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Conflict in Ukraine: Putin & Zelensky Dig In for Long War Amid Nuclear Risks, Global Food Disruption

StoryAugust 02, 2023
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Nearly a year and a half after Russia invaded Ukraine, we speak with defense and international affairs expert Rajan Menon about the state of the war and prospects for peace. “The difficulty is that neither side, neither Ukraine nor Russia, feels that it is losing the war,” says Menon, director of the Grand Strategy program at Defense Priorities and a senior research scholar at Columbia University’s Saltzman Institute of War and Peace Studies. “We are liable to see this war continue for several months, if not more than that.” Menon is the author of several books, including Conflict in Ukraine: The Unwinding of the Post-Cold War Order, and recently visited Ukraine.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: I’m Amy Goodman in New York, joined by Democracy Now!’s Juan González in Chicago. This is Democracy Now!

We turn to Ukraine, where Russian drone strikes on the Odesa region caused fires at a port near the border with NATO member Romania that damaged facilities that transport Ukraine’s crucial grain exports. This comes after Russia left a deal two weeks ago that allowed Ukraine to export grain to world markets through the city of Odesa. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said Russia had, quote, “once again targeted ports, grain facilities and global food security.” Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan spoke with Russian President Vladimir Putin after the attack and said he’ll continue efforts to reinstate the Black Sea grain deal and push for deescalation. On Tuesday, the U.S. envoy to the United Nations said there were indications Russia may return to discussions about the grain deal.

This comes after Russian missiles struck a residential high-rise in the Ukrainian city of Kryvyi Rih Monday, the hometown of President Zelensky, killing at least six people, including a 10-year-old girl and her mother. Dozens more were injured in the attack. One resident said she raced to the scene of the blast after receiving a panicked call from a friend who lived nearby.

KRYVYI RIH RESIDENT: [translated] I only heard “Help me.” So we jumped into our car and drove here. What we saw was pure horror, committed by the Russian — I don’t want to say the word here. They hit a residential building, and her block is just next to it, so everything in her apartment was ruined. She survived and is alive, thank God.”

AMY GOODMAN: Elsewhere, officials in Ukraine’s Russian-occupied Donetsk region say two people were killed and six others injured when Ukrainian artillery fire struck a civilian bus. In Moscow, Russia’s Defense Ministry says Ukraine launched a fresh wave of drone attacks on Russia’s capital, with one of the devices striking an office tower that had been hit in a previous attack Sunday.

Meanwhile, Poland is accusing Russian ally Belarus of violating its airspace with military helicopters. Belarus denied the accusation, but Poland’s Defense Ministry said Tuesday it’s sending, quote, “additional forces and resources, including combat helicopters,” to its eastern border. Also Tuesday, Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko mockingly told Poland it should thank him for keeping in check Wagner mercenaries now stationed in Belarus after last month’s failed mutiny in Russia.

This all comes as Saudi Arabia is planning to host a peace summit this weekend. This is U.S. State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller.

MATTHEW MILLER: We do, of course, support this summit. We have long said that it’s important that Ukraine be in the driver’s seat when it comes to any potential diplomatic resolution to this war. It’s important that countries that have not yet heard directly from Ukraine hear from Ukraine, so we are gratified that there will be countries that are attending this summit to talk directly with Ukraine. If your question was with respect to what other countries will be attending, I would defer to the governments of Saudi Arabia —


MATTHEW MILLER: — and Ukraine to that — to answer that question. If the question is in respect —

REPORTER: Let me —

MATTHEW MILLER: I’m coming – I’m coming to you. You don’t have to — if the — you don’t have to jump in.

REPORTER: All right.

MATTHEW MILLER: If the question is with respect to what U.S. government —


MATTHEW MILLER: — officials will be attending, I can confirm that there will be U.S. government officials. Not ready to make announcements yet about who those will be, but as the week goes on, certainly you can expect that we will do so.

AMY GOODMAN: In a moment, we’ll be joined by Rajan Menon, director of the Grand Strategy program at Defense Priorities, a senior research scholar at Columbia University’s Saltzman Institute of War and Peace Studies, the author of several books, including Conflict in Ukraine: The Unwinding of the Post-Cold War Order. He also just recently returned from Ukraine and has some very interesting pieces.

Rajan, it’s great to have you with us. If you can start off by talking about the so-called Ukrainian counteroffensive and the state of it, as you just recently returned from Ukraine?

RAJAN MENON: The primary focus of the Ukrainian counteroffensive is in the south, particularly two provinces, in Donetsk, the southwest part of it, and Zaporizhzhia, to some extent in Kherson. The Russians have had a great deal of time over the past several months to create layered fortifications to seed the area with mines, and they’re dug in. The real question is: How much headway can the Ukrainians make in the face of those barriers, plus extremely intense Russian artillery fire and air power? They have made some advances in a few areas on the southern front, but we’re way too early in this process to know how successful the counteroffensive will be. People have already called it a failure; some have called it a success. I think we should be in a wait-and-watch mode.

AMY GOODMAN: Juan, we’re just turning on your mic. Go ahead. Juan, we can’t hear you. Oh, go ahead. Rajan, if you can talk about Saudi Arabia, what’s coming up this weekend, who’s included in this so-called peace talks?

RAJAN MENON: Well, Russia is not included, so it’s not formally a peace negotiation between Ukraine and Russia. I think this is one of several efforts made. The Chinese made an effort. The African group made an effort recently. This is now a third effort to get some movement on the peace front.

The difficulty is that neither side, neither Ukraine nor Russia, feels that it is losing the war. Each feels it can still win. And so, I have no indication that the two sides have any convergence in terms of how they see a settlement working out. So I wouldn’t be very hopeful about these processes. If I had to give you my best guess, it is that we are liable to see this war continue for several months, if not more than that.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Yeah, I wanted to go back. I know we were having some technical difficulties. But I wanted to ask you, in terms of the offensive. At least in the U.S. media, there was quite a bit of expectation, one, that the offensive would have started much earlier than it did, but also that it would have been more successful by now. You’re saying that it’s still too early to say. But isn’t it already pretty evident that what the expectation was of NATO and the Ukrainian government have not been met?

RAJAN MENON: Well, I don’t know what the expectations of NATO were. But let’s remember that we’re a month into this. The Ukrainians are hobbled in many ways, primarily the lack of air power, probably insufficient artillery and ammunition. And so, I think to expect them to go charging forward into layered Russian defenses and take on enormous artillery fire and lose a very large number of people was, I think, from the beginning, very foolish. I know everybody formed a very quick opinion that the counteroffensive has failed. I’m not saying that it’s going to be a smashing success, but I think one thing this war has taught us is that many things have happened that people said would not happen, beginning with the invasion itself.

So, I think, at the moment, what the Ukrainians have done is to make some headway in three areas along the southern front. And this has been missed in a lot of the press reporting. They have carried out systematic attacks on Russian logistical facilities, on command centers, on fuel and ammunition depots across the southern front, including very intensively in Ukraine. The goal seems to be — and I’m not saying that this will succeed — to make it much harder for Russia to supply the troops that are in the south, dug in in the south. So, I think for all this to play out, we need time. It is definitely true that the Ukrainians don’t have all of what they need to pull off a smashing counteroffensive. But from the beginning, this has been an uphill battle for them, because in every measure of military power, Russia far exceeds anything they have, even counting Western support.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And I wanted to ask you about the impact of the Western sanctions or the NATO sanctions on Russia, which are the most draconian ever against the nation. And yet, last year, apparently, Russia, not only did its economy not decline, but it actually — there was an increase in production and output in Russia. I’m wondering your sense of how long Russia can hold out against these sanctions.

RAJAN MENON: I’ve been skeptical all along that sanctions would make any difference in terms of getting Mr. Putin to stop the war. We have a long history with sanctions, and we know that when a government decides to pursue a goal that, for whatever reason, it deems extremely important, sanctions are unlikely to work. I think the history of sanctions, in recent years or historically, suggests that they don’t really move countries away from positions that they’re trying to produce.

All of the indicators of the Russian economy bear out your point. There’s certainly no evidence whatsoever of personal discontent that President Putin cannot handle. I was just looking at some public opinion polls. They show no significant dimunition in Putin’s standing at home. So I don’t think he faces any kind of possibility of an insurrection or opposition to the war. That’s for many reasons. Some people support him. Other people don’t like the war but are too afraid to speak out. Yet a third group may not like the war but are going about their business and just getting on with their lives. But the long and short of it is that he doesn’t face anything on the homefront that should give him a great deal of worry.

AMY GOODMAN: If you can talk about the people you met with in Ukraine? You wrote a piece months ago talking about why talk of negotiations and, you know, discussion in the media — because this is certainly larger than Russia and Ukraine, Russia’s military far more powerful than Ukraine, but so many Western nations are now involved with supporting Ukraine. All over the world, people are concerned about what’s happening, but somehow this discussion of negotiations is seen as a pro-Russian conversation as opposed to a concern about the global just perspective on can we afford this war, especially when it comes to threats of nuclear weapons used, Rajan.

RAJAN MENON: Right. So, there are two issues that make the war of wider consequence. There may be more than two, but I’ll speak to two. One is, of course, the one you mentioned, the prospect of nuclear escalation. It is certainly something that we have to be concerned about for obvious reasons. The problem with escalation is that it’s very difficult to know what is in the mind of Vladimir Putin. So, you and I, for example, could sit down and try, step by step, to figure out under what circumstances might he escalate. Would it be situation one, situation two, situation three? But we have no way of knowing whether he’s thinking that way. And even if we could get a fix on what he’s thinking, down the road, six months later, his calculations could change. So there’s a problem of logical deduction in how far it can get us. There’s also an information problem, because we don’t have access to anything that he’s written about this in a confidential way, nor what he’s told people. So we’re flying in the dark. That is not to minimize the danger of escalation. It’s certainly a problem.

The second one is the whole question of what happens to global food crisis now that exports from the Black Sea, and now increasingly from the Danube, which the Russians are attacking, Ukrainian ports in the Danube, if food from Ukraine, which is a major supplier of several grains and sunflower oil, comes to an end. So, there are wider consequences.

But we have to come back to the narrow question here, unfortunately, of: Have the two sides shown any indication that they’re willing to sign a peace agreement? Mr. Putin’s position has been, yes, we can have a peace negotiation, but Ukraine has to essentially concede upfront that it will forfeit the four provinces, in which last fall Russia conducted a referendum and said they were formally annexed, disobediently. Now, the Ukrainians are not going to accept the partitioning of their country. It is true that they’re in an uphill battle, but in my visits to Ukraine, one thing that’s become absolutely clear — and this goes to the point of the U.S. fighting to the last Ukrainian — I understand why people are saying that. But it’s not as if the Ukrainians are fighting unwillingly. And so, if you wrap all this together, the pessimistic conclusion I have to give you is that we’re not at the end of this war, and it will continue. But all of the risks that you mentioned, especially the food risk and the escalation risk, are certainly very much going to be present.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And I wanted to ask you — you’ve taken three trips now to Ukraine, to the area still under Ukrainian government control. What’s your sense of how the population is holding up there? And obviously, we don’t know what’s happened in those areas that have been annexed by Russia. We do know that about 2 million people in those areas fled to Russia, not to the West, so that I would assume that they had some sort of support for what the Russian government was doing, or at least felt safer going into Russia than they did going into Poland or other parts of Western Europe. So I’m wondering how you feel the Ukrainian people are holding up at this stage.

RAJAN MENON: Right. Just on your last point, you know, I wouldn’t necessarily conclude that those who went to Russia did it because of pro-Russian feelings. That could be possible. The other explanation is simply that was the easiest escape route for them. And there’s some evidence that some people who are in Russia were taken there unwillingly. So, that question is still very much murky.

As to the mood, I’ve been now to the southern frontlines and the Eastern frontlines. I’ve traveled all over Ukraine, and I’ve been to Ukraine even before the war. Coming to the war itself, one of the consistent things that I’ve found — because I’ve asked people this a number of times: Has the economic privation, the refugees, internally displaced people, the destruction of the Ukrainian economy, and has the number of war dead led to the point where you think that, although you cannot get ideal terms, it’s time to wind down the war? I have not met a single person who’s told me, “Yes, the pain has gotten to the point where we have to seek a way out.”

Now, the one thing that the Ukrainians have to bear in mind is, if the war drags on into next year, and the United States, which is the main funder of the war, because the number two country, Germany, gives only about a tenth of what the United States gives — will the United States at some point conclude that it cannot continue supplying the war? And will there be pressure on Ukraine to come to terms? That is the thing that I think could force the Ukrainians to the table, because without American support, they simply cannot continue the war.

AMY GOODMAN: Rajan Menon, we want to thank you for being with us, director of the Grand Strategy program at Defense Priorities. He recently returned from visiting Ukraine. His books include Conflict in Ukraine: The Unwinding of the Post-Cold War Order. Thanks so much for being with us. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González. Thanks for joining us.

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