Ukraine's Next Move, with Mark Temnycky

Jul 13, 2023 35 min listen

The NATO summit in Lithuania, Ukraine's summer counter-offensive, and the recent instability between Russia and the Wagner Group have kept Ukraine in the headlines. But what is happening behind closed doors and on the ground that may be influencing the direction of the Ukrainian-Russian war? Mark Temnycky, journalist and nonresident fellow with the Atlantic Council's Eurasia Center, joins Doorstep co-hosts Tatiana Serafin and Nikolas Gvosdev to unpack the latest news and conflicting reports.

How strong is Western and global support for the continuing war effort and eventual reconstruction program? What options does President Zelenskyy have? What are ethical trade-offs being made?

For more, read Gvosdev's recent article on ethical tensions in Ukraine.

Ukraine's Next Move Doorstep Spotify podcast link Ukraine's Next Move Doorstep Apple podcast link

NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: Welcome, everyone, to this edition of The Doorstep podcast. I am your co-host, senior fellow at Carnegie Council Nick Gvosdev.

TATIANA SERAFIN: And I am Tatiana Serafin, also a senior fellow here at Carnegie Council. Today we will be talking about Ukraine and all the news coming out of Ukraine and Russia over the last couple of weeks with Mark Temnycky, a nonresident rellow at the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center and a journalist covering Ukraine, but I want to also mention, Nick, your recent Carnegie Council piece on the ethics of what is happening in Ukraine. Nick, if you could briefly give us a headline of that piece because I think it is important to bring in that point of view of what has been going on over the last couple of weeks.

NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: Policymakers are confronted with how do they end this war, how do they end the Russian invasion, and we have had two examples in recent weeks. One is, “Well, do we unofficially talk”—American officials, former officials—“talk to Russians even though some of those Russians are under sanction?” Is it an ethical step to do that, or should we not be talking? Similarly, if ending the war quickly means battlefield success for Ukraine, does this mean supplying weapons like cluster munitions, even though there are concerns with the damage these weapons cause and particularly the legacy they leave for civilians?

We have had these two issues of dialoguing with Moscow and supplying cluster munitions to Ukraine where people are lining up on both sides of the ethical fence, some saying the actions themselves are not ethical and others saying we have to look at the intended impact of what these actions might bring, and if the impact is that they bring the invasion to a close, then we should not reject using them. It is an ongoing debate within the administration and across the alliance over dialoguing and cluster munitions.

TATIANA SERAFIN: And an ongoing debate within the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the news coming out of NATO and the instability in Russia, which we are going to talk about with Mark right now.

Thanks so much for joining us today, Mark, in a momentous week I think for news coming out of Europe about the Ukraine-Russia war. I want to start off because I for one, who follow this very closely, have been looking at headlines, and some of them say, positive, Ukraine is going to get the support it needs, and some of them say, no, Zelenskyy is upset, and he is getting put down by the British who say they are not Amazon.

I feel that our audience needs to step back and take a breath. I know it is going to take time to process everything that has happened, and we still do not know what happened behind closed doors, but Nick and Mark, both of you, what are your initial impressions from what happened this week? Is there a case for optimism or should we be more pessimistic? I am going to give our audience a little hint; I think we have two different viewpoints coming up. We will start with maybe the positive outlook, Mark.

MARK TEMNYCKY: First, thank you for having me. It is a pleasure to be here with you this morning.

I think it is a little bit of a mixed situation. Starting with the positive, the NATO members decided that Ukraine no longer needs a Membership Action Plan (MAP), and that is significant in that it eliminates some hurdles to try to become part of NATO. For those unfamiliar with it, the Membership Action Plan lists different economic requirements, democratic requirements, and reforms necessary for Ukraine to move forward, and it has often been seen as a document that is outdated and sometimes very time-consuming and not very productive in that it is not very concrete and people can come up with excuses about why it is not completed to its full potential. The fact that that was eliminated gives Ukraine a supposed “fast track” to become part of NATO.

NATO also created the NATO-Ukraine Council, and this defense council will meet with Ukrainian leadership more frequently. It invites Ukraine to more conversations with NATO that it may not necessarily have been involved in or privy to previously, so it is inviting Ukraine to the table.

Of course the large disappointment that everyone is familiar with is that there was no invitation for Ukraine to join NATO, but I would say that was perhaps expected. Prior to coming to the summit President Volodymyr Zelenskyy met with the Ukrainian Parliament in Verkhovna Rada, where he gave an address, and one of the things he stated in his address to Parliament was, “All Ukrainians know Ukraine can’t currently join NATO because they are at war, and there is a clause in the NATO ascension process that says that if a country has conflict or territorial disputes, et cetera, it will not be invited.” Similarly Article 5 in NATO states that if when a country is attacked other member countries are attacked, and they would have to participate. So everyone understands that if Ukraine was hypothetically to join NATO tomorrow that would extend Russia’s war to the entire European continent, and no one wants that.

In my opinion I think it is a little misleading with how news is being reported because everyone is saying, “Oh, Zelenskyy is embarrassed, he is left disappointed.” He knew going in that that was never going to happen, and I think the biggest takeaway now is that when NATO issued its communiqué it stated a phrase—if you don’t mind me reading—that says: “Ukraine’s future is in NATO. We, being the alliance, will be in a position to extend an invitation to Ukraine when allies agree and conditions are met.” That means that we do not know when Ukraine will join NATO, but now it seems like there is an agreement that it will happen eventually whereas prior to the war it was always “if” Ukraine could join. I think the language is significant.

TATIANA SERAFIN: Nick, do you agree?

NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: I think it is a mixed picture. I am always concerned about the follow-up, which is what follows from this and what concrete steps are taken. I agree with Mark that removal of the MAP as a condition was an important step for Ukraine because these documents can often be used to delay membership or provide excuses for why it cannot happen. On the other hand, I am always worried when you see a phrase—and Mark read it from the communiqué—“when allies agree and conditions permit,” because that actually opens up a lot the “eye of the beholder”: Who determines when the conditions are met and what are those conditions?

I think this gets at your point, Tatiana, about what is happening, what happened behind closed doors, and what was said. In a media environment where there is a lot of disinformation and misinformation about, “Well, were these meetings positive, were they negative, was President Zelenskyy told to tone it down because of domestic support in the West?” We have this flap with the British defense minister as you already alluded to—“You need to show more gratitude.” There are issues at work there.

The Ukraine NATO Council on paper looks very good. The question will be again in the implementation. Is this going to be a serious forum? Of course we had for many years the NATO-Russia Council, set up for very different purposes than the NATO-Ukraine Council, but one where a lot of talking happened but not a lot of action.

I think the fact that the G7 countries had to issue a statement afterward about security assistance to Ukraine shows that there is some concern that the image, the optics, coming out of Vilnius are not as good as can be expected. Certainly the Kremlin is spinning this as a setback for Ukraine—“They didn’t get in, the West doesn’t want them,” and so on.

As Mark has been saying, it is important to put this in the proper perspective, and this again is why accurate reporting on what comes out of Vilnius is important because the Twitter gossip channel has been in hyperdrive over the last several days with “Sources say,” “I heard this,” and “I was told that,” and of course none of this is verifiable.

In the end, even though Mark is probably more optimistic than I am, being a natural pessimist, I think the mixed results are important, but looking also behind the statements as to what the actions are going to be.

TATIANA SERAFIN: Speaking of the summit, let’s be realistic here and recognize that it is happening in the backdrop of a continuing war in Ukraine, which has been going on for over 500 days. The summer offensive was supposed to have big things happening. Mark, what is your feel for the progress or not of the war and how that may have impacted what happened at the summit?

MARK TEMNYCKY: I think while it may be very exciting and tempting to see Ukraine make huge advancements and gains, we have to remember that this is not a video game or movie where if the main characters die you can just restart the level and try a different outcome.

Tens of thousands of people have died to date for Ukraine and Russia. These are serious calculations because it is loss of life. So while it may be exciting to say, “Look at all this new territory Ukraine has acquired from Russia while it is defending its country and reclaiming the Russian-occupied territories,” men and women have died during this process of defending their country.

Moving on from that point, Ukraine has made some gains in the South and the East. There were reports recently that they are starting to push the Russians out of areas around Bakhmut, which is significant. There are also some advancements in Southern Ukraine. I think the most prominent one occurred last fall. As everyone is aware, Ukraine liberated Kherson, which is just north of the Crimean Peninsula. To date that is still the only major Ukrainian city that the Russians managed to capture, which took them several months, and the Ukrainians got it back in a few weeks. I think that is telling regarding Ukrainian military capability too. Yes, of course, thank you to Western weaponry and advancements and thanks to President Poroshenko and President Zelenskyy over the years. Ukraine and NATO cooperated and conducted several training exercises, so this is one of the reasons why Ukrainians have been so successful using Western weaponry; they are familiar with how it works.

I think it will take time and patience. We do not know what the generals are saying to President Zelenskyy about tactics, etc. A perfect example was that everyone expected in the summer of last year that there was going to be a large offensive push in the south, and what happened? Ukraine protected Kharkiv and forced the Russians completely out of Northern Ukraine. There are deliberate things happening that the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense does not want us knowing, and I think it is just a matter of letting the Ukrainians continue doing what they are doing. Continued assistance from the West will help, and I think while on one hand the news will be the news and report on what it wants to it also needs to be respectful in that Ukraine is defending its country, and if people are reporting troop deployments or movements, et cetera, that only favors Russia.

NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: Your point there—and I know the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense has made this point and Ukrainian leaders—that this is not a video game, it is not a movie, is well taken, and I think linked to that is that Ukraine does not owe Twitter user BigGun54 a detailed exposition of what it plans to do in the military sphere and that the timing of the counteroffensive has to be driven by strategic need and not by publicity.

In your reporting is there a sense that you are getting about the domestic sustainability in Western countries for support for Ukraine? There has always been this talk that at some point the British, the Americans, the Germans, and others will say, “Well, we have given enough and it is time to move on.” Do you have any sense from what you are hearing that there is a time limit, an expiration date, on Western support for Ukraine, that Ukraine has to do something quickly otherwise it risks losing the aid that it is getting from its Western partners?

MARK TEMNYCKY: I think there are two parts to that question. The first is, my people have been fighting the Russians for 300 years for independence, so there will never be an idea of concessions being made to the Russians. At least from the Ukrainian standpoint that will never happen.

On the flip side, I think there is a concern. As we just discussed there was a piece from the Brookings Institution that said that U.S. domestic support is very high. I have been seeing in some other European sources that citizens in the United Kingdom and throughout the eurozone are supportive. I recently was on holiday in the Balkans in several countries and you could still see Ukrainian flags waving everywhere. When my friends and I mentioned that we are Ukrainian, people were very supportive. That is important because as that support continues Ukraine will continue to get weapons.

I think the concern that occurs is that several Western countries—we are democracies, we have elections, and there are transitions of power always. In the United States, for example, there is a presidential election and several senators and congressmen and congresswomen as representatives will be either reelected or replaced. I think that is important to see because you never know who the new administration could be or how Congress will vote.

I think as Ukraine has its support now it has to make as much advancement as it can, but again these are human lives at risk. Ukrainians are not going to just to say, “Oh, I am concerned about what President Biden’s contingent thinks, so I am going to attack this city or protect this city.” They have to do what is best for them still.

TATIANA SERAFIN: I thought it was a big deal to see tanks rolling up in Moscow with Prigozhin’s revolt—perhaps “revolt” is too strong a word—or attempt to make a statement. Let’s put it that way. What positive effect has that had on Western countries and populations seeing these tanks in Russia and seeing this upheaval and thinking that perhaps Russia, even if you are on the fence, there is something going on there that we need to look at and be concerned about more than just the war in Ukraine?

Because this is also happening in the last few weeks and is all coming together I wonder what effect that instability is having both on the ground in Ukraine in terms of popular sentiment in seeing Russia as somehow now unstable whereas maybe two years ago—I often mention this, my students were asking me where the nuclear bunkers were in New York City. They are not asking me that anymore. Maybe we are not viewing Russia as strong anymore. What are some of your thoughts?

MARK TEMNYCKY: I think it is very telling. Before the war began there was a general belief and understanding that Russia had the second-strongest military in the entire world. In the last 18 months we have seen that Russia has the second-strongest military in Ukraine. The Ukrainians have done very well.

Remember the headlines when the war started last February: “Ukraine will fall in several days. The Russians are approaching Kyiv.” There were leaked documents from Russia’s Ministry of Defense that it thought it would take Kyiv in I think three days and the entire country in 15 days, something like that. It has been going on for a year and a half and they still have not gotten to Kyiv. If anything, they have pushed Russians out.

I think that is not just Western weaponry but Ukrainian resilience against the Russian military, and I still to this day do not understand that despite all the advancements that Ukrainians have made in defending themselves that there are still people who think that they will lose this war. I personally am of the belief that the Wagner coup was not staged. I think it actually occurred as it did, and it was telling. There were jokes on Twitter that the advancement, in terms of kilometers covered that Wagner did moving from Eastern Ukraine on to Moscow, was the fastest Russian advancement throughout the entire war, and what is funny is that it was not in Ukraine, it was in their own country. In addition to that, Wagner forces shot down seven Russian aircraft, and there were casualties on both the Russian military and the Wagner side.

In addition to Ukraine’s ability to defend itself, I think this shows that Russia is not as strong as people thought it was initially. In my opinion this is even more reason to provide Ukrainians with more weapons to force the Russians out because unfortunately that is what the Russians understand. What happened when Wagner left Eastern Ukraine and entered Rostov? Several police officers and military officers joined the Wagner advancement on to Moscow. It had nothing to do with “We want to end the war.” It was, “How can we kill Ukrainians better, and this force seems to be more prominent than the others, so we are going to do that.” I think that has helped shape some thought processes, but also there is a bit of a division in that countries who are in Eastern and Central Europe are familiar with their communist pasts and familiar with their relationship with Russia, whereas those who have the privilege of living in the West do not necessarily have to be concerned about how Russia is conducting cyberattacks, violating their airspace or territory, or things along that line.

NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: Building on that, you mentioned the questions of narrative and image. Last year Tatiana wrote a very insightful article for Orbis about Ukraine winning the digital war, winning the war of narratives, and winning the war of ideas. You mentioned President Poroshenko. People forget that he was president from 2014 until a democratic election and he conceded power in 2019 and that he started the reform of the Ukrainian military, which was absolutely critical, as you noted, to its success.

Do you think there is something about President Zelenskyy that President Poroshenko or other Ukrainian politicians would not have been able to do the same job? Is there something about Zelenskyy—his youth, his dynamism, his acting background—that enables him to connect both within Ukraine but more importantly around the world in a way that, had a different president been in power in 2022, this may have worked differently? Or is it the case that it would not have mattered, that any Ukrainian president in 2022 would have become the “war president?” From your reporting and your sense both from within Ukraine and without, the Zelenskyy factor—him as an individual and him as a symbol—is that something we should be taking into account?

MARK TEMNYCKY: Absolutely. I think because President Zelenskyy formerly was an actor and someone involved in media he understands how this works—these campaigns that his initiative, United24, put out videos for or the different ministries putting out information sessions. He understands optics. He understands how to get people. He understands how to provide a lot of information and to be very concise.

He has a significant advantage that other politicians do not have in that he is also very forthcoming and is not embarrassed or ashamed of telling people how it is. He is very direct in his narrative whereas I think politicians in general have a persona about them of being very cordial and diplomatic—not to say Zelenskyy is not, but I think he has that advantage, and that plays into his popularity too because he is promoting his people. He wants to protect his people.

I cannot speak on the minds of what other politicians are thinking, but President Zelenskyy had an offer to flee the country with his government and have a government in exile, and he chose to stay there instead. I think that speaks to his character about who he is.

TATIANA SERAFIN: As we are talking about this I wonder how much of this is generational thinking. He is a new generation, a younger generation. It is a younger population of Ukrainians. How much is driven by this need to be direct and straightforward? You are growing up online in a selfie culture, so you are going to just be you with no filters. I wonder how much of his support globally is driven by a younger generation knowing how to use social media and knowing that identity is more important. This idea of identity has shifted in the last five years. Everybody talks about identity. I wonder how much of that is driving what Zelenskyy is doing and the success of his messaging.

MARK TEMNYCKY: I think very much so because people of the younger generation turn to social media as a very quick way to get news or follow prominent individuals. I think it was also very telling with President Zelenskyy’s election in 2019, when he used a lot of social media platforms to talk and engage with his audience, which other politicians did not do, and it had a large effect. In the Ukrainian Parliament several seats were lost to Zelenskyy’s party, “Servant of the People” and it was anywhere from career politicians to people who had never served in government in their lifetime, former journalists, artists, etc.

I think not only in Ukraine but also in several Western countries with younger generations there is this thought that, Oh, there are these career politicians and you have people get into their 70s, 80s, and 90s serving their positions and are constantly reelected, they don’t really know how to engage with youth, whereas younger generations are trying to get involved, get inspired, and do these different types of engagements with their government.

NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: Just as you were mentioning that I was thinking, Mark, about a point I have heard a number of times, which is not simply Ukraine wanting to go Westward as a challenge to Russia’s geopolitics but for Putin, who is none of those things that you described, a guy who has been around since 1999, very much part of the old order, and keeps getting reelected. There is a sense that, particularly after President Zelenskyy was elected in 2019, not just in Ukraine but across the border, for younger Russians to be able to draw comparison points between him and the leadership that they have.

That may not manifest itself in a large-enough anti-war movement, as we have seen a quiescence inside of Russia to what is going on, but certainly I think there was a perception that, not just for Ukraine but perhaps for Belarus as well with Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, have the following if Zelenskyy in some ways was not showing the path forward of a truly post-Soviet leadership possibility. I think this maybe raises the question, as you said Ukraine is likely to—I think everyone hopes and there are some indicators that it will—prevail, and then what happens the day after?

Tatiana, your point about instability inside of Russia with an ossified political system and then with, first in Ukraine and then if there is political change in Belarus with Lukashenko not being able to hold on, ultimately the impact that that has in Russia itself. I think for Putin Ukraine was an existential threat, but perhaps Zelenskyy also was an existential threat given that I understand he had a following in Russia as well via his comedy series Sluha narodu, which was being watched on Russian social media and YouTube-style channels as much as it was being watched in Ukraine. I think you could see where Putin would see it as a double threat, Ukraine moving westward and then Zelenskyy as a threat to Putin and his system.

When you were talking I could not help but think about that, and I think that is something in the West we have not fully appreciated, the Zelenskyy factor as Zelenskyy not just for what he means for Ukraine being able to achieve its Euro-Atlantic destiny, but what it may mean for what we are still calling the “post-Soviet space,” a term we should probably retire but have never replaced up to this point.

TATIANA SERAFIN: I want to riff off that, Nick, and ask you, Mark, because you have so many contacts within Ukraine and Europe—and maybe too you, Nick, can comment on this. You say we should retire that phrase, “post-Soviet space,” but Mark, you made a comment that Ukrainians, Romanians, and Poles remember very closely the Soviet past and having Russia breathing down their necks in a way that the West or the United States does not. I have a lot of friends traveling to Europe. They are not concerned that there is a war 200 miles down the road. They are sailing away in Greece.

I am struck by the complacency in the public sphere. Yes, maybe we have Brookings and Pew with high support levels, but there also seems to be a little bit of complacency happening where people have forgotten—to your point, Mark—that people are dying. There was just another bomb in Kyiv, in the capital, from Russia. What is going on with that? Can the messaging that Zelenskyy has that we have been talking about overcome what I am going to call “complacency?” Maybe you can comment on that, Mark. Nick, maybe you can comment on that also. What are the ethical implications of collective Western complacency? I think this is a bigger issue that needs to be addressed as we go forward.

MARK TEMNYCKY: I personally am not concerned about war fatigue. Again, I think the way in which Ukraine has received millions of dollars in aid from people such as ourselves and actors and actresses all over the world, this is not just Western involvement. Yes, primarily countries from the West are giving weapons, but countries from Latin America, Africa, and Asia are providing medical assistance, humanitarian aid, and financial aid. All of this is important. Any form of aid is significant. In my lifetime at least this is the first war or conflict where the entire world more or less is united behind one country and one cause, and it is to see the success of Ukraine defeating Russia and protecting itself. I think from the voter standpoint and the individual standpoint that will never go away, which is fantastic.

The thing that is a concern is electing officials that continue this support because ultimately those elected officials and policymakers make those decisions about what kind of aid is sent. We can do as much as we can through humanitarian organizations, but it is the weapons aspect that governments control.

NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: Tatiana, when you were asking your question and noting that people are taking vacations to Europe while war is happening in Europe “but it’s not going to impact my travel plans,” I think this is an outgrowth of something we have seen in the United States over the last twenty years, what I would call the “Thank you for your service” moment, which is that after 9/11 there was a sense that the volunteer military would go in, they would do these tasks, but the rest of us were told, “Go on with your lives, go shopping,” and there was that whole “Thank you for your service.” I think right now Ukraine in a way as a country is a “Thank you for your service”: “You are holding the line, you are defending the Euro-Atlantic community, thank you for your service.”

The ethical question I think—and, Mark, this gets to your point about elections, which I think are going to be critical—is, it is not simply the aid today to push back Russia. It is the question in the end of the debt that will be owed Ukraine for reconstruction. It is not simply that the United States and Europe are providing weapons systems but are they also going to provide the assistance to reconstruct and better integrate Ukraine economically into the Euro-Atlantic world? That is going to be the ethical question down the line, Tatiana. Will that “Thank you for your service” be recognized by politicians in 2026 or 2027 voting for the necessary aid and trade packages, or will it be: “Thank you for your service. Now we have moved on to something else?” You can see where my pessimism comes in in that regard.

TATIANA SERAFIN: This has been a great conversation. I want to end it with a question. Because we have talked a lot about misinformation and disinformation, Mark, where do you get your information? What are the best news sources? Where can we tell our audience to go look for information about Ukraine, mostly in the English language?

MARK TEMNYCKY: Of course Carnegie is a great place to get information and sources. As a nonresident fellow of the Atlantic Council I love the content that our fellows and staff and outside contributors provide. Those are some great sources.

Kyiv Post in Ukraine is an English-language news source; The Kyiv Independent, another great English-language news source coming out of Ukraine; the BBC, The Guardian, CNN, a lot of international players—France 24—the list goes on and on. I think while Twitter is still around it is a great place to get information from prominent individuals who are covering the war.

I want to give a very quick and big thank you to the listeners for the support they have been giving Ukraine over the last year and a half.

TATIANA SERAFIN: Thank you so much for your time today, Mark.

MARK TEMNYCKY: Thank you for having me. It is a pleasure.


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Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs is an independent and nonpartisan nonprofit. The views expressed within this podcast are those of the speakers and do not necessarily reflect the position of Carnegie Council.

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