Putin acted 'irrationally' in invading Ukraine, expert says

Taliban rule, Ukraine conflict among topics discussed in Future Security Forum

Woman holding sign that says Peace to Ukraine

The war in Ukraine, the Taliban’s rule in Afghanistan and the future of cybersecurity were among the topics discussed at Tuesday’s Future Security Forum, presented by New America and the McCain Institute at Arizona State University.

The forum is an annual event of the Future Security Project, a research, education and policy partnership aimed at understanding and addressing global challenges.

“What we basically do is boldly advance democracy, human dignity and security,” said Evelyn Farkas, the executive director of the McCain Institute. “We are committed to serving causes greater than ourselves and a vision of the world that is free, safe and just for all people.”

Farkas said one of the most pressing issues today is the “rising influence and power of authoritarianism regime alongside subsequent threats to democratic rule.”

“Institutions like ours are crucial to redefining national and global security,” Farkas said. “We are committed … to advancing our learning and thinking and solving problems on all of this.”

Taliban rule in Afghanistan

In a panel discussion moderated by ASU Professor of Practice and Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Azmat Khan, Oayoom Suroush, an Afghanistan Observatory scholar for New America, said it’s clear a year into the Taliban’s regime that the government has no interest in providing public services for the Afghan people.

“In practice, the Taliban regime is what scholars call religiously justified totalitarianism, whose main (goal) is to control Afghan people,” Suroush said. “They are interfering in all aspects of social and individual lives. You also see a dictatorship, a one-man rule (Taliban head Hibatullah Akhundzada). What he says will be law. That’s why we see violations of human rights.”

Summia Tora, Afghanistan’s first Rhodes Scholar and an Afghanistan Observatory scholar for New America, said that when government officials are asked about humanitarian crises that have occurred, such as the July 19 earthquake and the failure of the government to give aid to its citizens, their response is that “God will resolve that problem eventually.”

“I don’t think that’s the response people expect,” Tora said. “When the earthquake happened, there were people who needed humanitarian assistance and it was very difficult to provide access and services because the government was not capable of creating a system that could deliver quickly.”

Tora said the effects of Taliban rule also are seen on the streets in the capital of Kabul, where women and young girls are begging for a piece of bread.

“People are saying they’ve never had to do this before,” Khan said. “It’s hard not to overestimate what (effect) this kind of food insecurity will have over the long term.”

Tora said those images are symptomatic of the “marginalization of women,” pointing out that the Taliban has banned girls from going to secondary schools in 24 of 34 provinces and that 84% of women have lost their jobs in the past year.

“Women are at the forefront of being erased within Afghan society,” she said. “They do see women as really second-class citizens.”

War crimes in Ukraine

In a session titled "How Should the International Community Address War Crimes in Ukraine and Beyond?", David Scheffer, professor of practice in ASU’s School of Politics and Global Studies, said four war crimes have been committed by Russia: violations of the laws or customs of wars, crimes against humanity, crimes of aggression and genocide.

“People may think (genocide) is too large of a crime, but many of us argue that red line has actually been crossed in Ukraine,” Scheffer said.

Scheffer said the investigative effort on the ground in Ukraine exceeds any conflict in world history.

“It’s a truly unprecedented heavy hit,” Scheffer said, saying investigative teams from the International Criminal Court, the European Union, the United States and the Ukranian government are looking into Russian atrocities that have occurred during the war.

That said, Scheffer does not expect top Russian officials, including president Vladimir Putin, to wind up in court facing charges.

“It’s very problematic that we’ll ... not see Putin and senior Russian leadership actually be seized into custody, arrested and brought into a courtroom,” he said. “Frankly, they will have indictments hanging over them, but they can remain in Russia to avoid apprehension. They will not be able to travel but they will be ostracized internationally.”

Lessons of war in Ukraine

Peter Singer, a strategist and senior fellow at New America and professor of practice at ASU, asked his panelists a simple but complicated question: What’s the one key lesson strategists will take from the war in Ukraine?

“It’s a new lesson that’s a pretty old lesson,” said Sir Lawrence Freedman, emeritus professor of war studies at King’s College in London. “Don’t invade countries where you’re not welcomed.”

“I thought it was an irrational thing to do,” Freedman added. “As soon as they didn’t get (Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky), you could see this was going to fail."

Candace Rondeaux, director of Future Frontlines at New America and professor of practice at ASU, said one lesson learned is that “strategic autonomy for European people now is a distant dream. There’s a great deal of importance for the U.S. to play in pushing NATO.”

ASU Professor of Practice David Kilcullen said the mistake many analysts made was thinking Putin would act rationally. He also said the war has proven that international sanctions are not the deterrent everyone, including U.S. President Joe Biden, thought they would be.

“We need to rethink from a strategy standpoint what we think the impact of sanctions will be on an adversary determined to engage in conflict,” Kilcullen said.

All of the panelists said in light of Ukraine’s recent counteroffensives, it’s clear that Putin did not understand the type of war he was getting into or refused to listen to his military experts.

“I thought if Russia was going to invade it would be with a plan developed by the military,” said Rob Lee, senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute think tank. “That didn’t happen. The plan was developed by Putin and senior officers who didn’t have a military background.

“Russian soldiers found out on the first day of the war they were going to war. They had no preparation.”

As to what happens next in Ukraine, Freedman said he’s confident that the Russians are losing and “we’re in the end game now.”

Kilcullen wasn’t as confident, saying, “We don’t know what happens on a battlefield. We should not be too hasty in writing the Russians off.”

Rondeaux said her concerns are the political outcomes after the war is over, including the political fractures arising in Russia, where some leaders have called for Putin’s resignation.

“They are signals that Putin does not have what he needs long-term to prosecute this war,” Rondeaux said.

And, Rondeaux wondered, will the U.S. be prepared for whatever comes next if Putin’s regime crumbles?

What is the future of cybersecurity?

Jen Easterly, director of the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, told moderator Peter Bergen, a professor of practice at ASU, that her organization’s “priority mission” is election security, given the “hacking we saw from the Russian government in 2016.”

“Now that threat is greater,” Easterly said. “Not just state actors but criminal groups, ransomware, threats to election officials, which is a worrying thing in our democracy, threats from foreign disinformation. Our job is to make sure state and local election officials have all the resources they need to run their elections. We’re doing everything we can to ensure the elections coming up in 2022 and then in 2024 are as secure as possible.”

Easterly said the biggest problem in cybersecurity today is ransomware, which she attributes “very largely to criminals looking for money.”

“It’s important for people to understand the threat but even more so how to mitigate the threat,” she said.

How to do that?

Easterly said multi-factor authentication is the most important thing individuals and businesses can do. She also encouraged companies to deal with cybersecurity threats from the top down.

“If anyone is in position out there to be a business leader or a CEO, when we say cybersecurity, that’s not the responsibility of the chief information or security officer,” Easterly said. “It’s the responsibility of the CEO and the leaders and the board. It’s really important we understand that.”

Top photo courtesy Pexels

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