Highlights from the Atlantic Council’s “Europe Whole and Free” Conference

WASHINGTON – US Secretary of State John Kerry today advised Russia to “leave Ukraine in peace.” Kerry restated US support for NATO allies and Ukraine in the face of Russian-backed attacks in eastern Ukrainian cities.

Kerry spoke at a two-day conference on the future of Europe sponsored by the Atlantic Council. In front of government ministers from countries in eastern and southeastern Europe, he condemned the Kremlin for what he called its “zero” in implementing this month’s Geneva agreement meant to de-escalate the crisis. Russia has taken “not one single step” to fulfill the agreement, he said, adding that the conflict is a “wakeup call for us” in the NATO alliance.

Earlier at the conference, former National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski said President Barack Obama has moved wisely to impose escalating travel and financial sanctions against Russia’s ruling elite, but has failed to seriously begin building a domestic understanding that support for Ukrainians is vital to US interests. The Ukraine crisis is “the most important challenge to the international systems since the end of the Cold War,” Brzezinski said, yet “right now a significantly larger number of Americans are interested in the basketball championship.” Brzezinski called for Obama to make a major policy address on Ukraine—from the Oval Office or elsewhere—to explain what’s at stake to the American people.

Discussing the US role in Europe, Senators John McCain (R-AZ) and Chris Murphy (D-CT) underscored that Russia’s seizure of Crimea and other attacks on Ukraine pose a test of the transatlantic relationship. Murphy called it an opportunity for the United States to show that the bond with Europe is not borne of “temporary, strategy interest.”

McCain stressed Russia’s role as a primary natural gas supplier to much of Europe. “The Europeans are not going to enact meaningful sanctions as long they are reliant on Russian energy,” he said. Thus “just the threat of energy independence” of Europe from Russia “can change the balance.” Although Kerry made no mention of military assistance to Ukraine, McCain advocated that step. The US government has about fifty long-term military assistance programs with other countries, he noted, adding that having one with Ukraine would be prudent. The United States should send weaponry for Ukrainian forces not “because they can defeat the Russians,” but because “it’s a morale thing,” McCain said. As of today, the Ukrainian “morale is not good,” he said.

The Atlantic Council’s conference, titled “Toward a Europe Whole and Free,” convenes North American and European leaders this week to consider how best to sustain Europe’s twenty-five-year-old traverse toward full peace and security following the fall of the Berlin Wall, despite the Russian attacks that represent what Brzezinski called “the most important challenge to the international systems since the end of the Cold War.”

Speakers at the conference’s final day tomorrow will include European Commission President José Manuel Barroso and US Vice President Joe Biden.