Evelyn Farkas: “To have Ukraine as a positive example is about all of us”
Former US Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Russia, Ukraine and Eurasia on the decision-making process on provision of arms to Ukraine, reset policies between the US and Russia, and the need for reforms in Ukraine
Until September 2015, Evelyn Farkas served as US Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Russia, Ukraine and Eurasia. In an article on her resignation, the Politico publication quoted a source in Pentagon saying that she had actively supported a US $244 assistance package for Ukraine, the prospect of NATO membership for Montenegro, and expansion of contacts in defense with Georgia, as well as diverse cooperation with Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan. In February, Dr. Farkas attended the Ukrainian Defense & Security Forum in Kyiv. She spoke to The Ukrainian Week about the decision-making process on provision of arms to Ukraine when the conflict in the East erupted, as well as about reset policies between the US and Russia, and the need for reforms in Ukraine.
When the debate about provision of arms to Ukraine began, what was the major reason behind the US not supplying arms in the end – fear of provoking Russia or lack of trust for how Ukrainian recipients could handle those weapons?
First of all, the decision about what to provide to Ukraine was made to some extent in conjunction with the Ukrainian defense officials. When Ukraine’s Ministry of Defense officials came to the US, they had a long list of items they needed – from blankets to the ready-to-eat meal. The Ukrainian troops were literally out there in the field with nothing to eat. And, of course, the requests included more serious system, all the way up and including lethal arms – defensive and offensive.
As for the government of the US, we addressed what was in the priority rank order. In the early days, some of those basic things, as well as medical supplies and individual gear for soldiers, were the priority.
As time went on, and there was more interest in lethal equipment, how the provision of lethal equipment from the US would have set the dynamic became an issue for the US government. I think it was very important for our government to try and de-escalate the situation as much as possible. Obviously, the party that was responsible for escalation was the Russian Federation. Nevertheless, we were eager to de-escalate as much as possible.
How would you describe the motivation of the US government for reset policy with Russia launched in 2009? Is there a chance of going back to something of that sort in the near future?
The US government has these periodic resets in the history of relationship with Russia. So, it’s not out of the realm of possible that we could have another reset, or at least try to have one. But in order to have that, some level of trust needs to be reestablished. This is impossible with the amount of lying that has been present since 2014.
I think that it is absolutely critical for the US and the President that Russia lives by Minsk commitments regardless of whatever else is happening in the US’ relationship with Russia.
Has this relationship, including the reset policy, actually been based on trust, or was it merely testing the water?
Maybe I shouldn’t use the word trust. Still, there has to be at least a low level of trust. If you negotiate, for instance, access to Afghanistan through Russia, you have to trust that the plane is not going to get intercepted and charged some fee, or turned away on the border. There is some ability to trust Russia because we’re engaged with it on some levels (for example, with Iran’s nuclear weapons programs). We also continue to have arms control agreements with Russia that are being implemented. But it’s insufficient for a reset.
Russia has broken international rules so dramatically with the attempted annexation of Crimea and what they are doing in Eastern Ukraine, and compounded that with making the situation in Syria worse on behalf of dictator who has barrel-bombed and gassed his people.
How do you see the US security policy develop in the last year of Obama’s presidency and after the change of administration?
I can’t predict exactly what the president is going to do. I think that he does hold to the commitment to stand with Europe and for the values that we share with Europe. And, as I mentioned earlier, the US is strongly behind Ukraine. There will not be any hesitation in terms of Minsk implementation and where we stand. If there is pressure to conclude Minsk, we will be firmly with Ukraine.
If Ukraine can do economic and anti-corruption work that’s required, you will have even stronger allies not just in the US but, more importantly, on the European continent. You will also provide a good example. Unfortunately, some of our European colleagues, who had been strongly against corruption and transformed their systems, have been affected by this Putinism, that other alternative model.
To have Ukraine as a positive example is not just about Ukraine. It’s about all of us.
There was talk at the Munich Security Conference of America’s self-isolation, including from Europe, and of America’s Asia pivot earlier. How accurate is that impression? If accurate, are the recent crises affecting the US’ stance in any way?
Point No 1: America is not isolated. It’s impossible for us to be isolated. Of course, there are countries and people who argue that we should do more. And there is always more that we can do.
With regard to the Asia pivot, it’s an interesting issue. In fact, I think that Europeans were investing in Asia before the Americans were. I remember coming to Ukraine in the 1990s, and meeting a gentleman who was German and was working here as for a business company. He just came from working in Vietnam.
In my view, we, the US and Europe, should all together pivot towards Asia economically. I don’t think what was referred to as America’s Asia pivot was ever intended to necessarily be a military one, and it was certainly never a pivot away from Europe.
We can’t do anything without our European allies – you see that in the Middle East, and elsewhere. We don’t want to be a unilateral power. We want to work together with other countries.
You said that the US will stand by Ukraine. Sometimes, however, Ukrainians are concerned about meetings between representatives of the US and Russia, and things they discuss behind the scenes, including Ukraine. There have been several such meetings recently, as the crisis in Syria escalated. Is it possible that discussions of Ukraine and Syria were intertwined, and compromises on one entailed compromises on the other?
Assistant Secretary Victoria Nuland always said to us and Ukrainian colleagues: it’s not about them without them. Certainly there were times (not in the Syria context, but earlier, when we were trying to help Ukraine after the attempted annexation of Crimea and all of the fighting in the east) when the US was in the room with Russia without Ukraine. But we never talked about them without them: meaning, there was always very close coordination with Ukraine, and that continues to this day.
Meetings that are held about Syria are about Syria. I have no doubt that we never make the kind of linkage you’re suggesting. Those are two separate issues. And you’ve heard our president speak very clearly about that.
Dr. Evelyn Farkas is currently a Non-Resident Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Future Europe Initiative. In 2012-2015, she was Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Russia, Ukraine and Eurasia, focusing on the US policies towards Russia, Balkans, the Caucasus and Black Sea regions. Earlier, in 2010-2012, Dr. Farkas served served as Senior Advisor to the Supreme Allied Commander Europe/Commander, US European Command, and as Special Advisor for the Secretary of Defense for the NATO Summit. She holds an MA and PhD from The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy and is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations and Aspen Institute Socrates Seminar advisory board.