John Herbst: “The Administration does not understand that Mr. Putin’s ambitions are not limited to Ukraine”

3 April 2015, 17:17

U.W.: What do you see as reasons for Mr. Obama’s very cautious policy towards Ukraine and Russia in the current crisis?

There seems to be no clear strategic understanding of the problem and a misunderstanding of the gravity of this crisis. That’s why our policy is not sufficiently comprehensive and strong. It has gotten better in recent months, but it’s still not good enough. The Administration does not understand that Mr. Putin’s ambitions are not limited to Ukraine. He may threaten NATO allies, i.e. the Baltic States. Therefore, we need to deal with him in Ukraine. However, the problem of incomplete understanding is not just in the United States, but in Europe, too.

A year ago, there were not many people who realized what was going on: that this is a crisis of Kremlin revisionism. Now, I think, many senior officials in the Administration and even more in the Congress understand this.

U.W.: Before Russia’s aggression on Ukraine, the Obama Administration’s foreign policy used to be described as “Asia pivot” that largely overlooked Europe. How accurate was that? And has it changed now?

I can understand why the Administration wanted to spend more time on Asia. This was based on the extraordinary rise there in the past 25 years. China is the world’s second largest economy today, and Japan and South Korea have huge economies, too.  Asia has become a big part of the world economy.

The problem was not the Administration’s pivot to Asia – which, by force of events, was incomplete.  The problem is that the White Houses’ appreciation of the situation in Europe has not been formed by strategic understanding, as we discussed above.

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U.W.: It looks like sanctions will remain the West’s main tool of pressure against Russia’s aggression. However, some EU member-states are reluctant to continue this policy. Does the United States have any leverage to persuade these countries to change their stance, or is it only up to Chancellor Merkel?

The US has actually shown leadership in the sanction area. President Obama has provided a way forward on this question for the United States, as well as for the West in general. He and his Administration have taken time to encourage the Europeans to take a stronger position on sanctions. Having said that, Chancellor Merkel is the only senior Western statesperson outside the US dealing with the crisis. I think she has understood the importance of maintaining sanctions as a way to encourage Moscow to pursue the right policies.

The United States and the EU seem to be working closely together on this, and not at cross-purposes. It is true that the US has been stronger in arguing for sanctions for Russia’s aggression in Ukraine, but we have always understood that Europe pays a higher price for the sanctions economically.

U.W.: If the sanctions affect the Russian economy as intended, is there any strategic concept or planning in the West on what the post-sanction Russia could look like and what risks it could entail?  

The US Administration has imposed sanctions to encourage Mr. Putin to cease his aggression. The way it can work is that the sanctions become so painful that he sees as the leader of Russia that he needs to stop his interference, invasion in Ukraine. I believe this is plausible, although it is not guaranteed.

My personal belief is that the sanctions have been important, even if they do not persuade Mr. Putin to stop his aggression. Since his ambitions reach beyond Ukraine, we need to weaken him so that he has fewer resources with which to conduct the aggression, whether in Ukraine or in any other place.

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U.W.: How is the intense militarization of Crimea and the threat it poses to the Black Sea region seen in this context? Is it viewed as a serious threat in the West?

I think that the American military and statesmen understand that Mr. Putin is deploying advanced weapons systems to the peninsula. We keep track of these things. However, I do not believe that they give the Kremlin a new strategic advantage. 

There have been a relatively large number of visits by navy vessels of NATO countries in the Black Sea in recent weeks. That is an indication of the West’s understanding that the problem of Kremlin aggression in Crimea and the Donbas is growing.

U.W.: All that activity of NATO does not do much for Ukraine. Its core member-states, especially the European ones, have been reluctant to see Ukraine as part of the Alliance – even after Russia’s aggression in Georgia. What would it take for Ukraine to get under the NATO umbrella – domestic reforms and will, or a weakened Russia that will no longer object it aggressively?

I do not believe that the prospects of NATO membership for Ukraine are any stronger now than they were a year ago. The main European member-states have expressed reluctance to accept Ukraine to the Alliance since the Bucharest Summit in 2008. That has not changed.

Since the Russian aggression began, however, the attitude in Ukraine has changed substantially. The majority of Ukrainians now want to join NATO. That is something that would require NATO to put together an action plan for Ukraine with a future membership prospect. But I don’t think that is possible either, at least not in the immediate future. It is more important for Ukraine at this point in time to withstand the Russian aggression, to stabilize the current ceasefire and to move quickly and comprehensively in the parts of the country under Kyiv’s full control to implement reform.

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U.W.: Before the aggression, Ukraine was generally dismissed by many key Western players as a country in the region dominated by Russia on which everyone focused in the first place. Could that change now? What would it take for Ukraine to become a regional player?

Two categories of things need to happen to ensure Ukraine’s future, to ensure its control over its territory and its ability to choose its own domestic and foreign policy.

First, Ukraine needs to continue its fight against Mr. Putin’s aggression. But it needs the help of the West in that fight, and that help comes in the form of strict sanctions on Russia and of supplying military equipment to Ukraine, including defensive lethal weapons. I believe that these things can make it much harder for Mr. Putin to push further.

The second thing is that the government of Mr. Poroshenko and Mr. Yatsenyuk need to move decisively on reforms. In that, Ukraine needs support of the international community and financial institutions. This assistance should be forthcoming provided that the Poroshenko-Yatsenyuk government makes the right reforms.

Both governments in Kyiv since former President Yanukovych fled in February of 2014 – the interim government, Mr. Yatsenyuk’s Cabinet, and then the Administration of President Poroshenko — could have moved more decisively on reforms. Following the presidential election, time was spent on campaigning for the parliamentary elections in the fall. After the Rada elections, there were several weeks of political maneuvering between Mr. Poroshenko and Mr. Yatsenyuk.  This was all time lost for reform. The budget presented to the Rada in December was at best a half step forward on reform; but finally, earlier in March, the Rada passed a raft of reform measures. We now need to see these bills implemented.

Interviewed by Anna Korbut

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