The Outside In: War in Ukraine

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In this episode, Sophie Yass (‘22) and Stephanie Lu (‘25) investigate the Russian invasion of Ukraine, how it occurred, recent developments, and why it’s important. We discuss topics like NATO, the role of the media, soft war, and how the state of global security has irrevocably been altered. The hosts speak to Wake Forest alumni Shane Harris (‘98), author and staff writer with the Washington Post, where he covers intelligence and national security. Here are some more resources to help better understand this topic. 

This transcript has been edited for clarity and AP style.

Shane Harris (’98) speaks with our hosts about Ukraine.

Sophie Yass: Well, welcome and thank you so much for joining us. To start, if you could just tell us your name, what you do and maybe where you went to college?

Shane Harris: Yes, I’m Shane Harris, I cover Intelligence and National Security for The Washington Post, and I’m a 1998 graduate of Wake Forest University.

Yass: Love it. Today, as you know, we are going to be talking about the war in Ukraine.

Stephanie Lu: So a question for you, how did we get to this point? And for people who aren’t familiar with the history of Russia-Ukraine relations, what is the essential context that they should know? 

Harris: Well, it’s a long history. Maybe a good way to start is to remind people that before Ukraine was an independent country, it was a member of the Soviet Union. So it was one of the Soviet republics. But obviously, the history between Russia and Ukraine and the people go back many, many, many years. There are strong cultural linkages between people in Russia and in Ukraine, but Ukraine also has a distinct identity and its own distinct history. 

And this has become important in the present conflict because Vladimir Putin, the President of Russia, doesn’t really see Ukraine as an independent country. He sees it as something that was always properly belonging to Russia. That it was always Russia and this is very much at the center of the conflict. You can go back to the days right before Putin ordered his forces to invade Ukraine, where he gave this kind of stemwinder of a speech in which he asserted that Ukraine is not a real country, and he’s made other similar baseless kinds of claims for. 

Vladimir Putin would like, I think, for most people in the world to believe that he is invading Ukraine because he is trying to stop NATO from expanding its reach and its influence. He sees that as a threat to Russia. Ukraine has tried to join the NATO alliance, the support system of post World War II alliances — the U.S., Britain in European countries are members of, including a number of former Soviet republics — that famously says an attack on one member is an attack on all members and we would come to each other’s tents. Ukraine has wanted to join NATO and that has been problematic for a number of reasons even though they have not joined it. 

There are other analysts, and I ascribe to this theory, who believe that that is nonsense. That it’s not really NATO that Putin is scared of. Because NATO is a defensive alliance, NATO has never attacked Russia and doesn’t pose a security threat to Russia, arguably. What Putin is really worried about is democratic uprisings in his own country. He looks back at 2014 and sees the popular uprising, the democratic protests that took place in Kyiv, the capital of Ukraine, that overthrew a government that was friendly to Russia and that was friendly to the Kremlin. The thinking is that Putin doesn’t want to see that happening in Russia, and there’s a lot of evidence that he’s deeply paranoid about protests. And of course, he has violently suppressed dissent in Russia, including trying to murder leading activists. 

In 2014, Russia invaded Ukraine for the first time. They seized Crimea, the peninsula in the south, and they then set up a quasi-occupation of parts of the East. There had long been this concern that Putin was going to try one day to come for the whole of Ukraine, and ultimately, that’s where we are now. He has tried to mount this campaign to topple the democratically elected Kyiv, led by Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who has kind of become a household name now. The aim of Putin’s campaign, although he says differently, seems to have been to try and conquer Ukraine, and if not make it part of Russia formally, then to install another puppet government that was friendly to Putin. That’s the back story. That’s kind of how the quick version of how we got here. 

Yass: So why did diplomacy not work then?

Harris: Do you mean in the run-up to the war in Ukraine? 

Yass: Yes.

Harris: I think that probably the reason diplomacy failed was because we didn’t have an interest in diplomacy. [Putin] seems to have thought, and he may have been to some degree misled by his military advisers here, that it would be relatively easy to conquer Ukraine, take the capital and effectively control the country. That he would be able to do that in a matter of days. He didn’t want to negotiate a settlement, as he saw it, Ukraine was there for the taking. 

There are some people who have been looking in hindsight asking is there more that Ukraine could have done? Is there more the West could have done to try and give him concessions to try and come to some kind of agreement? If there was one to be reached, Putin might have said, “All right, I will amass all my forces on the border. I’m threatening to invade you.” Which he had been doing throughout fall and winter and maybe force Ukraine to come to the table and perhaps say these two important breakaway republics in the east, let them have a referendum whether they want to join Russia. That presupposes that Putin never intended to conquer Ukraine. And so I think ultimately, kind of second-guessing a little bit, in hindsight, I’m not sure that there was ever really a viable diplomatic solution. Maybe we’ll learn more as time goes on. But it seems from everything we know that Putin always would invade and he wasn’t interested in negotiating.

Lu: How did the U.S. not really see this coming? Or in other words, why was the world taken by surprise?

Harris: Well, I think the U.S. did see it coming. Based on their observations and on the intelligence they gathered, the U.S. intelligence community and the British Intelligence Committee assessed that there was probably a 70-75% likelihood that Russia was going to invade. You’re quite right to point out that there were lots of other people in the world who were taking surprise at this, though, notably, a lot of our allies in Europe. The Germans were very skeptical that Russia was actually going to follow through with this. So much so actually, that the head of German intelligence was in Kyiv the day the invasion started, because he was not convinced that it was actually going to happen. He had to get out of there very quickly. The French were skeptical, as well, and President Macron also tried very hard to fork negotiations and find some kind of peaceful settlement. But I think most people who were genuinely surprised, and maybe even some lawmakers and maybe even some officials were so surprised because they thought, why on earth would Putin want to do this?

Everyone who thought that he was going to invade or even those who thought he wouldn’t invade, thought that it would be a very tough slog. I think nobody predicted that Ukrainians would fight this hard, but nobody thought that it was just going to be a cakewalk. And once Putin took the country, even if he did that in a relatively short order, what was he going to do? Was he going to occupy Ukraine? Was he going to try and hold it? And of course, importantly, the Biden administration and our allies in Europe had said very explicitly and publicly to Putin, “if you invade, we are going to absolutely level you with economic sanctions. We’re going to throw everything we have at you.” So he knew this. 

I think a lot of people thought Putin is not stupid, he’s not crazy, he’s just blustering. I remember talking to officials in the Ukrainian government in the days before the invasion, who thought Putin was bluffing. Ukraine didn’t think he would invade. I think that it was largely based on the fact that people just couldn’t imagine he would try something so audacious, that had so much risk. And at the end of the day, it’s exactly what he did. And I think that he’s paying a very, very big price for it now.

Yass: So on that note of economic sanctions, it’s clear that the U.S. can do things to curtail Russia’s efforts, but obviously only up to a certain point. What is that line that we can’t cross? And how do we support countries without making more war?

Harris: Well, the line that the Biden administration has set — and importantly, this is one that all of the NATO allies are in agreement on — is that we’re not going to put military forces on the ground. No boots on the ground. We’re also not going to enforce what’s known as a no-fly-zone. This is something that the Ukrainian government very badly wants. The idea here would be that NATO-member aircraft and anti-aircraft weapons would be used to patrol the skies around Ukraine to ensure that no Russian planes are flying through. Those are the planes going on to bomb targets. 

Well, to enforce a no-fly-zone, you have to shoot down the aircrafts that are violating it. And of course, if American planes are then shooting down Russian aircraft, we’re arguably at war with Russia. The fear is that this would escalate very, very quickly into a much bigger war with many more casualties. And of course, the greatest fear underlying all of this is that Russia, perhaps in a moment of desperation, in support of some kind of misguided strategy, would try to use a nuclear weapon. Russia is a nuclear power. And this is what we’re trying to avoid effectively as some kind of developing nations war, major conflict in Europe. 

So that’s where officials have drawn the line. Now, the question then becomes like, how close can you get to the line? We are sending huge amounts of missiles and anti-tank weapons, aircraft weapons to Ukraine, who is using them on the ground. We are providing them drones, we’re giving them equipment, we are giving them money. We’re not giving them aircraft. And this kind of weird line has been drawn around. People in the U.S. are asking, “Well, wait a second, we’re giving them missiles, they can fire on their shoulders to blow up tanks and kill troops, but we won’t let them have airplanes that can blow up tanks and kill troops?”

The problem here is that Russia looks at what we’re providing in terms of weapons and says, “OK, got it, like soldiers firing tanks.” They would probably see that as a defensive weapon. Giving them an aircraft, which then the Ukrainians could fly into Russia, it targets Russia. The Russians might see that as more of an overt act of aggression, offense, not defense. So the fear is that if you offer too many weapons to the Ukrainians that the Russians think of as offensive weapons, then you also might spark a larger war. So these are kind of the lines the US is having to play with right now. And Ukrainians look at that and say, “That’s all great. But in the meantime, like we are facing an existential threat, our country is at risk of being overrun.” They would like to see the West do much more than they are doing now.

Lu: Since the war broke out, a number of international corporations have cut relations with Russia. What impact has this had on Russia and its allies?

Harris: Well, I think it’s had a significant impact. You look just broadly at the Russian economy, and you include all the sanctions that have taken place, the value of the ruble has plummeted. It was already getting pretty low before the war, but now it’s really gone down. Western countries have seized, or frozen I should say, the assets of Russia’s central banks. So the currency reserves Russia keeps in foreign central banks around the world — that’s about half a trillion dollars in cash — the Russians cannot access right now. 

The effect of these companies pulling out means there are certain goods and services the Russians can no longer get. It means that people who were employed in Russia by those companies no longer have jobs. Some of it might be symbolic. Some of it might actually end up hurting the companies more than it hurts the Russians. So broadly speaking, the sanctions, I think they are having a pretty significant bite. The question is, to what degree did Putin anticipate this and sort of take steps to as some people, would they sanction proof his economy? 

There’s pretty good evidence that he thought the sanctions wouldn’t be this severe. I mean, otherwise, why did he leave so much money in foreign currency reserves sitting abroad where it could just be frozen? I think he thought the West would never go that far. These sanctions are making it more difficult for Russia to raise money.   They’re making it more difficult for them to move money around. They’re making it more difficult for them to buy money to keep its military upgraded, and in good shape. The military clearly has been underperforming. So I think that long term, these do have a significant impact. 

It’s going to be really interesting to see if Ukraine comes to a peace deal with Russia, if Russia is going to demand that the West also lift some of these sanctions as part of the deal. Remember, Ukraine didn’t impose these sanctions. The U.S. and its allies did, and it’s up to them to lift them. We will see whether Russia demands that as an exchange for stopping hostilities.

Yass: As a reporter, as a member of the media, how are you able to fact check reporting when things are moving so quickly, and there’s so much disinformation going around?

Harris: That’s a great question. It’s always hard in the middle of a crisis, and particularly in the middle of a war, to verify information. So much is coming at you from reports on the battlefield, to what our correspondents in Ukraine are seeing, to just the huge amount of information on social media being posted by Ukrainian citizens, by governments and by Russian forces who have been posting things on various channels. What we try to do is, as quickly as we can, find corroborating sources for that information. Maybe it’s an official in a government who can say “yes, we’re seeing that, too. We believe it’s credible, based on our intelligence sources relating to satellite.”

For videos that get posted, we have a whole team actually at The Washington Post that just does video verification. They look at the metadata, things that they can learn from geo tagging, and try to come to some conclusion on whether it is likely an authentic video or whether it’s just something to be repurposed for some kind of propaganda campaign, or whether it’s just somebody sending something out that they don’t realize is actually an old video. The best thing to do is just kind of take a breath when new information comes in and focus first on getting it right, getting it right quickly, and verifying it rather than just trying to push it out there without verifying it. 

So we’re fortunate here at the paper that we have now, dozens of reporters who are working on this. It’s not as if a handful of us only have to be doing all of this work all the time. We can really spread that labor out. Which is great, because then that frees up me to go do original reporting, talk to my sources and get ready to craft articles that I have more time and a bit more breathing room to do. I don’t have to be responding to every single thing that’s happening.

Lu: That’s reassuring that that responsibility is taken so seriously. The concept of soft war includes things like cyberattacks, sanctions, propaganda, and other ways of influencing populations. Do people underestimate the power of soft war?

Harris: Well I think they do, yes. It’s interesting to me that we haven’t seen more cyberattacks actually, in this conflict, that we haven’t seen Russia launching attacks to sort of do things like take out electrical grids in Ukraine. We know that they can do it because we have seen them do this, or even launch attacks on American computer networks in retaliation. If you want to think about propaganda — and it often has a negative connotation, but we can just sort of strip out the value connotation for a second — and think maybe broadly about Information Operations and think of it that way. Ukraine has been masterful in this.

I mean, we can just look at the way that Volodymyr Zelenskyy records these telegram messages and these videos when he’s in his bunker, and he’s in that green tactical T-shirt sitting there at the desk. He has become this kind of heroic figure and has rallied the world’s attention. He has rallied support from citizens and countries all around the world and clearly is bolstering his own people most importantly. This is very improbable. Most of you people know this, maybe by now, but before Volodymyr Zelenskyy was President of Ukraine, he was a famous comedian in Ukraine who played on a television show a man who becomes the president of Ukraine despite it being unlikely. And most Americans probably know him from the famous phone call that he had with President Donald Trump where President Donald Trump was trying to extract political investigations and favors from Zelenskyy in exchange for providing aid. That phone call got President Donald Trump impeached the first time. 

So these characters kind of existed out there in the popular imagination. This weird kind of role in this chapter of American political history suddenly becomes this leader standing up to Russia. He is the David facing Goliath. He has used social media and information to tell that story and push that out there. I think that that’s worth keeping in mind.

The United States also did this before the war. The Biden administration had classified intelligence or top-secret intelligence about what Russia was up to and its plans, and they started declassifying that and releasing that to the press. I reported one of those stories. That was also a way of using information to shape a narrative and, not necessarily to try and deter Putin from invading, but to alert the world. This is what he’s up to. So that if he does do it, he can’t say, oh, Ukraine forced me to do it, or we were attacked. First, you kind of try to shape that information environment, because in that environment is how countries make decisions on how to act. You could argue that the United States in rallying support against Russia before the invasion made it easier to levy those very, very significant sanctions. And so I think this is another example of how that kind of soft power, as you put it, is really important and has big consequences, and how hard power ultimately is wielded.

Yass: So then shifting to more of the local standpoint, in what ways is this war affecting the everyday lives of Americans that may not be as obvious as gas prices?

Harris: You picked the obvious winner. I just filled up my car this morning, and it was $50 more than usual. That’s the big one. Other ways that it might be affecting Americans’ lives they might not necessarily immediately understand. There’s kind of broadly destabilization effects, things like financial markets, and the ability to move goods around the world. Ukraine is a major producer of grain, actually. Already friends of mine I talked to in Germany are seeing shortages of flour, shortages of cooking oil produced in Ukraine. So you might see these consumer goods and things that we rely on every day becoming harder to find. But maybe not so much in the United States, because we produce a lot of our own grain. 

Obviously, this is probably more a local story for people in Europe, but to some degree in the United States, the just astonishing number of Ukrainians who have been turned into refugees or become internally displaced. The United Nations estimates that 25% of the Ukrainian population has been displaced in some way or another. That is just extraordinary. I mean, to think about tens of millions of people now have no home and millions of them are fleeing for refuge in other countries. That is an incredibly destabilizing thing as well, in addition to just being an absolute humanitarian catastrophe. Like, objectively this is a terrible thing. People can’t go home and are fleeing for their lives with their children and their possessions. So that affects people too. 

At the end of the day, Americans probably are not going to feel the burden or the impact of this as acutely and chronically as I think people in Europe probably will and those are the ways that you will see it play out. Gas prices are a way that Americans can kind of take a quick temperature of how they’re feeling about things and the economy and the state of the world. Gas prices are up, inflation is up. People are feeling pretty pessimistic right now. And I think that when they just see war and the threat of a bigger war out there looming on the horizon, I think that also shapes the way they think about their own lives and the confidence they have about the future.

Lu: Speaking to how people feel about the war. Is the war something that college students should be thinking about or worried about? What can we do?

Harris: Well, I don’t think you should worry. No, I think in general, it’s never good to worry. But thinking about it? Absolutely, yes. Because what we’re looking at right now is a fundamental change in the nature of global security and the balance of power as it exists between Russia, Europe, the United States, and of course, China is a huge factor in all of this. So you’re witnessing this kind of realignment and this shuffling of security in the world. That has ramifications in every effect of our lives, how safe we are, how easily we can move around, economies, lives, fortunes, all these things. 

So certainly, as college students who are preparing to embark on your lives in the world, absolutely, you should be following it in thinking about how it’s going to change the world that we live in. When I was a teenager, it was during the Twilight period of the Cold War. I was in high school when the Berlin Wall fell, and the Soviet Union collapsed a few years later. But growing up in that period, we really feared that there was a chance, maybe not a big chance, but a chance, nonetheless, that we would all die in a nuclear war. The story of the late Cold War was this period of high tension between the U.S. and the Soviet Union and people feared a developing nation’s war. But then ultimately, this great hope came about when countries became democratic, the wall came down and the Soviet Union dissolved. 

It’s just so striking to me now, to think that was that period between the end of the Cold War and now is just kind of an intermission. And now we’re coming back to where we do have to be afraid of a country with nuclear weapons, where we see a big war in Europe that is killing so many people and displacing so many people with the threat that Putin could attack another country. Wars tend to often not stay contained for very long and in Europe, they don’t stay contained. Not easily, not without some intervention. So it’s striking to me now to think about that. When I was your age at Wake Forest, it was truly this period where things were changing. Europe was becoming more democratic and open to free trade. And it just seemed like the future was very bright and full of possibilities. And now it just seems so much grimmer and sadder.

Yass: To wrap, what’s the latest? Should we feel reassured at all by the recent talks between Russia and Ukraine about scaling back their military operations?

Harris: I think we can be cautiously optimistic. There are some signs that the Ukrainians and the Russians are — they are negotiating. That’s important. They’re talking, that’s a great step.

And there are signs that they are both willing to put some things on the table and start negotiating. It’s important to always remember that Russia often says one thing and does another. They have not fully stopped their attacks on cities, notably Kyiv, and another nearby major city, which they had said they were going to dramatically scale down their military assaults. Yes, dramatically is in the eye of the beholder. 

I think that there’s some chance for this, Ukraine seems to be willing to say “we might be willing to declare neutrality. Essentially saying “we would not take a part in a conflict,” which I think implicitly means you cannot join NATO. Because if you’re in NATO, you have to commit to going to war, if another member is attacked; it’s not a neutral agreement. So no joining NATO, neutrality and in exchange, they want some security guarantees from countries in the West and the United States as well, that they would come to their assistance if Russia invaded. And then we’ll see what Russia is going to concede here. 

Will they stop killing people? Will they stop the invasion? Will they pull their forces back? Will they focus on the east? Will they leave entirely? This all remains to be seen, but I think that there are some glimmers of hope. So that’s some reason to be optimistic.

Yass: Great. Well, thank you so much, Shane. That was awesome. I guess for fun, if you have time, do you want to share what your favorite class at Wake was?

Harris: My favorite class? Wow.

Yass: Or memory.

Harris: My favorite memories are from being in the Lilting Banshees. I was in the early, early OG, Banshees, and I’m very proud and happy to see the troupe going strong today. I was a politics major, even though I spent a lot of my time with the troupe and a lot of my time in the theater, Wake Forest theater. I took a seminar class my senior year, it was a requirement for everybody in the major, and it was Kathy Smith’s class on political communication. 

I was just fascinated by it on its own. We looked a lot at not just how politicians use rhetoric on the campaign trail, but the role of the media at the time. Cable news was really dominant, this the late 90s. This is before the internet really takes over how we get information. It was just so fascinating to think about how the media played a role in how we interact with our government, how we think about government and the world. And I swear, the things that I learned in that class became bedrock, just principles that ended up forming my career as a journalist. 

I did not know I wanted to be a journalist. I had no intention of going into journalism. I didn’t write for the Old Gold & Black. I was just fascinated by it though. And then a couple of years later, when I became a journalist, I look back at that class and go “wow, that class really prepared me really well” and it gave me some ground level kind of basics for how to think about what journalists do and the role that we play in our democracy. It’s stuck with me ever since.

Yass: Awesome. Well, it definitely serves you well.

Harris: Well, thank you and thanks for the chance to come talk to you guys. Keep up the great work.