Russia and Ukraine: What’s Next

This is my presentation at the Westminster Institute. Here you can see the full video.  A partial transcript of the first formal part of the presentation can be found below after Robert Reilley’s Introduction.  Mr. Reilly is the Director of the Westminster Institute (




Russia and Ukraine: What’s Next?
(Dr. Stephen Bryen, February 4, 2022)

Transcript available below

About the speaker

Dr. Stephen Bryen is a leading expert in security strategy and technology. He has held senior positions in the Department of Defense, on Capitol Hill and as the President of a large multinational defense and technology company. Currently, Dr. Bryen is a Senior Fellow at the American Center for Democracy, the Center for Security Policy. He has served as a senior staff director of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, as the Executive Director of a grassroots political organization, as the head of the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs, as the Deputy Under Secretary of Defense for Trade Security Policy, and as the founder and first director of the Defense Technology Security Administration. He is the author of Technology Security and National Power: Winners and Losers, and of three volumes of Essays in Technology, Security and Strategy. Dr. Bryen was twice awarded the Defense Department’s highest civilian honor, the Distinguished Service Medal.

United States and United Kingdom intelligence agencies have recently said that Russian military hackers over the last several years have tried to access the computer networks of “hundreds of government and private sector targets worldwide” and warned that those “efforts are almost certainly still ongoing.” The United States, NATO, the European Union, Australia, Britain, Canada, Japan and New Zealand have accused China of a global cyberespionage campaign. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said it posed “a major threat to our economic and national security”. Dr. Bryen will address Technology Security and Cyber Insecurity.



Robert R. Reilly:

Hello and welcome to the Westminster Institute. I am Robert Reilly, its director. And we are happy today to welcome back to the Westminster Institute, Dr. Stephen Bryen, who is a Senior Fellow at the Center for Security Policy. He is a leading expert in security strategy and technology. He has held senior positions in the Department of Defense, on Capitol Hill and as the President of a large multinational defense and technology company. He served as a senior staff director of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, as head of the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs, and as the Deputy Under Secretary of Defense for Trade Security Policy, and as founder and director of the Defense Technology Security Administration. He is the author of Technology Security and National Power: Winners and Losers, and of three volumes of Essays in Technology, Security and Strategy. Dr. Bryen was twice awarded the highest acknowledgement from the U.S. Department of Defense, receiving the Distinguished Service Medal. Today, he is going to discuss with us: Russia and Ukraine: What’s Next? Welcome back, Stephen.

Stephen Bryen:

Thank you very much for having me back. The Ukraine thing is really a huge problem, a very dangerous problem, and it is impossible to say how it is going to work out. As you know, the Russians have their point of view, NATO and the United States has its point of view, and I would add that the Europeans have their point of view. They are not all the same, at all. Particularly, there is a division between what some of the Western European countries say, especially the Germans, but not only, the French as well, and what the U.S. is saying, so we have lots of disconnects and a lot of activity going on, some of it very harsh. Some of the statements [were] made by our president here in the United States, by the leader of NATO, and by the Russians, by Mr. Putin and Mr. Lavrov, harsh statements, back and forth, a constant kind of chatter that does not seem to want to sort itself out yet.

The hopeful sign, if there is a hopeful sign, are two. The first is that coming up soon will be another meeting in Berlin of what is called the Normandy Group. The Normandy Group was set up in 2014 on the margins of the anniversary of the Normandy invasion where the heads of state were all there, the Russians, the Germans, the French, and the United States, and Ukrainians. The decision was that they would meet from time to time to try and sort out the issue troubling Ukraine at that time. And they have met at various points along the way. There was a meeting last week in Paris that seemed to make a little bit of progress, not enough, and the meeting I think in Germany that will take place soon maybe the critical one. That is to say if there is going to be a solution through that channel, that is when it might be found.

The Three Issues

Donetsk and Luhansk

So, you have to ask what are the issues, and that is not so simple. There is not a clear-cut single issue. There are at least three major issues. The first has to do with the eastern part, the southeastern part of Ukraine, which is the Donbas region, where you now have, ostensibly, two republics, the Donetsk People’s Republic and the Luhansk People’s Republic, which are breakaway provinces of Ukraine. That is one issue. And of course, everyone knows that the Russians have been supplying the armies of those two republics, if we can call them that, with armaments, with intelligence, and with all kinds of other support.

Russia’s Annexation of Crimea

The second issue is Crimea, which is still not off the books even though Russia has annexed Crimea, says it is not going to change its mind about that, that it belongs to them, that it has been incorporated into Russia. End of story from their point of view, but from the Ukrainian point of view it is their land, so they are demanding it back, and that is the second issue.

NATO’s Expansion East

And the third issue is the question of NATO’s involvement in Ukraine, and will Ukraine become a member of NATO as part of NATO’s expansion. It is the expansion of NATO that probably is the most troubling issue for the Russians in the sense that the Russians have always had a kind of xenophobic and paranoic view of the West, and they see themselves being surrounded. And so, they regard Ukraine, if Ukraine became part of NATO, that then their southern flank would be occupied by NATO, the western flank would be NATO, and they would have a serious military, strategic, and security problem. That is what they say. I think they believe that, so there is no point in trying to dissuade them from that view. So, you have this question of NATO.

The NATO position is we have this open door. We can expand to anyone who wants to join. If they meet our requirements, [they] should be allowed to join NATO. NATO expansion by itself is a peculiar thing because the more you enlarge the alliance, the more difficult it is to defend the alliance. That is just a simple military fact. And indeed, when the last parts of NATO were expanded in Eastern Europe, it was very clear that the Eastern Europeans and NATO itself lacked the capability to really have a proper defense if, in fact, some conflict broke out.

NATO is Strengthening its Eastern Defense

And NATO has been working on this with quick reaction forces, with rapid deployments, with movement of equipment, with training, with trying to upgrade the Baltic states, and the Central Europeans, with better army equipment, better aircraft, better tanks, all of that, but most importantly of all, missile defenses because the Russians have a very formidable missile capability. So, all of that is part of a package of things that NATO has been doing to try and strengthen security in that part of the world.

The difficulty is that NATO deploys very few numbers of troops. President Biden has said that he is going to send three thousand troops, mostly to Poland, trying to strengthen the flank of NATO with U.S. troops. But actually, there is only about five thousand available soldiers throughout NATO that can be sent into Eastern Europe if needed. That is very, very few given the size of Russian forces. I mean, in fact, if you look at just around Ukraine, the Russians have already put 107,000 troops, and that number will continue to grow, I think. And they have also moved Russian Army forces, Air Force assets too into Belarus, which also has a long border with Ukraine, and it is a corridor that could be used for an attack on Ukraine.

NATO Cannot Defend Ukraine

So, if NATO is really serious about wanting to have Ukraine as a member state, it has to figure out how it could defend it if it needed to, and I do not think it can figure that out. There is no practical way today to do that. Worse than that, if you look at the map and you think about what could happen in a conflict, for the NATO forces to operate even in Ukraine, they are going to need bases in Eastern Europe, so you cannot just isolate a military operation to Ukraine because those bases become suppliers and supporters of a military effort. The Russians know that, and they would target those bases for sure if a conflict broke out, so it is not a simple proposition.

A War over Ukraine Would Not Stay in Ukraine

You cannot just fight a selected battle if you wanted to. It is not possible because I think that all of these places from Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, down to Poland, and then Hungary, Bulgaria, and Romania, that all these places technically could be in the line of fire. And I think they are starting to realize that that is exactly the case, and that is why there is a division emerging in Europe. The Poles have started to make offers to the Russians. The Bulgarians have said, well, we do not really want to be involved in this, maybe we can work out something with you Russians, let us talk about it. The President of Hungary, Orbán, was just in Moscow, talking with President Putin, not only about natural gas deliveries, which Putin promised, but also about stability and security in the area. Clearly, Hungary does not want to be part of any military operation that might develop.

So, it is not clear to me either from the point of view of NATO or even from the point of view of Ukraine that being a member of NATO is necessarily a good thing because it could precipitate rather than not precipitate a conflict, and the Russians have said that the fact of Ukranian NATO membership for them is a red line. And I think they are saying if that happened, they would be obliged to try and push NATO out of Ukraine, so that is sort of the on the ground problem as we see it right now.

An Absolute Lack of Trust Between East and West

There is a lack of trust, [an] absolute lack of trust between the Russians and the United States, and Russians and NATO. As you might know, the Russians had been part of the NATO family on a contingent basis, and they had an office in Brussels, and they were generally meeting with NATO counterparts, although that started to breakdown about a year ago. And about three months ago, the NATO people said the Russians needed to leave except for maybe one or two who could remain. The Russians said that is okay, we are leaving altogether. And on top of that, they kicked the NATO representation that was in Moscow out of the country, so that has become a point of tension between NATO and Russia that was not so much before.

Most of the arms agreements that had been in place, the tactical ones, have broken down. They are not really operating right now, so lack of trust spreads to that area as well. There is less and less transparency between Russian military exercises and NATO military exercises. That was improved on starting around 2011 or so, but now that has gone away, so we have a very harsh situation when it comes to relationships between Russia and let us say NATO and the United States, that is one dimension of it. It is a very serious dimension of it because it makes it very difficult to know how one can move forward with those kinds of tensions, which have become deeper and deeper and deeper.

Russians See NATO as Arming Ukraine

Now, there is another factor that we have to take into account from the Russian point of view. The Russians say that NATO has been arming Ukraine. NATO has been sending trainers and advisers to Ukraine. It has been shipping armaments of all kinds to Ukraine, and this did not just happen yesterday, but it has been going on for a number of years, and the Russians have been very aware of it, and [have been] very unhappy about it almost to the point where the only thing missing is a NATO base in Ukraine, and NATO membership, of course, for Ukraine, but everything else is almost already in place. And the U.S., from the Russian point of view, has been a major provocateur in trying to buildup Ukraine so that it could fight off a Russian attack if one occurred.

The Minsk Agreement

So, let us look at it again from the point of view of the Russians: what should the Russians actually do? I mean they have put down the challenge about NATO. They have amassed troops for some time now on the Ukrainian border. They have been demanding that the Ukrainians negotiate according to what is called the Minsk Agreement or the Minsk Protocols. The Minsk Protocols were put together in 2014, and again in 2015 as a second version of it. Aside from requiring a ceasefire, the biggest item on the list is that they require that Ukraine grant a form of autonomy to the two republics that I mentioned before, that they would still be under Ukrainian law, but they would be rather independent, and they would also have parliamentary representation in Ukraine.

This, the Ukrainians cannot do politically at the moment, and they have been resisting that, negotiating on that subject for some time now, which leaves things in great suspension, and this has been [going on for years]. The fighting in Ukraine started around 2015, actually, 2014. It was very intense for a while. The Ukrainians were finally unable to have a victory, to take back these territories, so it has been a stalemate. There has been occasional fighting along the line of demarcation between the sides. It breaks out, it stops, it breaks out again. It is supposed to be supervised by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, but they really cannot stop it if someone starts shooting, and they have been shooting from time to time. There has been a lot of casualties.

So, here are the Russians. The Russians do not recognize these two republics legally, that is to say they have not granted them any recognition because the Russians say, and I think they are correct, this should be negotiated under the Minsk Protocols. That was the agreement in 2014, again in 2015. Mr. Zelensky, the President of Ukraine, says yes, the Minsk Protocols are still part of the dialogue, but he has not committed to negotiate the prime issues that are part of that dialogue, so we are in a stalemate, but the stalemate is being leveraged by the Russian troops on the one side, and by the pressure that NATO is building up inside of Ukraine on the other. And the other pressure that NATO is trying to buildup, even though I do not think [they are doing it] very successfully, in Eastern Europe to show the Russians [that] we mean business.

What is on the Table in Berlin?

The language has become harsh, harsh on all sides, so it is hard to see how you bridge this gap, and where we go from here. It is clear that the current situation cannot hold for much longer. I do not think the Russians will tolerate it for much longer, I do not think we will either, I do not think NATO will either. Something has got to give, and as I said before, the best chance at least in my estimation may be the Normandy Group meeting coming up in Berlin. That may be sufficient to defuse the situation or at least lead to a process that defuses the situation.

So, what is on the table? In the Normandy Group, primarily, it is the Minsk Protocols that are on the table. That is the judicial or the juridical basis for the Normandy Group’s deliberations. It really does not have much to say about NATO because NATO is a different alliance that was not part of the Normandy Group discussions, and anyway, if NATO is going to actually negotiate, then the NATO principals have to be involved, and they are not all involved in the Normandy Group. So, it can get to the issue of Luhansk and Donestk, and the Ukrainian autonomy or the possible autonomy that could be worked out. That it can address, but it cannot address the NATO issue. Even so, it is awfully important.

Now, the second development that has begun to emerge, and there has been the release of some letters that purport to be what the U.S. has proposed to the Russians, opens the door to some measures that could be worked out in Eastern Europe, not in Ukraine but in Eastern Europe to try and lower the profile of conflict. Among those things are suggestions that maybe the Russians could come and inspect the air defense missile systems that are in Eastern Europe, and maybe some of the NATO members, particularly Poland, could go and inspect some that are on Russian territory close to Poland, especially Kaliningrad, which is a salient that puts its nose out into the Baltic, and which concerns the Poles a great deal because it is very heavily reinforced with missiles and with air defenses as well.

Russia Worries about the MK41

There is a launching system – I want to give you the right number if I can, called the MK41. Now, the MK41 is a vertical launcher, a standard one that can be used for air defense missiles, but the Russians say it takes no effort whatsoever to load it up with Tomahawk missiles because they fit right in it, and these MK41s are in Poland and in other Eastern European locations, so the Russians say that is a concern to them because that is an aggressive weapon and while Tomahawk is a conventional system today, it started out as a nuclear system, but it is now, supposedly, conventional. The Russians do not necessarily believe that, so that is one of the issues.

There is a Lack of Clarity on All Sides

There is a lack of clarity, actually, in understanding both the Russian point of view, and the U.S. point of view, and the NATO point of view on this because it is not clear what things have to be changed that would stabilize [the situation] and make Eastern Europe potentially more peaceful. What about the Russian Army? Where does it sit in relation to Poland or to Lithuania, or Latvia, or Estonia, or any of the others? What about NATO forces? The Russians say they have got to go, they cannot be on the edge, they have to move back. How can that be done, and why are you worried about 5,000 troops? It is a reasonable question to ask. So, all of this is just sitting there unresolved, unresolved at this point.

The Russians keep saying they are interested in those kinds of measures, kinds of deconfliction measures that could be put in place. They are willing to talk about it, but it has not really been a negotiation yet. There have been some letters. Every time there is a letter, someone says it is no good and we do not agree with it. That does not get us very far. And there is not a forum. As I said, there is a forum for the Luhansk and Donetsk issue through the Normandy Group, that forum exists, but there is not a forum to handle the NATO and Russian Army issues, the territorial issues. There is no platform for it yet.

And unfortunately, and I will make a criticism of NATO, NATO has not opened itself up very well to that kind of process. It could, but the current NATO leader has been rather aggressive in his statements, and hostile to Russia, very hostile I would say, unnecessarily so. I think we need to find out if it is possible to reach some kind of modus vivendi, some kind of agreement or at least a process that leads to agreements. That needs to be put in place, and I do not see that yet, so I think if our President, President Biden, and some of the European leaders, Mr. Macron especially because he has taken some initiative in this, and the German government, if they could agree to set up a process through – let us call it a strategic process with Russia to negotiate this on a serious basis with the real experts, [that would be good]. I mean you cannot do this with some political leaders mouthing off. It does not work very well. There are so many missiles or so many armored personnel carriers or so many tanks or so many this, this, and that that you really have to sort it out, and no one has done that.

Will the Russians be interested in that?

They say they will, they claim they will. In fact, we are the ones who are not exactly interested in it, although according to the leaked letters that have now appeared in the Spanish press, we are moving in that direction but very slowly, and we are still conflating it with Ukraine. I think the important thing would be to try to separate those. Let the Normandy Group deal with the Ukraine issue from a political point of view. Let us call it a political point of view. And let the NATO family deal with the Russia side from a military, strategic, and security point of view, and those security discussions are vastly important. Now, a lot of people have said (NATO especially) we are not going to go back on our principle, we are going to expand as we like, and if somebody wants to join NATO, and we think they are worthy, we are going to take them in, which means we are going to take in Ukraine.

But one thing that is forgotten in this part of the dialogue, and I would like to just spend a moment to talk about it, is NATO requires the consensus of all its members to take any action. You cannot get someone into NATO if one member objects. And it seems to me that one way out of this morass is a letter from the German Chancellor to his counterparts in Russia that says we guarantee [that] we are not going to vote for the inclusion of Ukraine in NATO, period, we guarantee it. If they will not [vote for Ukrainian accession], it will not happen. It is that simple. NATO can keep its principles. There is a great, great line by Groucho Marx that said I have my principles, and if you do not like them, I have other principles. Maybe that is where we are.

NATO can keep its principles, but I think the Russians are extraordinarily too nervous about NATO coming into Ukraine. And as I said earlier, I am far from sure that it is a good thing for Ukraine because it will probably trigger some fighting, some war, and that is something we do not want. Now, there is one other thing from the Russian mind as I understand it. From the Russian mind, the buildup of Ukrainian forces by the United States and by its NATO partners, including the UK, which has just shipped a bunch of stuff in ([and] we just shipped 500 tons of weapons into Ukraine), that buildup the Russians see as an effort to strengthen the Ukrainian Army so it can take back Luhansk and Donetsk. That is their view.

In other words, the size of Luhansk and Donetsk is not very big, it is about 30,000 soldiers altogether. The Ukrainian Army is much larger. Up until now they have not been able to break the impasse, but if it is built up, and they are getting all of these high-end anti-tank weapons, the armored vehicles, all kinds of stuff, if it is built up, maybe it could overcome [the separatists], relaunch war against Luhansk and Donetsk, and win. And that is why I think the Russians see that, and that puts the Russians in a real, tough spot from their point of view and from our point of view. I mean it is absolutely intentional to put them in a tough spot, but is it wise? I do not think it is wise because I think we should at least let the diplomatic process take place before we turn to anything else.

And there are elements in Ukraine. The current Ukrainian government would be regarded I think on the political scale as a reasonably moderate government, but there are elements in the Ukrainian military that are not so moderate, that are very nationalistic, some say even fascist, and we do not want to see – first of all, it would be a bloody war, but we do not want to see any war, and we certainly do not want to see a situation develop that spreads and becomes even a bigger conflict, so that is my sort of summary of where we are.

And just the two main points again: the Normandy process has some prospect to help resolve, under the Minsk Accords, the Luhansk and Donetsk situation. It may or may not work, but it is there. And we are still missing a platform, a modus operandi, to have Russia and NATO, including the United States, figure out how to stabilize and lower the profile of conflict or potential conflict in Eastern Europe. We need a platform. We do not have one right now. That is really necessary, so I will wrap it up there, and maybe we can talk about it