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Brian Taylor on the Campbell Conversations

Brian Taylor
Brian Taylor

With tensions with Russia over its actions toward Ukraine back on the forefront of Western concern, Grant Reeher speaks with Brian Taylor, an expert on Russia and security. Taylor is a Political Science Professor at Syracuse University's Maxwell School and the author of, "The Code of Putinism."

Program Transcript:

Grant Reeher: Welcome to the Campbell Conversations. I'm Grant Reeher. Tensions with Russia over its actions toward Ukraine are back on the front burner for Western nations. My guest today is an expert on both Russia and security. Brian Taylor is a political science professor at Syracuse University's Maxwell School. His two most recent books are “The Code of Putinism” and “State Building in Putin's Russia: Policing and Coercion After Communism.” Brian, welcome to the program.

Brian Taylor: Thank you for having me, Grant.

GR: I appreciate you making the time. So let me just start with a basic question, setting the stage here, and I'm assuming that our listeners are already familiar with the basic contours of what's going on. And I should say that you and I are talking on Thursday morning, because this is a changing situation. So bear that in mind as well. But first of all, why is this an issue now? Why is the Russian government or more specifically, Vladimir Putin taking the actions that he's taking now?

BT: That's an excellent question. And Russia watchers have been puzzling over that a bit because in some ways nothing dramatic happened in 2021 to lead to this escalation as far as we can tell. So I would put it down to a couple of different things. First, as background, I think it's important for people to recognize that Russia's relationship with Ukraine for Putin has been a high priority throughout his presidency for more than 20 years. And not only has it been a high priority, but it has been in some ways his greatest foreign policy failure. He had a very great foreign policy success in one sense when he annexed Crimea in 2014, but that actually led to Ukraine wanting even more fiercely to align itself with the West and with NATO and get away from the Russian sphere of influence. So I think Putin has been looking around and seeing that the trajectory is not in his direction and he's moving, you know, towards the end of his presidency potentially. We don't know how much longer he's going to be around, but this is a piece of unfinished business that he wants to solve. And then I think the more sort of proximate issue is in 2021, the Ukrainian President Zelenskyy started to move away from his hopes of striking a deal with Russia and taking a harder line, including in terms of Ukrainian internal politics, where he moved against a Ukrainian oligarch who's very close to Putin and pro-Russian. He closed down a couple of Russian language TV stations. They changed the language law in ways that diminish the importance of Russian in Ukraine. So I think all of these things were seen as important signals of his losing grip. And I think finally, the last point I would make is I suspect that Putin doesn't think Zelenskyy would be taking these steps without sign off from Washington, because that's just simply how he sees the world. It's a world of great powers. small states act at the behest of great powers. And if Zelenskyy is taking a new line, it must have something to do with the new Biden administration. So that's what I would say has helped ratchet up the tensions over the last year or so and especially the last couple of months.

GR: So I know that academics often hate to do this, but I'm going to put you on the spot. We're talking on Thursday morning. Can you give me a probability estimate that Russia will actually invade Ukraine with its military?

BT: A probability estimate. So I'm going to do what an academic would do and put some parameters around it. But I will try and answer the question. So first of all, I would say in some sense, Russia has already and is already invading Ukraine. Right. It annexed Crimea in 2014, which the international community sees as legally part of Ukraine. Russia sponsored and is still sponsoring insurgent movement in the southeast part of Ukraine, an area known as the Donbas. It's been doing that since 2014. It is still doing that, although not openly. So having those facts on the table, I would say I'm going to go right down the middle. Maybe this is a weasel answer, but 50/50 sometime in the next, let's say month or two, we will see some kind of Russian military escalation. Now, the problem with that term, Russian military escalation is it could encompass a lot of things from a full-on invasion meant to sort of take half of Ukrainian territory and surround the capital to more limited incursions, to expand the kind of line of conflict in that southeast part of Ukraine known as the Donbas and everything in between. Some people, for example, are talking about a more standoff military operation through the use of missiles and air power to degrade Ukrainian military power and basically force them to implement a cease-fire on Russian terms. So I'm going with 50/50, which to a certain extent reflects the fact that we really don't know for sure what's going to happen, but they're putting in place the potential to do something really seriously, if that's what Putin decides.

GR: Well, the other maybe the it's the other part of that 50/50. But the other thing that I've read is as a possible outcome is that Russia would insert its own leaders into the country and rather than physically invade and kind of do it through the top leadership, maybe I've got that wrong. But if they were to do something like that, how would that work?

BT: Yeah. So there was this statement from the British government last week suggesting a Russian plot to put in place a puppet, basically as Ukrainian president. The first thing I would say about that is we don't know what the source is that Britain was relying upon to make that claim. The second thing I would say is we sometimes have the impression that Vladimir Putin is pulling the strings on everything, but he's not pulling the strings on everything. So it's completely possible that some member of one of the Russian security forces, of which there are multiple, has had some conversation with pro-Russian Ukrainian politicians about scenarios for the future that was picked up by foreign intelligence. That doesn't necessarily mean there's a state-approved plan to do such a thing. Now, having said that, in response to your more direct question, I think the only way they could do that is through a military invasion that caused the Ukrainian government to collapse. I see no other way that they could engineer putting in place one of their proxies as president. They would have to force Zelenskyy from power somehow. And I think the only way that they could plausibly try and do that was a humiliating military defeat that caused the collapse of the government. Even then, I would have to say that I don't think the Ukrainian political elite or the Ukrainian population would really stand for that sort of operation. The pro-Russian politicians that people are talking about have like 3 to 5% support in public opinion polling. So they would be completely dependent on Moscow and on the use of Moscow's military power to keep them there.

GR: You're listening to the Campbell Conversations on WRVO Public Media. I'm Grant Reeher and I'm speaking with Syracuse University political science professor and Russia expert Brian Taylor. Well, for the daily lives of Ukrainians what would living under some significantly expanded Russian control mean for them?

BT: I think it would mean several things for a pretty big chunk of the population. It would mean, this sounds dramatic, but this is what people are talking about, going to the forest and picking up guns when they do public opinion polling in Ukraine, around a third of the population says if Russia attacks, I will go fight. Right, I will enlist. And they have hundreds of thousands of people in the reserves. They have smaller, sort of self-organized volunteer detachments that people sign up for. So this would be, I think, a real partisan insurgency if the sort of most dramatic scenario were to play out with a large Russian invasion. For everyone else, it would mean, you know, the possibility of, you know, death and injury from military assault. It could mean the loss of heat, the loss of water. It could mean the flight of hundreds of thousands of people becoming either internally displaced or international refugees. So the consequences would be severe if we're talking about the ultimate sort of military scenario of an invasion from sort of three different directions, the North, East and the South, to try and take a big chunk of Ukrainian population. Just to remind everyone, Russia obviously is the largest country in Europe. Ukraine is the second largest country in Europe in terms of size, and its population is around 40 million people. So this would be by far the largest military conflict in Europe since World War II. Much bigger, for example, than even the Balkan wars of the 1990s.

GR: Wow. Well, that's an interesting point. So this could be, first of all, protracted and quite bloody. It sounds like you said.

BT: Yes, that is exactly what I'm saying. Now, this, of course, is only under a scenario in which, as I've said a couple of times, Russia really employs a major force. And I'm talking, you know, missile and air strikes. I'm talking thousands of tanks streaming across the border, tens of thousands of troops entering Ukraine. That's the kind of scenario I'm talking about. I'm not predicting that's what's going to happen. And there are good reasons to think that might not happen. But that is at least one thing that experts have talked about, given the forces that they see moving into place over the last couple of months.

GR: So you were describing how this issue of Ukraine has been on Vladimir Putin's to-do list for 20 years, and it's something that he wants to see finished before he leaves office. I was wondering, I guess just thinking about it from a U.S. or Western perspective that whether disrupting NATO or trying to just, you know, be some sort of disrupting force in that way was part of the strategy of doing all this. But it doesn't sound like that's his main motivator here.

BT: No, I think that is also an important motivator. I don't think it's either about just Ukraine or just about NATO. It's about both. And it's about the future of the European security order. So the Russian leadership, including Putin, feel that Russia got a bad deal after the collapse of the Soviet Union in the end of the Cold War, and that the West basically imposed its vision of European order on a weak Russia. Now Putin is feeling confident and he's also feeling like the West is potentially divided and has other issues distracting it. So now's the time to try and re-bargain the end of the Cold War on terms that are more favorable to Russia. So that's why, in addition to the build-up of military force, there's been this diplomatic move where they've issued a series of demands to the United States and NATO about how NATO's say no one can join NATO again in the future, that membership to Ukraine in the potential future is closed off, that NATO should pull back any force it has in new member states to back where they were before NATO started to expand in the late 1990s, early 2000s and that they come up with some kind of security arrangements that reflect Russia's sphere of influence basically. They don't put it quite that way on paper, but that's basically what they're talking about. So it's not about just Ukraine or about NATO. It's about both. And Ukraine is sensitive in that regard because the NATO alliance said back in 2008 that at some point in the future, Ukraine would become a NATO member. Now, if we look back at what happened at the time, that was actually a compromised position because the George W Bush administration was pushing for what's called a membership action plan. That would be the start of a process for Ukraine to start along the steps to join NATO and other members of the alliance, including Germany and France, thought that was a bad idea, including because they knew it would provoke Russia. So they opposed that idea. So they came up with this wishy-washy compromise is sort of the worst of both worlds that says Ukraine can join at some point, but we're not going to say when. And that's been hanging out there for 13 years. And Putin doesn't want that hanging out there anymore. He wants NATO to officially say, no, that's not going to happen.

GR: You're listening to the Campbell Conversations on WRVO Public Media. I'm Grant Reeher and I'm talking with Brian Taylor. He's a political science professor at Syracuse University's Maxwell School and an expert on Russia and security. So I'm wondering, thinking of it from the standpoint of the Biden presidency, and I think it's fair to say he hasn't had the best year. Would some kind of significant invasion here into Ukraine by Russia be a loss for him in some way? Because I'm thinking back to the election, and one of the things that he criticized President Trump for was for being too cozy with Putin. And now sort of Putin turns around and sort of sticks it in his eye and goes into Ukraine. Is that do you think that that would be a foreign policy loss for this administration?

BT: I think a lot would depend on what actually happened and how the sort of developments played out. I know that this is already gearing up to be sort of partisan issue and various members of the Republican Party are attacking Biden and saying he's been weak on Russia. And that's why that's this is happening now. I actually don't really think that's the case. As I talked about earlier, I think there were things that happened both in Russia and in Ukraine within the last couple of years that brought this issue to the forefront. To the extent that it comes up now in terms of American domestic politics, I think that perhaps Putin thought he was going to get some kind of better deal from Trump that Trump could never deliver on, up to and including U.S. withdraw from NATO, which Trump occasionally talked about, you know, doing. And so none of that ever happened. And the events of, you know, a year ago, January 6, seem to suggest that the U.S. is in real sort of domestic political sort of turmoil. And then some people would point to the nature of the withdrawal from Afghanistan. So there may be a feeling in the Kremlin that the United States' peak of power that it had at the end of the Cold War has now gone into some kind of, you know, steep decline. And that would not be just about Biden. That'd be about a whole series of things, but that would be one thing. Now, if Russia does go into Ukraine in a big way militarily, I think, unfortunately, this would again, as you sort of suggest, become a partisan political issue with people blaming him for what happened and that kind of thing. I personally don't really see it that way. I mean, I don't think we can blame George W Bush for the Russia war with Georgia in 2008. I don't think we can blame Barack Obama for the annexation of Crimea in 2014. And most of these cases, I think they're driven by issues closer to the actual event in these cases closer to Russia. So Biden is not responsible for what Vladimir Putin decides to do. On the other hand, he is trying to communicate to Putin that NATO remains solid on this, that the U.S. and its allies have a plan for sanctioning Russia if it does things, that it will help support Ukraine. So it's trying to signal to Russia both that it's willing to talk about some of the issues Russia wants to talk about and that it has its sort of ducks lined up in case we move into a military confrontation.

GR: As someone who grew up in the thick of the Cold War, one of the concerns it's always in the back of my mind. Sometimes it comes to the front of my mind when events like this happen is that they can lead to an escalation of conflict that could threaten, well, life on planet Earth. Is that worry being contained? Is not something I should take off of my worry list here.

BT: I wouldn't put it very high on your worry list. Let's put it that way. I mean, it is important as you point out, the U.S. and Russia have the two largest nuclear arsenals in the world, still thousands of nuclear weapons held by both sides. And so whenever you get into a situation in which there is the potential for confrontation involving the U.S. and Russia, you kind of have to worry about that, I should say, and make clear to everyone listening that Ukraine is not a member of NATO and the United States and other NATO members have no treaty obligation to come to the military defense of Ukraine if Russia decides to invade. Now, NATO and the United States has said we will support Ukraine. They have been doing things over the years, such as sending weapons, sending military trainers, and that kind of thing. But I don't see any scenario with respect to Ukraine that would involve the direct deployment of U.S. military forces. So in that sense, you know, the risk of this ultimate escalation, I think, is quite low. But again, any time you have a big war in Europe, you have to worry about that kind of thing. Hopefully, we won't have that big war, but that's unfortunately what people are talking about these days.

GR: I remember you said something to me several years ago. Maybe it was during this period of the annexation of Crimea. You said at the time Vladimir Putin isn't playing offense. People think he's playing offense, he's playing defense. I don't know if that rings a bell, but if you could just expound on that a little bit without going into too much detail about what you learned doing the research on your book?

BT: Yeah, sure. I mean, I think it's important when we think about how the world looks to Vladimir Putin. He sort of grew up in sort of high Soviet power in the Brezhnev era, in the sixties and seventies. Right. And he joined the KGB. It was this mighty state, this mighty organization. And then it all collapsed and, you know, he's famously he's famous for having said 15 years ago now that the collapse of the Soviet Union was one of the greatest geopolitical catastrophes of the 20th century. So I think it's the word geopolitical that's important here. And he feels like Russia does not have the respect and status in the world that it deserves. He feels like in some ways it's been ignored and humiliated and he's resentful of that. And so when things happen like domestic political turmoil in a country like Ukraine, which happened in 2004 and again in 2014, that brings pro-Western forces to power. A similar thing happened in Georgia in 2003. A similar thing almost happened in Belarus just a year and a half ago. He always sees the hand of Washington there. He thinks that the West is out to get Russia, that it's stirring up trouble in its neighborhood, that it doesn't respect it and it's ultimately trying to weaken Russia and not to be too dramatic about it, but to overthrow his government. So in that sense, he feels like he's under threat. And when people go out on the streets of Moscow, he has said in the past that, you know, the State Department is paying these people and that kind of thing. And my sense is that Putin and some of the people very close to him who still provide him with information really actually think that's true, that there's some grand American plot and they kind of don't give agency to average people on the street in places like Belarus or Ukraine or Georgia. They think it's all sponsored and that it's all geopolitics. I don't think that's what's actually happening, but I think from where he sits, that's how he sees the world.

GR: If you're just joining us, you're listening to the Campbell Conversations on WRVO Public Media, and my guest is Syracuse University professor Brian Taylor and we're discussing the situation with Russia and Ukraine. You talked about him thinking that maybe there's a plot to overthrow his government. I want to think about his government for a minute, because if you were to evaluate Putin in terms of domestic leadership in the way that Western leaders are normally evaluated, I think he'd get extremely low marks. I mean, he heads up a corrupt government that hasn't produced much for the Russian people domestically, at least that's my understanding. Correct me if I'm wrong about that. But my question is, if you could distill it down, why does this person stay in power for so long? I would think he would have someone would have taken him out by now.

BT: Yeah, it's an interesting question. I mean, to the last point first, it's actually quite hard for someone to take him outright either in terms of challengers from within the elite or challenges from the street because he has a series of leashes to sort of keep people in line, both among the elite and among the population. And he's got a series of clubs that he can use to hit people who potentially threaten him. And, you know, we saw with Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, who's now in jail and was the victim of an attempt to kill him with a Novichok nerve agent. You know, that was, I guess, a year and a half ago, roughly now. And over the last year since Navalny went to jail, they have completely uprooted his organization and driven the opposition either out of the country or completely underground. So it's a fairly robust police state in the sense that they're much more powerful than any internal opposition force. On the other hand, it's not a particularly well-organized police state. There's a lot of room for freelancing in it. And I think this gets to your other point. The Russian state is still kind of a fairly chaotic and not particularly effective actor in a lot of important spheres. And I think that's kind of what you were getting at. Now, when he first came to power back in 2000, the economy was just starting to recover from a decade of depression after the Soviet collapse. But then it took off and it grew at roughly 7% a year for about eight years, partially because of increasing oil prices, but also because of this sort of recovery that was happening throughout the post-communist world. So he had very high marks and very high favorability ratings. People loved him and they loved Putin's Russia. They thought, you know, we're back off our knees. You know, we're living comfortable, middle-class lifestyles, all of a sudden, you know, the bad years are in the past, but that's really changed over the last eight years. Over the last eight years, the economy has grown on average of 0.5%. Living standards have actually fallen by 10% over the last eight years. So and I guess the one other thing I would add, the response to the COVID pandemic has been quite awful in Russia. You don't hear that much about it. But close to a million people have died because of the pandemic. And in Russia, very high numbers. So I think, you know, it's kind of a mixed bag as a leader. But from the point of view, the Russian population, there's not a lot of what have you done for me lately other than these international tensions and challenges.

GR: What's your sense of the likely longer-term trajectory for Russia? I mean, do they keep fading in international significance despite what Putin would like to see absent these, you know, occasional aggressive moves and become a thoroughly secondary nation? Or do you see some sort of Russian renaissance, you know, within the next 50 years, if you could answer that in 30 seconds?

BT: Well, Russia remains and is a great power by virtue of its size, by virtue of the size of its population, by virtue of its nuclear weapons and its military power and its position as one of the big five on the U.N. Security Council. On the other hand, its population is now ninth in the world, not third in the world as it was under the Soviet Union. And its economy is now about 12th in the world as opposed to, you know, second or third in the world as it was. So it depends on which vectors are sorry, which measures you look at. But Russia's not going away. Russia's not disappearing. And it will be an important challenge and an important potential partner going forward. But it's certainly not your grandfather's Soviet Union.

GR: So last question. Also looking forward, but more short term, if this conflict with Russia does become a front burner thing for the United States and it's protracted, do you think that could help Donald Trump's political prospects in some way for 2024? Because, you know, allowing him as a candidate to claim that he once again alone could fix this because of his supposed relationship with Putin.

BT: As you know, I'm not an expert on American politics, but at first glance, I'm having a hard time seeing it. Right, when he came to power in 2017, you know, he gave the impression that Putin was going to be his best friend and they were going to strike a deal that did not happen. So it's a hard argument to make now that he's going to do it this time, since he didn't do it last time.

GR: That hasn't necessarily stopped candidates in the past. That was Brian Taylor. And if you're interested in tapping his deeper knowledge of Russia, you might also check out his most recent book. It's called “The Code of Putinism.” Brian, thanks so much for taking the time to talk with me.

BT: Thank you very much, Grant, I had a great time.

GR: You've been listening to the Campbell Conversations on WRVO Public Media, conversations in the public interest.

Grant Reeher is Director of the Campbell Public Affairs Institute and a professor of political science at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs. He is also creator, host and program director of “The Campbell Conversations” on WRVO, a weekly regional public affairs program featuring extended in-depth interviews with regional and national writers, politicians, activists, public officials, and business professionals.