Russia Invades Ukraine: A Principled Response

Feb 28, 2022

Russia's invasion of Ukraine raises several ethical questions: Why did diplomacy fail? What does the invasion mean for the principle of sovereignty? Are sanctions an appropriate and effective response, and what principles should guide their implementation? Carnegie Council President Joel Rosenthal and Senior Fellow Nikolas Gvosdev discuss the ramifications of Putin's decision and the ethical principles at stake in the current crisis.

JOEL ROSENTHAL: Greetings, and thanks for joining us. Welcome to our conversation on "Russia Invades Ukraine: A Principled Response." Our guest today is not really a guest, he is a member of the Carnegie Council family, Nick Gvosdev. Nick is joining us from his home in Newport, Rhode Island.

Nice to see you, Nick.


JOEL ROSENTHAL: Thanks for being here.

Many of you will recognize Nick as a Carnegie Council senior fellow and director of our U.S. Global Engagement Program. Nick is also a professor of national security affairs at the U.S. Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island, and he is also the editor of the journal Orbis: FPRI's Journal of World Affairs, published by the Foreign Policy Research Institute.

For all of you in attendance today, a reminder that you can submit questions for Nick and for me via the chat function. We want to make this as conversational and as lively as possible, so I am going to encourage you now to use the chat and to join us with your questions or comments.

Nick, there is a lot of great journalism and political analysis happening in real time right now. I am sure many people are probably multitasking and watching CNN or the newsfeed of their choice while they're watching us.

I want to use our time together to talk about something a little bit different: to try to add some value to all of this journalism and analysis, to think about the principles that are at stake in this really important news event. As our title suggests, we want to be thinking about a principled response to what we're all seeing in the news.

Just to start the conversation, the first principle that comes to mind for me is the principle of sovereignty, it is really the basis of the international system as we know it today. Russia has invaded the sovereign country of Ukraine. Can you give us some context as to Russia's justification for violating this principle and how its arguments have been received? I guess the bottom-line question is: Are they trying to rewrite the rule book in some way?

NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: Those are all good questions, Joel.

Let me just start by saying that Russia invaded Ukraine in 2014, and so in some ways this is a continuation of a process that has been going on now for nearly eight years. The justifications I think are important for us to look at, in the sense that Russia has attempted to justify what it did in 2014 and what it is doing today with invocation to what would be in the Western tradition the "just war" tradition. In the Orthodox world, there is what is known as the "justifiable war" tradition. We saw Patriarch Kirill of the Russian Orthodox Church a few days ago make reference to the need to "combat evil," as he put it. The Russian government attempted to create a narrative that it needed to violate the sovereignty of Ukraine again because genocide was taking place, because you have an illegitimate government taken over by extremists, and, of course, the Russians, and the Kremlin in particular, cite this theme of what they call "denazification."

Of course, as we know from all of the sources, none of this was happening. There is no genocide going on. People may not like actions of the Ukrainian government, but it's pretty much of a stretch to say that a Ukrainian president who comes from Jewish ancestry somehow is a member of the National Socialist Party. In that sense, all of this effort to try to gin up a responsibility to protect, that if Russia didn't act now there would be grave humanitarian crises, doesn't hold water, but it is important that the Kremlin attempted to create the narrative to try to provide what they would see as an ethical justification.

There is also another consideration that you have raised—and this is connected to sovereignty—and this is coming back to principles that we would derive from Hans Morgenthau about: "Does a country have a right to violate the sovereignty of another country if it believes that there is an imminent threat?"

Again, something that the Kremlin has set forward as a narrative is that Ukraine was moving closer to Western countries, it was moving closer to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the United States, that, even if it didn't join NATO, Ukraine would be hosting Western military bases and missiles on Russia's borders, and this was an unacceptable threat to Russia, and Russia had to act.

In that sense, again, even though Ukraine has been talking with NATO and there has been training and equipping again, there is no evidence that there was an imminent threat that required a violation of Ukrainian territory by military force. It would be like saying the United States would decide to preempt the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 by invading Cuba in 1957. If there had been a threat developing along these lines down the road, we might be having a different discussion, but to say in 2022 that Ukraine was taking steps which were of existential danger to the Russian Federation and that Russia had to respond, again this is a prima facie case that doesn't hold water. Having said that, I would argue that none of the ethical justifications for Russian action exist.

What about responses? You did highlight a key thing: collective security. This is a principle of the international order, that the attack on the sovereignty of one state is a threat to every state. So, even if you're not in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, everyone is a member of the United Nations, and the United Nations takes as its cornerstone that preserving the territorial integrity and sovereignty of every state is the starting point. So I think that responding to Russian actions is certainly ethical.

The question I think we have been debating—we debated it prior to the Russian invasion and we are debating it now—is: What are the principled responses, what are the ethical responses? We have established a duty to respond to assist Ukraine, but the debate is now: What are the ethical steps and what are the considerations both with regard to Ukraine itself but also with regard to how does this affect the peace and stability of the world as a whole?

JOEL ROSENTHAL: That's great. Thank you for that, Nick.

This leads to the next question. We will get to responses, but first I want to talk a little bit more about the nature of the conflict. This is about self-determination, it's about the right of the Ukrainian people to have their democracy and their own process of self-determination.

NATO has traditionally been an alliance based on values. To what extent do you think what we're looking at is a conflict of values, where you have a sovereign country which wants to self-determine and has its own process of democracy, and then you have this challenge from essentially an authoritarian state? Does that factor into the way you're viewing the conflict?

NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: It factors in at several levels. You brought up the question of self-determination. This is also something we saw in the Yugoslav Wars of the 1990s, which is the right of self-determination from an imperial center—in one case in former Yugoslavia and in the other case the right of Ukraine for sovereignty from the Soviet Union— and then the question of the rights of people within boundaries to self-determination or not.

Again, part of the Kremlin's justification for this is that the Ukrainian government is not allowing the rights of ethnic Russians to cultural and linguistic self-determination and that this is supposed to provide that Russia has a right to protect.

I think one of the things we may look at in the future when we look back at the era of the early 2000s is: Did we think through some of the doctrines we proclaimed as we have seen how Russia has used them, both with self-determination, right to protect, and other things of that sort?

Again, the question is: Is it is up to the people of Ukraine to make these determinations? They do not have a dependent relationship on Russia, they are not part of Russia in the sense that Russia has some right or obligation to make judgment calls for Ukraine.

The question about NATO that you bring in again I also would caution, in that we have talked a lot in recent decades about NATO as an "alliance of values," but really it got its start as a very coldly realist collective security organization to withstand the Soviet threat to Europe. At the time NATO was created and throughout much of its Cold War history, not all of its members were democracies, or they were democracies more in name than in practice—I am thinking primarily of some of the Southern European members of NATO during this time. After the Cold War ended, I think we had this discourse of NATO as an alliance of democracies.

But I think now we are having the question again of NATO as defending values or defending members. This is why the question of Ukraine's membership in NATO has been contentious, not just for Russia but for existing NATO members, who then have to weigh the ethical choice of: Do we extend protection to Ukraine as a member of NATO on the basis of shared values and, therefore, we take onto ourselves the burdens and risks of potentially fighting a war?

This is why the initial bid to try to bring Ukraine into NATO in 2008 at the Bucharest Summit really foundered, because you had a number of states saying: "We certainly sympathize with Ukraine, but we're not willing to make the commitment to treat an attack on Ukraine as an armed attack on us and, therefore, to respond."

That has to do again with some ethical choices, which is: To whom do you owe your primary ethical duties? Do you owe it to a global community, humanity as a whole, or do you owe it to your specific nation-state?

We have seen this, by the way, also with some of the sanctions that have been imposed on Russia, which noticeably have exempted the energy trade, because certainly people are willing to impose costs on Russia, but there has been hesitation about assuming some of the costs domestically. Again, there are some who say that's not ethical and that we should have imposed a full range of sanctions on Russia, but then, you also have policymakers who say, "We have ethical duties to our own populations, and we're trying to balance our obligation to respond to the Russian invasion of Ukraine with what we see as our ethical obligations to our own citizens."

JOEL ROSENTHAL: Just to get us up-to-date now, I understand that there were representatives meeting at the Belarus-Ukraine border this morning for diplomacy. As a Carnegie organization, we have always privileged or emphasized diplomacy as a means to avoid conflict.

This is a two-part question, Nick: Why did diplomacy fail and why did we end up in a military conflict, and what do you think the prospects are now for some kind of, if not diplomatic settlement, cessation of hostilities?

NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: These are really from the ethicists' perspective complicated issues because, on the one hand, you can say the supreme ethical duty is to protect life and anything that you do to make sure that people don't get killed has to be your guiding light. You have competing ethical duties that say surrendering sovereignty, surrendering self-determination, and giving in to demands that are made under the threat of force, that there are ethical questions involved there as well. Statesmen, politicians, political leaders, and military leaders all have to balance these competing ethical obligations.

I don't have access yet to any sense of how the talks went, but, given what has happened in the last 24 hours in terms of the fighting in Ukraine—where we have begun to see a shift away from attempts to seize centers and to try to win over local populations, to where we are now seeing more attacks which are much more destructive—one could foresee, in a sense, a Russian delegation saying to the Ukrainians, "We have held back, but if you don't concede on certain points, we're going to increase the level of destructiveness."

Does a Ukrainian delegation say, "To safeguard life and property we're willing to make diplomatic concessions to end the fighting," or do we say, "What you're demanding of us is so injurious to our national sovereignty that we are willing to accept losses in order to defend these principles?"

My understanding is that the talks deadlocked, partly because the Russian and Ukrainian positions are very far apart. Russia is making demands about recognizing the annexation of Crimea, demilitarization of Ukraine. Ukraine has asked, if I understood the reports correctly, not only for a cessation of hostilities but that the Russians should evacuate not only the Donbas but Crimea itself. Under those conditions, there is not going to be a diplomatic compromise and the fighting will continue.

But yes, that does hit the question: At what point does diplomacy say that there are compromises? Isn't it the old adage that "a good diplomatic arrangement is one where no one leaves satisfied?"—everyone has had to give something up. But, on the other hand, are there principles at stake for Ukraine that at this point even taking losses in the battlefield is preferable to conceding? That is the ethical tightrope that Ukrainians are walking.

Russian politicians also are walking ethical tightropes. Obviously, sanctions are going to have a real impact on the Russian population, but, as we are seeing from some of the protest movements and concern in Russia, there is an ethical concern that this is a fratricidal conflict, that Russians should not be engaged in combat in Ukraine, that they should not be killing Ukrainians—whether they are Russian-speaking Ukrainians, Ukrainians who view themselves as Russians, or Ukrainians who view Ukraine as a completely separate country and culture from Russia—no matter what, there are some Russians raising the point that it is unethical to be doing this, and for what reasons?

Again, we will see how this plays out: the combination of economic sanctions and sanctions being placed on Russia, which are designed to cause pain for Russians, and whether or not this ethical argument about the immorality of the conflict, no matter what the Patriarch may say about it, certainly a number of Russians do not view this as an ethical action on the part of the Russian state.

JOEL ROSENTHAL: Nick, I have one tactical question about the diplomacy: Are there any third parties that have any standing that can help in the mediation, or are these just direct talks between the parties?

NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: Right now they're direct talks, and the fact that they were happening suggests that both sides were still not closing down the door for diplomacy. At some point as this conflict continues, it may take an outside mediator.

We've had two countries that have offered themselves in the run-up to the conflict. We had France offering to mediate and we had Turkey offering to mediate. Azerbaijan has proposed Baku as a neutral meeting place. Now there is talk about whether China—which of course has a close partnership with Russia but let's also not forget important economic ties to Ukraine—perhaps brokering talks.

But again, really what it is going to come down to is that someone is going to have to give for diplomacy to work. That give did not occur prior to the start of fighting, both what the Ukrainians were offering and what the Russians were offering or demanding. Putin, for whatever reasons, decided that he would reject diplomacy and choose the use of force. Now the question is: Are there partners outside of Russia with whom Putin would be responsive to a mediation effort? I don't think we're there yet.

JOEL ROSENTHAL: We have a few questions. You can probably see them in the chat, and I can let you field them as you wish. Go from bottom to top in terms of how we got here in the first place.

I know it has been much debated in the foreign policy analysis community about who bears responsibility, the whole question about NATO enlargement and expansion as being provocative. I am just curious how you come down on that one.

NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: Let me just put a neutral analyst's hat on with the question of NATO and Russia and say this is what we describe as the classic security dilemma: I take steps so that I feel secure, and I take those steps and you feel insecure, so you take steps to feel secure, and now I feel insecure. This is the problem of Eastern European history: Eastern European states surrounded by more powerful states, imperial states, feel insecure unless they themselves have a powerful alliance to join, but, once they are part of that alliance, countries that aren't feel insecure, so they take steps.

Could we have headed this off in this 1990s or the 2000s with better statecraft? I think, yes we could have, but that ship sailed in 1997 and 2004 and in 2008.

But again, it is also a reminder, I think, for people that these conflicts don't just happen overnight and that steps that are taken—some people may be saying, "Well, this is ancient history"—to say that "Yes, decisions that were made in the 1990s are playing themselves out." You have some people describing what's happening in Ukraine today as the "last battle of the Cold War," which everyone assumed was over in 1991. Well, maybe it isn't.

In that sense about responsibility—should NATO have not, should Russia have done something differently—is to recognize that this was a security dilemma, and I think at various points both Western governments and then the Russian government chose to ignore that these dilemmas were real.

But it also brings another question which is coming through, which is the reality that Russia is a nuclear power. Even with China's arsenal being smaller, Russia really is the only country that poses an immediate existential threat to the existence of the United States itself, therefore, that does have to weigh as part a prudential response.

We have all accepted the ethical obligation that we have to respond, we have to assist Ukraine, but how we assist Ukraine has to be balanced against the ethical and just simply strategic consequences of dealing with a power that has this nuclear capability and which has threatened that under certain circumstances it would be prepared to use it if it felt its own existence was now threatened or in danger, and that has to be a calculation both from an ethical as well as from a strategic point of view.

I concur with those who are more cautious on this. I don't think it's ever a good idea to roll the dice on policy actions when nuclear weapons are in play—for example, direct confrontation of Russia in Ukraine, whether it's military on the ground or aircraft—just as for Russia the nuclear threat really is something that they are not going to continue to brandish. As responses from the West are less existentially threatening to Russia itself, it becomes harder to make the case that you are willing to use nuclear weapons—for example, to say we are going to use nuclear weapons to respond to sanctions I think is a bit more of a stretch.

But we have to be careful about the risk of a nuclear escalation if there is a direct military clash. If that means we are more cautious than some people are calling for—"Why aren't we doing more?"—the nuclear question is an existential question not just for countries but for the planet as a whole. There does have to be that ethical consideration.

We know that even a few nuclear detonations would have environmental impacts. Look at the concern about fighting around the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone and increases in radiation that were detected because of the movement of tanks and other vehicles through the Exclusion Zone. There was a direct correlation between tanks coming through and dust in the air—not at any kind of lethal levels, not at anything that really poses a threat, but, again, that is a reminder of the care, the prudence—Joel, as you keep hearing me use the word "prudence," hearken back to Morgenthau: The North Star of the statesman always has to be prudence—not emotionalism, but prudence—and we do have to be careful.


The challenge here though, Nick, seems to be the need for a strong response to show resolve and, on the other hand, there is an imperative to avoid escalation, and it seems like that is really what needs to be balanced right now. It is not just on the nuclear side, but it is just incremental.

Two things on my mind in terms of the potential for escalation.

One is fairly likely, I would think, which would be as the Russian forces have been bogged down, the temptation to escalate and to begin to move away from protection of civilians and noncombatants and to move away from the just war principles of distinction, discrimination, and proportionality, and so I would think there is a fairly high likelihood that the Russian military will escalate. Are you concerned in that way?

NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: Yes, I think that is something we have to be concerned about precisely because, as you said, as you get bogged down, the temptation to escalate military force—by the way, this is not something that is unique to Russians, we have seen this in many places over the last number of years. Obviously, the United States did this in Vietnam with Operation Linebacker. When we felt we were getting bogged down, we thought, Well, if we do massive bombing raids on North Vietnam to escalate—and some of these encounters that have been filmed of Ukrainians berating Russian soldiers, yelling at them, "Get Out! Why are you here?" and the relatively restrained reaction of Russians.

Again, not to denigrate anyone else, including the armed forces of our own country, we have seen where encounters between American forces and civil populations in Iraq and Afghanistan could get out of hand, particularly in the heat of the insurgencies there. That is a possibility—a grandmother yelling at Russian troops and they sheepishly accepting her anger four days ago could become something very different as this crisis escalates. How that will play out and how it will also play out back in Russia is going to be very interesting to see.

The question came in—we always have this perpetual thing about the impact of sanctions and the responsibility, that ordinary people suffer the most but they are being made to suffer for the activities of a government, and usually the argument is that the government doesn't reflect them and it's not what they would want to do.

Ethically that also raises some interesting questions. For example, this was an argument raised against the sanctions against Serbia and Yugoslavia in the 1990s: "Well, the regime isn't touched and it's only the ordinary people who suffer," and we saw this with regard to sanctions on Iraq in the 1990s.

In the case of Russia, I think that we do have to look at a back-and-forth, which is that Russia is not a totalitarian dictatorship, it's an authoritarian state with some degree of, at least if not popular approbation, where the population has essentially conceded in a more apathetic way to let the government do these things, but they are doing them in the name of the Russian people. So the question is: At what point do the Russians in Russia have agency? We have seen with protests that some are saying, "Not in our name. Even if we can't change government policy, we want to show by protesting that this is not taking place in our name."

But it is difficult to disaggregate the impact of sanctions. Can we assure that they only fall on the heads of the guilty and that the innocent are spared? Again, it's hard to differentiate that.

Joel, we talked at another point about not wanting to impact ordinary Russian students to be able to continue to come and study in the West, in the United States and Great Britain, except the problem is that that sentiment is mixed with the fact that the children of the Russian elite study in the West. Are you going to have a sanction that says, "If your family makes more than X amount of money a year, you're sanctioned and you can't study in the West, but if you come from a family that is not of the business elite, you are allowed in." We grapple with this.

We had this period in time when we had this illusion of what we called "smart sanctions," that we could just target a small group of what we would define as "guilty" people and we could leave the rest of the country untouched, and, as we have discovered from eight years of smart sanctions on different members of the Russian elite, that didn't produce changes in Russia's policy towards Ukraine.

It is a reverse question to the Russian military deciding to inflict general suffering on the civil population of Ukraine because they are bogged down. The reflection of that is: Are these unprecedented sanctions on Russia going to inflict harm on the general population, and again, is this a means to an end, that you are trying to end a conflict or change international behavior?

Leaders have to walk these ethical tightropes, and I think sometimes we have to give them a little more credit that they are aware that these tightropes exist and that they're not always going to get it right.

JOEL ROSENTHAL: I know, Nick, you have been somewhat skeptical of the whole idea of compellence, the idea that sanctions can actually compel a country to do something. Is that still your position now, that while they may have some utility, it is unrealistic to expect changed behavior?

NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: I think we have to be very cautious in ascribing what sanctions can do. Part of this again, Joel, comes back another ethical question. All of these ethical questions interconnect.

For many years, the bargain in the United States has been: The American people support American intervention abroad as long as the costs don't fall on them. This is why we've always had this emphasis on no casualties, we don't put boots on the ground, we like drone technology because it seems to give us a way to deliver a punch without putting American lives at risk.

Sanctions, I think, were oversold to Americans as: "See, this is a way for us to 'do something' in the world but without it really touching you. We're not going to ask you to really have to sacrifice." I think we created these unrealistic expectations that imposing sanctions somehow automatically leads to results.

In this case, because of the nature of sanctions, because the sanctions are really going to have a long-term impact on Russia, it may cause a reevaluation of the cost-benefit analysis of continuing along this path in Ukraine in the longer term. Will it help stop the war in the next 48-to-72 hours?—no, it won't—but there is the possibility that the sanctions as they are now being imposed may not compel, but they may cause a reevaluation that would lead to a different outcome.

JOEL ROSENTHAL: Back now to this theme of escalation, because I think it's something that everybody is concerned about, what are the steps that you would suggest that we think about in terms of a principled response to move toward deescalation in some way? Do you have any thoughts about that? One of the comments is that we are actually providing more weapons to the Ukrainians, which is certainly not a de-escalation on the other hand? How do you weigh those competing objectives?

NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: Do you escalate first in order to create conditions for a settlement? I think that's a good question. I think the thinking now is strengthening Ukraine's ability to hold off Russian forces creates conditions for diplomacy to work down the road, maybe in the coming weeks, if Russia looks and says, "We're not going to succeed in what we set out to do" and the costs are rising, there is that.

The first issue is: What is it that will get people to the table to talk, to begin negotiations, is strengthening Ukraine's defensive capacities part of that, even though it would seem counterintuitive if you want a war to stop?

Again, the German shift on this is pronounced. A week ago, Joel, the German chancellor was echoing that same argument, "Sending more weapons never helps, more weapons only makes the situation more violent and doesn't lead to resolution," and, a week later, you have Chancellor Scholz in the Bundestag essentially saying the complete opposite, "Ukraine needs more defensive articles precisely in order to get to a settlement."

Longer term, we are going to have all the parties—Russia, Ukraine, to the extent that NATO countries and others, China perhaps—all have a stake in how this is resolved, and then we are going to have to go back to questions about pursuing maximalist agendas versus are there compromises that can work if that gets people to a stable settlement.

But I think right now what we are seeing is that Ukraine doesn't trust—for good reason, as we have noted several times at Carnegie Council in the past about the Budapest Memorandum—guarantees that don't carry with them automatic penalties. The United States and Great Britain made commitments to Ukraine in the Budapest Memorandum that they weren't prepared to enforce, and then they got out of it by saying, "Well, it was just a memorandum, it's not a treaty, it's not binding." Russia, of course, also threw away the Budapest Memorandum on its part.

So you might have a Ukraine that says: "Look, we're not going to feel secure until we're in NATO. We want that guarantee."

Then you may have a Russia that says: "We will never feel secure with Ukraine in NATO, and therefore we will move things forward. We will continue."

Then the question comes: Is it just simply going to be a battle until one side essentially cries "uncle"—either the Ukrainians back away and say, "We will accept some degree of neutrality," and the Russians accept it, or that Russia is so battered by sanctions and by its losses in Ukraine that it loses the ability to exercise any sort of veto over Ukraine's movement into NATO?

Which then leads to another long-term question. One of the things when we discuss ethics and foreign policy is that we have to look at the ethics of the moment but we also have to look at the ethics long term. We have talked about in the past these two competing ethics: the ethics you owe to your own citizens and the ethics you owe to humans as a whole, and the ethics of the short term and the ethics of the long term.

If the end result of this crisis is to move Russia so close to China that it emboldens China to start taking very dangerous steps on the world stage, because China will have secured Russia's golden treasury of resources and China essentially now is invulnerable to resource disruption, does this encourage China to be more aggressive?

Joel, this comes to a question I think people are alluding to, which is: How do wars end? There are four ways in which wars end, and they all have ethical implications.

One is the one that is the most emotionally satisfying to most people, which is a surrender on the deck of a U.S. battleship in Tokyo Harbor; complete capitulation, the losing side signs away—that's one way wars end.

As we have seen from U.S. efforts in Libya, Afghanistan, and Syria, one way is that you just simply walk away. The conflict may not be over, but you simply say, "We're done, we're finished," and you walk away.

There is the way in which wars end that we saw after the Napoleonic Wars, which is where you had an aggressor country in Napoleonic France that was defeated, but the decision was that eliminating it completely as a great power was not useful and eliminating it completely from having influence was not going to be useful, so the reintegration of France into the Congress of Europe way in which a war ends.

Or you have the last model, which is how the United States—we've already had this question about honest brokers—the Dayton model. At the Dayton Accords, the Bosnian state was the invaded party, the Bosnian Serbs and to a lesser extent the Bosnian Croats were the aggressors and were certainly backed by Serbia in the case of the Bosnian Serbs, they were summoned to Dayton. The United States helped to gain an agreement, which no one liked and which the Bosnians as the invaded were not happy with all the outcomes, and yet, for all of its flaws, we have not had another person die in Bosnia as a result of the resumption of fighting. So there is the Dayton model, which is that some outside power summons the parties and negotiates some of it and imposes a settlement.

How this is going to play out I don't know. I don't know whether or not the United States would want to try to do a Dayton Accord or whether or not Russia would accept a Dayton-style accord. The Russians, of course, always want the Napoleonic model. I don't know that they would necessarily get it. I don't know that we are going to get the end of World War II model.

The real risk is the walking-away model—not necessarily that the active fighting ends, and then, as we saw in other places, people lose interest and the whole task of post-conflict reconstruction is kind of left on the wayside, and then you have perpetual problems that percolate from there moving forward.

JOEL ROSENTHAL: I see there is a question here from our colleague Tatiana Serafin about Putin as being the principal decision-maker. Do you foresee any scenario where he is not the decision-maker and there might be some competing center of gravity in Russia?

NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: It's a great question, and again it comes back to the Napoleonic model. If Putin is deposed or gets sick—and there is some speculation that his health is not robust—let's say he's replaced, but he's replaced by more of the same, he's replaced by the existing Russian establishment, they might try to stop the conflict or broker something, but I doubt that Ukraine would necessarily want to make concessions to them or that the West would make concessions to them.

If it's a regime change—and "regime change" is not simply a leader changes but you actually have a completely different group coming into control of the Russian state—that might be something different. The problem there is that you have Russians as well as people from across the former Soviet Union who remember a lot of grandiose promises after 1991 about what the United States and Western Europe were going to do to transform the countries of the region, and they might say, "Well, we don't trust those assurances."

I think part of it is depending on what sort of leadership change you would have in Russia. I can see where you would have one group that would more or less say, "Well, the Ukraine war didn't work out, but we still have the same designs on Ukraine that Putin did;" one group that says, "The Ukraine thing didn't work out, so we'll pull back and maybe we'll revisit this in a couple of years;" and then one group that could come in and say, "Look, we want to fundamentally restructure how Russia is governed and how Russia relates to its neighbors, starting with Ukraine." That last option is the one where I think we in the West would have to think very hard about being creative and about putting in the resources and attention needed to sustain that transition.

Keep in mind too that this is essentially Ukraine's third, and now perhaps its fourth, attempt to reorient itself—1991, 2004, 2014 with the Revolution of Dignity—and at each point Westerners were great with flags and ties, and then they kind of lost interest.

I just saw today President Zelenskyy is asking the European Union—and I see there is a question about the European Union as well—"We want an expedited pathway to European Union membership, when this is done. We want to know, not a vague promise; we want an expedited path," and that will be a real challenge. Is the European Union willing to do the heavy work that is going to be needed to bring Ukraine in?

Tied to that is, could you have an arrangement where Ukraine comes into the European Union but, like other EU members that are not NATO members, it has a different set of security relationships? That potentially could be a way forward. But keep in mind that the Russian reaction to Maidan started not because of NATO but because of the European Union, the prospect of Ukraine in the European Union was the trigger, not Ukraine joining NATO.

JOEL ROSENTHAL: I just have a couple more questions, again getting to the principled response.

I think it's important in this conversation to talk a little bit about the humanitarian disaster that we're looking at. You may know the figures, Nick, about numbers of refugees that will be leaving Ukraine. What is your sense of the capacity to deal with the humanitarian crisis?

NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: I think that there is a capacity there. What's interesting is that countries in Europe that have less capacity are the ones that are doing most of the receiving. So we've had Moldova, which next to Ukraine is one of the poorest countries in Europe, facilitating people coming through, Romania, Hungary, Slovakia, Poland. Poland is saying, for example, "Look, we are going to give a number of benefits"—I saw a thing on social media of Ukrainian citizens showing that they are getting free train accommodations to be able to get from the border either to join relatives or to find locations.

It is interesting. Again, this also has to do with ethical questions about circles. I do want to bring this up because I think it's important. In Hungary, which a number of years ago was not very keen on refugees coming in from the Middle East, it was part of what fueled Viktor Orbán's rise in the polls; on the other hand, it feels more of a connection to Ukrainians and says, "We need to help them." So this idea of the ethical circles—my sense of duty ("Who do I owe duties to, my own citizens, my own people?")—there is a sense that Ukrainian refugees in Eastern Europe are going to be seen by people as "These are our own and we want to help them," in a way that we did see some issues in 2015 or 2016 having to deal with refugees coming from the Middle East or Africa. But again, that has to go back to this sense of "Where do your ethical obligations lie?" and I think you are seeing Eastern Europeans willing to help and to make sure that people can get to safe havens.

My understanding is that about 150,000 people, last time I checked—obviously more people may head out—and if the Russians escalate and start using serious-style tactics in Ukraine, certainly people will need to leave just for survival. It would be crazy to tell people to shelter in place if you start having the kinds of strikes that the Russians, Iranians, and the Syrian government delivered against Aleppo, for example—so, yes, that will raise the question.

We now come back to another issue as well, which is that Europeans will have to then accept "We have obligations and we have to be willing to make some sacrifices to help refugees."

And then the other great question moving forward as this conflict continues is: Are Europeans willing to pay more of a price in terms of their own personal energy consumption? One of the odd things of this conflict is you have two countries at war with each other—I know no one "goes to war" anymore because the UN Charter technically outlaws it, so no one declares war—but Russia and Ukraine are at war, Russia has invaded, and yet Russian energy continues to transit Ukraine to European consumers, who pay for it through the unsanctioned payment mechanisms, and then, ironically, Russia is still depositing transit fees into Ukrainian accounts. It's a real crazy situation there. But the question would be: In order to prevent Russia from getting any of that income, would Europeans be prepared to accept, for example, energy rationing in the short term?

So far the answer is no, and that again gives you a sense of the limits of ethical obligation in terms of what people may or may not be willing to bear.

JOEL ROSENTHAL: We're coming towards the end of our time. Nick, maybe you could share with the people who are viewing some of the things you're looking at right now. We talked just before we got together here about how you're viewing the news as a consumer of this real-time information. Maybe you could share some of your experiences, what you're looking at now and what you're thinking about as things are happening so quickly.

NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: I think, first and foremost, it's easy to be deluged by information and not to necessarily know the provenance of the information or where it's coming from.

Social media makes it very easy to forward information that is innocuously inaccurate or deliberately inaccurate. It's easy for rumors to spread. We saw, for example, that apparently the mayor of Kiev had his Instagram cloned that made it seem like he was saying that "the city is surrounded and we're doomed," and that got a lot of play. People were tweeting it around and sending it around.

We always come back to this, and certainly on The Doorstep podcast that we do for the Council with myself and my co-host Tatiana Serafin we always encourage people to be informed consumers of news and to verify before just sending something on, particularly if a story really seems to validate your priors or you would love it to be true so you'll just assume that it is, to be careful about consuming.

And know where you're getting your information from. I was noting to you before we went live fascinating work that is being done by people who, when they get these dashcam videos of things that are happening in Ukraine, meticulously verify topographical features, using open-source satellite data, looking through social media and news accounts, and trying to make sure that if they see something that says, "This is something that happened"—dramatic footage—before they post it they can make sure that it is true and is not repurposed footage.

In every conflict now, we see where sometimes news departments that are strapped for cash or want to cut corners say, "Well, this is what happened, but we have a nice piece of footage from Gaza which would work here," so that gets sent out, or something from the Georgia war of 2008 and it gets posted, and this is what can fuel distrust in the accuracy of media. When these things come out that it's not accurate—and this of course has been part of Russian operations, which is not to necessarily convince you that their line is true but that you can't trust anything.

Again, for the audience, as you're following this, as you're sharing news, take that extra step before you hit "retweet" to make sure that you are confident or that you have had it verified that this is a piece of accurate information.

JOEL ROSENTHAL: That's great. I know you will be following some of these issues in The Doorstep, so I would encourage all our viewers to tune in.

NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: Our plan for The Doorstep this week is to feature a discussion about the invasion of Ukraine, and that should be live by the end of the week.

JOEL ROSENTHAL: That's great.

This might be a good place to conclude. Nick, I want to thank you for joining us on short notice, and thank all the viewers for your great questions on the chat. This will get posted on the Carnegie Council website, so people can go back to refer to it, and I am sure we will have more conversations to follow.

Thanks, Nick.


JOEL ROSENTHAL: And thank you all for joining us. We will see you online at the Carnegie Council website and on social media. Thanks.

You may also like

U.S. Army M1A2 Abrams tanks

FEB 6, 2023 Article

Ethics, Escalation, and Engagement in Ukraine and Beyond

Now that HIMAR and Patriot missiles as well as Leopard and Abrams tanks are on the way to Ukraine, NATO unity is at a high ...

MAY 13, 2022 Article

Ethics As We Know it is Gone. It's Time for Ethics Re-envisioned.

Given the troubling state of international affairs there is reason to be greatly concerned about how ethics is framed or co-opted. To meet this moment, ...

A United States Marine escorts a Department of State employee to evacuation at Hamid Karzai International Airport, Kabul, Afghanistan, August 15, 2021. CREDIT: <a href="">Sgt. Isaiah Campbell/Public Domain</a>

AUG 23, 2021 Article

The Ethics of Exit from Afghanistan

Carnegie Council President Joel H. Rosenthal discusses the post-9/11 evolution from counterterrorism to counterinsurgency and analyzes the ethics surrounding the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. ...