The conflict in the Middle East is helping divert attention away from Russia’s war in Ukraine. And despite rumors of peace talks, USIP’s Heather Ashby says neither side seems willing to budge: “I don’t think people should be optimistic that there will be negotiations … even with a third party trying to bring the sides together.”

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.


Brian Ross: Joined now by Heather Ashby, she's the acting director of the Russia and European Center at the United States Institute of Peace. She's joined there after seven years with the Department of Homeland Security. Heather, thanks so much for being with us.

Heather Ashby: Thank you. I'm really excited to be up with you this morning to talk about this topic.

Brian Ross: Thanks for getting up as you look at what's happened in the Middle East and the impact on Russia. Is it fair to say as I was just saying, I hope it is that Russia really is kind of a winner in all this.

Heather Ashby: I hate to use the term winner because it's so depressing what's taking place in the Middle East. But yes, I think there, the conflict in the Middle East is helping Russia by diverting attention to its war of aggression against Ukraine, and all the attacks that continue to take place against Ukrainian civilians.

Brian Ross: And Russia continues to try to look for allies and supporters around the world, as you've been reporting, particularly in Africa and Latin America.

Heather Ashby: Yes, and so this is a process that started under Vladimir Putin under his reign, and accelerated after Russia's first invasion of Ukraine, of looking for allies and partners, in various parts of the world outside of Europe and the United States,

Brian Ross: To what end and really just to gain support at the UN or elsewhere?

Heather Ashby: It’s multiple levels. One is to gain support at the UN and vote, whether people vote in favor of resolutions that Russia proposes or resolutions that involve Russia, such as them stopping their war in Ukraine, it's to make sure that there aren't strong votes, or abstentions, that indicate that people are supportive of criticizing Russia. The other aspect is that Russia's attacks on the west. And by working with African countries that were former colonies of France, or in Latin America, it's a way of sticking it to the U.S. of France and Western Europe.

Brian Ross: As we've seen, you know, and you know, this from your time at the Department of Homeland Security, as we've seen, it's hard to get a real, sometimes honest appraisal of what's happening. If we rely on social media, as so many people around the world do now, the level of disinformation and fakes and AI generated and old material being passed off as new makes it very hard for, I think, the average person to get a sense of what's really happening.

Heather Ashby: That's that accurate, because Russia is very savvy of leveraging these technological tools to spread propaganda to spread disinformation, and help to fuel conspiracy theories, and tap into some of the grievances within various countries and exploit them to its own advantage.

Brian Ross: How sophisticated are they in all this?

Heather Ashby: I think they're very sophisticated its actions that took place during the Soviet period. And because of the rise of social media, AI, it's making it more low cost and easier for them to launch these campaigns in various countries. And I would note, it's something to be very attuned to, as we enter 2024 and the massive wave of elections that are taking place throughout the world.

Brian Ross: And in terms of Ukraine, what's your sense of the of the latest there, and you don't want to call anybody a winner. But what's the status on the battlefield?

Heather Ashby: The current status is that both sides are grinding it out with Russia trying to maintain the territory that it has seized, while Ukraine continues to make efforts to push through the Russian lines and areas of where Russia has occupied Ukrainian territory.

Brian Ross: Do you see any sense that there's any kind of negotiation, any kind of deal that might resolve this? If that's sort of, as they say, you're grinding it out? There's really not much progress either way, it seems from a distance.

Heather Ashby: Yeah, and I don't imagine there will be negotiations anytime soon, because the starting point for negotiations for the Ukrainians will be taking back their territory. And it doesn't appear that Russia and Putin are willing to give Ukraine back its territory. The other area that could be a potential subject of negotiations, which I think it's a non-starter for Ukrainians is Ukraine not pursuing NATO or the EU membership.

Brian Ross: So not much to talk about there.

Heather Ashby: Beyond that this is going to be a slog, and we'll continue into the wintertime. I don't think people should be optimistic that there will be negotiations taking place, even with a third party trying to bring the sides together.

Brian Ross: And what's your sense as there seems to be resistance that seems to be there is resistance in Congress to further fund Ukraine. They're eager to fund Israel, but not Ukraine, at least some Republicans.

Heather Ashby: Yeah, and I think it all depends on which chamber of Congress and which members of Congress, because it seems that overall, there's a majority support for supporting Ukraine and understanding of the threat that Russia, Russia poses to the international system, and involvement in complex in various parts of the world.

Brian Ross: Even so, there is this resistance, it reflects some resistance on the part of the public, maybe not overwhelming majority. So how does Ukraine how does the U.S. deal with that, do you think?

Heather Ashby: I think it continues to look for ways of supporting Ukrainians by bringing the international community together to continue to put pressure on Russia, building relationships with countries that may have not outwardly condemned Russia's actions, but continue to engage with the Russian government, as well as look for ways of repurposing current stockpiles that the U.S. government has to ship to Ukraine.

Brian Ross: Without U.S. support, where would Ukraine stand?

Heather Ashby: I think it'd be a very challenging environment for them. But Europe has really been active alongside the U.S. in supporting Ukraine. And so, I would say that Europe will play an increasingly more active role than it already has.

Brian Ross: So, the big offensive that Ukraine was thought to be launching after the winter last year, didn't go far recaptured some territory, but not as much as they had hoped. And the fact that there hasn't been that overwhelming success on the battlefield, no doubt has hurt their efforts, don't you think among the American people and American lawmakers?

Heather Ashby: I think to a degree, but we were also in the media, building up this offensive and imagining that in a war environment, there will be this incredible breakthrough. But wars are, can be long, they could be slogs, and they could be a grind fest. And I think people are coming to terms that in this environment this is how wars take place, that they could go on for years and aren't over in months.

Brian Ross: And what do you think will happen that's getting cold there already? The Winter's coming. What do we expect to see this winter? Last winter, there wasn't much action on the battlefield in terms of major assaults.

Heather Ashby: I think you may see a similar path. As last winter, because of the way the weather is so strong and difficult. And that region of the world, the ground is hard. The temperatures are cold, of moving supply lines of individuals working to, on the Ukrainian side, to push through Russia's complex series of mines. I think you'll still see the fighting taking place, but the summer was the time to really push for it.

Brian Ross: And as we saw the Russians use the winter last year to build this incredible line of defenses and tank traps. I assume they'll do the same thing this winter, right? How does the U.S. how does the Ukraine prevent that?

Heather Ashby: I think continuing to try to bring in the spirit of its people committed to reclaiming its territory. And the U.S. continued to be a vocal supporter of Ukraine. President Biden has said previously that the U.S. is with Ukraine for however long it takes. And so, continuing to reiterate the support for democratic country to maintain its territory and to adhere to the international system, which is respect for self-determination, territorial integrity, and sovereignty.

Brian Ross: And finally, before I let you go, Heather you talk about the slog, it's a question of who can be resupplied. Who has the will to keep going. Who wins on that count?

Heather Ashby: I think Russia is going to continue to face challenges. If you think about the shape of their economy. They have had moderate success in not having the sanctions have too much of a drag on their economy. But there's only so long that they could sort of apply this wizardry to their economy to keep it going as their continued to shut off from weapons systems advanced weapon systems for this war.

Brian Ross: All right, Heather Ashby. Thank you so much for getting up early this morning and join us here. Appreciate it.

Heather Ashby: All right. Thank you for having me.

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