Inside Biden’s Ukraine War Room

Biden White House
Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times via Getty
Julia Ioffe
March 16, 2022

I first met Anna Makanju in September 2016 at a nondescript Le Pain Quotidien near the White House, where she was working as then-Vice President Joe Biden’s advisor on Russia, Ukraine, and NATO. Before joining the Vice President’s office, she was the Russia director for the National Security Council. Her first day in that job was the day Russian-backed separatists shot down Malaysian Airlines flight 17, filled with nearly 300 civilian passengers, all of whom were killed. She had also worked in the Pentagon’s office for NATO and Europe. (Anna was a true believer: she began as a volunteer on Barack Obama’s campaign, and, unlike most political appointees who leave the administration after a couple years, Anna worked for Obama all eight years.)

Shortly after our meeting, Donald Trump beat Hillary Clinton and Anna, despite our blossoming friendship, did what so many young people who had followed Obama to Washington were doing that winter: she left town. Still, our friendship has grown and deepened over the years and, along with a core group of friends who originally came together over our shared experiences in Russia and the former Soviet Union, she has been one of the people I have spoken to most about the slow-motion winter crisis that is now a full-blown war. 

So I decided to ask Anna, who is still in the private sector and has only ever given a couple press interviews, to talk to me—and, by extension, to you. We talked about the war, her connection to Ukraine, her experience advising Biden, and what comes next. Our interview has been edited for length and clarity. I hope you find it as interesting as I did.


Julia Ioffe: I wanted to start by asking you to tell our readers about your personal connection to this war.

Anna Makanju: I was born in Leningrad, in the former U.S.S.R. Mom was a student from Kyiv when she met my father, who was a student from Lagos, Nigeria, part of the soft power the U.S.S.R. was exercising at the time to bring in students from countries in the developing world. My grandparents are Jewish: my grandmother is from Odessa, my grandfather is from Novohrad-Volynskyi. And mostly my grandparents are the ones that raised me. I spent most of my childhood in Russia, but we would go to Odessa and Kyiv in the summers. And my family is mostly still there, between Ukraine and Russia.  

What are they telling you when you speak to them now? Both the side in Russia and the side in Ukraine.

A lot of them are not speaking to each other anymore; they haven’t since 2014. Most of my family in Ukraine was living in Kyiv, and a lot of them are now scattered in various dachas and villages towards the west of the country, where they hope it’s going to be safer. My male cousins are of military age, so they can’t leave. I don’t know if any of them are actually involved in active combat; a lot of them are just waiting with their families to see if that’s going to be necessary.

What about your family in St. Petersburg? Have the sanctions affected them yet?

They’ve always lived pretty modest lives, so I don’t know that there will be a substantial impact yet because they don’t really travel or go out. So I’m not sure that they feel like anything much has changed yet. Except, of course, they can’t find specific products that they used to buy in the store. For example, my uncle has a dog who is very ill and now he can’t buy the special dog food it needs.  

Let’s go back to 2014, which is the root of the current crisis. You told me that Putin made the decision to annex Crimea impulsively and emotionally. What evidence do you have of that? And what do you think prompted that decision on his end?

I think it was a very emotional and spontaneous decision. At the time, I don’t think any of us knew exactly what Putin’s plan was—but I also very much believe that Putin himself didn’t know exactly what his plan was. This idea that he really had a well-thought-out plan or strategy—or has ever really had one—has, to me, always been totally unrealistic. I think he’s very impulsive and acted impulsively in this case as well.

I think everything we’re seeing now shows how much Putin has convinced himself about the absolute, critical importance of Ukraine in his vision of the Russian-speaking world. After the failure of the 2004 Orange Revolution, he thought that Ukraine was basically going to be firmly in his control, and watching that all melt away as quickly as it did during the 2014 Revolution of Dignity, was extremely upsetting and angering for him. And he felt like he couldn’t simply allow this to happen all over again. I think he felt like he had to respond in some way to ensure that there wouldn’t be another democratic success in Ukraine.

Why does he not want a democratic success in Ukraine? And why is Ukraine so important to him?

I think that Ukraine, as the cradle of all of Russian culture and civilization, is something that is still very much a foundational concept for a lot of Russians. And Putin has convinced himself of this as well. Of course, the idea of the country with the most cultural, economic, political ties to Russia moving closer to Europe was untenable to him. I think this gets lost in the conversation, but the reason all of this happened and the reason Putin started the war in Ukraine in 2014, is not because of NATO. It’s because Ukraine wanted to take steps to join the E.U. He had tried for years to build an economic union between Russia and Ukraine and other countries in the former Soviet Union, but it never worked because Russia didn’t really have enough to offer the countries economically for a union like that to actually be attractive to them. Whereas, obviously the E.U. did.  

I wanted to ask you about President Biden. He came into this war already knowing this issue very deeply because this was his portfolio at the end of the Obama administration. How do you think he views Ukraine? What is his stake in it?  

In retrospect, I really think that he saw this more clearly than anyone. At a time when a lot of focus was elsewhere and there were voices in the administration that felt like continuing to focus on Ukraine made no sense, Biden believed that this wasn’t just about Ukraine; that by allowing Putin to have success there, he said, “We either pay for it now or we’ll pay for it tenfold later.” I heard him say it a million times. And obviously I personally believed Ukraine was important, but I don’t know that I believed it the way he did it, in his bones, that it was a seminal issue. 

There was just a lot of desire to focus on other stuff. There was this line of thinking that went like, Look, Ukraine has been under Russian influence for years and we never paid attention. Why are we so obsessed now? Biden just rejected that thinking and invested an enormous amount of time in that portfolio. I was also concerned that providing certain kinds of weapons at that time would be escalatory and with more people dying on both sides. But now those are the weapons that Ukraine is using to defend itself. I have to say that my caution was probably influenced by my personal background—the idea of the Kremlin coming in and murdering a whole bunch of people in Ukraine, on this scale, destroying whole cities and murdering thousands of civilians and launching this full-scale war, I just did not think that was something that even Putin would do. At the end of the day, I think Biden believed that Putin’s ambitions were far greater than just putting Russia back on the global stage. He believed that Putin’s limits were much further out than a lot of us believed.

There is a narrative, both on the left and the right, about how if Volodymyr Zelensky had just declared Ukraine’s neutrality vis-a-vis NATO, none of this would have happened. What do you think of that argument? Did NATO and the West make any mistakes that helped get us here?

The NATO argument, to me, is a retroactive one. It has become very real to people now, but so just for context: I was working in the Pentagon’s European and NATO policy office from 2012 to 2014, in the immediate lead-up to the war. During that time, of course, we were still very much involved in Iraq and in Afghanistan. And the only time in NATO’s history that Article 5 had been invoked was Afghanistan. The absolute majority of what we did in that office was to think about those conflicts—and to the extent that we thought about Russia, it was because the Obama administration had worked with Russia to create a corridor for our equipment and personnel to transit through Russia into Afghanistan.

Right. Putin gave NATO space for a hub in Ulyanovsk, on Russian territory, to help NATO get people and equipment into Afghanistan.

Exactly. So the number of times that NATO came up in conversations about relations between Russia and the U.S. was basically zero. It was not the main topic of conversation. Actually, at NATO, there was palpable irritation among some of the eastern European countries that kept wanting to have the conversation pivot to Russia, but were like, no, what’s important is piracy, it’s counterterrorism, it’s Iran, it’s North Korea, it’s Iraq. Again, at the time, NATO was really not a Russia-focused entity—and no one would have known this information better than Russia, which, at the time had, numerically speaking, the largest contingent in Brussels at NATO of any country. They also had a huge intelligence operation, so they would have known perfectly well that aggressive action towards Russia or even any focus on Russia was in no way the point—and that membership for Ukraine and Georgia was also not realistic at that time.

The Russians didn’t bring it up back then either?

No. I mean, look, I’m sure that conversation existed somewhere in the media, but in terms of high level engagements between our senior leadership, no.

Is this not at all about NATO?

No, this was not about NATO. I guess it’s about NATO in the same way that this is about the de-Nazification of Ukraine. But Putin has listened to his own arguments for so long that I think he probably does believe them now. And these arguments have been picked up quite robustly by lots of reasonable people because I think that it resonates, and I can see why. It makes logical sense that you would be uncomfortable with a military alliance on your borders. It’s a good argument that I think has worked. And maybe he’s even convinced himself that it was always correct, but I just don’t believe that it was ever a real argument.

We’ve talked about this before, but there’s also this narrative—and I personally think it’s a convincing one—about how isolated Putin is and the poor quality of information getting to him. Did you ever see examples of that when you were working in the White House?

I can use the example of Russian election interference, which we found out about because we saw that there were competing operations by two different intelligence agencies. You saw this type of competition where people are trying to compete for resources and Putin’s attention so they were giving him information that often wasn’t accurate. I don’t know if it was incompetence or an intentional desire to mislead, but certainly, I don’t think that highly of the intelligence that he was getting. We obviously knew who his close advisers were and, over time, we saw that circle shrinking more and more. He has just a handful of people left that he ever sees, and these are only people who reinforce his worst instincts. Hearing some of his conversations with our senior leaders, half the time, he was rambling and you didn’t really know what he was talking about.

What was he rambling about?

Generally speaking, he loves doing this bizarre thing where he just keeps talking, using strange analogies and generalities and saying, Well, you and I are not the kind of people that would think this and that! It’s a 20-minute tirade of nonsense where I think he thinks you’re both in some sort of inside joke, but actually, the opposite side has no idea what he’s talking about. He just likes to use super, super vague and confusing terms. And I don’t know if it’s because he wants to confuse his interlocutors or because he really thinks that he’s trying to tell you some inside stuff. But he constantly would put himself on the same plane as the president because I think it drove him insane that Obama did not consider him his geopolitical equal.

Yeah, I heard that he really lost it when Obama called Russia a regional power. Why do you think that upset him so much?

Yes, yes. I think everything he has done is focused to a very great extent on positioning himself as one of the great leaders of the world, and part of that is because he thinks Russia needs to regain its rightful place in the geopolitical order where it has always been. And in his mind, he is the only one that has ever been able to restore Russia to its former glory. I mean, look, he’s obviously a petty, incredibly self-centered man.

When you were dealing with him and people in his government, did you ever think he was insane?  

No, I didn’t. I thought he was obviously a cruel, petty and probably not especially intelligent or cunning person, but that he was disciplined. Obviously, his worldview is totally warped, but that’s not the same as being totally irrational or clinically insane. 

There are a lot of people in the U.S. who say that Putin is not rational. What do you think of that argument? Do you think he’s rational or irrational?

I have to admit that until a few weeks ago, I thought he was mostly rational to the extent that he had a set of goals that he wanted to achieve. And whether or not he was especially good at achieving them, the things he was doing were more or less rational if you were thinking about how to achieve that specific set of goals.

But I no longer think that. I just don’t think he’s acting rationally anymore, because if he were rational, he would have known that the operation he wants to carry out in Ukraine wasn’t possible. It certainly seems like what he’s trying to do in Ukraine is what he did in Chechnya, where he destroys the entire country, puts in place some sort of puppet that can keep firm control on the population. That is quite clearly not going to happen here. He has no plan. And he has no idea what is going to happen next. I guess you could still say it’s rational in that he probably has no other option but to continue doing this because now there is absolutely no retreat that is possible for him—although I don’t even know if I believe that’s true.

Why?

Because he is clearly surrounded by people who will do absolutely anything he tells them to do, and a propaganda machine that pivots with amazing agility. So if he tells the Russian people tomorrow that he’s achieved lots of amazing objectives, he can probably sell that. The losses he’s taking economically right now and the fact that there is so much unpredictability and such a high potential for all kinds of catastrophic events for Russia and for Russians, it’s just such an insane gamble for an absolutely unclear reward. I don’t think there’s a single person that can analyze and understand what actually happens now and what he gains at the end of this in a way that I don’t think has ever been the case previously. He’s always been able to limit internal damage and maintain political economic normality, more or less, in a way that is clearly not going to be the case here.

What do you think he’ll do going forward? Do you think he’s just going to fight this war for years? How does this end?

He’s maintained a war in the east [of Ukraine] for years. And it’s now quite clear that he’s willing to allow Russia to bear an essentially unlimited cost. I don’t see why he would not be able to maintain this war, and I think he will be able to maintain it in some form for quite a long time. Unfortunately, I no longer rule anything out.

Do you think he would use chemical, biological weapons or nuclear weapons in Ukraine?

He’s used chemical weapons in Syria. There’s lots of evidence about that. So I certainly don’t exclude that, and I wish I could exclude nuclear weapons, but he’s essentially put that option on the table already. I don’t know, obviously, and I really want to believe that any of these options are unthinkable, but it doesn’t seem like anything’s unthinkable anymore.

Do you think this could spread past Ukraine?

Yeah, I believe that it could. I still believe that Ukraine occupies a completely different space in Putin’s brain than other countries, but it’s just not clear to me that there is any stopping point now with him.

Is Putin the only one who can decide to end this? Or could the Ukrainians beat him?

I don’t know what beating him even looks like anymore. I don’t really see a military—a purely military—resolution to this conflict. I think he’s got plenty of additional resources that he can put into this war— more resources than the Ukrainians have. I have seen some reports that China is not 100 percent supportive of what Russia is doing. I feel like losing China as an ally would be the absolute best option in terms of stopping this war because, economically, China is going to be Russia’s main lifeline. They have significantly more influence here and are possibly able to slow this conflict down or stop it.

Do you think this war will bring about the downfall of Putin?

I really don’t know. As you and I have discussed before, I think about how much Russians have already gone through. People who are 40 and older, we all remember the ‘90s and how incredibly difficult life was then. Nine hundred percent higher murder rates than Russia has right now. Having to go to the store to pay with paper coupons that say “sour cream” on them and you could only buy three things. Obviously, older people remember starvation post-World War II or during World War II itself. I don’t know that they have something that they can look at and think, Well, if Putin were gone—remember when things used to be great? Oh, right. Never.

But even a month ago, things were better!

That’s true. But I’m saying that times of profound change haven’t tended to result in prosperity for Russians. Yes, of course, people who were already active—my friends were journalists or activists already. But when I talk to people who are just regular Russians going about their lives, I don’t know that they really have a sense of what they stand to gain if Putin were gone. I don’t think they believe the situation would necessarily improve. And I don’t know that anyone really believes that things could go back to how they were a month ago. People recognize that what has happened is a profound shift, something that isn’t necessarily going to be just stopped and easily reversed.

Do you think Putin will take a deal?

I can imagine Putin taking a deal that involves Crimea remaining within the Russian Federation and Ukraine agreeing to accept neutral status or forgo NATO membership, even though obviously Zelensky flatly rejected the idea that any Ukrainian territory will be ceded to Russia. And, of course, Putin’s demands very much go beyond that and there is absolutely no way that Ukraine could or would or should accept them. I don’t know. How does Putin back away from the declaration that he’s made, which is that he will accept nothing less than the breakup of Ukraine?

And now Putin has galvanized Zelensky and all of Ukraine, so what will they accept?

The bravery and heartbreaking sacrifice of Ukrainians has been incredible, and obviously this war also united the country. Clearly the Kremlin is going to step this up. It’s going to kill scores, scores more civilians and destroy more cities. At what point do people just want their children not to get murdered? I think this is the Kremlin’s calculation. I don’t really even know if I want to say this because obviously it’s so horrible, but, having never lived through something like this, what would our calculus be? If somebody was saying, you have to accept surrender or your daughters will get killed, what would I do?

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