Renowned analyst Reva Goujon joins the podcast to discuss Russia's invasion of Ukraine and the geopolitical calculus that led to it. How are Europe's institutions enduring the crisis? And will Russian President Vladimir Putin ever be able to restore his relationship with the world?
Below is a full transcript of the conversation, including time stamps. Full audio is posted above.
Mohamed Younis 00:07
For Gallup, I'm Mohamed Younis, and this is The Gallup Podcast. As we continue our series of deep dives into what's at stake in the war on Ukraine, we connect with an old friend of the podcast and ask her just a few impossible questions and see what she has to say about them. Reva Goujon is a geopolitical strategist and senior manager at Rhodium Group. Reva, it's great to have you back on the show.
Reva Goujon 00:31
I always love talking to you, Mohamed, especially now in this intense time.
Mohamed Younis 00:35
Unbelievable times. Let me just start with a basic question, but a complex one. Thus far in this conflict, what's surprised you, Reva, and what hasn't?
Reva Goujon 00:48
Well, let's start with what hasn't, right? As one, Russia taking advantage of the current geopolitical climate, right? The chess pieces were lined up, in many ways. We know Putin is very methodical, usually. Maybe we can't say that for the past few days, but, you know, if anybody who's been watching Russia since the Orange Revolution, and Putin's obsession with reestablishing former Soviet buffer -- which is, by the way, not something specific to the Putin personality, but is embedded in Russia's geopolitical psyche, arguably -- you know, that idea that, you know, Putin had his eyes on Ukraine, even though he knew that Ukraine wasn't getting into NATO. Everybody really knew that. The Ukrainians knew that. Putin knew that. But this was an attempt to get the grand bargain, so to speak, right? A written, binding agreement on halting NATO/military expansion in what Russia perceives as its former Soviet sphere and having that grant Russia security in the long term.
Reva Goujon 02:00
And, you know, no better time than now. The U.S. is very distracted. It's obsessed with China. It's a democratic president, which, you know, Russia sees, sees benefits in that and that typically, you know, it would assume that the U.S. is going to be more skittish about confronting Russia, especially in a military confrontation. The last thing the U.S. wants is a distraction in Europe. Europe also was freaked out by natural gas shortages this winter. You have a very mixed German coalition with very mixed feelings on Russia, but the SPD was still willing to have Nord Stream 2 move forward. You know, China was promoting this multipolar world. You know, there were a lot of different reasons why the moment itself made sense.
Reva Goujon 02:47
Now, what was surprising, right? Putin went all the way, right? I mean, and apparently, it wasn't even militarily prepared for a campaign of this scale. And, and a lot of ink has been spilled on this by military strategists, who, who are way smarter than me on this. But what I find fascinating is, you know, this began, if you recall, with the announcement of the Donbas operation, and at that point, everything was, was, was cool, right? Like, the White House wasn't even using the "i" word -- the "invasion" word, right? And there was high potential at this point for Europe to more or less shrug this off as another iteration in the frozen conflict, you know, in Ukraine. And yes, this would be another attempt at Russia to negotiate that grand bargain and play off EU/U.S. divisions over how far to go, given especially the EU's energy concerns and its exposure to Russia and a still-waffling German coalition and maybe take advantage of U.S. policy debates over dividing the Eurasian access. All of that.
Reva Goujon 03:52
Did it guarantee success? No, but this was a better position for Russia than we would see, you know, in the past, like when they were messing around playing spoiler in Syria, Iran, Venezuela. And, Mohamed, you and I talk a lot over the years, and I can tell you as a geopolitical analyst, I can't tell you how many times I've written, you know, this is Russia playing spoiler status and trying to go for the grand bargain with the United States. And it didn't matter if it was in Syria, Iran, Venezuela. But the conclusion, the analytical conclusion, was always the same. It wasn't going to work, right? This time, there was some potential, but they went too far, right? They went for Kyiv. They went for the whole, the whole shebang. And the military campaign itself has been shockingly, just … but I mean, just devastating, right? I mean in, in so many different directions.
Reva Goujon 04:50
And again, people have written about, have been writing about the, what happened with the suppression of enemy air defenses. Whereas the Air Force, you know, where the … was there bad intel on the Ukrainian resistance? Which, to be fair, I think Western intel was also pretty pessimistic on that in the early days. So, there was that. Another surprise, the German reversal. This is huge, and this has massive implications, but loosening up on fiscal austerity, you know, going from sending helmets to anti-tank weapons and surface-to-air Stingers. And then, just, not only that, but the second-order effects. Right? So it wasn't just a pause on Nord Stream 2, which was where this was in the beginning when we were still talking an Eastern operation -- but now it's, no, we are cutting ourselves off from Russian gas, let's get that LNG terminal finally, and let's slow down the nuclear phaseout, maybe even reverse it. That's huge for EU decarbonization efforts, right? I mean, it's music to France's ears because they're like, yeah, come on guys, nuclear is the rational way to do this. Just makes a hell of a lot of sense.
Reva Goujon 06:05
So, lots of second-order effects there. And it's not just Germany, by the way, where we're seeing the earthquake, but Japan, right? Switzerland, as well. I mean, well, Japan first, right -- Ukraine is not even an immediate concern, but Japan just heavily leaning in as part of this G-7 coalition. It's been incredible. Both on the financial and on the export controls. Switzerland, critical to enforcing financial sanctions against Russian assets -- because where do oligarchs like to stash their money? Plus, where do major commodity trading firms Vitol and Trafigura and Glencore, where they all based? And they're very important to Russian commodities trades. So, you know, you saw Switzerland saying at first, look, we need to stick to our neutrality guns here and, and avoid, you know, getting into any sticky areas, but then ultimately alignment with the EU, which is huge for the financial sanctions. So, those, those are the surprises. And obviously, they're, they're all very loaded in terms of implications down the line.
Mohamed Younis 07:13
But there are … every single one of them that you mentioned, really, is a monumental …. Let's not use dramatic, it's, they're paradigm shifts really, in every single one of those categories. The reaction from Europe, I think, has been very different than what many of us -- when I say, "us," I basically mean, you and experts that I've been reading the awesome content of for the past few years -- you know, a lot of it's been about Europe is falling apart the EU is falling apart. We had Brexit. We had President Trump, you know, really ratcheting up the rhetoric to get people in NATO to, you know, meet the 2% … not requirement, but goal. Now, we're looking at a Europe and an EU and a NATO that seems more united than we've seen in a long time. How big of a moment is this for the EU, really, for Europe's institutions? So, EU -- first, let's take that.
Reva Goujon 08:23
Yeah. So, on the one hand, when it comes to, you know, big issues like Germany actually reevaluating, you know, cost benefit of its trade surplus, potentially, you know, looking at loosening up on the fiscal austerity front, you know, maybe closer alignment with France distancing itself from Russia. You know, this is, this is huge, in a lot of different ways -- also, in that, that, I mean, because always, right, you're, you're looking at that core between Germany and France. But let's see however other European, the typical fiscal austerity hawks, also react to this German shift in how long it lasts because, as we know, inflationary pressures are also coming. Demographic, demographic headwinds are increasing, right? So we always want to … while we are in this very unique, multipolar moment, it's always important just to remember we're in a very emotional moment as well, right now, right?
Reva Goujon 09:34
And, so while I do think some things are enduring here, let's also try to train our minds to look ahead. When Ukraine War is not on the headlines and, you know, on the front of everybody's, you know, doom-scrolling daily activity, where it starts to go more in the background, it turns more into a stalemate. And, remember, the inflationary pressures here we have yet to really see in a big way and a protracted conflict and the type of supply disruptions. That, of course, as we have seen just even in the past decade, what that ripple effect looks like, right, the political, the economic effects. So, you know, we have to be careful in getting too carried away with some of these shifts. But, but yeah, I think you know this … Russia's, you know, it's fair to say there have been some serious miscalculations here. This was a wakeup call for Europe, obviously, with Ukraine being in Europe, that is where you … that's what really motivated this. But there's a bigger question, I think, when you're, you're also considering how far does Europe go in other security conflicts that may be more important to the U.S. in the Indo-Pacific in some ways than Europe, right? It's, it's not a 1:1.
Mohamed Younis 10:59
That's a perfect, really, excellent segue to my next question, which is another one of these impossible questions -- not because the answer is a magical secret but because it's, it's a true conflict of interests of long-standing geopolitical interests and geographic realities. But one of the questions people are grappling with, Reva, and have been coming to you for answers on is, you know, what triggered this? Is it, was this invited more by NATO just moving too quickly to the East? And of course that, you know, is a very crude way of putting the Russian view, really. Or is it by, on the other hand, being too timid? The West being too timid in a series of actions that Russia under this leadership has taken, from Georgia to Syria to the Crimea, and many others. You mentioned some of them. Where do you sit on that kind of conundrum?
Reva Goujon 12:06
I think it's OK to say that it's both, right? I mean, there is a legitimate concern by Russia, again, deeply embedded in the Russian psyche that, you know, you, you need to have some buffer with the West. And, you know, then the way that, you know, Putin has, had put out some pretty extreme revisionist history lately. But, you know, this is … you don't need to go back that far when you look at the negotiations in the 1990s, which Russia considers the grand betrayal. And there are different versions of this, but there were repeated efforts by Gorbachev, Yeltsin, Primakov to get the West to agree to halt military and NATO enlargement. And instead, what did Russia see? It saw its buffer erode, it culminated in the Baltics becoming members of NATO in 2004 -- which, by the way, was the same year we saw the pro-Western Orange Revolution in Ukraine. Major wakeup call from Moscow on what was supposed to be a satellite country in the Russian sphere.
Reva Goujon 13:07
And, we know Russia lashed back against that with the natural gas cutoff to Europe -- which in the middle of winter, which had all these effects, right? So it depends on how far back you go. But you know that, that is a history that Putin, you know, has, has, has seen and has resolved to, to respond to and correct in his mind. But also, as we were talking about earlier, this is a unique geopolitical moment in which, you know, there again, China being the big focus, Russia has gotten away with a lot of different things, with very little accountability. Sanctions were always more or less a joke when it came to, to Russia issues. And so, yeah, it's, it's, this was an opportunity in Russia's mind, at least initially, to underscore the weakness of Western security guarantees. That, of course, just that miscalculation going from, you know, what could have been an Eastern operation to full-scale war. You know, that just put us into completely different territory.
Mohamed Younis 14:17
You mentioned full-scale war. I'm sure you've gotten this question in varying degrees of honesty by the person asking you the question, which is: Is this the beginning of World War III? Obviously, I want, I wanted your take on that. I have a feeling you're going to bring up China in the context of any kind of a World War scenario. Talk to us about the role China has been playing and is looking to play in this conflict, and -- if you want to amuse us -- and answer if it's World War III or not.
Reva Goujon 14:53
OK. I mean, it is interesting, right, that everybody has had to seriously contemplate that question, right? Like, that's, that's not a crazy question when you have Russia raising a nuclear threat and you have a fortress and, and the financial sanctions very rapidly being erected, right, and cornering a considerable power like Russia. So, that in and of itself is, is really important. But, now, is this going to spiral into that? I don't think this, this would. But this is where the psychoanalysis of Putin gets really interesting/terrifying, right? I mean, this did very quickly escalate to nuclear threat, which exposed just how, how arguably cornered Putin feels right now.
Reva Goujon 15:52
Now, as we can see from the U.S., there's a lot of restraint, thankfully, right, to not play into that -- to, to avoid getting roped into a nuclear standoff. But we're in dangerous territory. And there is constantly the question of how will Russia strike back if this is not … clearly, it's not going its way. And what do you reach for and leverage in a negotiation? You know, we've seen carveouts for energy and the sanctions so far. And there's still a question of, well, would Russia still retaliate using energy? But it's shooting itself in the foot, since that's still one of the, the main sources of revenue that it can actually still sort of count on, although some are even pulling back from that. But what I really worry about is cyber strikes on critical infrastructure, right? This is something where both Russia and the United States have been telegraphing their capabilities over the past several years, and that could lead to a very dangerous, escalatory spiral.
Reva Goujon 16:56
So if I, you know, were to get into more of that, like, how does this go beyond the war zone? In Ukraine, that's the area that I'm, I'm most concerned about. You asked about China. And clearly -- or maybe not so clearly, but at least the way I see it -- China, China doesn't like the chaos of the moment. On the one hand, you know, it, there were some benefits to be gained for China early on. And there's been all kinds of speculation of, OK, what did Beijing know, when did it know? And there's been weird reporting about like the U.S. beseeching Beijing to, to restrain Putin somehow and, from invading Ukraine, which sounds ridiculous to me because major powers are going to pursue their own interests. China is not going to hold back Putin. But I do think it's a question of whether China actually anticipated or knew that Russia would go beyond the East. And, and to what degree was it supposed to be a limited operation. It didn't withdraw its own people, right? Like, it wasn't like China prepared for the worst case.
Reva Goujon 18:10
So how, how does China play this, moving forward? I mean, it's, it's, it's a tricky balance. On the one hand, the multipolar world order decline of the U.S., the right to defend your sphere of influence without interference from, you know, old hegemonies like the U.S. -- all of that, that messaging. That's important to Beijing. It's still important to Beijing. And this is why its messaging is just … was, at least in the early days of this crisis, very distinct from 2008 Georgia War, 2014 Crimea annexation. Because China in a more confident position, really, really wanted to underscore that point. But the way this war is going, this isn't a great look, right, for, for anybody who is perceived as, as sticking to, to Russia and providing a lifeline.
Reva Goujon 19:10
And, you know, when it comes to Russia or China's economic priorities, it's going to prioritize access to dollar financing. It's not going to stick out its neck for Russia in a huge way. It's going to be wary, I think, of secondary sanctions. Just remember how Iran, it was secondary sanctions that ensnared Huawei, right, put it under the sanctions spotlight, culminated then in the foreign direct product rule, which crippled Huawei. Like, China is very, very familiar with that tool. It hates it. It's extremely sensitive to it. And when you look at SMIC, you know, what could be a big tech supplier to Russia, it's already a target for the U.S. for FDPR. There have been policy calls to, to, to do that. So I don't think China is necessarily just going to invite that kind of action when it's already under these big tech self-sufficiency pressures. But, you know, we could see things like less-exposed banks continuing to do some renminbi-denominated trade. But that's, like, only 8% of Russian trade with China right now. It's tiny when you compare it to EU/U.S. trade. You don't just divert that overnight, and there are some real limitations to that.
Reva Goujon 20:29
So, you know, this is China doing a balancing act. But I think China manages contradictions better than most observers give it credit. So this is really a timing question. Short term, I would expect sanctions compliance. Longer term, I think Beijing, like everybody else, wants to see what happens in Moscow. Because what would this economic, level of economic devastation … and, what if you just look at what's happening to the ruble. I mean, remember Putin emerged from the '98 ruble crisis. And nobody really can be confident on what's going to happen from here. If, if Putin was supposed to be the white knight to save Russia but brings it back to that level of devastation, anything's up for grabs at this point.
Mohamed Younis 21:19
As usual, our conversation has gone way longer than I initially expected because I keep learning more and more from you. I'm going to just ask you a really short question that has, like, a "book" answer, but you need to answer me in like 30 seconds. Can Putin, as a leader, in the longer term -- can he really go back to the kind of relationship with the world he had before this full-scale invasion?
Reva Goujon 21:47
Nope. I mean, what was, what was it before? Pre-Ukraine War, it was stalemate. There was a lot of talk in Washington about, OK, do you, can you split the Eurasian access? You know, for splitting Russia and China, but Russia has gone too far to get a good deal out of the U.S. It's, it was more interested in rewriting the script. And now, even China could see while in some cases it can leverage heavier Russian dependency on, on China, it also has to keep some distance given the scale of these sanctions. So I think moving forward, a lot of people are going to be recalling post-, just, historical lessons, right? Like post-World War I Versailles lessons of humiliating the aggressor and creating offramps and don't, you know, don't create conditions for future conflict. Yes, Russia's weak economically, politically, demographically and now far weaker from, from this war. But this is a huge diplomatic litmus test on how do you manage a cornered power like Russia? Especially with, with Beijing hovering nearby as the bigger threat.
Mohamed Younis 22:59
As always, Reva Goujon is a geopolitical strategist and senior manager at Rhodium. Thank you so much for being with us.
Reva Goujon 23:06
So happy to talk to you again, Mohamed. Reach out anytime.
Mohamed Younis 23:10
That's our show. Thank you for tuning in. To subscribe and stay up to date with our latest conversations, just search for "The Gallup Podcast" wherever you podcast. And for more key findings from Gallup News, go to news.gallup.com or follow us on Twitter @gallupnews. If you have suggestions for the show, email firstname.lastname@example.org. The Gallup Podcast is directed by Curtis Grubb and produced by Justin McCarthy. I'm Mohamed Younis, and this is Gallup: reporting on the will of the people since the 1930s.