Ukraine is ‘on the ropes’ two years after Russia’s invasion. What’s next for the Russia-Ukraine War?

February 24, 2024, marks two years since the beginning of the War in Ukraine. 

In the war’s first year, Russia’s assault on Ukraine shook the West, while Ukraine's defense of the territory captivated the world. 

While no less deadly or consequential, the war's second year has looked very different. The war has become a stalemate on the battlefield, altering the politics in Kyiv, the Kremlin, and among their respective allies. Neither country’s leaders appear to be looking for a way out of the war anytime soon, and the prospect of peace in Ukraine seems as far away as it’s been at any point in the last two years. 

On this episode, Dan Richards discusses the state of the War in Ukraine with Lyle Goldstein, a Senior Fellow at the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University and director of Asia Engagement at Defense Priorities. They explore the shifting definitions of “victory” in both Kyiv and the Kremlin over the past 12 months, what an end to this conflict might look like, and what it would take to bring both country’s leaders to the negotiating table. 

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[MUSIC PLAYING] DAN RICHARDS: From the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University, this is Trending Globally. I'm Dan Richards. February 24 marks two years since Russia's invasion of Ukraine in Twenty Twenty-Two. Russia's assault in that first year shook the West and Ukraine's defense of their territory captivated much of the world. The second year of this war, while no less consequential, has looked very, very different.

International attention to the conflict has waned as battle lines have hardened and as our guest on this episode explains, leaders on both sides of the war seem uninterested in looking for a negotiated end to the violence.

LYLE GOLDSTEIN: These people have staked their reputations on success in the war. And so they're very reluctant to kind of walk that back and say, well, maybe I was wrong about these maximalist aims for this war. They're going to unfortunately resist such kind of compromises that the world needs and above all, the Ukrainian people need.

DAN RICHARDS: So where does the war in Ukraine go next? Lyle Goldstein is the Director of Asia Engagement at the think tank Defense Priorities and a Senior Fellow at the Watson Institute. In addition to being an expert on Russian military strategic development, he also has been following this conflict closely in the Russian media.

On this episode, Lyle and I discuss how this war has evolved over the last 12 months. What does victory now mean in both the Kremlin and Kyiv? What might it take to bring both sides to the table to end this conflict, and what might an end actually look like?

DAN RICHARDS: Lyle Goldstein, thank you so much for coming on to Trending Globally.

LYLE GOLDSTEIN: Oh, it's a great pleasure to be here again, Daniel.

DAN RICHARDS: How would you describe the state of this conflict, this war now?

LYLE GOLDSTEIN: I see it really as-- it has developed in the character of a stalemate, which, of course, is surprising to a lot of us. Before the war, many thought Russia would easily stomp all over Ukraine and take whatever it wanted.

But of course, somewhat shockingly in a kind of David and Goliath moment, Ukraine succeeded in holding its own, in defending its capital with great bravery and under extremely difficult conditions and with a lot of help.

However, since that time, the battle lines have hardened. And although some of Ukraine's offensives in late Twenty Twenty-Two where they did have some success throwing the Russians back from Kherson and around Kharkiv, nevertheless, Twenty Twenty-Three has really seen a hardening of the lines.

DAN RICHARDS: According to a New York Times analysis, from January to September of Twenty Twenty-Three, only 500 square miles of territory changed hands amidst the fighting. As Lyle explained, though, this stalemate on the battlefield does not mean that Russia and Ukraine are in an equal position in this war right now. Ukraine, according to Lyle, is at nothing short of a crisis point.

LYLE GOLDSTEIN: Ukraine's army is not just running short of ammunition and suffering for lack of air cover. But after two years of war, it's a country that really has suffered devastating losses in terms of killed and wounded on the battlefield, and they are literally running out of able-bodied men.

This is causing immense problems at all levels I think in Ukrainian society, including on the battle line chiefly, but among commanders I think who are somewhat demoralized as well.

DAN RICHARDS: Contributing to this demoralization is the uncertain support of Ukraine's most important ally, the United States. In January of this past year just a month ago, funding for Ukraine from the US essentially dried up. And as of this taping, there is no plan for further military aid to be provided to Ukraine in the year ahead. And if Ukrainians are feeling increasingly demoralized by the state of this war, many of Russia's leaders feel the opposite.

LYLE GOLDSTEIN: There's definitely a kind of change in tone, if you will, there's a spring in their step from their point of view kind of they weathered the worst. Russian military over Twenty Twenty-Three showed that it's very capable in defense.

They shut down completely the Ukrainian counteroffensive. They've gotten more organized, they have put their sort of military industrial machine, and I should add their propaganda machine into overdrive. More than that, they are feeling rather bullish after Russian forces seemed to perform very well in the counteroffensive, inflicting massive losses on the Ukrainians.

DAN RICHARDS: So as you describe, Russia's leadership is feeling a little more bullish at this moment in terms of their prospects in the war. And so maybe let's start there with Russia and Putin. Could you explain to listeners as best as you know how Putin frames his objectives in this war?

What is victory for him at this point? Is it a Russian flag in Kyiv? Is it reclaiming the territory that they currently have under their control and ending the conflict there? What is success in his mind?

LYLE GOLDSTEIN: That is kind of the $64 million question. And my assessment is that Putin has been rather vague about this on purpose because from the moment this started, things started going wrong. So he's kind of adapted.

And while you know Russian sources will claim that it's crystal clear, my sense is that it's anything but crystal clear. I mean, look, at a minimum, I think his objective is to consolidate what they've gained. But I think in Putin's wildest dreams for how this war ends, he ends the war with not just the territory he's captured, but also the city of Kharkiv and also the city of Odessa.

I don't think that they ever intended to conquer the whole of Ukraine because I think they understand that in Western Ukraine, you have people who have really never at all accommodated to Russian rule and that would be just not at all realistic. Now, the question of Kyiv and Kharkiv and Odessa and the Eastern domains of Ukraine, that's kind of a different question.

DAN RICHARDS: We spoke a little over a year ago about this war and at that time, you described that you sensed Russian leadership was maybe approaching a point of being open to some sort of negotiation, like a beginning of some sort of de-escalation of some sort. How do you look at those prospects now, and how are you thinking about that?

LYLE GOLDSTEIN: Well, I mean, I recall making that suggestion because Russia had just suffered these reverses and had been thrown out of Kherson and back from Kharkiv substantially.

Now, of course, the situation is different. Like I said, the wind is in the sails of the Russian war machine. It's definitely sobering to know that we now are two years into this. And let's face it, this could go on for 2, 3, or 5 more years.

DAN RICHARDS: Russia's bullishness and apparent commitment to this war was on display, especially in one of the stranger spectacles to come out of this war in recent weeks.

TUCKER CARLSON: The following is an interview with the President of Russia Vladimir Putin shot--

DAN RICHARDS: That is, of course, former Fox News host Tucker Carlson, who interviewed President Putin for his online news program in February.

TUCKER CARLSON: The interview, as you will see if you watch it, is primarily about the war in progress, the war in Ukraine--

DAN RICHARDS: In the interview, Putin through an interpreter expressed interest in finding a path out of this violence.

VLADIMIR PUTIN (INTERPRETED): Listen, I think I said that. We do not refuse to talk, to negotiate.

DAN RICHARDS: He went on to say that the United States should push Ukraine to negotiate. So far neither Ukraine nor the United States have taken up Russia's offer. Lyle doesn't see Putin's desire to negotiate as completely disingenuous. Although, what exactly it would mean is unclear.

LYLE GOLDSTEIN: It's accurate to say that the Russians have always said they're ready to sit down today and talk about the end of this war. Now, talking is one thing, signing the paper or coming to the agreement or halting their armies is another thing, of course.

DAN RICHARDS: So in terms of actions then, what do you think at this moment Putin would be willing to give up in a negotiation if he feels like Russia is in a strong position, probably not as much as they would have maybe given up at another time? Is that fair to say?

LYLE GOLDSTEIN: As far as what the Russian side or Putin himself might settle for, I'm pretty convinced that they have reconciled themselves to some kind of future in which Ukraine is heavily armed and supported by Western partners, if not part of NATO. But at least, they have some-- this support is not going to end, but that Russia is kind of compensated with these territorial gains.

I mean, I think that is what they're really aiming for. I don't think they have any illusions that they're going to convince most Ukrainians to either "lay down their arms, demilitarize," quote, and have a positive feeling about Russia. I mean, they understand that many Ukrainians will hate Russia for generations. So the bitterness of war is going to be there.

DAN RICHARDS: And on the Ukrainian side, thus far, Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky has stated rather ambitious or maximalist goals for this war and definitions of victory.

At the UN General Assembly in September, he called for Russia to withdraw from all land it has invaded since not just Twenty Twenty-Two, but Twenty-Fourteen, which includes Crimea. How do you think Zelensky views victory in this war at this moment?

LYLE GOLDSTEIN: I'm no expert on Zelensky. Just from observation, though, I hate to say it, he's very skilled politician and he has put himself into quite a box, and it doesn't help to-- he's constantly being, let's say, patted on the head or on the shoulder by all these other world leaders and told what a great guy he is for this.

But I mean, again, does that really help him come to the peace table? I don't think. So I'm he may be kind of diluted by this maximalist rhetoric and not fully understand just how dire the situation is.

DAN RICHARDS: Well, I want to turn to the US for a little bit. We'll get back to Ukraine's politics and the view from Ukraine of this war a little later in the conversation. But Ukraine's aims in this war are ultimately tied up in their ability to maintain international support financially, militarily.

And over the last two years, the United States has provided ample funding to Ukraine, although that funding largely dried up back in January and it seems like there is not any guarantee that there will be more.

At the same time, the US is not pushing its ally, Ukraine, into negotiating with Russia. So I wonder, how do you see the US's role in helping to end this war militarily or diplomatically?

LYLE GOLDSTEIN: I would like to see the US government in particular be much more active on this front. I'm very critical of the administration. Particularly, the State Department has not engaged with Russia at all.

It's a sort of a policy of we wouldn't deign to speak with these barbarians, that kind of attitude. They don't deserve to sit in the same room with us. We certainly won't shake their hand much less start to negotiate about an agreement.

DAN RICHARDS: Is that because of their behavior in Ukraine or just general longer standing sort of ethos or an attitude towards Putin specifically?

LYLE GOLDSTEIN: All the above. It's sad. And I think to give the Biden administration some props, they did agree to that face-to-face, I think, in Twenty Twenty-One with Putin. And there were some meetings. I think Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman met with Lavrov and tried-- some attempts were made, but to my estimate, they were not serious attempts.

I really think, at a minimum, our diplomats should be working, burning that midnight candle not just on different ways to kill Russians and sink Russian ships, which is what they seem to be mostly doing these days, that is the American government, but also to consider how we might bring this to an end.

I mean, think about this, folks. If Wendy Sherman had succeeded in her mission to try to head off this conflict, then hundreds of thousands of people would be alive today. That should really make us think hard about the meaning of diplomacy.

DAN RICHARDS: And as for the idea that these two countries, Russia and Ukraine, will come to the negotiating table on their own?

LYLE GOLDSTEIN: I am somewhat skeptical the idea that we're just going to kind of follow their lead. Any time people are involved in a war, these people have staked their reputations on success in the war. And so they're very reluctant to kind of walk that back and say, well, maybe I was wrong about these maximalist aims for this war that we need to make a compromise here.

Well, that's almost impossible for a politician to utter those words, compromise, or I may have made a mistake, or I may have overestimated our potential here. So to me, they're unfortunately going to resist such kind of compromises that the world needs and above all, the Ukrainian people need such a compromise to get back to peace.

DAN RICHARDS: In other words.

LYLE GOLDSTEIN: This is going to require some tough talk. And the United States always throughout its history has been willing to talk tough with its allies and its partners.

DAN RICHARDS: One example of this type of tough talk that feels especially resonant at this moment.

LYLE GOLDSTEIN: During the Yom Kippur War, when Israel had been on the back foot and almost suffered a tragic defeat, but came back, surrounded the Egyptian Third Army, and the Israeli army was ready to not only seal the fate of the Third Army, but marched to Cairo and do a parade down the streets in Cairo.

And they could have done that, but the United States said, no, you cannot do that. That will shred the opportunity for peace, probably make the situation worse in the long-run and potentially start World War III.

So they read the Israelis the Riot Act and they said, no, you will release the Third Army from encirclement and you will make peace and be satisfied with that. And guess what came out of that, the Camp David Accord of Nineteen Seventy-Nine that may be one of the most important peace agreements of the 20th century.

So yeah, of course, we should be willing to strong arm Kyiv toward a peace agreement. That's in their interest, and they may not be able to see that because they're too close to it, too emotional. And that's often a problem with combatants, but the United States should do the responsible thing and help move both sides toward an agreement.

DAN RICHARDS: So the US is not the only superpower involved in some way in this war, I mean not to mention the entire EU, but China is supporting Russia in some critical ways, militarily, financially. And you can't really understand the story of this war without also understanding some of the story of the relationship between the United States and China.

And I wonder your thoughts about-- this past November President Biden and Xi Jinping met at the APEC Summit in California. And certainly the messaging at that time was that this was a productive meeting and sort of a hopeful beginning to a type of easing of tensions between these two countries.

And I wonder just what did you sort of make of that bilateral summit? And do you have any idea of if and how Ukraine comes up in these conversations, or is it really not a topic that these two have much interest in talking with each other about?

LYLE GOLDSTEIN: Well, I would like to see that. It would be good. No question. My appraisal of the recent meeting at the APEC was that it was quite a good meeting. I believe these US and Chinese leaders should have these face-to-face meetings frequently, not just video conferencing for an hour here and there.

I have long advocated that there be an annual summit meeting between Chinese and American leaders. I think the world would really welcome this kind of development and that summit meeting should be, again, not hours, but days. That's how you get genuine breakthroughs. And should Ukraine be on the agenda? Absolutely.

DAN RICHARDS: Let's say the US and China did decide to work together in some sort of concerted global effort to deescalate this war, end this war. I know this is not like on the horizon in any meaningful way right now, at least publicly. But I'm curious just even theoretically, what might that look like? How would these superpowers compel these countries to change?

LYLE GOLDSTEIN: I believe the way you bring these warring parties together is not necessarily by forcing them to make concessions because that's just going to be incredibly hard, but rather inducing them with carrots.

The decisions for peace in both Kyiv and in Moscow are very hard. And so to put them over the top, to put both Kyiv and Moscow over the top, they need to be convinced that they will be better off and better off in the near and medium-term, not in the long-term, but in the near-term. And that will require substantial economic boost for both countries, I think. And I mean, that's really going to be the only way.

And between the US and China, there's a lot of carrots that could be offered. And sanctions relief is pretty much the only way I could conceive of that. Although, I think the Chinese may have some other carrots too. But I mean, for the Americans to help bring the Russians back to the table, that will be chief among them.

DAN RICHARDS: As Lyle sees it, economic influence over Russia might in the long-term be the most powerful weapon the US has to offer Ukraine in ending this war.

LYLE GOLDSTEIN: Sending more weapons and hoping to destroy more Russian ships or something like that, honestly I don't think that's going to be what brings Putin to the table. Putin, look, I think he would expend any amount of blood for his goals in Ukraine, unfortunately.

But I think deep in his head, there is some kind of doubt about this and the doubt really concerns the economic circumstances of Russia, which are really in some peril. Although, I think in the short-term, the Russian economy has done quite well to kind of weather the sanctions.

But over the long-term, I think Putin is deathly afraid that he will leave a Russia that's more impoverished and that would be a huge embarrassment for him, this man who claims to be the savior of Russia, or that's his own kind of self-conception.

DAN RICHARDS: And of course, this reminds me of what you said earlier about how sort of difficult it is politically for leaders to take anything less than full victory when they've put so much on the line, which brings up another question I had. For this conflict to really end, might it mean a change in leadership in one or both of these countries?

LYLE GOLDSTEIN: Well, it could mean that. It was fairly common on Russian websites early on in the crisis, I mean, I'm talking a few months after the war started, for them to say, well, goodness this is looking kind of like a disaster.

We've seen this movie before and our government has been overthrown. I haven't seen that lately. That was sort of more a late Twenty Twenty-Two kind of discussion. But the fact that that was being discussed at all openly was pretty shocking and tells you something.

Now, I mean, I think a lot of Westerners, journalists in particular, have put a lot of hopes in this kind of theory of, if you will, theory of war termination. Meaning like, OK, well, we just have to wait for a reasonable Russian people to overthrow Putin, and then we'll move on to a happy future somehow when they clearly admit this was a costly adventure. I think that's a lot of wishful thinking, almost just pie in the sky.

DAN RICHARDS: And what about Ukraine's leadership and Zelensky's future?

LYLE GOLDSTEIN: I can't say I-- he's a very brave man, very charismatic, but I don't know if I would give him high marks as a strategist or a realist. In fact, there was some reporting I think in Time Magazine and elsewhere that suggested a lot of his advisors and people around him have questions about the clarity of his thinking and wonder if he really truly understands the dire circumstances confronting the state.

I believe they have basically canceled elections in Ukraine, which should be a bit troubling to all of us. But I mean, in some ways, it's understandable.

DAN RICHARDS: It's different than canceling an election in peace time.

LYLE GOLDSTEIN: Yeah, absolutely. Yeah, I mean, there are a lot of just technical difficulties, never mind the fact that people are kind of extremely emotional and so forth.

Anyway, so one could can excuse that and understand that. But I mean, I think there has been whispering anyway among people who wonder how this goes, whether new leadership in Kyiv could possibly take a different approach.

DAN RICHARDS: This topic received a lot of attention inside and outside Ukraine earlier in Twenty Twenty-Four when Zelensky relieved his former top military general, Valerii Zaluzhnyi, from duty. There was reportedly tension between these two men over both military tactics and over Zaluzhnyi's popularity and potential political ambitions.

The dismissal was handled amicably in public. There's a picture of the two shaking hands and smiling the day after Zaluzhnyi was relieved, but it's likely not the last time we're going to see political and military tensions in Ukraine as this war continues its grinding path forward.

LYLE GOLDSTEIN: It's possible that somebody could take the country in a new direction that might involve peace negotiations. I mean, yeah, here it does seem that Zelensky might be too invested in the program of war and again, by his kind of maximalist rhetoric that he cannot kind of retreat from that. But somebody who's maybe better acquainted with the situation on the battlefield, like a general or something, might have a better idea that could be possible.

But my own view is that war and the situation on the battlefield lends a kind of reality to this that it's inescapable. We're hearing about tens of thousands of people being killed and grievously wounded every month. I don't think that's sustainable for either Kyiv or Moscow.

So I do think we're approaching a herding stalemate and I suppose this is at least as much hope as reality. But I do think they will one way or another come to their senses because these level of losses and destruction is not sustainable over the long-term.

DAN RICHARDS: Thinking about a way forward, Lyle brought up two different interesting historical examples we might be able to learn from. The first--

LYLE GOLDSTEIN: I mean, I'm quite focused on the possibility of a Korean style armistice where basically new borders are drawn up over the present stalemated battle line. It seems to me that that's the most logical and easiest way to get back to some kind of peace and almost normal life for Ukrainians, first and foremost, but for the whole region.

I study Korea as well. I was just there a few months ago. So I'm not saying that the Korean peninsula is the ideal, but at least they're not slaughtering each other on a daily basis.

DAN RICHARDS: The second is an example from a little bit farther back in history of an outcome we do not want to see.

LYLE GOLDSTEIN: People don't really consider the Crimean War here, but this was 170 years ago. But basically, Britain and France, this is in the Eighteen-Fifties before our own Civil War, but they fought a horrible war against Russia for the same kind of open-ended objectives of trying to weaken and limit Russian power and punish them, and for bullying their neighbors. And I think close to a million were killed and wounded.

Finally after years of war, Britain and France managed to weaken Russia and got the Russians to sign a piece of paper that they would dissolve the Black Sea Fleet. But within a few years, Russia was back at it nibbling in the Balkans with his Black Sea Fleet. And this attempt by Britain and France to tell Russia how to behave in its own backyard seems to me it was a complete waste of effort.

We might study that example, realize we're repeating history here and try to move on from this and admit that mistakes have been made all around. But the humanitarians and pragmatists among us should lead us forward into a more peaceful future.

DAN RICHARDS: Which to be clear does not mean giving Russia everything it wants or selling away Ukraine's independence or promise for a better future.

LYLE GOLDSTEIN: I think Ukraine can be a viable and very successful state. In the future, it might be smaller in form. At huge loss in this war, it has gained its kind of nationhood, its national ethos through the heroism of the defenders of Kyiv and Kharkiv, and so forth.

So I mean, they have very much to be proud of and that successful state can have-- I could see it as a armed neutral having one of the most powerful armies in Europe. And that would be viable and with really a happy future. So let's get there. But we need peace in order to build that future, and just forever war is not the way.

DAN RICHARDS: Lyle, as always, this has been a sobering and enlightening conversation. And thank you so much for coming back on to Trending Globally.

LYLE GOLDSTEIN: Yeah, it's my pleasure. I'd love to come back and talk some more, Daniel.

DAN RICHARDS: This episode was produced by me, Dan Richards, and Zach Hirsch. It was engineered by Eric Emma. If you like Trending Globally, please leave us a rating and review on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen. And if you haven't subscribed to the show, please do that too.

If you have any ideas for guests or topics for the show, send us an email at trendingglobally@brown.edu. Again, that's all one word trendingglobally@brown.edu. We'll be back in two weeks with another episode of Trending Globally. Thanks for listening.


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