With Russian forces reportedly shifting focus to Donbas, USIP’s Donald Jensen says, “Overall the Russian military has been unmasked to be … quite a bit more of a paper tiger than expected. But that doesn't mean they're not dangerous or effective in some places.”

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 N. Jensen is the director of Russia and Strategic Stability at the U.S. Institute of Peace. Dr. Jensen, good morning. Welcome back.

Donald Jensen
Good morning, thank you.

Julie Mason
Seems like a bit of a change in strategy underway for Russia.

Donald Jensen
There has been, they've said, and whether that actually happens is to be determined. But yes, they've said that they're going to focus on the embattled Donbass area to Ukraine's east, rather than keep trying to surround Kyiv. Now, whether that's going to happen, we have to see. Whether that's just propaganda for the homefront to cover up that they don't have Kyiv yet, we have to see. But it's very noteworthy, as you said, so we're gonna have to look at how the battlefield resembles the rhetoric.

Julie Mason
Sure. And there's been some reporting that Putin has been musing about a partitioned country, sort of like North and South Korea.

Donald Jensen
Yeah, that has been the rumor, and even some Ukrainians, I think that may end up being the case, but they're not obviously favoring that right now. The battlefield continues to go relatively poorly for the Russians, but they still outgun and outman the Ukrainians, and they're making progress in some areas, particularly in the south. And we're gonna have to see how that that plays out. One Ukrainian army is in some peril of being surrounded. Again, we just have to see, but overall the Russian military has been unmasked to be quite a bit less–quite a bit more of a paper tiger than expected. But Julie, that doesn't mean they're not dangerous or effective in some places.

Julie Mason
Oh, absolutely. Sure. There were some reports over the weekend Doctor, of Russian troops using white phosphorus on the Ukrainian people.

Donald Jensen
Yes, well, that has been the issue of those kinds of weapons, let's call them mass destruction, inhumane. This has been a problem from the beginning, because as soon as Russia ran into trouble, those things like chemical weapons and phosphorus became tempting options. But so far, they've done some of it. They could do more, but at the moment, they prefer I think, just to show civilian targets, maternity hospitals and that kind of thing. To create destruction to compensate for their shortcomings on the battlefield.

Julie Mason
They're fighting with some ferocity. I mean, it's not a desultory thing. They just seem absolutely intent on killing as many civilians as possible.

Donald Jensen
Absolutely. And that's not attributable, Julie, not only to just to barbarism, it's attributable to lack of training for these Russian troops, many of whom are draftees, conscripts who don't have any training at all. The Ukrainian forces have been trained by the West and NATO for eight years, and sophisticated training. They don't have all the weapons they need, but it has allowed them to compensate for lack of numbers, and as we've seen, quite impressively.

Julie Mason
While Biden was on his tour of Brussels and Poland over the weekend, we heard Zelenskyy complaining loudly about NATO, saying it's not enough, you know, I'm disappointed this produced nothing. And then we saw Biden, you know, meet with Ukrainian refugees, which was obviously incredibly emotional and then make his gaffe in his speech on Saturday. And I wonder what you made of that.

Donald Jensen
The gaffe? Well, I think it was unfortunate. I think that's certainly not the U.S. policy, and it was most likely just an off the cuff remark by the President, given that emotional situation you described. But off the cuff remarks have diplomatic impact too. Certainly many allies in Europe were not happy. It may well be, however, that Putin's departure may be the only way to end this thing. We just don't know. But it did undercut U.S. diplomacy, which in large part, Julie, I think has been pretty skillful.

Julie Mason
Now, Blinken is in the Middle East this week and he's talking to countries there trying to get them on board. But they have strong ties to Russia too, that seems like a dicey prospect.

Donald Jensen
They do, and not only the Middle East, we've been disappointed by some of our partners who have been relatively ambivalent about supporting Ukraine, or giving us some of the energy that our allies need. India has been a problem. They have pretty good relations with Russia too. Israel, surprisingly, and China, which claims to be literally a friend of Russia and Ukraine, but is strongly tilting toward Moscow.

Julie Mason
Interesting. So, how does Putin look to you?

Donald Jensen
He looks like a sick man to me, but I'm not the other kind of doctor. He does not look well to me. But I don't think we should be gearing U.S. policy or Western policy or helping Ukraine based on whether we think the guy is crazy or sick or something else. We need to deal with the facts. And unfortunately, Julie, there's been very, very little evidence of Putin blinking. There's certainly nervousness in his entourage. But for the guy, the boss in charge, there's very little public sign that he's going to move for a compromise. But there have been negotiations, superficial or minor so far about a settlement, and that may get some momentum. I think largely, Julie, the negotiations will be driven by the facts on the ground. And that's why Ukraine holding its own as it has is so important.

Julie Mason
It was disturbing to read, at the end of last week, that the sort of backchannels between U.S. and Russian military officials had shut down. And so it does seem a good front that at least Russia and Ukraine are talking.

Donald Jensen
It very much does. You know, there's this thing called deconfliction, a real diplomatic word. And in Syria and elsewhere, the two militaries talk to each other, but they haven't recently. But it's important that the negotiations between the Ukrainians, as you said, and the Russians go on. Zelenskyy gave a very interesting interview this morning. And you know, the Ukrainians have made some movement. They now pretty much say they will accept neutrality and not NATO membership, if they get security guarantees. So that is a flexibility on their part that may be realistic at the end of the day, but the Russians really haven't shown comparable flexibility. Frankly, they are, I think, just unwilling to realize this operation has been far more difficult than they expected. And it's really been hard to get that through to the Russian leadership, although a few seem to acknowledge it. But at the moment, they have their head in the sand.

Julie Mason
Dr. Donald Jensen is director for Russia and Strategic Stability at the U.S. Institute of Peace. Thank you so much for joining me today.

Donald Jensen
Thank you, Julie.

Julie Mason
Really good to talk.

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