Interview with Charles A. Kupchan – ‘It is time for Ukraine to switch from offense to defense and to work at the negotiating table’

Is it time for Ukraine to switch from offense to defense and to focus on protecting and rebuilding what it has and then to work at the negotiating table to get back the rest of the land? My answer to that is “yes”.

Charles A. Kupchan is senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) in New York. The interviewer is Esra Karahindiba.

Cross-posted from harici

Photo: Ministry of Defense of Ukraine

‘War fatigue’ has set in in Europe regarding Ukraine. The Economist wrote, “The indecisiveness of the Western allies strengthens the possibility of Russia winning the war in Ukraine.” Are the Biden administration’s efforts to consolidate Europe through Ukraine failing?

I think that Biden administration’s efforts have already succeeded in dealing Russia a decisive defeat because Russia launched this war to topple Ukraine, to pull to the country back into Russia’s sphere of influence. And the Ukrainians have defeated that effort. And now there is 82% of Ukraine under the control of Kyiv dead set against ever being in a Russian zone of influence. So, I think that the story, so far, has been one of Western and Ukrainian success. Have we reached an inflection point in war? Yes. Why? Because Ukraine’s offensive did not succeed in taking back as much land as it did hope for. As a consequence, one has to ask what next? Is it time for Ukraine to switch from offense to defense and to focus on protecting and rebuilding what it has and then to work at the negotiating table to get back the rest of the land? My answer to that is “yes”. That would be a wise strategy.

You wrote with Richard Haas that success in Ukraine needs to be redefined and a new strategy determined. Do you see the possibility that Ukraine still wins the war? Is it time to sit down with Russia? If so, under what conditions?

I don’t think either side will win if that means defeating the other side military. Ukraine mostly like does not have the manpower or military strength to defeat Russia and drive them from Ukrainian territory. Russia does not have capability to take over Kyiv and occupy Ukraine. And so were in a position of military stalemate. Under those circumstances, the most likely outcome is a new frozen conflict, a kind of low-level struggle go on for years, with neither side gaining much territory and relatively static frontline. At some point, I expect Ukraine and Russia to meet at the negotiating table. Are we there now? No. Partly because there is no sign that Russians are ready for diplomacy. So far, Zelenski indicated that he indented to continue fighting. He is not yet ready to look to diplomacy but I do think that sooner or later we will get to that point. And guessing that one of the factors that play is that Putin maybe waiting for the US elections.

I’ll ask you about the elections but let us remember here what British Foreign Secretary David Cameron said: “You spend an extra 10% of your defense budget, and with the courage of the Ukrainians, you destroy 50 percent of Russia’s pre-war defense equipment and people. Without losing the lives of the Americans and the British. This is a great investment.” said. Can you comment on this statement?

I think what Cameron is getting there is that Russia has been weakened and Russia has suffered a serious set-back to its military capability as a consequence of the war in Ukraine. And he is attempting to convince British voters and American voters or other Western voters to continue to support Ukraine number one by saying “We need to help Ukraine defend itself” This is a battle for the future of the West.” But he is also saying that it is relatively low-cost way for the West to weaken Russia. Because it’s a relatively aid to Ukraine represents a small portion of Western defense spending and the Ukrainians are the party that is losing soldiers that are brave enough to be fighting this battle.

Isn’t it a confession of the war being a proxy one? The West actually want to fight Russia yet they do not. Instead, they let Ukrainians fight on behalf of them.

 It’s not a proxy war in the sense that Russia has invaded its neighbor. Russia has violated international law. If the West wanted to fight Russia, they would be fighting a war with Russia. The West does not want a fight with Russia has gone out of its way to prevent this war from widening. Biden, very early on, said “no US troops, no no-fly zone, no, we are not going to provide weapons to the Ukrainians to hit Russian territory”. I think that the West is very intent on avoiding a war with Russia. But Cameron is simply saying that this is a conflict that is working to the West’s advantage overall because it’s weakening a Western adversary, Russia.

While the sanctions did not damage the Russian economy to the desired extent, Russia found new markets for energy. Moscow points Türkiye as being an energy hub for Europe. Has the liberal West begun to lose its influence and power in the international order?

Two things. One is we live in a globalized and interdependent world. The sanctions on Russia did succeed in dramatically reducing Russia’s economic connections to the West. But they built other routes to China, to India, to central Asia, to Türkiye and as a consequence the sanctions have not really strangled the economy. Is the West in the big picture losing the influence that it wants to enjoy? Yes. That’s simply because the global distribution of power is shifting. The West used to represent the 85% or more percent of global GDP. It does not any more. I also think that we are seeing, particularly in the global south, in Türkiye, in India, in Brazil, in Saudi Arabia, in Indonesia a new agency. President Erdoğan says the world is bigger than five.

Russia also agrees with that. Do you agree with that?

Yes. The UN Security Council is obsolete. It’s a council that reflects the world in 1945. We need institutions of global governance that accurately reflect today’s world.

Let’s go back to the US presidential elections, it is said that Biden’s chances of being re-elected, especially after being criticized regarding Ukraine and Israel, are decreasing and that Trump may even be re-elected if he is not prevented by the judicial organs. What are your predictions? How will the current global situation affect the US elections? Will the ‘America First’ policy return? If Trump is elected, what changes will occur in the USA’s position and relations in the international community?

Nobody has any idea if Trump will win. At least right now, I would say it will be Biden versus Trump. Is it conceivable that Trump will win? Yes. Recent public opinion polls show that he is slightly ahead of Biden. I think it is unlikely in the sense that we have had both a mid-term election and a recent off-cycle election in which the Republicans are not done well and the outcomes are determined by centrist voters voting on the issues like abortion and so. If you look at the key stakes that will determine who wins this, the large swing states it looks more likely than not than enough centrist voters particularly women who are concerned about the Republican position about abortion and who concerned about Trump’s instability, will vote for Biden.

There is another discussion which will affect Biden’s expected victory. That is the position of Muslims, Arabs, migrants, Latins who support Palestine and criticize Biden’s infinite support to Israel. From this perspective do you think Biden’s re-election is not shaky?

Biden, partly, because of his age, he is stuck in public opinion polls between 40-42%. I would say that the biggest drag on Biden’s popularity is the cost of living. Because the inflation has started to go down but the prices are still very high. Americans feel that on a day to day basis. Is the war in Gaza going to hurt Biden more than it helps? Probably. He will pick up some voters for being a stanch supporter of Israel. But he will also lose votes for being so. In a place like Michigan which has a large Muslim population, it could make a difference and that’s because the person who wins Michigan usually does so by a small number of votes. It’s a swing state. If the Arab-American community in Michigan decides that they are not going to support Biden and vote for Trump. As for younger progressive voters, yes, they are not supportive of Biden’s position on the war between Israel and Hamas. On the other hand, they know that if they don’t vote, they help Trump. And so, they are not going to be Trump supporters.

Regarding the support of Israel, if a voter is critical against Biden administration, Trump is not a better version than Biden. Is he?

No. For many Arab-Americans, Trump is worse. He is the one who moved the Embassy to Jerusalem. They are not going to vote because Trump is pro-Palestinian. The question is might they not just vote? And the answer is, some of them will not vote. But they are smart and they are thinking about it, they will realize that if they do not vote, they may end up with Trump as President. That’s not what they want.

Israel is targeting of the entire Gaza, rather than narrow targets, in response to the Hamas attack and its civilian massacres drew the reaction of the whole world. The Biden administration wants the revitalized Palestinian Authority to govern post-war Gaza, but Israel will not accept this. “After the war, Gaza should be demilitarized under Israel’s responsibility,” Netanyahu said. Will this dispute with the USA turn into a showdown? What is going to happen to Gaza?

I think that in the longer term, the Israeli position and the US position will converge. It’s in the short term that there are differences of opinion. With the US pushing Israel to do more to limit civilian casualties, pushing Israel to get more humanitarian assistance, pushing Israel to clarify it’s war aims in the sense that many in Washington question whether destroying Hamas is feasible, and as a consequence it may make more sense to focus specifically on Hamas leadership or Hamas’s weapon depots. Israel has to be careful causing so much destructing and death that it ends up much worse off than before. Right now, the main difference of opinions is what happens today or tomorrow, how long does this war last, what will Israel take to be a successful conclusion. In the longer term, I don’t think Israel intends to occupy Gaza. I think Israel will try to retain control over the security, the borders, make sure that more arms don’t start flowing into the tunnels again. My best guess is that a combination of international help, maybe through the UN, plus gradually helping the Palestinian Authority establish control in Gaza is the way forward.

Do you have any comments Türkiye’s initiative as being the guarantor for the peace deal between Israel and Palestine? Would that work?

No. (Laughter). I think that Türkiye has an important role to play that Türkiye can help mediate, should be involved in reconstruction. But it the notion that türkiye is going to be demediator, I think that is unrealistic. The part of the puzzle along with the US, Qatar and Egypt and other players, yes.

Who can be the mediator?

 I don’t think there is any country that has a decisive role. We have already seen the Unites States in part because it does not contact with Hamas, has relied upon Qatar mainly and others, so it really is a situation that requires multilateralism given the US leverage in Israel and its broader leverage in the region, I would say the US is the most important actor. But it will need to partner with Türkiye, Qatar, Egypt and Saudi Arabia to end this war and rebuild.

The US needs another partner who will sympathize the Palestinians because the US stands only on Israel’s side. Is that what you mean?

 Well, no. I think that it’s going to take a broad international effort to bring this war to conclusion and then particularly to rebuild. That’s going to require likeminded countries coming together. I do think that this is war that should serve as a wake-up call to the Unites States that it can no longer let the Israel-Palestine question into the shadows that the two-state solution needs to come back front and center, and they need to push all the parties in that question.

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