It’s been one month since Russia invaded Ukraine, and in that time, nearly a quarter of Ukraine’s population has been displaced.
On Thursday, President Biden traveled to Brussels to meet with world leaders to discuss expanding NATO’s response to the crisis. The United States also announced that it will take in 100,000 Ukrainian refugees and donate $1 billion to help European countries that have welcomed fleeing Ukrainians.
Will that be enough, given the scale of the crisis? And with a looming threat of nuclear warfare from Russia, how safe are Europe, the United States and the rest of the world?
The Times columnists Ross Douthat and Thomas L. Friedman join the editorial board member Farah Stockman and Lulu Garcia-Navarro, a Times Opinion podcast host, to discuss these questions and more. Their conversation is available in the audio file and the transcript below.
Opinion Round Table: ‘If This War Drags On, We Are in a Completely New World’
Times columnists Tom Friedman, Ross Douthat and editorial board writer Farah Stockman discuss the refugee crisis and what comes next in the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
The following conversation has been edited for clarity.
Lulu Garcia-Navarro: President Biden and NATO allies are grappling with really big questions about the future and security of Europe and the threats Putin poses to the West. Tom, I want to start with you. What are the biggest short-term and long-term questions on the table as he travels to the European continent?
Thomas L. Friedman: Well, Lulu, what I’d say is this: Wars are really defined and decided by things with weight, not by words in the air. And the things with weight that have been shaping this war up to now I would say are three. One has been the ineffectiveness of the Russian military. Two has been the effectiveness of the Ukrainian military. And three, and very importantly, has been the solidarity and effectiveness of the Western alliance — but beyond that also, and more broadly with Japan and Korea and other Asian countries joining as well.
This Western alliance has been critical in two ways. One is it’s been able to sustain crippling economic sanctions. And it’s been able to provide material military support, particularly anti-tank weapons, anti-aircraft weapons and drones to the Ukrainians. And it’s been very important for absorbing refugees and providing aid for that.
So I think the president’s going to be trying to reinforce all those things with weight that will really help define this. And with one added thing — I think there’s going to be an effort to make a very clear warning to Putin that if he opts for any kind of weapon of mass destruction, be it chemical, biological or nuclear, that there will be a NATO response. I suspect that’s on the agenda. I don’t know for sure, but going in, that’s what we heard.
Lulu Garcia-Navarro: I want to get to that. But I want to ask you this, Tom: President Biden is also going to be delivering a sobering message to Europe on this trip, we understand, that the conflict will last for months, possibly for years. Briefly, Tom, do you think that’s true? And if so, what do you think it means?
Thomas L. Friedman: Well, it’s very hard to predict, Lulu. And the reason is because of the incredible asymmetry in how we’re able to view this war. So what we see graphically every day are pictures of the battlefield, and we see pictures that show the effectiveness, often, of Ukrainian forces, and then the terrible devastation that’s been wrought by the Russians so far. That dimension of the war really plays to video.
But there’s a whole other war going on. The West, led by the United States, has dropped the equivalent of an economic nuclear bomb on Russia. And its blast radius just keeps widening every day. So what you don’t see is Ivan Ivanovich going to his A.T.M. machine and not being able to withdraw money, or going to the boss of his factory and saying, How are we going to operate by next week if we have no more microchips?
So we are inflicting terrible pain on the Russian economy at a very broad scale, but none of it is viewable, or very little of it is viewable — very little is being reported inside Russia. I would keep that in mind for anyone who says this is going to go on forever. Maybe it will. I don’t know. But I think we are inflicting a lot more pain than we’re able to see right now.
Lulu Garcia-Navarro: Farah, you were just in Poland. How is Europe thinking about the possibility, and preparing for the possible eventuality, that this war may drag on?
Farah Stockman: Well, I guess the short answer is when I was there, they were not. I went to Warsaw city hall and the mayor’s press secretary told me that energy costs to heat municipal buildings were up 600 percent before the Russian invasion. And she said people were just bracing themselves. They didn’t even want to talk about how much costs were going to go up further.
So I think there’s a lot. This has come on really quickly. The response was quick. And people haven’t actually had time to process what this really means for Europe in terms of city budgets and how are you going to take all of these refugees in for years. So there are just starting to be conversations now about whether the European Union should give money directly to cities that are hosting these refugees instead of to their federal governments that tend to be less generous. But there’s a profound transformation that’s going to happen in Europe once people really start digesting what this means for Europe.
Lulu Garcia-Navarro: Ross, Tom talked about the economic costs being inflicted on Russia, and Farah was getting us into the economic costs being inflicted on Europe. I want to ask you about the economy. Because even though Europe has stood firm, NATO has just announced more troop deployments to the East. But it is still so reliant on gas and oil from Russia, which means it is paying Russia for those commodities and propping up its economy while also supposedly sanctioning it. How sustainable is this split policy?
Ross Douthat: It is a very curious situation where we are, as Tom said, attempting this kind of massive economic war against Putin’s regime. And also, Europe is sending his regime about $1 billion a day in oil and gas money. That is sustainable in the sense that it has to be sustainable in the short term, in part just because the level of pain already being inflicted on European economies is substantial.
You can imagine a long-term future, or even a medium-term future, where this conflict accelerates a European energy transition, maybe even the reopening of some of those shuttered German nuclear power plants that we hear so much about. But in certain ways, Putin still has the power to inflict economic pain on the West. There are limits to the level of economic pain that the West is willing to inflict on itself, probably. That can probably sustain the situation for a while. And then the military landscape becomes crucial again.
I think we’re in uncharted territory with the economic warfare. But we do have many examples in the current world, in the not so distant past, of regimes surviving brutal economic warfare led by the United States. Now, Russia is in a different position for various reasons than Iran or Venezuela, but there’s no guarantee that Ivan Ivanovich, the Russian everyman, is going to rise up and help overthrow Vladimir Putin. It’s unlikely that would ever happen exactly like that. So the military landscape is still, I think, incredibly important to figuring out how this actually ends.
Lulu Garcia-Navarro: I’d like to then actually turn to the battlefield now. I don’t want to be a catastrophist, but the U.S., according to Times reporting, is now preparing for weapons of mass destruction to be deployed by Russia in Ukraine. That’s one of the things Biden is going to be discussing on this trip. We’re talking, of course, of chemical, biological or, worst-case scenario, nuclear weapons.
Tom, are they worried about that in Europe? And how likely is that to happen, do you think? And what should the response be? And then, Farah, I put the same questions to you.
Thomas L. Friedman: Well, of course they’re worried. It would be impossible not to be, since poison gas was used in Syria — whether it was by the Russians, technically, or the Syrian government, I’m not clear on, but we’ve seen it deployed already.
One of the things the administration has done is to be incredibly pre-emptive in leveraging their intelligence. It’s been one of the really new things in this story, and they’ve been quite accurate, actually. So we’ve obviously penetrated them.
But we’re disclosing this information, I suspect, not only to rattle Putin but to draw a couple of red lines. We saw two red lines drawn this way in the last 10 days. One was actually to China. The story came out — leaked by the administration — that China was considering or had transferred weapons to Russia. That was a real red line for the administration. The Chinese claim that they haven’t. But that would have been very important in tilting this war. And that was a way of throwing a brushback pitch at that.
The second is on chemical warfare. I suspect this was based on some intelligence of finding preparations for that, and signaling that that would draw a red line. Now, Putin may want to test that red line. I think Putin’s dilemma strategically is that his plan A, the war he thought he was going to fight, which was a quick intervention into Ukraine, the country falls into his lap — plan A failed.
So he’s now on plan B, which I believe is to inflict as much damage on the country and to its civilian population [as possible] to create the very mass refugee exodus and the incredible stress and strain that will put on European governments. The reason that President Biden just announced that the United States will take 100,000 refugees is partly, again, to hold the alliance together and not fall prey to Putin’s strategy, which is to create so many refugees — millions and millions — that basically the NATO allies will come to President Zelensky in Ukraine and say, Look, we just can’t take any more. You’re going to have to cut a deal with this guy.
Lulu Garcia-Navarro: Farah, I’d like to hear from you on that, too.
Farah Stockman: People were absolutely freaking out when I was there. We’re protected by these two big oceans over here in the United States. The war still feels far away. But when you’re in Warsaw, you’re a 10-hour drive from Kyiv. If you’re in Berlin, it’s, what, 15 hours? It’s not far away. And people were really worried.
I think the issue is, if Putin keeps threatening to use nuclear weapons, what can you do to respond? Because if you give in to the threats, he can just push NATO further and further away. He can keep demanding a buffer zone. He can keep expanding his power into Europe. And that’s unacceptable. But the opposite is also unthinkable, which is to respond in a way that will draw NATO in and literally have World War III.
So it’s really serious. They’re basically looking at the possibility of either having a big North Korea on Europe’s border or finding some way to get rid of Putin. It’s more serious than even people in Poland are imagining.
Lulu Garcia-Navarro: Ross, your thoughts, especially if these weapons are used in Ukraine and some of it drifts into a NATO country? The question seems to be: Would that be considered an act of war on NATO, and would they then be forced to respond?
Ross Douthat: I would be curious for Farah and Tom, what they think the tactical purpose of using chemical and biological weapons at this stage of the war would be. I agree with Tom, our intelligence predictions about what Putin has been going to do have been quite good. So I think we have to take it seriously.
But as I look at the situation in Ukraine, Putin’s challenge right now is the Russian forces are very close to basically establishing a stable-seeming corridor connecting Crimea to the Donbas region. And this is why the ongoing siege and destruction of Mariupol, which is essentially the joint in that connection, is so strategically significant right now.
To the extent that Putin can claim an imaginable victory in some relatively short period of time, enabling him to actually negotiate to end the war and be able to tell the Russian public that he has succeeded in something — that seems like his scenario to basically say, We have reconnected Crimea to the Russian-speaking regions of the east, and we are going to hold this territory, or hold referenda in these territories, or something.
I don’t think in that military landscape using nuclear weapons makes much sense for him. The scenario where Russian military doctrine considers using tactical nuclear weapons would be a scenario where he actually started losing the war outright, and Ukrainian forces were pushing the Russians back in large numbers toward the Russian border. I think that’s the scenario where you would worry that Putin would basically set off a tactical nuke somewhere and dare the Ukrainians and the West to do something about it.
That’s the uncertainty I have about weapons of mass destruction at this strategic moment. It doesn’t seem to me that it helps Putin fulfill what is his most plausible military goal right now, which is basically consolidation in the south.
Lulu Garcia-Navarro: Tom, do you want to respond to that? What would be the tactical benefits of using chemical weapons?
Thomas L. Friedman: I think Ross laid out the costs of it very accurately. I would say another cost of it is that you have the Chinese, who are really the swing vote in a lot of this, sitting on the fence. Xi Jinping’s, the president of China’s, heart is with Putin. His head, though, knows that it would be tremendously costly for China to intervene materially on his behalf since the European Union is China’s largest export market, just for starters.
So if Putin were to introduce any kind of weapon of mass destruction, chemical or nuclear, I think that would also be a real problem for the Chinese. I just assume it would be some desperation Hail Mary kind of thing to depopulate Ukraine and basically force the entire population onto the rest of Europe and create some havoc there. But I find it hard to see it as part of any sort of strategy right now to win the war and be able to consolidate the gains.
Lulu Garcia-Navarro: I want to turn to the refugee crisis, because as you have mentioned — all three of you — this is the third front of this war, where people are being killed and displaced by Russia in order to change the course of the war. It’s estimated that nearly a quarter of Ukraine’s population has been displaced by the invasion, including half of all Ukrainian children, and three and a half million of those people have left the country entirely. And we know that in recent years immigration has been a really fraught topic in Europe.
Tom, you have talked about the pressure this influx of refugees will put on European countries and how it might be part of Putin’s strategy to fracture NATO’s response to the invasion. Do you think that Europe can continue to absorb these numbers? The United States has said that they are going to be admitting 100,000 Ukrainian refugees, but that’s a drop in the bucket.
Thomas L. Friedman: It’s a real problem. We live in an age where it’s just harder and harder to be a country, to hold together as a country. And we see the stresses and strains on weak and frail states now and in places like the Middle East. I point to Lebanon, which has received a huge influx of refugees from the Syrian war, which the Russians were also involved in. These kinds of pressures on countries at a time of climate change, at a time of economic stress, they make it very hard just to be a country in general. Then add on that suddenly the pressure of having to absorb not 100,000 but several million refugees all at once, many of them women, children and elderly — not working males, because they’ve stayed behind in Ukraine. And you have just enormous pressure.
Lulu Garcia-Navarro: At the same time, though, there is massive public support of Ukrainian refugees right now. Farah, what was the sense you got from your recent trip to Poland about the continuing appetite to support them? Do you sense that there’s a sell-by date?
Farah Stockman: I saw a huge outpouring that was in many ways unexpected. A lot of Ukrainians living in Poland have experienced discrimination. They tend to work low-wage jobs.And they said Polish people tended to look down on them.
But all of a sudden, as soon as Russia invades, they were welcomed. And they were seeing Ukrainian flags flying from the Warsaw city hall. C.E.O.s and software developers were taking off work and going to the border and offering people rides and putting people up in their homes. So there has been this extraordinary outpouring, partly out of gratitude. I think Polish people know what it’s like to be invaded by Russians. And they were happy that the Ukrainians were putting up such a fight.
But I do think there could be a sell-by date. The mayor of Warsaw told me that he’d been getting calls from people who said, I put these Ukrainians up for a couple of days. Where should I take them now? What should I do with them now? So it’s going to require a huge effort. And in Poland, it’s very polarized there, just like it is here. The city of Warsaw is liberal, and the government itself has historically been very anti-immigrant and more far right.
So it’s going to be a challenge for Poland to navigate this. Right now they’re holding it together and putting on a united front to face the crisis. But a year from now, or two years from now, I wonder what it’s going to look like.
Lulu Garcia-Navarro: I want to ask you all a final question, because while we consider what Europe is dealing with, of course, the ramifications of this are being felt here in the United States. I went to see family this week, and I will say that folks who are normally not terribly interested in foreign policy were fiercely debating Ukraine and Putin and Russia. This is a conflict that matters for all sorts of reasons to Americans.
Considering how complicated this is — the economic, military and human costs we’ve just been discussing — what should Americans be bracing for? Tom, let’s start with you.
Thomas L. Friedman: Well, obviously, higher energy prices, since Russia is such an important player in the global energy market. Higher food prices, directly or indirectly, because Ukraine and Russia are huge suppliers of wheat. But to fully answer that question, Lulu, we have to think about if the war does drag on.
We have lived in a world, since 2000, that we’ve gotten quite used to. We’ve learned to live with what I would call “bad-boy Putin.” We knew he was a bad guy, intervened in our elections, in his own ways intervened in Europe, bit off pieces of neighboring states, was involved in Syria. But somehow we found a way to kind of reconcile with him and keep Russian oil and gas flowing to the West.
If this war drags on, we are in a completely new world. We’re in a world of dealing with or learning to live with a Russia that is a pariah state. So that’s one thing.
The other thing I would simply say is while this war is going on, other trends haven’t stopped. I don’t know if anyone has noticed the stories out of Antarctica. Antarctic temperatures are 70 degrees — not 7, 7-0 — degrees higher than normal right now.
Ross Douthat: Are you trying to cheer us up?
Thomas L. Friedman: Ross, I always tell people, I can ruin any dinner party, and I do weddings and bar mitzvahs.
Lulu Garcia-Navarro: Thank you for leaving us on that cheery note. Farah, you did predict the economic cost of this war at the outset. What else should Americans know?
Farah Stockman: I think people should brace themselves for terrible things to be done — terrible things to come out of the war, even by the Ukrainian side. Right now we see a lot of social media about Ukrainians rescuing cats and dogs, and they’re so good at communication and getting their message out. But war is ugly and awful. And the longer this goes on, the more you’ll see allegations of war crimes, allegations of far-right militias getting involved. Right now in Mariupol, one of the fiercest defenders of Mariupol is a battalion that’s associated with the far right.
Russia is in it for the long haul. They care a lot more about Ukraine than the average American.
So the other thing I worry about — or the other thing I think Americans should start to expect — is that the rest of the world is not going to see this the way we see this. We talk about the international community, making Russia a pariah. But in fact, South Africa, India, Israel — there’s a long list of developing countries that are sitting on the fence. They’ve got their fingers in the wind. They’re waiting to see which way this blows. And maybe they get their weapons from Russia, or maybe they foresee that one day we could turn our economic power on them and sanction them. I don’t know what it is.
Whoever wins this war, however this ends up, I am hoping that the United States can come up with a posture that can try to live in peace with the developing world, even if they’re not going to do whatever we tell them to do.
Lulu Garcia-Navarro: Ross?
Ross Douthat: Just to quickly pick up on both threads: In U.S. domestic politics, I think the Biden administration has done a very good job overall since the war broke out. But I think it’s going to be a situation where whatever happens in Ukraine, it’s going to take a lot of criticism.
You can imagine a scenario like Farah describes where the war drags on and on. And the question becomes: Why don’t we get out? Why are we still sending weapons and involved in this? Or you can imagine a scenario where you have to make a messy peace deal of the kind Tom has written about. And then the question becomes: Why did Biden sell out to Putin? Why didn’t he do more to stop Ukraine from being carved up? There’s no great domestic political outcome, I think, for the Biden administration, even if it handles this exactly right.
And then geopolitically, to Farah’s point, I think a lot of people — not just Americans, Westerners generally, people in our profession who like to write sweeping essays about geopolitics — they want this to be in a way a new Cold War, a new divided world, and it’s a grand struggle between democracy and autocracy for the future of the human race.
But the world is more complicated and more multipolar than that. And we’re going to have to watch what happens in India, what happens in the Middle East. Our supposed allies in the Middle East, from Israel to Saudi Arabia to the Gulf States, have not been totally on our side. Latin America and Africa have their own interests. And we may be just headed into a very unfamiliar zone of geopolitics that looks maybe more like the 19th century in certain ways. I’m not sure. But that’s what I would be prepared for longer term.
Lulu Garcia-Navarro is a Times Opinion podcast host. Thomas L. Friedman and Ross Douthat are Times columnists. Farah Stockman is a member of the editorial board.
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Times Opinion audio produced by Lulu Garcia-Navarro Alison Bruzek, and Anabel Bacon. Fact-checking by Kate Sinclair, Mary Marge Locker and Rollin Hu. Original music and mixing by Isaac Jones; audience strategy by Shannon Busta and editorial support from Kristina Samulewski. Our executive producer is Irene Noguchi. Special thanks to Kaari Pitkin, Lauren Kelley and Patrick Healy.