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Brian Taylor on the Campbell Conversations (Mid-March Update)

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Brian Taylor
Brian Taylor

On this week's episode of the Campbell Conversations, recent guest Brian Taylor returns to talk about the situation in Ukraine since Russia invaded three weeks ago. Taylor is an expert on Russia and security and is a Political Science Professor at Syracuse University's Maxwell School and the author of, "The Code of Putinism."

Program Transcription:

Grant Reeher: Welcome to the Campbell Conversation. I'm Grant Reeher. My guest today is Syracuse University political science professor Brian Taylor. Brian appeared on the program a few weeks ago to discuss what was then the potential Russian invasion of Ukraine. He's an expert on Russia and security and has written about both Putin and the Russian military. His most recent book is “The Code of Putinism.” Now that the war is well underway, he's back with me again. Brian, it's good to see you again. I wish it were under different circumstances.

Brian Taylor: Completely agree Grant, but happy to be here.

GR: Thanks. I appreciate you making the time. So, first of all, let me just say that you were a very good prognosticator when we spoke before about the stiffness and the resolve of the Ukrainian resistance that, you predicted would happen if Russia invaded. You should have been advising Putin. Maybe we could have avoided all this. But let me just start with this question. Is there anything about the Ukrainian resistance and resolve that surprised you so far in looking at this?

BT: I guess the one thing that surprised me, that's partially on the Ukrainian side, but also a matter on the Russian side is I thought by now Russia would have complete command of the airspace and they do not seem to have that. Ukraine still seems to be able to fly. They still seem to be able to occasionally shoot down Russian planes or helicopters. And the fact that they have not yet yielded air supremacy to Russia has impacted the war in important ways. So I had not expected that level of response from Ukraine. I knew they would fight hard on the ground. I didn't realize they would also be able to fight pretty well in the air so far.

GR: And there's been a lot of we'll get into this a bit later perhaps, but there's been a lot of writing about the I don't know if it's the weakness or the incompetency, but the stumbling of the Russian military that may play into what you just observed there.

BT: Yes, I think they started out with a very flawed plan, and it was flawed most of all at the political level. I think they believed that if they could quickly get some forces into the area outside Kyiv and push hard on the capital, that the whole Ukrainian state would simply collapse, that Zelenskyy would run for the border, that the government would fall, that they could put in place their own government and that they would not have to go through the long slog that they're in now. I don't know if the general staff believe that this plan would work if it was something that Putin insisted upon. It's hard to know why they thought that would work. They clearly were not well-informed about the resilience of the Ukrainian state and the capacity of the Russian state or sorry, the resilience of the Ukrainian state, the capacity of the Ukrainian state. And there are rumors that two top officials in the federal security service in Russia that were responsible for monitoring and conducting activities inside Ukraine from the federal security service have been placed under house arrest. Those reports have not been confirmed. But it does seem that Putin is angry that people telling him that Ukraine was simply, you know, a puppet of the U.S. would quickly collapse, were wrong.

GR: So let's talk for a minute about President Zelenskyy. You mentioned him just a second ago. What did you think about the Ukrainian president's address to Congress?

BT: I think it is a piece of with the series of addresses he's been doing to parliaments all over the world, really including in Europe. He has a similar message, which is Ukraine is standing firm. We need your help. But in each case, he tailors it to the specific audience. So it was not accidental that in talking to the U.S. Congress, he invoked Pearl Harbor, he invoked 9/11. He referenced Martin Luther King. So there were those American-specific touches. But the message is the one he's been telling everyone. Ukraine is standing for democracy. It's standing for freedom. We need your help.

GR: And so how would you assess his leadership so far during this crisis?

BT: It's been really extraordinary, actually. I think many of us were surprised at how much he has grown into this role. And it seems perhaps trite to say so. But I think his background as a performer and as an actor has really helped him in understanding how to use the media to appeal to his own population, to appeal to a global audience. He's got an ear for a ready quip and a sharp retort, and he's using those rhetorical gifts and he's also showing great personal bravery, staying in Kyiv, going to visit wounded soldiers and hospitals, that sort of thing. The contrast between Zelenskyy and Putin could not be more stark in terms of Putin sitting in his bunker talking to people at long tables or via Zoom, versus Zelenskyy out on the streets, you know, visiting hospitals, zooming in to protest rallies all over Europe supporting Ukraine. It's quite the spectacle. And he deserves a lot of credit for that.

GR: Now, he is calling for a no-fly zone enforced by the West, as I understand it. The West is leery of this. What's your take on a no-fly zone? Is it too risky?

BT: I think it is too risky. I mean, it has gotten a lot of support from some quarters because people feel desperate to do something to help. And that's an understandable impulse. But I think we need to look at this also in terms of what it would mean politically and militarily. And basically what it would mean would be a commitment by the United States and by its NATO allies to go directly to war with Russia, because enforcing a no-fly zone involves shooting down Russian planes. It involves potentially attacking, attacking Russian radars and air defense systems inside Russia and inside Belarus. And it's a massive territory. It also involves potentially grounding Ukrainian planes. If it's really a genuine no-fly zone, you have to insist that all planes stay down. So I don't think it's a realistic option from a military point of view. I think the American military has made that very clear to the U.S. political leadership, that this is a too heavy of a lift and too risky of a lift. So they're looking for other ways to help besides the military assistance that's already flowing. They're talking more about sending in things like air defense systems, which is really what Ukraine needs if it wants to control its skies in a way that is both effective but also does not open up the door to possible escalation to a shooting war with Russia, which means a shooting war between the two biggest nuclear powers on the planet.

GR: You're listening to the Campbell Conversations on WRVO Public Media. I'm Grant Reeher, and I'm speaking with Syracuse University professor Brian Taylor, and we're discussing the war in Ukraine. Now, there has been some criticism that I have read of the Biden administration during all this and the West more generally, that if one of the off-ramps for Russia that might ultimately be used as some sort of tool for ending this war is an agreement that Ukraine not join NATO that that could have been put on the table and employed early on, perhaps to avoid the invasion in the first place. Is that a valid critique?

BT: I understand the critique, but I don't think it realistically speaks to what was motivating Putin in deciding to launch the war. I think it had been well communicated to Putin by a whole host of leaders that Ukrainian membership and NATO was simply not on the table at any in any feasible timescale. So there was an effort by NATO and the U.S. to keep this commitment that the door’s open, but also to communicate to Russia that there was no movement on this front and nothing was going to happen there. And at heart, I think this is really a story about Putin wanting to control Ukraine and have Ukraine as part of Russia's sphere of influence be dominated by Russia and maybe even potentially partially are entirely be absorbed by Russia. So NATO was a secondary issue to the main issue for Putin, which is Russia's relationship with Ukraine. And if we look back at the speech that Putin gave on February 21, the first 40 minutes is basically about Russian Ukrainian history. And then he spends about 10 minutes talking about NATO. So I think that reflects well his feelings about this issue and what his true priorities were.

GR: And more generally, I ask you to evaluate President Zelenskyy. How would you evaluate President Biden's leadership during this crisis so far? Because having him in this role of president in a time like this was one of his core campaign appeals and in 2020 that we need someone like him and not like President Trump in office when something like this happens. How do you think he's handled this so far?

BT: So I think the Biden administration has done two very important things that they deserve a lot of credit for. The first was they got ahead of the Russians and telling this story about the coming war. Starting back in November, the U.S. started to selectively release intelligence showing what the United States knew about Russia's plans for war in Ukraine. And they kept up this systematic release of really secret intelligence in a careful way to communicate that we know what Russia is planning. Be on the lookout for this type of attack. Be on the lookout for this type of action that is supposed to convince the international community that Russia has a valid reason for going to war. And they completely disrupted Russia's information game and made it clear to the entire world that Russia bears the sole blame for this war and not Ukraine. Not the West, not anyone else, but Russia and Vladimir Putin. So that was the first thing that I think was really important. The second thing, which we also should not underestimate is the scope and breadth of the sanctions that the U.S. was able to deliver along with its allies. Sanctions only work if they have a broad group of the most powerful economies in the world participating in them. So the United States was able to get Great Britain, the EU, Japan, South Korea, Australia, Taiwan, Singapore, even historically neutral countries like Switzerland to buy into a range of rather punishing sanctions against Russia. And I think this is having an important effect on the Russian economy and will continue to have an important effect in limiting Russia's economic prospects and bringing real pain not only to the economy overall, but the elite in Russia. And we can already see signs that people are quite unhappy about this. So, again, in those two respects, in terms of the use of intelligence to disrupt Russia's political and military plans and the use of economic sanctions with a broad front of states involved, I think were two really important steps that the Biden administration delivered on.

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 the Maxwell School of Syracuse University. Brian's an expert on Russia and security, and we have been discussing the war in Ukraine. I wanted to follow up, Brian, on something you said right before the break. The last time you and I spoke, we spoke a few weeks ago. You, in a very detailed way, laid out all the ways in which Putin has a strong position within Russia that it would be hard to, for lack of a better word right now in my head, depose him or to take him out of office. But you now just spoke of the effectiveness of the sanctions and the real pain that that is bringing to Russia and the Russian people. So I was thinking that even for an authoritarian leader with the levers of power and control that you sketched out the last time we talked, that now the consequences of this war might make it harder and harder for Putin to either sustain a war or sustain himself in office. Is there anything to make of that?

BT: Authoritarian leaders like Putin basically face threats from two different quarters, one from the elites and one from the streets, or the masses. In both respects, I think the threat to Putin has increased since he started the war. I would say the threat from either quarter was close to zero before the war started, and now the threat from both has gone up. But it's hard to say externally how much it's gone up. And I would have to conclude overall that his position still seems secure. But let me say a couple of words about each of those threats. So in terms of the elites, he has a lot of people close to him who have been with him a long time, who've served with him a long time, who he considers quite loyal to him. And those people command things like the internal police, the security service, the military, those sorts of agencies that are typically the ones that are seen as potential threats to an authoritarian leader. So the prospect of some kind of internal coup seems unlikely. More generally, we know that many members of the elite were surprised by the nature of the war, they did not anticipate a full-scale attack on Ukraine. They were in some sense, not prepared for it. And they're taking a hit economically. There is a lot of unhappiness there, but it's hard to see how they translate that into meaningful political action. In terms of the masses, you have a similar issue. First of all, it's hard to know exactly how well this war is playing at home. The opinion data we have is all over the map, and it's also not very reliable and an authoritarian country at war. When you stick a microphone in someone's face and ask, what do you think about the president, you know, what do you think about the government in these situations? We have seen tens of thousands of Russians out protesting and tens of thousands of Russians detained. But they have a very formidable domestic security apparatus that has been getting stronger and stronger and has become very repressive, even more so over the last year. So it's not going to be the typical protesters that are going to come out that are going to challenge the regime. It's only going to be if enough Russians, including, you know, Russian mothers and fathers learn about the deaths of their soldiers in Russia, that you may see some kind of unexpected spark. But at the moment, there's no evidence that something like that is about to take place. So he seems secure for now. But he also made a mistake, I would say, with this war in terms of his political position. And he is more at risk than he was before.

GR: And let's think about how Russia is viewed by the rest of the world. Is the damage that Putin has done to the Russian brand in the world irreversible at this point? I mean, Russia seems to be becoming an international pariah.

BT: Yes, and I think this part of the story is from the perspective of someone who's spent his entire adult life studying Russia, quite sad to see that Russia has put itself in this pariah state position because of the decisions of one man. And one of the most interesting things about the economic sanctions was not only the official sanctions, but how many Western businesses just decided, we're closing up shop. We don't want to stay in Russia at this moment. And support this government. Everything from McDonald's to IKEA to MasterCard and Visa, to big oil companies. You know, across the board we're seeing many companies just abandoning the Russian market. And experts on Russia have been saying for a long time that if Russia is going to get its economy moving again and it was stagnant for the last decade, they need investment and they've deprived themselves of any source of investment for a very long time. They've put back some of the accomplishments they had in the post-Soviet period economically. They put that back decades, I would say. And then there's the more general issue which you raise about Russia as a pariah. And I think it's really important that people distinguish between the Russian people and Russian culture and the Russian political leadership. So, there are some disturbing sort of signs about Russians not being accepted here or there. And I understand it when it applies to those people who've supported the regime, who've been loyal to the regime. But there are lots of Russians who also are now fleeing the country who don't feel safe in Russia. And those people we should welcome and look forward to a day perhaps when Russia can turn the corner on this very dark page in their history.

GR: I think that's an important point. Question about Putin, more specifically now listening to his rhetoric recently, and some of it has really seemed to me to have escalated and frankly, he's sounding a bit unhinged. I mean, some of the language is and I, I don't use this lightly sometimes I think this is overused, but it almost sounds a little bit like Hitler. I mean it in talking about, you know, purification and other kinds of things. You're obviously a very close student of this man. Do you detect a change and something happening with him or is this the guy?

BT: I don't detect the fundamental change. I think we're seeing the purest essence of Putinism in a concentrated and, you know, alarming form. But the general patterns of what he's been talking about are not new. So his resentments against the West, his feelings about Ukraine and where Ukraine belongs with respect to Russia, his feelings about those inside the Russian body politic that oppose him, those are all things he's said before. So the speech that you're referencing from a couple of days ago, where he talked about, you know, cleansing themselves of traitors and that kind of thing, he's used that language in the past talking about, you know, internal traitors, national traitors, comparing the United States and Ukraine to Nazi Germany and stuff like that. These are things that he's been saying for eight years or sometimes 15 years, depending on the specific sorts of claims. So it's not that he's completely, you know, flip the switch, it's that he's just more and more you know, sort of stewing in this mix of resentment and anger about where Russia is. But the fact is, he's the one who dug this hole for himself and he's lashing out because he's not willing to if I can get psychological here, look inside himself and sort of see what it was that he did that led to this point. So he blames it on others, but the mindset is not new.

GR: OK. If you're just joining us, you're listening to the Campbell Conversations on WRVO Public Media. And my guest is Professor Brian Taylor. Let me push that question a little bit further. Let us say that the worst happens and that Putin does come completely unhinged and decides that he's going to have a breakthrough in Ukraine by employing tactical nuclear weapons. Would the military be able and likely to refuse such an order? Reassure me here.

BT: It's hard to give reassurances because there's only so much we know about how Russian nuclear command and control works. Historically, going back to the Soviet period, the information that we had was that a decision to use strategic nuclear weapons, those that would travel from then the Soviet Union and now Russia to the United States, for example, is controlled by a device that's shared among the president the minister of defense and the chief of the general staff. So there are three people involved in that decision process, but it was never quite clear if the president was first among equals in that system and could somehow override, you know, the chief of the general staff and the minister of defense. And it also seemed that they had in place a two-stage process of first making a decision and then actually notifying about the launch. We're not sure how the system works today, if it still works the same way. And we're also not sure if it works the same way for tactical nuclear weapons, those of a shorter range that could be employed in a scenario with respect to Ukraine. Now, it's hard to imagine a militarily useful scenario for the use of tactical nuclear weapons in Ukraine. And that gives me some hope that the Russian military would push back against any such order or decision and try and persuade Putin that this was both militarily and politically disastrous for Russia. But I can't give you 100% assurances on this score because we simply don't understand exactly how that process would work in the current situation. He is the commander in chief of the armed forces, which gives him, at least on paper, a lot of authority to make military decisions.

GR: OK, there's we got about four minutes left. I want to try to squeeze three more questions in, if I could. The first is you mentioned this earlier about businesses simply picking up and leaving from Russia. Corporations, big ones. And I have seen in the media just recently and I should mention you and I are speaking on Friday morning that there have been some efforts, I think, that sort of shaming the businesses and corporations that that are continuing to do business haven't left. Do you think that's productive as a means of helping?

BT: You know, in the grand scheme of things, it's probably relatively small gestures in terms of ending the war. But most big international companies now have signed on to various charters involved in corporate social responsibility and continue to invest in a country that has started this grossly illegal war does send a signal to its consumers that it's putting profit over those principles it signed up for. So I don't know how much it matters, but I'm all in favor of these pressure campaigns against companies who decide to remain under these circumstances.

GR: OK. And then this might be a tough one to answer quickly, but I want to get you to put your prognosticator hat back on. Given where we are now, where do you see this war going, both in the short term, the next few weeks, and then the longer term?

BT: I worry that for the next few weeks we're going to see much more of the same, that Russia has kind of lost the ability to move very quickly on the ground for reasons of logistics and for reasons of casualty and attrition they've already faced, which leads me to think they will continue to use aerial bombardment to wreck Ukrainian cities and bring more devastation from the sky in an attempt to force the Ukrainian government to basically give in to this kind of pressure because they don't want to see more lives lost and see their country destroyed. We've seen this playbook in the Chechen region of southern Russia in the nineties and in the early 2000s. And we've seen this playbook in Syria in the 2010s. It's sort of mind-boggling when the argument is Russians and Ukrainians are one people, that the route to victory that Russia seems to be pursuing is causing as much death and destruction for average Ukrainians as possible. But that seems to be the trajectory at the moment. So, unfortunately, I predict nothing good in the short term. And the Ukrainian military has fought very well and I think will continue to fight very well in terms of the sheer numbers. They're a bit outgunned. So we'll see whether support from the West in terms of rearmament and that kind of thing can make a difference. There's some chance that the Russian military simply loses the ability to move forward, but I don't see that happening yet because of their numerical advantages. Now, in terms of longer-term, you know, wars always end in some kind of settlement. I think both sides are probably going to leave this war unhappy unless the unexpected happens and the Russian government collapses. I don't anticipate the Ukrainian government entirely collapsing. And I think the chances of the Russian government entirely collapsing is low, which means we're probably going to get some kind of unhappy truce at some point in which both sides didn't get what they want. And there's still a lot of destruction to recover from.

GR: And we only have a couple of seconds left, but I want to squeeze this last one in. If citizens hear people listening to this program want to do something about the war here in central New York, what's the most effective thing they can do?

BT: They can donate to one of many Ukrainian organizations and international organizations that are providing humanitarian relief both inside Ukraine and for the more than 3 million refugees who have fled Ukraine since the war started.

GR: OK, great. Thanks. That was Brian Taylor. And if you'd like to learn more about Russia and Putin, you might want to check out his latest book, “The Code of Putinism.” Brian, thanks again for taking the time to talk to me. Really appreciate it.

BT: Thank you, Grant.

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.