Frederick Kagan on Ukraine: Where Things Stand

April 28, 2022 (Episode 214)

BILL KRISTOL: Hi, I’m Bill Kristol, welcome back to CONVERSATIONS. I’m very pleased to be joined I think for the second time in… Well it was a few years ago, today by Fred Kagan, Senior Fellow, Director of the Critical Threats Project at the American Enterprise Institute, old friend and colleague of mine who’s done such important work over the years on all manners of things, military and defense related and foreign policy related. Spent what, a year or two in Afghanistan, trying to help there? A nice vacation spot you picked there, Fred.

FRED KAGAN: Yeah, it was interesting.

BILL KRISTOL: Yeah. Well look, you were serving, you were doing your duty for the country and I think really helped. And Fred has particularly been following the war in Ukraine, advising, working closely with the Russia team at the Institute for the Study of War, which full disclosure I’m on the board of and honored to play a tiny role there. So Fred, no one better to talk to than Fred Kagan about what’s going on in the war in Ukraine. How to think about it, how to understand it, what might happen and the like. So Fred, thanks for joining me.

FRED KAGAN: Good to be back with you, Bill.

BILL KRISTOL: Okay, Fred, so we’re talking, just to orient people, at the end of April, April 26, we’re just over two months into the war. Where do things stand? We’re all trying to follow this, but it’s confusing and complicated and you read a lot of different things. What’s the basic outline, as an analyst of war, of where we are?

FRED KAGAN: Well on February 24th, the Russians launched a massive invasion to seize, occupy and control all of Ukraine. It was one of the most poorly designed and executed major military operations I can recall a major power actually initiating, failed dismally. The Ukrainians defeated the Russian attempt to encircle and seize Kyiv and won the battle of Kyiv. The Russians decided to cut their losses rather than be pushed out because the Ukrainians were otherwise, I think going to actually drive them out of the country around Kyiv. And so Putin ordered reorientation of the Russian effort to seizing, or to what he claims the new objective is, to seize the full boundaries of Donetsk and Luhansk provinces in the east. Which the proxy republics that he invented and then caused to declare their independence, which he then recognized in a customarily farcical manner, they claim that their territory extends to those provincial boundaries. And so he’s ordered his forces ostensibly to seize the portions of Donetsk and Luhansk provinces that they didn’t already have.

BILL KRISTOL: They occupied some of it in 2014.

FRED KAGAN: Right. They’ve occupied about half of Donetsk since 2014. And they invaded and have occupied now a lot of Luhansk. But that was candidly, always BS. The Russian objectives go beyond that, and they involve holding the territory that they’ve taken all along the coast, to seal us off, down to Crimea and out to the city of Kherson. And they also continue to occupy territory around Kharkiv. And it’s very clear that they don’t have any intention of giving that up.

But the Russians have refocused their battered military on trying to take the parts of Donetsk and Luhansk they don’t control and are in the midst of the next phase of their offensive operation to do that. They’re struggling with this operation because the flaws in the Russian military that led them to failure around Kyiv are endemic and not really fixable in a short period of time. And because the Ukrainians continue to fight heroically and skillfully.

So this offensive right now is grinding along, but it’s grinding slowly and it’s not really clear what kind of progress it’s going to be able to make or at what speed. And then we can talk about what’s going on in Mariupol, if you want to. But effectively the Russians have seized, for all intents and purposes, the city that they’ve been trying to take since 2014. And they finally have taken it at horrific cost and largely by destroying it. But they have not been able to take the Azovstal massive industrial plant that Ukrainian heroic defenders are still holding. And Putin has supposedly given the order not to try to take it, although it’s not clear that he did or that order is being obeyed. So the fighting is still going on there.

BILL KRISTOL: And so, afterwards everything is understood to have been inevitable and predictable. But one reason people like you, I think, thought Putin was unlikely perhaps to go in the way he did — with just trying to conquer or destroy the country, remove the government and win the big objectives, as opposed to the smaller ones — was that you thought it would not work. So in this respect, you were certainly right. But how much of it was a close run thing? If we had persuaded Zelensky to panic and leave Kyiv on the second or third day, could it have gone in a different direction? How much of this is due to the truly impressive performance, and you should talk about this a little bit of Ukraine, not just both heroism of the people, but also the apparent competence of the military? But I don’t know, I’m just curious. Will historians say, well of course… Now, very few people having predicted that this would happen, everyone’s now decided, well of course this would happen. So explain that a little.

FRED KAGAN: Well, I always want to be very clear about this. We were wrong in our top line assessment. We thought that Putin wouldn’t invade. One of the reasons why we thought that was because we were right in our underlying assessments, that it wouldn’t look good. We didn’t think it would look this bad.


FRED KAGAN: For Russia. There were lots of indications that it was a poorly conceived mobilization and a poorly designed plan and that there were going to be some of the problems that became evident. But look, to begin with this really turns out to have been a Potemkin military that Putin has created. It’s a military that exists with certain combat power on paper, but it doesn’t actually have that combat power. Was that inevitable? No it wasn’t.

FRED KAGAN: I’m going to say the Russian military is performing, and has performed in this war, below the level that it could have performed at. And the Russian commanders made a bunch of decisions not to follow their own doctrine, not to follow their own procedures, not to deploy in ways that their own principles would’ve told them to. And they paid a disastrous price for it, that they can’t really fix now. But it wasn’t inevitable that they would make those mistakes. And I think at the end of the day, they made those mistakes largely because they really were persuaded that the Ukrainians were not going to fight.

BILL KRISTOL: Was it that, or was it also a corrupt kleptocratic regime tends not to have a very competent military, et cetera?

FRED KAGAN: Well look, right —

BILL KRISTOL: Those are related I suppose yeah.

FRED KAGAN: Well, they are related, but I think it’s a little bit nuanced because, look on the one hand, I’d like to say now the one place where Putin has managed to recreate the Soviet Union is in the Russian military. Which has all of the stigmata of, “as long as the bosses pretend to pay us, we’ll pretend to work,” Soviet-era ethic. And everybody in the Russian military has been stealing it blind, such that I’m confident the Russian military leadership had actually no idea what capabilities it did and did not have because everybody was just lying.

BILL KRISTOL: So they just thought, we’re huge and big, and we can intimidate them. And we just can do it by saying we’re doing it, or not saying, but by kind of mass…

FRED KAGAN: By rolling in. And I think they partly drank their own Kool-Aid and thought that they would be welcomed. Look, they may have thought that they’d bought enough Ukrainians to pave their way. And I don’t know. But apart from the kleptocracy and stuff, the thing that requires explanation is why they didn’t even follow their basic doctrinal principles. They haven’t even fought the way they trained. And again, I think the only explanation I can really offer is just that they didn’t see this as a fight. They thought they were just going to drive down the streets, get to Kyiv and be welcomed with flowers and it was going to be fine. So they just didn’t really prepare for… They launched a war without really preparing for a war.

BILL KRISTOL: Were they deceived by what had happened in 2008 and 2014 where they had more limited goals and achieved them reasonably quickly I guess you’d say?

FRED KAGAN: I guess they might have been, although both of those looked kind of ugly for them too, for a time, especially against forces as weak as they were. I think they did learn lessons from 2008 and they learned lessons from 2014, I’m not sure they learned the right ones. And I think one of the things that I find intriguing is that they seem to have optimized their forces to fight as if they were going to fight again. What they did in 2014, which was very limited, small scale operations. And they don’t seem to have really reflected on the fact that you can’t just blow that up into an operation that’s the size of the entire country. So I think part of it was learning the wrong lessons.

But look, I think this is a problem with the dictatorship. It is important to say straightforwardly, this is a war of a free people against a brutal authoritarian dictatorship, that brutalizes its people and turns them into robots. That’s what this war is. And the Russian military has performed in the way that the military of a brutal authoritarian dictatorship that sees its people as robots performs. Which is stupidly and badly. And also, not in accord with reality. And I think they literally drank their own Kool-Aid and they are having the effects that the drinking of Kool-Aid actually has in the real world, which is it kills you.

BILL KRISTOL: Yeah. And it does sound as if, from what you’re saying also that they were not fully perhaps… It wasn’t as if the civilian and military leadership for six months discussed and coordinated their plans and therefore matched tactics to strategy and logistics and operations and capabilities and all the things that you military experts worry about. It sounds as if maybe the military thought “Well we’re just doing another 2014 type invasion.” And Putin said, “No, actually you’re going all the way in.” And the military was like, “Oh okay, but we’re not really set up for that.”

FRED KAGAN: Yeah I think, look it’s important to keep in mind that there is no civil military anything in Russia. There’s Putin, and then there’s the military. And the military is basically just, uniformed military is making these decisions fundamentally. So there’s no meaningful civilian oversight. And again, this goes to the weaknesses…

Look in the US, we get really frustrated, especially on the military side, we get frustrated by Congressional oversight and all of the fighting over the defense budget and all of the non-defense items in the defense budget and stuff. Which is a huge problem and my colleagues at AEI are taking this on, it’s a very important issue. But we need to understand that one of the benefits we get from all of that is that our military is what it says it is. And we know that because there are a gazillion entities out there that are staring at it and ripping it apart all the time to make sure that it actually is what it says it is.

There is no such thing in Russia. There are no Duma committees that are seriously interrogating what’s going on in the military. There are no independent bodies that are watching everybody’s reports and then going to count the tanks to see if the tanks are actually there. So it’s the things that we regard as dysfunctions in our own system in some respects, are actually core to ensuring that we can’t deceive ourselves in the same way that the Russians and other dictatorships can. And that’s a big part of what we’ve seen here I think.

BILL KRISTOL: Say a word about the Ukrainian military, which I knew nothing about, but seems like it’s performed awfully well. Just as an actual military, apart from the addition to the obvious heroism of a huge chunk of the population.

FRED KAGAN: Yeah. So look, to begin with, we do need to talk about that heroism because there were people who were saying the Ukrainians would just fold before the war. And I never thought that was going to happen. And I just thought, “You people have never really met Ukrainians.” Because I knew that the Ukrainians were going to fight like lions and they did.

But it wasn’t inevitable that they would fight intelligently, and they have, they’ve fought very intelligently. They did not try to do things that were not going to be possible. One of my first worries was that they would do the natural thing of trying to defend their actual state border and trying to put a lot of troops on their state border and try to hold it, which could have been disastrous. I mean, who knows? The Russian military performed so badly, who knows how that would’ve gone. But in principle would’ve been disastrous, but they did not do that.

They allowed the Russians to drive down and then they had them broken into small groups and they had been hitting them in a highly intelligent, highly professional way that really took advantage of the terrain, that did not expose them to losses that they couldn’t afford to take, but that made the Russians pay for almost every mistake that the Russians made.

And I think it’s a combination of factors that led the Ukrainians to perform this well. One is some very serious people coming into the Ukrainian military establishment, both civilian and military after 2014, looking at it, recognizing some really important changes that needed to be made and making them.

And so one of the things that happened was that Ukrainian defense ministers de-Sovietized the Ukrainian military culture. And they made it a military that was suitable for free people, where decisions were decentralized, where they could operate in small groups, where they could figure out what the right thing to do was to do and do it, and they could take the initiative. All those things that the Russians said that they were trying to train, but you can’t train a robot army to do those kinds of things. Ukrainians undertook to fix, to de-Sovietize their military. And they succeeded to a very considerable extent.

And they also had help. We had NATO trainers in there for years, advising them, talking to them about what they could and couldn’t do, what their limitations would be, how to approach this uneven context. And the Ukrainians were apt students of that. And so the combination of these things, of the Western trainers and the Ukrainians themselves just seizing the bull by the horns and saying, “We need to get this straight.” And doing it, set them up to inflict the most one-sided defeat that I can remember when the odds should have been so very much in the other direction.

BILL KRISTOL: Yeah, that’s interesting. All honors to Zelensky and to the civilian leadership, which has been magnificent. But I do feel that people aren’t quite appreciating the… I don’t know, would it be seven or eight years, or is it more? Of work that we must have done by people whose names, you may know some of them, but whose names I don’t know, in Ukraine, in the civilian and military side. And then of course, some of the advisors and trainers from the US and NATO countries who really built up all the impressive military there.

I was talking with one person from a neighboring country of Ukraine, and we were talking about Zelensky and he made the point you just made. That beneath the surface, before Zelensky was President, and the previous Ukrainian governments, there was a heck of a lot of… They were serious after 2014, they knew they were at risk. They knew Putin wasn’t finished. And this is an example of a country, really preparing in a serious way for what might happen and not hoping that the world community is going to resolve this because the UN is going to pass a resolution or something, or…

FRED KAGAN: Yeah. I mean, yes, absolutely right. This war has been won so far by the Ukrainians, by a lot of people that most people have never heard of. As important, as you say, the Zelensky and the senior Ukrainian military leadership has been. But from US perspective and to think about some of the larger implications of all of this for war, if I can go there for a second.

BILL KRISTOL: Yeah let’s talk about that, yeah.

FRED KAGAN: One of the issues is that the Russians are experiencing a phenomenon that we’ve experienced to our detriment, although not as badly as well. For the Ukrainians, the war with Russia has been the only thing that they’ve been thinking about since 2014, from a military perspective. The Ukrainian military hasn’t spent any time wondering if it might have to fight the Turks, or if it might want to invade Moldova, or Romania or send troops to China or something.

The Ukrainian military’s been focused on one thing, which is fighting the Russians because there’s continued to be a war in Ukraine throughout the whole period. I used to joke sourly, what do you call it when the tanks, artillery systems, rockets and aircraft of one country are shooting at those of another? In Ukraine we call it a ceasefire. That’s no longer true, now it’s a war. But the Ukrainians are fighting. And that does tend to concentrate your attention.

The Russians were thinking about lots of things, Putin fancied himself a global military power. And so we had Russian troops and ships and stuff chasing around the Arctic. And we had them posturing, moving into Belarus for various reasons, and then we had them posturing against the Baltic states. [inaudible] had been thinking about central Asia. Right before this excursion into Ukraine, the Russians sent a detachment of forces into Kazakhstan to do an operation there. And they’ve had forces in Afghanistan. So Russia has fancied itself a global power, which means that their military has not been single-mindedly focused on the war that they’re now fighting.

And that is a phenomenon that the US experiences all the time. Because we’re a global power, we’re thinking about all kinds of wars that we might have to fight, or that we are fighting, but each adversary that we face is only thinking about fighting us, most of the time. And we’ve gotten very adept, or pretty adept anyway, at handling that problem. But this is really kind of the Russians, I would say, first serious encounter with this problem as Russia, rather than the Soviet Union. And it created a weird advantage for the Ukrainians that I think the Russians had no idea was even something to think about.

BILL KRISTOL: I mean, I suppose we reflect this fact as a global superpower, global power, but we have European command and we have Pacific command and presumably they are focused a hundred percent on their challenges, likely impossible challenges. And just as a sidebar, I guess, but I mean, it is important, relevant, I mean, do you feel like at all the US government, Defense Department, military has done a pretty good job of managing this problem? Or how susceptible are we to, not obviously the Russian level of incapacity, but to mistakes that are related to that?

FRED KAGAN: I think we have done a good job of this. I mean, another thing that sounds weird to say, but is actually very true, is the US military has benefited from fighting a significant conflict in every generation, going back to the 1920s.


FRED KAGAN: And fighting a significant conflict in different parts of the world. We have exercised these muscles in every generation of officers.

It’s important to remember that the Soviet military fought no serious war from 1945 to 1979, and then it had the disaster in Afghanistan and then it’s fought little, little conflicts since then. But you don’t have officers in the Russian military today who remember what it was even like to watch a big war being fought by their superiors or participate in it. And so the constant exercising of the US military muscle and of the global movement and having to fight in one theater and think about another, I think has kept us very sharp, even apart from our own virtues, which I don’t want to disparage that at all.

And why is this relevant? Well, I think we need to be careful as we look at China and look at a country that also hasn’t fought a major war in generations and doesn’t … And the Chinese are very aware of this. They’re very aware of the fact that they have to learn how to fight without having officers in the military who fought.

Now, I think we can go too far with that and we can start talking down Chinese military capabilities because of Russia, which I think would be a mistake. I think these are two very different animals for a reason. This does not cause me to reevaluate Chinese military power per se, but it does highlight this one feature that there is an advantage to having a cadre of officers who have experienced fighting different kinds of wars in your military. And when you have a military that has no such experience, it’s much more liable to make very dramatic mistakes of the sort the Russians are making.

BILL KRISTOL: Interesting. I want to come back to the actual war and what might happen, and the different outcomes and so forth, and [inaudible] so important ultimately, but just on this matter of the US government and our own preparation. So if president Biden called you in and said, “I want to bracket for a second the advice you’re going to give me about what to do in the current situation for the next weeks and months, but tell me what you’ve learned … What should I be thinking about in terms of the US military, DOD, the US government as a whole? What lessons have we learned both from what’s happened in Ukraine with Russia, but also our own performance in the two months since the war began, or I suppose in the months and years before the war began?” What would your core advice to the President in terms of, how should we call this, the Truman reorganizing of the US government and messages to US society and so forth, side of things be as opposed to the concrete “we need to send more Stingers in the next two weeks,” or whatever. Does that make sense?

FRED KAGAN: No, it does. I’m trying to just formulate as coherent an answer as I can. It’s …

BILL KRISTOL: It could be your NSC-68 on the fly here, on a conversation that will make history. [Laughter].

FRED KAGAN: Look, the US for about … For the decade after the first Iraq war, we had US supremacy and unipolar world order and that sort of stuff, and we had no meaningful great power threat for another decade or decade and a half after that. And you and I and others were arguing all through that period that it was important to invest in US military capabilities to ensure, and to be active abroad, to ensure that we protracted that period of relative peace and lack of great power war and threat and competition as long as possible.

And in the end, the US largely decided to give that up, and we cut our military repeatedly ,and we learned lessons from Iraq and Afghanistan that I think were the wrong lessons, but they were very isolationist lessons and said, “We really need to pull back and not engage.” And we had some wonderfully artistic theories about how integrating Russia and China into the global economy would somehow melt their aggressive autocratic tendencies, and so forth, which has proven completely fallacious in both cases. And we didn’t want to study war no more.

Now, we’re still fighting, we’re doing various things, but we really cut back and we stopped engaging as much. And what’s happened is the world has continued to drift, as my brother would say, the jungle has been growing back, right? And the world has continued to drift back toward its more normal Hobbesian state. And the Hobbesian quote that I have in mind is “the war of all against all”, which is what happens when there is no force or forces imposing order on states.

And that’s the world that we’re in now. And we need to understand that this Russian invasion is a harbinger. It’s not a one-off. It’s not an anomaly. The Chinese are not going to look at this and say, “Well, we dasn’t invade Taiwan, therefore.” I guarantee that’s not going to be the conclusion that Xi Jinping is going to draw from this.

And our response has not been so muscular and so clear that potential adversaries are going to say, “Well, we dasn’t do anything that might draw the Americans in,” either. So we need to understand that the policies of restraint that we’re pursuing, and the nature of the world as it is now, means that we are in a period of increasing likelihood of more frequent and larger conventional military conflict. Our military is really not shaped for that.

Now, we can handle what the Russians have now. That was a much more open question before February 24th. It’s become apparent that at least for the coming couple of years, we’re not going to need to worry about a major Russian conventional military threat to Europe, but I don’t think we should write off a Russian conventional threat to Europe over the long term either. I think that’s important.

The Chinese conventional threat is significant, the Iranians are trying to build a significant conventional threat one way and another. And here, again, is it a threat to us? No. We can handle the Iranian military and paramilitary forces. Is it a threat to our partners and allies in the region? Yes. And I think one of the things we’re seeing in Ukraine is that it’s not enough to satisfy ourselves that the US military is strong enough to defeat a potential adversary. If the adversary is confident that we are not going to engage the US military in a war, then the balance that matters is between the adversary and our allies or potential partners.

And that kind of thinking about an extended conventional deterrence, if you will, is something that first of all, I think we haven’t been thinking about, that we haven’t given enough thought to that, and we need to.

And that’s going to force us to look also at our own military and say we decided, President Biden decided, that we were not going to fight the Russians over Ukraine. Yeah, I don’t need to relitigate that decision right now. Could we have? Yes, certainly this Russian military. Would that have imposed an enormous strain on our military? Yes. Would that have been a problem? Yes. Should our defense budgets going forward address that problem? Yes and yes. Just internalizing this war as a symptom and a harbinger rather than an anomaly, I think is the key to intelligent grand strategic thinking going forward from this.

BILL KRISTOL: I think that’s very helpful. The previous conversation I had with Mark Mills was on energy policy and it really brought home to me, and God knows I know very little about it and the details, but we’re not thinking as a government, as a country in a way about, “Okay, from a geostrategic point of view, we’re annoyed at the Germans for being as un-staunch as they have been.” They say, “Oh, we’re dependent on Russian oil and gas,” which they have let themselves become, we have let them become what, whatever, and basically everyone’s let that happen for a decade or two. But we’re not right now, in the US government, I don’t believe, doing what we even could begin to be doing to rectify that problem.

I talked with a foreign government official, just last night actually at dinner, who had been meeting with the US government officials. And had pretty high opinion of what the State Department and Defense Department have been doing, in the short, medium term, in the immediate crisis. A little slow from his point of view, but basically pretty impressed by that.

I said, “Do you have any impression that the whole US government has been mobilized to think about this? Is the Secretary of Energy talking about, ‘Gee, we need to think about a two or three or five or 10 year program where we fundamentally change the energy relationships between allies and Russia and other parts of the world as well.'” And he said, “No, not at all.”

That strikes me as maybe a version of what you’re … Different aspect of what you’re saying. It’s not 1939 and Roosevelt’s at the least quietly beginning to think, “Well, what would it look like if we really get into war here and what do we have to do for the army, but also more broadly for the country?” Or Truman in ’49 or whatever the right historical example is.

FRED KAGAN: Yeah, I mean, I think … Look, people have been doing more of that thinking vis-a-vis China and I think there’s been some pretty serious thought given.

I think part of what’s going on here is a weird reflection of the weirdness of our policy to Russia all along. That we’ve gotten comfortable over the last couple of presidential terms identifying China as a threat and an enemy and so on and orienting on that, but we’ve not been comfortable or willing to accept that Russia is a threat and, in fact, an enemy. And the underlying issue here, Bill, is we have been living in a fictitious universe and we have been resisting allowing ourselves to be mugged by reality.

This has always baffled me, I don’t know, when a country in its state security documents that are publicly available identifies the United States as an enemy, I think you kind of should regard that country an enemy. I mean, that’s just me, right? But we’ve been in this situation where the Russians have been openly identifying us as an enemy and openly stating that their objective is to destroy NATO, drive the US back to the Western hemisphere, and then a bunch of other things that are completely unacceptable to us. And we’ve been saying, “Yeah, we think we can work with the Russians on a lot of things. And yeah, we don’t think the Russians are going to use their energy as leverage because if you say that the Germans get upset and then the alliance coherence is weakened and so on.”

And it’s like, okay, I get that, and I’m in favor of alliance coherence, but what we got to was a consensus reality that was not in accord with the real world. And that’s how we get to the Germans saying, “Well, we can’t do this because we’re coupled to Russian energy.” And I say, “That was Putin’s plan all along and the only people who were confused about that, were you,” because —


FRED KAGAN: Well, right. Because we didn’t want to accept the reality that Russia was an enemy and would do things like this, and that we would need to be prepared for that. We just didn’t want to accept the reality and so we didn’t.

BILL KRISTOL: I mean, we should get back to the war itself and what’s going to happen, but one more thing on that, I guess, is I do think people want to … It seems to be in the US we either want to believe that we have a great power adversary, and that’s the cold war, and people begun thinking that way about China. Or there are a lot of little adversaries, Milosevices, I don’t mean to minimize how much damage they can do, but … And it takes some work to put out those brush fires, as it were. Or even the Middle East, more work and maybe it’s too hard, so we shouldn’t do it, I guess people think, or we can do it from a distance over the horizon, counter terrorism, whatever. People are not willing to say, “You know what, sometimes you have to do both,” right? I mean, don’t you think? I think a lot of the Russia thing was, “Well, it’s not China and therefore it’s Serbia,” you know?

FRED KAGAN: Well, I mean, I think … Look, part of it was we keep having budget conversations masquerading as strategy conversations, okay? So why did the Biden administration going into this, want to demote Russia from the great power competition thing? I’m sure ex post facto we’ll have explanations about how well we knew that the Russian military was weak and so it didn’t merit … Which I do not believe is the case. The actual case is that if you look at the budgetary implications of recognizing that you need to prepare for a conventional war in Europe, as well as we’re fighting China, it busts budget top lines that the Biden administration has wanted to impose on the defense budget. And so instead of saying —

BILL KRISTOL: And every other administration for the last —

FRED KAGAN: Yes, right. No, of course. Oh yeah, sure. I mean, Trump administration too and the Obama administration before that —


FRED KAGAN: And Bush, sure. But the problem is, I’m okay, as an American citizen, in principle with my government saying, “Look, we think that objectively the defense budget should be X, but we don’t want to pay X and so we’re going to pay X minus Y and we’re going to accept risk here and there.” That’s a rational calculation that a government can make because you can’t afford a defense budget that would eliminate all risk. So I think you could one, in theory, have an honest conversation, but of course it’s politically very unpalatable. So instead of having that honest conversation, we say, “Well, we don’t need to worry about Russia, we’re going to ‘park Russia.'” Remember that phrase?


FRED KAGAN: We’re going to park Russia. Because we need to focus on China and well, Russia didn’t stay parked.

BILL KRISTOL: Yeah. That’s such a good lesson about — I mean, just orders of … I mean, how much … To do something that you would regard as accepting reasonable risk, given the world of 2022, not the world we wished for, not the world we hoped for, and not maybe the world as it could be in the future. I mean, how underprepared are we just in terms of actual … I mean, we seem to have a lot of technology, we seem to have some readiness with our force. I mean, how much would it take just on the DOD and related intelligence capabilities side, to be serious about —

FRED KAGAN: Look, I’m going to refer you for an answer to that, to my colleagues at AEI and the defense budget simulator that we’ve put together that really lets you get into that in a lot of detail, and I think has been a great project that Kori Schake my boss, initiated and brought to fruition. I think it brings a lot of value and people like Elaine McCusker and Mackenzie Eaglen and others have been making arguments about what’s required.

It’s clear to me that it’s hundreds of billions of dollars more a year if we’re actually serious about dealing with the modernization and readiness deficits that we’ve been imposing on the military for many, many, many, many years, and get serious about being prepared for the wars that we are currently engaged in because we are … The Iranians are shooting at us on a regular basis and we have troops in Syria that are still fighting ISIS. So we want to pretend that we’re not at war, but we are still at war and there are people who are at war with us.

To do that, to think about a possible Iranian escalation, to think about possible resurgence of the terrorist movement, which is not dead for all of the obituaries that have been written about it, to think about dealing with Putin and Russia at whatever level we think we’re going to have to deal with, which includes nuclear modernization, by the way, and then to deal with China. No, we’re not ready for that. And the defense budgets at anything like current values are not going to get us there.

BILL KRISTOL: And the US government overall strikes me in energy policy, which I’ve mentioned, but also I suppose intelligence assets and language … I mean, just that down to the sort of prosaic stuff that we did in the fifties, doesn’t like, as a society, we are really organized for this to deal with this new jungle, right?

FRED KAGAN: No, and we don’t want to be. I mean, the forces of isolationism have been growing in both parties for some time. I think it’s a very dangerous trend. We’re not just a big island. And the livelihoods of tens of millions of Americans depend on a world order of a certain variety, and the quality of life of all Americans depends on a world order of a certain variety, which is why we wisely invested in protecting that world order from 1945 for many decades. And I think we will pay a huge price if we really seriously give up efforts to maintain it, or actually now we have to think about how to restore it.

BILL KRISTOL: Okay. So after President Biden gulps when you tell him that we need all this defense money, but also we have to have a whole new energy policy, which will disappoint aspects of his party at least temporarily, in terms of oil and gas, and then also we probably need a whole bunch of other programs that maybe aren’t at the top of his list of things to get done, and he said, “Okay, well, let’s go to the current moment. What’s likely to happen? What might happen? How much could we affect what happens over the next weeks and months?” What’s your general judgment, actually, of the US government response within the constraints of dealing with this problem, as opposed in a way to the bigger, are we focused on the new reality?

FRED KAGAN: Look, I think that the Biden administration has responded very problematically in one regard, well in several others, and problematically in a third.

So I think it was an enormous mistake for President Biden explicitly to take off the table, in the run up to the invasion, the possibility of the US would fight for Ukraine. I think he was saying that for domestic US audiences more than anything else. And I think that it was unfortunate because I was always of the opinion that the only thing, if Putin were serious about invading, and again, I didn’t think he would invade, but they said, if he were serious about invading, the threat of sanctions was not going to deter him. The only thing that might deter him was a fear that he might find himself actually fighting NATO in Ukraine; because the one thing I was sure about, and am sure about, is that Putin does not actually, and did not, think that the Russian military could conventionally defeat NATO.

So I’m not even saying that Biden needed to be willing to fight, but as a matter of deterrence, assuring Putin that we would not was a mistake, and ambiguity would’ve been a better plan there. That having been said, I think it’s very impressive that the Biden administration conducted probably the first and most sophisticated counter information operation that I can actually think of that stripped the Russians of any remote cover for the operation and also disrupted a lot of Russian plans inside of Ukraine. And that had two enormous effects on —

BILL KRISTOL: Explain for a second what you mean by that counter information operation.

FRED KAGAN: Yeah. So you may remember that in the lead up to the invasion, the Biden administration officials were constantly saying, “The Russians are preparing a false flag attack here. The Russians are getting ready to conduct a coup. The Russians are going to invade. This is their plan.” And we shared that information with the Ukrainians, and we publicly revealed the Russian lies, the Russian preparations to lie, in some cases, the agents who were doing the lying. I mean, we really called them out and nailed them.

And it was fascinating to watch the Russians react to this because in some cases, they really tried to adjust as we outed them. And in other cases, they just trucked right on with debunked claims and plans and things. But the net effect of that was that nobody believed them. They didn’t even have a plausible claim for why they were doing this invasion when they invaded. And it just turned into a war of naked aggression in the eyes of the world, which is one of the reasons why the world, with a couple of disappointing and notable exceptions, rallied around Ukraine. I think the Biden administration deserves enormous amount of credit for forcing Putin to just be the evil invader. And then of course, Putin just decided that he was going to do that. So that was all good.

And we started providing the Ukrainians with equipment and, sort of accelerating assistance to them in the lead up to the war, which was also very important. So that was good and very important.

But then once the invasion began, look, I think initially the US government thought, along with many others, that the war would be over very quickly and the Russians would just roll into Kiev. And I think that that wrong expectation about how the war would go probably delayed serious thinking about what we could do to help the Ukrainians fight.

That kind of error is understandable. I don’t want to say that it’s excusable, because I don’t think we should have been making assumptions like that anyway, but it’s understandable. A more problematic element of the US response though has been this continuing concern with escalation, and with the theory that, I’m exaggerating, “we can send five pallets of Javelins, but if we send six pallets, then Putin might escalate. We can send Javelins and Stingers, but if we send artillery tubes, then Putin might escalate. We can send artillery tubes, but if we send MLRS, then Putin might —” And this has led to an incrementalism in our assistance. That has been harmful, and it has meant that the Ukrainians have been able to hold, and then to push back some just barely.

And now, that’s a criticism, but the flip side is if we hadn’t sent the equipment, the Ukrainians would’ve lost by now. So I have to praise the Biden administration and our allies, most of them, for getting to the Ukrainians the military equipment and assistance that they’ve actually needed to push back, which we have. But I think this continuing incrementalism and this continuing fear of escalation rather than discussion of escalation management, which is a different thing, is causing us to be a day late and a dollar short on a lot of things.

And right now, Ukrainians need artillery. The Ukrainians need a lot of artillery. And we’ve started to send artillery to the Ukrainians much later than we should have and not enough. And it takes a while to get stuff there because now, in addition, we’re not just talking about getting stuff to Kiev. We’re talking about getting stuff all the way to the east, with the Russians tracking it and trying to bomb it the whole way. And it’s hard.

And so I’m worried that the continued sort of fear of triggering Putin to some kind of escalation is feeding an incrementalism that is dangerous here. And that’s what I would advise the President, is to get over those particular concerns and say, “Look, we have to manage the concerns about escalation in other ways and not by imagining that if we meter our assistance in some way that potentially compromises Ukraine’s ability to defeat the Russians and liberate its people, that that will avoid an escalation,” which, it’s not even apparent to me that it will.

BILL KRISTOL: And why is the artillery so important?

FRED KAGAN: So because the Russians have now concentrated on a more limited part of Ukraine, they’ve also concentrated their air defense systems and other assets more seriously in those areas. And I don’t think that the Ukrainians are going to be able, really, to operate aircraft to be attacking Russian positions in the way that they were able to around Kiev and so forth. And when you take air off the table, then the systems that you can use to reach out and touch the enemy are artillery and ground-based rocket systems.

And this is also being true for the Russians, by the way, because the Russians, amazingly, and I have no explanation for why this is the case, they also can’t seem really reliably to penetrate Ukrainian air defenses. And so they are also relying heavily on artillery. And so our artillery is becoming a really critical weapon system in the war as it has taken the shape that it has and that Ukrainians need more than they have and we need to get it to them urgently.

BILL KRISTOL: Assuming reasonable, but not spectacular, US and allied assistance, where do you think things go over the next weeks and months?

FRED KAGAN: Well, the Russians are continuing this offensive operation. My basic expectation is that it will proceed in a way not terribly dissimilar from what we have been seeing the Russians do: so heavy devastating artillery bombardments, slow advances that are not especially big armored sweeps because the Russians really don’t seem to be capable of doing those, driving the Ukrainians slowly back until the Russian attack culminates and the Russians are just unable to get their guys to move forward anymore.

I’m pretty confident that will happen. I don’t know how far the Russians will get before it does. I would be surprised, frankly, if they get all the way to their provincial boundaries. There are a lot of large urban settlements that the Russians, and towns and cities, the Russians would have to fight through. And they’ve shown… I mean, it’s inherently hard to fight through an urban area, and the Russians have shown no skill at doing that.

So I think it’s going to be grinding. I think we may see some dramatic maneuvers briefly that then sort of culminate. Ukrainians will conduct counter attacks. But at a certain point in the coming weeks, I think the Russian offensive will culminate. The Ukrainians will go over to the counter offensive. They are continuing to conduct counter attacks now. They will keep doing that, and they will go over to the counter offensive, and they’ll probably start pushing the Russians back.

And then the questions become, how far can the Ukrainians push the Russians back before they culminate? In principle, I would expect them not to push the Russians all the way back, and then the Ukrainian counter offense would culminate.

And then I’m not sure anymore where it goes from there. There are wild cards that you can toss in there about Russian escalation if Putin uses a tactical nuclear weapon or chemical weapons or something else. I don’t actually think-

BILL KRISTOL:  Or conversely, wild cards, I suppose, of Russian kind of collapse of morale and so forth though? I mean —

FRED KAGAN: Oh, I’ll come to that happy scenario in a minute, but —

BILL KRISTOL: I’m trying to advance the happiness.

FRED KAGAN: I was going to end with that.

BILL KRISTOL: Okay. Good, good, good. [Laughter]/

FRED KAGAN: I was going to leave on a happier thought because, I mean, we do need to take seriously the possibility that he will use tactical nuclear weapons or chemical weapons and so on.

Look, I don’t think he’s going to obliterate Ukraine with nuclear weapons. I don’t think he’s going to attack, get into a nuclear war with NATO. He might use a tactical nuclear weapon somewhere to try to break Ukrainian resolve and so forth. It won’t. I’m confident that Ukrainians are not going to surrender if he uses a tactical nuclear weapon. So that gets us into a whole other conversation, but I don’t think that’s going to change the course of the war in a fundamental way.

So I think that Putin’s options are going to get to be pretty limited here when his conventional military sort of finally culminates, at least for now.

BILL KRISTOL: You told me the other day that May 9th was a date to keep an eye on, which is just two weeks away, right?

FRED KAGAN: Yeah. There’s a lot of debate about this. And Putin has mentioned May 9th, which is Victory Day. It’s celebrating the victory over Nazi Germany. And of course, Putin has framed all of this fallaciously as a denazification effort. So I’m sure that he’s going to make an announcement on Victory Day of some sort.

And we already have word that the Russians are preparing to have a Victory Day parade in the ruins of Mariupol, which is Orwellian, really, if you think about it, in every respect. So one possibility is that Putin military will get wherever it gets to, and Putin will announce that the special military operation, which is what he’s calling this war, is complete and has accomplished its objectives and offer a cease fire on current lines or something like it to the Ukrainians and so on.

I’m a little bit worried that if he does that, the tendency in the West to want to seize on cease fires to end the fighting will lead to a certain amount of pressure on Zelenskyy to accept it. I don’t think Zelenskyy will. I don’t think he can politically. Honestly, I don’t think Ukrainians really would tolerate it. But that can throw a wrinkle into all of this.

But I want to talk about the option that you raised, which is the happier case, which is, the Russian military could collapse. The Russians were already at the point where they’re taking soldiers whose units were decimated by Ukrainians around Kiev and throwing them back into what is an almost literal meat grinder and a fairly hopeless cause. And we have reason to know that the Russian military and Russian soldiers and Russian would-be conscripts know this.

And there are reports that tens of thousands of military age males have fled Russia. They’ve gone to Armenia. They’re trying to escape conscription because, look, I think we’ve got to accept the estimates that something upward of 15,000 Russians died in this war, which is their whole losses in 10 years of war in Afghanistan in two months. And when you factor in the usual three to one ratio of serious injuries to deaths, you’re probably talking about 50 or 60,000 Russians, either dead or badly wounded. And in their units their equipment is destroyed. The Russian military industry is not able to replace it.

None of that is going to force Putin to stop fighting, but it may cause his military to just lose the will to continue to fight. And we’ve seen lots of evidence of that, including around Kiev. And I think one of the things that did prompt the Russian retreat from Kiev was some of their units were collapsing. And we had reports of Russian units. There was one Russian unit that drove a tank over its commander when he ordered them to attack again. Another commander committed suicide. I mean, it’s really bad.

So it is possible that the Russian military will effectively collapse and the Ukrainians will then start chasing them back to the border. And your guess is as good as mine about what Putin does in that circumstance.

BILL KRISTOL: I mean, I think you think, and you said, “This is a watershed moment.” And you said it earlier, actually, as we were talking here about the US reaction. I do feel like people say, “I agree to that.” And I’ve said it, and people say it a lot. It’s sort of highly dependent on the outcome though, as to what kind of watershed moment it is now.

FRED KAGAN: Look, it’s incredibly dependent on the outcome. I mean, there have been wars in history where one force started off looking horrible and suffering catastrophic and humiliating defeats. I mean, look at the American Civil War, look at the Battle of First Bull Run, right, where the Union force badly outnumbered the Confederate force, was humiliated and wrecked. And then repeated Union failures right up through 1863, right, and in some cases, even after that. But the numbers told, and Lincoln held firm in a just cause in that case. And so you can’t rule out the possibility that Putin will manage to grind through this in some way and ultimately break Ukraine, or secure himself some big portion of it in a way that looks like a kind of a win, even if at a very high price. And —

BILL KRISTOL: Or even a frozen cease fire, with Western splits in the alliance saying, “No, you should accept this, Zelenskyy, this peace offering.” I mean, that would be a slightly less dire, but a different kind of outcome.

FRED KAGAN: Yeah, no, I mean, there are lots of sort off-ramps for Putin that can make this look like he’s won something even if at an excessive cost. And that’ll put the world on a certain trajectory with… For example, I do think that Xi Jinping looks at that and says, “Okay, well, I mean, we may have initial setbacks, but at the end of the day, all that matters is the final score.” And the truth —

BILL KRISTOL: Especially if sanctions start to come off, Putin at that point, which, it’s a little hard to believe, but I guess it could happen. Well, maybe it’s not that hard to —

FRED KAGAN: It’s not that hard to believe, I think. There’s a lot of desire to do that and a lot of continued fear of Russia’s nuclear weapons. So look, the outcome here really matters.

On the other hand, if the Russians are actually defeated and this war ends in a way that it’s clear that the Russians have been defeated and that the West is actually held together and armed Ukraine, and backed it, and created a bulwark against Russian expansion, well then, the situation in Europe is transformed. Russia’s role globally is transformed. And I do think that other potential aggressors look at that and go, “Hmm, at a minimum, we better make sure that our militaries are really what they say they are and are really up to the task.” Which of course may lead to sort of worse outcomes for us down the road.

But I think we’re at a bifurcation point in the world and I do think that’s why it’s so incredibly important that we make sure to be giving the Ukrainians everything that they need actually to defeat Russia and liberate their country.

BILL KRISTOL: Say a word about the situation in Europe being transformed one way or the other. That seems to be a place where people may be… On the one hand for someone like me, I’d say European unity, and NATO unity, and European willingness to help Ukraine’s probably even better than I would’ve expected. On the other hand, I don’t know, German chancellor makes one speech and announces some defense budget for five years from now and a goal and everyone says, oh, massive turning point. Well, I don’t know, is it quite as much? So, I mean, that’s, I guess, the question is what’s your sort of analysis of the situation overall or does it differ a lot by region and country?

FRED KAGAN: Look, I think the main thing we need to remember is this is two months of transformation. And it feels to me, given the way that we’ve been working on this, it feels like six years, but it’s been two months and changes that are made in two months are not permanent. I think it’s been very important not to read the current pretty good coherence —

I mean, listen, NATO is not unified on this issue. It isn’t. The Hungarians have continued to be a big problem. We’ve had NATO members objecting to various things that they shouldn’t have been objecting to. Macron has behaved horrifically for much of this conflict and stopped really only when Putin humiliated him publicly.

So I think it’s easy to overstate NATO unity here, but the Biden administration has done a good job papering over that, which was good and the right thing to do. Building a coalition of the willing and moving ahead without being stuck on NATO unity and so forth excessively.

But I think it’s important not to overstate what the unity has actually been. I think it’s really important not to imagine that it has somehow suddenly become permanent, because it may, but we will have to work at that. We will have to put energy into keeping coherence, and unity and building more coherence and unity into the alliance and also dealing with the fact, by the way, that the alliance has gotten very complicated. So unity in NATO means something different now from what it meant earlier on.

So look, this has to become the focus, has to remain the focus of the administration, even when the shooting stops or dies down in Ukraine. Solidifying NATO and our European partnerships, committing to the defense of these European states. Not just saying, okay, good. Well, we’re done with that. Now we can complete the pivot to China. If we do that, then a lot of this unity, not all of it, but some of it is going to prove to be ephemeral and that would be a tragedy.

BILL KRISTOL: Yeah. One East European defense official told me the other day that it’s sort of a… It’s really a coalition of the willing under the rubric of NATO. Which is good. I mean, it’s good to have rubric and it probably helps make the coalition of the willing easier to work, but he said — and I don’t know what your judgment of this is — as an actual practical matter, NATO is not running things out of Brussels. I mean, there is sort of de facto alliances and groups of Poland, and Czech Republic, and Slovakia whatever and other countries and Ukraine itself, of course, and then us and the Brits more doing stuff. Then other people are going along, sort of, or not doing quite as much, but not getting in the way. Maybe that’s where NATO plays the role. It makes it harder to actually stop some of this stuff.

But I think it’s an important point that along your lines, and we need to think in a hardheaded way about, well, the next can’t… I’m happy NATO is stronger than we thought it was and I’m happy Biden is pro-NATO and all that, but it’s not a magical invocation. That one just says “NATO” and okay, well, nothing bad can happen anywhere near Europe in the next 20 years.

FRED KAGAN: No, look, I mean, that’s a really important point. This isn’t a NATO operation. In a certain sense, you can make the case that the alliance is working as designed because NATO is a defensive alliance. Ukraine was not a NATO member. There’s all kinds of complexity there, which I don’t want to get into, but it was not a NATO member.

So the alliance was not ever really designed to do more than defend member states against attacks, but it was also designed to create a degree of military interoperability, and common doctrine, and common weapon systems and various other things to facilitate NATO members, individually or in small groups, interacting with one another efficiently.

That’s what’s been going on and so basically, if you just see this as a NATO out of area operation that’s not formally a NATO mission, the alliance still works as designed by having made it easy for us to work together with our European partners and the Canadians to support Ukraine in this way, even without having the North Atlantic Council make it a NATO mission.

I think that’s okay in a fundamental sense and I think the administration’s absolutely right not to try to turn this into a NATO mission.

I don’t know what it says about NATO’s coherence if member states have been attacked. If the Russians had gone after the Baltics instead of Ukraine, I assume that the North Atlantic Council would’ve allowed an article five invocation, it would’ve become a NATO operation. I’m uncomfortable that I have to say ‘I assume that’ because I’m not a hundred percent sure that that’s what would’ve happened.

I think that’s one of the things that the Biden administration and its successors are really going to have to focus on, is getting all of the member states to understand that this being in the alliance means that there can’t be any question about that, but there can be questions about this.

There can be questions about out of area activities in a formal way, but you know what, Bill? I don’t want to let anybody off the hook here because what Orbán has been doing is bad, and it’s stupid and it’s bad for Hungary. Because if the Russians had invaded and occupied Ukraine, there would be Russian troops on the Hungarian border and that should be unacceptable to Orbán. That should be unacceptable to Hungary. The fact that there’s been any question about where Hungary was on this tells you that we still have rot in the alliance. The fact that Orbán was unfortunately reelected — and he’s not the only one, I’m just singling him out — means that there is still rot in the alliance, and there’s still weaknesses, and they’re not going to go away and we have to take them on. We’re going to have to think about how to strengthen NATO, even warts and all.

BILL KRISTOL: Yeah. The flip side, I suppose, is… I was kind of struck by this talking to someone from Europe who knows so much more about this than I do. I mean, just the kind of routine stuff that one sort of deprecates in a way in peace time that NATO does, or that happens even not in NATO, but sort of adjacent to NATO. You might say training exercises, mil-mil relations, working group seminars, a lot of nonsense. Some of it is nonsense: sitting around Stuttgart having beer or whatever. But he said it really mattered. I mean, we knew each… The way he put it is, “We knew each other. We knew people in the Czech defense ministry, and knew people in the Polish defense ministry, and knew people in the UK defense ministry and state and foreign office and they could begin to work together much more quickly than if we were just suddenly cobbling together.”

That’s what it means to be a global power, I suppose. We are kind of at the core of it. That was his main point. I was sort of stressing the European. I was impressed by the behavior of Poland and some of these European countries really ahead of us in some ways. But he said, “Don’t minimize that none of this happens without the US.”

FRED KAGAN: So look, this is a great point and it’s important also, as we think about Asia and the alliance system that we have there. Look, actually none of that stuff is nonsense. Sitting around beer gardens in Stuttgart is important also for exactly the reason that was given. People in NATO know who to call. People in one country know who to call. They’ve been talking to these people for years and that really matters. There are trust relationships that are established. They know what the problems are.

I mean, it’s even just, over those beers sort of bitching about the problems in the ministry are helpful because it means that when you want one country to do something, if you know that asking that country to do something is going to be really hard, but if you ask them to do something else it’ll be easy, you save a lot of time that way, and just that general familiarity is important.

But look, it is also important that we have a multilateral alliance in Europe because even before we were really leading, the Baltic states and Poland had basically formed a mini sort of grouping with Ukraine.


FRED KAGAN: And were working to support Ukraine, even just together as a forward grouping like that. They could do that because they were part of a multilateral alliance and they were accustomed to working together that way.

Now flip that into Asia, where there is no multi-lateral alliance system. We have only a hub and spoke system where there’s the US and it has bilateral relations with all of our allies, but they do not have bilateral alliances with each other.

BILL KRISTOL: That we’ve tried to sort of —

FRED KAGAN: We’ve tried to, yes. We have and it’s very, very hard. It’s a very different region and there are lots of reasons for this, but you will see, I believe, a much greater degree of difficult of having our Asian allies do the kind of inter-allied interactions that our European allies did because of the absence of a multilateral alliance system out there. That means that things do still tend to come back to the US and then go back out again, which introduces various frictions, and various delays and complexities. Now they’re doing that to overcome frictions that would happen if they tried to do it bilaterally.

But it does matter that this has been a multilateral alliance for many, many decades and that gives it resilience. It gives it the ability to operate without US direction and then when you have US leadership, it becomes much more powerful.

BILL KRISTOL: Good. I like that. I hope that leadership continues. Final thoughts. I mean, I guess maybe we should close with the Ukraine itself, right? I mean, you’re an actual student of military history, but also foreign policy history, and current foreign policy since involved in it. I mean, I feel like people… We all praise it and we do really praise it sincerely and I think people are very moved by what they see. As they should be, but I’m not sure we fully appreciate this performance over the last two months. I mean, it’s going to go down in the history books, right? I mean, hopefully it’ll continue and lead to victory, more or less complete victory. But just as an actual thing, it’s sort of… I mean, it will be something that people write about the way we write about the Finns or certainly the British in 1940. Am I wrong? Or am I overs stating it?

FRED KAGAN: No, no, you’re not wrong. It’s incredibly moving. It’s incredibly tragic, but it’s also incredibly moving. This is a free people fighting for its freedom and unwilling to give it up. This is a people who’s very right to call itself a nation, and I’m using that in the technical sense not in the debased way that people use it to mean country and nation. Is there a Ukrainian nation? Yes, there is and the Ukrainian nation is not coextensive with the people who speak Ukrainian as opposed to Russian.

One of the most remarkable things about this war that surprised the Russians, but did not surprise me is when the Russians rolled into Hercai, which is a Russian city, predominantly Russian speakers there, the people of Hercai were not conflicted about what to do. They didn’t look at the invading Russian army and saying, “Well, I speak Russian. They’re Russians.” They started shooting at them because they were invaders and those people were Ukrainians.

So Putin has created a stronger sense of Ukraine and Ukrainianism, and Ukrainian nationalism than has ever existed before. Ukrainians, what is that identity? It’s not linguistic. It’s not religious. It’s the identity of a people that has now been forged in war defined by their determination to defend their freedom against a dictatorship that challenged their right to exist as a people. They have shown the power of a free people in doing that.

One of the most remarkable things about this war is that many of the things that made Ukraine hard to govern before this war began, turned out to be incredible sources of strength in fighting. Ukraine is a decentralized country. It’s always been hard for the government in Kiev to run the whole place. There have been oligarchs. There’s been people running around doing lots of different things. It’s been a very contentious society, very vibrant civil society. Groups attacking each other, civil society groups attacking each other and competing with each other and all of that kind of stuff in a very messy way.

Kind of like us, if you think about it. And before the war, we spent a huge amount of time talking about Ukraine’s faults, and they were faults. There was a lot of corruption and there’s all of these things going on, but by the way, it was true. We’ve talked about a lot of faults in Britain before the Second World War also, and in the United States all through, but those are the faults. A lot of those faults are the faults that come from the ugliness and messiness of a free people being free.

But when threatened, the Ukrainians reacted in the best way that a free people reacts when it is attacked, which is they come together and they don’t ask permission from the central government about what to do. They don’t wait for orders. They don’t stand on the border as the tanks are coming and saying, “Boss, what do I do?” They start making things happen. And that’s what they did.

So Ukrainian civil society in which they had invested in heavily over the decades, especially since 2014 has played an enormous and unsung role in all of this. We should reflect on that because the self-loathing that we have fallen into as a national pastime now, and a constant focus on all of our warts and flaws, which are very serious and I don’t want to downplay, also mask the warts and flaws of a free people living their lives in peace and being free. We need to recognize that that can be a source of strength in some circumstance. In the case of Ukraine, the Ukrainians have turned it into an incredible source of strength and combined it with unbelievable heroism and skill. So that I have to say at the end, Slava Ukraini glory to Ukraine, glory to heroes.

BILL KRISTOL: Can’t add anything to that. Fred Kagan. Thank you so much for joining me today. And thank you all for joining us.