As I write this, Russia’s war against Ukraine is entering its second week. Air raid sirens are ringing out over the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv. Russian troops are laying siege to the country’s second-largest city, Kharkiv. The southern city of Kherson has fallen. Nearly a million Ukrainians have fled their homes.
Why did Putin invade Ukraine at this moment? What is his endgame—and what is the West’s? Does this war augur the beginning of a new era? Perhaps even a new Cold War?
Yesterday, I sat down with three people I deeply respect when it comes to thinking about history, foreign policy and American power.
Niall Ferguson is an historian and a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford. His most recent book is Doom: The Politics of Catastrophe.
Walter Russell Mead teaches at Bard College and writes the foreign affairs column at the Wall Street Journal. His next book, due out this July, is called The Arc of a Covenant: The United States, Israel and the Fate of the Jewish People.
Francis Fukuyama is a political scientist who teaches at Stanford. His latest book, coming out in May, is Liberalism and Its Discontents.
You can listen to our whole conversation here:
But if you’re not the pod-type, below are some of the highlights from our conversation, edited and condensed for clarity. — BW
On Putin, Zelensky, and Biden—the war’s three main characters:
BW: Given the subject at hand, I thought we might take a page from the tradition of the Russian novel, and introduce the main characters and their motivations before we get to the war itself. Niall, let’s start with the main character here: Vladimir Putin. Who is he? How does he see himself? And how does he see the role of his country on the world stage?
NF: Vladimir Putin has long aspired to resurrect not the Soviet Union, but the czarist empire. His fantasies are from the 18th and 19th century. His idol is Peter the Great, and he is reenacting in his own imagination the Battle of Poltava in 1709—the moment when Russia really arrived on the European stage as one of the great powers.
That’s the significance of Ukraine. In July of last year, Putin published a strange, pseudo-historical essay, “On the Historic Unity of Russians and Ukrainians,” essentially saying that the independence of Ukraine is an historical anomaly. And when I read the essay when I was in Kyiv back in September, I realized that Ukraine was screwed. He was going to break its independence either outright or, more probably, reduce it to the status of a puppet state similar to Belarus or Kazakhstan—clearly within the Russian sphere of influence and not in danger of becoming a successful democracy oriented toward the West or a member of the European Union and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. That’s what he is fighting this war to prevent.
BW: Walter, who is Volodymyr Zelensky?
WRM: He is one of the strangest people to come onto the world stage in a while. He started off as a comedian in Ukraine and actually filmed a television series about a comedian who becomes president of his country. His election was a sign, in some ways, of the alienation of many people in Ukraine from the existing Ukrainian political establishment.
The country has a real split. On one hand, the civil-society movement for democracy is part of a move westward; on the other hand, the political parties, economic institutions, and government bureaucracy remain wedded to structures that date back to Soviet times. It is a country of powerful oligarchs who often work through the political process. During this national crisis, we’re seeing a kind of new Ukraine struggling to be born. And I think it’s going to transform the role of the president and maybe catapult him into a place he didn’t think he was going to be. The Ukrainian response has just been stunning. Putin may go down in history as the man who made Ukraine a nation.
BW: Frank, what is Joe Biden’s perspective and his motivation in this drama?
FF: Well, Joe Biden was elected as a center-left candidate. Since he’s been president, he’s moved to the center of the Democratic Party and perhaps even a little bit further toward its progressive wing. However, in foreign policy, he returns the U.S. to its traditional position of being an internationalist supporter of democratic allies.
I think he’s done a magnificent job in rallying the whole NATO alliance to oppose Putin by, for example, diverting liquified natural gas supplies to Europe so they could endure a Russian cut-off of gas in the event of a war. He’s probably the person most responsible for the amazing change in German foreign policy: the Germans have abandoned 40 years of outreach to Russia, their hallmark through Angela Merkel’s tenure. Chancellor Olaf Scholz has declared a doubling of the German defense budget and his willingness to ship weapons to Ukraine. Those moves are the result of a lot of diplomacy that was occurring in the weeks-long leadup to the war. Biden has not been a successful foreign-policy president altogether—the withdrawal from Afghanistan was a real debacle—but I do think that, in many ways, he’s redeemed himself quite substantially.
NF: May I disagree completely? In Russian literature, there is a great novel: Dostoevsky’s The Idiot. Biden is the idiot. The reason this happened is because the Biden administration slowed down deliveries of armaments to Ukraine, lifted the sanctions on the Nord Stream 2 pipeline that was supposed to bypass Ukraine, signaled to Russia that the U.S. would not support Ukraine militarily, and therefore made it clear to Putin that he had an opportunity to take military action with only sanctions to fear. The administration’s strategy was to threaten the worst sanctions—as if sanctions were going to deter Putin. Then they tried something even crazier, which was to say, “You’re going to invade, and we know the date”—as if that was somehow going to stop him from invading. And the worst thing they tried was to get the Chinese to dissuade him from invading, when the Chinese had given him the green light on the condition that he didn’t go until after the Beijing Olympics.
This has been a debacle that has allowed a massive war to break out, one that could have been prevented had there not been such clear signs of weakness.
On whether the outbreak of war was inevitable:
BW: Let’s go to the morning of February 24, 2022. Walter, why did Russia invade Ukraine at this moment?
WRM: Putin fundamentally misread the situation, but he saw this as a great opportunity. He saw what he considered to be an American administration that had lost a lot of credibility after Afghanistan and had been signaling little interest in opposing him in Ukraine. He saw a new government in Germany, with a chancellor who was both untested and comes from the Social Democratic Party, which is the more left-wing of the major German parties and which historically wants good German–Russian relations. He saw China feeling strong and more opposed to America.
Closer to home, he was able to settle matters in both Belarus and Kazakhstan very easily. In Belarus, Putin helped Alexander Lukashenko—who had always been trying to steer between Russia and the West, much as some Ukrainian leaders have done—crush democracy. And in Kazakhstan, the largest of the Central Asian republics and a former part of the Soviet Union, Putin was called in by the leader, whose power was threatened in an internal power struggle.
So Putin’s experience of 2021 was win, win, win. I think he felt he was on a roll and it was time for the big one. There’s no doubt that, of Russia’s neighbors, Ukraine has always been the one that Putin considers both the greatest threat and the one whose independence is most intolerable.
BW: Frank, why is it intolerable to him?
FF: In a speech that Putin gave on the eve of the war, he lays out his intentions very clearly. He wants to reunify Belarus, Ukraine, and Russia. He doesn’t believe that they should be separate. An article accidentally published on a Russian website that was supposed to be a victory celebration laid this out. It talked about the tragedy of 1991, when the Soviet Union fell apart, and that this historical mistake would now be corrected.
Beyond that, I think that if you look at their demands in the negotiations leading up to the invasion, they also want to roll back NATO—not just from extending into Ukraine, but all the way to the 1990s. So I think that that was his intention.
Unlike Niall, I think the U.S. decision to give out all of this intelligence and predict the invasion was actually a brilliant strategy. We knew that the Russians would be pumping out false narratives about what they were up to in Ukraine. And I think the administration declassified a lot of its intelligence to get everybody ready, so that they wouldn’t believe some of the stuff coming out of Russia. And it worked brilliantly. Nobody believes this stuff. Part of the reason there was such a massive protest against what happened is that none of these Russian narratives really makes sense to anybody, because we seem to have gotten the intelligence right ahead of time—and, in part, redeem the failure of the Iraq War, when we released intelligence that turned out to be completely wrong.
BW: Niall, you called this a debacle, but Frank is saying that it was brilliant of the U.S. to telegraph and even brag about the fact that they knew the actual details of the invasion. I confess I saw that as a tremendous show of weakness—just as a civilian watching it, not as a foreign-policy expert, historian, or political scientist. I thought, “Hold on. If the world’s greatest superpower knows what’s going to happen, knows a war is about to unfold and can do nothing to stop it, that’s alarming to me.” Is that how you see it?
NF: Yes. The problem is that we created the possibility of Ukraine’s joining NATO and joining the European Union. But our actual attitude was like that New Yorker cartoon of the guy on the phone who says, “No, I can’t do Thursday. How about never?” We never seriously meant for them to join NATO or the EU. We didn’t supply nearly enough armaments for them to deter Russia from attacking. And as a consequence, we have a massive geopolitical crisis that could have been avoided. Telling people that you saw it coming is not an act of strategic genius. It’s an act of strategic feebleness.
The consequences of this are far-reaching indeed. First of all, in the administration’s anxiety to avoid even higher inflation, they’re desperately trying to resuscitate the Iran nuclear deal and get Iranian oil back onto the world market in the process, making all kinds of concessions that I think will come back to haunt them. Meanwhile, in China, Xi Jinping is watching this fiasco and saying to himself, “Well, if the most I have to fear is the threat of sanctions, then if I decide to take control of Taiwan, I’m in good shape.” And when Putin took out his little nuclear saber and rattled it, we were immediately deterred. The Europeans were so terrified that they immediately canceled the plan to make fighter jets available to the Ukrainians, which they had offered in the early days after the invasion.
FF: What would you have done? What would you have done that the Biden administration has not done that you think would have made such a big difference in the Russian calculation, given the stakes that Putin sees?
NF: There are two choices, and we chose neither. Either we tell Ukraine to accept neutrality, because otherwise, the Russians are going to invade and we’re not fighting—this is what Henry Kissinger proposed back in 2014—or you have to arm the Ukrainians sufficiently that they can deter the Russians. And we did not.
FF: Part of the reason that they have bogged down the Russians is that we have vastly upped the weapons going into that country. We’ve given them training. We’ve given them intelligence cooperation. Short of flying into Ukrainian airspace, we’re putting boots on the ground. There is nothing that you have suggested that is realistic that we could have done.
On the question of U.S. responsibility:
BW: Niall mentions Kissinger, who said in 2014 that we need a policy in the West aimed at reconciliation between Russia and Ukraine. Six years ago, John Mearsheimer warned that the West is “leading Ukraine down the primrose path, and the end result is that Ukraine is going to get wrecked.” In 2015, Noam Chomsky said that Ukraine’s desire to join NATO is “not protecting Ukraine, it is threatening Ukraine with major war.”
I differ politically in major ways from all three, but each has been warning about this for a while. Walter, my question to you: How much of this current war is the responsibility of America and the West? Is there something that we could have done well before the past few weeks or months to prevent it?
WRM: Look, the origins of this crisis do go back some ways. Back in the 1990s, I was not a big fan of expanding NATO. I thought it would have been a better idea to try to put together some sort of security arrangement, including Sweden and Finland and some other countries, that would have a guarantee from NATO and perhaps Russia. Whether that would have worked, one can’t say.
The big problem started in 2008 in Georgia, when the Russians invaded Georgia and we did not come up with a very effective response. At the time, it would have been a good idea to announce an American base in Crimea, because the Russian action had made the situation unstable. Then, in 2014, our response telegraphed that we’re going to accept sanctions that don’t do anything but make us feel good, and issue lots of speeches about our unity and our dedication to democracy. We’ve taught Putin over a period of years that the way we counter geopolitical assault is through tough words and sanctions that are of marginal impact.
He very much expected the same thing to happen this time: he gets more territory, we give more sanctions. That is not an approach that works well.
I think when the history books finally come, the American president seen to have been the least effective in dealing with Putin will be Barack Obama. If anybody taught Putin to despise the West, it was Obama. Now, Trump’s policies were more anti-Putin than anything Obama did, but his rhetoric was not. And because of his sort of whole crazy defensiveness over Russiagate, he got himself in various tangles. It was just kind of an ugly mess. I think Putin did read from Trump a certain kind of Western weakness—that the European alliance was getting weaker, that America was hopelessly polarized.
NF: I agree that Obama’s policy towards Russia was a disaster. Remember “the 1980s are calling, and they want their foreign policy back”? His was a disastrous record of failure, and I think it set many of these trends in motion that are reaching their terrible terminus right now.
BW: Frank, it seems like Walter and Niall see Obama’s weakness as sort of the root of a lot of what we’re seeing now. I think we disagree.
FF: I think that many American presidents have a role in bringing us to where we were. I think that we should really begin with the Bucharest summit in 2008, when Ukraine was first promised a NATO membership. At the time, I thought that was a big mistake, because we couldn’t actually fulfill that promise. That was under George W. Bush. And I would agree with the criticisms of Obama: I think his refusal to sell weapons to Ukraine and not observing the red line in Syria were bad moves.
But I think that you guys have let Donald Trump off the hook. It’s not just that he was upset about Russiagate. He has been issuing statements supporting Vladimir Putin from well before he was elected president. Even after the invasion, he talked about Putin being a genius and very savvy. He gave a speech just a few days ago at CPAC where he attacked who as a global tyrant? Justin Trudeau—not a single word about Vladimir Putin. He and his followers on the right have a real affinity for strongman leadership. That’s really what is at stake. When you go to Helsinki and you say, “I believe Vladimir Putin more than my own intelligence community,” that’s giving aid and comfort. That’s close to being treasonous, in my view.
There is good reason for Putin to think that America is weak under Joe Biden—partly because Trump hasn’t gone away after January 6, and a significant part of the Republican Party believes this lie that the election was stolen. The country is seriously divided because of the failure of the Republicans to concede the peaceful transfer of power. And so if you’re Putin, you’re thinking that you can rely on your Republican friends to soften any blow.
Finally, on Biden, yes, I think that he did not do certain things. I was very disappointed when he pulled back on trying to cancel Nord Stream 2. Really, four presidents have contributed to this image of American weakness and have made mistakes on policy. But where we are right now, I think, is pretty good given, you know, given that legacy.
On how the war might end:
BW: We may not be willing to go to war, but Putin clearly is. Doesn’t he just want his endgame more than we want ours? What even is the endgame here for the U.S. and the free world, if I can still call it that?
WRM: It’s just impossible to tell where this thing is going, and that’s one of the reasons it’s such a compelling world event. On the one hand, there could be a palace revolution in Russia tomorrow in which people there decide this Putin guy has really gone too far. There’s another trajectory where the violence just gets worse. It’s important to remember just how terrible Ukraine’s history was in the 20th century: World War I, the Russian Revolution, Stalin’s repression, Hitler’s invasion, Stalin’s reimposition of rule. It’s a society that’s been repeatedly brutalized, and Putin’s worldview is that brutality works.
NF: What the West should be doing is trying, if it’s at all possible, to keep Ukrainian resistance from crumbling, though I think it’s almost certainly too late. And if it can’t prevent a Russian victory, then it should seek to broker a ceasefire. This was the 1973 playbook that Kissinger used when Israel, also not a NATO member, was attacked by Egypt, Syria, and other Arab nations. The Kissinger playbook was to supply the Israelis with enough arms that they can avoid defeat, but also not so much that they completely overwhelm the Arabs. Then he brokered the ceasefire and made sure that the U.S. calls the shots and the Russians were essentially marginalized.
What we’re doing at the moment is almost the exact opposite. We’re offering those powerful weapons of applause, editorials, and speeches rather than the kind of hardware that the Ukrainians need. We’re not really helping them win, and we’re certainly not going to give them victory with fine words. And we’re leaving the Chinese to offer to intermediate, which is just fatal. It’s almost as if all the lessons of diplomatic history have been forgotten.
I think cluelessness has been the order of the day, and that is why I think this is a very bad scenario. Maybe there are worse scenarios—nuclear war is worse—but it’s a pretty bad state of affairs. If Russia is going to win by brutal means, then a conventional war using the tactics of Grozny or Aleppo on Kharkiv entails killing a lot of people. And then they sit there, perhaps fighting a nasty insurgency, but controlling Ukraine and menacing the Baltics and Poland. The thing that really troubles me the most, Bari, is the cascade effect where one disaster leads to another: there is unquestionably going to be at some point a crisis over Iran’s ambition to become a nuclear power, and there is going to be a crisis over Taiwan. And I think we are moving towards these other crises in a position of significant weakness, and I cannot really look back and say the Biden administration did anything other than screw it up.
FF: You're being way too defeatist about the situation in Ukraine. The situation in Ukraine is not nearly as bad as you’re portraying it. The idea that with 190,000 men you can control a country of over 40 million is ridiculous. The idea that you can even control a city like Kyiv without many troops is not in the cards. Even if they manage to get rid of the Zelensky regime, they’re going to face a prolonged insurgency, because Ukrainians are united as never before. Logistical problems are what’s blocking the armament of the Ukrainians, because everybody, beginning with the United States, is tripping over themselves to get anti-tank weapons, stingers, helmets, medical supplies to Kyiv. We are doing a lot, and I think the idea that somehow we know that Putin is ultimately going to win is defeatist.
NF: Nobody feels more emotionally engaged on this subject. That's why I've been rather irascible. I have dear friends in Ukraine. I find what is happening a disgrace. But the prospect of my friends being involved, first, in a really brutal bombardment and then in an insurgency is one that fills me with despondency. I've been to Kyiv every year for the last 10 years, and each year I meet with young students. And their aspirations have been consistently to have a new life that's oriented towards the West. To come out from underneath the grip of Moscow.
I'm not being defeatist. I'm being realistic because the Western media coverage is greatly exaggerating the probability of Ukrainian resistance enduring for more than a few weeks. You have to look at the facts on the ground.
On the future of American power in a more dangerous world:
BW: The conversation here in the U.S. has unfolded in ways that have really surprised me. I think that it comes down to how you answer two questions. First, post-Iraq and post-Afghanistan, do you believe that American power can still be a force for good? Second, do you trust the people in charge? Do you trust a political class that has lied to us about any number of things to actually tell the truth about what’s going on in Ukraine right now, and to actually follow through on threats? I am shocked—maybe not so shocked—by the number of people I know who basically say, “I can’t trust American power, and can’t trust American elites.”
FF: Of course the United States can be a force for good. I think our role in the Cold War, despite bad decisions like Vietnam, was good, and it was rewarded in the end by the spread of democracy to places that had been held under communist dictatorship. I think most of the really bad mistakes have been in the Middle East, and there I would actually say that we’re probably better in general staying out or trying to minimize our presence. I think the moral clarity that we’re seeing in Eastern Europe and in Ukraine is much greater than the moral clarity of, say, Syria or Iraq or Afghanistan.
And yes, I do think you can trust the U.S. If you believe that American power is a force for good, then it’s corrosive to have this generalized distrust of America, that somehow the elites in America always lie to you, that they can’t be trusted, that they won’t live up to their promises. Quite frankly, as I said at the beginning of this discussion, I think the Biden administration has pretty much lived up to its promises. And so we’ve got to hope for the best in terms of rebuilding trust, because we are still very important to a lot of democratic allies all over the world who are counting on us.
NF: Having good intelligence is not sufficient. The problem is formulating a coherent strategy on the basis of that intelligence. If you know Russia’s going to invade Ukraine, and you know the day it’s going to happen, that’s not the end of the story—you then have to try and come up with a coherent strategy. If you can’t deter Russia and you can’t find a diplomatic alternative to the conflict, then you have to have something more than we’ve gotten from the Biden administration thus far. The Europeans have been more impressive in their response and have pushed forward the sanctions agenda. But sanctions aren’t, I think, going to determine the outcome of this war. My sense is that we are in a situation in which the U.S. has lost control of events.
BW: Walter, I know that we’re not supposed to be looking forward, but it feels, at least to me, like we may be emerging out of the end of an era that stretches back decades, even centuries. Do you feel that way? What do you think is around the bend for America, and for the world?
WRM: The post–Cold War era is over. Russia, China, Iran, and other countries are not just disliking the post-1990 world order but taking action to contest it. This is a different kind of world. Great-power competition is here. The world is not about passing resolutions at the United Nations or creating multilateral forums. Hard power is back.
That’s frankly terrifying to a generation that thought that all of that stuff was over, but we have no ability to go backward. When you study history, you discover the one thing that history really seems to teach most strongly: people don’t learn much from history. That is, generations continue to make similar mistakes. In some ways, the experiences of World War II and the Cold War were an unusually deep lesson. But even that lesson has begun to wear off. And so this may kind of contribute to your sense of our being in a different place.
NF: We’re in Cold War II. Things are a bit different. In this Cold War, China is the dominant partner and the Russians are playing second fiddle. There will be a non-aligned movement, but it’ll be different countries that will be non-aligned. I think much of the action will be transpacific rather than transatlantic. That's why I’d watch this space—Taiwan is coming soon. But here we are. It’s the same old kind of conflict in the same old place.
BW: It feels like we’re stumbling into a world that is hard and serious and maybe brutal—and that, at least in the West, we don’t have any leaders who feel up to that challenge.