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How to De-Escalate the War in Ukraine
21st December 2022 • Trending Globally: Politics and Policy • Trending Globally: Politics & Policy
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2022 is coming to a close, but one of the most consequential events of the last year continues unabated: the War in Ukraine. As we approach the one-year mark of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, experts and casual observers (not to mention countless Ukrainians and Russians) are all left wondering: how might this war end? 

Should the US and NATO support Ukraine at all costs? Or should they push Ukraine and Russia towards a negotiated settlement? What would such a settlement even look like? 

Meanwhile, new conflicts around the world continue to emerge, each with their own seemingly impossible questions. 

This is why we’re launching ‘Escalation,’ a new limited series from Trending Globally. Over the next few months, you’ll hear from experts about the history, philosophy, and even psychology of conflict escalation, and what can be done to reduce global conflicts going forward. 

Our first episode in the series features Lyle Goldstein, a visiting Professor at the Watson Institute and Director of Asia Engagement at the think-tank Defense Priorities. He’s an expert on the effects of great power conflict, and the theories that explain them. 

Professor Goldstein has been following the war in Ukraine closely through both Western and Russian media. He recently published a paper with Watson’s Costs of War Project looking at how, while there are no obvious paths out of this war, there are at least paths we should know to avoid. Host Dan Richards and Professor Goldstein explore the poor assumptions and misunderstandings that drive many ideas in this conflict, as well as what a better path forward might look like. 

Learn more about Professor Goldstein’s recent paper with the Costs of War Project. 

Learn more about the Watson Institute’s other podcasts.


[MUSIC PLAYING] DAN RICHARDS: From the Watson Institute at Brown University, this is Trending Globally. I'm Dan Richards. Twenty Twenty-Two is coming to a close, but one of the most consequential events of the last year continues with no end in sight, the war in Ukraine. Worse still, there are signs of greater misery ahead.

NARRATOR 1: Tonight, Ukrainians reeling from a relentless Russian missile barrage.

NARRATOR 2: Russia's attacks on critical infrastructure amount to weaponizing winter.

NARRATOR 3: President Putin threatening nuclear weapons. The Ukrainians certainly know what's at stake here.

DAN RICHARDS: As we approach the one year of Russia's invasion of Ukraine, experts, casual observers, and of course Ukrainians are all left wondering, how might this end? Should the US and NATO defend and support Ukraine at all costs? Or should they push Ukraine and Russia towards a negotiated settlement? And what would such a settlement even look like, which is all to say that there are no easy answers for how to end this war.

And meanwhile, new conflicts around the world continue to emerge with their own seemingly impossible questions. That's why we're launching "Escalation," a new series of Trending Globally on conflict escalation and de-escalation. We'll be talking with experts about the history, philosophy, and even psychology behind how conflicts grow and how we might get better at stopping them.

On this episode, our first in the series, you'll hear from someone who is an expert on both the details of the war in Ukraine and the theory behind conflict escalation more broadly. Professor lyall Goldstein is a visiting professor at the Watson Institute as well as Director of Asia Engagement at the Washington Think Tank Defense Priorities. He has been following the war in Ukraine closely through both Western and Russian media. And as he sees it, while there are no obvious paths out of this war, there are at least paths that we should to avoid.

We'll go through some of those and the poor assumptions and misunderstandings that drive them. We'll also look at what a better path forward might look like. While-- spoiler-- we don't solve the problem of how to end the war in Ukraine on this episode, Goldstein does offer ways to think about the conflict that might help you see it in a new light.

Before we get into how this all could end, let's take a look at where the conflict stands. Russia's attacks this past year and especially this fall and winter on Ukrainian cities, towns, and infrastructure have crippled the country. At the same time, Russian forces are increasingly depleted and have faced a number of humiliating military setbacks. What both sides initially defined as victory are becoming increasingly unattainable for either side. Here's Professor Goldstein.

LYLE GOLDSTEIN: I monitor Russian media pretty closely, and they're still kind of loose talk about taking Kyiv and Odessa. I think, that probably they realize this is not remotely realistic. But on the other side also, I think, their assessments, meaning Kyiv, that somehow they could reconquer Donbas entirely and then go on and take the Crimea as well, I think, that that's quite a fantasy. It's like after all Ukraine to this day has hardly any Air Force, for example. So to expect them to conquer Donbas and Crimea, I think, is totally unrealistic.

DAN RICHARDS: Or at least would require a tremendous amount of help from the United States and allies?

LYLE GOLDSTEIN: Yeah. I still I don't see any viable pathway to that conclusion from a military point of view, and particularly as Russia continues to mobilize.

DAN RICHARDS: So one argument for how to proceed then at this moment that something like a stalemate it seems is the idea that the US should provide much, much more military assistance to Ukraine, even if it means calling on Congress to increase our own defense spending. This is an idea that in a recent paper you wrote with the Cost of War Project you highlighted as misguided on a few levels. So I was wondering if we could just unpack that argument. What are the problems with this idea of an ever-increasing military assistance to Ukraine?

LYLE GOLDSTEIN: Well, part of the reason, I think, to write this paper was because we've seen a resurgence of militarism in our own country, and one can psychoanalyze why this is the case. But at some level, it's quite understandable that Russia is going to naked aggression, an invasion in every sense of the word deplorable, brutal, catastrophic for both Russians but especially obviously for Ukrainians. I think we are now approaching if you include wounded together with the people killed, I think, we're probably nearly at half a million, which is devastating.

So a tendency, of course, at a very base level this reaffirms our understanding that as humans, as people, as societies we need some sort of security and that military security remains important. And I certainly believe that. I worked for the Navy for 20 years, very proud of my service with the Navy.

And we continue to understand that military power remains essential. To me though, this should come with limits. The unrestrained growth of the military budget really from, I think, five years ago where it was something around $600 billion, that's a lot of money folks-- $600 billion. But now is North of $800 billion. And we are neglecting other parts of our society and other priorities.

DAN RICHARDS: So as you see it, we simply already spend more money on our military than the US needs in order to stay safe? And that maybe it's coming at the expense even of other things that could help our country more. But in the context of Ukraine, there's an added reason why this call for ever-increasing assistance doesn't really make sense as you describe. And it's that by almost any measure, and we'll get to that almost a little later, Russia's military is already so outspent. It's simply unnecessary for us to spend more to achieve any particular goal in Ukraine.

LYLE GOLDSTEIN: I mean one of the most basic points I make in the paper is just that the Russian military is very far outclassed by the US military. And then when you add to it that the US has close allies in NATO and then add to that other close allies like Japan and South Korea, which are also very powerful military powers in their own right, then really you see Russia is rather a comparatively weak state. I guess we can say hindsight is Twenty Twenty, and now we see the Russian military power is quite a bit less than we thought. Those of us who've studied Russia's military over time should know that, but maybe we were led astray by some other examples of seeming success here and there. But in general, yes, we should have just frankly been able to look at the figures on military spending, which would have told us very clearly that Russia lags very far behind the West in military power.


DAN RICHARDS: As Professor Goldstein puts it, this idea of increasing US military spending for the purposes of aiding Ukraine, it just doesn't really make sense. But there's a more profound issue he takes with what's implied by the idea. As Professor Goldstein sees it, the commitment to a resounding defeat of Russia's invasion of Ukraine it might backfire catastrophically. And that's because while Russia's conventional military is relatively weak--

LYLE GOLDSTEIN: A very big caveat is that Russia has continued to prioritize nuclear weapons. And they really have tried to modernize their nuclear weapons across the board-- the undersea aspect, the air aspect, and the land-based weapons as well. And let me throw in there also what we call tactical nuclear weapons.

And these are particularly disturbing element in the Ukraine crisis, because tactical nuclear weapons is sort of a fancy way of saying like a battlefield nuclear weapon, one that's not intended to hit a city and destroy it, but rather one that's intended to destroy troops and armor, for example, or fortifications on the battlefield. This is a country with something like 6,000 nuclear weapons, truly apocalyptic-type weapons, the kind of weapons that would indeed destroy the United States and destroy the planet, obviously destroying Russia in the process too. But I think that gives us cold comfort.

DAN RICHARDS: Pushing a country with those types of weapons to the edge of what feels to them like defeat it's not safe, not for anyone.

LYLE GOLDSTEIN: A Russia that is thoroughly humiliated, defeated, and, if you will, ground into dust, that kind of Russia still possessing nuclear weapons may be more dangerous. There is this I call it a nuclear paradox.

DAN RICHARDS: The paradox being that you don't want to let a nuclear power hold the world hostage and do whatever they want, but critically wounding such a power you don't want to do that either. It's almost like victory or defeat in traditional absolute terms can't really occur between nuclear powers without risking the end of humanity. Living with this paradox is central to charting a way forward not just in Ukraine, but in all future conflicts with nuclear powers. And at this moment, we are pushing Russia in exactly the wrong direction.


LYLE GOLDSTEIN: Russia has been suffering some battlefield defeats more than one. Quite recently, there was the retreat from Kherson in the South, a major victory for Ukraine no doubt. But this raises the ugly specter that or possibility that the Kremlin might indeed decide to deploy nuclear weapons into the war to try to change the balance.

Unfortunately, as I read the Russian press, and I do almost every day, I've seen nearly a daily barrage of suggestions put it that way, of Russian strategists saying, well, things aren't going well on the battlefield. Maybe it's time for us to play the nuclear card to use nuclear weapons in Ukraine to try to change the trajectory of the fighting.

And if you think that this is all just sort of a set of scary rumors, I would direct your attention to the fact that President Biden himself said in October that we are closer to Armageddon than we have been in 60 years. I mean, folks, reflect on that for a second. There is some possibility that it does end in nuclear conflict, a low probability thankfully, but not low enough.

We're gambling with our planet. We're gambling with Ukraine. And we need to stop the war as soon as we can for the sake of Ukraine, but also for the sake of our planet. There is nothing in the Donbas region that is worth a nuclear war. I know that for certain.


DAN RICHARDS: But to be clear, though, while you are saying we want to avoid an escalation, a type of escalation that gets us ever closer to a nuclear war that doesn't mean to say, or you don't mean to say then that we also need to abandon all types of material assistance to Ukraine in its defense. How do you see navigating that? What types of assistance-- do you have sort of categories of types of assistance that you think are still net beneficial to the end of this conflict? And are there lines you imagine of types of assistance we provide?

LYLE GOLDSTEIN: Well, in the midst of this catastrophic conflict, we're all very sympathetic to the plight of the Ukrainians. And I think rightly, Americans have generously given a lot of assistance. And that's generally to the good.

I do think the Biden administration has been fairly judicious in drawing the lines. I noticed, for example, early on the administration said it wasn't going to send fighter jets. It wasn't going to provide a no-fly zone. I think that was the right decision.

I don't think the United States has agreed to send tanks either. So if we call tanks and fighter planes are kind of let's say lean toward offensive type weapons, but they have certainly sent a lot of defensive weaponry. And these have been in many cases, very successful at defending in the arms of brave Ukrainian soldiers.

And unquestionably, they were able to defend Kyiv and Kharkiv partly due to that weaponry. So, yes, I think, some degree of support certainly should continue. But I would caution that to me, it's not unprecedented for the United States while giving support to a friend can also encourage that friend to do the right thing.

DAN RICHARDS: So it sounds like you're saying that we need to continue supporting Ukraine and help it defend itself, but do so in a way that doesn't too deeply upset or humiliate Russia? It sounds like a difficult thing to try and balance for a prolonged period of time.

LYLE GOLDSTEIN: That's exactly right. Scholars of international relations have long understood this phenomenon of the security dilemma where one side taking certain steps to ensure its own security, therefore makes the other side the less secure and therefore can bring about arms raising and conflict dynamics. And I think that's exactly what we have here.

DAN RICHARDS: Another thing you see at play here is something that you and other experts call threat inflation. Could you describe what that is and the role it is playing in this conflict?

LYLE GOLDSTEIN: Well, this is something we've talked a lot about and with colleagues in Cost of War Project. And I would characterize it as a tendency, I'm not sure it's an altogether modern tendency, but we see it very much in our world today of exaggerating threats, of seeing national security threats really in every corner. I think this leads us to sometimes wrongheaded policies, misuse of resources, or kind of pervasive paranoia. And I think part of the role of scholars here in our society is to call it out and to suggest circumstances where what people are calling threats, grave threats are not the case. This has been quite endemic to US foreign and defense policy going back to nineteen-forties and probably before as well.

DAN RICHARDS: And as you write, threat inflation isn't just a problem because it leads to a misallocation of resources. It can actually create its own security problems. What are some examples of this tendency of threat inflation backfiring and leading in fact to more real threats down the line?

LYLE GOLDSTEIN: There's just so many examples of where this has happened again and again. And I think probably if your listeners are knowledgeable about the Vietnam War, then they very well what a catastrophic, bloodletting resulted from a kind of fear that was not justified. And in fact, America's security was not at stake in Southeast Asia. And if we had known better, then tens of thousands of Americans would still be alive. Let's also face the fact that millions of people in Vietnam and Laos and Cambodia also might be alive today.

So the consequences of threat inflation have been vast. And our country and the world have suffered as a result. So we need to caution against this. And there is unfortunately seems to still be at work.

DAN RICHARDS: And as Goldstein points out, if we look back a little further in the relationship between Europe and NATO and Russia, we can even see their how threat inflation on both sides contributed to security dilemmas that helped bring us to this current moment in Ukraine.

LYLE GOLDSTEIN: I think the whole justification for NATO expansion, and I frankly have opposed every round of NATO expansion, although I suppose the first one might have allowed. But the subsequent rounds, I think, there were five in all, I think probably played a role in sparking this conflict. I think we have to recognize that is just objective reality, even though that doesn't explain all of it and it certainly doesn't rationalize Putin's aggression

But I think it is partly a result of a sense of a looming Russian threat that Russia is a threat to all of Europe and that we must push as hard as we can against Russia. And that in turn has played a role in sparking this terrible war. Don't take my word for it.

Go look at what George Kennan said back in Nineteen Ninety-Eight in the New York Times. It was an interview with Tom Friedman where he predicted that if NATO's expansion went ahead that it would absolutely cause a catastrophe for European security because it would inspire this very vengeful brand of Russian nationalism. And that's exactly what happened.

DAN RICHARDS: So we've looked some at where this conflict came from and where it stands now as well as some paths to avoid in the future. But I wonder, where do you think this war should go from here? What would you hope for the outcome in the near future?

LYLE GOLDSTEIN: Well, I do think that--

DAN RICHARDS: Sorry, I'm putting you on the spot for how to end the war in Ukraine on a Friday afternoon.

LYLE GOLDSTEIN: And I don't want to pretend I have all the answers--

DAN RICHARDS: Of course. Of course.

LYLE GOLDSTEIN: --this is immensely complex and so many issues at stake. We need people to impress upon both sides the need to make peace sooner rather than later. I do think some conditions for peace are appearing. And one of the major conditions I think is Ukraine has demonstrated incredible bravery and impressive military prowess and has scored many victories recently. They may have to part with some of their territory, but they still can absolutely hold their heads high having in some ways administered a defeat against Russia and saved their country and could be immensely proud of their achievements over the last year. So that's one of the conditions of peace is that people feel that they have achieved something.

Would Russia settle for peace in the near term? My sense is probably yes because they are under immense pressure and because they have shown there's considerable military weakness there. Russia has made it pretty clear that they're ready to negotiate now. Of course, it all depends on the terms. But I think that is a positive sign, and that Russians very clearly realize they're not going to get everything they want either.

DAN RICHARDS: When you say that Russia appears in some ways to be open to negotiation, what sort of evidence are you seeing of that? Is that something that's in parts of the Russian media as well, or is that happening more at other levels?

LYLE GOLDSTEIN: I mean, the Russian media almost on a daily basis, like I said, I'm monitoring it very closely. And you'll see signals almost on a daily basis saying things like, we're ready to sit down today and talk. I do think there is a war weariness.

I think Putin himself realizes almost for sure that this was a grave mistake. And in general, my assessment is that Russia has suffered terribly from this war in all respects and is incredibly deeply humiliated. So the people who say, well, you can't let Putin win, there's no question in my mind that he's lost. So it's just a matter of settling the terms.

DAN RICHARDS: So let's say hypothetically a negotiation was agreed upon where maybe Ukraine gave up some of its land and Russia, of course, lost some of its dignity and by many of its original aims failed in its invasion. Both sides, of course, have lost tremendous amounts of life. These wounds will linger. What are the keys to making a negotiation, to ending a conflict in a sort of successful long-term way? How do you not just sow bitterness that will bubble up again at some point down the road?

LYLE GOLDSTEIN: I mean, this process of peacemaking could be incredibly complex and drawn out and hopefully would involve some movement of heavy combat forces away from the front line, things that you see in peacemaking like demining and some kind of confidence-building measures between the two militaries. And I should say, I think that Ukraine has demonstrated quite impressive military power. And part of a peace agreement will indeed is likely to be a substantially stronger Ukraine in a military sense. So that that's logical. And I think Russia has to know that will happen.

But maybe I could address briefly the economic financial side of that because I think that could be really critical. I mean, there have been some devastating atrocities and abuses, and the destruction that has been wrought against Ukraine is catastrophic. So to me, a part of the peace agreement probably would be some kind of reparations formula.

There is, I think, an opportunity here in the sense that Russia is a major full of resources and has very substantial oil and gas wealth. So I could imagine that a peace agreement would involve some percentage of that, if you will, 5% for the next decade simply going straight to helping to rebuild Ukraine and to compensate the victims in some respects. Now, of course, you'll logically say, well, why would Russia ever go for that?

DAN RICHARDS: Especially if we're scared of them being too humiliated.

LYLE GOLDSTEIN: So it seems to me, again, one has to think that if that's part of the formula, then probably the other side of the formula will have to be some walking back of the sanctions on Russia. That is the extent that Russia is allowed to have a functioning economy that trades widely with the world, then that will enable them to pay off these reparations. So again, important to learn some lessons from Versailles Treaty, World War I, and remember that we may have to take a balanced approach. But I do think that certainly some justice for Ukrainian victims will be critical so that this piece could happen and could be reasonably stable.

DAN RICHARDS: And some sort of reintegration of Russia into the world economy.

LYLE GOLDSTEIN: Exactly, I think, that's right. And to me, this would be a good thing and help us to move on from this and try to stabilize European security and put the war behind us. But clearly, some justice for victims is going to be critical.

DAN RICHARDS: Are there any notable recent examples of successful de-escalation of international conflicts, any that we could learn from in this moment?

LYLE GOLDSTEIN: That's a great question. And I think there are some although I admit that unfortunately, I always say this, I'm deeply involved in the study of great power competition. And I am always telling people that the natural state of the world and of countries is to compete and to be engaged in rivalry and indeed to fight wars.

I mean, this is how it's been through all of human history. So the challenge for us and the scholars and thinking people all over is to fight that tendency. So the deck is stacked against us for sure.


The preeminent example of conflict mitigation or crisis management, of course, is the Cuban Missile Crisis. And that happened about 60 years ago. So I think I and others who are concerned with strategy and nuclear affairs in particular have been reflecting a lot on the Cuban Missile Crisis.

And there are some real lessons, I think, for today. One, of course, and maybe the preeminent lesson is to communicate. And as far as I understand, during those a couple of weeks of the Cuban Missile Crisis in October Nineteen Sixty-Two, I think, the two Khrushchev and Kennedy were in almost constant communication. And everything mattered-- the timing of the discussions.

The situation today is not so different honestly. And some people who really know have said it's actually more dangerous today, which is scary to think about. But I have to say, I think, they may be right. So communication that's absolutely one of the clearest lessons.

It should be constant. It should be high level. I would like to see our State Department in the lead here. I mean, their charge's diplomacy, but why is it that Blinken and Lavrov I don't think they've spoken in six months to my reckoning or more? This is horrendous and irresponsible.

The other clear lesson of the Cuban Missile Crisis is the need for restraint. And here, again, it's just a matter of it's quite simple. In the nuclear world, we must change our behavior. We must act differently. We must head off the worst outcomes where one can imagine in the twenties and thirties or 100 years ago one could imagine going full out to war, and of course we did on occasions with major powers and rightly so.

But today is different, folks. We cannot fight a major war with Russia or with China because that would truly be the end of the world. We simply have to rule that out.

Finally, I'll say something this may be a little more controversial, but if you look at the Cuban Missile Crisis, one of the reasons it was so destabilizing was that Russia was acting so brazenly right in our backyard. And we viewed this as a more or less an existential threat. This is a long way of saying, I think, geography is part of this.

I think we ought to be exceedingly careful when we're talking about Russia's backyard. By the way, the same thing should hold true with China and China's backyard. We need to actualize or realize restraint in action means employing very careful diplomacy when it comes to situations that are clearly major interests, if you will, core interests to the Kremlin or to China. This is critical to maintaining stability and peace in the nuclear era.

DAN RICHARDS: What it almost makes me think of it's like that the successes in de-escalation, maybe the Cuban Missile Crisis aside, but successes in de-escalation are kind of silent or invisible while the failures are headline-news making. And it's sort of like the dog that didn't bark are the lessons we need to be learning from. And it's just a harder thing often for people to find and pay attention to.

LYLE GOLDSTEIN: I mean, I do think, Dan, that leaders might want to consult the history of the nineteen-fifties. That was a very dangerous time, the early Cold War. And American leaders-- I'm drawing a bit from this Steven Wertheim piece in the New York Times where he was saying that we need to think hard about major power war how devastating that could be.

But American leaders think of Eisenhower, for example, who has seen so much blood himself having fought in World War I and then overseeing the Allied victory in World War II, but he so powerfully understood the devastating consequences of war that again and again in the nineteen-fifties he had the United States pursue de-escalation. And remember, he put an end to the Korean War. When there was a possibility of escalation in Vietnam and in Berlin, over and over he said, no, no, no, we're not going to fight world war III over this. And that kind of caution, I think, is in order today. And I find it very unfortunate that we are in a way back to the nineteen-fifties.

It shouldn't have come to this, but we need to move to de-escalation. And our leaders need to quickly study caution. And here I invite scholars and students to like to apply their creative energies toward diplomacy. And we need to invigorate diplomacy to find a way a way out of these exceedingly difficult situations.

DAN RICHARDS: And stop them before they happen.


DAN RICHARDS: All right, well, Professor Lyle Goldstein, thank you so much for taking the time to talk with us.

LYLE GOLDSTEIN: Thank you for having me, Dan.


DAN RICHARDS: This episode was produced by me, Dan Richards, and Sam McKeever Holtzman. Our theme music is by Henry Bloomfield, additional music by the Blue Dot Sessions. If you enjoy the show, please leave us a rating and review on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen. It really does help other people to find us. And better yet, tell a friend or family member about the show.

You can find more information about this episode, including links to Professor Goldstein's research in the show notes and on our website, which we'll also put a link to in the show notes. We're going to take a brief hiatus for the holidays, but we will be back with more episodes in January. From us the Trending Globally and the Watson Institute, we hope you have a wonderful new year. And thanks for listening.





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