A Russia-Ukraine Analysis That Carries a Glimmer of Hope

3 months ago 46

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ezra klein

I’m Ezra Klein, and this is “The Ezra Klein Show.”

I want to begin today by taking a moment and getting at the theory of how we’re covering Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on the show. There is no way to fully understand an event this vast, where the motivations of the players and the reality on the ground are this unknowable. There’s no one explanation, no one interpretation that can possibly be correct. And if anyone tells you they’ve got that, you should be very skeptical.

But even if all models are incomplete, some are useful. And so each episode has been about a different model, a different framework, you can use to understand part of the crisis. We talked with Adam Tooze about the economic framework, with Fiona Hill about Putin’s stated aims, with Fareed Zakaria about the great power conflict frame, and the Russia-China relationship with Masha Gessen, and with Timothy Snyder about the competing histories driving Russia, Ukraine, the U.S., and Europe.

But there’s one model that a lot of you have emailed asking us to cover, a model for foreign policy that gets called realism. Realism is — and I’m simplifying here, but in part, realism is about simplifying. Realism is a political framework that understands international relations as a contest between relatively rational states for power and security. It’s pretty structural in that way. It sees the actions and activities of states as quite predictable, given their role and needs in the international security hierarchy.

In its blunter forms — and there are a lot of forms of realism — it can be much less interested than other frameworks in the ideologies of individual leaders or the values they profess to hold. It wants to be structural, not personal or individualistic.

In this case, there’s a particular realist analysis that has caught a lot of people’s attention, which is John Mearsheimer’s model of the conflict. Mearsheimer is a very famous realist scholar, and he had a speech from a few years ago arguing that the crisis in Ukraine is largely the fault of the West for opening NATO to Ukraine, and that we did that despite Russian warnings that it was a red line, and through that, pushed them into a corner that led to this invasion.

That is an analysis that has gone very, very viral. It’s very, very controversial. I want to say that I’ve learned an enormous amount from John Mearsheimer over the years, and I’ve learned from him in this crisis, too. And I do think there’s truth in what he’s saying and a genuine danger to the West’s professions of perfect innocence, our unwillingness to scrutinize our own actions.

Where I think he errs, to be honest, is in suggesting there is all that much truth in what he’s saying. It just, it denies too much agency to Putin, who, obviously, could have made decisions differently here, to Ukraine’s leaders, to Ukraine’s people, to luck, to contingency. I’ll note that this week, President Zelensky said Ukraine would not be joining NATO. He said that that was a, quote, “truth, and it must be recognized,” end quote. Him saying that did not end Putin’s war.

But for all that, I’ve wanted to have a realist perspective on the show because looking at this war through the realist lens is valuable. And so I asked Emma Ashford to join me. Ashford is a senior fellow in the New American Engagement Initiative in the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security. She’s what’s called a neo-classical realist. She begins with a structural, state-based, power-based analysis of realism, but then opens it up to more influence from domestic politics — the psychology of individual leaders, the messiness of reality.

One thing this kind of analysis will get you that some of the others don’t is a way to think about negotiations and settlements. Putin may be motivated by all kinds of things, by imperial tendencies, by isolation, by ideology, by nostalgia for the Russian Empire, by a desire to mark his own place in history, by these mystic philosophers that he reads we talked about with Timothy Snyder.

But he’s also motivated by the normal concerns of state security and power. And if the other sides of him cannot be bargained with, perhaps that side of him, the realist side of him can. And maybe if you try to work with that side of him and take that side of him seriously, maybe you empower it, and you can chart a realistic path out of this war.

Now, maybe not, maybe not. But maybe. I will say this was somewhat unexpectedly, because realists have a very pessimistic reputation, this was the most hopeful of the conversations I’ve had on this war. And because things are moving very quickly, I do want to note that I recorded this on Tuesday, March 15. As always, my email is theezrakleinshow@nytimes.com.

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Emma Ashford, welcome to the show.

emma ashford

Great to be here.

ezra klein

So what is foreign policy realism? And what makes it realistic?

emma ashford

It depends who you ask. Realism is a word that can mean many, many things to many different people. In Washington at the moment, everybody from Bob Kagan, commonly known as a neoconservative, to John Mearsheimer, describe themselves as realists. But I would say at the biggest level, a realist is somebody who views the international system as a fundamentally unchanging place, where states act on their interests, where there aren’t really rules or norms that constrain states, and where security concerns are always paramount.

So people disagree a lot on the details, but that’s kind of the very big picture. You shouldn’t confuse realism with being realistic, although the two often go together. It’s much more about that notion of sort of unending competition between states in history.

ezra klein

I find a lot in realism very appealing, but one of the things that is tricky to me is that the analyses that I hear from realists seem to be distinguished in that they view states as acting upon strategic interests. And values and identity and some of what you might imagine as the softer or fuzzier motivations are cast a bit to the side. But then if you know people, if you cover politics, if you watch the behavior of individuals and states, that doesn’t seem very realistic. People are often very non-strategic. And they are pursuing other goals or poorly pursuing strategic goals in ways that backfire.

emma ashford

So some of the big realist theories, the ones that you’d get taught in any sort of IR 101 class, those are very predominantly structural theories, right? Their states are these billiard balls knocking about the international system at one another, and there’s nothing else to it. But we all know that isn’t how the world works. You know, that is a model of how the world works. And so there are a number of more sort of nuanced theories of realism that basically say, well, these structural incentives, the security threats that states face, those are the most important thing.

But domestic politics can matter. The personalities of individual leaders can matter. And sometimes leaders make the wrong choices. And what realists would say is it’s not that states can’t act in ways that go against their own interests, it’s that if they do that, the international system will punish them eventually. So realism is, in some ways, sort of a self-correcting system. It does allow for those things to feed into it, but you’re right that some theorists do tend to focus very heavily at that structural level and miss out on a lot of really important insights about the world.

ezra klein

Well, let’s talk about one of those theorists. So John Mearsheimer is a very famous realist foreign policy scholar. I’ve learned a lot from his work over the years. He’s had this very viral and attention-grabbing analysis of the situation in Russia and in Ukraine, where he says that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is fundamentally the West’s fault. So can you describe his argument and tell me what you think he gets right and what you think he gets wrong?

emma ashford

So John Mearsheimer is a very well-known international relations theorist, one of those people who has managed to bridge that divide from being an academic superstar to being sort of in the media all the time as well. His argument, as he puts it in an essay in “Foreign Affairs,” I think it was back in 2014, is basically that through constant expansion of particularly NATO into the spaces of the former Soviet Union, the West effectively pushed Russia into a corner and forced it to lash out and to seize Crimea in 2014 and to invade the rest of Ukraine.

There is some truth to that account, right? I think John oversells that story, however. So and he looks at it in a very mono causal way, right? So for him, the only really important factor here is that NATO expansion that has pushed Russia back. And he sort of overlooks a number of the other nuances in the situation. So certainly, we have this big structural story, where Russia has been systematically pushed out of European security over a couple of decades.

We’ve seen the Russians get increasingly unhappy about that. But equally, you know, that didn’t force Russia to start a war in Ukraine. The Russians retained the culpability for that decision. The structural factors help us to understand how we got where we are today. I think where Mearsheimer goes too far is in basically assigning guilt to the West based on that history that he’s telling.

ezra klein

Let me try to balance what I find helpful in this account and what I find difficult about it. One thing that I find helpful is that, obviously, the West, the U.S., Europe, we are going to want to present ourselves as blameless, as having done nothing to cause any of this. And of course, we have had our roles in creating Russia as it exists today, both in literally constructing it with the economic advice we gave and the different agreements we have made, but also in creating the context in which Vladimir Putin is acting.

On the other hand — and you got at this a bit — it seems to me that this account, one, completely underwrites the agency of Putin himself. A hundred percent clear he did not have to do this invasion. It seems like most of the elites in Russia thought he wouldn’t. So whenever something is that contingent on the ideas of a singular actor, I think it’s hard to call it structural. I think it’s hard to say we pushed him into a corner, and they had to do this, and they predictably did this.

But the other thing that’s tricky about this is if you are looking at Putin as a rational strategic actor who’s worried about, say, the size of NATO, I think it’s pretty clear that invading Ukraine is likely to strengthen NATO, or at least, that was a plausible thing that it could do, and it has. Or he’s very worried about the long-term power of Russia, and he’s already operating under sanctions from 2014, launching an invasion that is going to further sanction and isolate his economy, which is not good for Russia’s long-term power. That’s at least a judgment call, to say it lightly.

And so I don’t know how you can look at the choices Putin is making and the strategic decisions, judgment calls that he’s making, and say this is all structural or all set into motion in any kind of inevitable way by Western actions.

emma ashford

I mean, there is a level of inevitability here in that if you go back to the 1990s, and you look at some of the realists who were arguing against NATO’s expansion — in the ‘90s, people like George Kennan, people like Brent Scowcroft — you’ll see them, arguing that eventually, if the U.S. kept expanding NATO, something like what happened over the last few weeks might happen, right? That we would start a new conflict with Russia in some context. No, not the details, but the broad strokes are right.

And so that is where, again, where I think the structural picture does have a lot to tell us about how we got here today. But the problem with just looking at the structural picture is, it does overlook a lot of these other relevant factors. It’s not just a story, as Mearsheimer puts it, about NATO expansion. What triggered the Maidan Revolution in 2014 in Ukraine was actually European Union ties for Ukraine.

And to some extent, for the Russians, it’s more about the trajectory of the states in its what Russians call “the near abroad” in both political and economic terms, right? They’re worried about Ukraine or Moldova or Belarus or any of these states pulling away from Russia towards the West in a very zero sum way. So it’s not just NATO expansion, even though security concerns play a role. Mearsheimer’s analysis also overlooks some of Putin’s own personal history and grudges, right?

If you look back at the way that the U.S.-Russian relationship unfolded in the post-Soviet period, the 1990s were an extremely difficult, hard time for many Russians. The impact of shock therapy proposed by the West, supported by the U.S., was really harsh for many Russians.

And it’s obvious that Putin, in particular, bears grudges about this. When we look at him talking about these things, that stuff is, obviously, playing into his decision-making calculus. So I think the structural factors are how we get in the place where Putin may end up making the decision that he made to go to war, but other factors clearly played into his calculus.

ezra klein

And so one thing that I find very useful in realism, including some of the more simplistic versions of it, is I think of it as a little bit like rational actor models in economics, which is a land I’m more familiar with in foreign policy, where they have this quality of, obviously, being incomplete, but they’re revealing even so. And so it seems to me it’s healthy for us in the United States to ask the question of, assume Vladimir Putin is a rational actor. Assume he is motivated by reasonable strategic considerations. Then what? What would that imply about how we should have treated him, or what would that imply about how we should treat him now?

emma ashford

Yeah, it’s funny you say that because, actually, the theories of neorealism — that is to say, the very structural version of realism — actually came out of some of the economic theories about behavior of firms in the markets. And that’s where Ken Waltz, one of the grandfathers of realism, actually got some of his ideas. So this is very much based in that same rational actor model.

And when we come to thinking about how it impacts actual leaders in the real world, I think you’re right that it’s helpful to think of this as an imperfect model of the world. It’s a good way to understand why states often act the way they do, but it’s never going to predict what’s going to happen, and it’s never going to perfectly account for all the factors at play. And so one of the things that I think is really important in the context of Russian decision-making in this crisis is that I fully believe Putin is a rational person. I fully believe that he’s making rational decisions.

But like many actors in economics, that rationality is constrained. It’s constrained by the information that he’s getting, the people that he’s getting advice from, and in the kind of personalistic dictatorship symptomatic of the Russian system, Putin is making decisions that may seem rational to him, but are not necessarily rational when viewed from the outside. And back to your example from earlier of this crisis may end up expanding NATO, not shrinking it, I think that’s one of those trade-offs that I think Putin has probably been receiving bad information or making poor assumptions about prior to this crisis.

ezra klein

But what if we then decide now, what if we were to decide, he is rational, he made some miscalculations, but he’s fundamentally a strategic actor, who can be reasoned with on those grounds? Even if these other imperialistic, nostalgic, et cetera, ambitions exist in him, that these also exist in him. If we were to treat him as that, what is the prescription? What off-ramp or approach to him does that offer?

emma ashford

I think it’s the approach that the Ukrainian government is already taking, which is to try and find some kind of negotiated settlement to this conflict. The Ukrainians and the Russians have had three or four sets of formal meetings so far and a bunch of informal contacts, and we have actually seen the two sides come a little closer together.

As the Russians have done incredibly poorly in this conflict, far worse than we would have anticipated, as the Ukrainians have done better, we’ve seen the Ukrainians modify their position from what they said prior to the war, you know, that they wouldn’t accept neutrality. They’ve come back from that point. We’ve seen the Russians, to some extent, modify their position, now saying that they’re talking a lot less about regime change, for example. They’re not even talking about demilitarization in the same way anymore. Now they’re talking much more about Ukrainian neutrality and potential territorial gains.

So this fits into how a rational model of conflict resolution works, which is to say that the war reveals something to the parties that enable them to come to the negotiating table and hammer out a ceasefire or hammer out a peace deal. And this won’t be easy, but I really do think it’s basically the only option for improving the situation, rather than heading to somewhere worse.

ezra klein

I have had a lot of conversations about Russia and Ukraine recently, and that is one of the first optimistic things that I’ve heard from anyone. So I want to hold on it for a minute, your view that we have actually seen some moderation in positions.

emma ashford

It’s been relatively moderate moderation, for lack of a better word. We’ve been in this war about three weeks at this point. And over that time, the Ukrainian positions shifted almost immediately. Within, I think it was a few hours of the invasion, Zelensky offered to talk to Moscow about neutrality, right? So the Ukrainian position there shifted very fast. The Russian position has been much, much harder to discern, not least because we’re trying to cut through the fog of Russian war propaganda and Sergei Lavrov, who’s always saying outrageous things.

ezra klein

Sergei Lavrov being their ambassador?

emma ashford

He’s the Russian Foreign Minister, well known for being somewhat of an internet troll in his approach to diplomacy. Really, really likes to stick it to Western diplomats and point out hypocrisy and not act very diplomatic. But if you look at the statements that have been made by Russian government officials, you look at what’s being said on Russian state T.V., you do start to see this shift, right?

So the aims that were announced at the start of the war or what the Russians are calling the security mission, the aims that they announced were the demilitarization and de-Nazification of Ukraine. Obviously, Ukraine doesn’t need to be de-Nazified, but that is what the Russians have been using as a euphemism for regime change. Those have basically gone away. And to the extent that the Russians now talk about demilitarization, they’re talking about it more in the sense of the war has destroyed a chunk of Ukraine’s military industrial complex and their ability to build up their military forces.

So, again, there’s been some moderation there, and they’re no longer talking about the regime change part at all. So, again, this is discerning from public statements what they might be thinking, but it does seem to me that we have seen some movement from even the Russians over the last few weeks. And I don’t think we’re quite there yet, but give it another couple of weeks, and that might be the point where we have an opening for negotiations.

ezra klein

And how about the United States and Europe? Because one thing I see, at least in our politics around this, is we’ve moved from, I think, a quite realist stance, where the attitude was, it’s a shame that Russia might invade Ukraine, and we’ll slap some sanctions on them, but it’s really not something we’re going to get deeply involved in, certainly not in any kind of direct military way.

But the way the invasion has played out, the way that Ukraine has inspired many in Europe and in America, what people are seeing on the news, what they’re seeing on social media, it does seem to me, in a lot of different respects, the positions in the U.S. and Europe, at least politically, if not among politicians, have hardened. Do you think that’s true?

emma ashford

I think that’s true. And not to undermine my optimistic point, I do think that one of the biggest obstacles to finding some kind of peace deal ceasefire here may actually be Western opposition to lifting some of the sanctions on Russia. Because I don’t see the Russians necessarily agreeing to a deal if it doesn’t come with some sanctions being lifted, perhaps freeing up some of those frozen central bank reserves or something. And it’s not clear to me that people in the West are necessarily going to accept that.

I mean, I do think what we’ve seen over the last few weeks is the White House continuing to hold to a very, very strict line on the use of military force, which is to say, it is not being considered. There will be no no-fly zone. The U.S. will not have troops in Ukraine, but we will defend members of NATO, that is to say countries under the Article 5 provision of NATO. But in other realms, we have seen the U.S. position and the European position go further than I think we would have anticipated before this crisis started. So the sanctions went from, I mean, severe sanctions, but severe sanctions that are somewhat precedented in their use. And then within about 72 hours of the start of this conflict, they shifted to a form of economic warfare more analogous to something we haven’t seen since the 1940s.

It’s kind of the same with arms shipments. We saw those initial shipments before the conflict, but the fact that Ukraine has managed to hold on as long as they have has actually encouraged countries to send more. And then we’ve seen governments sort of get in over their skis on some of these things like the debate over whether we would send old MiG planes from Eastern Bloc members of NATO to Ukraine. And that ended up foundering on politicians basically couldn’t figure out a way to do it without too much escalation risk. So I think you’re right. The attitudes have hardened. And I think there is still that escalation risk hiding in the background underneath all of these decisions that are being made.

ezra klein

I want to put a pin in escalation risk because we’re going to come back to that. But I do want to ask for another moment about the hardening of positions. So we have these really devastating sanctions that we’ve imposed on Russia. And there are exceptions around energy sales in particular, but at this point, we’ve destroyed their financial system.

A lot of key players in both their commercial and financial architecture have simply pulled out. I mean, Visa and Mastercard aren’t working in Russia anymore. Citibank, Citigroup is pulling out of Russia. These things have gone even beyond what the sanctions themselves were potentially doing. And it is a little hard for me to imagine the kind of deal that Putin could make where it would be a dirty deal with Ukraine. Because if he’s going to stop an invasion that he believes, over time, he would win, it will probably be because he got quite a bit of what he wanted.

But given how we have framed Putin in the international system now in our moral cosmology, the idea that we’re going to have him wall Ukraine off from NATO and possibly hold on to a fair amount of territory in the east, and then just go back to treating Russia normally and lift the sanctions, even as he made all these gains, it’s hard for me to imagine the domestic politics of that working out in the United States and Europe.

emma ashford

It’s going to be very, very difficult for policy makers to do it. I don’t think that means they shouldn’t try because I genuinely do think that — I mean, it’s too late for off-ramps, but not finding a way to resolve this conflict results in worse outcomes, worse outcomes for people inside Ukraine, potentially worse outcomes for Europe, more broadly. And so again, I think it’s going to be unpopular, but I do think that there’s going to have to be some sanctions relief in exchange for actually ending the war.

And I will note that as horrible as that sounds, that Putin is getting some of what he wanted. He’s probably going to get Crimea as part of Russia as part of this if this happens. But as horrible as that is, he’s also not getting what he actually set out to do. I don’t think we’re at risk anymore of Ukraine completely losing its sovereignty. Three weeks ago, I would have told you that was a very high probability.

So the effort that the West has poured into this, the sanctions that we have put on, they have had some impact. The weapons have helped the Ukrainians to resist the Russians. The sanctions are hitting hard. And what we need to do now is rather than just letting those sanctions go on forever, we need to use them as an instrument to try and improve the situation again. So we need to offer a carrot now that we’ve used the stick.

ezra klein

Can you say more on believing that Ukraine isn’t in at least as much danger of fully losing its sovereignty? Because that has remained closer to my base case, but I’m taking the conventional wisdom from two weeks ago, and you’re following this more moment to moment. Why don’t you think that will happen? I think the model a lot of people have is that the Russian forces are so overwhelming that if they simply maintain a commitment to grinding through Ukraine, eventually, they will simply win.

emma ashford

You know, I think that is possible, but I think there are also increasing questions about how long the Russians can stay in the field, keep up this level of progress without, at least, some kind of ceasefire to sort of recoup and sort of re-fortify themselves. Several weeks ago, the presumption definitely was that the Russians would roll over Ukraine quite fast. And even a couple of weeks back, you know, the assumption was that if the Russians didn’t do it fast, they would do it in a very slow, grinding fashion. I think that there is certainly an element of truth to that, right?

One of the scenarios, one of the ways that this could go is that the Russians basically increased their bombardment of the major cities. They bombed Ukraine into rubble. But that doesn’t necessarily get you the political objectives. So we have already seen the Russians try to insert a puppet government in a couple of cities in east of the country — doesn’t seem to be going very well. We are no closer to sort of the actual Ukrainian government collapsing, having to flee, leaders being assassinated.

So if regime change is their goal and the destruction of Ukrainian sovereignty, thus far, at least, the Russians are doing a very bad job, and it’s not clear if they’re going to be able to complete that job. So then the other path then is that the Russians are doing badly enough. It doesn’t mean they’re going to lose in the long-term, but it means that they may be unwilling to pour more into this conflict. They might be willing to settle for something less than the absolutist gains they were going for at the start. And this is how peace settlement, peace negotiations work in almost all wars, right? It’s rarely that one side loses and another side entirely wins. It’s almost always some kind of compromise because future fighting is more costly than giving up on your absolutist gains.

ezra klein

This is where I think it is at least interesting to imagine Putin as a strategic actor. Because I think a model of him that is consistent with a lot of the information we have, if not all of it, is that he believed the Russian identity in Ukraine was a lot stronger than it was. He believed the Ukrainian military was a lot weaker than it was. He believed the Russian military was a lot stronger than it was. And then the actual war has undermined many of these beliefs.

And so now he’s faced with a situation where he’s not going to preside over a lightning invasion that topples Ukrainian government and has at least a substantial portion of the population cheering in the streets. You’re dealing, no matter what you do, with a Ukrainian population that now hates you. And you’re going to be trying to do an occupation of a very, very large geographically and population wise country, when your economy is shattered.

And, you know, Putin is somebody who has had very strategic and, in many ways, correct criticisms of America’s foreign policy adventurism and the way it would weaken our country and the way we would not be able to hold territory, like in Afghanistan and Iraq, that we thought we’d be able to hold. He clearly understands those ideas on some conceptual level. And so if he’s even minimally strategic at this point, he’s got to be looking for some option here that isn’t an unending occupation of Ukraine because he doesn’t, it seems to me at least, have the troops, the morale, or the Treasury to finance an unending occupation of Ukraine in a way that doesn’t severely hurt Russia itself. Is that too optimistic about either the situation or his state of mind about it?

emma ashford

It’s possible it’s too optimistic, but I do think that this is one of those interesting cases where we have this very insulated, personalistic dictator. He’s obviously been receiving bad information. One of the few things that can really cut through that system is his ability to look on the internet, to turn on the news, and he can see that things aren’t going well. And so reality has a way of intruding onto that bubble in the context of this conflict.

And you say that Putin maybe is thinking about America’s interventions and how we got bogged down. I would wonder if he doesn’t also have on his mind the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan, which you know, happened when he was a young man, ended up costing the lives of many young Soviet men, and was, again, an utter debacle for that country. And so he knows the costs of occupation. And Ukraine is incredibly important to Russia, to Putin personally. He may believe that the cost will be worth it. But if he is offered a relatively attractive settlement, it might be enough to overcome that inclination. And so again, this is a deal with the devil. And this is why nobody likes realists. But what I’m saying is that in the grand scheme of things, this will be better for everybody than long-term sanctions that end up eviscerating Russia while Russia destroys Ukraine.

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ezra klein

Let me then turn the lens a bit more on us and talk about maybe some other people who don’t like realists. So this has been a moment where liberal interventionists and neoconservatives are saying, see, we were right all along. This is what happens when America backs off. In The Journal commentary, John Podhoretz wrote an article called, “Neoconservatism, A Vindication.” And his argument there is that neocons believe the Soviet Union was evil, that it could not be restrained through negotiations. It had to be deterred through consequences and American strength.

And he writes, quote, “At the current moment, deterrence is what America lost in the years before Vladimir Putin took the gamble of going into Ukraine. And it is deterrence we need to restore. That is why this is a neoconservative moment.” Is he right?

emma ashford

In the last few months, we have been trying to deter Russia from going into Ukraine using a variety of threatened economic responses. But we didn’t admit Ukraine to NATO. And we never made a commitment to militarily defend Ukraine. So from that point of view, military deterrence hasn’t failed in Europe. Putin has not threatened states that are actual members of NATO. And I just have trouble believing this argument that it’s because America wasn’t strong enough that Putin is acting the way he is now.

Realists like myself are actually, in many ways, making the opposite argument. We are arguing that because the U.S. has pushed so far into the areas, particularly around Russia, but you could make the same argument about China, that that is when we are starting to see those states push back because they’re worried about the extent of U.S. gains in their region. And so that’s a very different argument. And to me, the current situation really seems to sort of support that, rather than necessarily supporting the notion that Putin is reacting because America is weak, in some way.

ezra klein

I’ve heard you say in other interviews that the situation we’re in now is a result of 30 years of liberal interventionist foreign policy choices. But that now that we’re in it, all the liberal interventionists are coming out and saying, see, you just didn’t listen to us. Can you say a bit more about that? How do you see the big foreign policy picture? And who should come out of this a little strengthened in their analysis?

emma ashford

Well, it’s easy for me to say, because I’m on one side of the debate. I think my side should come out on top. But the fact is that what you just said is something I have seen happening. People who spent 30 years after the fall of the Soviet Union, arguing that the U.S. goal should be to expand NATO, to expand the European Union, to focus on pushing liberal democracy and human rights in Eastern Europe, that these would be the things that would make Europe safer and more secure. It’s not at all clear to me that those claims have been proven true in any way.

Indeed, what I see is kind of the opposite. The states that have made it under the NATO umbrella, they’re in a better place than they would have been otherwise. But states like Ukraine — and this could also apply to Georgia, Moldova, Belarus, right, all of those states that are kind of caught between Russia and the West and have been placed in this position where it’s kind of a zero sum choice, whether you move towards the West or whether you retain your historical ties to Russia, to me, that is what has provoked this crisis at a large level.

And so for some liberal internationals to turn around and say, well, this is what we warned about all along, that Russia was a bad actor, and so we’ve been proven right, to me, rather, ignores the concerns about security that Russia has been expressing for 30 years. And again, it doesn’t, in any way, justify the Russian invasion, but they have been expressing the same concerns since the 1990s about NATO expansion, about the future trajectory of Ukraine and other states, and about the fact that Russia has been effectively excluded from the European security environment. And to me, what the current crisis shows is what a state that has been excluded from the security environment in any legitimate sense, what they end up doing as a result of that. And that’s a very realist approach to this crisis. But I think the evidence bears it out.

ezra klein

One critique I sometimes hear of that argument is that it robs countries like Ukraine, Poland, or others, of their own agency, and that they have wanted to become more Western. They have wanted to come under a different umbrella, or at least, balance the powers threatening them against each other. You can make a very similar argument about countries that are near to China and that are thinking about how to balance the pressures of a rising China and the various American stratagems to balance China’s rise.

And on the other hand, there is this concern that America is putting a lot of countries into this weird no man’s land, where, on the one hand, we are encouraging them and giving them opportunities to westernize and come closer to us, but we are not committed enough to them to defend them against the consequences of a Russia, a China, or others, becoming aggravated and deciding enough is enough. How do you balance those out?

emma ashford

So I’m arguing from the point of view of U.S. security, right? I fully acknowledge upfront that that is my bias, that is my viewpoint. So I am concerned about the notion of NATO expansion for U.S. security and, to a lesser extent, for the states that are already inside NATO. And I do think there is a tension, right? The security of the states that have joined NATO inside Eastern Europe, their security is probably more assured than it would have been otherwise.

But some of the best scholarship on this subject on the question of NATO’s expansion basically concludes that NATO’s expansion was good for those states in Eastern Europe because it gave them the security guarantee, helped them bolster democracy at home, helped with things like civilian control of the military and stuff like that, but it was bad from the point of view of the U.S. and other existing NATO members during the Cold War because it added a new level of security commitments that would be hard to defend and that pushed us right up against Russia’s border in a way that we weren’t before.

So, I mean, I don’t think there’s necessarily a contradiction there. It depends on whose point of view you’re looking at. I will say I think the debate inside NATO about NATO’s open door policy has become problematically ideological. The notion that NATO’s open door is a sacrosanct principle that we cannot give up is not actually how it’s written in NATO’s founding documents. Article 10 of NATO’s charter actually says that the states that are members of NATO can, by consensus, invite other states to join them if it would improve the alliance’s security. That’s all it says. It doesn’t offer a right for all states to necessarily join this military alliance. And that has long been a concern that many realists have suggested about NATO expansion is that treating it as a club that states can join if they want and they have a right to do so necessarily weakens the alliance more broadly.

And you know, I think you mentioned Asia. With regard to Taiwan and the current crisis, I think one of the lessons that we can say about European security over the last 30 years is, we haven’t been as creative in Europe as we have been elsewhere. The ambiguity that the United States has over Taiwan with the One China policy is probably part of the reason why we haven’t seen conflict over that. And Europe is maybe a place where we need to get more creative in thinking about middle ways that don’t necessarily involve NATO’s membership for everyone or NATO’s membership for no one.

ezra klein

So let me try to wade into this very tricky territory because I know it bedevils all of foreign policy forever. You were saying you begin from the perspective of U.S. security. I don’t know that’s where I begin or even where most people begin. I have some miasma of U.S. security, of values I believe in for the world, and then also some recognition, I hope, of our limits and the commitments we will and will not make.

And I think the criticism of the position you’re laying out here is that NATO’s open door policy is not 100 percent a security policy. It’s somewhat a values policy. We want countries to become more democratic. We want them to become part of the liberal infrastructure that we think of as the West. But obviously, we don’t always live up to our values. And whenever we begin talking about them, accusations of hypocrisy fly fast and furious. And most of them are warranted. So how do you think about the tension between the values we have and the commitments we’re willing to make?

emma ashford

It’s a difficult conversation. I think realists often get this rap as being immoral or amoral. And that’s not really true. There are lots of realist theories out there, particularly the classical realists who are writing in the aftermath of the World Wars. You talk a lot about values and how they apply. And the way that I like to think about it is a quote from Hans Morgenthau, who’s one of the fathers of American realism.

And he basically says — and I’m paraphrasing — politicians cannot only pursue what they think is right. They have to be constrained by an understanding of what is possible in specific time and places. And that is how I think of U.S. interests. So I think of what we can achieve in the world, how does it impact Americans here at home, and does it spread our values, does it uphold our values. That is the tertiary consideration that comes into play if it is something that we are able to do without hurting American security or prosperity too much at home.

And the other way you’ll sometimes hear this argument framed is in, well, realists want to give Russia or China sphere of influence. And that’s immoral. I don’t think that’s the right way to frame this at all. I’m not saying that Russia has a normative right to control Ukraine. I think that’s a terrible notion. I do think that Ukraine, though, is a place where American interests are relatively small, Russian interests are much bigger, and we do not have an interest in getting in a larger conflict with Russia over that. So the spheres of influence idea, that is where the constraints of what is possible without harming American security and prosperity, that’s where they come to play.

And so from my point of view, the notion that we have repeatedly told Ukraine that we would let them in NATO and defend them, and now we’re not doing it, to me, that is almost more immoral than saying upfront, this is too much of a risk for us. We will not defend you. You need to find another solution, like the Finns did during World War II, like the Austrians did afterwards.

ezra klein

This gets at something I find very frustrating in foreign policy conversations, which is that they have a very heavy overlay of aesthetics, in my view. The people who claim that they are pursuing American security often seem to me to have very fuzzy or underspecified definitions of American security and how it will actually play out. The people who claim to be motivated by values often seem to me to be perfectly fine with tremendous levels of hypocrisy in America’s foreign policy values and who we do and don’t help and what disasters we do and don’t focus on.

I hear a lot about the Ukrainians who could die in Russia’s invasion. And properly so, I’m hearing much less about the Afghans who might die from starvation in the coming months from the Yemens who are caught in a war that America has helped to finance through our partnership with Saudi Arabia. And that creates, I think, this question of whether or not the stated goals actually fit the preferred means. Something that you’ve pushed for in foreign policy is a belief in restraint. Can you talk a bit about why you think more American restraint would be better for more American security or for American values? Because I think the assumption is if we care about something, we should be doing more to achieve it. But the argument you’ve made and that some others make is that if you actually look at our history, maybe we should be doing less.

emma ashford

I think people underestimate the extent to which American foreign policy, since the end of the Cold War, has become incredibly expansive, and in particular, expansive in a very military sense, though we’ve also seen a lot of expansion on things like sanctions, expansion of some U.S. alliances, like NATO. But American goals have become just far more universal than they were during the Cold War.

Now, during the Cold War, we often said similar things, right, that we were standing for all liberal democracies everywhere, but I think policymakers during that period fundamentally understood, again, that we were constrained by that superpower competition, that there were places where we maybe couldn’t do anything. And there were places where we didn’t want to act because we didn’t want to antagonize the Soviets. And a lot of the history of the Cold War is both sides, both superpowers, sort of dancing right up to that line to try and avoid a bigger conflict, while still hurting the other side.

In the post-Soviet period, since the end of the Cold War, instead, American foreign policy has become defined much more as, why aren’t we doing more? What else can we do around the world? Everything from the invasion of Iraq, the war on terror, we’re not just going to go and destroy the Taliban in 2001. We’re also going to end terror. We’re going to spread human rights. We’re going to educate Afghan women. And there are a lot of U.S. foreign policy objectives during this period that look like that.

And I think the logical endpoint to that is some of the debates that we’re seeing today over Ukraine, it’s people on cable news saying, well, why don’t we just set up a no-fly zone over Ukraine? And the answer is because Russia is a nuclear power. And we don’t want to get in a shooting war with a nuclear power. But 30 years of America focusing less on whether an action in foreign policy is good for U.S. security and more on whether we can do it, what we should actually do, whether we should do more, I think that has brought us to a place where our foreign policy debates is very problematic.

ezra klein

I think this is actually a very interesting moment in that because two tensions strike me as being really pitted against each other. I would say that in American politics, since George W. Bush’s presidency and the many foreign policy disasters of it that we’re still living through, I’ve been thinking recently about how defined Joe Biden’s presidency and foreign policy has been by Bush era initiatives, withdrawing from Afghanistan for one, but also to the extent you believe NATO’s expansion is a contributor to this crisis, that was done under George W. Bush over the objection of both his own advisors and many of the European countries.

So we still, to some degree, live in George W. Bush’s foreign policy world and the aftermath of his decisions. But I think since then, there’s been under Obama, under Trump, under Biden, in different ways, among all of them, much more skepticism of putting American boots on the ground, much more of a sense of the limits in what we can do in terms of occupation, nation building, in terms of what the American military can do. But that has, rather than leading to a lot of restraint, I think led to a search for ways of exerting our power that feel to us like they are not war. And so we have very, very aggressive sanctions policies. You talk about the enthusiasm in Washington for setting up no-fly zones. We like to do a lot of arming of people now, so we’re arming Ukrainians, but that’s obviously been a consistent theme in our foreign policy in recent decades.

Are we fooling ourselves about the degree to which we are now at war with Russia, or at least, the degree to which Russia sees us as a direct combatant? I mean, are we fooling ourselves that they don’t understand our sanctions now as a kind of economic war, that direct arms provision from NATO won’t potentially escalate into a shooting war? I worry that we’ve drawn a line in our own mental conception of American actions that might not be the line other people draw.

emma ashford

I think that’s pretty accurate. I think there is a — I mean, call it a pathology in American foreign policy thinking today that sees almost anything the U.S. does abroad as not war, as peaceful, if it’s not dropping a bomb. We see that in all these calls to do more in Ukraine. The fact is we’re already doing a lot for Ukraine. We are arming the Ukrainians. We’re sending them all kinds of aid. We’re authorizing emergency loans. You know, this is not on the scale of lend-lease, but this is equivalent to that process from the 1940s.

And then, on the sanctions side, we have sanctioned Russia in a way that is comparable probably only to Iran in the modern era. Iran was not an economy like Russia’s. And we have placed sanctions on Russia. Again, the closest examples that I can think of go back to the 1940s and the 1930s of states engaging in that level of warfare against another state. And so I think we’re underestimating how damaging those tools can be, how much we are involved in this conflict, and how others might see it. Now, I’m a little more reassured today than I was a week or two back. I don’t think the economic steps that we’ve taken so far are going to lead to escalation necessarily. In the absence of further steps, I don’t think the arms are — again, I don’t think they’re going to lead to escalation, as they stand right now. But I think in both cases, further steps could quite easily prompt a Russian response of some kind.

On the financial side, we could see some sort of Russian cyber attack on the U.S. financial system or some sort of asymmetric response from them. On the issue of weapons, the weapons are a tempting target for the Russians. We know that last weekend, the Russians struck an airbase just inside Ukraine from the Polish border that was reportedly being used as a mustering zone for foreign fighters coming into Ukraine. And so, again, the risk of a miscalculation by one side or the other, say the Russians strike a convoy just on the wrong side of a border or something like that, could quite easily spark a larger conflict. And I think we’re underplaying the escalation risks of the things that we’re already doing, even as I think Washington has rightly ruled out the no-fly zone idea because people realize how escalatory it would be.

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ezra klein

Do we underrate the degree to which sanctions could backfire or turn Russians against us? And I say this for two reasons. One is that I think we’ve seen it in other countries. And particularly, if we believe that Putin has a lot of control over what Russians see in the media, the way that an American and European-led sanctions regime leading to total economic devastation of Russia narrativized by Vladimir Putin, the idea that is going to turn Russians against him as opposed to us may not be true.

But I also was thinking about an email I got from a listener who is a Russian expat and is somebody who doesn’t particularly like Vladimir Putin, but is furious about the sanctions because, to them, we are destroying the lives, the savings of all these ordinary Russians who had nothing to do with it. And what they hear in the media conversation is an almost glee, like a do more. Like, why can’t we harm Russia economically even more expansively? Get the oil blocked.

And I want to note, I have some of those same impulses, and I have them because I want to see Russia stopped. But to the extent it doesn’t stop Russia, the country, but what it really does is make it much harder for individual Russians, particularly those trying to go abroad, particularly those in danger from this regime, who have nothing to do with this war, to the extent what it does is it destroys their savings or makes them inaccessible, then is that really going to achieve our goals? Or is that just going to turn a lot of Russians against us and cause a lot of human suffering? Nick Mulder, who’s written this great book on sanctions, mentioned in an interview how many Russians who are trying to flee Russia right now, they can’t access a lot of their money because of Visa and Mastercard pulling out. And so they basically can’t get out. Have we told ourselves a story in which our sanctions are targeted and logical that’s not actually true?

emma ashford

I think we’ve been telling ourselves this story for years now. Russia is, I mean, an order of magnitude more powerful sanctions than we’ve seen in recent years. But you know, as somebody that’s worked on sanctions, there are so many cases where American sanctions have started out as these very careful, calibrated, targeted sanctions, just focused on elites or just focused on those with ties to militias or terror groups or something like that, and then over time, the sanctions sort of slowly grow and get bigger and bigger. And there’s more and more.

And eventually, you end up with it can be very hard for ordinary citizens in those states to trade with other countries, right? So in some of the worst cases in places like Iran, we’ve seen difficulties obtaining medical supplies, right? The U.S. government at one point had to facilitate a humanitarian channel because no bank would allow companies to trade with Iran just to do that trade.

So we do, I think, underestimate the effect that sanctions have on the average person in the state. We think they’re targeted sanctions, it’s fine. But they don’t stay targeted. On the other hand, I think we also overestimate the extent to which they actually hurt those in charge. So in the 2014 case, after Russia seized Crimea, we put on all these big sanctions onto Russia. And you know, one of the things that the Russian government did was it provided bailout funds to the oligarchs that were specifically sanctioned under those authorities.

So the Rotenberg brothers, for example, who are sort of oligarchs with some Kremlin ties, they got contracts to do infrastructure projects inside Russia to make up for losing some of their business through U.S. sanctions. So sanctions can, in many cases, actually bolster those in charge. And again, the Russian case is qualitatively different right now because it’s so big, but it would not surprise me if there were not some folks around Vladimir Putin saying, we can use this to our advantage. A Russian economy that is more insulated from the West will be to our advantage. And they might be right from the point of view of their narrow clique in power.

ezra klein

The other problem with believing you have a very targeted approach to a war is that you might be wrong. And you’ve been writing about the possibilities for escalatory spirals that don’t come from the intentions of any side, but come from mistakes from fog of war, from policies creating feedback loops that people aren’t anticipating. What, right now, do you think of as more plausible pathways for escalation than we are giving them credit for?

emma ashford

I think we’re seriously underestimating the risks of arms transfers. Now I don’t necessarily advocate ending the arms transfers to the Ukrainian government, but I do think we should acknowledge that it’s going to get more difficult. And also, in a scenario where, say, the Ukrainian government has had to flee Kyiv or a scenario where we’re talking about an insurgency, I think there are a number of cases where the Russians might be tempted to strike at those shipments. And just for a variety of technical reasons, the easiest place to do that is when the shipments are being assembled on the soil of NATO member states. So that is one potential area for escalation.

Another one that I’m concerned about is, you might call it freelancing by member states of NATO, or just states striking out on their own and doing different things. So one thing that we’ve learned today is that a couple of Eastern European leaders are actually planning to visit Kyiv to talk to Zelensky in person. And that’s incredibly risky, right? This is the era of Zoom. And instead, they are going to fly or drive into a war zone, surrounded by tanks where they could be killed. That is the kind of escalation risk that I worry that states might be taking on their own without necessarily having the backing of the full NATO alliance.

So there’s a lot of these scenarios. And they all involve some misperception, misunderstanding, accidental escalation, firing that kills a number of NATO troops on the border, something like that. But anyone who studied history can tell you, that is how war starts. So this is not something that is out of the realm of possibility.

ezra klein

There’s a lot of fear right now about nuclear weapons being the endpoint of escalation. But at the moment, I think something we’re under-rating and which you gestured at earlier is massive cyber attacks. And this is something that every security expert I’ve spoken to for years says we are nowhere near prepared for. We don’t really know how we’d respond to them. We know we have huge vulnerabilities and all kinds of critical infrastructure and financial infrastructure. They are not hardened at this point. We know Russia’s been looking at these vulnerabilities for a long time.

So if Russia wanted to begin striking back at the U.S. and Europe in, more or less, the terms we’ve struck at them, that might be how they go about it. Can you talk a bit about the risks of cyber attacks here and what might be the potential lines that get crossed leading them to happen?

emma ashford

Yeah, so I mean, I’m going to start by saying here that I’m not a cyber expert, so I’m mostly telling you what others have told me. But I think there’s two interesting things that pop out in this crisis on the cyber front. One is that we have seen remarkably little use of those techniques by the Russians. They took down some government websites and servers in the first days of this intervention, but they’ve really not engaged in any large scale use of it at all.

And the most likely explanation appears to be that despite all the hype over the years, cyber network exploitation is actually not as useful for battlefield use as many people think. So that one’s interesting. And I think the cyber scholars are watching that. And it will be interesting to see, going forward, if Russia steps up its use of that over time.

The other area where I have been hearing a number of calls for the U.S. to engage in cyber attacks. And I think it’s interesting that the White House clearly views that as far more escalatory than some of the other steps we’ve taken — the arms, the sanctions, et cetera. Because the calls to use cyber techniques to strike directly at Russian infrastructure, stop Russian trains, make it hard for Russia to fight the war in Ukraine, those seem to be viewed pretty clearly as making the U.S. an actual party to this conflict.

And so I find that interesting. And I also wonder if that is part of what is, at least at present, constraining Russia on that front, that they are worried that a direct cyber attack would imply that they consider the U.S. a full party to this conflict and that the U.S. might enter in a conventional military sense. So the story of cyber in this conflict is really interesting in that it just hasn’t been as relevant as we might think. So I’m more concerned these days about the sort of conventional escalation risks, rather than the cyber ones.

ezra klein

Let’s talk about the nuclear ones for a minute because that’s on many people’s minds. So you’ve said that, quote, “nuclear escalation is possible, should the United States or its NATO partners intervene in Russia’s war against Ukraine.” That’s coming out of Putin and Sergey Lavrov being very, very clear about that. Something I see often, as people hear that and as they see us back off in the face of Putin’s nuclear saber rattling, is, well, if we just back down whenever he suggests that, don’t we just encourage more of it in the future?

If he’s taken the stance that he’s willing to do this and everybody else is taking the stance that we’re not willing to risk it, doesn’t that create a kind of imbalanced field that could get you into a worse threat space five, 10 years from now? How do you think about the gamesmanship around nuclear here and how the Biden administration has approached it?

emma ashford

I think the Biden administration has approached this largely correctly, which is to point out the reality that the U.S. has extended its nuclear umbrella to a number of states in Europe that are members of NATO. We haven’t done so to Ukraine. And so I concur with what they’re doing. And I think it’s actually the correct approach, which is to say, we’ve made a very clear decision that we’re not willing to risk a nuclear exchange for Ukraine. That’s why we didn’t let them in NATO in the first place. And escalating now where it might bring that risk of nuclear exchange is, in some ways, just undermining those previous decisions.

I think that calculus would look very different if we saw, say, a Russian invasion of a Baltic state. And that is a product of those decisions and the fact that expanding NATO meant expanding the U.S. nuclear umbrella. We do have to remember, I think, again, that all through the Cold War, we were constrained by the notion that other states had nuclear weapons and that we didn’t necessarily want to take them on head-on as a result.

That is one of the reasons why the Cold War has so many of these proxy conflicts and why after the big crises of the 1950s and the 1960s, Berlin, Cuba, et cetera, why we see the superpowers resort to proxy conflicts far away from Europe and to arms control and confidence building measures on the European continent, right? They were trying to avoid getting back into that kind of crisis because both sides knew that it could end badly.

And so I just have real trouble with these arguments that say that Putin is committing nuclear blackmail, and we must push back against him and engage in brinksmanship, because that is, in effect, asking us to put the whole world under a nuclear umbrella in a way that we have never done historically.

ezra klein

There have been a series of rounds of, I think it’d be going too far to call them peace talks, but negotiations of some sort between Ukraine and Russia during this conflict. There are more that began on Monday. How do you understand where that is right now? Should we take that as serious? Is that something both sides simply have to do for international support? What is your assessment of the talks we keep reading about, but also reading about them going nowhere?

emma ashford

I think they are necessary. And in many ways, I actually think the Ukrainians are doing the right thing when they didn’t necessarily have to, in going ahead with these negotiations. I think, in fact, the Ukrainians could have received quite a lot of Western support if they’d simply said, we will not talk to the Russian aggressor. I think they would have found a fair amount of support in various European capitals, in particular, for that.

I take their willingness to engage in talks as that they are willing to try and find a solution here that doesn’t necessarily involve either complete capitulation by Ukraine or a complete withdrawal by Russia. And as I said a little earlier, one of the things that we have seen during this process is, it seems that in the first round of talks, the Ukrainian and Russian delegations just showed up and sort of read one another statements.

But now what we understand is happening is that they are actually talking about some of these issues. And there are going to be some issues that will be very difficult to resolve. The status of territories in Eastern Ukraine, the ones that Russia now claims as independent states, Ukraine obviously claims as its territory, that’s going to be tough. But if the Russians have, indeed, backed off of their demands for regime change or power sharing in Kyiv, and the Ukrainians are willing to talk about neutrality, which it seems like they are, you know again, I think we’re starting to see some movement there towards an agreement that both sides might be able to accept.

And I think that the key here for the U.S. is going to be encouraging those talks without necessarily taking a position. And at the end, when it appears that there is more hope of a deal, coming in to talk about what sanctions relief might be involved in this with the Russians, but letting the Ukrainians take the lead because this is Ukrainian security at stake. It is their deal to make.

ezra klein

I want to end by, in a realist way, looking at some of the other big powers that are involved in this conflict that are rethinking or changing their policy stances in relationship to it and might come out from it changed. Let me begin with Germany. How would you describe the role Germany is playing and the way Germany is changing?

emma ashford

There’s been a sea change in German security policy in the last three weeks. The Germans went from being, basically, the most reluctant large member of NATO to offering to spend more than 2 percent of their G.D.P. on defense and committing extra funding to get up to that amount over the next four years, at least, initially.

Now, it’s still an open question the extent to whether that’s going to be easily translated into actual military capabilities. It’s going to take a lot of different things — the Europeans coming to some kind of agreement on how to spend this new money, what strategic direction to take. It’s going to take the U.S. not parachuting in and dominating those talks.

But I do think we’ve gone from a place a month and a half ago where the notion of Germany as a geopolitical actor was relatively unthinkable to a place where now Germany, as part of a broader Europe, might actually be able to act as a power center in coming years.

ezra klein

How about China?

emma ashford

China has been put in a very difficult situation in this conflict, and I say that not that anybody should feel sympathetic for Xi Jinping, but China is trying to walk a very fine line here, not repudiating its sort of increasingly close partnership with Russia, while not angering the U.S. too much by doing things like helping Russia circumvent sanctions. And again, I defer to China experts on this, but my feeling is that China is not going to be able to sustain this balancing act for long.

The Russians have now requested Chinese assistance. We don’t yet know whether that will take the form of weapons or just of what Washington calls non-lethal aid, which is to say, blankets, meals, et cetera, for soldiers. But it’s going to be increasingly hard for China to sustain this notion that they are not taking sides in this conflict. In fact, we may have already crossed that point.

ezra klein

And finally, because I’ve been a little surprised by the role they’ve been playing and the stances they’ve taken, India.

emma ashford

Yeah, the Indian position is really interesting. So one of India’s biggest arms suppliers is Russia. In fact, at the start of this crisis, before the war actually happened, Vladimir Putin took a trip to India, had these smiling, happy pictures with Narendra Modi. And that relationship has been relatively close in recent years. When you add to that the fact that the Indians import something like 80 percent of their oil from overseas to fuel what is a giant economy, you can see why the Indians are concerned about potentially losing access to Russian markets, right?

They’re concerned about losing access to Russian oil, losing access to food supplies. There’s various precious minerals and metals Russia exports. And India also, obviously, has this long history of non-alignment. And so this came as a surprise to many in Washington, who are more used to the way we’ve been talking about India in the last few years as a democratic bulwark against China, right, part of America’s democratic alliance in the Indo-Pacific. But actually, India is very much sort of a third party apart from this conflict. It’s not taking either side, and it is showing that it is definitely still willing to work with the Russians in the commercial and trade space insofar as it benefits India.

ezra klein

I think it’s a good place to end. So always our final question, what are three books you would recommend to the audience?

emma ashford

So you actually already mentioned one of the books I was going to say, which is Nick Mulder’s new book, “The Economic Weapon,” which is a really excellent overview of the rise of sanctions as an economic tool, in particular, because he goes back further than many histories of sanctions do. He doesn’t just go back to the 2000s or even into the ‘70s. He goes all the way back to the first World War and talks a lot about how the concept of sanctions developed.

And I think as we move from the targeted sanctions of the post-Cold War period back to something approaching that economic warfare, this is a really helpful book for understanding we’ve done this before. What happened last time?

A second book that I would recommend is Mary Sarotte’s “Not One Inch,” which is a very recently published history of U.S.-Russian relations in the post-Cold War period. So NATO’s expansion, but not only that — she basically looks at how the U.S.-Russian relationship went from actually being in a very good place in 1991 to being, basically, dead today, and how steps by both the West and Russia created this sort of long running, large scale security spiral, like we just talked about, to bring us to where we are today. So that’s a really excellent book.

And then the third book is a little older. I would recommend Chris Clark’s “The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914.” It’s a wonderful history book for those who haven’t read it about the origins of the First World War. But one of the things I think Clark does incredibly effectively in the book is show the perspectives of all the main actors and show that really nobody wanted a war, and certainly nobody wanted a World War. Yet, somehow we ended up there anyway, step by small step.

And in the context of Ukraine, of the escalation risks that we’re talking about, I think “The Sleepwalkers” is a really valuable comparison piece for thinking about the ways in which small steps result in really big outcomes.

ezra klein

Emma Ashford, thank you very much.

emma ashford

Thanks for having me.

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ezra klein

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“The Ezra Klein Show” is a production of New York Times Opinion. It is produced by Rogé Karma, Annie Galvin and Jeff Geld; fact-checking by Michelle Harris, Kate Sinclair and Mary Marge Locker; original music by Isaac Jones; and mixing by Jeff Geld. Our executive producer is Irene Noguchi. Special thanks to Shannon Busta and Kristina Samulewski.

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