Bridge Colby Brings Us the Latest on Ukraine

18 May 2022

CLAY: We’re joined now by Elbridge Colby, co-founder and principal of The Marathon Initiative, formerly U.S. assistant deputy secretary of defense for strategy and force development. He has a book out. It is called The Strategy of Denial: American Defense in an Age of Great Power Conflict. And, I believe, Bridge, that you are also in Hawaii right now.

So, I think it’s like 7:30 or so in the morning out there, hopefully you’re having your coffee, hopefully it’s Black Rifle Coffee, and you are hanging out with us as you start your morning out there; so appreciate you doing that especially on vacation out in Hawaii. What’s the latest so far as you can update us on the situation on the ground in Ukraine, where are we headed?

COLBY: Great. Well, great to be with you, Clay and Buck. And, actually, I’m here in Hawaii on work; so don’t be too jealous, but it’s always a pleasure to be with you guys. The situation in Ukraine, I think it’s clearly the Russians have failed in their kind of main advance towards Kiev, and now it looks like they’ve been pushed out of some of the areas in the northeast as well. They’re concentrating in the southeast and in the south.

It seems like… It’s hard to tell. Seems like they have made some gains. They now seem to have consolidated control over the city of Mariupol. But they’re having — it does seem they’re having — limited success. I think the biggest issue right now that I’ve been concerned about is it’s fantastic that the Ukrainians are being successful.

But there’s increasing warnings, including from our own intelligence community, that we may be running up into the possibility of Russian escalation. And that is something that we need to take seriously. Obviously, it doesn’t mean just kowtowing to him. But it is, you know, the guy’s got 5,000 nuclear weapons, and we have very little we can do to stop him. So, we have to take that seriously.

BUCK: Bridge, what did you think about the joining of Finland and Sweden to NATO? And this seems to be in process right now. On the point about possible escalation from Russia, put aside all the usual caveats, Putin’s a very bad guy, what he’s doing is wrong and horrible and all that, of course, yes, true. He at least for a big part of his belief in why this invasion that benefited his national security in Russia had to do with his expansion of NATO, right? That was the big point of friction stretching back for a long time. So, is this the right move for Sweden and Finland? Does this risk escalation? What do you think?

COLBY: Well, look. First of all, I think very highly of Finland and Sweden. It’s not about them. But I’m thinking about this from the American people’s interests, and I think this requires very careful, deliberate review and a spirit of kind of cost-benefit. NATO is not a charity. It’s not a political organization. It’s a military alliance — and, at the end of the day, it’s more or less primarily underwritten by Americans.

And that’s, yeah, the people in the Beltway, but ultimately the people in the military and their families our country as a whole. So it should make sense from a security perspective, from our self-interests broadly conceived, but it should make sense. And I don’t see a lot of that happening yet. I do think it’s gonna be very important for our Congress to look at it in that spirit. I would just say as a bottom line, adding Sweden and Finland to NATO should increase rather than decrease our security.

And it should enable us to focus on what now the Biden administration following the Trump administration has said is our priority, which is China and Asia. I’m out here, I’m at a conference out here, and it’s a very serious situation. I think those questions can be answered. There are a couple of opportunities. There’s a big NATO summit coming up. The Europeans can spend more on defense. the Swedes and Finns can spend more on defense.

Europeans can volunteer to take up a much bigger role and responsibility. But I think… I don’t even think they should just be waved in. I think we should actually ask tough questions and make sure this makes sense. Because look, Finland, it’s a great country. It’s got an 800-mile border with Russia. And the points that guys mentioned where, yes, the Russians may feel more threatened or not.

But also, it’s gonna give them more opportunity. You know, if NATO is a kind of, quote, unquote, indivisible alliance and you add 800 miles of territory, that’s a lot more territory to defend. That’s a serious problem, and I think the American people deserve serious answers to those questions — and I haven’t really seen people talking this way, which is disturbing.

CLAY: Bridge, what do we think about Vladimir Putin’s health? There’s been a lot of rumors that potentially he has got a very severe form of cancer. One of the big questions has been, “Why now?” Maybe he’s behaving irrationally. Maybe he doesn’t feel like he has that much more time to live, and that could have been an impetus for why he wanted to try to expand Russia’s borders as a legacy move. What do you attribute, based on what you’re reading, hearing, and seeing about Vladimir Putin’s health? And how is that playing into the overall geopolitical landscape, so far as you can tell?

COLBY: it’s hard to tell. He was apparently he was wearing a blanket in early May at the VE-Day, Victory in Europe Day parade, and there’s been rumors about doctor’s visits and so forth. It’s so possible. And look. yes, countries behave as big actors blocks on the board or whatever. But at the end of the day, especially in a centralized system like Russia, Vladimir Putin’s personal view and perspective of his life and legacy make a big difference.

I think he’s been pretty clear on the Ukraine issue over the last few years, that he did want to… He was fundamentally upset about it, not fairly or reason, necessarily, justly, of course. But that’s the perspective that he’s looking. what I will say about this, I don’t think we can reckon on it and we don’t know… Even if he does die, it’s not clear that his successor would be better or not.

CLAY: Do we even know, by the way — sorry to cut you off, but do we know — who Vladimir Putin Putin’s successor would be likely to be if he dies?

COLBY: I don’t think so. There’s rumors about the head of the intelligence, I think the SBR guy, the foreign intelligence is one. Possibly might be the internal guy. But I think a lot of that’s speculation and, frankly, even a designated successor, if we look back at the Soviet period, there were guys who were sort of in the lead, but they don’t survive the internecine knife fight, literally or figuratively, that can happen.

That’s what I would say. I think our hope… Like, this regime change talk from the president and others is deeply irresponsible and it’s kind of crazy, frankly, because, in a sense, Vladimir Putin himself proves that regime change doesn’t solve your problems because we did regime change the Soviet Union, or they self-regime changed, and we end up with Vladimir Putin. So Russia’s likely to act in a certain way.

But it can act more or less responsible. If we look historically, Khrushchev pushed Kennedy over Berlin and the then Cuban Missile Crisis, and he failed. Couple years later, he was basically overthrown. You end up with Brezhnev, which is not that much better but that did lead to detente and stuff. So I think that’s what we could hope for over time is that somebody comes in and says, “This isn’t really working. You know, I’m gonna stay strong Russian nationalist, but I’m gonna play it more quietly,” and that could give us an opening over time.

BUCK: Speaking to Bridge Colby, co-founder and principal of The Marathon Initiative, his book, The Strategy of Denial: American Defense in an Age of Great Power Conflict. Bridge, where does this conflict in Ukraine go from here?

COLBY: Look, I find it kind of surprising that this is controversial, but I think we want this conflict to end in the sense that there’s a humanitarian basis for that, but also that, Russia’s got 5,000 nuclear weapons. It’s an enormous country. It has leverage. They have to agree to stop fighting. And I think the Ukrainians are being very successful, and that’s great, and we should help them be as successful as they can within reason.

But these people who are saying that we need kind of like total victory or something against Russia as if, like, we’re gonna march to Moscow or something implicitly, I don’t think this is how it goes. So I think it’s really gonna be to the extent that we can encourage or open the possibility of an end to the conflict on reasonably advantageous terms for Ukraine, that’s good for us, that’s good for the Ukrainians.

I think it’s probably good for the Russians. That’s not our primary interest. But that’s where I think we want to end up, and that’s probably gonna mean some degree of armed neutrality for Ukraine, not NATO membership, but something where they can defend themselves and the Russians understand they can’t just bite them up, eat them up. But it’s not gonna be this kind of total victory that some people are talking about.

BUCK: Bridge Colby, everybody. Bridge, appreciate you being with us.

COLBY: Always a pleasure, guys.

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