A year after Russian forces began their invasion of Ukraine, Nancy Soderberg does not hesitate to pinpoint what she sees as the reason behind the war.
“Vladimir Putin. Clear and simple,” she said. “This is a war of choice. A war that is a delusional fantasy of recreating a czarist Russia with ruthless actions with disregard for human life and a completely unprovoked attack on a sovereign neighbor. It all comes down to that.”
Soderberg’s opinions come with the weight of experience. Her mentor, coming out of graduate school, was Madeline Albright, the first woman to serve as U.S. secretary of state. While working as senior foreign policy advisor for the late U.S. Sen. Edward Kennedy, she was instrumental in the Northern Ireland Peace Process. She served on the National Security Council during the administration of President Bill Clinton, and was named ambassador to the United Nations.
She is now the senior country director for the National Democratic Institute, working out of Kosovo. She agreed to talk with Nantucket Today about the war in Ukraine while waiting at the Zagreb Airport, in Croatia, for a plane back to Kosovo.
Nantucket Today: This war is being fought by two very different leaders: Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and Russian President Vladimir Putin. Talk about both.
Soderberg: I thought the best quote that described the initial stages of the war was when we offered Zelensky a ride out of the country and he said, “I don’t need a ride. I need ammunition.”
Nobody expected he would be able to get this far. This was a former actor, who played a president on television as a comedian. Nobody expected him to stand up to the Russians. But he has rallied the Ukraine people and all of Europe and the U.S. behind him.
Nantucket Today: Zelensky has been compared to Winston Churchill. Is that hyperbole, or is there merit in that comparison?
Soderberg: I think so. Churchill rallied all of Europe. Ukraine is not all of Europe. But the personal vision, the courage, the cool, calm behavior, the never losing sight of the struggle, is inspiring to the whole world.
Nantucket Today: And Putin by comparison?
Soderberg: Putin is more and more isolated. He is paranoid. By all reports he doesn’t go near people. This is a man who has indiscriminately bombed homes, apartment buildings, children and hospitals.
The big question is why are the oligarchs sticking with him? They are still making a lot of money. But at some point, they have to ask themselves why they are putting up with sanctions and their yachts and homes are being seized, their kids can’t go to school in Europe, their wives can’t shop in Paris.
And for what? For nothing. There is no threat to Russia. At some time, the inner circle has to give. Nobody predicted we’d be a year into the war and the Ukrainians have a shot at winning.
Putin has this self-narrative that says the U.S. is out to get him, the west in out to get him and he is fighting this war of glory. But this is not World War II. There are no Nazis in Ukraine. The president is Jewish. None of that is known by the Russian people because Putin controls the media and creates these fictions.
Nantucket Today: A year ago the worry was that U.S. involvement might lead to World War III. How does the war look to you today?
Soderberg: A year ago I didn’t think Russia would try to take the whole country. I thought they would just try to take the Donbas region and then probably settle for a piece of that. That would be the end of that phase.
Now the Ukrainian people have changed the equation completely, demanding full sovereignty, the expulsion of Russian troops not just from the Donbas region, but also from Crimea (a part of the Donbas annexed by Russia in 2014).
If Russia is successful, it would encourage China to take action in Taiwan, and U.S. interests in Europe would be threatened. So, we all have a stake in this.
Nantucket Today: How do you rate President Joe Biden’s role in all of this?
Soderberg: He started off really cautious because he didn’t want to get into a war with Putin. A year later there is no talking to Putin on this, so we just have to make sure Ukraine wins on the battlefield.
The major challenge for him losing Congress means he might not be able to keep up this level of aid. He is doing everything in his power to make sure he can keep up to the commitments he’s made.
The fact Biden took a 10-hour train ride to Kyiv to meet with Zelensky is not only a show of extraordinary courage on his part, but just how integral to U.S. interests success in Ukraine is.
Nantucket Today: Putin has implied that he would be willing to use nuclear weapons on the battlefield. He recently suspended Russian involvement in the new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) in which the United States and Russia agreed to new limits on nuclear weapons in each country, and methods to verify those limits. Does that indicate his willingness to resort to nuclear weapons?
Soderberg: “Putin is getting more and more erratic. Pulling out of the START treaty is a sign of that. (President Barack) Obama spent an enormous amount of political capital to get it done in 2010. It is the only (such nuclear treaty) left after Trump pulled us out of the other ones. Putin is cautious about what he is doing. He said he is not going to pull out of the treaty, he is just going to suspend it. Which means he is not going to allow inspections of weapons bases, and basically the START treaty is a verification treaty.
He has hinted he might use nuclear weapons in Ukraine. So far, he has not but I wouldn’t take that off the table. It would be such a horrific thing and I think he would immediately be more of a pariah and I think even Iran and China would not support him. So, I think he is being cautious about sinking to that level.”
Nantucket Today: What is the level of disinformation in Russia about the war?
Soderberg: It is pervasive. The social media absolutely amplifies misinformation. In a case like Russia, it is more than social media. It is state television, blasted into Russian households on a daily basis. It is quite stunning how successful it is.
Even in the Serbian population in Europe, we do a lot of polling there, they all believe the Russian narrative, that there are Nazis in Ukraine and we don’t like the brutality but there is a reason for this war. Serbian people near where I am living believe it. I’ve talked to people who believe it. They just buy it.
One woman, a journalist from the Donbas region, told me her parents think she’s become a Nazi. She said to them, “mom, who are you going to believe? State-sponsored Russian television or your own daughter?”
Putin has so corrupted democracy that he is able to sell the complete fiction at a cost of as many as 200,000 casualties on the Russian side. But they can’t hide the funerals.
Nantucket Today: What is the view of the war from Kosovo?
Soderberg: Kosovo is only two decades out of a very brutal war. When the war in Ukraine started, this whole country went into a collective PTSD. They just froze. Tensions went up overnight. They are nervous. They have vivid memories of bombing and fleeing refugees. They are far enough away that they are not in danger, but they depend on a stable Europe to thrive and this has disrupted economic integration and prosperity.
I think it will speed up (Kosovo’s) integration into NATO. My personal view is we ought to be much more robust in incorporating the western Balkans into Europe. The country is filled with disinformation, a narrative of anti-democratic weaknesses and authoritarianism, that is being pushed by Putin. It is starting to take hold, including with the youth, and it is a warning sign that we need to invest more, make it clear the Balkans are part of Western Europe.
Putin’s target is to undermine the west anywhere he can, and the soft underbelly of Europe is the Balkans, and he is everywhere, and it is dangerous.
Nantucket Today: What does the end game look like?
Soderberg: All wars end in some kind of negotiated peace. How it will be resolved is still an open question. Zelensky was on television today saying they can win it. He spoke directly to the Russian people saying, just stop, leave and the war will be over.
Putin is not going to achieve his political objectives, or strategic ones. They can keep bombing Ukraine, but to what end? The offense that is going to come this spring when the ground thaws will be very telling. Indications are Russia will try another onslaught. That is why the U.S. and Europe have been rushing weapons to Ukraine’s aid so they can get ready to deal with any spring offensive.
I was heartened by Milley’s (U.S. Army Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff) comment that Russian military and (Wagner Group) mercenaries have been devastated. There have been an estimated 200,000 casualties. At some point you hope they will try to negotiate their way out, if not face an outright defeat on the battlefield.
Putin has lost Donbas. Would a negotiated settlement also require withdrawing from Crimea? I think it will come down to the question of will every single Russian troop have to leave, or would it more resemble a carve-out deal in which this war is stopped and then keep talking about Crimea.
Then there is also every chance that rather than agreeing to pull out, Putin will get more desperate and do something with chemical, biological or nuclear weapons. Everyone hopes this doesn’t drag into the second year. But the experts I talk to all say they cannot predict how this is going to end or what Putin will do to try to achieve victory. That is terrifying.