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10 Questions: Fmr. NATO Ambassador on What Comes Next in Ukraine


As tensions grow between the United States and Russia over Ukraine's Crimea region, former U.S. Ambassador to NATO and President of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs Ivo Daalder breaks down the accelerating situation and possible outcomes. David interviewed him Thursday.

1) How would you grade the U.S. response so far?

The US has responded with exactly the right combination of diplomatic, economic, and military steps. From the outset, the Administration rightly defined the Russian actions as a clear violation of international law and norms, one that constitutes a fundamental challenge to international order and regional security. Diplomatically, it has sought to rally key European Allies behind a concerted strategy to compel Russia to shift course. It has offered Moscow diplomatic off-ramps, while at the same time increasing economic pressure. The visa bans and further economic sanctions that have just been announced are designed to increase the price on Moscow for its outrageous behavior. Finally, the Administration has moved swiftly to reassure jittery Allies in Eastern Europe, notably the Baltic states and Poland, that it takes their security very seriously and deployed fighter aircraft to Lithuania and accelerated joint training efforts with Poland.

2) Can this situation be resolved through diplomacy alone?

Effective diplomacy requires a willingness to talk backed by a strong stick—in this case real economic pressure. The diplomatic track is open, with Secretary Kerry committed to working with his Russian counterpart to find a solution that restores the status quo ante so that the people throughout Ukraine can determine their own destiny without intimidation. However, the Russian military presence in Crimea, President Putin’s insistence that Russia has the right to use its armed forces anywhere in Ukraine at a time and for any reason, and Moscow’s claim that the current government in Kiev lacks legitimacy, render the prospect of a diplomatic deal problematic. Therefore, diplomacy can only succeed if the costs to Russia of maintaining its current position becomes too great—and the only way to increase these costs is to steadily increase the economic pressure. Because European economic leverage over Russia is much greater than that of the US, it is vital that Europe agrees to place real and significant sanctions on Moscow.

3) There seems to be a divide between U.S. and Europe about what kind of response there should be – are sanctions a viable solution and what type of impact could they have?

The US and Europe are in complete agreement on the facts—that Russia’s actions constitute a clear violation of international law, that they pose a threat to international order and European security, that Russia needs to reverse the actions it has taken, and that the Ukrainian government is legitimate and requires our full diplomatic and economic support. There is also agreement that diplomacy is the preferred solution, and that therefore the channels of communications with Moscow need to remain open. Finally, there is agreement that there is a role for economic pressure—although the extent of such pressure is something that is still being debated. Russia and Europe are more interdependent economically than are the US and Russia; that means economic measures by Europe will have a greater cost in the short-term. It also means that Europe has more economic leverage over Russia in the medium and long term.

4) At what point could and should a military response be on the table?

The most important and immediate military response is to reassure all NATO Allies—four of whom border Ukraine and five of whom border Russia—that the United States and all other NATO members take their security very seriously and stand united in their commitment to defend their territory if attacked. The deployment of US fighter aircraft to Lithuania and accelerated training in Poland are welcome steps; other NATO Allies should follow the US example. At this point, with Russian forces operating in limited and “covert” manner in Crimea only, a military response to reverse what has taken place does not seem appropriate. But should Russia decide to move into other parts of Ukraine, some form of military assistance to Ukraine should certainly be considered.

5) What is NATO’s role on all of this?

NATO has two key roles in this conflict. One is to make clear that all 28 Allies are fully and resolutely committed to defending Alliance territory against any forms of attack and intimidation. Reinforcing the security posture of NATO members that border Russia and Ukraine is appropriate. NATO is also a partner of Ukraine, and just last week NATO Defense Ministers reiterated that the Alliance fully supports the independence, sovereignty, and territorial integrity of Ukraine. Any further military incursions by Russia into Ukraine should raise the question of how NATO countries might provide military assistance.

6) Marco Rubio told me this past Sunday on Meet the Press that Russia is behaving like an “enemy of international peace and international norms.” Do you agree with that statement and should Russia be viewed as an enemy of the United States?

Clearly, by its blatant actions last weekend, Moscow violated the most fundamental international norms and legal standards, which, as President Putin has never tired from saying when accusing the United States of using force, prohibit the use of force by one country against another except in response to an attack or if authorized by the UN Security Council. Russia was not attacked by Ukraine, and the Security Council most certainly has not authorized the use of force. The Russian use of force is therefore a clear affront and a threat to security. It needs to be reversed.

7) Is Vladimir Putin viewing this through a Cold War prism?

Putin has a zero-sum world view—especially when it comes to Russia’s power and neighbors. Russia can be a great power only if others are lesser powers; Russia can be secure only if its neighbors are insecure and under Russia’s control and in its orbit. The Ukraine crisis emerged when, late last year, it appeared that then-President Yanukovich might sign a trade and association agreement with the European Union. This was a grave threat to Putin’s worldview, which sees a gain for the EU as a loss for Russia. Conversely, Putin saw Yanukovich’s rejection of the EU agreement as a loss for Europe and a gain for Russia. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the view of the Ukrainian people, who took the streets in peaceful protests.

8) What does victory look like for Vladimir Putin? For the United States?

Putin wants to control Ukraine—all of it. A divided Ukraine, with Crimea in the Russian orbit but the rest of Ukraine steadily integrated into Europe, would represent a clear loss for Moscow. The United States and Europe aren’t in this for victory over Russia—what they want is what Ukraine wants: the right of the people of Ukraine to decide their own destiny without fear or intimidation.

9) Is there an argument that Russia is in Crimea on a legal basis? Fifty-eight percent of Crimea’s population are made up of Ethnic Russians.

Russia has clear interests in Crimea, which is home of its Black Sea Fleet at least until 2042 under a renewed lease agreement Moscow negotiated with Kiev in 2010. But there are real limits on what Russian military forces can do in Crimea, and the actions it has taken since last week are in clear violations of the agreements that spell out those limits. As for the local population, in Europe and throughout the world people of different ethnic backgrounds live in different countries. There are large numbers of ethnic Russians in the Baltic states, in Israel, even in the United States. The idea, promulgated by Putin in recent days, that Moscow can use force to protect “Russian-speaking” people no matter where they might live is the kind of thinking that led to large-scale violence in the 20th century. It has no place in today’s world.

10) Are there similarities to the 2008 Georgia-Russia crisis? Do you expect this crisis to play out in a similar way?

There are similarities, clearly, in Putin’s belief that Russia cannot be secure or a great power unless it has control over and dominates its neighbors. If, as Putin said in 2005, the collapse of the Soviet Union was the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century” than reconstituting the control Moscow has over those nations that once were incorporated into the USSR is part of the overall strategy. But there are also differences. The Georgian territories of south Ossetia and Abkhazia were disputed lands ever since the break-up of the Soviet Union. Russia and Georgia disagreed on their status, and the Georgia War of 2008 was in part the result of an attempt to unfreeze this frozen conflict. The status of Crimea is not in dispute. Its citizens voted to be part of Ukraine in 1991. Russia recognized Crimea’s status as a Ukrainian region in various agreements it signed, including the Budapest Agreement of 1994 (in which Russia committed to respect Ukraine’s borders and refrain from the threat and use of force) and the 1997 agreement detailing the leasing arrangement in Crimea for the home-porting of the Black Sea Fleet. Of course, in neither case was the use of force by Russia justified or legitimate.