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7 December, 2017

“Putin’s greatest export is corruption, but we import it, we allow it to our countries”

Former Senior Director for Human Rights and Democracy at the McCain Institute and President of Freedom House on his new book and the forecast on America’s foreign policy

Interviewed by Yuriy Lapayev

Former Senior Director for Human Rights and Democracy at the McCain Institute and President of Freedom House has recently presented his new book Back to Containment: Dealing with Putin’s Regime in Kyiv. The Ukrainian Week spoke to him about the book, as well as the current state of affairs at the US Department of State and the forecast on America’s foreign policy.  

In your book you highlight some of the characteristics of Vladimir Putin and his regime. Do you think there is a correct understanding of him among top-level American politicians?

If you look at the comments made by many senior US officials, including when they appeared in the US Senate for the confirmation of their current positions -- I would include Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley, Rex Tillerson as the Secretary of State, Jim Mattis as Secretary of Defense, CIA Director Mike Pompeo, -- they all have been quite clear and candid about the threat the Russia poses and very critical about Putin and his regime. Vice-president Pence made a trip to Estonia, Georgia and Montenegro in the summer. It was also very clear. In Georgia in particular he reiterated support for Georgia’s aspiration to join NATO; by implication, I think, the same thing could be applied to Ukraine. If you look at the US Congress, it has passed legislation this year calling for additional sanctions against the Putin regime. All of that is positive. You have the appointment of Kurt Volker as US Special Representative for Ukraine, who I think is terrific and said all the right things. He is clearly looking out for Ukraine’s interests. I think he is refreshingly blunt about where the problems lay and where responsibility lays. That is in Moscow.

Then you do have President Trump and his comments which consistently had been soft on Putin and Russia. I agree with President Trump and candidate Trump, that it would be nice if the US and Russia could get along. Everyone would like that. Ukraine would like that. I just don’t think it’s possible with the current regime in Moscow.

Mr. Putin has talked about the outside powers wanting to take a chunk of Russia since as far as 2004, after the Beslan tragedy. Then, of course, the Munich speech of 2007 and holding the US, NATO and the European Union as the threats to Russia continually ever since. He needs to perpetually push this myth that there are the outside threats to Russia in order to justify his authoritarian control. As long is that is the case, I don’t see how we can have a normal relationship with Russia. I don’t give up on Russia as a whole, I also think it is important to differentiate the Russians from their leadership. And I think that the level of support (for Putin – Ed.) is shallow in Russia. If there were a real alternative and there were real elections, Putin might still win but not by Turkmenistan standard. Many current senior US officials and the US Congress have a proper understanding of the threat that  Putin’s regime poses. I don’t know if that view is shared by the President, but I do think that vice-president has that view. And if you look at the increasing export of the US energy, that is a positive thing which also has an impact on Russia. If you look at the increase of military presence and at the administration following the sanctions, then these actions are speaking louder than words. It’s a mixed picture in some aspects. But statements by the US administration have been right. Nikki Haley was sitting near Madeleine Albright and Condoleezza Rice at the conference in New York sponsored by The Bush Institute. She referred to Russia’s interference in last year’s election as a kind of warfare -- such strong words. And she has been very outspoken about that.

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There is an opinion that Western politicians sometimes make a mistake by trying to deal with Russia in more soft, civilized and diplomatic way, because the Russians understand and respect power and hard skills instead…

I do agree with that. I think Putin respects strength, when somebody has the courage to push back. And he exploits weakness, what he sees as softness on the part of West and others. In my book I argue about a tougher line in dealing with Russia. We need to increase sanctions, not simply maintain the current ones. And that is what the discussion is about. With maintaining the current sanctions we lose the argument, we lose that debate. Putin has to think and to expect, that he will receive tougher sanctions if he doesn’t change his behavior. We have to keep pushing the sanctions up. Coupled with the drop in oil prices, the sanctions have had an impact. I think Putin didn’t expect that. I think he didn’t expect sanctions at all because there was no reaction after Georgia. I described this in the book. And I do see the fault of the Bush Administration in which I served. But it was different circumstances – the end of the Bush Administration and a five-day war that was over quickly, allowing Russia to continue this creepy annexation in Georgia. And almost no losses comparing with Ukraine or Syria. The US did not really impose any consequences on Russia for its invasion on Georgia. And then you have a new Obama Administration coming. Not even one year passed, and the Obama Administration was talking about Reset Policy, actually saying that the Russian invasion on Georgia was just swiped out of the map. They never really looked back. That came across in Moscow as an impression that the US needed this relationship more than Russia did. As long as we give that impression and create that image, we won’t win. It is not the kind of a competition in which we can win or lose. It is in everyone’s interest. And sometimes our policies can make it worse.

Do you think that the current administration can play harder?

Again, if you look at the actions of the administration, they are better than some of the words the President has said. If they implement the sanctions legislation, that would be another indication that they are in fact taking a tougher line. The US Congress has been great on dealing with this. I mean 2012 when the Congress passed the Magnitsky legislation over the Obama Administration. But it is actually the administration which implements the sanctions.

The other question which is specifically related to Ukraine is whether President Trump will approve the provision of lethal military assistance. I have argued since 2014 that the US should provide it. It is to help Ukraine defend itself, not to go on to offensive. And it is up in line with our commitments in the Budapest Memorandum. Ukraine is not asking for US soldiers on the ground to fight for Ukraine; it is asking for Javeline missiles, anti-radar equipment and other things that are defensive in nature. If Russia does not send tanks to Ukraine or fly into Ukrainian territory, then it has nothing to fear. Ukraine is on the frontline in defending the West against the Russian aggression. And it seems to me, that the least we can do is to help Ukraine in defending its own territory. Secretary Mattis was here, he said all the right things. Kurt Volker is outspoken about this. State Department seems to support it. But I don’t know when the White House will make a decision. President Obama opposed this even though the Congress supported it. Vice-president, Secretary of State, Secretary of Defense, Chairman of the Joint Chief of Staff – they all supported it.  And yet Obama refused to do this. I think that was a terrible mistake on Obama’s part.

In your opinion, what measures can be effective in managing the Russia-Ukraine conflict? Would it be the military, economic or diplomatic approach?

The increase of sanctions is important. Every few months when Russia refuses to comply with the Minsk Agreement -- which I think we should abandon because it’s not working – we should increase sanctions. In September 2014, the Minsk Agreement 1 was signed and didn’t work. Then Minsk 2 was signed in February 2015 and it isn’t working. At some point we have to realize that either we have to be more creative to come up with Minsk 3, or we have to apply more pressure on Russia. For me, applying more pressure on Russia is about the only way we can solve this problem.

Russia right now does not feel enough pressure to change its policy. Until Russia is affected by tougher and wider sanctions, it doesn’t have many reasons to get out of Ukraine. To be clear, I include Crimea in this. Crimea is not mentioned in Minsk Agreements. And yet the US and other countries should never recognize Russian annexation. It’s illegal; it would redraw the map of Europe and violate the principles of sovereignty and territorial integrity. There are sanctions which are specifically for Crimea, they should stay and be increased.

We should support Ukraine in the diplomatic way. We should make sure that we are clear: we side with Ukraine in this crisis. After all, this is the situation where Russia invaded Ukraine, Ukraine didn’t invade Russia.

We should also make sure that things like Nord Stream 2 are not carried out. Nord Stream 2 is a terrible idea; it is not even viable commercially. And it hurts Ukraine, as well as the Baltic States, Poland and even Germany. Because it makes Germany more dependent on Russia directly. Lastly, we need to clean up our own situation in the West. Putin’s greatest export is corruption, but we import it, we allow it to our countries. So we need to fix our systems. Putin and his regime cannot both demonize the West, view us as a threat saying that we try to launch color revolutions against Russia, and at the same time put their money in the West, send their kids to the West or buy real estate here. We must do a much better job at fixing our own system and making sure, that this corrupted money is not infecting our system.

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Half a year ago President Trump proposed a serious cut in international aid, which many see as America’s soft power. How could this affect American approach to foreign policy? What difference does this mark compared to the period of Obama’s presidency and the rule of the Democrats?

I think that the Congress will leave a lot of funding that the Trump Administration wants to cut at the end of the process. There is strong support of foreign assistance in both the Senate and House of Representatives. The leaders at the Pentagon, current and previous, have said that the military budget will have to increase if you cut foreign assistance budget. Because the Pentagon will be called upon more and more to step in and deal with crises. The whole idea of foreign assistance is to prevent situations from exploding.

I think that despite the 30% cut that the Administration requested, this won’t happen. And then, if the money is approved, the Administration will have to spend it right. There is a great person in charge of the US Agency for International Development, Mark Green. He understands the importance of foreign assistance. So I expect that this soft power will continue to be a key part of US foreign policy. The Bush Administration and George Bush have spoken about the freedom agenda: Bush believed in that passionately, but the war in Iraq did some damage to this concept. It discredited promotion of democracy. Barak Obama said five days before becoming president that we can’t impose democracy through the barrel of the gun. And he is right. But then Obama showed little interest in democracy and human rights issues. The current administration has shown even less interest. And yet, if we don’t support democratic forces, the world will become a less safe place. The US has supported democracy for decades, and I hope we will return to that.

There seems to be a huge difference in the way the US Administration (and political establishment) perceives Eastern European states that are NATO members and Ukraine, not even suggesting that the latter might one day leave the grey zone and join the Western club of nations. Is that a correct impression? Is there any way for Ukraine to bridge that difference?

We have to go back to 2008 when both Ukraine and Georgia asked for membership action plan (MAP). NATO allies, in particular Germany, would not agree to do it. They agreed only that Ukraine and Georgia would become members some time. There has been slow progress in that area. One of the challenges in Ukraine was a lack of popular support for joining NATO. That, of course, has changed since Putin’s invasion. Now you have more than 50% of supporters. I think that this is a very positive development. Putin has done more to unite the country than anyone else in some way.

Another reason is that Ukraine become a victim of bad relations between Angela Merkel and Mikheil Saakashvili. Because it was a duo, Ukraine would not join without Georgia. The US decided not to push for one or the other.

However, it is NATO’s policy since creation to keep the door open for countries that are inspired to join. As long as the country wants to join, we must act right. Article 5 has made Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania safer, in particular these days. If we close the membership door to Ukraine, we are granting Russia a de facto veto over your country’s aspirations to join the Alliance. We must show some roadmap which has the end of the process, make some criteria for Ukraine to meet. It will make Ukraine safer and more secure. When Germany joined NATO in 1955, it was divided between East and West, and yet that did not prevent the country from joining the Alliance.   

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Do you think that the currently unfilled vacancies in the Department of State can pose a serious threat to American foreign policy?

Wess Mitchell has recently been appointed the new Assistant Secretary for Europe and Eurasia, replacing Victoria Nuland. He is a great person who knows the region very well and has a very clear understanding of the threat Putin poses. I think having him there is a big plus. But your question is right: the State Department is significantly understaffed. I don’t remember that in previous times. Now many of the positions are not filled. Not because the Senate is blocking confirmation of the individuals, but because the White House and the State Department have not nominated people. This has created low morale at the State Department; it has left embassies and other bureaus unclear on who has authority. This is a big problem.


David Kramer was born in Malden, Massachusetts in 1964. He was educated at Tufts University, receiving his B.A. in Soviet Studies and Political Science in 1986, then going on to get his M.A. in Soviet Studies in 1988 at Harvard University. From July 2005 to March 2008, Mr. Kramer was Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs working on issues related to Belarus, Moldova, Russia, Ukraine, and nonproliferation. From October 2010 to November 2014, he was President of Freedom House. In 2014, he became Senior Director for Human Rights and Democracy at McCain Institute. Mr. Kramer is currently a Senior Fellow in the Vaclav Havel Program on Human Rights and Diplomacy at Florida International University’s Green School of International and Public Affairs. He has recently authored Back to Containment: Dealing with Putin’s Regime.

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