Damon Wilson: “Permanent neutrality and “Finland status” are bad ideas for Ukraine’s own interests”
The Ukrainian Week talked to Damon Wilson, executive vice-president of The Atlantic Council, about the establishment of the pro-Ukrainian community in the world, the US-Russia relations after the annexation of Crimea, the new Ukrainian military and the likelihood of NATO MAP for Ukraine
U.W.: There were many pro-Ukrainian people at the recent Wroclaw Global Forum. Two major conferences that took place earlier in Ukraine were also attended by many pro-Ukrainian intellectuals and experts. It looks like there is what we can call a pro-Ukrainian lobby emerging as a counterweight to the Russian one? How do you see it?
The Russian lobby is a bought one driven by lavish assets that come from the energy sector to consultants, advertising, or incentives that come from business and economic deals. It also includes dark money that goes into universities, media, political parties and thinks tanks.
The Ukrainian lobby does not operate that way. It brings together either people who are interested in a democratic, free European Ukraine, out of conviction, people who understand what it means. Strategically, they are part of it because they have some connection to Ukraine from the past, Ukrainian roots or business interests - and that is a good thing. This lobby is more organic.
Yet, it is weak and not always well-coordinated. The current crisis in Ukraine is a chance, first and foremost to Ukrainians, to have a sense of their own nationhood, of what is at stake for their country and their identity. However, it is also an opportunity for those of us in the West, like myself, to care about democratic Ukraine in Europe, to mobilize broader community of influence and to get people like Steve Hadley (National Security Advisor serving under President George W. Bush – Ed.) or Anne Applebaum (American-Polish Pulitzer-prize winning author – Ed.) who were at the Wroclaw Global Forum, to help mobilize this loose network of friends of Ukraine that can help to push the right policies in Washington, Berlin, Brussels and Kyiv. Right now we are trying to create a community of influence that the Atlantic Council can bring together, in support of Ukraine that is certainly sovereign, independent, united, that has a fair shot at being more democratic, less corrupt and a chance to join Europe.
At the same time, this pro-Ukrainian community is a pro-European one because of Russian aggression. Its main task is essentially twofold. The first one is how to play the right supporting role for those in Ukraine who ultimately are in charge and will determine Ukraine’s future inside the country. But the parallel today is what do we do in Washington, Berlin, Brussels and other key capitals to ensure that the policy from the West is effectively supporting this transformation - whether it is through sanctions or strategic issues like long-term support for Ukraine so that it thrives, not just survives.
It also includes economic, political, diplomatic backing, as well as military assistance. And it requires a broader strategy to deter Putin. It focuses on how we revitalize NATO, stay engaged in Central Asia, and advance energy and trade policy. It is the strategic response and that is where we play the most effective role and affecting American Trans-Atlantic policy. However, there are particular things to do inside Ukraine as well.
U.W.: You mentioned the key capitals. Washington is one, and American Russia policy is interesting in that respect. Obviously, the Reset policy has failed, so another reset is needed now. How do you see it should change, given all the various obstacles?
There is no reset policy right now. I’d say the changed policy should be threefold. First and foremost, it has to be focused on deterring Putin’s aggression. We failed to do that in 2008 (Russian aggression in Georgia – Ed.) and we have failed to deter Putin in Ukraine so far. So our policy with Russia has to be confident and strong enough to keep him from escalating his objectives and continuing to move on Ukraine. That involves other issues I have mentioned, including the policy towards Ukraine, Georgia, Moldova, our policy towards NATO, Central Asia, energy, trade, and strength to show that he cannot get away without us.
Second, it is very important that we stick clear to our vision of Europe where Russia has its peaceful place and keep our hand extended to long-term version of Russia that has an option to be part of our community: a more democratic Russia after Putin that pays respect to the Russian people. That should be an important part of our thinking about Russia policy that includes a long-term transatlantic strategy to support those voices and that process in Russia without saying that we are creating a stark dividing line that excludes Russia forever. We want to force Putin back, but we want to keep the door open for Russia to continue to change, to come back into the community in the long run.
Third, we need to find ways to pragmatically work out the agenda for the issues where we still have to cooperate with Russia. Afghanistan, Syria, Iran are where Russia’s strategy is really to be checked, as it undermines US influence.
U.W.: Barack Obama has recently visited Poland. Could we say that the strategy to deter Vladimir Putin includes a stronger Central Eastern Europe with Poland as a core country there, up to the emergence of an alliance between Poland and Ukraine, among others, in the future?
I think that is a great idea but I don’t think that is necessarily what Obama proposes. He offers the European reassurance initiative aimed at helping our allies, particularly Poland as a country on the forefront of all this, to develop their capacities. The US commitment to Polish and regional security means a more enduring presence of its forces there, as well as the commitment to work over time with Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia to develop their capacity to defend themselves. This is the key point, because that’s what we have not been doing well yet.
The idea is that we do not want new dividing lines between NATO and non-NATO in this region. We do not want our own efforts to reassure Poland to undermine Ukrainian security by leaving it on the outside. So, what I would propose is that there is really time to think about new arrangement which has historical precedents, like GUAM (GUAM Organization for Democracy and Economic Development with Georgia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan and Moldova – Ed.).
To link Poland and Ukraine in continued efforts to develop the joint military, there could be a Polish-Ukrainian battalion, for instance. We should continue those initiatives with American funding, support and training.
At the same time, think about a political grouping that will include Poland, the Baltic States, Romania, as well as Moldova, Georgia Ukraine, and Azerbaijan. This is not an alternative to NATO. But it begins to make clear that the linkages between West and East are growing. We are not saying that NATO is safe while everything else is a grey zone. Let us blur that by probably a new set of relationships in Central Europe, knit together institutionally, politically, and in other ways, and make sure that Ukraine is with Poland in that.
U.W.: You were Senior Director of European Affairs at the US National Security Council in 2008 during the Bucharest Summit when Ukraine and Georgia were not issued NATO MAP. Could Ukraine still get it in the current situation?
We have to keep Ukraine’s pass towards NATO as a viable option for the future. It is not an issue for today: there is neither political, nor public support for that now, nor is there receptiveness in all European capitals to that concept. However, it is very important that the decision we take today does not close those doors. So, permanent neutrality, “Finland status” are bad ideas for Ukraine’s own interests. Ultimately, this is an issue of stability and security, and that does come through what we see in the Alliance. I am a strong supporter of the Ukraine-NATO strong relationship. I am a supporter of Ukrainian membership in NATO. I think what we need to see is solving this crisis, regained control of Ukrainian territory, putting out the insurgency in the East, moving forward the credible reform agenda, beginning to get this back on track to ensure that it is Ukrainian population and Ukrainian political class that actually wants this. We do not want to be seen as imposing this at all.
There is also a radical solution: in the late 1940s and early 1950s, Greece and Turkey were in trouble. They were not in NATO as it was created in 1949. Greece was being ravaged by the civil war and insurgency while Turkey was a mess after WWI. Stalin had his eyes particularly on having Greece, but also on Turkey. The Truman administration made the bilateral defense and funding commitment to Greece and Turkey first, then rapidly followed by up bringing them into NATO in 1952-53. This expanded NATO to the border of the Soviet Union ending Stalin’s probing and the threat of instability in Europe’s southern area. This was a dramatic move as we had the war in Korea at the same time. The challenges we were facing were amazing, yet it brought stability and security. That was a bald proposition: move quick, move fast, move decisively. The reality today is that Ukraine is not in that position, and Western leaders are not there too.
U.W.: The Ukrainian Army is now fighting against militants, not an actual army. The US faced something similar in Iraq and had to develop effective counterinsurgency methods. How does that work?
This is a key point. The US have been in the counterinsurgency warfare for 15 years –in Afghanistan and Iraq. We have learnt an enormous amount and it only makes sense to me that we have to be in Ukraine on a serious level with advisors, those who have been involved in running counterinsurgency efforts, to help Ukrainians to think through the strategy behind this. It’s complex, it’s difficult, it’s not just force. It takes savvy politics, creating defectors, and political context. I served in Iraq. I was Chief of Staff at the Embassy in Bagdad, and I was there when we were losing and doing the turnaround. One reason for the turnaround was that we had convinced the local Sunnis in Anbar Province (the largest governorate in Iraq geographically – Ed.) that it was not just the Americans whose lives were in danger. It was the fact that they had radical insurgency, they were bringing death and mayhem to their families, and they were ruining the economy. We were able to strike agreements with local Sunni tribes.
When it comes to Eastern Ukraine, the central government could use a similar practice in working with partners in the East, in Donetsk and Luhansk, in particular, with civil authorities and business interests to make them realize that this insurgence is insurgence. This is not overthrowing an UDAR or Fartherland mayor. This insurgency displaces traditional power structures of Donetsk and Luhansk. So, figuring out the right partnerships and right alliances is key in the effort to push back the small group of well-armed fueled by Moscow, many of them Russian themselves, at the end of the day. The government has to figure out how it can make the silent majority that is afraid and fed with lots of misinformation reclaim their own destiny and say “We don’t want war, we don’t want gun fire in downtown Luhansk”. That takes savvy strategy. You have to have muscles, you have to be credible with your force and your military capabilities, but you also have to be savvy and nuanced in your diplomatic ability to forge local coalitions.
U.W.: During the Warsaw Global Forum, Senators McCain and Murphy agreed that the US can and should help Ukraine to rearm itself. Is it possible?
The answer is absolutely “yes”. I think you have heard during the last days at the Wroclaw Global Forum a real emerging sense that it is the right thing to do and we will actually not be credible if we don’t assist Ukraine in the military sphere. It is not the most important issue, but a very important one, particularly as a signal to Putin. Raising the cost of intervention in Ukraine for Russia has to be part of our strategy. The Ukrainian military has some problems, but we have to start today if we want to get there eventually.
So, we should be unequivocal in our commitment to help Ukraine transform its military into modernized forces which, first of all, are capable to defend Ukraine and Ukrainian territory. That involves training, exercising, and equipment – lethal and not-lethal, as well capabilities to use it effectively. It also means sophisticated National Guard, police forces, carbineers, so that they can play their proper role in a democratic society. Ukraine is currently facing a crisis, a situation of emergency, but it needs domestic stability and capable actors over the long term, so we need to be hard-working right now.
Damon Wilson is Executive Vice President of the Atlantic Council. His areas of expertise include NATO, transatlantic relations, Central and Eastern Europe, and national security issues. From 2007 to 2009, Mr. Wilson served as special assistant to the US President and Senior Director for European Affairs at the US National Security Council. Previously, Mr. Wilson served at the US Embassy in Baghdad, Iraq as Executive Secretary and Chief of Staff, where he helped manage one of the largest US embassies