We have the capability to influence Russia but we need to have the will to act as well.
Despite what we have seen in Ukraine, Crimea, Transnistria and Georgia – Europe is still strong enough, capable enough, and has the resources for taking care of itself, argues Kurt Volker.
Has Vladimir Putin gone mad?
No, not at all. He is being very practical and what he is doing makes perfect sense to me. He believes that collapse of the Soviet Union was the greatest tragedy of the 20th century, as he said. He wants to have control of the territories that were formerly part of the Soviet Union – particularly territories that have Russian-speaking communities. He wants to exercise decisive influence over all the other remnants of the Soviet Union apart from the Baltic states, especially Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Ukraine, and Moldova. He wants to keep those countries weak and wants to prevent them being integrated into Europe. And he is willing to use whatever effective means there are to achieve these goals.
What is the objective of the Kremlin and Putin? Is it restoring the territory of former Soviet Union – or even beyond?
I don’t think they are going beyond what Soviet Union was, but I would put Putin´s objectives in three categories. First there’s the aim of restoring direct control over certain territories, particularly Russian-speaking ones. That involves changing borders.
Then there’s the goal to achieve decisive influence in territories that may not be Russian-speaking – like Georgia for example. And thirdly there`s the wish to extend Russian influence regionally and globally. Whether that’s in Central and Eastern Europe or Western Europe or the Middle East or Iran or South Asia, Russia wants to be a great power. Putin is trying to accomplish all three tasks.
But I think that currently Russia draws a distinction between the Baltic states and the rest of the former Soviet Union. Putin sees the Balts as members of NATO and knows that attacking them would be crossing a different threshold than was the case with Ukraine or Georgia. He sees the Baltic States as part of the EU, and as more Western, fairly cohesive societies.
How effective has the West’s reaction been?
It has not been effective. There are two things wrong with the current Western approach. First concerns the way we have imposed sanctions and travel bans. Russia has already invaded Ukraine. We should not be waiting for anything more to happen. We need to put in place very severe sanctions, travel bans, and other measures in order to bring Russia to negotiating table. Currently, it has no such incentive.
The second thing is that we have ruled out a military component in pushing back Russia. We talk about sanctions targeting mostly individuals. And we talk about travel bans. This is a very asymmetrical reaction, because Russia is using military force to seize territory! I am convinced that Putin believes that the territorial gains he has made are permanent, while sanctions are temporary. In his mind, these sanctions will eventually go away or become insignificant. So we need to put some military tools on the table to give some teeth to our diplomacy.
So can the West influence Russia?
We have the capability but we need to have the will to act as well. We need to think in two categories – defense and deterrence. On the defense side we need to be absolutely ironclad in guaranteeing that United States and Europe – that is, NATO – will come to the defense of any NATO member state. Period. That includes the Baltic states, Poland, Romania, Bulgaria, everybody. This is something for which we need to have contingency plans.
Baltic air policing is a very good example, but there`s more that we should be doing in that area. I think exercises are important. General Breedlove talked about air-sea-land exercises. The land component in that formula is really important. I would suggest stationing land force elements in Poland and Romania. Those are the places that are very close to where the action is taking place right now.
We should be providing equipment and intelligence to Ukraine, military advisors for their Ministry of Defence and armed forces. We should deploy land force units in the Baltic states. We as an alliance should at least express the interest in maintaining the territorial integrity of Ukraine. I think that would strengthen our position considerably; ideally, we could help the Ukrainians enough so that its resistance would prove to be too painful for Putin.
Would Putin respond to such measures? Yes of course he would. We just have to plan for that response and to be prepared. Ultimately, the Trans-Atlantic community is stronger than Russia – economically, politically, and militarily. Ultimately the effects of sanctions will hurt Russia more than Europe, particularly in the energy sector or in the financial sector. We need to be prepared to endure a bit of pain in order to avoid the unraveling of the peace and security that has developed in Europe during the last 60 years.
What is stopping Europe and the United States rom doing that?
Well there are many reasons, none of them good. One of them is the unwillingness to contemplate any military step. It`s just the fundamental ideology that the military is “bad”. When the other side is using military force, that is a losing position.
And then there`s questions like: “Why should we care? After all those places were part of Soviet Union 25 years ago. Ukrainians – they are all criminals and they are all corrupt, why should we risk anything by supporting them?” And in the case of United States, “It`s a European problem, why should we get involved?” So there`s all these excuses but no good answers as to why we can’t do more.
Maybe it´s because Europe was surprised by Putin´s aggression?
I don’t know how one could be surprised by this. Maybe it all seems so incredible and unusual when compared to what we normally deal with every day.
But if you have listened to Putin, if you have watched what Russia has been doing for the past 10 or 15 years, if you remember the chain of events leading to the situation at hand and recall how the West has responded with accommodating Russia – then this is not a surprise.
We saw this coming and we warned about this. If you go to the WikiLeaks website, one can see a document from August 2008, allegedly a telegram from the US representation to NATO to the State Department, which reports that Russia seizing parts of Ukraine is a serious risk. I can’t confirm the veracity of that telegram, but that is what it says.
Should we—or could we—have done anything to prevent the crisis in Ukraine?
We did not push hard enough on Ukraine when it was becoming a corrupt, non-transparent oligarch-driven state. We shrugged our shoulders and said “well they’re not really part of Europe.” Tymoshenko was corrupt, Yushchenko was incompetent, and together they were a disaster. Yanukovych took all that to the tenth level resumed even more power, even more corruption, even more self-interest—all at the expense of the Ukrainian people. We didn’t work hard enough inside Ukraine with Ukrainians to bring about reforms.
And Ukraine is not the only case out there. We should also be concerned about what’s happening in Georgia. We shouldn’t want Georgia to follow the example of Ukraine. We shouldn’t want to see a government that is ratcheting back democratic structures, prosecuting political opponents, and pulling away from Europe. We need to be more outspoken with the Georgians, just as we should have been more outspoken with Ukraine. And at the same time we should help Georgia to get through those problems, making it clear that our goal is to see them as a part of Europe and a part of NATO.
What was the significance of the Russo-Georgian War in 2008 in the context of the current crisis?
The war in Georgia was the first time since World War II when international borders in Europe were changed using military force.
Russia`s reading of NATO`s Bucharest Summit in 2008, where Georgia was not given a Membership Action Plan, was that we are not going to do much for Georgia. This was a green light for Putin. And then Russia invaded Georgia. The war itself ended with a very unstable and unsatisfactory conclusion, in which those two provinces – South Ossetia and Abkhazia – declared independence.
But I think that for Russia, the military campaign in Georgia was somewhat unsatisfactory. It was harder than they expected. So Putin spent six years rebuilding the military, investing lots of money in it, but also getting smarter about how to use his forces. Russia has been much smarter today and has avoided some of the mistakes it made in Georgia. But the goal is still the same: to re-establish a Greater Russia with influence over the rest of the former Soviet states.
How is Russia perceived in Washington right now?
It depends on who you talk to. The president meant to be provocative when he referred to Russia as a “regional power” as opposed to a global superpower. He and Secretary Kerry have referred to Russia as being on the wrong side of the history, or playing by 19th-century rules in the 21st century.
But I think that everybody in Washington agrees that Putin has crossed several important red lines, that he is acting in a belligerent way, and that any prospect of real cooperation with Russia is just not serious. And then there are manypeople outside the administration who believe that it is even more serious – that Russia is rebuilding power, grabbing territory and acting in a very 1930s -kind of way. They also believe that Russia will continue doing so unless we have a much stronger US and European response to draw a line and deter further aggression.
Is there the risk of a military conflict between Russia and the West in the ten year perspective?
That depends on two things. It depends on whether the West is prepared to draw firm lines and stand its ground. By the way, this is what we should do. If we do so, and we are serious about it, then the risk of military conflict is low.
But on the other hand, if we keep things vague and we don’t demonstrate the capability and the willingness to really live up to our treaty commitments, then Russia might be tempted to test us. That may put us in a position where we have to respond, whichI think would be a dangerous situation. So I hope that we will have a much more determined posture than today in order to reduce the risk of conflict.
What is the place of Europe in the strategic thinking of the United States? Has it been transformed somehow?
This is a very interesting question. Over the last 25 years there has been a growing sense that Europe is a democratic market economy, powerful and secure, capable of handling itself—and that it doesn’t face the same immediate risks that the rest of the world does.
Putin has shown that this view is a bit premature and that you do have risks in Europe—not only “soft” security risks, but real military risks as well. Borders can be changed by force.
But there’s also this sense that at the end of the day Europe is still secure and prosperous and we don’t have to worry about it. That it´s just these former Soviet countries that are under risk and Russia is actually weak …
That’s a very dangerous set of views to hold, really. It’s an invitation to Russia for further land grabs. It denigrates the rights of millions of people to freedom that they should, or do, have now. It underestimates the ability of today`s Russia to exercise power, to change, and to become stronger.
And the perception here in Washington is that Europe is underinvesting in its own security, that it is not dealing with its own economic and social challenges. Furthermore, the very strongly-held view here in Washington is that the United States should not compensate for Europe’s unwillingness to deal with its own problems I would argue, that despite what we have seen in Ukraine, Crimea, Transnistria, and Georgia, Europe is strong enough, is capable enough, has enough resources, and thus should be able to take care of itself. Europe should be able to work on some of these problems. If it’s not, why should the United States be compensating for that?
Eve Tisler is a freelance journalist based in Washington, D.C.
Kurt Volker is Executive Director of the McCain Institute for International Leadership, part of Arizona State University. He served as U.S. Ambassador to NATO in 2008-2009.
From July 2005 until June 2008, Ambassador Volker served as Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs.
Ambassador Volker was a career member of the U.S. Senior Foreign Service, with over 23 years of experience working on European policy under five U.S. Administrations.
Since leaving government, he has been involved with a variety of think-tank and business consulting activities. He remains active as a Senior Advisor to the Atlantic Council, and a Senior Fellow with the Center for Transatlantic Relations at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies.
This article was published in ICDS Diplomaatia magazine.