assistance to the Russians.

Which brings me, Mike, to the Russians. Which is, your assessment of the Russian military. You talked a little bit about this already, but what has it done well, in your sense? Where has it struggled? And are we seeing some evolution in Russian concept of operations? They used more air than they had in the past in the Avdiivka offensive. What does that mean?

Hon. Vickers: So where are the Russians have done their best is really in this war of position where they’ve had an artillery advantage and a manpower advantage. And so those two things – and, plus, the nine months, essentially, they were given to dig in, and prepare, and lay minefields, and other things that made the Ukrainian summer offensive last year very problematic. That, and the lack of air power for the Ukrainians. You know, we essentially asked the Ukrainians to fight a war in a way that the American military or Western military never would. And, you know, you just can’t win that way. I mean, it’s military malpractice.

So that’s where they’ve done best. They’ve done their worst at integrated combined arms operations, air-ground operations. And this is something that we’ve seen with the Russian military from the Russian-Georgian war on. They thought they were – they had plans to fix these things, you know, from lessons learned. They really haven’t done a good job. And, you know, if anything they seem to have gotten worse as the scale has gone up. I mean, their big advantage right now is really in resources. And it may be more fragile than people think.

Dr. Jones: So if we could pull up the slide, just to emphasize what Mike noted. We can see, this is – this is last year. But we can see some of the Russian fighting positions. The trenches here that they put up, the dragon’s teeth. These are multiple rows of dragon teeth. You can’t see it here because it’s buried, but the minefields, the antitank barriers that they’ve used, the mortar emplacements and gun emplacements that they’ve had. They had time during the offensive of last year to build up some of these defensive measures. What about – so, but Russian air?

Hon. Vickers: Yeah, Russian air has, you know, mostly relied on missiles and UAVs for strategic attack against population centers. You know, and they’ve certainly had some success in that. In terms of battlefield airpower, during the Ukrainian offensive they used attack helicopters reasonably well to limit Ukrainian penetrations. Fixed-wing air hasn’t done much. You know, it played a role in Avdiivka toward the end, when the Ukrainian army was withdrawing under pressure –

Dr. Jones: And didn’t have a lot of surface-to-air missiles –

Hon. Vickers: And didn’t have surface-to-air missiles. But mainly, it stayed behind the lines and used glide bombs that can go in and hit targets. And so it hasn’t been a big player. You know, Russian doctrine integrates air with field armies, making the army superior. A little different than our approach.

I would add thought too that, you know, their operational advantages are one thing. What the Russians are really counting on to win the war is essentially knocking out Ukraine’s allies. Essentially cutting off international support. You know, Eliot talked about this, and Emily talked about the political problems in Congress. But, you know, that’s their theory of victory, is if aid’s cut off, they’ll have a much better opportunity.

Dr. Jones: Well, because they’re also getting aid as well. So the balance of power shifts dramatically.

Hon. Vickers: Yeah, they’re getting aid as well. The balance of power shifts, exactly.

Ms. Harding: This is one of those self-fulfilling prophecies you were talking about at the beginning. Like, what the message that the Russians want us to absorb is that Ukraine can’t win, thus we should pull back support. And that idea that this is going to be totally self-fulfilling, that once we buy into the Russian line then we pull back, which makes it true, I think that’s what we have to guard against at all costs.

Hon. Vickers: I think Lenin called them useful idiots.

Dr. Cohen: Well, and in some ways it’s already happening. I mean, even set aside Tucker Carlson, you know, you look at Senator Vance from Ohio. I mean, that’s – he’s saying what the Russians would like him to say. That there’s no way the Ukrainians can win, so let’s get real and just stop assisting them.

Dr. Jones: Well, the Russians have been active, Emily, in a range of other areas, too. We’ve seen Navalny now meet his death. We’ve seen a Ukrainian defector likely killed in Spain. What else have you – I mean, what do you make of what the Russians are doing now in a range of areas?

Ms. Harding: I mean, they’re swaggering in a way that I find really quite astonishing. To be clear, Navalny did not drop dead of his own accord in a Russian prison yard. I know that in my bones as sure as I sit here, and I didn’t even have to be on the ground with him. We’re going to find out at some point in the future that he was in fact killed, and he was killed at a certain time for a certain reason. The fact that Putin allowed this right before the Munich Conference is quite interesting. That it came out at about the same time as some of the news came out about some new Russian capabilities potentially being in space, I think is very interesting.

And it’s a quite bold message that, here we are on the two-year anniversary of this war, and his number-one political critic, he feels like he can eliminate with little to no blowback. And I think the Europeans are looking at that message. In a way, you know, was anybody naive enough to think that Navalny was going to emerge from prison and become the future leader of Russia? No, Putin was never going to let that happen. But the fact that he did it the way that he did it I think was a very scary message to the Europeans. And I wish that we would get there as well.

Hon. Vickers: And the timing is – not only did he not die of natural causes, hence why they won’t, you know, release the body until they’ve sanitized it enough, but also the timing is not accidental. It’s designed to be right in our face, say: We can do this, and what are you going to do about it?

Ms. Harding: What are you going to do about it? What are we doing about it?

Dr. Jones: So, as you look down the road at 2024, Emily, indications and warnings, what should we be looking for to give us a sense of how things are going?

Ms. Harding: Yeah. So this is when I take off my outraged policymaker hat and I put on my impartial analyst hat – or, at least I try my best to. If you look at the straight-line analysis of where this conflict is headed, you have to think that Russia will attempt to continue to use its advantage in men and possibly firepower – although we have a robust debate going on who’s going to have the advantage in firepower. But they just continue to throw metal and person at the problem.

You have to think that Ukraine will be stuck in this defensive position for at least the next year, while they try to figure out some fundamental things and a reevaluation of the strategy. So looking at, you know, what do you do for putting together the manpower that you need to confront the Russians? What do you do about conscription or not? What do you do about trying to get this hodgepodge of different materiel that they have and combine it into an effective, coherent fighting force. But that is really inherently a, we’re going to be sitting mostly still while we try to figure this out and hold off any kind of Russian offenses like we saw in Avdiivka.

So what would change that assessment? The ones that would change the assessment on the Ukrainian side I think are far more likely than the big changes on the Russian side. So I’ll go through those first.

Option one is that the U.S. passes the aid package; the Europeans don’t use that as an opportunity to go, “phew,” and back off of what they’ve been doing, they also push forward with a massive amount of aid; that Ukraine continues to bring the fight home to the Russians. We were talking about surprises earlier. One of my surprises is how little the Russian population has really felt the pinch of this conflict. If that changes, if we find a way to make the Russian population at home understand the costs of this conflict to them in their hometowns. And then if Ukraine finds a way to pick its battles differently. I mean, I would defer to the military analysts in the room, who would know exactly what that would look like, but if they find ways to focus on a particular area and make gains there, I could see that changing that scenario that I laid out for 2024.

On the Russian side, it’s much more low-probability, high-impact topics like, could there be Russian troop mutinies? We saw the unpleasantness with the Wagner Group. You know, could something like that happen again on a smaller scale sort of all along the Russian frontlines? Is there a possibility that sometime in 2025 there is a Russian falloff in production of munitions? That would be a gamechanger, I think, for the conflict if it was actually true and if China didn’t come in to save them. And then the real black swan is that something comes of the Navalny murder, that that actually turns into some kind of domestic disturbance inside Russia that draws Putin’s eye back into Russian domestic problems more than prosecuting the war in Ukraine. You know, the freedom fighter in me really hopes that happens, but I don’t – I don’t really see a lot of indications that that could be the way we go.

Dr. Jones: So, Eliot, I know you’ve written about it – if we can pull up the photograph of the new commander in chief of the Ukrainian armed forces. What are his options as we look over the course of 2024? I mean, some of this is clearly going to play defense right now to Russian forces, but what are his options in staying in the fight?

Dr. Cohen: Well, I think what he is probably thinking about are some very mundane things like: How do I simply sustain the force? How do I rotate out the tired troops? You know, how do I – how do I train not only the new troops as individuals – you know, the Ukrainians have not been as nearly intense as we would be on individual troop training, but actually what’s probably even more important at this point – that’s critically important. But higher-level unit training of battalions/brigades, training of staffs, I think there’s a lot of that. They are clearly thinking – they’ve created this new command for unmanned aerial systems, getting that – getting that sort of thing stood up. And I think they – you know, they deliberately want – the reason why they’ve held onto Avdiivka is it has some political significance for them. But I think – as in Bakhmut, I think they decided it is worth it to really bleed the Russians, because I believe they understand – which not everybody in the West does – that Russia’s resources are not infinite, and that if the Russian military is taking very heavy losses – to include among junior leaders and so on – they will have trouble conducting any kind of sizeable maneuver operation just because they won’t have the leaders who will be able to carry it off. So I think there’s that. I think absorbing the new technology that they get. Those are going to be his concerns for 2024, as well as prosecuting the other campaigns that we’ve talked about.

I mean, the – you know, that naval campaign has been extremely successful, and I think they’ll want to continue that. The deep-strike campaign, as well. And then I suspect that they will be thinking very hard about what happens in 2025, and he will be thinking hard about this. About that. So I suspect this is a year which they will largely be in the positional fight, trying to get themselves ready for what may be the year of decision, 2025.

But it’s war, so unexpected things will happen. It’s, you know, conceivable he may find himself in a maneuver fight that he didn’t expect or want at some given time. Well, it’s going depend on what happens on the – on the Russian side, as well.

Hon. Vickers: And we can help him by passing this aid bill.

Dr. Cohen: Absolutely.

Hon. Vickers: But also, instead of just considering giving him long-range strike weapons or the Ukrainians, like the Army Tactical Missile System and the German Taurus from both our governments, to give it to them. And then, you know, the Kerch Bridge might not be standing very long.

Dr. Cohen: And that actually – you know, just to emphasize that point, you know, when we’ve given the Ukrainians somewhat longer-range weapons like the HIMARS or even the – we gave them, what about 20 ATACMS – they know how to employ that stuff very effectively against vulnerable areas in the Russian rear: their logistical nodes, command and control, headquarters, things like that. And when you do that, then you disrupt the Russians’ ability to continue these offensives in places like Avdiivka. So it is a critically important capability. And if we take out the Kerch Bridge, they have other ways of getting stuff to Crimea, but it’s a lot harder. And it is what we should be doing.

Dr. Jones: I’m frequently reminded of the U.S. TV show “MacGyver” in looking at how the Ukrainians have been innovative in how they’ve even used Harpoons off the back of trucks, for example; the way they’ve used some of their – and if we could show this here – some of their FPVs, drones, or tying different kinds of improvised explosive devices, dropping them on Russian soldiers. They’ve been quite innovative.

So last question, for Mike and Emily, which is: Could you give us a sense, particularly to an American audience, what is at stake here? I mean, if you look at, like, a red team even, if you were to look at a Russian victory here, Russian success, even advancing significantly on the battlefield, what are the – what would be the implications? And just more broadly, how important is this for the U.S. and how should Americans be thinking about this?

Hon. Vickers: Well, I think, number one, it’s the forward defense of Europe. You know, we can talk about democracy, and this is as about as black-and-white a war as you can get in terms of moral terms. But it also is important for the defense of Europe, and Europe remains very important to the United States in its long-term competition with China and Russia.

And, you know, so you’d have more threats to Europe if Russia won, and also it may take some time. And you’d also have, you know, maybe a weakening of European resolve, followed by a weakening of American resolve. You know, as Eliot said, we tend to lead in these things. And it’s very important that we do. And then I think it’s a global issue, too. It’s not just a European issue. So it sends messages to bad guys everywhere. But, you know, China’s watching this closely, as to what happens there. And so their calculus about Taiwan will be affected by, you know, how this war turns out.

Ms. Harding: Yeah, I would love to try and draw a straight line from what’s going on in Ukraine all the way to, you know, somebody’s wallet in Kansas. It’s a bit of a journey but bear with me. If you think about the way that the U.S. operates on the world stage, we have just-in-time delivery to the Walmart shelves. We have supply chains that span the globe. And all of these things are made possible because the U.S. and its allies have abided by a world system that tries to abide by the rule of law, and that has predictable economic consequences for certain things that happen.

What Putin has done with his invasion of Ukraine is say: I don’t care about any of that. I want the world system to be remade in a way that I like. I want to prove that the U.N. is pointless, that the U.S. is weak, that U.S. democracy is not all it’s cracked up to be. And I want the U.S. fighting inside by itself against itself, rather than using its vast global power to ensure a safer, more prosperous globe. Chinese have looked at that and said, we like that idea. What we want is a world that’s made safe for Chinese business. We want to be able to run the world the way that we think it should be run. We don’t care about personal freedoms. We don’t care about democracy. What we care about is making money for us and for our businesses. So we’re on board with that as a plan too. Let’s see how we can disrupt this global system in our favor.

What does that mean to the wallet in Kansas? On a very basic level, it means that there will be a flood of mis- and disinformation about elections. It also means that all of those goods that you depend on having just in time delivered for are going to be not so much just in time delivered. It means that China is going to use the economic levers that it has in order to disrupt what’s going on inside the U.S. And, you know, does all of that change if we deliver one more HIMAR system to Ukraine? No. But does all of that change if Putin is allowed to achieve all of his war aims inside Ukraine and take territory by force? Yes. And that’s how we need to be thinking about it.

Dr. Jones: You know, it’s interesting, having spent time over the last year in Taiwan, in Japan, in Australia, in Korea, how much all of those leaders at the political level, at the defense level, at the intelligence level, are all watching closely this war in Ukraine, U.S. resilience or lack thereof in this war, and drawing conclusions about what it means for them. Whether it’s Taiwan, whether it’s against the North Koreans, whether it’s South Korea’s ability to rely on U.S. extended deterrence. South Korea is now having its own debate about nuclear weapons if it can’t rely on the United States.

So that the world is watching. And it’s not – it’s not a coincidence that we’ve seen the Australian prime minister, Japanese, Korean leaders, all visit Ukraine and either provide aid directly to the Ukrainians or to European partners so that they can provide it to Ukraine. There’s an important element to this that I think is more than just about Ukraine. Freedom House came out recently with its report on democracy in the world, highlighting that this past year was the 17th consecutive year of a decline of democracy. Do we make it 18, 19, 20, 21? I mean, where do we stop and put our foot down, the way our country was created?

So appreciate everybody for staying with us. I think we will continue to periodically do these updates, as we’ve done from the beginning of the war. And I want to thank Eliot Cohen. I want to thank Emily Harding. And I want to thank Mike Vickers for joining me. And I want to thank all of you for joining us as well. Really appreciate it.