Full Episode: Washington Week with The Atlantic full episode, 2/23/24

Feb. 23, 2024 AT 8:57 p.m. EST

It’s been two years since Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine. For a while, it seemed as if Ukraine had the upper hand in its war to remain free, Russia is again on the attack. Join moderator Jeffrey Goldberg, Anne Applebaum of The Atlantic, David Ignatius of The Washington Post and Lara Seligman of Politico for a discussion about the state of the war.

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Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Jeffrey Goldberg: It's been two years since Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

For a while, it seemed as if Ukraine had the upper hand in its war to remain free. But now Russia is on the offensive again.

The Ukrainians are outmanned and outgunned. And Republicans in the House are in no rush to help, next.

Good evening and welcome to WASHINGTON WEEK. We're going to focus tonight on Ukraine, its struggle against Russia, its central place in the global struggle between democracies and autocracies, its battlefield difficulties, and its worry that President Trump, should he return to office, will abandon it to Vladimir Putin.

Joining me tonight in conversation are three great experts on the subject, Anne Applebaum, my colleague and a staff writer at The Atlantic, David Ignatius, a foreign affairs columnist for The Washington Post, and Lara Seligman covers the Pentagon for Politico. Thank you all for joining me.

Big topic, second anniversary, and things have changed somewhat dramatically in our perception of what's happening on the ground in Ukraine.

David, let me start with you, but I want all of you to answer this very simple question. Is Russia winning?

David Ignatius, Foreign Affairs Columnist, The Washington Post: So, Russia certainly has the momentum after last weekend's Ukrainian evacuation of their position at Avdiivka in Eastern Ukraine. There's a sense that the Russians are on a roll. Putin's arrogance in the killing of Navalny reinforces this sense that it's Russia's time.

I have to remind myself, thinking back two years, to what Russia expected. They thought they'd roll through Ukraine, take Kyiv in ten days. Measured against that, you can't say that Russia is winning. Russia is basically stuck. It's gained four provinces of Ukraine, but has not achieved anything like what Putin's aims were. And it has united NATO. There are two new NATO members, Sweden and Finland. Russia has bigger problems.

So, yes, they have the momentum now, but I don't feel as if this is a story about Putin winning. It's a story about Putin having gained more than he had last year.

Jeffrey Goldberg: Anne?

Anne Applebaum, Staff Writer, The Atlantic: You know, you have to look at there's really more than one war going on here, right? So, there's the war on the ground. And David is right, the Russians made some gains recently, although not all across the country, not all across the frontline, just in one particular place.

But there's another war they're fighting, which is a psychological war. They're hoping to win the war by dividing us, by dividing Europeans, by breaking up the NATO alliance, by preventing Ukraine from getting more weapons. And, unfortunately, here, they are doing very well.

So, the fact that we're having this conversation, is Russia winning, the fact that we're talking about why is the president not able to carry out his own policy in Ukraine, the fact that a small minority in the House of Representatives can block the majority, when a majority of Americans, a majority of members of Congress, want to help Ukraine and want to continue the policy, means that, yes, there is -- at some level, Russia is convincing people that the war can't be won. And I think it's very important that we understand that and work on overcoming it.

Jeffrey Goldberg: Right. Russia is very, very good at outlasting its enemies or its adversaries, in part by throwing endless numbers of troops into the meat grinder. Is that their hope that they're just going to keep going until we get, quote/unquote, tired?

Anne Applebaum: But they're going to keep throwing people at the front line. But mostly what they're working on is trying to prevent us from helping, trying to prevent us from doing more, using various psychological games, using whether it's trolling or whether it's proxies here or inside Europe, their main goal is to stop us. Because of course the West United, you know, the democratic world united, if you include, you know, Japan and South Korea and so on, easily defeats Russia in terms of industrial strength and everything else. So, they need to convince us that the war can't be won.

Jeffrey Goldberg: Right. Lara, let me ask you this. Let me ask you for your own view, but since you're reporting in the Pentagon every day, I'm also interested in hearing what you understand to be maybe the consensus view, if there is one, among America's military leaders, how Ukraine is doing on the ground.

Lara Seligman, Pentagon Reporter, POLITICO: Well, like, the situation on the battlefield right now is pretty dire for Ukraine. Last year they had this failed counteroffensive that they talked up, and then it did not succeed. And I think, at the time, leaders in the Pentagon thought that Ukraine did not really take their best military advice. They had advised Ukraine to put all their forces, their infantry, and the western equipment that they had sent, the Abrams tanks, Leopard tanks, at one point on the frontline and get a breakthrough. Ukraine did not do that.

Now, we can't really look back and say, oh, that was a mistake, because they were -- it's a 600-mile frontline, and they were really pressed along the entire time. There are many, many miles' worth of mines and heavily fortified Russian positions. And every time they tried to take a step forward, they would get pushed back. So you could make the argument that mistakes were made.

Now, the situation is even more dire and Ukraine has two problems on the battlefield right now. One is the lack of artillery ammunition. And that's not going to be solved until the U.S. Congress passes the supplemental, allowing the Pentagon to send additional aid to Ukraine. The second problem is manpower. Russia has a population three times the size of Ukraine's. They can, as Anne said, continue to throw people at the problem. Ukraine can't necessarily do that. And that's part of the reason why you saw they had to leave Avdiivka recently over the weekend.

So, one of those problems can be solved by the U.S. Congress. The second problem can really only be solved by Ukraine itself. And, unfortunately, we are looking at a situation where they may have to expand the draft.

Jeffrey Goldberg: Right. I want to come to that, and I also want to come to David to talk about Ukrainian strategy and Russian strategy. But let me just jump to Anne quickly to ask, because, you know, it was about a year ago, maybe 11 months ago, we were in Ukraine together the last time. And, obviously, there was a kind of, if not, a bullions, then there was a kind of bullishness in the air in Kyiv and down in Kherson and along that front that good things were going to happen. How do you analyze what didn't happen, I guess, I would say? Was it failure of Ukrainian strategy? Was it the lack of munitions and arms, some combination of the two?

Anne Applebaum: So, their argument about the counteroffensive is very different from the Pentagon's argument.

Jeffrey Goldberg: The Ukrainian military commander.

Anne Applebaum: The Ukrainian military commander. I saw the defense minister actually in December. They feel that they didn't ever have dominance of the skies. They didn't have the air support they needed. They didn't have quite the quantity of equipment they needed. They didn't have a long enough training period.

And they thought that the U.S. gave them advice that would apply to the U.S. Army, which would have had air dominance, and which would have had enough equipment and it didn't work on the ground in Ukraine.

They still have -- well, I should say there's two strategies for winning the war, more than two. But one of them, the most important one, is mostly still to do with asymmetric warfare, which you and I also wrote about at the time, the use of drones, the use of electronic warfare. I mean, the best example of that is their use of sea drones, which are these little cool boats. I mean, they're like these little black -- you know, they look like paddle boats that have been painted black and have those --

Jeffrey Goldberg: Driverless drones, driverless boats, yes.

Anne Applebaum: They're driverless boats and they have all this cool equipment on them. I've seen them. I've seen where they're manufactured.

Jeffrey Goldberg: And they had a lot of success in the Black Sea.

Anne Applebaum: A huge amount of success.

So, Ukraine has no Navy and yet it has pushed the entire Black Sea Fleet out of the western part of the black -- out of the part of Western Crimea. And they are they are now exporting grain. They're not threatened by the Russian Navy anymore, which is kind of incredible. I don't think we give enough credit to that, and we don't we don't focus enough on it. And I think their longer-term strategy is not exactly that but to think along those lines along the entire frontline.

Jeffrey Goldberg: David, you've written very interestingly, not just about Ukrainian strategy, but Russian strategy, because to -- I don't want to speak for you, but for me, somewhat surprising, the Russians are innovating in ways that one doesn't associate with the meat grinder approach.

David Ignatius: So, that's the thing that worries me looking forward. It was always thought that Putin's advantage, where did he just keep throwing bodies, you know, pay the butcher's bill, the Russian dead and wounded are supposed to be, the latest U.S. estimate, 315,000, enormous number.

But it turns out that the Russians, after initially really bungling their strategy in the first year, being totally overmatched technologically by Ukraine plus the U.S., have gone into a learning phase, where they're experimenting with weapons, especially experimenting with drones and electronic warfare, learning, going through cycles of changing their equipment, changing their tactics. They're a learning army now in a way that they haven't been, I think, in decades. That's worrisome.

The Russian general, at the beginning of February, published an analysis of their lessons learned in this war after two years. And their lessons learned are that the battlefield is completely different. Tanks are essentially obsolete. Traditional air power is essentially obsolete. The future is unmanned systems and the E.W. that's either going to block them or allow them to get in.

And, you know, they're on top of that at a time when I think the U.S. is lagging behind a little bit. So, everybody should be concerned about that.

Like Anne, I was in Munich last weekend, and I think maybe we had a different takeaway. I heard a lot of anxiety, angst about the possibility that Donald Trump could become president. But I also heard a lot of fight from the Europeans. They see what Putin is doing. They see the advances. They see the way this war is now switching. They're nervous, and they're actually doing something about it. They're providing more weapons. They're upping their own defense spending and planning. So, you know, that's the one positive thing I'd say.

Jeffrey Goldberg: I want you to answer that, but let me throw this into the mix as well. Let's just say that the Europeans are so scared of the possibility of Trump coming back to power that they're going to increase their military spending and increase their manufacturing. Could they, within a year, replace what America does?

Anne Applebaum: So, yes. To be clear, the Europeans have spent more on Ukraine to date than we have. The number is 90 billion euros so far, plus they've just agreed another 50 billion euros. That's by comparison to our bill right now, which is this $60 billion bill that's sitting in the House.

Jeffrey Goldberg: And 90 billion euros today is roughly -- sorry I don't have my currency calculator, about $100 billion.

Anne Applebaum: It's about -- yes, euro and dollar are not that far apart. So, they are they're spending more than we are All European countries are upping their defense budget. I think Poland is now at something like 4 percent of GDP. All the frontline states are at 2 percent, if not 3 percent.

The problem is there is a gap in time. So, Europe will be producing more and they will be at a higher level production by the end of this year, but we have to make sure that Ukraine survives between now and the end of the year and that's what the U.S. -- only the U.S. funding could do.

And so when you hear panic and anxiety in Europe, it's about that. It's about the this missing ammunition for this year And also, of course It's about the fact that the Europeans had not -- it had not occurred to anybody that the U.S. president could have a policy and he would not be able to carry out that policy because a minority would block him. And that's created an enormous amount of anxiety.

Jeffrey Goldberg: I want to read you all a quote, this is said two years ago at the outset of the war. They, meaning the Ukrainians, don't have the necessary equipment that they need to face down a foe like Russia. They're outgunned and outmanned and outmaneuvered, and so they've been asking us for quite some time to enhance our support of them. There's obviously a direct interest that the American people have in doing so. That is, as you see Mike Johnson, who was then a very obscure backbench congressman now is the speaker of the House.

Obviously, Lara, something has changed in Mike Johnson's belief system, because he's clearly the linchpin here. If he made a different set of decisions over the past few weeks, the spigot would be open to a greater degree.

Talk about that a little bit, I want all of you to jump in, on what's happening in Congress, but also sort of, if you can add to what Anne is talking about, how important right now would be an open spigot for Ukraine.

Lara Seligman: Really important. And I think what Anne is saying about the European defense industry getting to that point by the end of the year is really crucial, because 2024 is going to be the deciding year for Ukraine. You can see they're on the back foot right now. If Russia gains more momentum, they can push through.

And you heard Vladimir Putin say the other day they want to move to Odessa. They want Kyiv. So, unless the U.S. acts now and continues to fill that gap and gives them more ammunition, I do really worry about the future of Ukraine.

Jeffrey Goldberg: Before we come back to the Republicans, I just want to jump up something you said. David, could the Russians go to Odessa and Kyiv?

David Ignatius: So they could go to Odessa. I keep asking people whether a Russian repeat of their initial battle plan is realistic as possible. And the answer is highly unlikely. They could come south from Belarus, as they did before.

But the Ukrainians have got a lot of electronic warfare capability, lots of ways to stop the Russians. The thing that worries me the most right now is morale. I mean, after weapons, I mean, the problem of Avdviika, they were running out of ammunition.

Jeffrey Goldberg: Morale and weapons are connected.

David Ignatius: So, they kind of go together.

So, an army that doesn't have enough air defense to protect its cities, that doesn't have enough ammo to fight a fair fight with its adversary, is going to have a morale hit. And if that accelerates, then you can imagine sort of a series of rolling defeats.

It is still -- it's stunning that House Republicans looking at what we're describing this war after two years are just kind of sitting on their docks, not taking action.

Jeffrey Goldberg: Can you explain it?

David Ignatius: So, you know, I think there is a kind of retrenchment. America First really means America first to these folks. Out in the country, there are obviously a lot of people who were sick of the wars that they think, you know, the elites have pushed on them and they see this --

Jeffrey Goldberg: But there's high level of support for Ukraine in the polls still.

David Ignatius: Well, you know, President Biden needs to find a way to tap that and motivate it, because time is running out on this.

Lara Seligman: And he's tried to as well. He's tried to tie Ukraine funding to the U.S. defense industry and said, however many dollars we're spending on Ukraine is actually coming back in battleground states like Pennsylvania. But it hasn't really worked, which is very interesting to me. It hasn't stuck.

Anne Applebaum: So, respectfully, I slightly disagree. I don't think what we're seeing is a wave of isolationism or people saying, you know, we just want to come home and we don't care about democracy. I think we're seeing something much more specific than that.

So, Donald Trump, for his own reasons, doesn't want money going to Ukraine. And that's been clear since last summer. It wasn't entirely clear to me all along. I thought maybe this stuff about the border, we need to do the border, was real. And then it became clear that that wasn't real.

So, for months now, he's been putting huge pressure on Republicans not to give money to Ukraine. And I think I have reason to think that it's because he wants Ukraine to be weak so that when he wins, you know, he thinks he's going to win in January, that he will dictate the terms of peace in a way that suits him personally and suits what he imagines to be good for the American economy.

So, I actually think it's about that and it's pretty sinister.

Jeffrey Goldberg: Right. I want to play for you. I want you to listen to President Biden for a second, making it plea for more aid.

Joe Biden, U.S. President: The House of Representatives must pass the bipartisan national security bill.

Brave Ukrainian soldiers and civilians are dying. Russia has taken Ukraine territory for the first time in many months. But here in America, the speaker gave the House a two-week vacation.

They have to come back and get this done.

Jeffrey Goldberg: So, something that you were talking about, it's not getting through. Why is this not getting through? Why is Joe Biden having such a hard time convincing American people of something that polls show that they actually theoretically want?

Lara Seligman: Well, I think it's important to remember that we are in an election year and we're in an election year not just in the U.S. but many countries, I think there's more there's more than 80 countries around the globe are having elections this year. And I think that in elections people tend to focus on domestic politics instead of foreign policy. So, I think that's important.

But I think it also is important to say that if this aid bill, the $95 billion aid package, goes to the floor, lawmakers do have the votes to pass it. It's purely because Mike Johnson refuses to put it on the floor that it's not going anywhere. So, I think it does come down to the speaker and his priorities.

Jeffrey Goldberg: It is kind of a rebuke of the president in a way that an ineffective, inexperienced speaker with a tiny majority has bollocksed up the world's sole remaining superpower's ability to execute a foreign policy.

David Ignatius:  There are things that he could do even without the passage of this, to get Ukraine across what I described this week as the valley of death, this period of low morale, Russian momentum. One thing that Biden could do is to send long-range missiles, they're known as ATACM 300s, which would have the ability to hit targets like the Kerch Strait Bridge that goes to Crimea.

When Zelenskyy came to Munich and met with the bipartisan congressional delegation, he took out a map. And he laid the map down, and the map showed exactly where these ATACMs could hit, all the targets they could hit. And he basically was appealing to this group, you know, this is what we need now.

So, that's within Biden's power. It appears the White House isn't going to do that, but it's something that would actually shift the balance, I think, in terms of the morale factor.

Jeffrey Goldberg: Let me ask in the couple of minutes that we have left. I want to ask all of you, not to be catastrophist necessarily, but what does defeat look like? What would defeat look like? And what does victory from an American national security perspective look like, Anne?

Anne Applebaum: So, defeat means the elimination of the U.S. as a security guarantor for Europe. It means that the U.S. is no longer seen as a reliable ally by anybody, by Europe, by Taiwan, by South Korea. It means that not just the Russians, but the Iranians are emboldened, the Chinese are emboldened, all of the North Koreans are emboldened, which has already happened.

It means a real transformation in how people view the U.S. and the world, and that would have enormous security as well as economic implications.

Jeffrey Goldberg: David, what is victory?

David Ignatius: So, victory for Ukraine, I define it today, assuming they get the weapons from the U.S. Let's make the positive assumption. Victory this year will be holding the line. They are not going to push the Russians out of the four provinces that they've occupied, annexed this year by anybody's estimation, maybe next year. If they can hold on this year, hold what they have, push back a little bit, hold their ground steady up, maybe 2025 is the year when they'd be.

So, for now, to me, victory is Ukraine protecting itself, hunkering down, avoiding terrible loss of civilians, protecting its cities.

Jeffrey Goldberg: Lara, I'm going to have to have you back because you're going to have to tell me another time what victory looks like. Maybe you just off the hook, but, unfortunately, we have to leave it there for now. It's been a great conversation, and I want to thank our panelists for joining us and sharing their reporting.

For more on Donald Trump's candidacy, check out Russell Berman's latest piece on theatlantic.com.

I'm Jeffrey Goldberg. Good night from Washington.


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