For the first time in 20 years, USIP's Donald Jensen says we've seen cracks in Russian elites' allegiance to Putin: "While they're still amorphous and not very organized, they're clearly unhappy." And if the war drags on and losses mount, "Putin has a big, long-term problem on his hands."

U.S. Institute of Peace experts discuss the latest foreign policy issues from around the world in On Peace, a brief weekly collaboration with SiriusXM's POTUS Channel 124.

Transcript

Julie Mason 
Dr. Donald Jensen is director for Russia and Strategic Stability at the U.S. Institute of Peace, here with his perspective on the Russian attack on Ukraine. Dr. Jensen, good morning.

Donald Jensen 
Good morning. Thank you for having me on.

Julie Mason 
I mean, it really shocks the conscience to see civilians getting bombed.

Donald Jensen 
It does. It looks like World War II. You'd think you're in 1945 or some of the other tragic wars of Europe in the past and it has really shocked the world.

Julie Mason 
I also was shocked over the weekend to come to understand the depth of misinformation in Russia, or just the total blackout on information, how little is getting into Russia about what's really happening. For example, there are now more than 11,000 Russian troops killed in this conflict. What is that, like almost 1,000 a day? And Russians have no idea, no idea. How can he control that? It's amazing.

Donald Jensen 
Well, the fact is that he can't. And you know, Julie, I think we got to look at the arenas of Russian public opinion in two ways. One is the society where there have been brave people, many arrested over the weekend, as you've seen. The second is the elite. And in the elite for the first time, really, in 20 years of Putin's rule, you have seen cracks, and that has shocked a lot of people. It's come from the intelligence services. It's come from other places around the elite too, including the oligarchs, as we've seen. And this is really significant, because if there's going to be any push back to Putin, it's going to come from the elite first. And while they're still amorphous and not very organized, they're clearly unhappy. So we have to watch that dynamic.

Julie Mason 
How effective is that? I mean, how much sway do they have with Putin?

Donald Jensen 
Well he's the boss, I think they're afraid of him. But the fact that they're speaking out, the fact that members of the KGB – FSB they call it now – allegedly leaked to the Ukrainians a plot to assassinate Zelenskyy shows how deep the dissatisfaction is. Will they do something? I don't know. But when you shut down the whole country and information, as you said, when you anger elites around Putin, this is not good for Putin's role, whatever happens in the fighting on the ground.

Julie Mason 
We were stunned by some U.S. and U.K. estimates last week showing that this could drag on for 10 years, this could just become an occupation.

Donald Jensen 
Oh, it very much can, even if Kyiv falls. I think people this week ought to keep a special focus on the attempt by the Russians to surround Kyiv. Even if it falls, I'm absolutely convinced they will just move the government to Lviv or someplace else. And then it will go to a guerrilla war, a partisan war. And frankly, that's something Ukrainians have a lot of experience in. Their grandparents fought during World War II that way, and I think Putin has a big, big, long-term problem on his hands. And, Julie, I would note that, according to Pentagon public estimates, the Russians have already committed most of their troops that they had. Remember three weeks ago, building up around the border, those are now 90% committed. So Putin is going to have a manpower shortage soon, if this doesn't end. Unfortunately, one way it could evolve in its next steps is by increased attacks on civilians and civilian infrastructure. And the kind of thing we've seen beginning already.

Julie Mason 
What is the tactical reasoning behind attacking civilians and civilian infrastructure?

Donald Jensen 
Well, this is the Russian way of war, frankly, to be honest. This is what they did in World War II. But in the current crisis, what's happened is that once they miscalculated Ukrainian resistance and the capability of their own soldiers – remember this was supposed to be a blitzkrieg that took Kyiv of in a day or two – then they had to shift tactics, we've seen pauses. And that shift has been toward more violence, to more indiscriminate use of artillery, and all these other horrible things that have caused all the refugees we've seen over the past few days.

Julie Mason 
Yeah, can you explain what's going on with the evacuees? And it seems like Putin's doing a bit of double talk there as well.

Donald Jensen 
Of course they are. There are over a million in Poland and the other countries to the west of Ukraine. All the reports I see, the Poles and other recipient countries have treated them very well, provided them with warmth and shelter and food as they move them further on in the process. But the Russians, of course, have clearly attacked them as they were leaving. Russians have violated at least two ceasefires in a town called Mariupol' in the southern part of the country. And that just shows what they're trying to do, which is terrorize the Ukrainian nation into capitulating. So far, there's no sign at all, they're going to capitulate. There's every sign they're gonna fight for as long as it takes.

Julie Mason 
Yeah, their defiance has been inspiring to watch. I know Zelenskyy has been turned into a hero, but I think these things are a little more complicated. He denied right up until it happened, that this was going to happen, and he had no plan to evacuate his people.

Donald Jensen 
Well, you know, Julie, that's what the press said. And frankly, that alarmed me in the run up to the war. But there's been another stream of quieter Ukrainian warning information that he was doing that partly to get the Russians off guard. And they were actually preparing. Certainly, the stout Ukrainian defense on the part of the Defense Ministry shows that they were ready, even if they were outnumbered and outgunned. So you raise an excellent question, and it's not clear what Zelenskyy and his people were doing. That may well be just to keep the Russians off balance and maybe get them overconfident. One of the things about this war, Julie, has been the use of disinformation on both sides. The Russians have a narrative, which is obviously not true, about Ukraine and its country and its people and the war. But Zelenskyy and even the Biden administration, I think, they've used public information very effectively. Remember, in the run up to the war, the White House was leaking when the war would start, when this or that would happen. And I think the Russians were kept off guard by that. They didn't expect that. They usually put out their narrative, it convinces a lot of people even in the West. This time, it wasn't as successful. And that's been really one of the noteworthy things about the war. The Ukrainians, I think, are a little more experienced than we are in this. And they've been playing back narratives too, which fogs up our ability to understand and see what's going on. But it also does have I think, a slight, not insignificant, but a slight pushback on Russian plans. And as we've seen, the biggest Russian miscalculation of all has been that the Ukrainians have resisted, contrary to what the Kremlin thinks. And that has been a major factor in the Russians trouble advancing so far.

Julie Mason 
Antony Blinken was talking over the weekend about some scheme to use Polish fighters to go into Ukraine, and then the U.S. would backstop them with more jets from the U.S. Isn't that a violation of Section Five? I mean, isn't that getting a little close to NATO involvement in Ukraine?

Donald Jensen 
It's very close, Julie. And you know, there are interpretations and there are interpretations. We are supplying Ukraine with weapons, offensive weapons, and the Russians could interpret that as NATO involvement. They do not so far. And I would note in passing, there is a deconfliction channel between the Russian military and the U.S. But when you're talking about what you just mentioned, which is to say the Poles give the Ukrainians old Russian built fighters, and we give the Poles new stuff that comes very close to a NATO involvement. It's a gray area and it's dangerous. Not to say I don't support it, but it's dangerous. The related issue is the no fly zones, Julie, which a lot of senators want, would essentially allow NATO with the U.S. to shoot down Russian aircraft, anti-aircraft missile systems and so forth, to protect the Ukrainian Air Force and troops on the ground. Ukrainian Air Force, by the way, is a weak spot in the Ukrainian Armed Forces. That, again, is seen by the Pentagon and the White House as essentially pulling NATO and the U.S. into a war with Russia. That's why the Biden administration is opposed to it. I suspect that will continue. But there are a lot of people in the West who do want a no-fly zone and it would be effective I'm sure. But it would drag NATO really effectively to a de facto direct conflict with the Russians and that's why we – we being the U.S. and NATO – are playing safe.

Julie Mason 
Right and as you mentioned earlier, with Putin and his forces depleted if NATO comes in full strength what's his response gonna be? You know, there's not a lot you can fall back on except perhaps his nuclear weapons.

Donald Jensen 
Yeah, we know what he could fall back on. And that really is the gray ghost behind all this stuff. So I don't think there's going to be a no-fly zone for the reasons you mentioned. And I would add, as you've read everywhere the past couple of weeks, there is now questions about Putin's own cognitive abilities, to put it in a neutral way. I think there's too much talk about him being crazy, because we don't know that. But certainly he's isolated. And the fact that he's isolated is not good, either, because leaders –especially leaders of authoritarian regimes – need information that's accurate. And I go back, Julie, to two weeks ago today when you saw the film within their security council meeting and, and Putin dressed down ahead of his own intelligence service, who's a really a hardliner, because his intelligence service wanted more negotiations. That could have been staged, but has suggested Putin may not always follow the best and brightest information his advisors can provide. That is dangerous, and that's why people are very cautious about dragging NATO and the U.S. more directly into the conflict.

Julie Mason 
Dr. Donald N. Jensen is director for Russia and Strategic Stability at the U.S. Institute of Peace. Dr. Jensen, thank you so much for joining me this morning.

Donald Jensen 
Thank you, Julie.

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