On Sunday, March 2, the Atlantic Council convened a conference call on the crisis in Ukraine for journalists and Council members.

Fred Kempe
President and CEO
Atlantic Council

Nicholas Burns
Harvard Kennedy School of Government

Damon Wilson
Executive Vice President
Atlantic Council

Adrian Karatnycky
Senior Fellow,
Program on Transatlantic Relations
Atlantic Council

  • Transcript by

Federal News Service
Washington, DC

FRED KEMPE: Thank you very much. Welcome to this media members’ conference call on the crisis in Ukraine; I am Fred Kempe, president and CEO of the Atlantic Council. We started these calls for two reasons. First of all, to allow the Atlantic Council to reach its international community as crises happen, as issues happen, so in a more timely way, and also to be able to reach our global community – we don’t just have a community in Washington in the U.S., but around the world.

This call is on-the-record. We’ll have a hard stop at 10:00 a.m. Our experts who will speak in this order are Adrian Karatnycky, senior fellow of the Atlantic Council, former Freedom House CEO and respected expert on Ukraine and Eastern Europe; he’ll start us off with a little bit of a feeling of what’s going on on the ground. Ambassador Nick Burns – Ambassador R. Nicholas Burns, a professor of the practice of diplomacy and international politics, Harvard, former U.S. undersecretary of state for political affairs, former ambassador to NATO and a member of the Atlantic Council’s board of directors.

And then, Damon Wilson, the executive vice president of the Atlantic Council and former special assistant to the president and senior director for Europe and the White House. So lots of expertise on the line; I’m not going to take up to much time with my own opening statement. Just to let you know that what’s really heated things up today, again, is Ukraine Prime Minister Yatsenyuk saying we’re on the brink of disaster, urging Russian President Vladimir Putin to pull back his military from the country, echoing the words of President Obama from yesterday after his 90-minute call with President Putin.

Speaking before reporters in English in Kiev on Sunday, Prime Minister Yatsenyuk said the Russian actions constitute, quote, “a declaration of war to my country,” unquote. We’ll talk about that and whether that’s the situation. His remarks come a day after the Russian parliament approved the deployment of troops to Ukraine, and Kiev has responded by ordering mobilization of reservists. Adrian will give us a feeling of where that stands on the ground now; there has been some talk of some hostilities already, and Damon can speak to that.

The head of Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council said the council on Sunday had ordered the Defense Ministry to quote, “call on those that armed forces need at the moment across Ukraine,” unquote, adding mobilization was to ensure that security and territorial integrity of the Ukraine. And then, the last point from NATO – we being the Atlantic Council – NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen says Russia has threatened peace and security in Europe through its actions in Ukraine.

He spoke in Brussels today, calling on Russia to de-escalate tensions. And he spoke ahead of the start of an urgent NATO meeting in Brussels, and interestingly, called for, at the request of Ukraine – Warsaw has said it feels threatened by any potential Russian military intervention in neighboring Ukraine. We are in the middle of an international crisis, and we’ll try to give this the most sober, clear-headed providing light instead of – instead of heat. And Adrian, why don’t you get us started with what you’re hearing is going on on the ground.

ADRIAN KARATNYCKY: Sure. A couple of the basics: Basically, 6,000 Russian forces, mainly special forces, entered the territory of Crimea and are now populated throughout the peninsula. In many cases – of course, they are controlling the key sort of administrative points, but they’re also surrounding the various areas where Ukrainian troops and forces are located. In several instances, there have been attempts by the special forces standoff – attempts to disarm and to capture the arms caches and the weapons of the Ukrainian forces. These have been firmly resisted, but without, at least as far as the information that I’ve been seeing, any gunplay, although this creates – you know, this is a sort of a tinderbox that could potentially explode into exchange of fire and could dangerously escalate.

On the mobilization front, a partial mobilization has been ordered. People in Ukraine of – from the million people who are on the registers of the reserve have selectively received letters to head to their military commissions and to undergo short-term retraining, training, and presumably, equipping.

In Ukraine, there are about 140,000 Ukrainian land forces. As we know, because of the Soviet era, they are mainly – their main areas are concentrated in the Kiev military district, which is in central Ukraine, and the Odessa district, which is actually southwest Ukraine, and in the Carpathian district, which is very western Ukraine. This is a legacy of the projection of power against the West of the Soviet era.

But really, the eastern borders, as a result, are not places where there is a heavy, strong military presence, and there has not been a kind of a reorganization of forces to prevent any even symbolic assault. The border guards are reporting that all is quiet on the Eastern front; this is information from the last half-hour to 45 minutes. So there are no signs of Russian forces approaching the borders or massing on the Eastern borders of Ukraine. And that’s sort of the overall situation.

Politically, the initial revolutionary fervor of the Ukrainians, which was sort of to remove and to punish all of the people associated with the Yanukovych regime has moved into a policy of high pragmatism and national unity. One of the very important things to keep in mind is that various rich businessmen and oligarchs have now been appointed who have a great deal of credibility as people who own, you know, soccer teams (or ?) charitable activities – sports teams and provide employment in these areas and live in those areas have been named governors in some of the Eastern districts. They include many of the most powerful former backers of the Yanukovych regime, including Ukraine’s richest man, Mr. Akhmetov who is supporting another industrialist – and former colleague of his as the new governor of Danesk.

Interestingly enough, today in Eastern Ukraine and in Danesk, there were demonstrations for national unity, for peace and for territorial integrity, and there were people wearing both the national symbols – the blue – the black and red – the blue and yellow symbols of Ukraine’s state flag, and also the orange and black symbols of the allegedly pro-Russian side of the population.

It seems that people even who have been demonstrating against some of the trends in Kiev are now joining protests – there are small protests – five – demonstrations or meetings of five to ten thousand people in many of the East Ukrainian cities. That’s a very important development, because I think that one of the issues that – we can discuss in greater detail are the intentions of this – of this operation beyond the seizing of the Crimean peninsula.

And one of the issues is that Mr. Putin has not met with a lot of public fervor taking to the streets in many of these cities welcoming Russia’s annexation of – or at least temporary occupation of Crimea. In fact, the crowds – there were some tussles, and the crowds that massed yesterday, allegedly to repeat the operation that had occurred in the Crimea to demand a referendum – to demand separation and to demand, you know, unity with the Russian people – those demonstrations were very thin, and they were populated to a very considerable degree by large amounts of bussing of Russian citizens and Russian buses, and hotels in Ukraine will filled with Russian, quote, “tourists” who took part in these demonstrations.

And in Kharkov, the Eastern city where the flag of Russia was raised, reporters were able to identify that the man who raised that flag is a resident of Moscow. So again, this was a sort of a simulation of popular support. So the – there is no – you know, the party of regions, which has disaffected from Mr. Yanukovych, is in the parliament today; they had a closed session. They’re not running away to safety in Crimea or under Russian occupation. They are supporting by constitutional majorities, and the major businessmen of Ukraine are holding firm.

So this process has had a kind of a – I mean, it hasn’t solved all the problems of the East and West but it has contributed to a consolidation. People don’t want – obviously they fear war. They don’t want conflict. In any event, they don’t want an occupation. And the mantra that is being signaled is territorial integrity, including even the pro-Russian Moscow Patriarchate Ukrainian Church.

The Orthodox Church is divided between those who adhere to the Ukrainian Patriarch in Kiev and are under the larger Orthodox group, which is under the aegis of the Moscow Patriarch Kirill. They have had a dispute now with the leadership of the Moscow church, demanding that they firmly – that he firmly speak out in behalf of the territorial integrity and against the placing of forces on Ukraine. So this is having, I would say politically at least, the reverse effect of what Mr. Putin may have intended, a kind of a creation of a pragmatic consolidation of – between East and West.

The last thing I should say is that, you know, the leading government team – which is an agglomeration of, you know, the three main opposition parties, including a very far-right-wing party, Svoboda, and a liberal party linked with the bloc for Mr. Klitschko, and a more sort of – a party that has both a populous and a liberal wing linked to Mrs. Tymoshenko and the prime minister – the current prime minister, Mr. Yatsenyuk – all of them are in lockstep in speaking about moderation: no opening of fire, no provocative actions.

And, you know, Mrs. Tymoshenko, who was released from prison, has actually been participating in the meetings of the National Security Council. And she also is one of the advocates of restraint: no provocative forward movements, sort of positioning troops where they are, putting them into readiness but doing nothing that might signal some kind of an effort to accelerate the conflict. And I think so far the Ukrainians – both the Ukrainian people and the Ukrainian leadership have shown, you know, I would say a calmness, obviously a great deal of anxiety and concern but a calmness and kind of professionalism and the – and the efforts to reinstall discipline in a chain of command that had obviously been disrupted by the tumultuous effects of the previous week. So I’ll end with that.

MR. KEMPE: So thanks, Adrian.

Now, Damon, you’re going to come back after Nick to talk a little bit about the U.S. side and perhaps the European side after Nick’s comments, but do you have something from the ground you – we were talking a little bit earlier and there are some reports of hostilities.

DAMON WILSON: Well, Fred, I think the only thing I’d add right now with what Adrian just said about the on-the-ground reports is we’ve been in touch this morning with Ambassador Oleh Shamshur, the former Ukrainian ambassador to the United States, who has served essentially as a foreign policy advisor to the opposition, specifically to Vitali Klitschko of UDAR, and he agreed to be quoted this morning as saying that they’re hearing – he is saying already that there are Russian forces in Crimea that are already using force – using firearms against the Ukrainian border guard command center in Crimea, along with Crimean authorities bringing FSB generals, Russian FSB generals, to Ukrainian military units, trying to have them make a pledge of allegiance to Russia.

And some of these Ukrainian units – there are, I think, three Ukrainian bases in Crimea in addition to the Russian facilities. Those forces have so far been refusing. So we don’t have other verification of this but he knew we were going onto this call and was comfortable with us relaying that information in his name.

MR. KEMPE: Yeah. And for those on the call, we all know about the fog – and what I hope is not war, but the fog in this sort of situation. So we don’t have independent confirmation of that but that’s from someone quite influential in the opposition.

Let me turn to you, Nick. You’ve been a policy maker – the top policy maker in the State Department as undersecretary there, and then in NATO as well. Talk a little bit about the situation but also what options you believe the U.S. and Europe have available to them at this moment.

NICHOLAS BURNS: Thank you, Fred. And thanks to Fred and Damon for arranging this call. And good morning, everybody.

Fred, let me just begin and state the obvious. President Obama is facing the most difficult international crisis of his presidency. And I think – I think more Europeans and Americans would agree it’s the most scariest threat to Europe’s security since the end of the Cold War in 1991. It’s a crisis that we couldn’t have even imagined a couple of weeks ago. And it really leaves President Obama and Angela Merkel and the other leaders with one option, and that’s to follow a diplomatic strategy, not a military strategy. And the option has to be to try to outmaneuver Putin in what will likely turn out to be a very lengthy struggle over Ukraine.

Obviously, in tactical terms in the short term, even the next few days, I think what you’ll see the U.S. and Europe try to do is convince Putin by a variety of measures to stop where he is in Crimea, to not go further with his offensives in Ukraine. It’s going to be difficult, because if you look at the Kremlin’s readout of the phone call between President Obama and President Putin yesterday, Putin has staked out a position that he has a right and indeed an obligation, the Russians say, to respond to appeals from ethnic Russians to protect them. Those appeals have already started in Donetsk, in Horokhiv and other cities in Eastern Ukraine. They’re going to continue. They will be orchestrated by Moscow. Some of them will be genuine by ethnic Russians who feel – who don’t feel secure in a new kind of – with a new kind of Ukrainian government.

So can the Western countries convince Putin to stop where he is? That’s very much an open question. I think it reads – it’s obvious also that NATO has no legal security obligations to Ukraine in this crisis. That’s just a fact. And what of course governments can’t say openly, for a variety of reasons, is that there is no military option available to the United States and to NATO. A counterpunch by NATO to Putin’s land grab in Crimea would risk a continental war, and of course that war would be among nuclear powers. It’s just not going to happen and we’re not going to fight Putin for Ukraine. He knows it. And that’s in part why he felt emboldened to ask.

So I think the option here – and the president has been very calm in laying this out, both in – Friday in his statement – in his statement made before cameras but also in the White House statement yesterday, what Secretary Kerry in his statement, is that they’re going to go on the offensive in another way. They’re going to try to raise the cost to Putin for his actions. Now, there are no good options here. And it’s obvious that Putin starts with a major advantage. He’s been very strategic and very decisive and the Western countries are scrambling to catch up. But here’s just five points very quickly that the president and the European leadership could consider:

First, they can start by assembling a global chorus of leaders to denounce Putin for breaking the long peace since the end of the Cold War. It’s not going to change Putin’s course but it may begin to isolate him. And you will remember how the Soviets began to be isolated over the invasion of Afghanistan. It’s going to cost Putin some of the soft-power capital that he thinks he earned in the Sochi games. That’s important to him. And it can’t be just the Americans.

I’ve been struck – I’ve been trying to read the European press and follow European leaders. I think the American voices have been much stronger from the White House and from the president and Secretary Kerry. I haven’t seen, but maybe I’ve missed it, strong, self-confident statements from Angela Merkel, from Francois Hollande. You do see it from the Poles because the Poles are right next door and they’re stalwart. But could there be a public campaign by the Europeans and Americans to try to even get Indian voices, Brazilian voices, South Korean and Japanese voices? It won’t stop Putin but it will make him more isolated. That’s the first thing.

Second, the U.S. and NATO have to begin to sanction Putin by concrete measures. So the White House is hinting in the statement yesterday that Obama won’t attend the G-8 summit in Sochi, but they ought to just come out and say he’s not going to attend. And the G-7 leaders, all of them, should follow, and I think all of them will, including the Japanese, if that’s what the Americans, Canadians and Europeans want to do. And I would say that the G-7 countries should expel Russia from the G-8. It was President Clinton in 1994 who argued with the rest of the G-7 leaders that they ought to add Russia, and there was a great resistance to it but he got his way. There were reasons to do it in 1994; there are reasons to expel Russia now.

Third, the U.S. can take further concrete measures in terms of the U.S.-Russia bilateral relationship – Putin of course very much oriented to try to integrate Russia economically with the rest of the world. That’s why the WTO accession was so important. And as Damon reminded me yesterday, the Russians put stock in the bilateral investment treaty negotiations. We ought to suspend them. And we ought to encourage Congress to announce the second round of Magnitsky sanctions on Russian leaders and look for other concrete ways.

And Congress will be very helpful here, on a bipartisan basis, to end a business-as-usual attitude with the Russian Federation. There has to be some concrete costs – (inaudible). They’re not major, and, again, they won’t stop Putin, but if you add them all up, they amount to at least a pushback.

Fourth: The U.S. and Europe can act together to try to provide greater support to the new government in Kiev. I think time is important here, and symbolism is going to be important here, and so, we ought to see a U.S. statement this week about a more-than-billion-dollar economic aid program to the government in Kiev. We ought to see a similar statement from the EU leadership, and, obviously, the IMF has already said, Christine Lagarde has already said that they would like to begin talks between the IMF on the stand-by agreement with the Ukrainians.

They ought to consider a creative way to demonstrate that support, and I would think a visit to Kiev by the foreign ministers of Poland, the United States, Germany, the U.K., and France – at least, maybe with some others – to stand by the new leadership, and stand with them in Ukraine, would at least be a symbolic show of support for the Ukrainian government, and that ought to be done very quickly – this week. I know Cathy Ashton has plans to go on Wednesday, but I think that with Sikorski there, and Kerry there, and Hague there, and Fabius there, and Steinmeier there it would be much more dramatic, and, obviously, more collective.

Fifth, and finally: NATO should reaffirm publically the Article 5 pledge of mutual defense to all of its members, and this may strike some Americans, and maybe even Western Europeans, as perhaps excessive or overly dramatic, but you have to remember the psychology of half of our alliance – the 10 members who come from Central Europe, including three of them, former republics of the Soviet Union: Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania.

I am reading, just in hearing from them, real concern for their security, real concern that NATO speak with a firm voice, and so I would think at the very least a NATO foreign ministers’ meeting this week in Brussels, but I think, much more importantly, that President Obama should call a NATO leaders’ meeting in the next 10 days – in Europe. He should go to Europe. He should sit with NATO, and they should publically reaffirm the Article 5 commitment to all the members, including, most notably, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania.

Last thing I’d say, Fred, is this: It’s obvious that Putin chose this fight on ground that’s familiar and advantageous to him, and he’s won round one over the weekend, and he’s still on the move, but it’s not altogether clear if he knows – if he knows how the crisis is going to end.

And I don’t think that this open offensive, which violates every rule in the international legal handbook – from the U.N. charter, to the CSCE, the final act, Helsinki, to the Budapest Memorandum of December 1994 – it’s not going to play well, not just in Ukraine, with the majority of Ukrainians. It’s not going to play well in the world beyond, and that’s beyond Europe and Asia and the Middle East as well, and that’s why I think an assertive diplomatic pushback – a highly symbolic one by the U.S. and Europe – is the sensible counterpoint to what the Russians are trying to do.

It’s going to take very strong, very consistent, resolute leadership by President Obama and Chancellor Merkel, and it’s going to have to be a singular focus on Europe from the American administration that we’ve not yet seen, because they’ve been focused on the Middle East and Asia, but now they got to turn towards Europe and be very strong in pushing this forward, so that’s what I would say, Fred and Damon.

MR. KARATNYCKY: Can I just ask the ambassador – this is Adrian Karatnycky – about several other ideas?

Is it appropriate, or is it provocative, for Western countries to consider discussing, at least, military assistance to the – meaning arms and equipment to the Ukrainian state to bolster its capacity to defend the country? That’s the first question.

The second: Is it appropriate for the European community to consider the suspension of any work on the South Stream Pipeline as a punitive measure against the Russian state-owned company Gazprom?

And thirdly, I would just add that Turkey is extremely concerned about the state of the rights of the Crimean Tatars in this state of affairs and I would wonder whether Turkey also should not be, at the level of its foreign minister, part of such a mission.

MR. BURNS: And Adrian, I’d just say, very quickly: There’s going to be – there is an Article 4 NATO treaty request by Poland – and I think that Estonia and Latvia are going to also be in support of that – that would ask NATO to come together and have a formal look at the security requirements of those countries within the NATO alliance. So I’d say that first.

We haven’t invoked Article 4 more than a handful of times in the entire history of NATO.

One memorable time that I remember was on the eve of the Iraq war 2003, when the Turks invoked Article 4 – and Damon will remember this – because they felt threatened by the war, and that led to a big standoff with Germany and France.

And so I think that NATO should do that. And NATO, first and foremost, because we have treaty obligations to all the members, particularly the countries of Central Europe – we ought to do that.

If the Ukrainian government comes forward and asks for military advice or military assistance from NATO, we ought to have that conversation.

This is a big decision, and the U.S. and Germany, in particular, are going to have to weigh that very carefully, but I think we ought to have the conversation. We shouldn’t just shut it down.

And if you remember when the shoe was on the other foot: The Soviets didn’t hesitate to give aid to the North Vietnamese when we were fighting the Vietnamese. So I think it is something that we might consider.

In terms of EU suspension of South Stream: Yeah, there’s more the Europeans can do. And here again, I think that we need to see some stronger voices in Europe, and the Europeans need to take some concrete decisions, and hitting Russia in the pocketbook is a good place to hit Putin.

MR. KEMPE: Thanks. Thanks, Nick. Let me move on to Damon. Let me just say one thing for people on the call: President Obama, in the readout from his talk with President Putin, did talk about the U.N. charter, Helsinki Final Act, and Budapest Memorandum 1994. This is a very little-known memorandum, but it has to do with something that’s been very important to the Obama administration, which is de-nuclearization.

And under the memorandum of the U.K., U.S., and Russia, Ukraine promised to remove all Soviet-era nuclear weapons from its territory – you know, one of two states that did that, with Kazakhstan – and send them to disarmament facilities in Russia, and then, in return, Russia, the United Kingdom, and U.S. promised that none of them would ever threaten to use force against the territorial integrity or political independence of Ukraine – or economic coercion.

So just to put those facts on the table – that’s a very little known memorandum, though I’m not how much legal standing it has, Nick. And do you want to comment quickly on that memorandum?

MR. BURNS: Sure, Fred. I was involved, along with Strobe Talbott, Rose Gottemoeller and others, working for President Clinton back in ’93, ’94 to put that together, and, obviously, this was a very difficult decision by then-president Kravchuk of Ukraine to give up Ukraine’s nuclear weapons as a result of the end of the Soviet Union, but they did so, as did Belarus and Kazakhstan.

And what the Ukrainians wanted was a formal document that would be made public that would put Russia on record – even President Yeltsin’s Russia, back in ’94 – that they would forever respect the territorial integrity of Ukraine, and if it was ever violated, the countries of that memorandum would come together to discuss it. I thought it was interesting that both the White House statement and Secretary Kerry’s statement specifically mentioned Budapest.

They were right to do so.

It is not, in my judgment, a legally binding document, but it is a document that the Russian Federation agreed to that still stands, that’s still an obligation of the Russian Federation, and it’s another way to remind Putin of how outside U.N. law and international law he currently is.

MR. KEMPE: Thank you, Nick. So talking about this as the biggest international crisis of the Obama administration, biggest security crisis for Europe – Nick, did both of those things, and then his five very thoughtful points of measures that one could take.

Damon, over to you.

DAMON WILSON: Fred, if I might start where you just ended, because I think this, as Ambassador Burns just pointed out, it may not be worth parsing the legal aspects of Budapest Memorandum, but you think about it politically, from President Obama’s perspective: The only interaction President Obama really – substantive interaction that he had with President Yanukovych was on the basis of nuclear nonproliferation.

President Obama’s bilateral meeting with president Yanukovych was at the Nuclear Security Summit, sort of a major initiative of the administration in the president’s first term, because Ukraine was continuing this good nonproliferation record by continuing to transfer highly enriched uranium, and was a key, leading partner in President Obama’s pretty broad nonproliferation initiative in the first term. Ukraine was a star performer, if you will, in that regard. So I would say that politically right now, for a president that has invested much in the nonproliferation regime, to see a pillar of that regime fall apart – the Budapest Memorandum – which was meant to provide the reassurance to a country like Ukraine, that it could safely give up its nuclear weapons without fearing for the future of its sovereignty and territorial integrity, that this administration has a little bit more politically invested in the credibility of that type of commitment because it has a broader ramification, I think, on the president’s credibility of his nonproliferation agenda.

But let me back up a little bit more broadly for the discussion. I think one of the challenges we’ve had here is that U.S. and European policies towards Europe East have been characterize by a degree of ambiguity. Even the Eastern Partnership itself – remember, the European Union’s Eastern Partnership relationship with Ukraine is what provoked the crisis that began, the protests that began in November. It was characterized by ambiguity. This wasn’t about membership in the EU.

And so if you’re sitting there in the Kremlin, you are looking at the West and you’re having to calculate what kind of response you might face. You’ve heard about a war-weary American public, a commitment to end wars on behalf of the American people. You see defense cuts in the United States and Europe. Those defense cuts are compounded by the reality of a drawdown of U.S. forces in Europe, the difficulty in managing the Syria case itself. And so that’s really, I think, influencing President Putin’s calculations about what he can get away with right now.

And that’s why I think, in some respects, this crisis in Ukraine, it does provide an opportunity to offer clarity and to for the first time to be quite clear about a strategy of support for all of Europe’s east – clarity of support for Ukraine, countries being able to determine their own future, but to go on offense on a broader strategy of Europe peace.

So let me come back, because I think the challenge here for policy terms is how do you think about what can you do to first deter broad-scale military action first? Second, how do you support this new Ukrainian government so that it isn’t toppled in the process of any of this crisis? Third, you’ve got to think about reassuring your allies, your NATO allies in Europe peace. And four, how do make the clear cost of actions on the part of Russia? How do you make clear that there are costs to that?

And so I think what we see unfolding in Ukraine is that President Putin’s essentially striking back and playing for keeps in the country. He lost his lever of control over Ukraine, when – essentially the dependent and therefore pliant former President Yanukovych fled to Russia – and then I think he’s seeking to regain his leverage over the country by dismembering it.

And this isn’t new. I think it’s important to understand that this is – this is a consistent strategy that’s almost – has been part of Putin’s effort to keep countries from the former Soviet Union from leaving Moscow’s orbit. It’s classic playbook unfolding before our eyes. You fuel separatist sentiments, justify military action by asserting the need to protect ethnic Russians, you maintain the peace by stationing forces permanently, and in effect, you begin to dismember your weak neighbors. And that becomes the key source of leverage.

Putin learned in countries like Moldova and Georgia that he can’t actually determine what kind of leaders they’re going to have, but if he can control a piece of territory, whether it’d be Transnistria in Moldova, South Ossetia, Abkhazia in Georgia, and now it looks like Crimea in Ukraine, he’s actually helped put a break on – created a negative cycle that keeps these nations tethered to Putin’s regime, not based on the appeal of some Eurasian Union because it looms over them, the threat, is, if they move – try to move to the West, if they try to move to not only NATO, but now he’s saying the European Union, they’re going to have to do so at the expense of permanent loss of their territory. And at the same time, what it does it is it makes these countries very unattractive partners for the European Union, for the United States because they’re bringing, if you will, baggage – disputed territories, problems on their borders.

So if you broaden back out – so I just want – (inaudible) – a little bit of the context. So if you broaden back out, I would only add to what Ambassador Burns said – I think he very artfully laid out the difficult options that are before us – there – the way to think about obviously some of these measures, reassuring our allies, the Article 4 consultations – there is discussion among some allies of should there be reinforcement of a NATO response force deployment, for example, to the Baltic states or Poland or to our facilities in Romania. We may have an emerging war on NATO’s border, and I think that’s something that very much has a direct impact on NATO’s security.

It also is going to call I think into question the Pentagon’s assessment of revisiting its force posture decisions, where we have been very intentionally for years now into a drawdown mode of our forces in Europe. And with two wars potentially raging on NATO’s borders, one in Syria on Turkey’s NATO border and potentially something that’s developing in Ukraine, that’s going to call into question I think the fundamental defense posture that we’ve been moving forward on, and essentially, a pivot to Asia is dead in the context of two wars on NATO’s borders.

In addition to making these costs of action – costs relevant to Russia, I think pulling out of the G-8, as Ambassador Burns said, is certainly on the table. You’re already hearing much of this conversation from Ottawa and again this morning from Paris. But also, Russia’s been trying to gain credibility by joining the Organization for – or – OECD; being able to veto its membership there I think is another part of the set of – the issues you can add to it.

But I would also step back and save time to assess, is it – is it the time for the administration leaders, Chancellor Merkel, President Obama, to really step forward and try to articulate a much clearer strategy towards Europe, a much clearer strategy towards Europe East, that actually doesn’t play defense and backs away but actually commits the president to this concept of a vision of a Europe whole, free and at peace, and that that really does mean countries being able to determine their own future. Since 2008, essentially, the United States has stepped back and let the European Union in the lead in thinking about countries in Europe East because the assumption was that NATO was a red line, U.S. engagement was provocative. Well, now I think we’ve seen that that’s actually not the case. Putin’s now drawn that line with the European Union itself. This is about these countries being able to leave Moscow’s domination, in some respects.

So how do you actually – while you’re thinking about the crisis of Ukraine today, lay the groundwork for a longer-term strategy for your allies and your – (inaudible) – (but ?) also the other countries? I think the administration – the Obama administration has brilliantly moved to bring – last week, they had the Georgian prime minister here for White House meetings with President Obama. On Monday, the prime minister of Moldova, remarkably, to meet with President Obama and Vice President Biden at the White House. These are intentional visits meant to single out the two countries that unlike Ukraine – the two countries that actually stood up to Russian pressure and moved forward with the association agreements with the European Union last November, and are terrified about the consequences that they will be facing as they both head into tumultuous periods.

So I think there’s an opportunity to not only think about the crisis of Ukraine, but to lay out a broader strategy of an architecture for how you actually think about supporting reform-minded, vulnerable countries across your southeast and east. So I’ll leave it with that, Fred.

MR. KEMPE: Thank you, Damon. I think we’ll go straight to questions. If the operator could give the rules for questions, and then, when questioners come in and I tee them up, if they could state whom they would like to address their question. Let me toss it back to the operator.

OPERATOR: Thank you very much. (Gives queuing instructions.)

FRED KEMPE: Great. So we’ll have questions in just a moment. Nick, I just wonder whether you can come back while we’re waiting for people to get queued up and sort of give us a very short-term strategy. What do you do this week – what do you Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday if you’re sitting in the White House advising President Obama? You’ve given your five points. How do you – (inaudible) – and what’s most important of all of those points to get going right away?

MR. BURNS: Fred, I think what’s most important is a symbolic but also concrete assistance to the new government in Kiev. And that would be the announcement of major economic (spade ?) programs, announcement that the IMF is going to go forward to try to negotiate with the Ukrainians. And I do think symbolism can be very powerful in international politics. John Kerry standing in Kiev with the government, along with Sikorski and the other Europeans would be very powerful.

I remember, Fred, back in 2003, when President Putin and Chancellor Schröder and President Chirac actually met and held a joint press conference and denounced U.S. strategy on Iraq, I was there on the opposite side of those barricades in the bush administration. It was a powerful weapon by the three of those countries against what the United States was about to do. We can turn the tables on Putin by beginning to do some of these things. So I think that’s second.

And third, I do think NATO needs to meet. I was glad to see it meet in emergency session today. It should meet at least at the level of foreign or defense minister, but I think preferably, President Obama ought to plan a trip to Europe, and he ought to sit with the NATO leaders, and there ought to be a ringing denunciation of what Putin has done and a stalwart defense of the Article 5 collective defense guarantee to all of the members but most particularly the members in Central Europe and ones that I mentioned, the three Baltic countries and Poland.

MR. KARATNYCKY: Nick, I would add one more thing. We’re not thinking about how edgy the people in Kazakhstan and Belarus may be feeling, whatever we may think of those regimes. But it would be amazing if we could get a little bit of dissent within the CIS structures about this kind of an aggressive action against a fellow CIS at least observer country to kind of create a little bit of pushback in his own backyard. And I’ve heard nothing about what those countries are saying, but maybe some active diplomacy there. Or do you think they are so cowed that they would not utter a word?

MR. BURNS: I’d be – I’d be extraordinarily surprised that Lukashenko said anything negative about the Russians. I’d be very surprised if Nazarbayev did in Kazakhstan.

I think, you know, here, again, thinking in symbolic, political terms, it doesn’t stop Putin this week, but it begins to isolate – if you could get a Brazilian leader, an Indian leader, South Korea, Japan, some of the big global economy to speak out in defense of the U.N. Charter, that would be powerful. It has to start with Europe and the United States and Canada. And again, a person with a very strong voice, if she chooses to use it, is Angela Merkel. But she has not taken center stage, and I think it’s really incumbent upon her to do so.

MR. KEMPE: Thank you, Nick. David Sanger of The New York Times, please.

Q: This is for whoever wants to take a shot at. We haven’t mentioned Syria, Iran, the other places where Putin can act back if the U.S. goes ahead with its diplomatic agenda, the one that Nick lays out. And obviously, it will be action that’s going to lead to something of a reaction. Syria is where they can do – get in the way the most but not the only place that they can.

So could one of you, maybe Nick, you might want to start – just sort of lay out how you would anticipate Putin would respond to the kind of diplomatic initiative you describe and whether or not you think over time that’s going to work against the kind of diplomacy that President Obama has been pursuing so far, which has been – (inaudible) – of course to get involved in Syria, a moment when we’re coming out of Afghanistan, and Putin may well be testing President Obama desiring not to get in deeper in many places around the world?

MR. BURNS: But David, I – this is Nick – I guess I’d say this. All these issues are going to be linked. The Russians will link them – Syria, Iran, Afghanistan as well as Ukraine. And the Americans will link them.

But I don’t think that out government ought to be conned by what Putin could do to us on Syria and Iran for the following reasons: We couldn’t have a more – the Russians couldn’t be playing a more bankrupt hand on Syria. The Geneva 1 and 2 processes have been complete failures. And it’s not as if, if Putin decides not to cooperate with us on Syria, our policy is in worse shape because he hasn’t done a thing to help us. And he’s failed to push Assad, as you – as you know very well, David. I don’t think that Putin will walk away from the chemical weapons deal. It’s not in his interest to do that. It would get him into further trouble if he did it. So I don’t – I don’t fear the linkage of Syria at all.

On Iran, my sense of the Iranians – of the Russians, excuse me – is that they have a strategic long-term interest in seeing Iran not develop as a nuclear weapons power. And I would find it very hard to believe that somehow, they would turn the tables on us or act to essentially protect the Iranians more than they have in the past. When I dealt with them when I was in – doing Iran negotiations with the Russians, they were difficult, they were tendentious, they would often be difficult tactically. But strategically, they voted for all those Security Council Chapter VII resolutions. Strategically, they’re the closest of the major powers geographically to Ukraine. They don’t want to see Ukraine – excuse me, Iran – they don’t want to see Iran with nuclear weapons. So I don’t fear the linkage here.

And I think the administration needs to put some points on the scoreboard. I mentioned five ways they could do that. (Inaudible) – we can’t, and I am under no illusion, that somehow, this matches what Putin has done, but it’s a start. And I think things get much more difficult for Putin over time, as the Soviets found out in Afghanistan. Thank you, David.

MR. KEMPE: Nick, thank you. Julia Samuel (ph), Times of London.

Q: (Off mic) – anyone who’s interested in interested in answering them. One is what kind of – whether that could be any economic sanctions – (inaudible) – or other financial repercussions as a lever that could be used. And the other is what you see as Putin’s sort of long-term strategy, how does he see this playing out over 10 or 20 years, I mean, in the sense of how – (inaudible) – with his geopolitical vision of Russia. Thanks.

MR. KARATNYCKY: Can I – Adrian I – I take a brief shot at the Putin aims. I’m – before we answer the 10 to 20 years – (motorcycle engine sound) – I would say that Putin is immediately –

Q: Sorry about –

MR. KARATNYCKY: It’s someone – it’s someone on a motorcycle asking a question. (Laughter.)

Anyway, I wanted to say that I think Putin’s immediate aims – he is very – (inaudible) – Crimea. He’s created a (gesture ?) which I think strengthens his support in his home base. He is – being shown to be assertive. He is creating a sort of a destabilizing effect on Ukraine. The Russian parliament has left open the option of potential military intervention in other parts of Ukraine – (inaudible) – pro-Russian or Russia-friendly leadership into some kind of a coalition. He is going to keep this as an irritant. It will make – (inaudible) – aid package will be helpful. But I think his game – but, you know, a government aid package will be helpful, but without investment in an uncertain circumstance, (has ?) a potential of conflict –

Sorry, someone is creating a lot of noise.

MR. KEMPE (?): Yeah, I don’t know where that noise is coming from. Maybe you can mute.

MR. KARATNYCKY: Yeah. So my basic – return to the basic point: I think his game is, it suits him very well to have this current government unstable. If he sees that there is a sort of a – that this is backfiring, that there is solidarity, as there seems to be, within the entire Ukrainian establishment – even some of the most rabid pro-Russian deputies yesterday were hooted off the stage in Donetsk by a crowd, half of which was Russians arrivals, who’d come over the border. But it seems that the establishment and the public are looking to consolidate. So it would seem to me that in that context, Putin’s aim is to keep the irritants and the instability active in Kiev, either, A, to keep this government from moving forward, or B, over time, because of economic problems that will emerge from this instability, to seek some other kind of domestic revolutionary change or domestic political change, to help empty Maidan’s candidates win an election based on discontent with the economy. So there – I think that is his intent.

But the major strategic aim of Putin I think is to – clearly to keep Ukraine out of – out of NATO discussions. By the way, NATO would also be an extremely divisive issue inside Ukraine today. As the country is consolidating between East and West in the face of the Russian threat, NATO is not a popular – you know, could be a divisive issue between East and West, and the West should not – and U.S. congressmen and senators in particular should not be injecting that into their toolbox.

But I think his idea is to keep – you know, to maintain the security of the base, to have a constant irritant, as he has in Transnistria in Moldova and he has in southern Ossetia and Abkhazia in Georgia, and also to ratchet up the pressure on this government, either to create a new more Russia pragmatic government that he can do business with or to kind of create chaos and foment another Maidan, this time supported by the east. At the moment the trend is moving in the other direction. There is a circling of the wagons. All of the oligarchs, most of the Party of Regions officials and leaders from the east are not – are moving to consolidate and to support the state, so I don’t think that’s – that is working.

But I think the strategic vision is to keep Ukraine either neutral or linked to the Russian economic space. My sense is that over time, he will have to accommodate Ukraine’s European economic integration. But I think he wants to forestall any thought of movements against the Russian bases, one, and any movement in the future towards NATO, which were some of – which were some of the initial calls by some of the, you know, more anti-Russian voices that had – that had emerged in the aftermath of the Maidan in the Ukrainian leadership.

MR. KEMPE: Nick, Damon, do either one of you briefly want to deal with the question, particularly broader Russian strategy?

MR. BURNS: The first question was on economic – I thought the first question about – further economic sanctions could be placed on Russia?


MR. BURNS: Damon will know this probably better than I, but the Magnitsky Bill passed by the Congress was focused on leading Russian officials – the second tranche of it would be even tougher. Damon, you might want to talk about that.

MR. WILSON: I think that’s right. The White House – the administration has moved on on only one list of sanctions under Magnitsky. It actually provides the authorities – and they have packages prepared to move that have just not been promulgated yet. I think, if anything, this crisis an opportunity to, one, move on what’s been held up inside the interagency, but second, actually to expand or move more quickly on a broad-based set of sanctions for individuals that are implicated in this violence and these egregious human rights violations.

The other thing I’d just quickly add is this broader Russian strategy. I think the challenge here is that if we – if we try to sort of manage Russia’s appetite, if you will, and think about how – what can we do? Is it, you know, permanent neutrality of Ukraine? Is it just sort of mitigating and managing to satisfy with Crimea?

We’re inviting, I think – we’re inviting, actually, more instability. We’re inviting more disaster in the future. President Putin has been pressing the limits over the last few years to see what he can get away with. And he has actually concluded that he can get away with a lot at fairly little cost. He now has Russian forces in all of the countries of the former Soviet Union in the East – except for Belarus, the one country that is not trying to move to the West – the one country that is actually anathema to the European Union and NATO is the one country that doesn’t suffer from having Russian forces provoking territorial disputes.

He’s been playing this playbook, and I think one of the things that we need to conclude is that it’s a very dangerous path for us to think about how only to mitigate the immediate crisis, because we’re seeding – I think we’re seeing a longer-term disaster, because this is part of a broader Russian strategy of crippling these countries, keeping them weak and dependent. And if you can’t manipulate them to control who their people elect – which he’s learning in these country – then he will use this brute tactic to keep them tethered to this vision of a Eurasian Union – a successor to the Soviet Union, if you will.

So I think our reaction right now in Crimea isn’t just about managing the crisis in Crimea. It’s going to speak towards his appetite towards the future, and I think it only will fuel it if he senses a sense that he can get away with this. In that regard, part of Ambassador Burns – what he talked about – the economics of this are quite critical. If you think about what we faced in 2008 in Georgia, when it was clear that the United States wasn’t going to go to war – there were two parts to this. One, how quickly can you step in and support – at that time it was the government of Georgia, here the government of the Ukraine – financially so that their economic solvency is not in question and that we move very quickly in Georgia. Secretary Kerry has already announced a billion dollar package for Ukraine; Ukraine is much larger – it’s going to take more than that.

So I think the urgency – a sense of urgency in standing behind Ukraine economically, financially right now and filling that vacuum is critical. But also the Russian stock market, the Russian economy, Russian investors – driving home the cost to the Russian economy, I think, is one of the most important factors to play out there, and there are ways to stick to that.

The second part of this is a sign of solidarity, where we knew we weren’t going to be prepared to go to war in 2008. We also knew we didn’t want Russian forces to topple the government of Georgia. And so we intentionally decided – the United States intentionally decided to deploy its humanitarian aid to Georgia using military assets – using military aircraft.

And so we had C-130s landing in Tbilisi. We called the Russians; we told them what we were doing. We gave them our flight coordinates, told them when they would be landing. We made sure we had television crews covering it to make sure that that there would be no miscalculation, that the – and we used it, if you will, as a deterrent effect to put a check on how far Russian forces would go. And I think there has already been some chatter, potentially, about the utility of that in Ukraine today.

MR. KEMPE: Thank you, Damon.

MR. KARATNYCKY: Can I just say one thing about the economic impact on Europe?

MR. KEMPE: You know, Adrian, I’d like – I need to go on to another question.

MR. KARATNYCKY: All right, go ahead. Got it. Go.

MR. KEMPE: We’ve got three minutes left and still some questioners in queue.

So if I could talk – if I could turn, please, to Lesley Clark of McClatchy.

Q: Hi. Thank you very much. Can you hear me?


Q: Yeah. Ambassador Burns said that this is, you know, that President Obama’s facing the most difficult international crisis of his presidency. Can you talk a little bit more about ways in which this could expect to define President Obama’s foreign policy, and what does it say about his approach for wanting to, you know, have a reset with Russia?

MR. BURNS: Well, I think it is, by any standard, the most difficult, the most complex international crisis he’s faced, because it goes directly to vital American interests. If you think back over the last 60 or 70 years, the fundamental American foreign policy priority has been to, obviously, win the Cold War, see an end to Communism and see the creation – and Damon used the words – they were George H.W. Bush’s words, 41’s words – a Europe whole, free and at peace. I think you’re hard-pressed to go back and find a more significant achievement by the United States and Europe since the end of the second world war. That’s what’s at stake because if Putin gets away with launching this military offensive, then Europe risks being divided, and a major country in the heart of Europe doesn’t have a chance to become, over time, in a struggling way, democratic.

And so the stakes are very high here. The President has not focused as much on Europe, obviously, as he has in the Middle East and Asia because events took him elsewhere. But now he’s got to turn his attention to Europe, and that has to be strong, confident leadership. The United States is the leader of the NATO alliance. We’re not just a member. He needs to set the tone. I think that – I think what they’ve done over the last couple of days is positive, the White House, but the president actually needs to go to Europe, and he needs to assemble the European leaders and unite them against what Putin has done. I think it’s that – it’s not simple, but it’s that straightforward. So high stakes for this president and this crisis.

MR. : I think – sorry, go ahead.

Q: No, I was going to say, but does it raise questions about his initial policy of engagement with Russia, or is it too early to, you know –

MR. BURNS: No, I think that the reset actually – and I’m someone who has in my career spent a lot of time working on Russia for various administrations – I think the reset back in 2009 and ’10 made sense. And actually, we got some things done with Russia, with the Russians. We got a strategic arms agreement. We got the agreement to resupply American forces in Afghanistan through Russia. You know, not bad in terms of the cooperation that Russia and the United States have had in Iran. The reset, you know, produced some accomplishments for the United States.

But Putin has clearly turned a different direction. And he’s now assaulting a vital American interest, and that is a democratic Europe, a united Europe. We would be foolish to try to respond with military force, and that will not happen. So we got to play a longer game. It’s a diplomatic sanctions game. It’s a game to, you know, reinforce the American military commitment through NATO, to the members of NATO, and to try to – try to stop Putin in the Crimea and see if he doesn’t extend his military authority to the rest of the country. It’s all going to be difficult, but that’s what the president’s got to do now.

MR. KEMPE: Thank you, Nick.

Our time has run out. There are a couple people still in queue, in questions. I apologize to you. We’ll have future calls where we’ll get to your questions.

I really want to thank Ambassador Burns, Nick, one of the top policymaker and policy thinkers of our generation, who’s done this at the top of the State Department, at NATO; Damon Wilson, who looked after this policy in the White House under George W. Bush and is our EVP now at the Atlantic Council; and Adrian Karatnycky – I’m not sure there is anybody who knows Ukraine on the ground better and its history and its relationship with Russia than Adrian. So this has just been a very, very rich call.

Let me just conclude by inviting all of you to join us, either in person or by streaming, for Moldova’s prime minister, who will be at the council tomorrow at 5 p.m. and, as Damon mentioned, brought into Washington right now for specific purposes of sending a clear message – (inaudible) – a leader of a nation head of the class of the Eastern Partnership but also quite vulnerable because of the Transnistria situation. And we’ll be able to ask all sorts of questions about what Ukraine also might mean and how the situation is being viewed by other nations in the region.

Thank you all for joining us. Hope to see you or have you online with the Moldovan prime minister tomorrow. And I look forward to future calls. Thank you very much.

OPERATOR: Thank you very much. Ladies and gentlemen, at this time this conference has now concluded. You may disconnect your phone lines. And have a great weekend. Thank you.


Related Experts: Adrian Karatnycky and Damon Wilson