With back-to-back G-7 and NATO summits this week, USIP's Donald Jensen says President Biden is focused on maintaining unity among allies and partners as the war in Ukraine grinds on: "Putin is counting on the faltering of Western assistance and political support for Ukraine … and that's what we’ll see discussed this week."

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.


Julie Mason: I'm Julie Mason. Thousands of people protesting in Madrid ahead of the upcoming June 29 NATO Summit. A little more fraught than usual. Joining me now, Dr. Donald N. Jensen is director for Russia and strategic stability at the U.S. Institute of Peace. Dr. Jensen, welcome back.

Donald Jensen: Good morning. I'm having my coffee, ready to talk.

Julie Mason: Oh, so glad. So, it really feels like the NATO members thought this was going to be a really smooth glide to get these new members into the alliance, it hit a snag with Turkey and Erdoğan really digging in his heels, and there's protests in Madrid. This is not George Bush's NATO Summit. This seems like a whole new animal.

Donald Jensen: It is indeed. I think the bigger issue here is the admission of Sweden and Finland. The Turks, as you say, are putting up some objections. Frankly, they're pretty serious. But I think at the end of the day, there will be a deal, if not this week, then soon, that irons out the problem. I know the Turks are talking to other NATO members and the United States. So, I think at the end of the day, we'll have them in. It's just been, as you said, just absolutely unexpected. And Erdoğan is a very clever guy that is trying to tilt the situation to help his own country. And frankly, his own rule, which is a little weaker than it has been in the past.

Julie Mason: Yeah, with that terrible inflation in that country as well. What does he want? Like, what's the ask? How do they buy him off and get him on their side for this deal?

Donald Jensen: Well, I'm not sitting at the table, but I would say they want a deal where he can renew his veto in exchange for some kind of diplomatic change in the, he says "terrorist," we would say "Kurdish," representation in Sweden in particular. So, I think it can be there, but it would require Sweden to back off a little bit from its support for that group. As you know, Turkey regards them as a terrorist group. A lot of other people do not, including myself. But, despite that fact, it's a very complicated situation on the ground. So, I think there'll be a deal in that regard.

But, the bigger issue, the bigger problem, the bigger challenge, with Erdoğan is that Turkey, while an important NATO member, also has pretty decent ties with Russia. And this has come to a head over Ukraine where the Turks support Ukraine in some ways, but support Russia in bigger ways. And so he, being Erdoğan, is negotiating a fine line between the two. Certainly, the Turkish predominant influence in the Black Sea is a critical geostrategic issue. So, he is straddling, as he always does. And he's got arms purchases from Russia on his mind. He's got the Kurds, as we just talked about. He's got Turkey's, I think, sometimes own frustration with the other NATO members. And frankly, he's got a lot of concerns about what's going on in Syria, first migration and the war that has been going on. So, the Turkish position, while not sympathized with by a lot of alliance members, it's understandable if you're sitting in Ankara or looking at the situation, even if we may not agree with it.

Julie Mason: I was troubled when I saw that one thing that Erdoğan was looking for was that Islamic cleric who's hiding out, I believe, in Pennsylvania.

Donald Jensen: Yeah, Gulen.

Julie Mason: Gulen. Which puts the U.S. like, right in the middle of whatever Erdoğan is looking for. But the U.S. has refused to turn that guy over.

Donald Jensen: And I am glad that they have been. We cannot do that. I think this issue, Julie, has been on the table for five or 10 years. This is not new. I think he's throwing some spaghetti against the wall, if I can use my own ethnic heritage, and seeing what sticks. I don't think it's a deal killer, one way or the other, they can agree to talk about it, or whatever. But I think the real issue is the Kurds. It's the other issue that I mentioned. But it took everybody by surprise, at a time, Julie, when we don't want to be surprised given the challenge from the East. So, it's been a difficult diplomatic process. But, even if he continues to go into a wobble a little bit, I think we're going to get, at the end of the day, the Swedes and the Finns in NATO.

Julie Mason: Now, in the meantime, Ukraine. Putin, they've been attacking Kyiv, but concurrent with the G7 leaders meeting in Germany, I think not a coincidence, and also Russia defaulting on their debt and other developments. The war, you know, one other thing that has really bedeviled coverage of this war, Dr. Jensen, is that Kyiv is only telling us good news, right? We only get the positive updates from the Ukrainians. It's really hard to gauge what the status of the war is.

Donald Jensen: You're absolutely right. And you know, Julie, this came to a head in the coverage, though, I will say coverage partly because the media has been a little bit responsible for this. Others have too. I don't want to criticize the media, per se. But the coverage about the taking by the Russians of Severodonetsk, which is that pretty important city in the East, and people made it like it was the Battle of Stalingrad. And it's important operationally and it really has little to do with the overall outcome of the war. I think it's just another example of the Russians destroying everything within artillery range, grinding forward Ukrainians to taking a lot of severe losses, as you said, and then pulling back to a more defensible position.

What matters is really the blooding of the Russian army, the fact that they have not accomplished their objectives, even there, as fast as they want it. That's not to say they want it in the end. But this grinding pace is not good for the Russians either. But you're very correct that the casualties on the Ukrainian side are very closely guarded by Kyiv. And they are, by all accounts, I see in the immediate, pretty high. They're not as high as the Russian accounts, casualties, the Russian losses, which are considerably higher, no matter who you ask, NATO or the Ukrainians.

So where are we? We are in a grinding war of attrition with the Russians who are relying on their artillery superiority, their greater numbers. The weapons are really, in many cases, pretty inadequate. While the Ukrainians are relying on their morale, the fact they're defending their own land, and Western assistance. And that means that the war will likely go on for some period of time. But it also means Putin is counting on the faltering of Western assistance and political support for Ukraine as a factor in letting the Russians prevail in the end. And that's what you see discussed this week. At G7 and NATO, I think you saw Boris Johnson, you saw the U.S., talk about the need for unity. And as you know, and I know we've talked about it before, there are some members of the G7 in the NATO alliance that are not as avid supporters of Ukraine for various reasons. And that's what they're trying to keep on board.

And I would make another point, Julie, on all of this, which it goes back to the beginning of the Biden administration. They put alliance management, especially with the Germans and French, very high on their foreign policy agenda. And I understand why, and that means every step forward, whether it's the bond issue, or arming Ukraine, every step forward, requires all the members of the NATO alliance and large parts of the G7 to go along. And that means painful, sometimes tedious, sometimes slow negotiations, but it slows down the ability of the West to react quickly to what Putin does. So far, they've done a great job, I think, but it does mean their calculation is a little bit different and more complicated than it might first appear. And that's where we are now in this week. And I think the alliance has held together admirably given the different pressures on each member.

Julie Mason: Still, there's something poignant, Dr. Jensen, isn't there, about when you look at the G7 meeting this week, and Russia used to be a member, and even though Putin bothered everyone and was very irritating as a member of the G8, it was still very important for Russia's place in the world to have a seat at that table and to be an acknowledged, economic world leader. And to have had them cast out after the annexation of Crimea, and then be sort of a renegade country. I don't mean it pointed in terms of like feeling bad for Putin, but just for how far Russia had come. And then because of his aggression, now to be so far setback and out of the world order. It's dispiriting.

Donald Jensen: I'm glad you brought that up. Yes, it is dispiriting, and I think, Russia now more than ever wants respect. What Russia wants is to be treated as a world power. But what has happened since 2014, most evident from the war now is that Russia has sort of given up on the world order, and they would rather blow it up, forgive me for the image, or redesign it in a way that allows Russia to pursue its great power ambitions. And it realizes, I think, at long last, that it cannot do that with a kind of benign, relatively calm relationship with the West, as you correctly describe it.

So, you're seeing a change not only in Russia's attitude, Julie, you're seeing a change in its role in the global system. And that's one reason why the U.S. and its allies are always talking now about the European security architecture. You may have noticed that. We talk about that a lot because the architecture, the NATO, the other treaties, which we put into effect, in NATO's case, during the Cold War, but in many other instances, since the end of the Soviet Union, that is now on the table. We don't really know how to redesign that architecture, with Russia or without Russia. Who will be involved? And that's really what the bigger geopolitical problem or challenge is right now. And this gets back to your point about the Russian change since 2014.

If I could add another point, it's an interesting contrast, Julie, with China. China is an adversary, as we know, and are about to restate at NATO, in our national defense strategy. But China tends to work more quietly. China tends to expand its image, its influence, including against the West and the U.S., in a quieter way, in a way that's more economic. But Russia is in your face. And so, you've got two different challenges, two different challengers, and two different ways of approaching what they see as a central problem for their country's role in the world. And we will see which one prevails.

My own view, which you didn't ask me, but I'll volunteer anyway, is that I think the Chinese view is going to be, over the long term, more effective. Perhaps not successful, but the Russians now are putting it all on the table right now. And if Putin does not prevail on whatever it is he has in mind, which seems to change sometimes, then I think the Putin regime is effectively over. And I think he realizes that. So this issue of how the war is perceived, is Russia perceived to be winning, which has a great resonance inside the country, is now critical.

And that's one reason why you see sort of a broadening of not only the military activity, but you see a broadening of how we talk about what's going on. About six months ago, right before the war, probably the last time we talked, and we talked a lot about it, is whether this is primarily about Ukraine. Well, seems now to be involved, Julie, with much more. We're talking now about the security of Western Europe, and how to ensure that. And to be honest, we're not – “we” meaning the West – we're not all that sure because so much depends on what's going on in the battlefield in Donbas and Kyiv when they rocket attack like they did yesterday. So that's really what's on the table. It means that it requires leadership from all the western allies. Some of them really and impressively stood up, and then also, in effect, I think that the American people need to know what's going on in this and the stakes, which are much more than this or that rocket system being shipped over there. This is really now about security of Europe and ultimately the United States with which we are closely linked, obviously, but also, which has guaranteed our own democracy for so long.

Julie Mason 
Dr. Donald N. Jensen, director for Russia and strategic stability at the U.S. Institute of Peace. Dr. Jensen, a real pleasure. Thank you.

Donald Jensen 
Thank you. Good to talk to you.

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