As Russia charges across Ukraine, can the West stop a more expansive conflict?

For more on Russia's invasion of Ukraine and the U.S. and European reactions we get three views. Doug Lute, a retired Army lieutenant general and former U.S. ambassador to NATO, Andrew Weiss, of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and Angela Stent, a Georgetown University professor, join Judy Woodruff to discuss.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    And for more now on Russia's invasion of the U.S. and European reaction, we get three views.

    Retired Lieutenant General Doug Lute had a 35-year career in the U.S. Army and served on the White House National Security Council staff during the George W. Bush and Obama administrations. He also served as U.S. ambassador to NATO during the Obama administration.

    Andrew Weiss served in the George H.W. Bush and Clinton administrations on the National Security Council staff and the State Department's Policy Planning Staff. He's now vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. That's a think tank.

    And Angela Stent worked in the State Department during the Clinton administration and served as a top U.S. intelligence officer on Russia during the George W. Bush administration. She is now a professor at Georgetown University.

    Welcome, all three of you, back to the "NewsHour."

    The first thing I want to ask you is what you think Vladimir Putin is trying to accomplish here.

    And, Doug Lute, I'm going to start with you.

    Lt. Gen. Doug Lute (Ret.), Former U.S. Ambassador to NATO: Well, I think his objective is clear, and it's regime change.

    I think, on the other hand, he will be reluctant to try to occupy all of Ukraine. And that's where the rub is. The difference between overthrowing the Zelensky regime, replacing it with a puppet government is one thing, but it's a big gap between that and being able to control Ukraine, the size of Texas, with 44 million people.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Angela Stent, is that what you believe Vladimir Putin's goal here is? And — because if it is, there's a big gap between those two things.

    Angela Stent, Director, Center for Eurasian, Russian and East European Studies, Georgetown University: I do believe it's his goal. He wants to subservient Ukraine. He wants a Ukraine that will listen to Russia and stop moving westward. And, for that, he indeed needs regime change.

    But, as Doug said, Russia doesn't want to bear the cost of an occupation. It would be expensive. It would take too many soldiers. And so the question is, is he going to be able to install a government that will have enough support from the people and that will do Russia's bidding?

    And that also opens the question of Western Ukraine, which Michael Kofman raised. If they want to do this, in fact, in the end, they're going to have to take Western Ukraine as well. And there's bound to be a large amount of resistance there too.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Andrew Weiss, how do you see what Putin is trying to do here? And I guess I'm asking, is it realistic, given the difficulty of controlling a country of, what, over 60 million people, if he says that's not his intention?

    Andrew Weiss, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace: I believe that Vladimir Putin means business in Ukraine.

    And I think he's perfectly happy with a destroyed Ukraine that starts to come apart, in which pieces either float back to Russia, or, as we saw in 2014, where, basically, government disappears overnight. And, in the end, I think he either expects that somehow, magically, there's a silent majority in Ukraine that wants to be ruled by Russia.

    I think he's profoundly mistaken on that count. But he's talked about that publicly. On the other hand, I think he also is a rather ruthless person who'd be happy to pass the parcel to the West and basically take a broken Ukraine with no military and then turn to the United States, the European Union, and the international community and say, OK, you guys can take care of this mess. I have proved my point.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    General Lute, do you see anything the West can do at this point to stop this march forward on the part of the Russians and Vladimir Putin?

  • Lt. Gen. Doug Lute:

    Unfortunately, Judy, I think deterrence here has obviously failed. And I don't see a major obstacle posed by the West to Vladimir Putin's objectives.

    There are two other obstacles, though, that we should watch. One is the Dnieper River, which essentially divides Ukraine north-south about in half, between the eastern half and the western half. That's a major geographic obstacle, physical obstacle.

    And then the other obstacle is the one we have all been referring to, and that's the resistance of the Ukrainian people.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And we're waiting to see how that develops.

    And, meantime, Angela Stent, you have these sanctions that the West is imposing. Do you see those having any kind of meaningful effect on what Putin is deciding to do on a day-to-day basis?

  • Angela Stent:

    I mean, they will certainly have an economic effect on the individuals, on the people who deal with the major banks that have now been sanctioned, in terms — longer terms of the industry with the export controls.

    But, unfortunately, I don't think they will have any impact on Vladimir Putin's decision-making. We have seen him, particularly this last week in these diatribes that he — on television, in his pronouncements, where — which are widely not factual and don't have a basis in reality about what Ukraine is.

    So I don't think that the prospect of some of his friends being sanctioned or banks being sanctioned, it's not going to change his calculus.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Andrew Weiss, what about that? Now that we have seen this next level of sanctions being imposed by the United States, by the U.K. and others, do you see that having an effect?

  • Andrew Weiss:

    I think the U.S. and Western response, in the level of coordination and joint action, is quite impressive. And we're going to see far-reaching effects from the sanctions that have been announced and the ones that will come as early as this evening and tomorrow morning from the European Union.

    The challenge is, the theory right now that I believe Western policy-makers have is, they're going to see spectacular effects in Russia asset markets, we will see dislocation and we will see disruption in everyday life. The hope is that that somehow promotes cleavages in Putin's relationship with the Russian elite and with the Russian people.

    There's a problem with the theory of the case, which is that, for the Russian elite, they're more Putin's employees than they are as equals. And when it comes to the Russian people, their lives are quite hard. And I think they know that their government has a tremendous capacity for repression and violence. And they will steer clear of anything that looks like a direct challenge to Vladimir Putin's rule.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    I want to come back, Doug Lute, to what you said a minute ago about the ability of the Ukrainian people themselves to stave off the worst here.

    How do you see that unfolding. And then the question becomes, how do you — do you see this conflict in Ukraine spilling out into other countries in Eastern Europe?

  • Lt. Gen. Doug Lute:

    Well, I think first of all, in terms of spillover effects, I don't see a military spillover, because just beyond Ukraine is the bright red line of the NATO boundary.

    And I think President Putin understands that he does not wish to pick a fight with NATO itself. But we are already seeing some spillover effects. We saw the traffic jams headed west out of Kyiv. Those displaced persons will eventually reach the Polish and Romanian borders, mainly, two NATO allies, and become refugees. There's a humanitarian crisis associated with those displacements.

    And then we're also seeing, Judy, the early returns of the economic spillover effects. The global energy market is already tight. Prices are high, and they're going to go higher. All of that will fuel the inflation, which is also preexisting.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, Angela Stent, is — I mean, you're someone who has studied Vladimir Putin for a long time. Do you see part of what he's doing is a waiting game to see if the West — right now, it may look mainly divided, but that may not last.

  • Angela Stent:

    Yes.

    And, certainly, if the conflict goes on and on, in some of the scenarios that Andrew Weiss was pointing out, I think you will see a crack in Western unity. Europe, the United States, we have a lot of problems we ourselves are dealing with.

    And I do also think that we have to remember that, once a war has started, you don't know. Accidents can happen. You don't know what the cost of the war is going to be. And it is possible that some of our NATO allies on the eastern flank, Ukraine's neighbors, could somehow be affected. And that could be a real crisis point for NATO.

    We do know that, if you look at the treaties that the Russians presented in December, that Vladimir Putin also has his sights on Central and Eastern Europe. So we hope that that's not the next phase in this war.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, Andrew Weiss, how are you looking at that, that really terrible — this is bad enough as it is, but the terrible prospect that it could spread?

  • Andrew Weiss:

    I believe that the opportunities for spread are nontrivial.

    And we now have a permanent Russian military presence in Belarus. So the security landscape in Europe is now fundamentally altered, particularly if the Ukrainian military, as Michael Kofman was saying a minute ago, basically loses in a spectacular fashion. And so you will end up with basically a new European sort of Cold War, and you will end up with a standoff that's increasingly unstable.

    I don't think it necessarily means that NATO and Russia will tangle. But it does mean that accidents, as Angela was just saying, might happen. It also means that the United States is going to have to make major resource allocations to be the backbone of European security.

    Unfortunately, our European allies just don't have the kind of military capability that the United States brings to this crisis.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, Doug Lute, we could be down the line looking at a much greater U.S. commitment in Europe?

  • Lt. Gen. Doug Lute:

    I think we will, undoubtedly.

    As was just stated, the European allies don't simply have the capability of defending themselves right now. And you see this early on, Judy, by way of the sorts of forces that the U.S. is committing on a national basis to the defense in the east, so rapid reaction forces, high-end helicopters, aircraft.

    The F-35 for the first time is in Central and Eastern Europe, long-range precision strike, intelligence surveillance, reconnaissance capabilities. These are high-end military capabilities that take decades to develop. And the Europeans, by and large, don't have them.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And just quickly, finally, to you, Angela Stent, there's some reporting today about Vladimir Putin's isolation.

    You have spoken to us about that and — when you have been on this program before. Is there any prospect you see that there's significant pushback to him inside his own inner circle?

  • Angela Stent:

    It's very hard to see that at the moment. I think the theory that, if his inner circle is sanctioned, they may get restive, I think we have to test that. But they have what they have at the pleasure of the czar, of Vladimir Putin himself.

    So, at the moment, I don't really see those fissures emerging, but who knows? Further down, they might.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, we thank all three of you, Angela Stent, General Doug Lute, Andrew Weiss.

    Thank you very much.

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