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Brian Taylor on the Campbell Conversations

Brian Taylor
Brian Taylor

On this week's episode of the Campbell Conversations, Grant Reeher speaks with returning guest Brian Taylor, a Political Science Professor at Syracuse University. He's an expert on Russia and security, and brings us an update on Russia's war with Ukraine.

Program Transcript:

GR: Welcome to the Campbell Conversations. I'm Grant Reeher. My guest today is Syracuse University political science professor Brian Taylor. Professor Taylor has been on the program a couple of times previously to discuss the war in Ukraine. And he's back with me today to bring us up to date on that war. 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.” Brian, it's good to see you again.

BT: Great to see you, Grant. Thanks for the invitation again.

GR: Oh, yeah, you bet. So. Well, before I start asking you questions, actually, I want to publicly give you credit for saying the very first time that we spoke and the war was just getting started and it hadn't really gotten underway, that you said then that you expected Ukrainian resistance to be fierce and lasting. Most of the other experts at the time were expecting Russia to roll over them without much resistance. So well done on that. We'll continue in that vein. So, so, as my first question, though, just briefly bring us up to speed on what's been happening in the war in the past six months or so. Just a real thumbnail sketch.

BT: I guess I would say we haven't seen a massive amount of change in the war on either side in the last six months or so. About nine months or so ago, nine, ten months. Ukraine launched, a long-planned and long-expected counter-offensive across several points of the front line. And I think it's fair to say in retrospect that this counter-offensive was largely unsuccessful, for reasons we can get into, if you want, but it was largely unsuccessful. The amount of territory that Ukraine was able to take back was pretty small. On the other hand, we should say that Russia has not made major advances either. So some people have referred to the war as a stalemate. It's not quite a stalemate because there's still lots of things happening, but the movement of the front line has been pretty small and pretty minor over the course of, I would say, even the last year. The one other thing I might add, the one part of the battle where we've seen a bit more change, perhaps, is actually in the Black Sea, where Russia had pretty much tried to blockade Ukraine from shipping grain and other goods out of the Black Sea, and Ukraine has successfully fought back against those efforts, and they have managed to sink, around a third of the Russian Black Sea Fleet, even though Ukraine itself doesn't have a proper navy through the use of drones and missiles and other technologies. And so they've reopened that shipping route for them, which has a big impact on global food prices and things like that, but in general, not a huge amount of change. And the final thing I would say, I guess, is that Russia is on the front foot now because Ukraine is running out of ammunition, especially artillery and this has to do with the hold up on the U.S. military assistance package in the US Congress over the last half year.

GR: Yeah, I wanted to get into that a little bit later. Briefly tell us why the Ukrainian, counter-offensive wasn't successful. Was it bad planning or something else that was going on?

BT: I would say it was a series of things. Probably the most basic thing is it is extremely difficult in modern conditions, with the amount of visibility of the battlefield to the combatants on both sides to make a major breakthrough. And it's especially difficult to do that without air superiority. And, Ukraine actually was able to successfully prevent Russia from established, establishing air superiority in the early phase of the war. But certainly, Russia still has the more powerful air force than Ukraine. And so that meant that advancing Ukrainian units when they tried to break through, didn't have any air cover. And normally the U.S. military, for example, in a similar type of conflict, would have established air supremacy by that point. The second thing I would say is that Russia pretty successfully established defensive lines in depth with fortifications, mines, trenches, those sorts of obstacles that made it very hard for Ukrainian armored units to make much progress going forward. So it turned much more into an artillery and infantry fight. And the movement was just very slow. And eventually, Ukraine exhausted itself in its attempt to push forward in several different directions.

GR: So has the level of Ukrainian resolve to resist Russia changed at all, in your view, or is it still as strong as it was at the beginning?

BT: If you look at, public opinion polls, Ukrainian public opinion still remains very much committed to victory. People say that they believe in victory and victory to the Ukrainians means expelling Russia entirely from Ukrainian territory. Currently, Russia is occupying about 17 to 18% of Ukrainian territory. So based on the survey data, Ukrainian resolve seems to be roughly the same. Anecdotally, people say the mood in Ukraine is less optimistic than it was a year ago, that people had high hopes for, the offensive of summer of 2023. And there is, of course, some disappointment that they were not able to reconquer more territory. There's also a major debate taking place in Ukrainian domestic politics now about mobilizing additional troops because they, like the Russians, have taken heavy casualties. And the question is, how are they going to, put into the field an army that is capable of conquering back the territory they've lost and holding the territory they currently have?

GR: Now, what about on the Russian side in terms of the public? The last time you and I spoke, you talked about the kind of information that Russians were getting, how they might view the war. Have there been any major changes there about the factual information that they're getting, or do you have any, any evidence or even hunches, as a Russia expert, that their views might be changing in any significant way?

BT: In terms of, excuse me, in terms of the information available? Not much has really changed. Anyone who consumes state media or even legally available private military or private media in Russia today will be getting a very slanted view of the picture. If they go on social media or go look for independent media externally, then they can get a different picture. But, many people are pretty passive media consumers, and that's not true just of Russians, but of many people around the world, obviously. So I think the picture people are getting hasn't changed that much. But on the other hand, it won't be lost on the average Russian that a war that was supposed to be over in weeks is now already in its third year. And based on the independent survey data we have, the picture seems to be, a slow, a very slow but somewhat steady decline in commitment to the war. More people talking about the need for a settlement, talking about how if Putin went for a settlement, that they would support him in that, while at the same time, the majority seems to think they can have that settlement without getting, without having to give back any of the territory they've illegally annexed from Ukraine. So it's kind of a mixed picture. I think when we talked a couple of years ago, I may have said this, but the picture seems to be about 20% of the population are hardcore war supporters willing to do everything for victory. About 20% are hardcore war opponents, and the majority in the middle tends to go along with what the regime, is saying and at least offer kind of passive support, but not enthusiastic support. And they seem to be willing to end the war if that's what Putin says that Russia should do.

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. Well, let's talk about Putin for a minute. You've written on him. He was recently reelected. I guess I guess that's the term we'll use. There was an election of some sort to another term as president of Russia. First, just for someone that grew up in the Cold War, are there any important sort of functional differences between Putin's level of control over the country and, say, the older general secretaries of the Communist Party? Help me understand how, what this guy is as an authoritarian leader.

BT: The main difference, I would say, is that in the Soviet Union, it was a single-party state in which the institutions of the Communist Party, with the support of the KGB and other associated institutions, had control from the top down to the bottom. But there was a set of regularized, institutionalized structures that knew what their roles were and carried out those roles. Putin's Russia is not a single-party dictatorship. It's a personalist dictatorship where power flows from one man who sits in the Kremlin, and that means the institutional constraints on him as a ruler are actually weaker than the institutional constraints that the post-Stalin rulers would have faced. In that sense, he's somewhat more like Stalin, not in the level of repression, which is very high, but not Stalin levels high. But Stalin also, in some sense elevated himself above the party. whereas under Khrushchev and Brezhnev's this system became more regularized, with routines that people followed and sort of informal rules about how the system worked. And now it's much more about Putin, his staff in the Kremlin, what's called the presidential administration, his cronies who have informal influence over him, which means the constraints are weaker. But it also means in some ways, the execution side is weaker than it would have been under the Soviet Communist Party. If you weaken institutions, they don't constrain you, but you also can't necessarily rely on them when you're trying to get things done. So that's how I would describe the difference. The one final point I would add is there was a recent study by an independent Russian media organization that said the level of repression in terms of people being either arrested or sentenced or fined for quote-unquote anti-state activities is as high now as it was under Khrushchev and Brezhnev, and by some measures even higher. So it is quite a repressive, authoritarian regime, and it has become much more so over the last two years.

GR: So you were making some comparisons with Stalin there. Stalin essentially died in office. Do you think that's going to be the case with Putin? Will he have this position and this authority until he passes on?

BT: So Putin is now 71. He's been in power in one form or another for more than 24 years now. And personalist dictatorships in which the ruler is that old and has been in power that long, the typical outcome is that they die in office. That is the most likely outcome if we just base it on comparing this type of ruler to other types of rulers around the world of a similar profile, of similar age and similar time in power. In the post-Cold War era, the second most common way those people, leave power is through some sort of popular uprising. And then third would be some kind of elite conspiracy or coup. So those are the three most common scenarios in order. I think if we had to bet, we should probably bet with, you know, the majority odds, which says he'll be in power until he dies. But we also know that personalist regimes like this are pretty unpredictable and can collapse quite quickly, even though they look very formidable at the time, you know, and the stress that the war is putting on the economy and the political system means I wouldn't put a whole lot of money on that bet, even though that's the way I would bet if I was forced to.

GR: I gotcha, and you could probably dispatch this question pretty quickly, but I'm assuming, then, that this recent reelection doesn't really affect Putin's calculations in the way that we might think it would happen in a Western context of, okay, “I've been reelected, I have a mandate,” or I think that's just is that just completely irrelevant to his thinking?

BT: I actually don't think it's completely irrelevant to his thinking. I think in some ways it is more or less irrelevant. It wasn't a real election, you know, when you call it a special election operation or something like that. But it wasn't a real election, obviously. And the data is clear on that. There was massive falsification and fraud taking place and massive coercion to get people to vote the right way. But Putin has interpreted it as far as people have reported, as if showing that the country is united around him. So I think it gives him an extra boost of confidence going forward. That's maybe the one change.

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 and an expert on Russia and security. And we've been discussing the war in Ukraine. Before the break, we were talking a bit about Putin. Let me ask you this other question about what's inside his head, as far as you can tell. How much do you think he, in thinking about the conduct of the war and his decisions about it, how much do you think he is concerned with what the United States will do in reaction to the actions that he takes, or the Western world more generally? How does that factor into it for him?

BT: I think it's a huge part of the calculation for him. I think it's important for people to understand that for Putin, he is at war, not only with Ukraine, but in some sense with the United States and the West. And he sees this as a more global conflict because the U.S., NATO, other allies are supporting Ukraine, he sees it as very much kind of Russia against the Western world. And so one of his key objectives has been to try and divide the West, try and slow down the supply of Western military assistance to Ukraine. He has said quite openly that he thinks Ukraine would be unable to continue to fight without Western assistance. And I think his calculation now is that after the initial setbacks of the invasion two years ago, he and Russia sort of regrouped and went into full mobilization mode, mobilizing manpower, mobilizing military power, putting everything towards the war where they're spending upwards of 7%. Some people have estimated as much as 10% of GDP on the war effort. In contrast, the response from the U.S. and its European allies has been relatively small in terms of restarting military production lines and those sorts of things, supplying Ukraine with armaments and equipment and economic assistance. Obviously, a lot has been done, but in comparison with the way Russia has mobilized, for, one might say, total war, the U.S. and Europe has barely sort of started moving forward, in that. And so I think Putin believes, and maybe there's some evidence for this, that the U.S. and the West in general will eventually lose interest, and then he will have a free hand in Ukraine.

GR: This is, really, almost a perverse question on my part, but I want to ask it because as you were talking, it occurred to me, if we in the United States were to put like a Cold War lens on this conflict and remember back to the way that the United States kind of effectively outspent the Soviet Union and really caused them to hurt their own economy by staying up with us in terms of spending on a military that they could not afford as easily as we could, would it not be, at least from a strategic point of view, somewhat in the Western interests, to keep this war going and keep spending Russia down and keep making him, in a sense, more and more, contingent in his in his position? Or is that I mean, that has enormous ethical implications for what we're doing to the Ukrainian people and nation. But it just struck me if from that lens, I don't know if that question's making sense or not to you know, but.

BT: I guess I wouldn't describe the situation in that way, because the Cold War was a Cold War, and it went on for decades. And now we're talking about an extremely hot war. The hottest wars in Europe since World War II, in which hundreds of thousands of people have been killed or wounded, and it goes on day by day. Just last night, Russia sent a massive missile and drone attack against Kyiv, the capital of Ukraine. So the scenario is different. The Cold War scenario was, over time, the collective economic and technological might of the U.S. in Western Europe was going to outstrip that of the Soviet Union and its satellites. Now we're talking about a full-blown massive conventional war in which if the West doesn't step up to help Ukraine, defend itself, then Russia will try and grind down Ukrainian resistance, and that will radically change the security situation in Europe and will lead to increasing demands for more U.S. military assistance to the rest of Europe, more U.S. troops in Europe, and that sort of thing. So I would frame the conflict quite differently than the Cold War.

GR: Right. No, I see what you're saying. Well, so you've mentioned this a couple times. I did want to come back to it. In fact, you said it right at the outset, the need, for, U.S. support and Western support for the Ukraine militarily and that you cited as Ukraine's biggest challenge right now is that artillery, ammunition and other things are beginning to to dry up. So what would happen then if, if the United States government didn't provide this aid that Ukraine needs?

BT: I think it would make it much more difficult for Ukraine to continue to resist Russian offensives. I think Europe would try and do what it can, and Europe actually is providing more assistance than the U.S.. I think there's a bit of a misconception about that. So Europe would do what it could, but there are certain things that the U.S., as the world's largest economy, with the world's most powerful military and the world's largest military industrial base can provide that Europe can't provide right away. Things like just the number of artillery shell shells, air defense missiles to protect Ukrainians, cities, those sorts of things. So the fight would get much more difficult for Ukraine. But if the West, not only the U.S. but, Europe sort of withdrew from the conflict, I don't think that'll happen. But if it did, this does not mean Ukraine will stop fighting. It'll just mean the nature of the war will become more like an insurgency, rather than, sort of old World War I, World War II style conflict if Ukraine simply runs out of, you know, artillery and systems like that.

GR: If you're just joining us, you're listening to the Campbell Conversations on WRVO Public Media. And my guest is Russia expert Brian Taylor. Well, I wanted to ask you how the Israeli-Hamas war has affected the situation in the United States in particular. Has it changed the way that the war in Ukraine is perceived? I mean, obviously, it's taken some of the attention away from Ukraine, but beyond that, has it, has it reframed it for this country in any important way?

BT: It's an interesting question. I mean, I think the Biden administration initially wanted to go with a message that helping Ukraine and helping Israel are part of the same fight against sort of authoritarian, you know, political actors, whether it's the Russian state or Hamas in Gaza. But, the, the course of the, you know, Israel-Hamas war has almost sort of flipped that argument. And now, I'm getting a bit outside of my lane here. But the way Israel is fighting in Gaza, bears some resemblance to the way that Russia is fighting in Ukraine. And there's a political argument in the U.S. political discourse more globally that actually, you know, we should think of the side that needs protecting as the Palestinians and Ukrainians rather than the Israelis and the Ukrainians. So it's muddled the debate in a way that I don't think the Biden administration anticipated after October 7 when clearly everyone's sympathy was with Israel after the horrible Hamas terrorist attack. But given the course of that war, it looks a lot more complicated than it did back in October. And so the politics of it have become difficult. Specifically, on the issue of the Ukrainian assistance bill that's been stuck in the House. There's a faction of the Democratic House that doesn't want to vote for that bill because it includes not only assistance for Ukraine, but assistance for Israel. And so, the left part of the Democratic caucus in the House is also opposed to this military assistance bill for very different reasons.

GR: We've got about, three minutes left or so. I want to try to squeeze in 2 or 3 more questions if I can. This is a big one, but, I wanted to get your take on it. One of the things that you sometimes hear coming from the Right in the United States, regarding this war, is this notion that historically, Ukraine isn't really a nation. And you know what? What are we helping to defend in this kind of thing? Just how true is that historically, I mean, outside of the carving up of the region that occurred after World War I and World War II and is Ukraine a nation? That seems like a dumb question, but.

BT: Ukraine is 100% a nation. Ukrainian is a separate language from Russia, from Russian. Ukraine has a separate culture and identity, and the Russian invasion of Ukraine, first in 2014 and then again in 2022, has made that even stronger and more clear to Ukrainians. I know we're running out of time, but I do want to make one fundamental point that the history, although Putin likes to talk about it a lot, is in some sense irrelevant. Many borders came about accidentally over the courses of centuries, but the current international order is based on the notion of acceptance of the territorial integrity of states in their given borders. Russia recognized these borders multiple times. The UN recognizes these borders, so there's no legal argument about Ukraine's separate status.

GR: I think that's a good point. We could have lots of conversations about the rest of Europe if we were to apply that logic to it. So, I know that the predictions are dicey in this realm. You've kind of, I think, suggested where you think this might be going, but it seems like the war can't go on forever. Maybe it could, but you know, it can't. What's the ultimate arrangement that you think comes out of it in a minute or less?

BT: It's really hard to predict. At the moment actually, I don't see any scenario for a settlement because the two sides positions are completely separate. Russia wants to destroy Ukraine and control Ukraine, and Ukraine wants to keep its independence. So I don't think we should think about this so much as a question of this or that piece of territory. It's a question about political control. Putin wants to dominate Ukraine. He thinks it's an artificial state. I've just said why it isn't. Ukraine thinks they are a real state, which it is. And so in some sense, it either ends with Russia establishing that control that it's seeking, or Ukraine being given the tools to defend its sovereignty.

GR: Okay, we'll have to leave it there. That was Brian Taylor. And if you'd like to learn more about Russia and Putin, check out his book, “The Code of Putinism.” Brian, thanks again for taking time to talk with me. I always learn so much when I speak with you.

BT: Thanks so much, 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.