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Berkeley Talks transcript: UC Berkeley experts on the invasion of Ukraine

a steel statue of a person holding a sword with trees and fog in the background
The Motherland Monument in Kyiv, Ukraine. (Photo by Rostislav Artov via Unsplash)

Listen to Berkeley Talks episode #135: ‘UC Berkeley experts on the invasion of Ukraine.’

[Music: “Silver Lanyard” by Blue Dot Sessions]

Intro: This is Berkeley Talks, a Berkeley News podcast from the Office of Communications and Public Affairs that features lectures and conversations at UC Berkeley. You can subscribe on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Acast or wherever you listen. New episodes come out every other Friday.

[Music fades]

Susan Hoffman: I’d like to welcome everyone to today’s talk that we’ve called “Power Play: Russia and Ukraine.” I’m Susan Hoffman, the director of UC Berkeley’s Osher Lifelong Learning Institute. I’m very glad that you could join us today. We’d like to mention that this particular video will be posted sometime shortly with captions and available for you to forward to friends and colleagues. We’re interested in continuing the dialogue. We also know that our UC Berkeley News will be preparing a podcast of this conversation.

Generally, what we do is we will have, or in this particular instance, we will have our two speakers both talk. I will ask questions of both of them. They will also have questions of each other. Then, we will introduce a special guest today from the Congressional Office of International Relations, Jane Sargus, who will give a bit of a Washington perspective from her congressional office, which deals with the emerging leadership from the post-Soviet nations. Then, we’ll go to the chat room.

We expect if we have time that the chat room will be full of your questions. We’re going to look at those questions and try to aggregate them the best we can, so that if some information’s not touched upon, we do manage to get that area covered. If not, one of the things that we’ve been discussing within the staff is whether or not to hold a set of conversations later among the OLLI membership on the questions that will be emerging ongoingly.

One of the people who is invited to speak today who could not join us is retired Rear Admiral Dr. Michael Baker. He has prepared a five minute video talking about the liminal war that is likely to be ongoing. We will want to share that with the Ali membership at a future time, hopefully next week.

So, with that, I’d like to introduce Dr. George Breslauer, who’s been a UC Berkeley professor since 1971. Twelve of those years, he served as provost for the university. He is the author and editor of 13 books on the USSR, the post-Soviet Russia and the evolution of communism around the world. He also has a recent book through Oxford Press that’s called The Rise and Demise of World Communism, which was published last year. In the Osher Institute’s winter term, Dr. Breslauer taught Russia under Putin as an encore course this winter, and in the spring term, he will teach an eight-week course called Great Leadership. George, I’m glad you could join us. Would you please start?

George Breslauer: Thank you, Susan, and thank you for inviting me. Well, what we’re witnessing of course is a tragedy. The full scale invasion of Ukraine by Russian armed forces was the maximalist expectation of what Putin might do, and I think is a reflection of his having, in recent months, decided that before he retires or leaves office, that he is going to solve the Ukrainian problem, as he defines it. We’re watching this war from the comfort of our living rooms, and our hearts have to go out to the Ukrainian people who are taking all the punishment and are suffering as a result of this invasion.

That said, I have to argue, and have long believed, that this was an avoidable tragedy. Let me read you a quote from Vladimir Putin. He said, “We view the appearance of a powerful military block on our borders as a direct threat to the security of our country. The claim that this process is not directed against Russia will not suffice. National security is not based on promises.”

Putin said that publicly in 2008, close to 14 years ago, and a refrain of that by him and by his foreign minister has been ongoing ever since. Now, you could respond, NATO’s not going to invade Russia. Why the paranoia? Well, that’s not how state leaders think. Think back to 1960, ’61, even before the Cuban Missile Crisis, how the very fact of a communist regime in Cuba was defined as a national security threat to the United States, 90 miles from our shore. So, if you have a bit of empathy in international relations about how others are likely to define your behavior, however you intended it to be defined, you’ll realize that this kind of proximity of a major, major antagonistic block is something that Russian leaders are going to process as a threat, whether you feel the inclination to invade them or not.

Now, ever since 2007, actually, Putin and his foreign minister have been reiterating that. For last year or two, they have been calling upon Washington and the Western countries to engage in a dialogue about redefining the European security architecture, by which they meant trying to get NATO, and Western Europe, and Eastern Europe, and United States to rethink their approach to Russian foreign policy and their approach to Russia’s relations with its neighbors on the basis of and a willingness to concede that Russia has the right to have security concerns, minimally. That’s what they were calling for.

They got very little response to that, if any. So, last fall, Putin threw down the gauntlet. He said, “These are my two demands. One, that NATO forswear ever allowing Ukraine to join NATO, and two, that the forward positioning of troops in NATO countries that are closest to Russia should be drawn back.” I think the second was a throwaway. I don’t think he expected to see that degree of accommodation, but this was his way of throwing down the gauntlet.

So, we started diplomatic discussions because Putin was starting to show signs that he was mobilizing troops. Those diplomatic discussions, however, began with the proposition that neither of Putin’s two demands was acceptable to even consider. They were just brushed off or blown away. Then, Russia was told to take the diplomatic path to discuss those two demands and see whether two would accommodate on other things that maybe would satisfy him. Well, after a few months of this, he realized that he was getting nowhere, the diplomatic path, and that he would not tolerate at least one of these two demands being discussed seriously.

That’s the backdrop. Now, many of us have argued in the past that NATO expansion into Ukraine, and before, Georgia, as propositions for the future was never going to be acceptable to Moscow and was going to be dangerous. In 2008, they demonstrated the danger. Moscow went to war with Georgia in 2008, shortly after those discussions in NATO that called for preparing Ukraine and Georgia for eventual NATO membership. I personally think the only stable equilibrium in the future, and I’ve been arguing this for a while, and others argued it even before me, would be the model of the Austrian State Treaty of 1955, which basically called for the formal neutralization of the country.

That way, saying that it won’t join NATO is not ceding it to a Russian sphere of influence. It is rather saying it will either be in NATO nor be in the Russian sphere of influence. It will be left alone in that regard, with respect to its foreign policy. I’ve been arguing that up to a few weeks ago. After yesterday’s and the day before’s events, I think that may be tragically off the table.

This could have been avoided. Putin has now shown his worst instincts. He has shown his dark side, taking no prisoners in this attack on Ukraine. I just hope that he is retrievable toward a diplomatic compromise that calls for no Ukraine in NATO and no ceding to the Russian sphere of influence, formal neutralization, but we’ll see if that is even possible in light of what’s going on now. Thank you.

Susan Hoffman: Yes, George. Thank you very much. Let me introduce our other colleague, Yuriy Gorodnichenko, who is here in the Berkeley economics department and has been at Berkeley for 15 years. He’s an associate professor of economics specializing in finance and macroeconomics. Yuri spoke at the Osher Institute in 2014, following the then Russian invasion of Crimea and Ukraine. So, Yuri, welcome. Thank you for being back with us.

What I’d like to do is perhaps bring George back on the screen and talk a little bit, George, about what you’ve just said, and to ask the following. What is the intended goal? I mean, there’s been controversy about that. What does he think he can achieve with this invasion?

George Breslauer: Well, I think he thinks he can achieve the goal of making it impossible for Ukraine to join NATO, perhaps. I don’t know day-to-day how his thinking may have evolved, but perhaps to try to install a puppet regime in Kyiv. He certainly, when he says, as he said the other day, “We’re going to de militarize Ukraine,” that sounds like somebody who’s determined to destroy all of Ukraine’s military capabilities. When he says, “We’re going to denazify Ukraine,” that’s even more ominous, because that suggests he’s going to go after entire groups of civilians that he defines, he defines in odious terms, actually.

What strikes me about the Western reaction these days when I turn on CNN, and other channels, and listen to people being interviewed about this is the allegations that people seem to be able to look into Putin’s brain and say, “He’s actually next going to go after eastern Europe, militarily, or go after the Baltic states.” Well, first of all, let me say, I don’t buy into the argument, because he hasn’t been talking in those terms for the last 14 years about the east European or Baltic NATO countries. I do question those who argue confidently that that is his intention, because they have no basis for knowing what’s really on his mind. But, to me, the evidence suggests that his goal here is to suffocate the sovereignty of Ukraine.

Susan Hoffman: Do you think that there would be the suggestion of guerilla war attack, of asking the Ukrainian people to stay inside and prepare their Molotov cocktails?

George Breslauer: That has always been a possibility. Guerilla warfare against a Russian occupation would probably happen. We would have to see whether it is Putin’s attention to leave 150,000 troops in Ukraine and try to control it with that, but he has shown no intention to play nice. So, sending missiles into crowded cities is a willingness to incur unlimited Ukrainian civilian casualties. Drone warfare and other types of new technologies might be usable against guerilla warfare. Withdrawing most of your troops is another way to react to the threat of guerilla warfare. So, we’ll see. I’m not optimistic that guerilla warfare would blunt the fundamental goal of Putin’s, and that is to suffocate Ukrainian sovereign and Ukrainian ability to seek a western military umbrella.

Susan Hoffman: Yuriy, I want to bring you into the next question, as well. That is, so, George’s perspective is that we’ve missed the opportunity to create a neutralization or a neutral Ukraine. Do you think, is that conceivable now? I guess, George, you were saying you weren’t certain, but what would neutralization even look like, and what would be the Ukrainian’s response to such an idea? Yuriy, I’ll go to you.

Yuriy Gorodnichenko: I’ll say a few facts and then give my perspective. So, I want to make clear that there is some subjective and some [inaudible] objective. Finland is a neutral country. It had three wars with the Soviet Union and Russia in the 20th century. So, neutralization does not help with preventing wars. That’s number one.

Number two, when we think about why World War II started, Hitler also had all sorts of security concerns, and he had demands for this and that. He had a special place for Ukraine in his Mein Kampf. He said, “This is going to be [German language], a living space for Germans, that’s going to create the bread basket for the Third Reich.”

Does it make sense to negotiate with Hitler? We know it was pointless. All the attempts to appease him ended up in a much worse disaster, many people perished, and given everything that Putin have done and said in his lifetime, I see very little reason to believe that he is serious about having peace. That’s number two.

Number three, I should say that Ukraine aspired to NATO not because it really wanted this from day one. It aspired to join NATO after 2004, when Ukraine had the first [inaudible] revolution, and it was very clear that Russians were going to take over the country. In 2014, it became an existential question for the country, because it was very clear that if you [inaudible] then the only way you can protect yourself against a very big neighbor is to have some umbrellas, some insurance, and that NATO is an ultimate umbrella, ultimate insurance, ultimate protection.

The reason why we have war today in Ukraine and not in Poland is because Poland is in NATO, and Ukraine isn’t. In terms of what is happening, is Putin going to stop there in Ukraine, or if he is going to continue, I would say this. The Soviet union invaded Czechoslovakia in 1968. It was not the other way around. The Czech soldiers, the Slovaks did not march on the Kremlin.

The Soviet Union invaded Hungary in 1956. The Hungarians never had a military parade in Moscow, right? So, we just need to understand that the source of aggression is not coming from eastern Europe towards Russia. This country’s so scary. Think about this. This is my personal perspective, now.

Think about this as a relationship between a husband and a wife. The husband is very abusive. The wife wants to run away. He beats up the wife and blames her for not looking well, for not cleaning her house well. When the wife is trying to escape, he pulls out a gun and starts shooting her. The neighbors are looking at this in disbelief. They’re saying, “It’s totally crazy. You can’t do that. It’s barbaric.” Okay, but the wife, at least some of the wives, can crawl away into safety, to safety. This is the reason why NATO is not a source of problems. The source of problems is somewhere else.

Susan Hoffman: One of the things it’s been suggested is that it’s, and I think George’s example is apt around Cuba, it is as much the threat of a difference, a different system, a different worldview, that in this instance, and Yuriy I’ll start with you, do you think, so, this is more about the threat of liberal democracy nextdoor?

Yuriy Gorodnichenko: I agree with George. It’s really hard to get into his mind. If I pretend that I know what is going on in his head, I will be hugely overstating my knowledge. But, my firm belief is that Ukraine is, as a successful country, as the free country, will be a major threat to Putin. I see this in the Ukrainian experience.

The reason why Ukraine wants to become a better country, a free country, a part of the EU, is because it has the experience of Poland. We see Poland being a very successful country, economically. It’s a part of the EU. It’s a stable country. It has protection from the Russian invasion. We want to be like them, right? There is no reason. There is no fundamental reason why the Polish people and the Ukrainian people are the different.

So, then, when you ask politicians, “How come we have this misery, and war, and everything? How is it possible on our soil when just across the border we have this success story?” I think Putin realizes that if Ukraine is a successful country, people will question him. How come we in Moscow [inaudible] why are we living in this crazy state when we can be free, and travel anywhere, and enjoy peaceful, successful lives? We don’t need a czar or something like this to control our lives.” But, as I said, this is my personal opinion. I don’t know if it’s really the main factor in his thinking, but I think it is something important.

Susan Hoffman: George?

George Breslauer: Yeah. I’d like to just register my belief that the Hitler analogy is misplaced. Hitler had a plan for conquering Europe. He signaled it in advance, and within a two- to three-year period, he was marching on the Rhineland, Austria, Czechoslovakia, then Poland. I think a better analogy, if you’re looking for historical analogies, would be Stalin’s posture regarding eastern Europe, where the Red Army was positioned after driving Hitler out of World War II, and having a determination at that time to create a [foreign language], a buffer zone in eastern Europe against future contingencies that he couldn’t anticipate. I see this as Ukraine being an analogous buffer zone between Russia and NATO.

Susan Hoffman: But, George isn’t it expansionist, or it … There’s been much comment about Putin’s desire to reconstitute the USSR, Mother Russia. So, isn’t that part of the calculation?

George Breslauer: Well, you’d have to believe that Putin has a delusional notion of Russian capabilities, to think that he could reconstitute the USSR, I mean, basically, to put it with a quip in these difficult times, one down, 13 to go. I think he is more realistic than that, but as I said, I can’t say what is in the inner depths of his mind. The reconstitution of the USSR is, I think, pretty farfetched. Belarus, and Ukraine, now, as vassal regimes, there, I think that’s where his thinking has now headed. As I said before, I don’t think it had to go that far, but I think that’s the limits of his thinking. I severely doubt that someone as realistic as he is about Russian military capability is going to take on NATO by attacking Poland, or for that matter, the Baltic states.

Susan Hoffman: I think we’re in uncharted territory around his intentions, partly from the point of view, his profile that you give would suggest that, why invade Ukraine, as well? It’s going to be very, very messy. Let’s get into just some speculation, and I know there’s a lot of talk about this right now around maybe some things that are unintended consequences of the invasion. It certainly has brought the NATO-aligned nations together. They’re in lockstep with each other. It’s shown Biden’s leadership in a very powerful way, and it’s surprising to see the protests across Russia. That seems to me, that was surprising to them, that they thought that they had more of their own population behind such a maneuver. So, Yuriy or George, could you speak to that? Is this the tip of an iceberg of dissent or just a lonely minority, the people who are protesting in Russia?

George Breslauer: Well, gee, it’s hard to say at this point. We’ve had waves of protests in Russia in the last 10, 12 years. They’ve been honorable, with all the right values, but they have been crushed. The bulk of the protests, even though they were across Russia, but the bulk of the people who protested in the last day were in Moscow and St. Petersburg, where you have highly-educated young people who tend to be much more alienated from the Putin regime. I just don’t know how far down that iceberg you can go in tapping into not only sentiments, but also willingness to take personal risks by going out and protesting. This is a highly repressive authoritarian regime. Saw a figure this morning, which may be out of date already, that 1,652 people have been detained, meaning arrested, for protesting the war in Russia. We’ll see. It may go the route of the previous protests, and that is, basically, die out.

Susan Hoffman: Let’s stay with this resistance theme a little bit longer. Yuriy, let’s talk. Tell us what you know about the Ukrainian resistance.

Yuriy Gorodnichenko: Right, so I think in the once in which is clear is that Ukraine is not going to give up easily. It’s going to fight. When the President Zelenskyy gave a speech just before the invasion and said, “Look, you’re not going to see our backs. You will see our faces because we will fight here.” It is also very clear that this fight between Russia and Ukraine on Ukrainian soil is not lopsided. Ukrainians kill, many, many Russian soldiers. I think for many people in Russia, this may bring memories of Afghanistan, and lots of people died in Afghanistan. It was an extremely unpopular war.

The Soviet Union was even more repressive than the Putin regime, and yet, Afghanistan contributed, I would say, significantly to the demise of the Soviet Union because people were really, really unhappy about that war. Seeing their bodies, seeing all the wounded. As far as I can tell, talking to my friends and my family, there is a lot of determination in Ukraine to keep fighting. Even if Russia occupies the country, there will be resistance. Maybe it will be on the ground. So, many, many Russians will die. I think many people in Russia understand that this is not going to be an easy end for anybody. If they bring in war to the Ukrainian soil, it would be terrible, but worse, impossible to control. It will spill over into Russia as well.

Susan Hoffman: Therefore then leads a question about what they are fighting for, the identity of the Ukrainians. Putin’s been very dismissive that this is not really a national identity that Ukrainians hold. So, could you speak to that a bit?

Yuriy Gorodnichenko: Of course, yeah. I would be happy to do this. George said earlier that he is uncomfortable with comparisons to Hitler, and he prefers Stalin. Either way, we’re choosing between one mad person and another mad person, very pleasant people. Ukraine has been independent intermittently for many, many years. It has a rich culture. Obviously, we’re culturally connected to Russia, but saying we are the same will be a gross over-exaggeration of similarities between these two people. We have different languages.

People often ask me, “What’s the difference between Russian and Ukrainian?” and I say, “It’s, say, Dutch and German, or Portuguese and Spanish. You roughly get an idea what people are saying, but they are not the same languages.” So, we have very, very significant differences, and the claim made by Russia by Putin that Ukraine does not deserve a state, it’s artificial.

This is what brings me back to Hitler, that Hitler was equally free in deciding the fate of other nations, and saying, “You deserve to live,” and, “You don’t deserve to live,” or, “You deserve to be a slave.” Then, the one thing which is very clear is that Ukraine was a part of the Russian empire for many years. Ukrainians always wanted to have a separate state for many, many centuries. So, all this talk about truly Ukraine be a part of that, or part of this, without asking Ukrainians, strikes me as very insensitive and against this spirit of our time.

We have self-determination of nations. We should determine our future ourselves. It should not depend on Putin, or NATO, anything like this. Stalin wanted to have a buffer zone. He committed millions of people to misery for many many decades. It’s only when the Berlin wall fell, people were liberated, and we had the spring of Europe again.

Susan Hoffman: So, Yuriy, another two-part question. I want to stay with this for a little bit longer. Is there then a chance, take this a little bit further, to say that the invasion might unify Ukraine that’s been divided along ethnic and linguistic lines?

Yuriy Gorodnichenko: I must say, this idea about linguistic lines, and the Russians versus Ukrainians inside Ukraine, this is utter nonsense. Half of my family is from eastern Ukraine, and other half is from central Ukraine, where we speak Russian and Ukrainian equally well. There was never a problem of abusing Russians or Russians abusing Ukrainians. The idea that there is western Ukraine, and eastern Ukraine, and somehow they’re in this eternal conflict between each other, that’s nonsense. We never had this. People were one people, one country. It was greatly, greatly blown out of proportions and saying, “Okay, this is why we have this war.” It’s not true. My mom grew up in the part of Ukraine which is now effectively occupied by the Russians. I spent every summer there. I know many Russians, and it was totally fine, with friends, colleagues, it was not a problem.

Susan Hoffman: So, you anticipate that there won’t be as strong of a division that some are projecting with the ethnic Russians and the Ukraine state?

Yuriy Gorodnichenko: Maybe people in western Ukraine, because they spent more time in the USSR Hungarian Empire, they were less oppressed, so they had more freedoms over the years, they feel more strongly about the Ukrainian identity. Maybe they’ll have a stronger motivation to fight. You see this in the polls and other objective data, but I think this idea that this is a civil war of some kind, an internal conflict, this is not true. None of this would happen if Russia was not in Ukraine.

Susan Hoffman: Yuriy, I see that there are some comments coming into the chat room, and just, I think, echoing George sentiment. We are really sorry that this is happening to people you know and to your country. I want to now shift the topic to the economic sanctions, and just your own personal assessments as someone who’s in finance and macroeconomic. What do you think the impact of these economic sanctions are going to be?

Part of it, there’s been some holes. Just one hole I’ll mention, the CNN commentator, Erin McLaughlin, just said that she was surprised at the choice of the five families that were being targeted for these sanctions. She said, “These aren’t people who are really at the top.” So, at any rate, are we targeting the right things? What do you think will happen?

Yuriy Gorodnichenko: Well, so, I think some sanctions are good. There has to be a price. Nobody can violate sovereignty of another country so blatantly. There is no question about that. Are the sanctions effective? The targeted sanctions are good because they single out, and call out people, and say, “What you do is bad.” But we should all understand that Russia is a big country with lots of players. This is going to have a very limited effect.

Think about this in the following way. Suppose you get a call from your bank, and this banks says, “We’re going to cancel your credit card or cancel your account.” It’s annoying. It’s painful, right? But, you can go to another bank and open another account, get another credit card, right? So, in the big scheme of things, it’s not really affecting your behavior. This is what we see with Russian sanctions today.

They are so, so porous. So many things can be done to avoid them. I understand why they do this. They want to keep oil and gas flowing out of Russia. Makes sense, but we should understand that, also, that these sanctions are not very effective. They have to have a blanket punishments of some time.

Again, if you want to have some analogies, maybe George will say more here. He’s a real expert on this. We saw when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, there was a lot of punishment on the Soviet Union, right? You can’t import technology. You can’t sell wheat. It seemed like it’s a joke, but over time it teared down, worn out the empire, right? So, it was technologically falling behind more, and more and more.

So, the sanctions will work in the long run, at least some of them, but the situation is very, very fluid. It’s decided every hour. We have this discrepancy between the impact of the sanctions and the calculus of the decisions. It’s very clear that, it’s not going to change Putin’s mind. Maybe it will send a signal, but fundamentally, it’s not going to change anything in right now.

Susan Hoffman: George?

George Breslauer: Yeah. I agree that the sanctions are not going to change Putin’s strategy within Ukraine. That said, I think if you broaden your perspective, and you ask regarding economic sanctions, when you’re dealing with a country that whose leadership defines it as a great power, and who feels hugely aggrieved, will they, in order to avoid an economic pinch, be willing to compromise what they have chosen to define as their national security interests? My answer to that would be, whether you’re talking about Russia or another country in history or today, my answer would be no, they will not. They will not. Economic sanctions will not change their fundamental approach to Ukraine.

Susan Hoffman: Look, what’s in store: If, in fact, Putin is interested in establishing a puppet regime in Ukraine, can he do that, and economic sanctions, and understanding the levels of poverty that exist currently?

George Breslauer: You’re referring to poverty in Russia or …

Susan Hoffman: No, I’m saying that there is so much that is … I know in some sense, people have made the argument that the invasion is partly to get the focus off of the domestic issues for Putin. But, if you have all of these things that are points of contention, doesn’t that not bode well?

George Breslauer: Well, basically your question is, is Putin tearing off more than he can chew?

Susan Hoffman: Right.

George Breslauer: I think he’s sensitive to that. That’s part of the reason that I doubt he would pile on by now going after the Baltic states, or east European NATO members. That would be enormously risky. That’s why I believe that his focus is Ukraine. Bear in mind that when he first started complaining about NATO, vis-à-vis Ukraine and Georgia back in 2007, the Russian economy was in good shape. It wasn’t a distraction from domestic woes. Since there has been a steady drumbeat of these complaints coming out of Moscow, I don’t attribute it to Putin trying to deflect the tension from domestic woes.

Susan Hoffman: Okay, well, let’s bring China into this equation. There was some military anticipation, hear, that Putin was going to wait until after the Olympics to invade Ukraine, and that that was partly a deal that was struck with China. Does China owe him a debt that can be repaid by helping him in this situation in and around sanctions? Thinking about the congressional, the person from Michigan who said, “These sanctions are really going to hurt,” and then us thinking, isn’t China one of the avenues for the supply chain that might lessen the impact on Russia? Your comments. What debt will he be incurring?

Yuriy Gorodnichenko: Well, I can start. I know George doesn’t like comparisons to Hitler, but I would say, Hitler and Stalin were trading with each other until the very last moment. They were helping each other. The Soviet Union was sending raw materials to Germany, Nazi Germany, and Germany were sending back technology and know-how, so to say, to the Soviet Union. Everybody was hoping that, well, Stalin was hoping probably that Nazi Germany is going to defeat the great Britain. Maybe at that point, it will be exhausted, and the Soviet Union can win the war. I don’t know, but I think we should appreciate that if two authoritarian’s regimes team up was to each other, we have to be very, very careful. That’s another reason why not responding to Putin now is a very bad idea, because if Putin can get away with this, why China can’t get away with something else?

Susan Hoffman: Right.

George Breslauer: I would add that if there was a deal struck in Beijing, and I have no way of knowing, it probably had to do with China’s economic power being brought to bear to help Russia offset some of the sanctions. More troubling is the political issue, the political military issue, and that is whether China views this, if it is not reversed, and I can’t see it being reversed, this invasion as a cart blanche for it to attack Taiwan. A former student of mine emailed me late last night to say that she is following the Chinese press, and that in China, they’re saying that this is a matter of Russia’s internal affairs, which if you want to make a scary interpretation of that statement, it’s basically saying that if a country defines an adjacent country as pretty much of its own, as Putin has done to justify his invasion, that helps China’s argument with respect to Taiwan, where it has argued that all along. Now, the question is whether China wants to take that on, because, I mean, the fundamental difference is the US is willing to defend Taiwan, and the U.S. and NATO are not willing militarily to go to the mat militarily with Russia in Ukraine.

Yuriy Gorodnichenko: George, I don’t think we know that U.S. is willing to defend Taiwan. How do we know this? Have we tested it? I don’t think so. The idea is that you have this constructive ambiguity. The U.S. never committed to defending Taiwan with nuclear weapons or anything like this, right? But, there is this understanding that this may or may not happen. If you look at Ukraine, it gave up its nuclear weapons in 1994, the third largest nuclear arsenal, in exchange of guarantees from the U.S., UK, and Russia, to protect sovereignty and territorial integrity. Now, Russia is clearly violating this, and all the other countries, U.S. and the UK, not really doing much of anything. Then, how do we know that U.S. is going to defend Taiwan, or Japan, or South Korea, or Baltic countries? Do we really want to have Americans die for Estonia? How do we know that?

George Breslauer: Yuriy, are you arguing that we ought to be sending troops to help Ukraine?

Yuriy Gorodnichenko: No, I’m not saying that. I’m saying that Ukraine will defend itself, but it will need more support from the West, from the free world. The wars are extremely costly. You have to buy supplies. You have to buy food. You have to have fuel. You have to have weapons, right? So, Ukraine is a small country. If it’s left to its own devices, it will fight for a long time, maybe, and maybe not, but it needs help for sure. So, this will be one thing you can do to change the calculus for other countries that may contemplate aggressions against other countries.

Susan Hoffman: I think we know that UN security counsel, where Russia has a veto vote, that the UN is not going to be a player in this issue, but NATO, is there anything more that one might expect from NATO? Yuriy, you’re saying no?

Yuriy Gorodnichenko: I must say, I’m very saddened by the reaction of the United Nations. This organization was created to protect peace, and it was also a response to the failure of the League of Nations, right? So, that was similar to the United Nations created after the first world war. The League of Nations failed to preserve peace in Asia. When Japan invaded Manchuria, it failed to prevent a war between the Soviet Union and Finland. It failed to prevent war between Germany and its neighboring countries. As far as I can tell, the United Nations is going down this path.

When you have an international talking point, a meeting place, people express their concerns, but there’s very little action. It’s hard to imagine that something like the Korean War [inaudible] can happen now, when there was an international military force organized to fight off the aggression from the North Korea, or the Kuwait Iraq War, when it was very clear that Iraq invaded the sovereign country for no particular reason, no good reason, and that they only had an international response, right? So, the United nations got it acts together, rise to the occasion, and defended Kuwait. I don’t see this happening now.

Susan Hoffman: Yeah. I understand that disappointment. I want to stay with economic sanctions just for a moment more and bring to self-interest, NATO nations, the United States. Even the New York Times today was positing how California will be affected by what is likely to come from Russia around cyber attacks on various systems of water, electric grid, etc. Can you say anything more around what you might be contemplating around the impact that sanctions, and then the counter attack from Russia? Yuriy would you say a few words about that?

Yuriy Gorodnichenko: Yes. I think we should understand that sanctions have a course not only for Russia, but also a course for the world that imposes this. It’s understandable. It’s painful. It’s costly. But we should also understand that short-term pain is going to be followed by long-term gain. So, think about the peace dividend that happened after the end of the Cold War, right? So, lots and lots of resources for various governments were redirected to more productive users, right? You cannot spend more in education, on healthcare, and many other useful things. You don’t have to create weapons all the time.

This peace dividend is a huge, huge amount of money, a mountain. I don’t know how many zeros that number is going to be, but various estimates of the Cold War suggests that it was astronomically expensive. So, when we think about this calculus, we can make sacrifices. Now, I know it’s easy for me to say this now, but we should think about this long term. There is a short-term cost. It may last a year, maybe, I don’t know, two years, but if it preserved peace for the next 30, 50 years, it will overwhelm any short-term losses we can have today.

Susan Hoffman: George, further comment on that?

George Breslauer: Well, because I’ve declared that I don’t think that economic sanctions are going to change Putin’s behavior in Ukraine, then the question becomes, what would? If the only answer is a military confrontation, then everybody has to decide for themselves whether they are willing to risk nuclear war, because that is really what a military confrontation between NATO and Russia would be risking. You could argue nuclear war is so unthinkable to both sides that nobody would go that far, but in a context of actual military combat between two powerful militaries, the fog of war is such that one can easily imagine even an accidental nuclear launch.

So, I think, while I feel the pain of Ukrainian people, and have been trying to avoid this for years by arguing for a neutralization, at the same time, we have to decide what level of risk we’re to incur in order to, over and above the economic sanctions, and whatever blowback in pain they engender, we have to decide how much otherwise risk we’re willing to incur for the sake of freeing Ukraine from Russia’s assault. Now, I hope Yuriy is right, that Ukrainians can defend themselves. I don’t know whether large-scale transfer to Ukraine of military equipment by the NATO countries in order to help them defend themselves is something that would blunt the Russian attack or would lead it to escalate toward a confrontation between NATO and Russia.

Yuriy Gorodnichenko: I agree that the prospect of a nuclear war is terrifying. As somebody who grew up in the Soviet Union, and as a child had to do nuclear drills, when you go to the basement, and you put gas masks, it’s terrifying, but I would say that the prospect of something happening in this atomic, nuclear sphere is much closer than I think many people think. There are reports that the Russians captured the Chernobyl. Who’s going to control these radioactive materials? They threaten to shell a nuclear power plant. You can have another Chernobyl maybe this evening, maybe tomorrow. Who is going to stop that? Nobody. Then, the radioactive cloud is not going to make any difference. It’s not going to distinguish between national borders, if you’re a NATO country, or if you’re Sweden. Everybody’s going to be covered in this. So, we should understand that the prospect of what happens in Ukraine, what is happening in Ukraine, it’s not just about Ukraine. It’s much bigger. The ripples will be felt everywhere or could be felt everywhere.

George Breslauer: I will say, Susan, that if Putin’s goal is to establish a puppet regime in Kiev, he may be able to do that for a short period of time, but a regime has to govern. That will be a very great challenge to keep the Ukrainian polity, as it were, quiet, if he is trying to have a vassal regime in Kyiv. We’ll see.

Susan Hoffman: What I’d like to do right now in the remaining seven minutes that we have together is invite the executive director, Jane Sargus, to join us. As I mentioned earlier, she’s with the Congressional Office for International Leadership. I hope she still online. There she is. Welcome, Jane. We know that you work with an organization that was established after the breakup of the Soviet Union, that you host the post-Soviet states and their emerging leaders, and so your point of view is really welcome. Please-

Jane Sargus: Thank you.

Susan Hoffman: … just comment or a question you want to ask.

Jane Sargus: Thanks, Susan. First of all, COIL, we are Congressional Office for International Leadership. Our hearts go out to all Ukrainians. We have been hosting the rising leaders of Ukraine and Russia since 2000. Our agency has nearly 30,000 alumni in the post-Soviet states, and we work for Congress. So, the rising leaders that we bring over spend time meeting congressional members and their staff, and they’re able to bring to the table what concerns them and what makes them happy. Those conversations give Congress an unfiltered access to the thinking from these country.

We have 20,000 alumni in Russia. These people love their work. They love their country. They’re very peaceful people. We have 4,000 plus alumni in Ukraine. They are the same. The conflict that we have is managing to continue a program in these two countries that doesn’t inflict pain on the other side. We are challenged by several obstacles, not the least of which is COVID and vaccines, but this war has now created another layer.

I spent all day yesterday with 19 Ukrainians who had arrived to start programs on veterans affairs and post-war trauma. They arrived Tuesday night, and had left a peaceful country, and woke up the next day to war. It was a challenge to provide enough comfort and friendship, but on the other hand, they already know where we stand.

We will work with future leaders from these countries as long as we can. They’re mostly under the age of 30. They are young people who are able eventually to be the change maker in their communities. They’re the people that we maintain contact with. We seek to help them out.

We still have hope for the future. Congress wants us to continue our programs. They fund our programs to do this, but we have this challenge to be able to bring young Russian leaders who are not necessarily in support of this war to the United States to meet their peers around the country. That is something that I am committed to doing. I want to keep it there. I want to keep doing that, but we keep Congress informed and hear back from them of their very large and solid support for Ukraine. That’s pretty well known and pretty obvious.

So, I think we have challenges in front of us, and we worry for everyone. I appreciate this opportunity. If anyone has a question, I’d be happy to take that.

Susan Hoffman: Okay, Jane, thank you for joining us. When we start talking about sharp power, the soft power of diplomacy, and these kinds of exchanges, we can’t give up with those. I mean, those have to continue. We do have to close. So, Yuriy and George, your final comments or closing remarks?

George Breslauer: Well, I would close by reiterating a thought that I made at the very beginning in a different form, and that is, in 10 years, 10 or 15 years, when we look back, will we find that it appears that this was an avoidable tragedy or an inevitable result of Putin’s personality? As you know, my sense is that it was avoidable, but if you think this is Hitler at work, then you would assume it was unavoidable.

Yuriy Gorodnichenko: I would also say, I wish we could travel in time 10, 15 years, look back and say, what is happening now? Is this something reasonable, or this is another abusement of another Hitler, and we just relive horrors of war all over again? Was this avoidable to stop Putin early on, like potentially we could have Hitler, or we sit on our hands and do nothing?

Susan Hoffman: It’s a dangerous time. I really thank you all for the time and energy today. As I spoke earlier, the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute will continue by its own learning, not only about Ukraine, or the Baltic states, or the histories that are interceding on the moments, and support, Jane, for your work. So, thank you for today.

[Music: “Silver Lanyard” by Blue Dot Sessions]

Outro: You’ve been listening to Berkeley Talks, a Berkeley News podcast from the Office of Communications and Public Affairs that features lectures and conversations at UC Berkeley. You can subscribe on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Acast or wherever you listen. You can find all of our podcast episodes with transcripts and photos on Berkeley News at news.berkeley.edu/podcasts.

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