‘Putin Has Gotten The Opposite Of What He Wanted,’ Russia Expert Says

Sanford School professors Simon Miles and Bruce Jentleson brief media

‘Putin Has Gotten The Opposite Of What He Wanted,’ Russia Expert Says

DURHAM, N.C. -- Russia’s bloody invasion of Ukraine, while poorly planned and shoddily executed in many ways, may still force Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to negotiate concessions his people will not want to make, two Duke experts said Tuesday.

Meanwhile, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s attempt to create discord among Western powers is having the opposite effect.

The two Duke scholars discussed those and many other issues related to the ongoing invasion of Ukraine in a virtual media briefing with journalists. Watch the briefing on YouTube and an explainer video on sanctions here.

Here are excerpts:

ON RUSSIA’S MISCALCULATIONS

Simon Miles, public policy professor and expert on Russia and former Soviet Union

“We’re seeing the Russians continuing to pay the price for launching this war with really just a fantastical concept of operations. That is to say they built their military planning for the beginning and what they thought would be the end of the war on a pretty heady brew of prejudice and really, really bold assumptions about the Russian military’s performance and the Ukrainian military’s what they thought would be extremely poor performance. So they started off, to put it very mildly, on the wrong foot, and they’re paying a price for that.”

“But we do see the Russian military beginning to adapt on the ground in ways which are positive for them from a military effectiveness standpoint.”

“One of the ironies of this entire disaster has been that in many ways Putin has gotten the opposite of what he wanted. He wanted a fractured West that was just squabbling over sanctions; he’s gotten the opposite. He wanted Germany sitting on the sidelines; he’s provoked a revolution in German foreign policy. He wanted Ukraine never in NATO, never in the European Union. I think both of those are fair game at this juncture.”

ON A POTENTIAL NATO NO-FLY ZONE

Bruce Jentleson, professor of public policy and political science, former senior adviser, U.S. State Department

“There are a number of problems with doing (a no-fly zone). As a military operation, to basically provide the protection people are calling for, it would have nothing to do with ground artillery and rockets that are coming. It’s really about the air. So it wouldn’t necessarily solve the humanitarian problem.”

“It pretty much guarantees that there will be a military confrontation – intentional or inadvertent – between American/NATO troops, armed forces and Russia.”

“This is something we have avoided throughout the nuclear age. In 1956, when the Soviets brutally repressed the Hungarian rebellion, there was no military action. In 1968 in Czechoslovakia, and throughout the history of the nuclear age. People should not underestimate the risks of getting involved in that. The risks of starting to climb the nuclear ladder are very real.”

“Putin would love to see us do this. It would change the dynamic of the conflict to the West bearing some responsibility for escalation. We would say we’re trying to do the right thing … but in some ways it would help Putin get out of some of the dilemmas that he’s faced as well as the possibility for shared responsibility for any nuclear escalation.”

“President Kennedy in the Cuban Missile Crisis was very intentional in trying to avoid that.”

 

ON WHAT VICTORY LOOKS LIKE FOR RUSSIA

Simon Miles

“The Ukrainians have made it very clear that the Russians’ initial war aims – which basically were regime change – are simply not tenable. The world that was conjured up in the mind of Vladimir Putin (and) about a dozen people who were involved in the war planning effort -- and we’re learning more and more about just how small that circle was, which is not a good thing when it comes to war planning -- that world doesn’t really exist anymore. (One) in which they could install a friendly figure, impose that on the Ukrainian people, and turn Ukraine into, if not a client state, then a sort of quasi-neutralized vassal.”

“One big challenge that the Zelensky government is going to have as they’re in their negotiations with the Russians -- which are more or less constant -- if they make concessions, will be actually persuading the Ukrainian people to accept them.

“This is an extremely heady moment for the Ukrainian people as far as their self-identity as not Russia, and their sense of what can be done. That’s going to be a political challenge for Zelensky, as much as getting a negotiation off the ground and to a solution. Concessions, selling those to the Ukrainian people, is going to be a challenge, too.”

“Probably what we’re looking at is positional warfare for a fairly protracted period of time right now. We’re seeing Russian forces digging in – literally entrenching – in parts of Kyiv.”

 

ON WHETHER UKRAINE WOULD TRUST RUSSIA IN NEGOTIATIONS

Simon Miles

“Some of the strikes that we’re seeing by the Russians, including using weapons like thermobaric rockets … have no plausible military application. Whenever you get into these sorts of scenarios, using often what are pretty horrific weapons, part of the question is, is there a military purpose to this or are you just targeting civilians for the sake of trying to break their will?”

“The Ukrainians certainly would like to see Russians punished for this, but they also would like this to stop. If the former is an obstacle to the latter, I think we’d see the Zelensky regime give ground on that.”

“A lot of the key players are not going to be punished. They’re probably not going to be leaving Russia at any time for the rest of their lives. That includes Vladimir Putin, whose fingerprints are all over this approach.”

“When you look at Vladimir Putin talking about this issue -- he’s given these speeches, he’s made public remarks, we’ve actually had a lot of opportunities to watch him -- this is a man who is not reasonable about this. He is clearly motivated by a deep-seated anger at the simple concept of Ukrainian statehood. I’m less persuaded that this is about NATO expansion than it is about Russia’s relationship with Ukraine.”

“I think the Ukrainians are going to have a really tough time accepting any assurances from the current Russian leadership.”

 

ON UKRAINE AND NATO

Bruce Jentleson

“I don’t think NATO membership will lead to longer-term stability in central Europe. Because then it becomes, ‘What about Georgia? What about Moldova?’ I really don’t see how any Russian nationalists, even one that is going to be more constrained on using force, could agree to that.”

“European Union could conceivably be a different story. The EU has a process for that, that takes a while. They’re not going to guarantee membership tomorrow.”

“I still believe NATO membership for Ukraine would not contribute to sustainable stability in that area.”

ON WHAT RUSSIA’S PERFORMANCE HAS REVEALED

Simon Miles

“I think we’ve learned just how hollowed out the senior ranks of the Russian government have become because of the autocrat’s impulse not to promote the best people but rather to promote either the least risky from a coup perspective or to promote the most overtly loyal in order to reward them.”

“It’s a pretty unimpressive roster of key figures who are around Vladimir Putin, who should be advising him.”

“We’ve seen this in autocratic regimes so this isn’t a surprise. This has been confirmation … that a lot of the more competent (advisers) have been pushed out. And those who remain … do not seem enthusiastic about this war.”

“I could see figures from that group, who are by no means liberal, pro-Western Europhile reformers, recognizing it’s time to pull the emergency brake on this thing.”

 

ON US ROLE, AID, CAUTION AND POLITICS

Bruce Jentleson

“We have been providing an enormous amount of military aid. By ‘we’ I mean the United States, Britain, Poland, Germany, France, one NATO member after another. So it’s not like we’re not providing military aid.”

“When leaders go directly to the U.S. Congress like this, I don’t think it’s particularly helpful to them. It’s going to heighten the appeal of aspects of this that make it look like the Biden administration isn’t supporting them. That isn’t helpful to anybody. That’s where I’m getting a little concerned about this new global heroism that Zelensky has.”

“The American leadership really wants to do as much as it can to keep the war out of a NATO country. I really think one of Putin’s options when you’re losing is to blow the whole house up – whether it’s going nuclear, or going horizontal, into other countries. So I think the administration is using good judgment.”

“When a crisis happens and it gets managed or resolved, sometimes over time it leaves less of an impact than ones that explode in our face.”

“We should not forget how close we came in the Cuban Missile Crisis, to escalation, to nuclear war. There are some lessons there to how it was managed that still pertain.”

 

ON PUBLIC PROTESTS AND RESISTANCE INSIDE RUSSIA

Simon Miles

“While those moments make for great television and also demand enormous personal courage … a lot of the public opinion polling, including by non-government opinion pollsters … are indicating that somewhere around 60 percent of Russians support the current war in Ukraine. Now they’re doing that based on extremely dubious information being fed to them by the Russian state television networks, both of which are unambiguous propaganda wings of the Kremlin. But nevertheless, I think it would be inaccurate to characterize this as a kind of awakening of the Russian people spurred on by this conflict.”

“I don’t hold out a great deal of hope, especially because all of those people who hold those views are leaving the country. You’re having a kind of liberal flight, if you will.”

Faculty Participants

Bruce Jentleson
Bruce Jentleson is a professor of public policy and political science at Duke University. He served as senior adviser to the State Department Policy Planning Director from 2009-11 and is author of “The Peacemakers: Leadership Lessons from Twentieth-Century Statesmanship.”

Simon Miles
Simon Miles is an assistant professor in the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke and an expert on Russia and the former Soviet Union. He is the author of “Engaging the Evil Empire,” an account of how Washington and Moscow ended the Cold War.

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