JPI’s Roya Lotfi sat down with Dr. Damien Leader, former Foreign Service Officer for the United States Department of State and Deputy Director of the Office of Russian Affairs and current adjunct professor at NYU, to discuss the global effects of the ongoing Russia-Ukraine war.
Meet Professor Damien Leader:
Professor Damian Leader was a career Foreign Service Officer for the United States Department of State from 1985 until 2013. He currently consults for the U.S. State Department on the declassification of historical materials related to American diplomacy. His last posting in the Foreign Service was as Director of the Policy Leadership Division at the Foreign Service Institute, and from 2010-2012 he was Chief Arms Control Delegate for the United States Mission to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) where he led an interagency team advancing the U.S. conventional arms control agenda with 56 European and Asian countries. Prior to his posting to the OSCE, Professor Leader was the Deputy Chief of Mission at the U.S. Embassy in Vilnius, Lithuania; Deputy Director of the Office of Russian Affairs and the Office of Nordic/Baltic Affairs; and Political-Military Affairs Officer at the U.S. Embassy in London. He also served on the Policy Planning Team of the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office from 2000-01 on an international exchange. With most of his career spent in Europe, Professor Leader is an expert on the international relations and geopolitics of Europe and Russia.
At NYU, Professor Leader teaches courses on topics such as US Foreign Policy, U.S. Policy Towards Eastern Europe, and Practicing Diplomacy. His education includes a B.A. in History from the University of Notre Dame, an M.A. in History/Medieval Studies from the University of Toronto, and a Ph.D. in History/Medieval Studies from the University of Toronto.
Roya Lotfi: Hello, and welcome to JPI Faculty Insights. My name is Roya and I’m a graduate student in the International Relations program here at NYU. This episode we’re going to be focusing on arguably the biggest topic in the news cycle right now, and that’s the war in Ukraine
Crystal Goomansingh on Global News: It has happened. This is Ukraine’s capital. What seemed unthinkable in the 21st century is now underway. A democratic country has been invaded by its nuclear armed neighbor on multiple fronts. People are not safe in their own homes. It is a full scale attack forcing Ukrainians to decide whether to flee or to fight.
RL: So there’s a lot being covered with this war right now. So I decided for this episode to keep the topic pretty broad and just focus on the big picture of the global effects of this war. But before I begin, I want to give sort of a disclaimer and say that although this episode mainly talks about how Europe and the US are being affected by this war, all of that pales in comparison to how the Ukrainian people are being affected by this war. And I don’t want to overshadow just how important it is to recognize that innocent lives and homes are being destroyed in Ukraine. And that should really be the focus here. With that being said, there’s a ton of resources by reputable sources online on what’s going on on the ground in Ukraine and ways that people around the globe can help. So for this particular episode, we’re going to be discussing the global effects of the war in Ukraine. And joining me is Professor Damien Leader. So why don’t you go ahead and introduce yourself.
Damien Leader: Yeah, hi, my name is Damien Leader. I’ve been teaching in NYU’s Masters in International Relations Program for eight years now. Before that, I was, spent 30 years in the United States Foreign Service. And what I focused on was largely East–West–NATO–Russia issues with a particular interest in Eastern Europe and those, and those issues. I served in Lithuanian as the number two at our embassy there for three years from 2007 to 2010. And in previous years at NYU, I’ve taught a class on US policy specifically towards Eastern Europe. So addressing these questions of Russia and the countries between Russia and western European countries. I’ve also taught a class for a couple of years at NYU on practicing diplomacy. Very specific issues of how diplomats work. For the particularly of interest to students who are interested in pursuing a career in diplomacy.
RL: So just to start off, I think it would be really important to go over a brief overview of this conflict and why it’s happening. Can you just kind of explain why this is going on right now. Why is Putin choosing to invade Ukraine and how does that go back to the Cold War?
DL: Well, there’s a lot of history in that part of the world, and the name Ukraine means “borderlands”. And the area of the country of Ukraine today is not just between the Russian Federation and NATO countries, Central and Western Europe, but it also is a country which straddles the border between Orthodox Christianity and Latin Christianity. It’s a piece of land, the borders of Ukraine have moved in the last 100 years. The end of World War II, the large parts of Poland were taken over by the Soviets and made and incorporated into Ukraine. A lot of, millions of people have moved across the borders one way or the other. So you have Ukraine, which was one of the Federated States of the Soviet Union, republics they called them.
So at the end of the Cold War, the breakup of the Soviet Union, each one of these constituent parts of the Soviet Union, constituent republics, became independent. Russia being the predominant one. Ukraine becomes a, in a sense a co-equal state with Russia. Vladimir Putin is tapping into very deep Russian roots and the beliefs that Moscow should have control over all the Russian speaking peoples regardless of which country they’re in. And that these should all be gathered together under the tutelage of Moscow. So anyway, long story short, what Putin is doing by invading Ukraine is to try to re-establish that hegemony over that part of the world. His arguments which he put forth in the 6 thousand word essay that was published under his name last year was that this has always been a part of Russia. It’s, Kyiv is the ancestral roots of Russia religiously and the sense of nationality. And that it should never have been separated from the Russian Federation. So he’s trying to, in his terms, right a historical wrong. That’s what he’s saying.
RL: It seems all very ideological. But also, you know, pertaining to land, and resources that come with that, so it’s a bit complicated.
DL: Yeah, I was just going to also add, in a sense, all politics being local, Vladimir Putin’s political strength in Russia is this brand is that he’s a strong man. He’s reversing humiliations that he claims the Russian people suffered at the end of the Cold War. The sense that Russia lost the Cold War. And he’s trying to right that wrong and reconstitute Russia. So this helps make him more popular in Russia. His annexation of Crimea in the first, after his first invasion of Ukraine, you have to remember this is the second invasion.
Dan Harris on ABC News: What America is officially calling a Russian invasion of Ukraine. Russian troops spreading out throughout the strategic Crimean Peninsula. President Obama, speaking with the Russian President Vladimir Putin, apparently pulling no punches, although it is unclear what the White House can really do about it.
DL: First from Asia, he incorporated Crimea and made it a part of Russia. It’s no longer in his terms a part of Ukraine. So yeah, He’s trying piece by piece to make all these lands not just under his sway, but basically part of Russia.
RL: A lot of the talking points that the Ukrainian President Zelenskyy has brought up is talking about how this isn’t just a war between Russia and Ukraine, but it has much larger implications in all of Europe.
President Volodymyr Zelenskyy translated by MSNBC: And in the UN already mentioned that there is no such thing as, it is not my war in the 21st century. That annexation of the Crimea and the war in Donbas is a blow to the whole world. This is not about war in Ukraine, this is about the war in Europe.
RL: And so can you explain why he’s saying that and what does that mean? I mean, so far it seems to only really be, in terms of military power and fighting, between Russia and Ukraine primarily. But what does that mean for the rest of Europe?
DL: I think that what President, well, first of all, President Zelenskyy is trying to get as much assistance, direct and indirect, from other countries to help him in this war against Russia. He sees it, and possibly correctly, as Russia’s attack on Ukraine and on Ukraine sovereignty and its move towards democracy and, and all that comes with that, human rights, democratic institutions, is because Putin is afraid that Ukraine is adopting Western standards. And it’s quote, “falling into the orbit of the West,” basically trying to join in the sort of shared community and shared values of Western Europe, what we call Transatlantic values. So what he’s saying I think is if I get conquered by Putin, don’t think he’s not going to be on the border of Poland trying to do the same thing to the Poles, the Hungarians, certainly to the Baltic countries. And unless NATO intervenes more directly, specifically he’s asking for a no-fly zone now, more directly to help him that we’re just going to have to fight this battle on our own territory next year or five years from now, ten years from now.
RL: Do you know if, or does like anyone in the US government know if Putin wants to go further than just Ukraine, or is Ukraine, kind of like the things that he really wants to get down right now.
DL: Well, he really wants Ukraine right now, but I have to believe that his, take him at his word. Just before the, he invaded in February, he said that part of his demands included that all NATO forces be withdrawn from countries which joined NATO after the end of the Cold War. So in other words, basically take your forces, any kind of NATO forces, out of the Baltic countries, out of Hungary, Poland, Romania, Bulgaria, other countries that have joined NATO more recently. And the only reason you want to do that is to be able to dominate those countries. So that actually supports what Zelenskyy was saying.
That argument by Putin has kinda been lost in the, once the war began because of a couple of things. One, it hasn’t gone so well for Putin. I have to confess that I, along with many people, looked at that and said, “How long is Ukraine going to be able to last,” you know, if Kyiv holds out for a week that would be a lot. Well the Ukrainian have shown that fighting for their own freedom and their own homes, that that’s a much, that gives you much greater power than if you’re a Russian conscript in an army being told to go off and fight against people who speak the same language and look just like you. So, no it hasn’t turned out so well for Putin on that score.
I think the key thing now is for Putin and Zelenskyy and the West to figure out a way to kind of unravel this. Because I don’t think Putin is going to get overthrown. I don’t think, I don’t see a coup on the horizon. I have no special intelligence or insight on that, but I don’t see that happening. So we’re going to have to figure out a way to, to end this war in a way that Putin, is acceptable to him, and acceptable to Ukraine. Acceptable to him, I mean, in the sense that he can just keep blasting away at Ukraine cities unless he’s, comes away with some sort of face-saving measure. I’m not sure what that is. It’s the old argument about a just war is worse than an unjust peace. I mean, is it, is it not? I mean, at what point do the Ukrainian say, we’d rather give up, say Crimea, our claims on that, if that means that the war would end. And, but what else would they have to give up and what assurances would they have?
The Russians signed an agreement in the Budapest memorandum in 1994 when they gave up their nuclear weapons, saying Russia and the Western powers agreed to guarantee the borders of Ukraine. Well, that only lasted until 2014. So what guarantees from Russia means, doesn’t mean a lot. I could go on and mention one thing that I think is a part of this that could help. And that would be if there was some kind of meaningful international effort, the UN that’s difficult to do because the Security Council, Russia has a veto. But if there was some kind of a ceasefire peace agreement, who’s going to monitor that agreement, how do you put people on the border between the two powers to make sure that Russia doesn’t continue to attack, things like that. I mean, there’s an awful lot of diplomacy that needs to play out here. And at this point we’re still, they’re still shooting rockets at each other. So I’m not quite sure how that’s going to unfold.
RL: Yeah, and in terms of trying to find a solution to this and to try to stop this conflict, you mentioned NATO a bit before. And there’s a really complicated debate happening around NATO’s role in this conflict right now.
General Secretary of NATO Jens Stoltenberg: We just finished an extraordinary summit of NATO leaders to address the biggest threats to our security in the generation: President Putin’s war against Ukraine. The people of Ukraine are resisting with the courage and determination, fighting for their freedom and for their future. We stand with them. President Zelenskyy addressed us with an impassioned message, thanking NATO allies for the significant support we are providing, and stressing the vital importance of even more military assistance. Today NATO leaders agree that we must and will provide further support to Ukraine.
RL: There is one side that is saying that there’s human rights violations happening in Ukraine. Many, many people, innocent people are dying. This is a travesty, and NATO, who has a bit of power to act, they’re not really doing as much as they can right now and that’s wrong basically. Then there’s another side saying that if NATO acts, it will just escalate, it’ll make Putin angry, it’ll make him want to retaliate more and then basically create like a whole World War III. So what are your thoughts on these two kind of routes that NATO can take? And, you know, based on your previous experience in the Foreign Service office, what do you think NATO’s role should be in this conflict?
DL: Well, as a, speaking as a former NATO desk officer back at the late 1980s and early 1990s. One of the things about NATO is the Article Five guarantee of an attack on one is an attack on all, it’s very specific to the countries that are members. And for NATO to act as a, whatever 26 countries now that are in NATO, something like that, to be able to act in Ukraine in a military sense would require a consensus of those countries. I guess realistically, I don’t see that happening.
So what can NATO do? I think at this point, the Biden administration and the NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg are doing a really good job of walking that very narrow line between not getting involved and getting involved in a sense that could be construed, be viewed by Russia as an attack on Russian forces by NATO forces. And that I do believe would in a sense give Putin the out that he wants, which is he gets to go to war with NATO. Not that he thinks he could necessarily win it, but that would be, he would say, “See the mask is off. This was really always about a battle between the evil Western Americans, led by the Americans and us Slavic people, or us Russians.” I mean, it would put it into those kind of apocalyptic terms rather than it being President Putin and the Russian Federation are just trying to attack and occupy another country, dominate a weaker neighbor. Which makes him, which, where he’s clearly in the wrong.
If it becomes World War III, then all bets are off. So I think NATO is doing a really good job of providing supplies, providing advice, providing finding relief, but not putting themselves in a position, any NATO country, where a NATO soldier kills a Russian soldier. That would be the trip line that would unravel all of this. So it would make it even worse, I guess I’m trying to say.
RL: But even now can’t Putin just say that any role that NATO is getting involved in with this conflict is enough for him to kind of retaliate. I mean, I don’t know what’s in Putin’s mind right now, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he just kinda use any reason to escalate the situation.
DL: Well he has said that the economic measures taken against, and sanctions, are economic warfare, so he’s used those terms already. I think that he recognizes that it would be a little bit difficult for him to justify what NATO has done so far as constituting aggression against the Russian Federation. Because the weapons that are being given are all being deployed in Ukraine. It’s not, there’s no battlefront taking place on Russian Federation territory. So it’s very hard for him to, although he’s tried to do this, to characterize it like the Great Patriotic War where the Nazis invaded and they’re being driven out by the, by the Russians and Russian allies. You know, no, nobody’s invading Russia. It’s Russia invading its neighbor. And that’s always the problem with wars of choice, is he chose to do this. Well, that doesn’t give you any sort of way, it makes it very difficult to justify what you’re doing. The United States had that problem in Iraq. Once things start going south, you go, wait a minute, you brought this on yourself.
So I think NATO, as I said, is doing a pretty good job. One little thing I’ve mentioned also, unintended consequence of this, Putin has already successfully, effectively absorbed Belarus into the Russian Federation at this point. The country’s occupied by Russian troops. I think President Lukashenko of Belarus has absolutely no leverage against Putin anymore. Basically, they’ve become, they’ve made themselves, have become a vassal state. And that was a price that Lukashenko paid to stay in power in the last year, he called in Russian forces to help put down opposition, who claimed that the election, correctly, that the election was stolen a year and a half ago. So Putin’s already achieved one of his aims. He wants to build this great Eurasian Union, Russian Federation, Kazakhstan, who he’s helped out against demonstrators there a few months ago. Belarus, he sees, you know Ukraine as the next part of that puzzle.
RL: So we were talking about how conflict has kind of been affecting all of Europe and that whole region there. But as we’ve seen just in the past few weeks, there can also be types of consequences happening even in the US and around the whole world. And, so, like there’s been this talking point about gas prices going up recently, and this is all because of the war in Ukraine. And I’m not sure how true that is, that it’s like a direct effect of the war. But can you talk a bit about how this conflict can go further than just Europe in terms of the global economy, in terms of global alliances and things like that. So in what way can it affect the US and then also Asia, Africa, other places that are right now seemingly not involved at all.
DL: Well as you said, gas prices is one of the things that is certainly, gas prices were rising last year because of all the well-known pandemic and supply chain issues that followed from that. But certainly in the last four weeks, oil prices peaked at over a $130 a barrel. So they’re gone down since then. Although I always notice, as soon as global oil prices go up, gasoline immediately goes up like within 24 hours at the pump. Global prices go down, it takes months for it to go down at the pump. Anyway, little editorializing there, but certainly there’s increased prices like that. There’s also knock on effects included. As you mentioned, Asia, you have China. China was very much, has been very much sympathetic towards Vladimir Putin. And Putin has tried to build a strong relation with Xi Jinping.
Christian Shepherd on The Washington Post: Beijing is trying to be very cautious with it’s war in Ukraine, it’s walking this fine line where it tries neither to offend Russia or harm that partnership, or to offence the United States, Europe, and of course Ukraine. Putting early end to the fight is the urgent expectation of the international community. It is also what China is striving for. But that is a form of neutrality that also comes with not condemning Putin. It is unwilling to cut off trade ties with Russia. It has been vetoing some of the bills that are coming through the United Nations. China will have to vote against this draft resolution.
DL: But is China going to bail Russia out now, they haven’t yet, they haven’t sent any military equipment there. They continue to buy oil and gas from Russia, as does Europe because they need it. But how is that going to sort out in the long-term? Does Russia end up becoming sort of a junior partner to China because it needs to rely on it economically. But China’s not as big a market as Western Europe is for Russian goods and food and grain and everything else, things that they sell. So that could have a real effect on sort of global power structures in the Far East, how Russian, the relationship between Russia and China.
As you mentioned, also, it’s going to have an effect on the Middle East. Because whenever you start affecting oil prices, that puts the countries of the major oil suppliers like Saudi Arabia in a much stronger position. You see already the United States trying to get Saudis to increase production, which they haven’t really done. That gives Saudis more leverage against the United States. So there’s a lot of these kind of knock on effects.
The one good effect of all this has been Western solidarity. Putin has done what’s the last thing any Russian or Soviet leader before him ever wanted to do, which was strengthened North Atlantic bounds, make NATO a more cohesive organization where everybody is marching in the same direction metaphorically. And that, how long that lasts, we don’t know, but that’s not good for Russia. They can’t pick people off. They can’t divide them. And you have countries like Finland and Sweden talking about joining NATO, discussing it, don’t know if they ever will. That’s the last thing Russia wants, is to strengthen NATO. And that has been one of the effects of his actions.
RL: So you mentioned China and this kind of reminded me of something that I was thinking about as well. Where some people are saying that if Putin gets away with invading Ukraine, then other authoritarian regimes such as China, might kind of feel empowered to go in and invade other countries that they’ve always wanted to take as well, such as Taiwan. How likely do you think that’s going to actually happen?
DL: I can only speculate. I’m not, I can’t claim any particular expertise on it. But I do know that invading Taiwan involves an amphibious operation and a number of other things. It’s not just having your tanks roll across to a border crossing as it was between Russia and Ukraine. So it’s just tactically, in a military sense, a much greater challenge.
I think that this also in talking, I was talking about NATO becoming more cohesive. This is going to be, I think, a real incentive for countries in Southeast Asia to build stronger defensive bonds as well. Because they don’t want to see China being able to move unimpeded, exerting its power in that region. So countries like, not just Australia, but Malaysia and Singapore and others, even Vietnam, might start, Japan and South Korea, might start working together even more closely to, to prevent China’s being able to do something along the lines of what happened with Ukraine.
RL: And then I guess my last question can wrap this all up is basically, since my concentration is US foreign policy and we’re all in the US right now, I’m just wondering, besides gas prices and oil and things like that, do you see the US being affected by this war in any other way? Can, you know, any other types of things in our global economy come back to the US because of the conflict.
DL: Well, I think that because of the pandemic and going back to the Trump administration, difficulties with China, that there’s been a greater movement towards autonomy with, in manufacturing and things like that. So the US should not have to rely on other countries. Not just because of supply chains, but because of these political questions and economic sanctions and whatever that this sort of thing means that the United States should try to be able to source more of its stuff domestically.
Lee Powell on The Washington Post: Neon, titanium, and really big planes. They all have something to do with the conflict in Ukraine. And that’s going to affect us all. The biggest land war in Europe since World War II is upsetting everything from lives, two ways of life. The ripple effects of sanctions and a shuttered economy extend far beyond these lands.
DL: I think that’s going to be an, have an effect in Europe as well, and other countries. So, is that the end of globalism? I don’t think so because in the end, most businessmen are capitalists, and if they can buy a microchip cheaper from Taiwan, they’re gonna do it there rather than from Texas or something. But these are long-term trends. We’ll see how it works out. I think it’s as much because of the pandemic as it is this war. But again, I’m kind of speculating. I’m not an international economist.
I think the war in Ukraine and what the administration’s doing brings out the divisions in the United States as well. We saw that with Afghanistan, President Trump had signed an agreement to withdraw all the US forces by April of last year. Biden delayed that movement to August and still was slammed domestically saying why did he leave, why didn’t he stay? So no matter what the divisions in the United States, political divisions end up being reflected in this, you know. This sense, the sense that perhaps this is a rosy view of the past, that foreign policy ended at the waterline, the shores of the United States, and that when we act overseas, everybody is going to be united behind the president and the administration. That’s clearly not the case now, that those people that were attacking, initially attacking Biden for, I think following President Trump’s lead on this by saying, you know, Russia is being very smart to do this. The Ukrainians are a bunch of corrupt thugs and oligarchs and such. That sort of criticism has faded off of it I think. But you see the idea that, well, Biden’s not doing enough to help the Ukrainians. Whereas you know that if, if we get more deeply involved, he’d criticize saying why are we fight, why are we getting involved in a war that we don’t have such direct interest in it.
So those sort of domestic issues, no matter what, and this goes for both political parties, no matter who’s in charge, the criticism of foreign policy is going to be pretty, break down along party lines for the most part. Anyway, that’s my own two cents on it.
RL: I don’t envy President Biden for being in office during this and during Afghanistan too, and it’s kind of two huge foreign policy things that happened. And yeah, like you mentioned, there’s kind of no winning with either of them, so.
DL: Yeah, and the other thing about politics, when I look back, other than the Vietnam War, where people’s voters tend to break down, broke down along the lines of do you support continued American involvement in Vietnam or not? And even then, Richard Nixon was elected, not the more, the peace candidate, so to speak, George McGovern. In the end, Americans tend to vote on economics and domestic issues anyway. So most people, assuming this war is, ends in some fashion short of World War III, by the next general election in 2024 no one’s going to be talking about Ukraine. I don’t think, unless it’s a fiasco, and then they will be because it can be used against the administration. But who knows?
RL: Right. So for my questions, I think that’s pretty much it, and I think that covered a lot. So, thank you so much for participating in this. I appreciate that.
DL: Okay. Bye-bye.
Producer and Host: Roya Lotfi
Guest: Damien Leader, Adjunct Professor at NYU
Audio clips (in order):
Crystal Goomansingh for Global News, February 25, 2022
Dan Harris for ABC News, March 2, 2014
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy addresses the Munich Security Conference in Munich, Germany, translated by MSNBC, February 19, 2022
General Secretary of NATO Jens Stoltenberg in Brussels, Belgium, posted by Sky News, March 24, 2022
Christian Shepherd for The Washington Post, April 12, 2022
Lee Powell for The Washington Post, March 4, 2022
Image Credit: Foreign policy illustration/Getty Images
Roya Lotfi (she/her) formerly held the role of Editor-in-Chief at JPI Online Magazine. Her academic journey led her to a Master’s degree in International Relations from New York University, complementing her earlier BS in Biology from Montclair State University. Despite her scientific background, Roya’s unwavering passion for domestic and international politics guided her toward the vibrant world of IR. Prior to commencing her studies at NYU, she honed her skills in video production while working at Bright Trip Inc. and even contributed her talents to NBCUniversal. Looking ahead, her ultimate career aspiration is to create captivating video content focusing on current events and international relations within a media journalism organization. During her leisure hours, Roya enjoys indulging in reading and leisurely strolls around Central Park.