Moscow—and much of the rest of the world—expected Ukraine to fall quickly after Russia invaded it. Why hasn’t it?
How are the Ukrainian people effectively fighting the Russians, and what could be next? Will Russia invade the Baltic States next, as some have predicted? And are American sanctions enough to weaken Russia?
The Heritage Foundation’s Luke Coffey joins “The Daily Signal Podcast” to answer those questions and explain how likely a Ukrainian victory is. Coffey also explains why Ukraine has not yet been made a member of NATO.
We also cover these stories:
- The first wave of foreigners arrives to fight the Russians in Ukraine.
- South Dakota passes legislation banning telemedicine abortions.
- U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy demands data on COVID-19 “misinformation” from several major tech companies.
Listen to the podcast below or read the lightly edited transcript:
Virginia Allen: Russia and much of the world expected Ukraine to fall to Russia in just a few days, but that is not what has happened. Here with us to explain why is The Heritage Foundation’s director for the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy, Luke Coffey. Luke, thanks so much for being back with us today.
Luke Coffey: It’s my pleasure.
Allen: It’s been over a week since Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine. How has Ukraine been able to stand up against Russia and actually withstand this full-on military invasion?
Coffey: Well, it’s widely accepted that the Russian military has not made the advancements that it was hoping to have made at this point in the campaign, but that being said, the situation in many places around the country [is] becoming desperate, but the Ukrainians are putting up a very stiff resistance.
They’re fighting very bravely. They’re using a lot of the weapons that we have provided them very effectively against the Russians. And perhaps most importantly, they have very strong leadership at the top in the form of President [Volodymyr] Zelenskyy and morale is high.
Not only do they have the strong leadership at the top in the form of President Zelenskyy, but also there are hundreds, if not thousands, of Zelenskyys in every Ukrainian village and town and city, that they’re mobilizing defense, they’re leading resistance against the Russian invaders, and they’re delivering many tactical victories against the Russians.
But again, we’re in early days and it looks like the Russians are really increasing and upping their use of indirect fires, so artillery, rockets, airstrikes, and many of these weapons systems that the Russians are now using are not precision-guided. We see hospitals, apartment blocks, schools, kindergartens being hit by Russian artillery and missiles. It’s becoming a very, very deadly business in Ukraine right now.
Allen: Yeah. We are seeing a lot of civilian casualties. You’re saying that we don’t necessarily know that’s intentional, that could just be Russia launching these missiles, they’re trying to hit military targets and they’re accidentally hitting civilians?
Coffey: Well, it’s intentional in the sense that they know they’re using weapons that are not precise and they’re firing them into areas that are densely populated, and this is part of the Russian playbook. We saw this in Grozny in the 1990s, we saw this more recently in Aleppo in Syria when Russian and Syrian forces went into Aleppo, devastated it block by block, really.
Now we’re seeing that play out in two major cities, well, three significant cities in Ukraine. Kharkiv, which is in northeastern Ukraine, predominantly Russian-speaking, lots of ethnic Russians live there, only 15 miles, 20 miles from the Russian border.
Russia, I suspect, thought they were going to roll in and be received as liberators, but then when the Russian troops got there, they found the exact opposite and the Ukrainians have been holding out very strongly there.
I should point out that Kharkiv is Ukraine’s second-largest city, so it’s a major population center.
Then in Mariupol, which is a port city in the south, close to the existing front lines with Russia, that city is the 10th-largest city and it’s now completely surrounded. And my sources tell me that unless something drastically changes, they probably have a few more days.
Then of course, Kyiv, the capital, in the north center of the country. They’re also resisting very bravely. Russia is about to mount another major attack against the city. Commercially available satellite imagery shows a very large Russian convoy heading slowly south to the capital.
But everyone in the capital is in high spirits. Food and water is not a problem yet, although I suspect it will be a problem. And everyone is armed to the of teeth, and we can talk about what civilians are doing to resist the Russians later.
Allen: No, I think that’s been really fascinating to see civilians jumping and taking up arms. If you would share a little bit more about that.
Coffey: Yeah, of course. Well, the Ukrainian society has completely mobilized in the face of Russian aggression. You have sports personalities, actors, musicians, members of Parliament, and just your average moms and dads and uncles and aunts and brothers and sisters who are taking up arms.
The Ukrainian government recognizes the severity of the situation. They have been handing out assault rifles to anyone who wants to grab one. They’re giving training on how to use them.
And in urban warfare, like we would see if and when, I should say, Kyiv is attacked in force by Russia, you don’t have to be a sniper. If you’re just firing out of a hole in a building, that’s going to be frightening, at least mentally, psychologically, to the Russian invaders.
Every single day new fortifications are built in these major cities. The ones that are existing are fortified even more. Pubs and breweries and wineries are being turned into Molotov cocktail-manufacturing facilities.
The Ukrainian ministry of interior has instructed everyone around the country to remove all street signs and house numbers and to contaminate gas where possible with sugar and things you can find in your house, so the Russians who are desperate for fuel won’t be able to use it.
It has really energized and mobilized the Ukrainian society. And they are there to fight for their country, make no mistake about it. That’s exactly what they’re doing.
Allen: This seems to have come as a surprise to the Russians. Why didn’t Russia attack initially with more force than they did?
Coffey: Well, that is a very good question, and there are a lot of debates being had right now about Russia following its military doctrine and we just don’t understand their doctrine. This is how they would normally behave. And then the opposite being, well, they haven’t been following their doctrine because their doctrine would require the upfront use of these indirect fire weapons to flatten areas, to destroy areas, softening the targets before attacking, and they didn’t do this.
There’s also an issue with logistics. Again, this feeds into this debate. On one hand, you have experts on Russian military doctrine say that convoy that’s moving slowly south to Kyiv, it might look like it’s moving slowly to the outside world, but that’s how they do it in a very systematic manner. They set up fuel stops. The convoy pulls up, it refuels when it needs to, then the fuel stops move further and further. So it’s a very slow process.
But on the other hand, there’s plenty of evidence showing that Russian vehicles are running out of fuel in other places of the country.
You have these incredible situations where Ukrainian civilians, farmers are using their John Deere tractors to haul away $25 million Russian air defense systems. It’s incredible.
Russian tanks have been abandoned. Ukrainians are putting videos up on social media of them just playing around, looking at these tanks just left in the mud, left because they’re out of fuel.
Social media is able to show us, at least, through video and photographic evidence, of at least more than 500 Russian armored vehicles and tanks and trucks that have been either captured, damaged, or destroyed. I suspect what’s available on social media is just a very small part of what is happening.
That’s why you see Ukrainians running around in blue jeans, tennis shoes, an assault rifle on their back. They are literally defending their lives and their families.
Allen: It’s been interesting to hear some of these reports. You mentioned earlier that there was this assumption on behalf of the Russian troops that Ukraine would welcome them with open arms. That’s obviously not what’s happening. Is that a huge shock to the Russian people? Do the Russian people really understand what’s happening here, what [Russian President Vladimir] Putin is doing?
Coffey: Well, I think for the young 18-, 19-, 20-year-old soldier, it probably has been a big shock. And there’s interviews that have been done with Russian soldiers that have been captured where they were saying, “We thought we were on a training exercise. We had no idea what’s going on.” Many of them say that they don’t want to be there.
Ukrainians are allowing them to FaceTime with family members back at home. Parents are shocked. But I’m not so sure how much Russian society really knows what’s going on.
In Russian state media, when they talk about the war, they talk about just the two areas in southeastern Ukraine that have been contested for eight years now, Luhansk and Donetsk.
But in this day and age, with the internet and social media, it’s only a matter of time before (a) people in Russia become self-informed by what they see out there on the internet, even with firewalls and everything else, information can still travel, and secondly, the coffins that will be coming home.
Now, the Russian government yesterday released official figures for deaths at 498. That’s the official number of Russian soldiers. If you believe that number, you’ll believe anything. The general consensus among Western intelligence services who are providing public information is that the number’s probably more around 5,000 and the Ukrainians claim it’s 8,000. It’s probably somewhere in between around 5,000 and 8,000, and we’re only at Day Eight.
Of course, we shouldn’t pretend that Ukraine isn’t suffering as well. I suspect thousands of Ukrainian soldiers have died. Thousands of Ukrainian civilians have died.
But I think what the Russian soldiers are quickly discovering is that there’s no better motivating factor for a soldier than defending their homeland. Not just a soldier, a father or a brother or a sister to defend their house or a mother to defend her children. And that’s what is happening now in Ukraine.
Allen: We’ve seen that Ukraine’s president, Zelenskyy, he has said, at this point, what would be so helpful to them is if they could join NATO. Now, I know that there’s a whole process involved in that. What are the requirements that Ukraine would need to meet in order to be able to join NATO?
Coffey: You’re right. Well, Ukraine has wanted to join NATO with vigor and enthusiasm since 2014. It was first announced by NATO that someday Ukraine could join back in 2008, but it’s a long process.
NATO is an intergovernmental security organization of democracies. There are 30 countries that are inside NATO. For a country to join NATO, according to the 1949 North Atlantic Treaty, you have to be a European country and you have to meet whatever criteria is set up by the other members of the alliance, and then the alliance has to agree unanimously to allow you in.
Firstly, when we talk about NATO adding new members, the words we use are important. You often hear this idea of NATO expansion. Empires expand, NATO doesn’t expand. NATO enlarges, adds new members who willingly join the alliance.
No one’s putting a gun to Ukraine or Georgia or Bosnia’s head and saying, “You must join our alliance.” Whereas it’s quite the opposite with Russia, in the case of Ukraine, quite literally putting a gun to the country’s head, saying, “You better not join the alliance.”
Of course, President Zelenskyy wants Ukraine to join NATO. Many Ukrainians want to join NATO. But NATO has very high standards in terms of criteria and reforms and democracy and economic reforms and reforms in the military. And also, Ukraine hasn’t met the standard yet.
Also, another problem that Ukraine has is that it’s involved in a war with Russia, and it has been since 2014. And no one really wants to bring a new member into the security alliance if they’re already at war.
Russia knows this and they’ve actually used this to their advantage. They’ve perfected the formula to keep countries out of NATO. They partially invade or they invade and then they partially occupy their neighbors. Same with Georgia. Same with Moldova. Same with Ukraine.
But this idea that Russia says about NATO enlargement has threatened Russia, undermines Russia, in my opinion, is complete nonsense. Yes, three countries of the former Soviet Union—Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania—joined the alliance in 2005, 2006 time frame, but for the last 16 years or so, only four countries have been added to the alliance, and the nearest one to Russia is 900 miles away.
Out of all of Russia’s land borders—and Russia has the largest set of land borders in the world because it’s the largest country in the world—only one-sixteenth of Russia’s land borders border a country that is a NATO member. And of course, NATO is a security alliance. It’s a defensive alliance. It’s not going to attack Russia. There’s never been plans to attack Russia. This is all Russian propaganda.
Is Ukraine ready to join NATO now? The answer is no. And that’s why we don’t have U.S. ground forces in Ukraine, because we’re not obligated by a treaty to defend Ukraine because they’re not in NATO. But of course, the world’s not black or white. The only alternative to doing nothing isn’t to deploy the 82nd Airborne Division. There’s a huge space in between. That’s where we are now and that’s where we need to be.
Allen: Talk a little bit more about that then, with sanctions that we have imposed on Russia—we’ve been targeting Russia’s largest banks, their companies, their wealthiest citizens. During the State of the Union address, President [Joe] Biden said Russian planes are no longer allowed in U.S. airspace. How is Russia feeling the effect of these sanctions right now?
Coffey: Well, right now the markets in Russia, the Central Bank in Russia’s starting to feel it. I don’t think your average Russian has started feeling it yet in any meaningful, impactful way, other than the inconvenience of not being able to use Apple Pay or you can no longer watch Netflix. But make no mistake—
Allen: That’s a big deal to young people.
Coffey: Yeah. I know, I know. Tell me about it. I saw one report saying that Concur, a lot of businesses use this for expense reports and stuff, they pulled out of Russia. And I was thinking to myself, someone who has to deal with Concur, it would be a threat to make them use it, actually. We’re doing them a favor.
In all seriousness though, big multinational companies from the West are leaving Russia. They’re divesting their portfolios away from Russia.
These sanctions that are in place are historically unprecedented. There’s never been a larger or more powerful set of economic sanctions placed on another country. It is putting pressure on the Kremlin now. It is putting pressure on the oligarchs who have made a fortune due to the corruption and dubious investments because you get protection from the Kremlin. It has had an impact.
Now, my problem with this is that we should have been doing these sanctions before Russian tanks were on the outside of Kyiv. I feel like the White House and many of our European partners just waited too long. We should have been doing this before.
There’s still scope for expanding these sanctions and we hear some officials say, “Well, we’ve got a few more things in our back pocket.” This isn’t time to keep things in your back pocket. The people of Ukraine are literally fighting for their survival.
When is the best time to employ these additional sanctions? When Russian tanks are in Kyiv? When they’ve started to occupy or try occupying some of these major cities?
We should be fully sanctioning the Russian Central Bank without any waivers or exceptions, like there are a few in place now. We should stop importing Russian oil and we should sanction the Russian energy section completely. We should be encouraging our European partners to fully disconnect Russia from the SWIFT financial system.
SWIFT is this system that allows for banking transactions to take place internationally. It really cuts off a country when certain banks are not allowed to do this. This is why, at the most basic level, this is why, if you travel to Russia today or if a Russian was using an internationally brand credit card or debit card, like a Mastercard or Visa, they cannot use it.
We’ve started with the SWIFT disconnection, but there’s more we can do to wholly disconnect the Russian financial system from the international global system. And we need to do this and we should be confiscating, and we’ve started to do this, but we need to do more confiscating this ill-gotten wealth held by these Russian oligarchs.
It’s well known that these senior Russian officials have mistresses in London and Paris and Geneva and New York. They have big apartment blocks and yachts. These should be confiscated, this wealth should be frozen, and frankly, I think it should be used to fund weapons to Ukraine.
Allen: That would be great.
Coffey: I don’t think people understand the severity of the situation we’re in. We’re in the largest war in Europe since World War II and again, now’s not the time to keep things in our back pocket. Now it’s like all hands on deck, maximum pressure.
Allen: Then why are things being kept in the back pocket, especially those things really levying heavily these effects on Russia’s wealthiest oligarchs? But then also, why are we still importing Russian oil?
Coffey: Well, the U.S. is importing Russian oil because of completely mismanaged energy policies pursued by the White House that brought back a lot of bureaucracy and red tape on oil and gas exploration and drilling, mainly focused on green energy, this sort of thing. And then also, reducing pipelines and shutting down American pipelines that connect us to Canada.
It’s actually a very small gap. Last year, Russia provided the United States only 3% of our oil, but it should be 0%. The idea that the United States of America should have to rely on a single drop of oil from the Russian Federation is preposterous, especially now with this current situation.
Why are we holding back on some of this stuff? Well, for many European countries that rely on Russian energy, they have to keep houses warm, they have to keep cars moving, and they’re kind of stuck in a difficult spot. The faster we can ramp up production, get more exports to our European partners, the faster the Europeans can start truly divesting away from Russian energy dependence.
Allen: Let’s talk a little bit about what could be next. Last week at the Conservative Political Action Conference, I spoke to K.T. McFarland, she’s the former deputy national security adviser, and she said that in her estimate, probably, she thinks that Ukraine will, sadly, ultimately fall to Russia. She said, if and when that happens, then she sees Putin going after Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania.
What does that mean for America and for the world, if Russia takes Ukraine and then goes on to take these other three Baltic countries?
Coffey: Well, firstly, on the point about the Baltic States, they’re in NATO. A Russian attack on Tallinn, the capital of Estonia, in terms of the 1949 treaty, would be treated as an attack on Tallahassee. Russia would really be crossing a red line, literally a line on the map, to attack a NATO country because then the full force of the 30 members of NATO would come to the rescue. And I don’t think Putin will do that.
When you look at many of the shortcomings experienced by the Russian military in Ukraine, the idea that they would now pick a fight with a NATO country, I think, is unlikely, at least in the short term.
Let’s not forget that according to publicly available information, Russia mobilized almost 75% of its ground forces around Ukraine, of the whole Russian Federation. Of these 75% or so of Russia’s ground forces, it’s estimated that 80% of them are now involved in the fighting in Ukraine and they’re getting a stiff resistance from Ukraine.
I actually foresee Ukrainian forces resisting strongly, continuing to resist. Perhaps you might see Russian tanks in the center of Kyiv, but that will not be the same as holding or controlling the capital.
Allen: You think that Ukraine can withstand this full-on invasion from Russia, ultimately?
Coffey: I do not think that Russia can occupy Ukraine. A country of 44 million people, that’s so big. From east to west, it’s about 800 to 900 miles. It’s like going from Washington, D.C., to St. Louis.
And you have a very energized, motivated population, which could change if Russia continues using weapons to target civilians. But even in Kyiv itself, a [population] of 4 million people, if 1% took up arms, that’s 40,000 people.
Russia, all in today, Russia in Ukraine has about 150,000, 160,000 troops. They’re approaching the outskirts of Odesa, which is Ukraine’s third-largest city and largest port on the Black Sea.
I have contacts and friends in Odesa who tell me that morale is high. They’re building beach obstacles and defenses because they’re expecting an amphibious landing. To quote one of my friends there, he said Javelins are now arriving in bulk. Javelins are these very effective anti-tank weapons that the U.S. has been providing to the Ukrainians, proving very devastating for the Russian forces.
You’ll see Russian turrets completely disconnected from the chassis of the tank and you see these Russian, they’re called cope cages, these Russian tanks where they put these metal cages over the top, thinking that’s going to protect from the Javelin. … The nickname is “the cope cage,” to allow the crew to cope with the Javelins. And they’re about as effective as wearing a cloth mask to stop the spread of COVID.
You’re seeing a huge amount of Russia’s military allocated and devoted to Ukraine, but you’re seeing the Ukrainians resisting and fighting. I don’t think they can pacify the country. I think if Russia wants to hold onto any part of Ukraine, I pity the Russian soldier that has to be part of the occupation force.
If I may, just one more point on this issue, there’s this video of this Ukrainian soldier speaking to the Russian invaders and he says a lot of very tough and patriotic things. And it makes for great social media content and it’s retweeted a million times and everything.
The one point he said that really stuck out, when he’s speaking into the camera to the Russian invaders, he says, “You don’t even know where you are. You have no knowledge of the terrain. I grew up here. This is my home. I know every road, every village, every town.”
That kind of sums it up. They’re fighting for their homes and they know the area in a way that the Russian soldiers never will.
Allen: Wow. Luke, how can we continue to follow your work and your reporting on this?
Allen: Amazing. Luke Coffey, Heritage Foundation’s director for the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy. Luke, thank you for your time.
Coffey: Thank you. My pleasure.
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