🎧 George Packer on the War in Ukraine
George Packer and Yascha Mounk discuss how Putin’s invasion reshapes the global struggle between democracy and autocracy
George Packer is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he recently published a piece on Ukraine's meaning for the liberal world and American interests. In his books, from The Unwinding to Our Man, he has chronicled the disintegration of America’s social fabric and the polarization of its politics. His latest book is Last Best Hope: America in Crisis and Renewal.
In this week’s conversation, Yascha Mounk and George Packer discuss the dire choices facing the Ukrainian people, how the liberal democratic societies of the world can respond, and which historical analogues can help us navigate today’s uncertainty.
This transcript has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity. This conversation was recorded on Friday, February 25, 2022.
Yascha Mounk: We're recording this as Russian troops are closing in on Kyiv, as Putin has launched a full-scale attack on Ukraine. What do you think the lasting significance of this moment is going to be?
George Packer: It's very hard to know, since the moment has just begun. As much as I expected this—I never thought Putin was bluffing—I'm also shocked by it. There's something profoundly disturbing and astounding about the sight of tank columns, airborne assaults, and ballistic missiles in Europe. I think it could go one of at least two ways. Either this will be the moment when Western democracies realize that there's a new Cold War—which is very hot right now in Ukraine, but which has been building for years, in the form of great power autocracies that have become more and more bold and energetic, using threats and force to get what they want. The moment when not just the Western democracies, but all democracies realize that they have to put up a struggle—to see this as a concerted threat to what we care about, and that it's not going to stop in Ukraine. It may not stop in Hong Kong. So that would be one way to mark this moment, looking back: as the moment when, essentially, the democracies got serious and realized that this was a fight that they couldn't keep avoiding. And I don't mean guns-blazing “fight”; I mean seeing this as the greatest threat to our interests, which really are very close to what our values are, or should be.
The other way it could go is that this is a moment that Putin wins, and doesn't really suffer enough to regret. Xi Jinping sees it as an outrageous move that Putin got away with, and that they—and other autocratic and kleptocratic states who have been in informal alliances—are emboldened and begin to act with more and more impunity and audacity. Meanwhile, the rest of the world continues to look on with horror, but in a sort of state of passivity or paralysis. I think the next few weeks are going to tell us a lot more about which of those two outcomes we'll look back on when we think about the invasion of Ukraine.
Mounk: For me, there's a question about what the meaning of the invasion itself is for how we will understand the last 20 or 30 years.
I grew up with an optimistic sense of what the future would look like: that it will be more democratic and more tolerant, that the Internet would connect people more, that deep forms of bellicose nationalism were really an anachronism. And this set of certainties has been turning into illusions for a good number of years now, starting in a way with 9/11, and the failure of the Iraq War, going through the horrible failure of the Arab Spring and the fate of Syria, and the Great Recession and a whole bunch of other things—including, obviously, the way in which democracy is coming under threat within its heartlands in the United States and other places.
But it feels as though Putin’s invasion of Ukraine is a final nail in the coffin of that old worldview. It's a moment in which the metamorphosis of the certainties into illusions has visibly been completed. How would you think about this moment, not in relation to the future, but in relation to the world of the last 30 years?
Packer: We've been on a downward trajectory in the prestige and the influence of democracy for a good 15, maybe even 20 years. It's not as though this is a sudden punch in the face that no one saw coming. It's been coming. It’s been coming in Ukraine since—you could almost say—2004, and the thwarting of the Orange Revolution, and certainly since 2014, with the success of the Maidan Revolution, but which led to the first Russian assault on Ukraine. In some ways, it's different in degree but not in kind from what Russia has been doing to Georgia, to Ukraine, to Belarus, and to Syria for years now. And what China has been doing in Tibet, in Hong Kong, in Xinjiang province, and is threatening to do in Taiwan. And what other tyrants around the world have been getting away with. So it does feel more like a last nail than a first, certainly. But I think maybe what it's ended is a sense of any illusion about democratic inevitability. Francis Fukuyama wasn't the only one who suffered from that in the early 90s.
I think what this has finally made impossible is any illusion about the inevitability of the world progressing toward a more democratic, more interconnected, more cosmopolitan, better place. So the question is whether the democracies have enough confidence left, after all the blows that they've taken in the last 15 or so years, to realize that the threat is very present. It's right across the border. It's in our face. Putin has almost had to throw, as I said before, a really hard punch, simply to convince people who may even now not be fully convinced that this is a turn toward a darker world of force, of bullying, of great powers simply throwing their weight around for what they want and crushing small countries. And that the democracies really are way behind the count and have to act with more energy and more of a sense of urgency—to give up more, sacrifice more than we've been willing to do. That's the question that's facing the United States, Europe, and other democratic countries. That was maybe not clear enough until last week.
Mounk: What is likely to emerge over the next 30 years, but also over the next 30 days?
Packer: The rhetoric coming out of Washington and some of the European capitals is very good. And the handful of Putin apologists in this country look pretty stupid right now, and have had to go quiet or make excuses. So it's not as though there's a lot of disagreement about how horrible this is. But the actions leave something to be desired and may continue to, because we in the West may not be ready to give very much up. For example—lower gas prices, interrupted supplies of energy, the wealth that comes from Russian investments by oligarchs in real estate and then in financial institutions. I honestly don't understand why we're not throwing the children of Russian oligarchs out of our universities. I don't know what that would cost us. But we're not, at least not yet. I don't know why. The sanctions that you have in Europe, in the US right now are financial sanctions—but not personal sanctions on Putin, so that he wouldn't be able to travel to other countries. I don't understand that.
Mounk: I've been thinking a lot in the last months about the lack of conviction, particularly among the American and European elite—a lack of a sense of what our values actually are and what it might mean to act on them.
If we are now facing a real resurgence of autocracy, in a way that poses a serious threat, we will have to get used to making sacrifices again—which don't necessarily mean wars or mean soldiers in battle. They at least mean you don't build a gas pipeline which might slightly lower the price of gas in your country, but also deeply undermines the sovereignty of a close-by nation that is ostensibly your ally.
It's not clear to me that politicians are willing to do even that. Perhaps this will change. But is the shock of just how far Putin is willing to go enough to affect the transformation, or would we need a much broader seriousness and mindset?
Packer: If the core of the problem really is that lack of conviction that you mentioned, which allowed the US and Europe to see Putin as a nuisance, a problem, but one that we could live with—like an aching back, it's not going to end your life; it's just a pain to deal with—then there's no telling how much avoidance and complacency and prevarication we're capable of.
I wrote a long piece for The Atlantic recently about the evacuation of Kabul, and the failure of the US government to take any of the measures before Kabul fell that would save the Afghans who had allied themselves with the United States. That was a failure of conviction. It was a kind of confession that those Afghans and the very fragile, relatively open society that they had built under American protection didn't matter all that much. Which is not to say that the war should have gone on forever; it's just to say we should have seen what was valuable in Afghanistan and taken better care of it when we decided to leave. And that failure showed a failure to appreciate, I think, what our interests really were in Afghanistan.
After the end of that war, there was a kind of triumphalism of the realists: Suddenly, after 20 years of fruitless war in Iraq and Afghanistan, Americans woke up to the fact that we really couldn't do very much about other people's countries. We had no real business in other people's countries. We certainly shouldn't commit troops in order to change other people's countries. We should have a much more limited view of what our national interests are. We should understand that there are other powers around the world that have their own interests that we have to respect, and that we should just proceed with much more restraint. All of that sounded, and in some ways was, very reasonable as a response to 20 years of failure.
But what it failed to see was that we're actually already in a new world way beyond 9/11, in which it's not the United States that is wreaking havoc with its imperial illusions, but a world of rising autocracies who are a threat to what we should care about, among those things liberal values. So by walking away from Afghanistan, without much of a thought about Afghans who had begun to build a society in the name of those values, I think we show that we were missing the point. And the invasion of Ukraine has, in some ways, put a bit of a damper on the triumphalism of realism as a foreign policy.
Mounk: The realist case, broadly speaking, would be that saving Ukraine is not particularly in our national interest. Barack Obama has said in the past that the real geopolitical rival is China rather than Russia, which continues to be a kind of declining nation and a mid-sized economy; that we need to have security partners and security alliances, but championing liberal democratic values around the world is not in fact going to make us safer. What does the realist case miss about Ukraine?
Packer: I think it gets wrong how the world is arranging itself in the 21st century, that all the things that our interests involve—like energy supplies, supply chains for goods, manufacturing, open seas, the good old fashioned great power concerns; technology, and how states are going to use it, and how it affects societies and the human mind itself—all of those are, more and more, dividing along the lines of democratic or autocratic. The autocracies seem to have a much better sense of that than the democracies do. They are using their connections to each other in order to avoid sanctions, to enrich elites, to control their people.
I don't know why that dividing line, which is certainly one of political values, isn't something that is acutely in our interest to understand, to prevent it from rolling over us. Russia is rolling over Ukraine, and that's going to have repercussions in other Eastern European countries, including in NATO countries, and it will either divide the NATO alliance or it will bring it together. In other words, it's going to have consequences that are way beyond whether there's a free press in Kyiv. But somehow the free press in Kyiv seems to be the front line of that division, and we should care about it. I'm not saying we should commit troops to defending it, because we can't, because Russia is a nuclear power, and Russia is willing to go much farther than we are in defending it, in any case. But there are many things we could have been doing and should be doing now to show that we understand our interests lie on that front line between democracy and autocracy, which right now is Ukraine.
Mounk: When you read Niccolò Machiavelli—who knew a lot about what it meant to try and build a self-governing republic that was always under threat of external conquest—a lot of what freedom means, in his thinking, is that you're not dependent on the will of an external power.
European politicians have, basically, for the last 10 or 20 years grown comfortable with a situation in which Vladimir Putin decided whether pensioners in Germany lived or died in the winter because they may run out of gas they need to heat their homes, and in which they relied on the United States to defend them against territorial aggression and never had the ambition to even be able to defend themselves. A number of years ago, I asked a German military attaché at a dinner by which year the German army aimed to be able to defend itself in conventional weapons against Russia. And he said “Russia?” and looked at me with sort of amusement. “Never.”
I think that has consequences for your ability to self-govern. Knowing that you always have to appease this big neighbor, on whom you depend for your energy, or on whom you depend for your territorial integrity, does not allow you to be a truly democratic country. And that's only going to get worse if Russia and China will be the countries setting the global order for the 21st century. That's, I suppose, how I would couch my concern. I don't know what the implications of that are.
What do you think it would look like for the West to wake up to the stakes of his fight between democracy and autocracy now?
Packer: One thing it might look like in the United States is the return of a sort of bipartisan foreign policy. Right now, on Ukraine, we basically have a bipartisan foreign policy. There isn't a whole lot of disagreement. There is a faction of the Republican party that's following Trump into being Putin mouthpieces, and they're powerful—Trump, Tucker Carlson, Mike Pompeo, Josh Hawley. It's the populist fringe that has seemed to have taken over the party and right now, the elites of the party are trying to disentangle themselves from what they themselves have allowed to happen. I think most Republicans, both leaders and voters, are as appalled and object as much as the Biden administration, and most Democrats do. So in a way, it's the first issue that seems to have brought—at least as far as we can tell—both the voters and the leaders of the two parties together, except that the Republicans are so locked into a destructive approach, that they're continuing to blame the whole thing on Biden and to say preposterous things about how he caused this, and it would never have happened under Trump, etc. That's just rhetoric. But it is kind of corrosive rhetoric, because it puts the focus back on our divisions, when, I think, beneath it there's more unity than there's been in a long time.
It would look like leaders telling their publics why there's going to have to be a little bit of sacrifice in gas prices and financial disruption; in who they can sell their Mayfair mansions to; who can attend their universities; who can travel to their capitals, etc. I don't know enough to say how much sacrifice that means. Probably, if you're German, it might mean a fair amount. If you're American, less, perhaps, but still there. This is unlike the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, which demanded sacrifice of a very small number of American families. This is more of the kind of sacrifice that previous wars have inflicted on whole populations. But leaders have to explain why it matters. Even Biden—who’s been very good about Ukraine; I think he's done things mostly right—has not really told us why this matters. He's expressed outrage—but what are the real stakes? And what do we do about the Ukrainians themselves?
Mounk: Clearly, we should impose very, very far reaching sanctions on Russia—particularly on Russian oligarchs and on Vladimir Putin—in response to this. We cannot set a precedent in which a large nation can annex part of a territory of other sovereign countries without any real consequences. And this seems to me to be not just morally the right response, but also a very important part of deterrence, to ensure that Putin does not start to pull the same kind of stunt with countries in the Baltic, which would increase the stakes tremendously, because at that point we're talking about potential conflict with NATO members and the risk of nuclear escalation.
As we're recording this, the headline on the New York Times reads “Battle for Kyiv.” I fear that by the time this podcast is released in a few days, Kyiv may well be under the control of Russian forces. Ukrainians will have an incredibly tough choice to make between fighting for their sovereignty—which would likely mean ongoing urban guerrilla warfare and insurgency, which is going to take a heavy toll on the Russian occupying force, but also very heavy toll on the Ukrainian civilian population, their physical infrastructure and people's homes—and surrendering, giving up, which would be deeply depressing, disheartening, which would make Ukraine a de facto vassal state of Russia for the foreseeable future, but which might also save a lot of lives, which might mean that Ukrainian cities won't be reduced to rubble. I don't know what to hope for as a choice from Ukrainians. I don’t know what America should do or what the West should do, insofar as it can encourage one of those two choices.
Packer: To go a little further with the giving up scenario, what would that mean? I think one thing would be that millions of Ukrainians would try to leave. They would become refugees in Europe; anyone with any connections in the West would use them. And my guess is there would be a kind of evaporation of the young, energetic and talented Ukrainians who have been the motor of the Revolution of Dignity of 2014 and the years since, in which they built civil society against great odds. So it wouldn't just be allowing a puppet regime to take over—it would be in some ways, the end of the society that had been built up with great difficulty, over the last decade or two, and the people who built it.
It's a really hard question for exactly the reasons you say. I guess my best answer is: What the Ukrainians want. Obviously, we're not going to get polling data on this. Although, it's interesting: there were polls before the invasion. And one of them showed that almost half the Ukrainian population said it would be willing to join the Territorial Defense Forces, the volunteer military forces that civilians are now rushing to join, which is an incredibly high number, even if a lot of them won't do it. It's an incredibly high number. It shows the degree to which Ukrainians feel that everything is at stake for them. They're willing to leave their jobs, their families, their children, and risk and—quite likely give—their lives.
My feeling is if it's clear that Ukrainian society is resisting, and will continue to resist and has not been broken—if this is not the occupation of France, but more like the occupation of Warsaw—then I think we owe it to them to give them a chance to defend themselves and to resist, even if that means our weapons are contributing to the killing and the destruction.
It's one of those terrible choices where you will not have clean hands no matter what you choose. Don't imagine that if you withhold weapons, you're preserving any kind of virtue, just as you shouldn’t imagine that if you're sending weapons, you're on the side of heroism and glory. It's going to be a horrible period. Who knows how long it'll last. But I think if Ukrainians want to fight for their country, then we should give them every means to do that, and in doing so, punish Putin as badly as we can, so that in the end, Russia will regret this, and there might even be some repercussions for him at home.
Mounk: I'm trying to think through what the right historical analogy might be for what an occupation of Ukraine would look like. Russia probably wants to keep a relatively light footprint if it can install a puppet government and keep some troops in the country, which depends on the extent of resistance. You mentioned Warsaw in World War II, where there was significant resistance. There are obviously some parallels, which I think people have in mind when they think of quite significant urban guerrilla warfare, whether it's in Iraq after the U.S. invasion or in Syria during the Civil War.
But there's also another clearly relevant historical analogy, which is all of the Central and Eastern European countries which were occupied by the Soviet Union after World War II, including, in 1956, the quashing of a Hungarian reformist government and the mass protests there, and in 1968 the crushing of a Czechoslovakian reformist government and the mass protests there. My hunch, and it may very well turn out to be wrong, is that this will look more like Hungary after ‘56 or Prague after ‘68. There will be deep loathing for the occupation. There will be real patriotism and people being deeply angry and despondent because of the occupation. But I somehow have trouble picturing urban guerrilla warfare for a prolonged period in Kyiv.
On the other hand, it’s hard to imagine Russia being able to institute a puppet government from Kyiv. I don't think, for example, that that puppet government is going to be able to sustain command of a Ukrainian army that is loyal to it, unlike the Hungarian army, which was loyal to the new government. So I think there are some important structural differences.
Do you have a sense of which outcome is likely or what the helpful historical analogy here is?
Packer: I think we're really in the unknown. I've never been to Kyiv. You've never been to Kyiv. We just don't know what is going to go on in the minds of Ukrainians with a Russian occupation and a puppet government. It is beyond anything that we've imagined since we became adults. You may be right that there will be periodic rebellions of the Budapest ‘56 and Prague ‘68 variety that will be put down pretty quickly. And that the normal state of things will be sullenness and depression and lies, and people accommodating themselves and trying to live their lives as best they can.
But the histories are different, because there hadn't been this period of real ferment and real democratic activism and real resistance before the occupation, as there is now in Ukraine. For years now, Ukrainians have seen Russia as a threat; they've been at war with Russia for years. War is not new there. It's new for us because we didn't think about Donbas. It was not on our minds, but Ukrainians are all saying now “We know what this is like, even if this is a shocking escalation. We have brothers and friends in the east who've been fighting, who died.” Their society has been somewhat militarized by that fighting. So I think it's a different sequence, and it may be that this sequence is one that is going to sustain a more active and long term resistance than the Iron Curtain closing over Eastern Europe at the end of a terrible war in which the Soviet Union was, in some ways, the rightful victor over Nazi Germany and in which it imposed an ideology and a system on Eastern Europe that had a fair number of takers at the beginning—that, in some ways, seemed like the way of the future at the beginning. I think there are very few people outside of the easternmost part of Ukraine that see a Russian takeover as somehow the road to progress.
Mounk: President Zelensky said a couple of days ago that what Russia is doing is imposing a new Iron Curtain on Central Europe, and it does seem as though Vladimir Putin—who's on record as saying that the dissolution of the Soviet Union was the greatest tragedy of the 20th century—is trying to reassemble some form of a Russian Empire. It clearly wouldn't have the political ideology of a Soviet Union. It certainly wouldn't be communist. But it does look as though he’s cobbling together—between Russia, Belarus, Ukraine, parts of Georgia and other countries that he has conquered and the effective control he has over countries like Kazakhstan—a kind of new Russian Empire.
Do you think we are seeing the creation of a new Russian Empire? Do you think we are seeing the descent of a new Iron Curtain across Europe or is that—as some of your critics and some of my critics would say—just the recycling of old Cold War terminology which is wholly and completely inappropriate to this new political moment?
Packer: I think it's indisputable. If a curtain made of iron comes down, and you say “There's a curtain made of iron,” you are not fomenting a new Cold War for your own purposes—you are recognizing reality. It seems to me Putin is the one taking all the initiative in those cases that you mentioned, and Putin has been incredibly successful, including in Syria, in using limited military force, for limited periods of time, to win rather large political objectives. Ukraine is a gamble beyond those, but it's part of that. It's an escalation of the same thing. You have to simply blind yourself to say there isn't something happening here in the end, and it looks nothing like the old Soviet empire. Putin has been really clear about that: he called it the greatest geopolitical disaster of the 20th century. He is openly nostalgic for the Soviet empire. He said in that crazed speech just before the invasion that Ukraine was the creation of Bolshevik Russia, that it has no separate existence. How dare it think that it could break away and become an independent country? I take him at his word. Because he's been as good as his word on a lot of things people didn't expect him to do.
And now he's also threatening (in some ways a little bit veiled) the use of nuclear weapons. “Don't forget we’re a nuclear power”—he's been saying that over and over again, which does put into question what it would mean for NATO to come to the defense of the Baltic countries, for example, if Putin is not so subtly saying, “If we clash there, you better be ready for an escalation.” He's testing, as he always does. “What happens if I push hard here? What kind of response do I get? Oh, not much of a response on Crimea. I'll push a little harder on Donbas, what kind of response will I get there? Oh, the world seems able to live with Donbas. Let's try for the whole of Ukraine. Let's see what happens if I start talking about NATO itself.” It's not out of the question. He's testing that next.
Mounk: I read your masterful piece about the Afghanistan withdrawal, and the deep failure of the Biden administration to come to the rescue of our allies who trusted us and will probably pay for our betrayal with their lives. I came away from reading that piece with a deep anger about the failures of the Biden administration's foreign policy and a sense that if only they had been willing to do more, the fate [of Afghanistan] would have been a whole lot better.
My sense is that the administration has acted much more competently, with much more resolve and creativity, on Ukraine. The dark aspect of an otherwise positive story about the Biden administration's resolve in this situation is that it wasn't enough. It didn't, in fact, make a crucial difference. I don't know how to grapple with that.
Packer: I agree that they've been impressive. And I've asked myself, “Why on this one, and not on Afghanistan?” Maybe they drew some lessons from the debacle in August of last year. Maybe Ukraine and NATO and Europe mean something to Biden in a way that Afghanistan didn't, and therefore he and his top advisors simply acted with more urgency, intelligence, energy and creativity, as you say. If deterring Putin was the goal, it didn't work. Maybe nothing could have worked.
I wrote a book about Richard Holbrooke [the American diplomat and broker of the 1995 Dayton Accords on the Bosnian conflict]. Bosnia was one example of—after three years of delay and weakness and disorganization—the US and its allies using diplomacy and force to end a war, and to probably save a lot of people who were going to die if that war had gone on. The big difference was that Russia was in no position to do anything about it. If Russia had been Putin's Russia, and said, “If you bomb these Serb artillery batteries around Sarajevo, you're going to pull us directly into a war with NATO,” would we have done it? Maybe not. At one point, Russia was sort of threatening that, but it wasn't serious.
What's new is that Russia is aggressive, and Russia has nuclear weapons. In some ways, Barack Obama was right to say that they would always care more about Ukraine than we would. We're not going to be able to stop Putin if he decides to do something this horrific and this risky. But we can make it really hard for him—which Obama did not do after 2014, and which Trump absolutely reversed by becoming his best asshole buddy. We can make it really hard for him, especially if the Ukrainian people have not given up. That's what it all depends on. Of course, we can't really make it hard for him without them. And we can make it hard for him, not just to punish him and to deter him, but to try to begin to reverse this terrible thing he's done. I don't think we should give up on Ukraine. In some ways it's an offense to what we're supposed to care about, and what they have shown they care about, if we give up on Ukraine.
Mounk: If the basic problem in Ukraine has always been that Russia cares more about Ukraine than we do, what do we care about as much as Putin? How can we get our decision makers to care enough about a certain set of values or a certain set of national security interests, that we have credible deterrence on them?
Packer: We need to care about the future of democracy as much as Putin wants to destroy the future of democracy. It was democracy in Ukraine that threatened Putin. It was not NATO enlargement. It was not the Washington blob. He was not defending Christian civilization or some ancient Russian idea. It was the example of a democratic country right next door, a Russian-speaking democratic country right next door. If we care as much about defending democracy where we can—we're not going to be sending troops on impossible errands as we've done in the last 20 years—if we can defend democracy using the many tools we have, especially financial ones, with as much energy as Putin and Xi Jinping are going about showing that democracy can be crushed, that would be a foreign policy I could get behind.
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Editor’s note: As of the time of publication, Putin was under economic sanctions that did not prevent his travel, though the White House indicated a travel ban may be a part of a sanctions package.