Four Times Opinion Writers on War in Ukraine: ‘It Is Very Clear Putin Has No Plan B’

We’re headed into the second week of Russia’s war on Ukraine. Russian forces have escalated their assault on Ukraine’s second largest city, Kharkiv. With its ground forces bogged down by logistical failures, Moscow has turned to aerial bombardment of civilian targets across Ukraine.

Refugee agencies estimate over 600,000 people have fled to nearby European countries. In his State of the Union address, President Biden promised that Russia would face more pain for its actions. But has the West reached the limits of what it can do with economic measures?

Yara Bayoumy, the world and national security editor for Times Opinion, and the columnists Thomas L. Friedman and Ross Douthat joined Lulu Garcia-Navarro, a Times Opinion podcast host, to discuss what could happen next.

Four Times Opinion Writers on War in Ukraine: ‘It Is Very Clear Putin Has No Plan B’

Yara Bayoumy, the world and national security editor for Times Opinion, and the columnists Thomas L. Friedman and Ross Douthat joined Lulu Garcia-Navarro, a Times Opinion podcast host, to discuss what could happen next in Ukraine.

Their edited conversation follows:

Lulu Garcia-Navarro: We really are in uncharted waters. Few, I think, predicted a full-on Russian invasion stymied by this sort of robust Ukrainian defense. We’re seeing a resurgent NATO, a unified Europe working together against Russian aggression. But even so, Russia is unfettered. There are no signs on the ground in Ukraine that Moscow has changed course. Tom, we heard President Joe Biden last night open his State of the Union on Ukraine. He devoted more time to talking about the conflict than talking about Covid. But I guess the question I have for you is, what more can America and its allies do now?

Thomas L. Friedman: I think the most important thing that we can do is make sure that Ukrainians who want to fight and are fighting for their own country have all the arms they need to do that. I think the engine of this conflict going forward is what happens between the Ukrainians defending their country and Vladimir Putin’s army trying to take it over on the ground. That will be the core flywheel of all of this.

And what strikes me is Putin thought this was going to be a cakewalk, that he actually believed his own fantasy, that there are a bunch of Nazis running Ukraine, as soon as he came in the Ukrainian people would want them evicted, they would throw flowers, etc.

And now that that hasn’t happened, Lulu, it is very clear Putin has no Plan B. Because there is no Plan B.

He simply cannot do what he hoped to do: install a puppet and basically go home. If he installs a puppet, he’s going to have troops there forever. So I think Putin basically has four choices: lose early, lose late, lose big or lose small. But those are his only choices.

Lulu Garcia-Navarro: Ross, I want to bring you in here. No Plan B feels to me like that leaves Putin backed into a corner. I mean, which is more likely to deter Putin, the Ukrainian resistance stymieing his forces, or Western sanctions? It might not be an either-or.

Ross Douthat: I don’t think the logic of deterrence is really operable anymore here. We’re in a situation where the West and the wider world together have taken steps that are likely to collapse Russia’s economy in a way at least comparable to some of what Russia went through in the 1990s — a period, I should note, that led to Vladimir Putin’s rise to power and the end of the liberal dream in Russia.

I don’t want to say that there’s nothing more we can do on the economic front. But we are in a situation where, yes, I agree with Tom that there isn’t probably some grand victorious outcome for Putin here. But from his perspective, all he has now in terms of what he can bring to the bargaining table is what he can win on the battlefield in presumably a relatively constrained period of time given the economic pressure on his country.

And so my general feeling is, yes, we should be arming the Ukrainians, continuing to arm them, preventing Putin from making maximal gains on the battlefield. But we need to be thinking very, very hard about what kind of plausible negotiated settlement there is here. And there may not be one in the near term. But a world where Putin occupies Ukraine for 20 years while Russia’s economy descends to the depths, while it sort of has strategic benefits for the U.S. in the short run, over the long run that’s a pretty dark future.

Lulu Garcia-Navarro: I want to get to where we’re headed, but I want to bring in Yara. Because we have seen sanctions really hit Russia. The ruble has tumbled. Russia is isolated economically. It’s shut out of even commercial airspace over European nations and, as of tonight, the United States. This is taking a toll inside that country and sanctions always hit ordinary people the hardest.

Yara Bayoumy: Yes, that’s right, Lulu. What we’re looking at so far is this extreme sort of reaction from the West in terms of completely squeezing Russia’s economy, with the idea that it would squeeze Putin’s war chest. But the reality is that it does end up hitting people the hardest.

Russian people now can’t access money from banks. As you said, the commercial airspace is closed. There is nowhere they can go. Their salaries have been devalued dramatically because of the ruble’s tumbling.

I noted yesterday listening to President Biden’s speech, there was a lot of talk, of course, about how the U.S. is standing with the Ukrainian people, standing with their fight for freedom. But there was really no mention at all of the Russian people, right? I mean that the fight is against Putin himself and not against the Russian people. I think there was an opportunity missed there to really drive that message home, because as we say, at the end of the day the sanctions will hit them the hardest.

Lulu Garcia-Navarro: But how realistic is it really to expect the Russian people to rise up in revolt against Putin?

Yara Bayoumy: We’ve seen a lot of protests in several cities in Russia. But it’s also hard. Putin has made the kind of environment there one that does not tolerate any kind of dissent.

There’s extreme crackdowns. We saw that in the protests that have happened as well. And of course, the media space is really limited. I read about this really interesting state poll that said that about 68 percent of Russians supported the “special military operation” that Putin is carrying out. It doesn’t even mention the war.

That gives an idea of the kind of environment that a lot of Russians are currently operating in.

Lulu Garcia-Navarro: Overhanging all of this, of course, is that this is a nuclear power that we’re talking about. This is to all three of you. Fiona Hill, the Russia expert and Trump impeachment witness, said, and I’m summarizing here, we are already in World War III, we just haven’t realized it yet. I mean, terrifying. True? Tom, let’s start with you.

Thomas L. Friedman: I’m not sure what that means or that it’s particularly helpful. What I would say, Lulu, is that there’s only one thing more dangerous than a strong Putin, and that’s a weak Putin — a Putin on the ropes. And I still hope, and I doubt he’d start throwing around nuclear weapons. But it’s not clear what he’s going to do and what he can unleash here. So I’m quite worried about that. But World War III — I’m not quite there yet myself.

Ross Douthat: Yeah, I don’t think that’s the right term, unless we think that the entire Cold War was already World War III. Fiona Hill has not forgotten the Cold War I, assume. But at least some people commenting on what’s going on were not around for the Cold War. I myself was obviously very young — [laughter]

Thomas L. Friedman: I was around. [laughter]

Ross Douthat: Right, Tom. Only Tom is allowed to speak on Cold War reality. But the reality is that a lot of stuff went on in the Cold War involving proxy wars, military conflict, Russia imposing its will, sometimes brutally, on states in its near abroad. And all of this had to be managed at a level of extreme care and caution precisely to avoid the actual World War III scenario.

And now we’re back in that dynamic where it becomes incredibly important to have these, what can seem in the punditry game that we all practice like these sort of arbitrary lines. Like we will fight absolutely for Lithuania. But we will not intervene for Ukraine. We will arm people killing Russians. But we will do nothing that seems to threaten to kill Russians ourselves.

But all of that line drawing was absolutely essential to the management of nuclear escalation. And that’s what we’re back in right now. And, yes, I think saying we’re already in World War III misses how important it is not to be.

Lulu Garcia-Navarro: I guess that’s true. But what are the likely next chapters? Because one could envision a future where the Baltics might be at risk of invasion, or parts of Eastern Europe could see certain risks — an energy crisis exacted by Putin. It could metastasize.

Ross Douthat: Sure, but if Putin invades the Baltics, we have a military alliance with the Baltics that requires us to come to their defense. And Putin knows this. And the Russian general staff knows this. The people around Putin know this. And that kind of credibility — again, even though it can seem arbitrary — is how we’ve managed these risks in the past.

And yeah, the reality is we have things like cyberwarfare now that were not issues in the same way in 1972. And we have to grope our way therefore to similar understandings on those issues to the ones that we had about proxy wars during the Cold War itself. But that process is essential to the survival of millions upon millions of human beings. And it needs to be navigated with great care and not with pure illusions of what idealism is going to accomplish.

Lulu Garcia-Navarro: Yara, Tom and Ross seem unconvinced by the idea that this conflict could get even wider. What are your thoughts?

Yara Bayoumy: To point out a few things, like with the Cold War that Ross was just mentioning: A lot of what you were talking about was the existence of so many of these guardrails that prevented, as you said, this Cold War from turning into a world war. And we don’t have a lot of these guardrails right now, whether that is arms control agreements, or the cultural awareness of that a lot of people grew up with during the Cold War.

And you had, as you said, a lot of care between how the Soviets and the Americans worked together to really try and avoid any situation which could lead to a potentially catastrophic situation. Even before this invasion, we have seen a pattern of American and Russian incidents between pilots buzzing really closely. These are incidents that could have these consequences that we can’t even fathom right now.

Part of why President Volodymyr Zelensky is calling for a no-fly zone is precisely because they don’t want to get in a situation where there is direct conflict, or there’s a potential for direct conflict.

So I don’t think I’m at World War III either. But it’s maybe easier for me to see that this could go wrong very quickly and not in this calculated way that us following it seem to think it could proceed.

Lulu Garcia-Navarro: I want to talk about what are the ways that this could de-escalate. Because we can see potential ways that it could get worse. But, Tom, you’ve written about different scenarios which would provide perhaps a way out. Can you just talk me through how you see that happening?

Thomas L. Friedman: The two most likely scenarios — and one is far more likely than the other — the first is kind of a dirty compromise or an unpleasant compromise. Where basically through the talks that Ukraine is having with Russia, the Ukrainians basically agree that Russia can have the Eastern enclaves that it’s in effect already seized and that Ukraine will make a categorical statement that it will not join NATO. And in return, Russian troops will leave and Western sanctions will be lifted.

Now I would suggest from the Ukrainian side, they’re also going to want some kind of payment out of this or some way to rebuild. Already massive damage has been done. So why might we get such an unpleasant compromise? Well, from the Ukrainian point of view, Russia can literally just destroy its biggest cities and infrastructures. It can do terrible damage.

And getting someone to pay to rebuild that in the current global environment where no big power, other than Russia right now, wants to get involved in this kind of thing because all they win is a bill — there’s going to be a lot of incentive for Ukraine to do that.

And I can certainly see from Putin’s point of view, as these sanctions continue to bite, as Russians experience hyperinflation as a result, and as companies like BP announce, “We’re actually getting out of our oil deal with Rosneft,” these are things that could have long-term implications for Putin. So I don’t know that this is a likely scenario. But it’s probably the most likely scenario, that they’ll find some way out of this.

I would say the second most likely scenario, not very likely at all, it’s a long shot, is that several of Putin’s most senior military intelligence officials are, as we speak, at a water cooler somewhere saying to each other what they’re all thinking, which is, “What the heck? This guy — he’s off his rocker.”

Lulu Garcia-Navarro: I’m not sure they say “what the heck.”

Thomas L. Friedman: Yes, whatever the Russian version of it is — I could think of some alternatives but this being a family show … — and basically saying, we are going to have to have an intervention, not in Ukraine, but in the Kremlin with Dear Leader. I think that it’ll be very difficult. Putin has surrounded himself with multiple layers of security.

But a dimension of that is, it’s true the Russian state, its ability to suppress popular uprisings, is powerful. But you never know. When something gets going, if people lose their sense of fear, you just never know. As more body bags come home, you get Russian mothers out there. One thing we know for sure about Putin: He incessantly polls, like other dictators, because he knows how illegitimate he is. And he will be reading those polls.

The long shot scenario is, somebody steps in and takes him out and you get a different Russia. But the other is a dirty compromise. And the third is an endless war which would be just terrible.

Lulu Garcia-Navarro: Ross, you wrote about this too.

Ross Douthat: Those three scenarios that Tom listed are the ones that I have in my “Looking for an Endgame in Ukraine” column today, so that suggests that they are broadly speaking what we’re looking at. I guess what I worry about a little bit is just that everyone now is overcommitted. Putin has gone from a narrative of “We don’t want NATO expansion,” to a narrative of “Ukraine isn’t a real country and must be reunited to the broader, greater Russia to which it fundamentally belongs.”

So he has to climb back from that second narrative to the first, more reasonable, “I don’t want NATO in my backyard” narrative. But then a lot of the Western media has now committed to a narrative that this is essentially Hitler-level aggression, that we’re in World War III already. And I think there is at least a vibe at the moment in Western media, cable news, social media and so on, that if you presented that audience with the kind of dirty deal that Tom’s describing, there would be tremendous outrage over the idea that you could give Russia recognition of anything after a war of aggression like this.

Which means fundamentally I guess that the Ukrainians become crucial actors. In a dirty deal they will basically have to give up some of the outreach and solidarity, the fast-tracked membership to the European Union, these kind of things that they have gained, in order to save their country from destruction. And I assume that’s a trade that they’re willing to make. But I have a lot of questions about what each side is willing to do to make that dirty deal a possibility.

Lulu Garcia-Navarro: Yara, to Ross’s point, in many ways Ukraine has won the information war, right? I mean, they were singing a Ukrainian anthem on “Saturday Night Live.” But doesn’t that carry cost for Western governments? Are citizens who are watching what is happening or who are very invested going to sit by and see Ukraine brutally subjugated and a dirty deal enacted to get out of it?

Yara Bayoumy: It has been obviously interesting to see this information war play out, whether it was seeing how a lot of Ukrainians have really taken to social media, young Ukrainians, as well saying how they are all — will do anything to defend their country.

And that I think has struck a nerve in a way and has appealed to a lot of Western audiences watching that I’m not sure we’ve really seen before. That is very powerful. But I also worry about a couple of scenarios related to that, which is seeing this encouragement, including by President Zelensky himself, of having foreigners come in to fight for the defense of Ukraine.

And what also worries me the most as well is that we get to a situation where the U.S. and the West has committed, as we’ve seen right now, very strongly towards the defense of Ukraine. But it ends up being — again, because of the unequal firepower between and capabilities between both the Ukrainian Army and the Russian Army — it just becomes this protracted siege like guerrilla warfare conflict.

I think there’s a lot of concerns and worries now about what a prolonged sort of insurgency warfare would look like. And that to me really is a nightmare scenario.

Thomas L. Friedman: Lulu, could I just say one thing. I visited Ukraine going back to the 1990s when I was covering [Secretary of State James A. Baker] and today, and Taiwan the same. And both have changed in so many amazing ways since I was able to first visit in the late ’80s and early ’90s. There is only one thing that hasn’t changed for either of them, and that’s their geography.

Both of them are relatively small states living next to very powerful, much larger, and potentially dangerous neighbors. I support the Ukrainians in this fight 100 percent. But I do worry that we enter a phase where we’re ready to fight to the last Ukrainian, and singing the anthem, and that’s all wonderful. But at the end of the day, when you crush a country, or when a country gets crushed in a war and it spills out this many refugees — and I lived through this in Lebanon — putting it back together is really, really difficult.

Lulu Garcia-Navarro: Ross, I’m glad Tom brought up Taiwan because something that’s been on my mind is: Is this the sort of opening salvo of this big fight between authoritarianism and democracy? Or, depending on how this goes, could this make the world a safer place? A cowed Russia sends a signal to China and others that punishments will be crippling if they transgress. Or could this embolden China over Taiwan?

Ross Douthat: I mean, I think in the short run, depending on unknowable events in the next few weeks of war, this conflict has helped the United States in a couple of key ways that might be conducive to global stability in the long run.

It’s helped us by showing our European allies that they may need to take old-fashioned problems like needing to have a big military, wanting to have some energy independence from the large threatening authoritarian country that you pump your gas from — they need to take those things more seriously. And the more that they take those things seriously, the easier it is for the United States to recalibrate somewhat and finish the famous pivot to Asia that we were supposed to start way back under Barack Obama.

And then by the same token, at least in these first few weeks, China has to be looking at Putin’s struggles to subdue Ukraine and recognizing the potential for similar challenges in an invasion of Taiwan, which would require a totally different military setup. So in those two ways, I think you can make, not an optimistic case exactly, but at least a vaguely hopeful case that some good will come out of this for global stability.

I do want to push back a little bit on the inevitable framework that people are rushing to of democracy versus authoritarianism. And look, the more Russia is pushed into some kind of deep entanglement with China, the more you have a kind of Beijing-Moscow axis, the more inevitable that framing becomes. But there are lots of ways in which interest-based politics rather than ideologically based politics still affects everything.

So for instance, Turkey, which has become a much more authoritarian country under Erdogan, is being very aggressive in countering Russia. There’s no sort of axis of authoritarianism between Turkey and Russia. Meanwhile, India, which is more democratic, has been more hesitant in going after Russia. And you could go on down the list. But basically there’s just a lot of ways in which the world runs on interest-based alignments as much as on ideological ones, even right now.

Lulu Garcia-Navarro: Which brings us, I think, to Biden. He got a united front from both parties in Congress on Ukraine during the State of the Union. How does that help him, the West, in the days and weeks to come, if at all?

Thomas L. Friedman: I think Biden’s done a good job of both rallying America and rallying the NATO alliance and the global world here. I think that’s been very important. And I’m sure he’ll benefit politically from that. But for me, Lulu, what drives everything is what happens on the ground in Ukraine. And if the Ukrainians can hold out in this hyper-connected moment, even just for another week or two, and continue to inflict casualties on the Russians, that’s going to be what drives everything and will open up all kinds of possibilities.

Yara Bayoumy: I think we actually saw a shift in Biden’s messaging in the run-up to this conflict, then kind of turning very deliberately towards addressing Americans and kind of trying to communicate the costs that this means, especially in terms of rising energy prices, which I think is a concern for many Americans as well. And as we’ve been seeing, after the withdrawal from Afghanistan, all of this talk about how the U.S. is kind of no longer in the war business.

For Biden to be confronted with this scenario has meant that he can no longer focus domestically possibly as much as he would have liked to, and has to put a lot of attention on this crisis right now. But it will inevitably have repercussions at home as well. And I think that is where Biden is also really mindful of and trying to make the case and tread this very fine line between the U.S. standing firm against Russia’s aggression but also stating very clearly why that is important and why it is important for Americans to bear some of these inevitable costs.

Ross Douthat: I think Biden has done a good job so far. I think his administration has done a good job in this weeklong context of the war in terms of taking a leadership role but also letting Europeans take the lead as they need to do for our interests and their own, in terms of not leaping towards crazy ideas like a no-fly zone while also genuinely supporting the Ukrainians. I don’t know how much it helps Biden politically in the long run, any of this.

The two most likely scenarios are the grinding occupation and war in Ukraine. That doesn’t help Biden politically. But then I can also imagine a world where we do some version of the dirty deal that we’re talking about, that I think is probably necessary, where then Republicans run against Biden in 2024 saying, “Why did he cut this deal with the evil aggressor Putin?”

In fact, I can imagine Donald Trump — the ultimate scenario is in 2024, Donald Trump running against Joe Biden talking about how Biden betrayed the hero Zelensky and made a deal with the evil Vladimir Putin, who Trump would have treated more toughly. I can totally imagine that kind of insane reversal happening. So all of that’s to say, the Biden administration could do a good job generally, and this is a difficult enough problem that there might not be any political rewards for it.

Lulu Garcia-Navarro is a Times Opinion podcast host. Thomas L. Friedman and Ross Douthat are Times columnists. Yara Bayoumy is the world and national security editor for Opinion.

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Times Opinion audio produced by Lulu Garcia-Navarro and Alison Bruzek. Fact-checking by Kate Sinclair, Adrian Rivera, Rose Adams and Kristin Lin. Editorial support by Kristina Samulewski. Original music by Isaac Jones and Carole Sabouraud. Mixing by Isaac Jones. Audience strategy by Shannon Busta. Our executive producer is Irene Noguchi. Special thanks to Kaari Pitkin, Lauren Kelley and Patrick Healy.

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