Is anyone actually winning the war in Ukraine? Are European leaders already positioning themselves for post-conflict relations with Russia? George Friedman, founder of Geopolitical Futures, joins the podcast to discuss China's and Germany's positioning throughout the conflict, U.S. standing in NATO and more.
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. In this episode, we check in on the war in Ukraine. What's changed and what hasn't? Dr. George Friedman is the founder of Geopolitical Futures and Gallup senior adviser on geopolitics. George, welcome back to the show.
George Friedman 00:23
Good to be here.
Mohamed Younis 00:25
Let me just start by asking, where do things stand right now in the war in Ukraine? Is there a side that's in any way winning?
George Friedman 00:32
Well, the Russians are no longer losing. That doesn't mean they're anywhere close to winning. What we have is this: The Russians have cut way back on their emissions so far. They are dominating the eastern part, the Donbas. But we have to remember that they controlled the Donbas before the war. This is a heavily Russian district -- wanted to be part of Russia, had a lot of Russian special forces in there. So at this point, what they've managed to do is stabilize their losses. They're not losing anybody in the south because they've withdrawn. And they're fighting -- not yet succeeding -- in taking the Donbas. So at this point, while people are talking about the war having changed its dynamics and the Russians being more in power, no, what we are seeing here is the Russians having retreated to a safe point and fighting to hold that point. And we're waiting to see whether they can launch out of there to carry out operations at a distance.
Mohamed Younis 01:42
We heard recently complaints or comments from Ukraine's military leaders about weapons and how quickly they were arriving. Is that at all an issue in what we're watching in the Donbas, or do the Ukrainians kind of have what they need?
George Friedman 02:00
Well, the Ukrainians received a huge load of weapons from the Americans, primarily through Poland. That supply was exhausted. It takes time to refresh it. I'm assuming that that pile is being refreshed; the U.S. said it is being refreshed. At the same time, the Europeans are beginning to talk about cutting back the support for Ukraine, forcing a negotiation or something like that. The American position still seems to be to fully support the Ukrainians, which means the weapons will arrive shortly. And so they're caught between these two. But there's also the thing when you're on the battlefield, you're always short of weapons. You always feel that there should be more coming. The avalanche the U.S. delivered in the first instance is probably unsustainable from a logistics point of view. But we have to watch the question of the Europeans, and the Americans quietly agreeing with them: This can't go on, Ukraine is not gonna win. Let's get the deal. It's there.
Mohamed Younis 03:11
That's a great segue to my follow-up question. There was a lot of celebration of Western unity at the beginning of this conflict -- NATO uniting and Putin bringing everybody together. The past couple weeks have actually been really good examples of where each of the key European powers kind of stands and how far they're willing to go, at varying degrees. We saw -- before getting to Europe, we saw, of course, Henry Kissinger make a couple comments about, you know, how a settlement could be achieved, with Ukraine giving up some territory. We've seen Macron take a much more, you know, direct interest in maintaining relations and communication with Putin. The Italians, the Germans, the U.K. -- everybody seems to be positioning themselves differently. So what I want to ask you, George, is lay out kind of the main powers in degrees of ascending or descending support for Ukraine. Like, who's the most for just, like, supporting them, and who's the most tepid or timid in supporting them? Let's start there.
George Friedman 04:20
We have to define "supporting," because the United States doesn't need their support to wage this war. The United States is overwhelmingly the supplier of weapons. The Poles are the foundation of the training system and so on. And so the reality of war is that, so long as the Americans want to fight it, the Poles like to do it, which they will, both, it sort of doesn't matter what they're saying. From a political point of view, it's nice to have the unity. But as in the Vietnam War, for example, there was a point where the public didn't want to support it. It was a losing war anyway. So ranking who's most in favor, I suppose, would require that we talk about not their rhetoric but their weapons. And the British are providing weapons. They're our buddies -- always there -- and the rest are minimally significant.
George Friedman 05:23
So the question is, to what extent does the United States care what the Ukrainians are saying? What the -- I should say, to what extent do the Americans care what the Europeans are saying and to what extent are they prepared to wage the war without them? I can pretty much assure you that the European position is not the top consideration for the Americans. The top consideration is this: If Ukraine fell to the Russians, where would they go next? You know, they may say, like Hitler did, I have no further territorial ambitions. But the Russians want to return to the position they had prior to 1991. They want to go dominate Eastern Europe and go deeper. Can they? Well, the American position is it's the last thing we want. We don't want the Cold War again. And if we have to have a Cold War, I'd rather have it in Ukraine than in Germany.
George Friedman 06:29
So what's not being discussed by most people is, why do we assume that Ukraine is the sum total of what the Russians want? And the American position seems to be, we're not sure what they're going to do. Not being sure, we're going to hold the line in Ukraine. It's cheaper.
Mohamed Younis 06:49
In terms of -- and I love how you responded and said, you know, "What does it mean by, what do you mean by 'support'"? In terms of hold that line, what, what does that mean -- forget about sort of like politically for America. But just as George geopolitical analyst, is it realistic to support Ukraine to the point of like getting back all of its territory? Is it folding to the Russians to say, "You guys can have the Donbas but no much, no further"? Like how do you, where do you draw that line?
George Friedman 07:20
Well, the fundamental question is not Ukraine, if you pose it that way. But if you pose it as I just did -- further ambitious of the Russians -- the question you ask is, where is it going to be more costly, to defend west of the line of the Ukrainian border or to defend the Ukraine? From the American point of view, the Ukrainian war has been very cheap. It has cost weapons. The Poles took what little risk there is from our shoulders; the Ukrainians are having casualties. So the question is just how long are we prepared to fight to the last Ukrainian? And the answer is that the Ukrainians will fight so long as the weapons come in. Weapons, weapons are cheap.
George Friedman 08:06
So everybody is kind of looking at the question of what comes after a Russian victory? And they get nervous. The Russians are looking, what comes after a Ukrainian-American victory? And they get nervous. Neither feel they can afford to lose the war. The Russians don't want the Americans 236 miles away from Moscow. We don't want them pushing into Poland; that's another war for us. So right now, both sides calculate that holding the line makes the most sense.
George Friedman 08:45
Now, we need a buffer zone between the United States and Ukraine -- and the Russians, I should say. Where do we draw that line? And where will the Ukrainians allow us to draw that line? So there are many political questions that we have to address. There are many military questions we have to address. And very frankly, the Europeans only enter into it to the extent that they reduce the sanctions against Russia and have allowed them to have trade and rebuild their economy. And that matters.
Mohamed Younis 09:24
On that front, let me end by asking you, George, about Germany. If anybody is going to lead the way, economically, at least, in Europe, it's gonna be them. Assess the chancellor's position right now in Germany on this war.
George Friedman 09:41
Well, remember the largest importer of -- of German goods is the United States. Now, that doesn't mean that there's, on the whole, there aren't others, but the United States is an urgent trading partner because we buy Mercedes, we buy Volkswagens, and these are the structures. So how far do they want to go in alienating the United States? Do they really want to create a situation where the United States throws in the towel on NATO and says, there is no alliance that counts? They have a lot of decisions to make.
George Friedman 10:21
What the Germans want is this thing to disappear, go away and not bother them anymore. Ain't gonna happen. So each of the countries that might want to challenge the United States on the continuation of the war has to consider what the United States might do as a result. One, increase the level of the war. Two, ban their exports to the United States. Three, you know, possibly dismantle the Atlantic relationship. They're all concerned about that. So it's not a simple question of, let's end the war; it's a more complex question. And always remember in this war, there are many people officially at war. This is an American war. And if the, NATO cannot at least give lip service and sanctions on this war, there's a lot of Americans who really have a serious question of what the point of NATO is.
Mohamed Younis 11:23
Yeah. And it's fascinating that so much of this was discussed in the previous president's term under a very different fact pattern. But those tensions were there, are still there.
George Friedman 11:35
Trump, whether you like him or not, understood a fundamental fault line in the West, which is that we have trans-Atlantic relationships. And it's not the Americans that have let down the Europeans but, to the contrary, the Europeans, by not building militaries that are sufficient. Now, the politics of it all going back and forth is uninteresting. But the point was that the United States has consistently wanted to pretend that they had partners. And the United States truly doesn't know what the partnership consists of. What can we count on? And the Europeans really don't want NATO to go away.
Mohamed Younis 12:16
Yeah. It's fascinating how just kind of, you know, this limbo that we're seeing happening between don't get too involved, want the war to end but don't pull down NATO. It's really fascinating to see so many important economies have so little to say or do on such a major conflict.
George Friedman 12:36
Compared to the American economy, they're not that impressive. We underestimate how just massive our economy was. We overestimate how powerful the Chinese economy is or the Russian. But the Europeans understand exactly how important the American economy is to them and, you know, this is what's holding up any change. Now, if we could negotiate an agreement where the Russians agreed to return to their borders, let the French do it. It's no problem. If they said, OK, we'll end the war but not Donbas. The other question would be, yeah, Donbas is really yours, and we don't care. But when will you start the war again?
Mohamed Younis 13:27
George Friedman 13:28
And this is the real issue. Wars end in truces when both sides are exhausted; neither is. Or when you're looking at a situation where there's a kind of clear demarcation line; there isn't. So it's very hard to end this war and very hard to win this war. And these considerations really are more important than what the French are doing. Not to denigrate the French, but you're not going to be able to bring a peace settlement, and you're not going to be able to change the American position. Now if it turns out that the U.S. is deliberately cutting weapons deliveries to Ukrainians to try to force some sort of settlement, that becomes very, very different. That would also be politically significant in the United States to find out that secretly they dialed back. So I think this war continues.
Mohamed Younis 14:36
Let me -- and of course, I always lie with the last question. My real last question is -- and it's really a question that could be a whole episode -- China. So far, when we started, when this war started, we were talking about how much China will support or not support or try to remain neutral on this. As this is dragged on, has China backed off supporting Russia, or have they become more involved in supporting Russia?
George Friedman 15:02
They really only have rhetorically supported Russia. They never really did. But they certainly backed off. We know there are negotiations going on between the United States and China over the question of trade barriers and so on. That's been going on. We also hear reports of unrest in China. I just spoke to a Chinese source today, and he said, "Look, Shanghai was not about COVID; it was about punishing Shanghai and demonstrating Xi's power." OK, it's one report, but that people will be saying things like this is important.
George Friedman 15:42
Another person basically made it clear that we have a prob -- well, apparently, the Politburo met (that's the leadership). And the Politburo meeting agreed that most money would be spent on poor farmers, not on tech. Two members of the Politburo went out, wrote an article criticizing the decision. And now, I have not seen the Politburo split in public for a long time. The incredible economic stress on China, it's weakening; it's causing serious political problems that are going to be settled soon.
Mohamed Younis 16:30
On that note, George Friedman, founder of Geopolitical Futures. George, thanks for being with us.
George Friedman 16:35
Mohamed Younis 16:43
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.