Ukraine recently hosted a group of American experts. They represented four different institutions: director of the Eurasia Center, former US ambassador to Ukraine John Herbst from the Atlantic Council, senior fellow and former US ambassador to Ukraine Steven Pifer from the Brookings Institution, Ivo Daalder was here in his capacity as president of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, while the Center for a New American Security was represented by retired US general Charles Walt and former assistant secretary of defense Jen Kodel.
The Day learned from Herbst in a telephone conversation that the purpose of the trip was to assess Ukraine’s current security issues. On returning to Washington, the group aimed to prepare appropriate recommendations for the US administration and NATO.
Ambassador, you said in an interview with our newspaper during your previous stay in Kyiv exactly one month ago that Ukraine faced two major problems: the Russian aggression and internal corruption. Has something changed since? Is Ukraine better prepared now to confront Russia?
“There is no question that the military is better prepared today than it was a year ago or even nine months ago. But it is also true that the Ukrainian military suffered major losses when regular Russian troops invaded at the end of August. We came here with a variety of impressions, the first is that despite the ceasefire, we’ve had 2 ceasefires in a sense, the official ceasefire was established on September 5, and then you had ‘days of quiet’ beginning on December 8 or 9, and Ukraine has suffered over 225 soldiers killed during this ceasefire. And we heard from a variety of sources that of course it is the Russian and separatist side that is responsible usually for violating the ceasefire. We also learned that since the ceasefire in September, the Russian-separatist side has acquired another 500 square kilometers of land, which demonstrates they continue to be the aggressor. Not only are Russian soldiers and equipment in your country, Russian money financing the separatists, but they continue to make gains. And this is a very serious problem, not only militarily, but it is an economic problem. Ukraine is spending six or seven million dollars every day on this war that the Russians are conducting against them. So, this is a serious issue, and the West needs to pay more attention to it. And in my opinion, the West needs to provide substantial military assistance, including weapons that shoot. I can’t speak for the entire group, we are in the midst of writing a report, and we will write this report, it will be done within a little bit more than two weeks, and we will present it at that time. But I suspect it will call for substantially more security support for Ukraine from the United States and also from NATO.”
Deputy Chairman of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations Robert Menendez urged President Barack Obama to make full use of the new law called “Ukraine Freedom Support Act.” How would you comment on it?
“There is no question about that. I highly praise Senator Menendez for being a leader on this issue, but I personally believe that the legislation, which was a very good first step, is still quite insufficient. It talked about providing 350 million dollars worth of security aid over 3 years. We need to provide more than 350 million dollars right away.”
Can we expect, then, that the US Congress, which from this year has both chambers controlled by the Republicans, will launch new initiatives to support Ukraine, in particular by giving our country the status of the major non-NATO ally?
“I believe this new US Congress will be even more supportive of Ukraine than the previous one. I don’t know if this new Congress is going to focus on Ukraine as a major non-NATO ally. But the most important thing is for the United States and NATO to provide substantial military support for Ukraine. Being named a major non-NATO ally is not going to save you from Russian aggression in the same way as receiving Javelins, or an anti-missile radar, or sniper rifles is going to help.”
John Schindler has recently published an article titled “Why Ukraine Is Losing,” in which he recommends that the Ukrainian authorities develop a strategy for the return of the lost territory and use Croatia’s experience to do so, for that country lost 20 percent of its territory in a similar situation in 1991, but retook it from Serbia five years later, having conducted the brilliant Operation Storm. What do you think of that analyst’s proposal?
“I understand that Ukraine, of course, should take back this territory, this is Ukrainian land. But I also know that at the present time, given the strong intervention by Moscow, I’m not certain that’s possible right now. Over time – yes, especially as Russia gets weaker because of low oil prices and sanctions. But right now, it seems to me, it will be very difficult for the Ukrainian forces to take back the east. I’m not saying Ukraine should not try, I’m just saying that I’m not confident it would work right now.”
Have you heard about the strategy for returning the eastern territories to Ukraine during your talks with Ukrainian officials?
“I was just in Ukraine, speaking to many senior people both in the military and the government. I did not ask them to share all their plans with me, so I cannot say definitively that there are no plans. What I can say is that at the moment, the other side is making gains. So, the first order has to make sure that the other side can make no further advances.”
So, do you share Schindler’s opinion that Ukraine is losing?
“I believe that during the ceasefires’ period, Ukraine’s position has weakened, that’s not to say that it is losing. I think, the most important thing right now is to stop any further loss of Ukrainian territory. And for that Ukraine needs substantial support from the West. And I think Ukraine does have to develop a strategy, and they will be doing that, so they can take back all the east, but it is not going to be a simply military strategy; it will be a combination of some military effort, sanctions by the West, diplomatic activity, diplomatic support by the West for Ukraine. These are things that will be needed to help Ukraine take back the east.
“If the Minsk accord is fully implemented, Ukraine will take back the east, because the Minsk accord calls for all Russian troops and armaments to be out of Ukraine, and it calls for Ukraine to be controlling its border. And the only way that the separatists can remain in power, is for Russia to continue supplying the separatists with arms, with advisers, and in time, with soldiers to fight.”
May I ask your opinion on whether Ukraine has to attract professionals from other countries to occupy positions in the Ministry of Defense or the Armed Forces, as the Ukrainian government is already doing in agencies dealing with the economy?
“Ukraine has very talented people, its military officers are also talented. So, I’m not certain they need to have advisers from the West. However, if Ukrainians identify an area where they need some expertise, then of course, they should seek help from abroad. I do know that we, the United States, are involved in training Ukrainian forces in certain areas. I know that US experts come to Ukraine every six weeks.”
You have probably read an article by Paul Gregory called “The West Has Putin in a Box but Refuses to Pull the Trigger.” Is the West failing to understand that it is necessary to neutralize Vladimir Putin?
“I do believe that Putin is an aggressor. He has launched a war without any justification on Ukraine, and I think we need to stop this aggression. I believe that he’s also been bad for the Russian people as an authoritarian leader. But Russia and Russian people have to decide what do to with their own leaders. The West needs to help Ukraine to defend itself. The West needs to provide a financial package, so we can deal with the current debt crisis. My view is as sanctions grow harder, as oil prices grow lower, the West provides enough military assistance to prevent Russian aggression from succeeding, then Mr. Putin has a difficult choice: either he has to stop his aggression in Ukraine, or he has to watch his economy being destroyed, or at least being substantially hurt. I frankly believe that if in one year sanctions remain strong, the Russian economy continues to be under pressure because of oil prices and sanctions, either Putin will begin to withdraw from Ukraine, or the Russian people will seek new leadership.”
But an important condition of it is the West keeping the sanctions on...
“Of course, I hope, and we can’t predict what will happen in eight or nine months from now. The first sanctions will be renewed in a couple of months, and I’m pretty confident they will be renewed. The real issue is what will happen with the sanctions that were put down in July and especially September. Mr. Putin is hoping Europe will lift them. Right now I don’t think that if they were to be discussed, they would be lifted, I think they would be renewed. In eight or nine months, if Russian aggression continues, I think they will also be renewed. But we have to wait and see and work to this end.”
The Munich security conference is to be held on February 6-8, where one day will be devoted to discussing the Ukrainian question. What signal do you think the West should send on this forum?
“It would be wonderful if at this conference all Western countries made clear their support for Ukraine, made clear their sharp criticism of Russia’s aggression. That’s why representatives from our delegation will be there to talk about the Russian aggression in Ukraine and how the West needs to help.”