Russia’s War in Ukraine
Russia’s War in Ukraine
Podcast / Europe & Central Asia 20+ minutes

Russia’s War in Ukraine

This week on Hold Your Fire! Richard Atwood, Comfort Ero and Crisis Group’s Europe & Central Asia director Olga Oliker talk about the war in Ukraine. They discuss what’s happening on the ground, reactions around the world and what lies ahead as fighting reaches Ukrainian capital Kyiv.

N.B. Full transcript below.

On Thursday 24 February, Russian President Vladimir Putin declared the launch of, in his words, a “special military operation” in Ukraine. Russian airstrikes on military and other infrastructure near Ukrainian cities were followed by massive troop advances from the north, east and south. Despite fierce Ukrainian resistance, Russian forces have reached the capital Kyiv, where fighting rages on the city’s streets. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has called on all Ukrainians to arm themselves to defend their homeland. Notwithstanding months of warnings, as perhaps as many as 200,000 Russian troops have massed at the Ukrainian border, the Kremlin’s invasion has left Europe, and indeed much of the world, in shock. It seems inevitable that it will exact a terrible human toll. 

This week on Hold Your Fire! Richard Atwood and guest host, Crisis Group’s president & CEO Comfort Ero are joined by Olga Oliker, our Europe & Central Asia director to discuss Russia’s aggression. They look at what’s happening on the ground, what the next few days could bring and what happens if the Zelenskyy government falls and the Russians try to install a pliant regime in Kyiv. They talk about the mood in Moscow and reactions to Russia’s invasion from around the world, including in China. They also talk through the Western response – the extent and impact of sanctions, what a NATO build-up would entail and whether Western powers should back Ukrainian resistance and what that might involve. They discuss the impact of Russia’s invasion on wider global affairs.  

Click here to listen on Apple Podcasts or Spotify.

For more of Crisis Group’s analysis, visit our Ukraine regional page, and make sure to read our recent statement ‘ War in Europe: Responding to Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine’. Comfort and Richard also discuss the Ukraine crisis in their piece, ‘10 Conflicts To Watch in 2022.

Podcast Transcript

N.B. This transcript was generated using speech recognition software and human transcription. Please check the corresponding audio before quoting or if in doubt. 

Richard Atwood 0:00
Hi, this is Hold Your Fire!, a podcast by the International Crisis Group. I'm Richard Atwood. My colleague, Crisis Group’s President & CEO Comfort Ero, will join as co-host in about fifteen minutes, she's just coming in from a meeting. We're going to talk again today about the war in Ukraine. We’re recording on Friday morning: as we speak Russian and Ukrainian forces are battling on the streets of the Ukrainian capital Kyiv, after a night of Russian airstrikes on the city. Most of our listeners will of course know what's happened over the past few days. On the 24th of February, so Thursday this week, early in the morning, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced what he called a special military operation to demilitarise and, in his words, “de-nazify” Ukraine. He also made a barely coded threat of nuclear strikes on anyone that would come to Ukraine's aid. That morning, so Thursday morning, Russian airstrikes hit Ukrainian military and other infrastructure around major cities. Ground forces then came in from the east, from areas held by Russian-backed separatists, from the south, from Crimea, which Russia annexed in 2014, and from the north, from Belarus, where Russia and Belarus have been conducting joint military exercises. It appears to be a well-planned invasion. Today, we're going to talk again to Olya Oliker, Crisis Group’s Europe & Central Asia director. We're not going to give a lot of background, if you want that, tune into last week's episode. Today, we're going to look at what's happened over the past few days. What we know and what we don't know, what shape the fighting could take, the mood in Moscow, reactions from around the world, and what the next few days might bring. Olya, welcome back on.

Olga Oliker 1:28  
Thank you for having me again.

Richard Atwood 1:30  
So why don't we start, and I appreciate that this may well be overtaken quickly by events, but could you sort of give us a quick overview of where things stand militarily?

Olga Oliker 1:40  
Yeah, I think you've described it right. The Russians pushed in overnight from all directions. They have Ukraine surrounded. They are moving in. We've seen a lot of fighting in Kharkiv. We also are now seeing it in Kyiv, and also continuing bombardments of cities and air battles. So you know, believe half of what you see and then none of what you hear: it's hard to know exactly what's going on. But certainly large numbers of casualties on all sides, civilians fleeing. It's ugly. It's everything we thought it was going to be.

Richard Atwood 2:15 
And Olya, it seemed that at some points yesterday, that maybe the Russians weren't having as easy a time of it as they expected. There was Hostomel airport, this airport just north of Kyiv, that changed hands a couple of times. There seemed to be some sort of botched Russian attempt to capture it. And yet today, they seem to have advanced as you'd expect, given their sort of vast military superiority, they seem to advance quite quickly into Kyiv. And now it's not unthinkable that the capital falls fairly soon.

Olga Oliker 2:43 
Well, they're, yeah, I mean, they're, they move in echelons, right? They move in tranches, they don't put all of their forces forward at once. And yes, I do think they were probably surprised by the extent of the resistance they got. And they may be thinking any number of things about how to finish this operation, right? But being surprised by the extent of resistance does not mean that you turn around and give up. And they have more, they have more capacity, their forces can just do more. So this is why we're seeing it unfold the way we are. 

Richard Atwood  3:21
I think estimates from the first day of fighting cite only some tens of thousands of the almost 200,000 that have been massing around Ukraine's borders. So presumably, this is just a fraction of what the Russians could throw at the invasion?

Olga Oliker 3:32 
This is definitely not everything Russia has. The first day’s attack was not the full force of the 200,000 troops Russia had assembled, it was a fraction of them. And now other fractions are moving in. And now you've got the airpower component, you know, as opposed to just missile strikes and long-range strikes. So yeah, there's, there's the potential for more.

Richard Atwood 3:59  
And it looks like this is a pretty well planned operation, right. I mean, especially when you look back to the steps that President Putin has taken, really, since last spring, if not even earlier, it looks to have been building towards precisely this when we look at it with hindsight? 

Olga Oliker 4:17 
Well, look, it was always clear that they were giving themselves a lot of options. They have chosen a very maximalist one of those options. But I think when we're watching the build-up, one of the hypotheses was that they could dial it up or dial it down, they could salami slice away at it and negotiate in between. So there were all sorts of logics that Western, Ukrainian and Russian analysts for that matter, were thinking Moscow might follow. They seem to have decided to follow the whole-hog option. The other thing I find kind of interesting is that you're seeing something that was very well prepared militarily. And you contrast that with, for instance, the diplomatic overtures and discussions where, you know, the draft agreements that Moscow put forward in December, which were basically a Russian wish-list. That back and forth really did seem a lot less thought out and planned. And then you look at, say, the humanitarian response aspect of it, which appears to have got no planning, and Moscow was just assuming they would deal with it, because they dealt with it before. And I just find that kind of interesting as an analyst, what the brain power goes into, and what bits and pieces are left. So one of the questions I have is: should they win this war, how well did they plan for the after-war period?

Richard Atwood 5:55  
Let's come in a moment to exactly that and some of the potential scenarios. But I mean, I get your point on the humanitarian: it may also be that the announcement by the separatist leaders in Donetsk and Luhansk, to ship all the women and children out to Rostov in Russia, maybe that was part of the plan in a different way. 

Olga Oliker 5:13  
Well, I mean, they appear to have taped those announcements days in advance. So you know, they could have given the authorities in Rostov a little bit of a heads-up.

Richard Atwood 6:21
True. But on the, but on the political side, doesn't that sort of reinforce the sense that the diplomatic track, the diplomatic part of what Moscow was doing, just wasn't as serious as the military side – that there was a strong bend toward doing exactly what's happening now, whatever the diplomatic track was going to yield, unless it yielded everything that the Russians were demanding, which was, which was always out of the question.

Olga Oliker 6:45 
I mean, it's hard not to reach that conclusion.

Richard Atwood 6:49  
So let's talk then about what might happen. You're obviously in touch with friends and others in Kyiv, suffering the bombing and now this heavy fighting in the streets. President Zelenskyy has been really, sort of, put on this extremely brave display of resistance. He appears to have stayed in the capital. So maybe there's a scenario where his government holds out and Ukrainian and Russian forces battle for some time. There's another scenario, though, where the government falls quite fast, Moscow tries to put in some sort of surrogate regime,  loyalists or people prepared to jump ship. And then the big question is going to be the degree and form that resistance takes. As the U.S. has obviously learned a lot about in the past two decades, toppling a government is usually the easy bit.

Olga Oliker 7:32  
Yeah. So I think this is an interesting question, right? Do the Russians themselves occupy whatever parts of Ukraine they hold, they gain and keep control of? Do they put loyal Ukrainians in charge and count on Ukrainian security forces to, to follow orders, whoever's giving them? You know, it would take an awful lot of the Russian National Guard to occupy Ukraine or even parts of Ukraine. And this isn't the one third of Donetsk and Luhansk regions that the Russian-backed separatists were able to hold with their own people. This is a lot of territory. You know, you look at a place like Belarus, which is a very controlled environment where people are arrested for protesting, for, for speaking out against the government. But that was put in place over years. It got worse, more recently, but you know, the infrastructure of oppression was put in place over years. So how quickly can you build that? And how effectively can you build that and get the people to enforce it? I mean, that just sounds difficult, but bringing in Russians to do that long-term, that sounds even worse. So maybe they have something up their sleeve that I can't imagine, or maybe their read of the Ukrainian population, at least so far – and granted, this is not that far into the war – is that an awful lot of Ukrainians will stay put, right? They will not run, even under, under a bombing attack, and they will fight. You know, that isn't enough to win them a war, but it is certainly enough to make any occupation look awfully unappetising. 

Richard Atwood 9:23 
So, this is the latest Russian military action in a series over the past couple of decades, but it's really on a completely different magnitude, right? In Syria, it was about propping up the Bashar al-Assad regime, defeating rebels, which is always much easier than ousting a government and then trying to build something in its place. In Georgia, biting off chunks of the country, fairly small areas where already there was some resistance to Tbilisi. In Crimea, the population was largely supportive of Russia, and then there was also the seizing of the Russian-backed separatists areas, Donetsk and Luhansk, that you talked about. But this was invading tens of thousands of Russian ground troops, installing a new Russian regime potentially occupying a large country with a population of 44 million, many of whom are going to be very hostile. This is just something completely different, and echoes maybe more of Chechnya. But even that was within Russia's borders.

Olga Oliker 10:12  
And now the fact that they've been bombing for, you know, however long, it's, it's really not a way to win people over. 

Richard Atwood 10:20 
I mean, if you look at what happened, sort of in Chechnya and Grozny, in Aleppo, in Syria, some of the other Syrian cities, the Russian bombardments pretty much razed cities and left them completely destroyed. That doesn't seem to have happened yet in Ukraine, right?

Olga Oliker 10:33  
We see some destruction of civilian homes, right. And you are looking at cities where people, a lot of people, live in these large high-rises, so an attack on one of those affects a lot of people all at once. So we have, I mean, we've certainly seen some of that. And we've seen images of that, how much of that is collateral damage. And how much of that is intentional, I could not tell you, I don't have that, I don't have that insight. And I don't have enough data of what's actually been struck where to make that judgement. But you're also looking at a population that is really unprepared for this, right, that is really shocked.

Richard Atwood 11:18  
And so let's talk a little bit about the sort of, the mood in Moscow. It doesn't seem, judging from the way that the press is reporting it, or the reports of Russian public opinion, it doesn't seem that this has the same degree of enthusiasm among Russians that the annexation of Crimea had, for example.

Olga Oliker 11:36  
No,  Russians do not seem to be celebrating this. A lot of the official press has continued to talk about an operation in Donbas, which is bizarre. But Russian officials, you know, are not denying what they're doing. And they have been talking about Ukrainian surrender. The Russian elite, as it were, the policy analysts, the journalists, the people in the arts, a lot of them have come out publicly opposed to the war. We have seen protests in a lot of major Russian cities, and the arrests that accompany protests. So a lot of people have been carted off to jail for going out on the street and saying no war, and people still keep coming out and doing it. On the other hand, we've also seen waves of protests in Russia before for other reasons and arrests, and the government does not change its policy as a result. So I mean, I think, no, there is no enthusiasm for this conflict among the bulk of the Russian population. You know, Putin is right in saying that Russia and Ukraine have always been close. He's wrong in saying that Ukraine is entirely artificial. But the peoples of these two countries, of these two lands, have been intermarrying, have been working together, have been moving back and forth for centuries. Russians have family in Ukraine, they have friends in Ukraine, they have people they went to school with, they have people they've done business with. So, you know, I think it's, it's a tremendous shock to them, that their country is bombing Ukraine. There's only so much that the propaganda can tell you before it just freaks you out.

Richard Atwood 13:31  
I guess this is almost impossible to say. But there was this meeting with the Russian National Security Council, with President Putin sort of berating some of his top and arguably most hawkish officials, and even some of them seemed a little taken aback by what was about to happen? Do you think that's a fair reading, that even among, you know, some of Putin's inner circle, that this is still quite a move to have made? Presumably, they must have all been aware this was coming, if the build-up had happened in the way it looks now.

Olga Oliker 14:01  
You know, I can read discomfort and attacks of conscience into their awkwardness, or maybe they're just very bad at reading lines and are uncomfortable with stage performance. I don't know if it's wishful thinking on my part to think that they, too, were horrified by what they were being asked to take part in. But, you know, there's a certain element of theatre in recent Russian policy too. I mean, if we remember the former-cosmonaut-turned-parliamentarian calling for the extension of Putin's term in office, right? Something I personally witnessed at the Valdai Club meeting in October, when Nobel Prize laureate Dmitry Muratov, the journalist from Novaya Gazeta, was there, and Putin kind of berated him, right? There's a certain amount of this theatrical presentation that sometimes all the participants are aware of and sometimes not. And it's intended, I think, to demonstrate that Putin is in charge in some cases. And I think in other cases, I don't know, I mean, it's things that are so obviously staged, I’m not sure what they're meant to demonstrate. Other than that you don't really get a voice.

Richard Atwood 15:18  
So Comfort has joined. Comfort, welcome on.

Comfort Ero 15:21  
Thanks Richard. Sorry to join a bit late. Olya, could we move to the reaction from the West? So far, President Zelenskyy has been quite outspoken about the lack of support from outside. Is that a fair assessment? How would you summarise the reaction so far?

Olga Oliker 15:40  
So the support that has been coming to Ukraine is exactly the support that was promised to Ukraine. I mean, this is exactly the situation everybody predicted: that Ukraine is under fire, that Ukraine is not able to hold out on its own, that Western countries will not fight for Ukraine. They have supplied weapons. I think, to the extent they're able, they're willing to continue, at least some of them, to supply weapons – over land routes, they're not going to fly them in. But you get calls for things like a no-fly zone. But I think it's from people who don't understand what a no-fly zone is, right? In order to enforce a no-fly zone, you have to fly in your own aircraft and engage the aircraft of Russia. So that is a war between whichever country comes in to help and Russia, and that is precisely what nobody wants to do – escalate this to other countries being involved in the war. I think the Ukrainians are also frustrated at the sanctions response. And I have to say, speaking for myself, it looked to me like the American sanctions response was planned out. It was clear that the Europeans had not actually coordinated in advance what their sanctions response would be. They were negotiating about it, they were having arguments about what was and was not going to be included. And I do think that's a bad look. They've been very good on the unity up to now, but I mean, I was personally surprised. This would have seemed to me to be a fairly obvious thing to have done, to have that ready to go, or at least have several countries who’ve agreed to it, and then everybody else can sign on. And you know, of course, what the Ukrainians want is the most possible. Anything, everything. The challenge here, you know, it's the challenge of sanctions: sanctions work best if they're not imposed, if they're just threatened. Once you impose them, you've already failed, you’re at plan B, you're then at the point of punishment sanctions. But you still have to ask yourself: are you trying to accomplish anything with those? And I think that’s where you get to these problems. How much are countries willing to take on themselves in order to inflict harm on Russia, particularly if they don't expect it to change Russia’s policies.

Comfort Ero 17:57  
So, maybe let's talk about some of the debates around the sanctions in Europe, and in the U.S. as well, and also your sense of what we'd expect as a net effect, you know, how Russia will react to them. Because, you know, the whole sanctions regime is not necessarily a new one for Russia. And to a certain extent, it hasn't necessarily altered Putin's own calculations.

Olga Oliker 18:20  
Look, the sanctions on banks, cutting off Russian banks from being able to do business with European and American banks, is huge. Keeping Russian officials from travelling to the West, most of them don't travel to the West. Cutting wealthy Russians off from their money will hurt them. Putin called a lot of his business leaders, the so-called oligarchs, into a meeting in which he assured them that they would be made whole and that they would be supported. Perhaps they were also reminded of where their bread was buttered and where their dependencies truly lie. I doubt they had any doubts about where their dependencies lie. So you know, these are punishments. The financial sanctions will hurt Russian citizens. We've also heard talk of visa bans that would keep Russian citizens from entering other countries. And there's a huge debate about cutting Russia off from SWIFT, which is the international financial transaction system, at which point, you know, nobody in Russia could basically get money to or from anywhere else. So again, those would hurt the Russian government, Russian business – they would also hurt Russian people, but any of this would. The markets in Russia are tanking, all of this is going to hurt the Russian population. There's no other way to do it.

Richard Atwood 19:47  
Olya, can I just push on that a little bit? I mean, it's certainly true what you say, that sanctions seem unlikely to change the Kremlin's calculations and Putin’s calculations. But given that Moscow has just invaded its neighbour, it’s not the first government to invade a sovereign country over the past couple of decades, but it's still a stunning violation of a norm that's supposed to underpin global affairs. And I can understand, “don't punish ordinary Russians with visa bans”, but SWIFT, cutting Russia out of the international financial system, doesn't that make sense now? President Biden, rather un-diplomatically, seems to blame Europe for not wanting to do that. And part of the reason is the cost not only for Russians, but for Europeans themselves.

Olga Oliker 20:27  
So there are a couple of factors here, right? One is how much pain that would cause and whether you think that's appropriate punishment, even with no illusions about whether it changes Russian policy or not, just that this will not go unpunished and this is how you punish. It would absolutely incur economic costs, and cost countries that do business with Russia. The other thing it does is, Russia has already been looking to insulate itself from Western markets, Western finance. So has China. So this will push them further in that direction. And aside from making them in general safer from sanctions, it also over time weakens the role of the dollar. It makes everybody safer from sanctions going forward. So you know, all of these things reduce the effectiveness of sanctions regimes in the future, because countries develop workarounds, basically undermining SWIFT, right, which is global, by cutting countries off of it. Well, it undermines the global system that works globally. And where do you go from there?

Richard Atwood 21:38  
So one of the other things that, you know, that we've suggested NATO should do, that NATO threatened it would do, and that it now looks like it will do and indeed it should do is build up its forces in countries on the alliance's eastern flank. What do you think that's going to look like?

Olga Oliker 21:54  
You know, I've often joked that there's a limit to how much you can build up in the Baltic countries, because they're just not that big, they can only hold so many forces. Poland is bigger. The NATO-Russia Founding Act, in that agreement of 1997, NATO committed not to permanently station substantial combat forces in these countries, or in any new NATO member states for that matter. And so what they've been doing is rotating forces through. I don't know if they're going to tear up the NATO-Russia Founding Act entirely, Russia has certainly violated its provisions about respecting the sovereignty of countries in the region, or if they're just going to continue to rotate forces through but expect to see an awful lot more forces, expect to see more exercises, expect to see more activity. There's no question. And what we've seen over the last eight years, since the rotational build-up has started, is a lot more incidents where Russian forces and NATO member state forces come across one another, intentionally or unintentionally, and sometimes dangerously. More activity, you're going to see more of those incidents. I don't think that causes war, to be honest. I think countries tend to back away from the brink when an accident is getting them towards it. But it does raise the tension. And I think this is the challenge. However, this war ends, the next crisis, there's going to be a lot of anger, there's going to be self-blame for how Ukraine was managed. And the risk of escalation, the risk of NATO military involvement, then, is that much higher.

Comfort Ero 23:32  
Thanks Olya. Can we focus next on military support to Ukraine, especially what would happen if an insurgency emerges? Do you expect any sort of military support towards that insurgency? If so, where would it come from? How will it materialise?

Olga Oliker 23:50  
So if we're dealing with long-term occupation, or a government that's imposed the effect of occupation, and you get resistance, including armed resistance, it could take a variety of forms. So it could look more like the IRA, right, where they blow things up periodically. You know, it's a little harder to imagine in the Ukraine context, something that looks like ISIS, right, where you've got armies moving around and having control of territory. So the support for any potential insurgency depends on the shape of that insurgency and the environment it's in. There's also the question of how countries get that support to them. And even now, right, with the question of helping to arm Ukraine, if you can't fly stuff in, because Russian planes are flying and it all has to go by road, you have to make sure that it's Ukrainians driving on those roads, right, because you don't want any of the supplying countries’ people to be implicated or involved, and you don't want an incident where they get hurt. And then you've got a potential escalation. The insurgency question, I don’t know, it depends on what the insurgency is. The immediate question of what can you get to help the Ukrainians last a little longer is hard enough to solve.

Comfort Ero 25:16  
Okay, all eyes are going to be on the Security Council today, taking a resolution on Ukraine, and one country that obviously we are all watching is how China plans to react. But doesn't this represent some form of dilemma for China, particularly given its own stance on the principle of sovereignty, that China tends to treat as inviolable? What do you see as the risks for China going forward?

Olga Oliker 25:52  
I think you've laid it out perfectly: that China faces a tension between its long-term strategic partnership with Russia, which it relies on to generally have similar views on U.S. perfidy and bad behaviour and to respond to that, and sort of similar views on sovereignty. But here, there's a break, because Russia thinks Ukraine shouldn't have any, and China is on the record saying that Ukraine also is a sovereign state. The rhetoric since the Russian assault began has been about, you know: “They should negotiate”. China has avoided openly saying that what we're seeing is an invasion, in order to stay out of saying that Russia has infringed upon anybody else's sovereignty. You know, they can keep tying themselves in verbal pretzels for a very long time. I'm not a sinologist, I'm not a specialist on China, but I was reading earlier today that a lot of the narrative in China is one where this war is somehow Russia defending itself against the United States. Now, I don't know more about it than that. But, you know, I think that's also an element of this, the extent to which the Chinese can make an argument to their populations and elsewhere that this is a defensible war, which, you know, if you're looking at it from most of the rest of the world, it certainly doesn't look like that.

Comfort Ero 27:32  
Just on that point. Olya, the reaction of the Kenyan permanent representative to the UN has been seen as a significant statement that, in a sense, represents the views of many, particularly the non-aligned. You know, his recognition, on one hand, yes, recognising Russia's own national security, but at the same time spelling out quite candidly what this means, to challenge the borders of another country in the 21st century: that smacks of colonisation for a number of us, for example, watching from the African continent. This raises a serious concern for a country that’s a P5 member, as well, this resonates badly in a number of countries, especially those who have deep histories with colonial experience as well. 

Olga Oliker 28:32  
Well, it should. Again, if you kind of go back to Putin's speech before he started his assault. It's not the Soviet Union that he is trying to reconstruct, it's the Russian Empire. It's the notion that Ukraine is properly ruled from Moscow, one way or another, whether as a vassal state or something else. And yeah, I think any country that has suffered from colonialism should look at that and be very fearful of the precedent of a colonial power claiming natural rights to all of its former colonial positions.

Richard Atwood 29:13  
Olya, can we say a word or two about what this sort of tells us about President Putin himself? I mean, obviously there was the National Security Council meeting that we talked about. There's been these two very, very aggressive speeches. One of the things that we've talked about before is that over the past couple of years, President Putin himself has been quite isolated, partly because of COVID, partly because of the people that he's surrounding himself with, who basically represent one world view. What does this tell us about where President Putin himself is?

Olga Oliker 29:44  
Well, he's certainly in a universe where the best tool in Russia's foreign policy arsenal is force. He appears to be in a universe where that is the way that you demonstrate to everybody that you are powerful and keep them from infringing on your interests and goals. There's a lot of speculation on how isolated he is and whether the two years of COVID-induced lockdowns have cut him off from any voices of moderation that might have advised him against this. I think that's plausible. I think he's looking to demonstrate that he can change facts on the ground. And then once he's done that, everybody just has to reckon with that reality. I think he sees a United States in decline, that, nonetheless, is still the most powerful country in the world from his perspective, so still the one you want to make deals with. He sees a Europe that is a stooge of the United States and irrelevant, in part because its power is economic and not, in and of itself, military. You know, they've long looked to Asia in theory as where they're interested in driving their foreign policy. But clearly, he's still interested in Europe. 

Richard Atwood 31:16
And obviously, Ukraine itself has a sort of special place in its relationship with Russia, and obviously, in President Putin's mind it has a special place. But I mean, is this where it stops?

Olga Oliker 31:31
Well, you know, there's a saying in Russian, and I think also in Ukrainian, that the appetite grows with the eating. So I think the concern is that success, however defined, in one place will breed the desire to try again elsewhere. And, you know, kind of, if he does want all of the Russian Empire back, there's a lot of directions that could go. And, you know, this was always the concern of the Baltic states and Poland. This is the great irony, you will hear them all saying: “we were right, we told you so”, and also being very relieved that they got into NATO earlier. And now, of course, the reason they got into NATO was when they were all saying: “the Russians are coming, the Russians are coming”. The pre-existing NATO allies were thinking: “nah, they're not, but you know, if it makes you feel better, we'll let you in”. If they had believed them, and really thought the Russians were coming, they would never have enlarged NATO. So, you know, this is kind of the disconnect of all of this. But, you know, I think that's certainly their concern, that Russia would then turn its eyes to them.

Richard Atwood 32:40
And you've been working, obviously, on Russian foreign policy, but deeply involved in Ukraine for many years. I mean, how has this been? How's it been to sort of watch this happening over the last days?

Olga Oliker 32:51
Well, it's been awful. Um, so this is not the first war that I've watched unfold. It's also not the first war unfolding in a place that I know well and feel strongly about. One of the things that I find striking is that, no matter how well you know what's happening, how easily you can predict exactly how the Russians are going to fight, what's plausible, that you're going to see these bombardments, that you're going to see some street fighting – no matter how clearly you know this, and write about it and tell people this is what's going to happen, it's still heart-wrenching to see the images, to hear people's voices on the phone, to look at the videos of parents saying goodbye to their children, to read accounts from people, you know, of how terrified they are. You know, I do think you stop being human if it stops affecting you. And yes, it's harrowing, it's awful, and I wish it would stop.

Richard Atwood 34:15
Olya, thanks so much for coming on.

Olga Oliker 34:17
Absolutely. No problem. 

Comfort Ero 34:19
Thank you, Olya. 

Richard Atwood 34:21
So Comfort, dark days for Ukraine, obviously, but also for Europe and more broadly. What do you take away from the conversation with Olya?

Comfort Ero 34:32
Yes, that's exactly it, Richard. It’s a very worrying set of days and weeks ahead for all of us. And I never imagined, Richard, that precisely two months to the day of me taking up the post of president, we would be watching a war unfold on Europe’s soil. But we did warn, did we not, Richard, about what was at stake in this year's “10 Conflicts to Watch” that we published with Foreign Policy magazine? We warned that things would look bad in 2022. How bad? We hedged our bets. But we did note that the standoff involving major powers looks increasingly dangerous, that Putin may gamble on another incursion into Ukraine. We also said that it would be a mistake to dismiss Putin's warnings, you know, as a bluff, and this is, this was a prediction that I hoped was going to be false, and it's come to pass. This is a tragedy, Richard, for Ukraine. This is also a tragedy for Europe. Security will surely be shaped, now, by this invasion, because Putin's Russia proposes a new security European order that will prevent NATO’s further enlargement east, and curb its military deployments and activities. But I also think it's a tragedy for global affairs. What is at stake, Richard, far transcends Ukraine. And in a way, this is where the battle is. We said it was going to be a struggle for a new equilibrium, a different world order from that which has governed the community of states since the end of the Second World War. And for me, Richard, the invasion clarifies minds. Looking at this from, say, the African continent, where Russia has been slowly rebuilding its relations with a number of countries, I think our Africa director got it right in his tweet today, when he says that the conflict will cause reputational damage to Russia. I might add that in a continent where Russia seeks to position itself as an alternative security actor to France, this really is a damage to that reputation.

Richard Atwood 36:50
I mean, do you think that reputational costs in Africa – you don't think that there's going to be a strong temptation for African leaders to just sort of move on and, and, you know, that in the end, you know, they're gonna see this as: sure it's Russian aggression, and sure they disagree with it, but in the end, it's someone else's problem? And, you know, let's face it, Western powers have also had their share of aggression over the past twenty years.

Comfort Ero 37:14
And that's true. And if you listen intently to the Kenyan [permanent representative] as well, the firing line was Russia. But there was also a reminder, also, that this chamber also has a number of other aggressors in there as well. It depends on which Africa you're speaking to, Richard, today. There are multiple Africas, and, and there are different kinds of leaders of different ilk. I think Kenya spoke on behalf of a majority of African leaders who would look at this with deep concern. And yet, and more worrying, is that a P5 member veto-yielding power, was able to get away with such blatant, brazen usurpation of international law. I mean, Kenya has since been accompanied by South Africa, and also by other leaders as well.

Richard Atwood 38:08 
Yeah, all such great points. I sort of find myself torn between two different ways of thinking of this. And they're both, I think, reflected in the language we used in the Ukraine piece we talked about, that we put out yesterday, which again, I'd really refer people to. The first is sort of clinical, colder Crisis Group analysis, I guess, which is that, as we talked about, things could easily go wrong for President Putin. It's a war. It's unpredictable, stuff happens. There'll be unintended consequences. The battle for the airport at Hostomel that we talked about showed that, you know, even the fight itself might be harder than the Russians anticipated. Installing a pliant regime in Kyiv, keeping order – again, as we talked about it, that's not going to be easy. Plus, Putin has ended up uniting NATO in the West in a way that they haven't been united for some time. There's going to be large NATO troop build-ups in members on Russia's western flank, so NATO's eastern flank, exactly what Putin wanted to avoid. So, you know, there's all that. And then, at the same time, you know, frankly, there's also this sense of, I guess, there's no, no better word for it, but this sort of sense of dread, in some ways. Obviously, I'm sitting in my Brussels apartment, far from the front lines in Kyiv, in awe of President Zelenskyy and many Ukrainians’ bravery. But there's this sort of feeling of things sort of careening out of control. And, you know, as you said, you and I wrote a bit about this in the “10 Conflicts to Watch” piece this year, you know, the main theme of which is exactly, as you said, the peril of a flashpoint between major powers blowing up. And on top of that, then you have this sort of surreal Russian National Security Council meeting, that angry kind of revisionism. You know, it would be disconcerting to see a leader in some tiny corner behaving like that, but this is the president of the second-most nuclear armed state in the world. Now, of course, there's plenty of signs that this was the way things could go, as you say, of course, you can do the kind of whataboutism with Iraq, and other very dangerous violations of sovereignty. In hindsight, some of NATO's decisions over the past two decades look unwise. Plus, it still seems that the U.S. and Russia are working together on the Iran nuclear file, which they should. But still, it's kind of cold comfort seeing what the Ukraine invasion tells us about the Kremlin's calculations now, and then you think that if NATO has been united, that's really because Biden's in the White House. You still have parts of the Republican party and media cheering Putin on. So presenting a less “Crisis Group” view from Brussels – you have an aggressive Russia on one side, you have a strand of thinking in the U.S. that rejects Washington's NATO commitments and admires Putin as a strongman, that could regain the White House in a couple of years. What more do the European leaders need to realise that they've got to be able to protect themselves in what is an ever more dangerous world. And Comfort, you know, I sometimes reflect on how Crisis Group would have responded to 1938. And again, I'm not saying that's where we are, of course, the world is very different. There’s nuclear weapons for one thing. It's more that the post-Cold War world that Crisis Group was born in, this idea that war can be averted by talks, by accommodation, finding ways to meet everyone's interests, which I think is still true in the vast majority of crises and even with Russia – at some point, Western leaders are going to have to get back to talks, but right now, you know, that just sort of rings hollow in the face of Russia's naked aggression.

Comfort Ero 41:34
I mean, I couldn't agree with you more, Richard. And you know your point about what this means for Europe: we've always said in the last few years, we've always emphasised and underlined why Europe needs to think about its own security. And I think this now is a big test for Europe, for European security, and how the member states of the EU reconceive, reconceptualise the architecture. But Richard, what concerns me also is that crucial norms enshrined in international law, we underlined it in the, in the statement, you know, the blatant usurping of norms against conquest, for example, that has long underpinned global affairs, even if it has been breached sometimes in the past. I think the other thing that concerns me is what people might take away about diplomacy and deterrence as tools for crisis management. Now, as you rightly said, you know, give talks a chance. And, again, suddenly, I think a number of people will call that into question as well. But ultimately, Richard, what really concerns me is what is at stake for ordinary, countless innocent civilians, caught once again in the crossfire of heavy geopolitical artillery. You heard the pain in Olya’s voice, as she told us of ordinary citizens and what they're going through. We can only imagine what they're going through, Richard. The calculations that they are forced to take, how big my suitcase should be, how many suitcases can I drag across long strands of empty roads, avoiding shelling as well, and children wondering what their fate is as well. For Olya, this is deeply personal. And we have colleagues in and around Ukraine that are very concerned about their security anda number of people asking themselves now: “Where am I safe? If it's not at home, where else?” And, and it's deeply, deeply sad that we've come to this. 

Comfort Ero 43:46
Hold your Fire! is a production of the International Crisis Group, I’m Comfort Ero. 

Richard Atwood 43:51
And I'm Richard Atwood. You can find all of our work on Ukraine. We put out a big statement yesterday, Thursday night. That's all on our website, You can also follow us on Twitter @CrisisGroup.

Comfort Ero 44:04
Thanks, of course, to our producers, Sam Mednick, and Kevin Murphy, and Finn Johnson who help out with production.

Richard Atwood 44:12
And thanks, of course, to all our listeners who have any questions, comments or feedback. Please do reach out on If you like the show, leave us a positive rating or review and we hope you'll join us again next week.


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