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‘Surprised but not shocked’: Elbridge Colby dissects the geopolitical implications of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine

Podcast & Video

Today’s episode of Hub Dialogues features American foreign and defence policy expert Elbridge Colby. He joins to discuss Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, why Europe must step up as a contributing partner in NATO, and why countering China should still be the main focus of American foreign policy.

You can listen to this episode of Hub Dialogues on Acast, Amazon, Apple, Google, Spotify, or YouTube. A transcript of the episode is available below.

Transcripts of our podcast episodes are not fully edited for grammar or spelling.

SEAN SPEER: Welcome to Hub Dialogues. I’m your host, Sean Speer, editor-at-large at The Hub. I’m honoured to be joined today by Elbridge Colby, who served as the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Strategy and Forces Development in the Trump administration and is the author of the widely praised book, The Strategy of Denial: American Defense in the Age of Great Power Conflict

Elbridge did a Hub Dialogue with us late last year on the future of geopolitics. He’s gracious enough to join us again today to help us make sense of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, including how Western countries ought to respond and its broader geopolitical implications. Elbridge, thanks so much for joining me.

ELBRIDGE COLBY: Great to be with you, Sean.

SEAN SPEER: We’re speaking on Friday, February 25, which is the second full day of Russia’s incursion into Ukraine. Let’s just start big picture. Were you surprised that Putin ultimately pulled the trigger? And what, in your view, is his ultimate motivation?

ELBRIDGE COLBY: I’d say I was sort of surprised but not shocked. I mean, I think it’s a dramatic move. It’s a huge, huge risk, and of course, I’m certainly someone who thinks that military affairs and geopolitics are relevant. But I mean, this is a real diving into the deep end of the pool move by the Kremlin. I wouldn’t say I’m shocked, because it’s been a sort of slow-motion surprise, in the sense that they’ve made clear they’re dissatisfied; they built up a military to do it; that relations have been with us have been frosty for a long time. So again, I don’t pretend any prescience, but it certainly, I would say, didn’t come out of left field. 

But in terms of their goals, I think those are still up in the air—and I’m influenced by my partner Wess Mitchell, he has shaped my view as he knows these issues very, very well—I think it’s important to recognize that just because you have military effects that go very far, and even that your military, including your ground forces, would go very far, doesn’t mean that that maps exactly to your political objectives. So, my guess is it’s somewhere in between. 

The Russians have been hitting targets in the west, but their ground efforts are concentrated towards Kyiv and, it seems, the eastern two-thirds or the eastern half of the country. And you know, the military force is large by contemporary standards, but it’s not huge. Ukraine, I think, is the second-largest country by geography in Europe after Russia itself. So with under 200,000 troops, as we found in Iraq, it’s difficult to have like a real occupation, even if you have done Grozny or you’re Napoleon in Spain or something. I mean that it’s still difficult even if you’re willing to be ruthless. 

My guess is that they know that, although we have seen indications of the presence of their National Guard units, their occupation units. That suggests to me that they’re probably going to go in for some kind of coerced regime change, set up a puppet government, and then work with sympathetic Ukrainians. They might have territorial aims in terms of the Donbas region or others where Russia’s direct exposure is more limited, but where the government is clearly in line with what Russia wants. Probably an even stronger version of what we see in Belarus because they didn’t have to go in and occupy Minsk, whereas here they’re really showing that they’re the boss.

SEAN SPEER: Elbridge, you argue in your book and elsewhere, that due to the rise of China and the scarcity of government resources and attention, the U.S. needs Europe to step up and take responsibility for its continental security. 

What are we to make of Europe’s weak response on Russia? What does it tell us about the reliability of Europe as a security partner? And does it bring into question the future of the EU? 

ELBRIDGE COLBY: Well, tremendously frustrating doesn’t even get at it. The fact that Russia could threaten NATO is a totally preventable outcome in the sense that the EU dwarfs Russia in GDP terms. I mean, Italy alone, and even if you want to discount some because the Russians do more on the military or whatever, it’s still several times larger, European NATO, than Russia. So, it’s really just a matter of will. 

And during the Cold War, the Western NATO Allies did have a large, including the Germans, a very large and very sophisticated military. People like to think that they had been disarmed since World War Two, but it’s not true. They had a very formidable military and if the Europeans could put a fraction of that together—but it’s to the contrary: not only do the Germans disarm, but they’re blocking SWIFT sanctions. Their energy is completely dependent on Russia. So, it’s like this slow-motion, slow-moving train wreck that we’ve had where not only can the Kremlin move advantageously militarily against Ukraine, but it also knows it has these sources of leverage against the main European players. I mean, it wasn’t only Germany; it was also Italy blocking the SWIFT move and being over-concerned about energy as well. NATO is a credible organization these days, largely because of the Americans. I think we need to fundamentally shift towards a different model, as we’ve discussed, which is that Americans remain committed to NATO and give significant military contributions, but there’s a much, much, much more leading role played by the Europeans. 

The Poles are doing a good job, they’ve done a great job—they’re buying a whole bunch of main battle tanks, and the Americans, the Finns do a good job, the Brits are doing a good job. So, the building blocks are there, it’s really mostly about Germany getting in gear. If Germany did it we wouldn’t have a serious threat to NATO because the Europeans would provide most of the conventional offenses and the Americans would provide that nuclear umbrella and the space assets and global kind of things, as well as some local contributions. 

The thing and the point to make to the Europeans, as part of this overall bargain that I think we should be offering to the Europeans, is actually somewhat consistent with the French aspiration, not their actual offer. As some people would point out, this has done real damage to the idea of Europe as a third pole, I mean, if it ever was a credible idea, which I’m skeptical about. 

Because if you’re in Eastern Europe, and you’ve seen the French, and the Germans, and the Italians basically be not that concerned about you, are you really going to rely on Brussels when the chips are down? Probably not. And that means that the European is going to continue to be this kind of confederation, more than anything else. 

If you want a cohesive Europe, you actually need the Americans’ help. This is the thing that the French, I think, need to understand: they should work with us to make a more cohesive Europe. That will then allow us to more readily to shift our focus to Asia. But we’re already well beyond the nice kind of think tank ideas. We need to actually do something because the Russians are, and the Chinese are, very real.

SEAN SPEER: We’ll come to China in a minute, Elbridge, but I just want to pick up on your observations about Germany. You’ve argued elsewhere that Germany holds the key to Europe’s future, and the evidence in recent months and obviously in past days isn’t promising. Is Germany’s weak response really about the country’s reliance on Russian gas exports? Or is there something else going on?

ELBRIDGE COLBY: I think it’s more fundamental. Look, I think there’s this idea that the Germans are naive and that they live in the end of history. And there’s some truth to that. But I think at the end of the day if you look at the results of their policy over the last generations, it’s been very good for Germany. As former national security adviser Robert O’Brien puts it, they have a Germany-first policy. And we should recognize it as such. They just aren’t because they’re not under threat, and they don’t want to pay for defending the Eastern Europeans. 

Okay, they decide they want to go fully green economy. So, they notionally got rid of economic nuclear energy, and they shifted to reliance on Russia. Go figure. They developed a dominant position in the Eurozone, where they have a belt of economies that are reliant on them, and which depresses the value and enables their exports. So, it’s pretty good for Germany. And they moralize it too. That’s the real coup de grâce, if you will, here. It’s the cherry on top, to be using a more American expression.

So, I think we should react accordingly. I think the President’s view towards Germany is like 180 degrees. I mean, I don’t know why he was lauding Chancellor Scholz when Scholz is actually going to potentially be even worse than Chancellor Merkel, which is pretty amazing, in defence spending and on the Russians and the Chinese. Merkel wanted to push through the China investment treaty. I mean, really? So, I think we need to take a much tougher view on Germany now. 

One that’s intelligent and savvy and strategic and has realistic goals for them. I think there’s a strong strain of that. I mean, certainly places like Poland are clearly going to have a clearer picture of Germany. But I think in the United States as well, there’s a growing sense that the German is a real—the scales have sort of fallen from the eyes and Biden represents in my view, kinda like the last gasp of the transatlantic romanticists. I don’t think that’s going to carry forward, no matter the political party, since Obama and Trump were both not transatlantic romanticists in different ways. 

And just to be fair, I’ve been saying this to the Germans very directly in whatever capacity I could for the last several years. I ran a piece in the Munich Daily during the weekend of the Munich Security Conference, basically saying this. Because shouldn’t we be honest, like, won’t that result in a better collective policy? Or are we just going to pretend that everything’s great, and that’s going to lead to fundamental breakdown if we’re not careful?

SEAN SPEER: I’m glad I asked that question because that’s a meaty answer, Elbridge. Let’s now come to China.

You’ve argued elsewhere, including our previous Hub Dialogue that the U.S. and Canada need to reorient their focus on confronting China’s economic and geopolitical ambitions. What does Russia’s invasion of Ukraine mean for that kind of reorientation? Does it make it more likely that China may invade Taiwan? 

ELBRIDGE COLBY: Well, I don’t think it changes any of the fundamentals. Actually, I think there’s this idea that this is gonna interrupt or should interrupt our focus on China. It’s not like our interest in Asia are determined by Russia playing nice. Asia is the primary theatre and China’s the most significant actor. So, in fact, that reality, and the fact that we’ve neglected to deal with it for so long, makes it more likely that Russia—and by the way, Iran— are going to try to exploit it. But that shouldn’t stop us from doing the shift. We have to shift because the logic holds: that’s the critical theatre. 

And there’s a lot of people who just kind of want to try to live in 1999 or 2004, who are saying, “Oh, well, we got to face Russia and China and Iran,” and they’re not dealing with reality. I mean, my rule of thumb right now more and more is if somebody’s not dealing overtly and clearly and credibly with the scarcity of military power—but also our economic power and our political capital—they shouldn’t be taken seriously, their arguments are not serious. Because you don’t have to agree with me. But if we’re gonna have a serious strategic debate, you have to reckon with the fact that you can’t use things all over the place. So, the military is obvious. John Bolton was attacking me with this argument in mind and literally said, “Military resources are not zero-sum.” Which, last time I checked, planes and tanks can’t be in two places at once, and if you use a missile, it blows up, right? Not there anymore. So, just a blatantly fallacious argument. 

But it’s also true in sanctions. I put out something on Twitter this morning about sanctions where one of the concerns about sanctioning Russia with SWIFT is that it will continue to push people towards the Chinese system. It’s not a one-to-one thing, but a lot of these sanctions, if we use them, they’re going to create a catalyzing reaction, which is going to make it less useful—like antibiotics, it’s going to make it less useful next time, including if we want to use it against China. 

And not say that sanctions are a silver bullet against Russia or China, but if you’ve got one shot with deSWIFTing somebody and then after that everybody who could potentially be on your bad side doesn’t use it anymore, well, then you better be sure you’re using it in the best way. So, anyway, that’s kind of the overarching point. But I do think that we have to do things. We should absolutely be involved in Europe and stay engaged in Europe, but in a way that’s acutely conscious of the scarcity. 

And so, that’s mostly about the sanctions. Obviously, arming the Ukrainians and helping them try to defend themselves as much as possible and getting the Europeans to step up. But always conscious that we need to preserve the kind of crown jewels of our power assets for the China phase, particularly over time because, I mentioned this the sanctions issue, but if you use precision-guided munition in war, some of this can take years and years to rebuild, let alone like a stealthy, heavy bomber. I mean, those things take years—ships take years, if you lose ships, that’s big. So that creates a window. And to your point, yes, China might invade Taiwan within a window that’s created.

SEAN SPEER: If we can come back to Russia, I’ve heard and read your argument that the worst-case scenario would be for Russia to seize and digest Ukraine, and then move on elsewhere quickly. 

If you were still advising the U.S. president, what should the American government be doing at this point to respond to Russia’s invasion? How can the West effectively make Ukraine the graveyard of Putin’s expansionary ambitions?

ELBRIDGE COLBY: Well, that’s exactly right. I think my partner Wes, he put it very well in a Foreign Policy piece, and I recognize the human cost that’s involved here but I think we need to think about it in clear terms as a bleeding ulcer for Russia. What we don’t want is for Russia to be able to ingest Ukraine, reset its military forces, and Ukraine’s power resources, and then directly threaten NATO. That’s bad for us on multiple levels. And so, what we want to do is we want to make it as difficult and costly for them as possible without, of course, triggering escalation that is not in our interests. It’s not worth it to go to the nuclear brink, obviously, over Ukraine. 

I think in this context, we have a lot—I mean it’s a little bit snarky but I think it’s true, which is that the Soviets perfected this in Vietnam, in particular. They really tied us down and hurt us for many years through supplying the North Vietnamese and the Vietcong. And so, we can supply the Ukrainians, many of whom appear willing to fight and sacrifice themselves very, very admirably.

I think our sanctions should be designed to try to do exactly this, which is make it difficult to ingest Ukraine and bring it about and then restore whatever military power they’ve used up and need to regenerate. And then, of course, especially use the time to strengthen Europe’s defensive military position as quickly as possible.

And there’s a partially a demonstration or instructive effect. But I mean, people tend to sort of say, “Well, Putin needs to see and he needs to learn.” I’m not sure that we’re gonna teach Vladimir Putin anything, but I think what we need to make him have a problem, and he’s not going to have the strength to make it worthwhile for him to even countenance transgressing NATO.

SEAN SPEER: A penultimate question for you. You mentioned in an earlier answer what this episode tells us about NATO and its ongoing purpose. I would put to you: is it still relevant? Does it need a new mandate? If so, what might that look like in the 21st century?

ELBRIDGE COLBY: I think that is still very relevant, still very important. Actually, to go back to the sources, like, the original idea as Eisenhower had it, which was a much stronger European colouration. I mean, I think we’re gonna have to primarily focus on Asia. We do have a deep interest, of course, in Europe, but the Europeans have the capacity to secure the NATO area, particularly from a conventional forces point of view, largely on their own.

We should help them, but I would see over time a shift towards a European SACEUR, the Supreme Allied Commander Europe. Like why is that American? Okay, I understand back in the 1950s or 60s that that was because obviously Europe was on its back. But this is a much different situation, you know? Actually, in some sense, it makes more sense if the SACEUR, the military officer, were European and the political, the Secretary-General, were American. Because the American function over time is going to be actually a lot of the political convening. 

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think we should pull out of Europe entirely. I do think we’re gonna have to move towards significant reductions to really focus on Asia over time. But I think that’s the sort of model so that Europeans can have the confidence that the Americans have their back with the really high-end stuff like space, the nuclear umbrella—and then I think we should try to shape our military over time to lessen the pointedness of this choice between Europe and Asia. That would mean probably cutting our army and having more missile stocks and aircraft. But we’re very far from that point at this point, and there are big political hindrances to that. So, that’s not a panacea. But that’s the sort of model that I would see. 

SEAN SPEER: I said that was my penultimate question, but if I can just slide one more in before we wrap up with a question about Canada. You’vee been part of an ongoing intellectual debate in the United States about American foreign policy and it seems to me for a long time, like we discussed in our last Dialogue, your perspective, which was about the need for restraint and a dose of realism, was in the wilderness. 

What do you take from the immediate responses to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine? From an outside perspective, I’ve been struck that the interventionism of the Bush years seems to have shaped the debate in the United States. That is to say, notwithstanding John Bolton, I haven’t seen a lot of voices arguing for more active responses. Is that a sign, Elbridge, that your perspective is winning the battle of ideas with regards to American foreign policy? 

ELBRIDGE COLBY: Well, a lot of the most vocal voices are actually kind of the Bush neo-con sort of perspective. But that often is because they’re the established ones. I mean, literally, our Senate turns over every six years and senior members of the Senate are people who’ve been around a while. On television, often, is the people who have been around for a while. So, the way I analogize it—I shouldn’t talk to Canadians about ice—but there’s surface ice, but underneath the water is moving. And the fundamental reality, I think, that fortunately what I have on my side is facts, with the rise of China, and people get that. But the power structure in Washington is still lagging, I think pretty considerably. But what’s interesting is if you look at the rhetoric coming out of Washington—both sides in many cases, and then in other some of the other capitals too—and then at what’s actually being done, it’s a pretty big divide. Like the president saying it’s almost the end of the world, and then we’re not deSWIFTing the Russians? And again, it’s a little bit of a last gasp kind of phenomenon. 

I think honestly, not to be solipsistic or anything, but I’ve been getting attacked a fair amount in the last couple of weeks, and if my point of view were irrelevant, then I wouldn’t be getting attacked, right? People wouldn’t care. Bolton’s not the only one. I get these subtweets like “People who are arguing that Asia first…” you know, and it’s like, well, there’s maybe one other person that I know who says, “People are saying…” but it’s like, okay, I must be doing something right. So I’m angering all the right people.

My job is not to be beheaded as I go along, but I think things are trending in the right direction. But unfortunately, the enemy has a vote, as Putin is showing. Tomorrow we could wake up and there could be the news that China has started the invasion of Taiwan. Not saying that’s likely, not saying I think that’s going to happen, but again it would be surprising but not shocking probably.

SEAN SPEER: Let’s wrap up with a final question about what advice you’d give Canadian policymakers over the short and long term, and, and to what extent would your advice change in light of these recent developments?

ELBRIDGE COLBY: I had the honour of testifying before the Canadian National Defence Committee, the House of Commons National Defence Committee, a couple of weeks ago, and this is what I said: Canada, like the United States, is immensely secure, except from each other. We’re protected by two huge oceans and the Arctic, as in your case. We are the ultimate potential collective good purveyors. And of course, in the United States, we make plenty of mistakes. But in terms of defence commitments, we do a lot. The United Kingdom does a lot, Australia has done a lot. And in the past Canada has been a real leader. 

I said this on CBC the other day: Canada has a nobler record in the world wars than America does, speaking as the grandson of a veteran and the great-grandson of war veterans in the Second World War and so forth. Canada was in the full time both times, so that’s its heroic and storied legacy on that front.

But in the last couple of decades, Canada’s not been doing so much and it’s needed. It’s better if Canada does more on the defence side. I think it’s got the capacity in terms of economic capability. You’re not going to create a one-million-person army, but you can make high-end contributions, and it probably makes sense in areas like the Arctic. 

In Europe, there is going to be a vacuum that’s going to be created by the fact that America has to shift. We’re not abandoning Europe, but there’s going to be a delta, and it would be really helpful if Canada’s there, and the, UK, Poland, hopefully Germany, the Scandinavians. I think there was a Canadian unit on the German border during the Cold War, at least for periods. So, again, that’s consistent with Canada’s history. That’s sort of what I would hope.

SEAN SPEER: Well, it’s been a pleasure talking to you. It’s Elbridge Colby, the author of the book The Strategy of Denial: American Defense in the Age of Great Power Conflict. Elbridge, thanks for joining us at Hub Dialogues to make sense of these extraordinary developments.

ELBRIDGE COLBY: Thank you, Sean. It’s been a pleasure.