Thirteen months after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, former U.S. Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul and former Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel sat down to discuss the war and what remains at stake for Ukraine and liberal democracies around the world.
“Everything for America and the free world is at stake,” Hagel said. “There's not one country in the world that’s not been affected by this war.”
The conversation, moderated by political science Prof. Robert Pape, was part of the annual Hagel Lecture series, which aims “to promote open and informed debates on current foreign policy and national security challenges facing the U.S.” Established in 2019, the series is a partnership between the Chicago Project on Security and Threats (CPOST), Hagel and the University of Chicago.
The 2023 Hagel Lecture: “Ukraine, Russia, and the Future of the Liberal Order,” brought together Hagel and McFaul—both of whom served under President Barack Obama. Each was in their former roles when Russia took control of the Crimean Peninsula in 2014.
“We have tremendous challenges with democracy at home. We have tremendous challenges abroad. Ukraine brings these together in a way few topics do,” said Pape, the founding CPOST director. Pape opened the conversation by acknowledging the devastating human cost of the war—hundreds of thousands of people injured and killed and millions of refugees.
The discussion touched on the war’s first year, the role of China and what a Putin victory or loss could mean for countries fighting to maintain their democracies. “This is a pivotal moment in the history of Europe, the history of Ukraine and the history of the world,” McFaul said.
“This is as defining a time in world history as there has been since World War II,” he said.
When the war began, many analysts believed that a quick, decisive Russian victory was inevitable. However, one year later, Hagel and McFaul reflected on mistaken assumptions—including those held by Russian President Vladimir Putin.
“We did miscalculate,” said McFaul, currently a professor of international studies at Stanford. “We got the war wrong. When you measure power, you count up soldiers, you count up tanks. You miss things like the will to fight.”
Putin underestimated the will of the Ukraine people, Hagel said.
“[Putin] overemphasized the ability of his own military. Big mistake,” he said. “That the Ukrainian people would not just give in. Huge miscalculation.”