Table of Contents
- US strategic interests in Ukraine: Why does Ukraine matter to the United States?
- US strategic interests in Ukraine: What can be done to ensure Ukraine succeeds?
US strategic interests in Ukraine: Why does Ukraine matter to the United States?
The Hon. Marcy Kaptur, Congresswoman for Ohio’s 9th Congressional District, US House of Representatives
The Hon. Brian Fitzpatrick, Congressman for Pennsylvania’s 1 st Congressional District, US House of Representatives
The Hon. Andy Harris, Congressman for Maryland’s 1st Congressional District, US House of Representatives
The Hon. Chris Murphy, US Senator for Connecticut, US Senate
Panel Discussion: Why does Ukraine matter to the United States?
Dr. Leon Aron, Resident Scholar; Director, Russian Studies, American Enterprise Institute
Ilan Berman, Senior Vice President, American Foreign Policy Council
Heather Conley, Senior Vice President for Europe, Eurasia, and the Arctic; Director, Europe Program, Center for Strategic and International Studies
Ambassador John Herbst, Director, Eurasia Center, Atlantic Council
Dr. Donald N. Jensen, Editor in Chief, Senior Fellow, Center for European Policy Analysis
Moderated by: Myroslava Gongadze, Chief, Ukrainian Service, Voice of America
JOHN HERBST: Good morning. Welcome to the Congressional Visitor’s Center. I want to apologize in advance. My name is John Herbst. I run the Eurasia Center at the Atlantic Council.
I apologize for our cramped quarters and for those of you who have to stand. This is an important event, so we have lots of people who want to attend. And we only have relatively limited space, which you are part of.
This is a wonderful event about US strategic interest in Ukraine. This is a conference which is 100 percent about American policy and not at all about politics. And to underscore that, we have 10 Washington think-tanks across the spectrum who are participating today, the American Foreign Policy Council, the Brookings Institution, the Carnegie Endowment, Heritage Foundation, the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the German Marshall Fund, the Jamestown Foundation, and of course the Atlantic Council.
And we are co-sponsored by Congresswoman Marcy Kaptur and Congressman Fitzpatrick. And I thank them very much for hosting us today. And the panel we’re about to have will include both of them and we hope Congressman Andy Harris, who I believe will be here shortly.
I am known for my very short introductions. I’ll keep it here. Congresswoman Kaptur has been in Congress since 1983 and a real leader on foreign policy issues relating to Ukraine and Eastern Europe, more broadly. Congressman Fitzpatrick has been in the House since 2017. And he has made himself a strong voice, also, on issues relating to Ukraine, Russia, and Eastern Europe. And with that, I will turn the floor over to Congresswoman Kaptur.
MARCY KAPTUR: Good morning. And thank you, all, for coming today on behalf of the Congressional Ukraine Caucus Ambassador Herbst. Thank you so very much– and all of you– for helping to organize this open forum to highlight US strategic interest in Ukraine. I want to thank the Atlantic Council, surely Ambassador Herbst, Melinda Herring, and Shelby Magid for so ably convening this event. We apologize. The attendance is so extraordinary, we don’t have enough chairs for everyone. I concede my chair to whoever feels comfortable to sit there.
I also welcome foreign policy experts from 10 think-tanks representing such diverse interests and points of view. Yet, we are united by a commitment to ensure a free, secure, and prosperous Ukraine among the community of democratic nations. We know the objective.
It is no secret that Ukraine dominates the news cycle and the domestic debate. And I’m so thrilled to have our co-chair, Brian Fitzpatrick, with us today, as well, on a bipartisan basis. We hold this forum as other committees in this Congress are involved in our related proceedings. Yet, despite the ongoing debate, Russia continues to wage an illegal war in Ukraine, which has led to the deaths of upwards of 14,000 Ukrainians and displacement of millions more.
The American people need to know and be reminded why Ukraine is so important, and why the Ukrainian people are sacrificing for liberty, and why Ukraine matters to the security of liberty-loving nations. The purpose of this event is not to discuss domestic politics but rather to signal resolute, bipartisan, bicameral support for Ukraine. We must also use this opportunity to conceive new legislative and policy proposals.
Ukraine, in my opinion, is the scrimmage line for liberty on the European continent. She is facing off against Russian aggression that seeks to undermine and sow discord in the greatest collective security arrangement of democratic nations, NATO, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. And thanks to NATO and other multilateral institutions such as the European Union, Europe has enjoyed unprecedented levels of peace and prosperity.
Americans, too, have benefited from their sacrifice and from the peace in Europe that followed World War II, including enhanced economic, cultural, and political exchanges. Perhaps most importantly, the United States has not been forced to send her sons and daughters to fight against tyranny in Europe. It has come at a price, and the American people have paid it.
Meanwhile, in the face of increasing Russian aggression, Ukraine continues to make strides in its democratic struggle to shake off the rapacious grip of its oligarch class. This past year, President Zelensky and the servant of People Party won the presidential and parliamentary elections with a clear mandate for democratic reform. The Ukrainian people made their voices known. They want to live among the community of democracies free from Russian invasion and aggression.
Ukraine set up the long-awaited special anti-corruption court. And we look forward to the first case being heard. Ukraine is also so important, because it is the pathway to democracy in adjoining nations, surely Russia.
So it is critical that bipartisan support for US assistance to Ukraine remain robust to deter Russian aggression, as well as to support President Zelensky’s democratic agenda. Since Ukraine’s independence, Congress has led the charge in supporting Ukraine’s democratic trajectory. And we must, as Congress, speak with one voice to ensure that that message remains clear.
For example, the Open World Leadership Center, an instrumentality of the Library of Congress, is a critical one to boost congressional diplomacy and exchange with democratic friends in Ukraine. Earlier before Thanksgiving, our bipartisan caucus had the honor of welcoming four very new, talented members of Ukrainian parliament. And we must also provide robust exchanges and support for Ukraine’s veterans, who are defending their nation against Russian aggression as we sit here today.
We must also continue to increase our business opportunities for Ukrainian business leaders and even for Ukraine’s real women who are feeding their nation, feeding their families, their neighbors, even walking among the land mines in the eastern part of the country. Imagine the courage and resolve that takes. We must bolster our own anti-corruption programming to break the grip of Ukraine’s rapacious oligarch cast to unleash, for the first time in modern history, the full power of Ukraine’s people.
Once again, I want to thank you, all, for coming to this very timely and important event to demonstrate robust bipartisan support for Ukraine. And together with Ukrainian people, I know we will be successful in ensuring a more democratic and prosperous Ukraine among Western nations. You have all been a part of forming this new agenda for a part of the world long locked behind the Iron Curtain. Thank you for understanding what liberty requires. It’s an honor to be among you today. Thank you.
BRIAN FITZPATRICK: Good afternoon, everybody. Marcy, thank you. It’s good to be with you, Andy. And we wanted to host today’s event really to accomplish a couple of things– number one, to make it abundantly clear that our caucus and our Congress stand solidly behind Ukraine and the US-Ukraine relationship. That is very, very important.
Marcy and I have been working on this for quite some time now as far as our work in the caucus, connecting with members of the Rada from Ukraine, who were part of the American caucus in Ukraine. And obviously, we all have our own desires as far as what we’re seeking to advance as far as US-Ukraine relations. My connection to Ukraine– obviously, we have a significant Ukrainian American population in my district. Also, my last international FBI assignment as an FBI agent was serving in Ukraine helping them establish the NABU the National Anti-Corruption Bureau.
And during those efforts and traveling that country, you could not help but be impressed and be inspired by the spirit of the Ukrainian people and their desire for strong ties with the West and their desire, particularly among the younger generation– which are a very, very inspiring group of people– to rid Ukraine of systemic corruption which has gripped that nation for a long time. The NABU was part of that effort. Marcy mentioned the anti-corruption court, a very, very significant step in that effort– and also, that we are advancing legislation here.
In addition to financial support, in addition to military intelligence sharing, which is very, very important, to support Ukraine’s efforts to push back against invasion in the Donbas region– but also refusing to recognize the illegal annexation of Crimea. And we have legislation on that. Myself and Brendan Boyle worked very, very hard on the US-Ukraine Cybersecurity Cooperation Act. It was something that we saw up close and very present during my time in Kyiv, when there were multiple attempts by Russia to knock out Ukraine’s electrical grid.
The cyber threats that Ukraine is under is very, very significant. And they need help in combating that. So, I want to thank you, all, for being here.
One of the goals of our caucus– and I’ve tried to help the Ukraine in multiple ways, both in my role in the Foreign Affairs Committee, serving on the subcommittee for Europe and Eurasia, serving as a commissioner on the Helsinki Commission, and also as the co-chair of the Ukraine Caucus. Our challenge has always been to elevate the level of this conversation to let everybody know with all the other issues we’re dealing with here in Congress that this relationship is very, very important. It’s important not just to Ukraine It’s very important to the United States.
It’s important to the region. It’s important to national security for both countries and all freedom-loving countries. And we stand unified behind that relationship. We will make it grow. We will make it stronger. And it’s got bipartisan support.
And I think it’s very, very important that everybody understand that loud and clear. So, thank you, all, for being here. Thanks for inviting us. God bless.
ANDY HARRIS: Thanks very much. I’m congressman Andy Harris from Maryland and one of the co-chairs of the Ukraine Caucus. And my colleagues have already said a lot. My interest in Ukraine is I’m a first generation American– my mother, ethnic Ukrainian, born in Poland in Galicia. So that part of the world– as Americans sometimes don’t understand, boundaries change, but ethnicities don’t. And it creates conflict at times, including the conflicts we see now in Ukraine.
I just want to add my voice to the bipartisanship that is so obvious on this issue. And it’s an interesting day in Washington. This is not the only hearing occurring at the time. But this is one where Republicans and Democrats, conservatives and liberals, stand together to show the strategic importance, as you will hear from the panels, of Ukraine– obviously, a flash-point in the world. And the United States is taking a leadership position in making sure that liberty, freedom, and democracy are established and preserved in Ukraine as it makes its latest efforts to emerge, as Ms. Kaptur said, from behind the Iron Curtain.
So, it’s a pleasure to be here and to help host the conference with my co-chairs of the Ukrainian Caucus. And I am glad to see a packed room of interests for what is a very important topic. Thank you very much.
MYROSLAVA GONGADZE: Thank you for your interest in Ukraine. To begin, I want to, one more time, make sure that you are here for the right reasons. I want to emphasize that this a discussion about Ukraine and about, why does Ukraine matter to the United States? And it’s not about impeachment or discussion of such matter, despite the fact that Ukraine is source of much breaking news these days.
So, my name is Myroslava Gongadze. I lead the Ukrainian Service for Voice of America. And I am honored to introduce our panel today, Leon Aron, a resident scholar, director of Russian studies at American Enterprise Institute to my right, Ilan Berman, senior vice president of American Foreign Policy Council to my right, Heather Conley, senior vice president for Europe, Eurasia, and Arctic director Europe Program Center for Strategic and International Studies, Ambassador Herbst– John Herbst, the director Eurasia Center at Atlantic Council, and Dr. Donald Jensen, editor in chief, senior fellow Center for European Policy Analysis.
Before we begin, one household matter– this panel is designed as a discussion and does not permit questions from the audience. I would like my colleagues to speak not more than three minutes. And after the first round of questions, I would like you to freely engage in the discussion.
If a new member of Congress or senators will come to our room, we will stop the panel. We’ll let them speak. So, let’s start.
Next week in Paris, there will be a meeting of Normandy Format negotiation. Leaders of Ukraine, Russia, France, and Germany could make a decision that actually can impact the future of not only Ukraine, but Europe for years to come. We will talk about it in lengths later. However, I would like to start– remind you a few historic dates from this week that impacted today’s US-Ukraine-European relations.
On December 1, 28 years ago, Ukraine voted to win its independence. On December 8, 28 years ago, the Soviet Union was dismantled. On December 6, 25 years ago, Ukraine signed the Budapest Memorandum and gave up its nuclear weapons.
So, I would like to start from that 30 years ago. Because I think we have to learn from history to understand today. Berlin Wall collapsed. The Warsaw Pact crumbled. And both lost Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, and the Russian first president, Boris Yeltsin, so that they could reshape the Soviet Union. They clearly underestimated Ukraine’s and other country’s desire for independence.
On the other side of the ocean, the George W. Bush administration seems to share its Moscow misconception. They, in famous Chicken Kyiv speech, showed their lack of understanding of the region and its people. I will start with Leon Aron. Why do you think this misconception occurred? And how did it shape US policy going forward? And do we have this misconception still?
LEON ARON: Thanks very much, Myroslava. Before we get to misconceptions, I wonder if I could start by answering the question directly that’s our panel’s question– why Ukraine matters. And then we can come to that.
Ukraine matters, because it’s a critical test case. And it’s a critical test case in two respects. One, because it tests the ability of the West to oppose what appears to be the current predominant doctrine in Russia, which is that former Soviet republics, with the exception of the Baltics, are in the sphere of interests of Russia. And therefore, Russia has the right to arrest their foreign policy defense orientation as it pleases. So, the test case of Ukraine is whether the West could oppose this doctrine.
The second, I think, is an even more important test case for Ukraine– is that it– put it in the very blunt terms– it tests the West’s ability to punish aggression, instead of eventually recognizing, or granting, or deeding the fruits of that aggression to the aggressor and, thus, rewarding the aggression. One of the things, Myroslava, that, of course, is very troubling, because of the historic parallels and historic echoes, is something we hear a lot in the West, including in this town, which is that, so long as we grant Putin Donbas, so long as we settle something somehow– and of course, the question of the border, the question of the disarming of the rebels, the question of elections, and most importantly the withdrawal of foreign troops from Donetsk and Luhansk– so long as that somehow is solved, there’ll be peace, and Vladimir Putin and Russia will be satisfied.
Let me conclude by saying that I don’t think that’s the case. I think for both deeply-held ideological reasons and the reasons of his domestic political imperatives, Vladimir Putin has recast himself as a wartime president. Wartime presidents don’t quit. They need wars, and they need victories.
And therefore, it seems to me that the West’s response to the current situation, including, by the way– and perhaps especially at this point– the December 9 negotiations in Paris– is extremely important. And that is– for all these reasons, Ukraine matters to us.
MYROSLAVA GONGADZE: Thank you very much. I had a different plan, but I probably will go to Ilan now. Because you already started talking about Moscow strategy and their views. So in reality, Kremlin never fully accepted Ukraine’s independence.
And as a historian, Serhii Plokhy put it, Moscow viewed Ukraine as a key element of former Soviet Empire and also historically ethnically the heart of modern Russia. So Ilan, how would you expand on that issue? And what is Russian objective in the region and in the world, as well?
ILAN BERMAN: All right, thank you, Myroslava. So no, I think that’s absolutely right. And I think it’s correct to talk about the historical tendency to view Ukraine as a vassal, as less than independent. I do think it has particular salience today in terms of what the Kremlin thinks about what it sees when it looks abroad, effectively, in four respects.
The first is that today’s Russia, Russia under Vladimir Putin, is not a status quo power. It’s a revisionist power. And it’s a power that seeks to improve its strategic position and to do so at the expense of other states, most directly neighboring states.
This is true in the context of Ukraine, for sure, but not just in the context of Ukraine. If you look at what Russia’s doing internationally in the Middle East, how it’s manipulated the opening in Syria that was created by the start of the Syrian Civil War to expand and improve its position there, look at the arc of Russian strategy in Africa, I think it’s very clear that Russia is pushing on open doors. And it’s looking for open doors where it can improve its position.
The second is that, in this context, Ukraine is very much what we would call the canary in the coal mine. There is a Russian parable which, roughly translated, translates into, the appetite comes with the eating. And there is a sense that Ukraine is not an isolated event. Ukraine is a follow-on event based upon the lack of Western response to previous aggression in places like Georgia. And so this is a weakness in the context of defense. But it’s also opens up to this large question of Western resolve and Western resolve in a military sense and also in a political sense.
Last month before he stepped down as chairman of the Joint Chiefs, General Dunford gave a very lengthy interview to Newsweek, in which he talked about the fact that he was worried that NATO’s strategic edge, NATO’s comparative advantage vis a vis Russia was actually eroding. And it was eroding as a result not only of technological improvements in Russian military capabilities, but also in light of this increasingly aggressive international posture that Russia was assuming. And yet, what you see is a Atlantic Alliance, at least, that seems divided about how to respond. And I would only point to the fact that the French president in the run up to yesterday’s summit spent a lot of time talking about de-escalation in the context of sanctions, when, in fact, Russia has not done pretty much anything of substance to warrant such a de-escalation, such a reduction of European sanctions.
But I think this is one side of the equation. The other side is– and the last point is– this sense of siege that permeates in Moscow. Because it’s a real thing. And the strategy that you see Russia employing is that the best defense is a good offense. Because Russia senses that there is an encroachment of alternate political organization, color revolutions, political pluralism that it needs to push back against. And it’s doing so.
And in this context, as well, Ukraine is a very important test case. Because Ukraine’s choice to pursue alignment with the West and to issue partnership in the Eurasian Economic Union partnership in the Eurasianist construct that Vladimir Putin articulated is very important. And it needs to be supported. Because as goes Ukraine, so goes the rest of the post-Soviet space.
MYROSLAVA GONGADZE: Thank you very much. I heard that Senator Murphy is here. So, we will stop the panel. We’ll let Senator speak. And we’ll resume later.
CHRIS MURPHY: Well, good afternoon, everyone. Thank you very much for being here today. Thank you to Ambassador Herbst and the Atlantic Council and others for convening this gathering. I am really heartened to see a full-capacity room invested in making sure that we maintain here in the United States Congress a bipartisan consensus surrounding the need for the United States to continue to support Ukraine, especially in its continued hour of need.
And I’m also glad that this panel will be bracketed by remarks by myself and Senator Johnson. Senator Johnson and I just got the opportunity to speak for a while yesterday about our continued interest in making sure that, despite the continuing headlines in this town, that we maintain that bipartisan consensus, as well. And it is really incumbent upon so much of the foreign policy community in Washington that is invested in the US-Ukraine bilateral relationship to keep us on task, to keep us on task, and to make sure that we get beyond this moment. Because if Ukraine ultimately fails because the United States positioning changes, it will come at a great cost to our country’s national security.
And so let me thank you, first and foremost, for putting this together. What Russia fears most is a successful Ukraine. And while we don’t have a NATO treaty obligation with Ukraine, what we know is that Russia isn’t the only country in the world that is interested in starting to fudge international borders, trying to assert themselves beyond their internationally-recognized space. And from the beginning, the reason that we have cared so deeply about pushing back on the Russian invasion in Crimea, and Luhansk, and Donetsk is because we know that, if Russia gets away with it there, not only will they be more likely to try to press out into the periphery in other places and ways, but other nations who have similar designs will do the same. There has to be a consequence when you breach internationally-recognized borders.
And the United States is still the only country in the world that can convene a global conversation around how to deliver those consequences. And so, it is appropriate that, though Ukraine may not be part of NATO, that we still have a vested interest in their independence and their sovereignty. Now, we can’t ignore the moment that we are living in today. It still is infuriating to me that this administration is taking steps on a daily basis to weaken the Zelenskyy administration, whether it be their myopic focus on Ukrainian corruption as a means to justify the actions of this summer and this fall or this new insistence that it was Ukraine and the president of Ukraine himself interfering in the 2016 elections not Russia– none of that is helpful in trying to maintain and rebuild this bipartisan consensus around support for Ukraine.
And so, I hope that the handful of members of Congress who are trying to push these conspiracy theories about what Ukraine has done in the past will remain outliers. And I was heartened, frankly, in the last couple days to see the majority of my Republican colleagues in the Senate make public what we all know. It was Russia that manipulated the 2016 elections, not the government of Ukraine.
But let’s use our time today– and I know you will– to try to set up some tasks for Congress as we move out of this impeachment process and into next spring and to next summer. I admittedly was a slow convert to supplying the Ukrainian military with lethal American aid. I have never believed that there is a military solution to the incursion of Russia into Ukraine. I don’t think that Putin actually wants to march his army or any proxy force on Kyiv.
I think his desire and his design is to economically and politically break the country so that, eventually, Ukraine makes a decision to just give in, and give up, and elect leadership that will seek a detente with Russia that puts the Kremlin back in charge of affairs in Ukraine, as they were during the majority of the pre-Poroshenko Europe. And so I make the case that, while continuing military aid to Ukraine is really important– because I do think you need to send this message to Russia that there is going to be a continued cost of trying to move the line of contact– ultimately, the most important support that we can give Ukraine is non-military support, is the support necessary to make sure that they are guarded politically and economically from all of the ways that Russia continues to try to undermine them. And that, I think, needs to be our primary project as we think about ways for Congress to continue to support this new and I think very promising government in Kyiv.
And so that means making sure that we are helping them with their efforts to rebuff the cyber incursions and the propaganda efforts that Russia continues to spin up inside Ukraine. Remember, Russia is using Ukraine to midwife a lot of propaganda and cyberattack methods that they could then export to the United States. And so, we have an interest in confronting those tools in Kyiv and throughout Ukraine because of our interest in supporting an independent Ukraine but also because we want to protect ourselves. And the Global Engagement Center that Senator Portman and I established and funded is an important first step to increasing the American commitment to fighting back against those efforts from Russia.
Second, we need to help President Zelenskyy in what is a very sincere effort to tackle what is legitimate corruption problem in that country. I wish the administration would talk about something else other than the lingering corruption issues in Ukraine. There’s lots of good news stories. And there are, frankly, other challenges that we need to face there.
But by year’s end, there will be 500 prosecutors that weren’t doing the job in tackling corruption in Ukraine who will be out the door replaced by people who have as a mission not the protection of their political universe, but the rule of law. And we should be supporting President Zelenskyy in that effort. We made a big difference when we put a little bit of money on the table a few years ago to reform the Ukrainian police force. That’s resulted in a much cleaner administration of the law inside the capital city. We could be supporting, rather than just watching, President Zelenskyy’s anti-corruption efforts.
And third, I don’t know what the final outcome will be on Nord Stream 2. But I am doubtful of our ability to stop it in its tracks given how far it has gone and given the fact that Vladimir Putin is willing to pay whatever cost is necessary to underwrite a project that frankly was not economically or financially viable from the start. And so, we need to have some other answers for what is going to be a continued effort for Russia to try to ply other nations into its orbit through its energy bounty.
And so I am hopeful that, in the next week, we are going to pass a bill in the Foreign Relations Committee that has already passed the House of Representatives to set up a new $1 billion energy independence financing mechanism in the federal government to be used in places like Eastern Europe so that they don’t have to be reliant on gas pipelines coming in from Russia, that they can actually engage in energy independence projects with US financing help. That’s a bill that I wrote with Senator Johnson. And it has passed the House and hopefully passing the Senate very, very soon.
And so, I just hope that we focus on the ways in which we can make Russia pay a cost for the recursion into Ukraine, but understand the panoply of methods by which we do that. It is not just about whether we sell javelin missiles or not to Ukraine. It’s about delivering them the support to make sure that they can fight back against all of the ways that Russia is trying to undermine them.
I’ve never been more optimistic than I am today about the future of a country that I have come to love. I’ve traveled there, as many of you know, about a half dozen times since I was first elected to Congress, got the chance to stand on the protest stage at the Maidan with Senator McCain in the winter of 2013. And I am a believer in President Zelenskyy. It is never easy to upset the status quo in a country where the plutocracy and the oligarchy is so firmly entrenched. But I think this is our best shot.
And I’m so saddened that this administration hasn’t chosen to invest with a laser-like focus in this new president to help him and, instead, has ordered affairs in a way that makes it much more difficult for him to succeed. This place, Congress, can try to change that reality. We can figure out a way to come together and support this new government, support a comprehensive set of tools that the administration can use to try to undermine Russia’s incursion into that country and other nations. And if we do that, I think that our policy towards Ukraine and the region and Ukraine itself will come out stronger on the other end. And I’m just so glad to be able to be here.
MYROSLAVA GONGADZE: Thank you very much, Senator Murphy, reminding us about Ukrainian status in NATO and why United States would never use military force in Ukraine. I think we need to talk about it. And it’s a good reminder, as well, that Ukraine was born nuclear. Nearly 2,000 nuclear warheads and 2,500 tactical nuclear weapons made Ukraine the world third largest nuclear power.
US Secretary of State, James Baker, tutored President Bush about the importance of disarming Ukraine. Strategically, there is no other foreign issue more deserving your attention or time, Baker said. Ambassador Herbst knows in details how Ukraine was pressured to give up nuclear weapons. Looking back, do you think this was the right move to make Ukraine send all its nuclear arsenal to Russia? And could the United States have done more and given Ukraine not just assurance but guarantees of its territorial integrity?
JOHN HERBST: Well, I think that, at the time, the policy of nuclearizing not just Ukraine, but also— (Inaudible)
MYROSLAVA GONGADZE: Yeah.
JOHN HERBST: (Inaudible)
MYROSLAVA GONGADZE: Push.
JOHN HERBST: Oh, there it is. The policy of denuclearizing not just Ukraine but Belarus and Kazakhstan did make good sense. And of course, there were difficult negotiations regarding the terms for that denuclearization.
And there’s a great controversy in Ukraine and criticism of the Western and the United States’ position, because the United States provided something called assurances as opposed to guarantees of Ukraine’s territorial integrity in response to the de-nuclearization. And it is true that assurances do not require the United States to absolutely make certain that there’d be no territorial changes. And that’s a lawyer’s response to justify position.
But it’s also true that, in terms of America’s reputation, assurances and guarantees are two things that sound very similar. And it was a hit to the American reputation that Moscow was able to seize Crimea without a strong response from the West, including the United States. It’s worth noting that the absence of a strong response also came from China, which signed letters affirming Budapest, as well as France and the United Kingdom.
Bottom line, this the situation we have. There is strong support for the United States now for Ukraine. This support, as outlined by our earlier speakers, is a vital interest to the United States, because Moscow is a revisionist power today. Their appetite goes beyond the Donbas. And their appetite extends including further into Europe.
We do not have a commitment to defend Ukraine with our blood. But we do have such commitment in the Baltic states. Stopping Putin in Donbas makes it certain that we will not have to stop him in Estonia.
And we can do that, because Ukraine is fighting for its sovereignty and territorial integrity. We can do that by providing more military support, by providing more economic assistance, and more diplomatic support. This is the smart policy. This is the prudent policy.
And I don’t have any doubt that, if we pursue this policy, Putin’s revisionist agenda will be defeated in Donbas. And we don’t have to worry about him elsewhere. And that is our vital interest.
MYROSLAVA GONGADZE: Thank you, John. And again, there is one more– that reassurance package was involved in world NATO. So, in 1994, NATO created so-called Partnership for Peace program and developed open-door policy for potential new members in Europe.
I would like to address the next question to Heather. How substantive and real was this program? And why have NATO and the West failed to be more effective in the face of Russian strong stand first against NATO expansion to Ukraine and elsewhere and now Russian aggression?
HEATHER CONLEY: Myroslava– oh, there you go. I’ll just push this over here. Myroslava, thank you so much. And to John and the Atlantic Council, thank you. The best antidote to Russian aggression is bipartisanship here in the United States. And I’m so grateful to the members of Congress that continue to reinforce that.
We have unity. There are 10 think-tanks from the left, center, and right that are absolutely reinforcing of one another of our assessments and what needs to be done. So bipartisanship and unity are very powerful. And I thank you so much.
I’m actually going to take a step back in history– not to 1994– actually to 1990. And it is an absolute wonderful happenstance that, as today we watch NATO leaders complete their meeting in London for the seventh anniversary of NATO, actually, in 1990, NATO met in London and offered a political declaration. And I want to say, this is where this idea begins.
And it’s not necessarily the George HW speech on the Chicken Kyiv, which– as important as that was, I turn to President Bush’s Mainz speech in May of 1989 when he set forward an American vision of a Europe whole and free. But let me go back to this 1990 political declaration. Because NATO leaders at that time welcomed the Warsaw Treaty Organization to form a joint declaration to solemnly state that they were no longer adversaries and reaffirm our intention to refrain from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state and, of course, reinforcing the United Nations and the OSCE– of course, the CSCE at that time.
And NATO invited Gorbachev to speak to NATO. He invited these countries to come and establish diplomatic liaison missions to NATO. This is why we have a Russian mission to NATO. That was our vision.
And President George HW Bush’s speech at Mainz. He said, democracy’s journey east will not be easy. And that was exactly the message.
And so what you had– after that invitation in 1990, you had building blocks, which were the partnership for peace, which opened the opportunity for those who wish to take the obligations and the responsibilities– which are great– to become a member of NATO but who were willing to take that on, that door would remain open. And there were ways to do that. So, there was a window that was opened in 1994.
And that door tragically closed in 2008. Although, rhetorically, that door is open– and NATO is going to welcome its 30th member, North Macedonia, in early next year– it remained closed to go farther east. And I think that is, for me, the challenge of making sure that we reaffirm our commitment.
Because as all the speakers have said, NATO’s security and therefore America’s security begins in Ukraine. And I think that is what we have to reaffirm for the American people. This is why we have 4,500 US forces based in Poland today. They are fighting for freedom.
We just stopped talking like that. So, this is a powerful moment. I know, as Senator Murphy said, we hope we get past this moment. And this isn’t a incredibly difficult moment for our nation.
Perhaps the one silver lining– and I’ll end with this– is that Ukraine had dropped from the agenda. And we haven’t heard about it in newspapers. This “opportunity” has reinforced our understanding of why Ukraine is important. It reminds people that nearly 14,000 Ukrainians have died, 1.5 million are displaced. But US forces are protecting NATO.
This is what’s important. Leave out the noise. Focus on what’s important. And this conversation is helping that. Thank you so much.
MYROSLAVA GONGADZE: Thank you. And again, you mentioned the date or time when the door was closed. And I would like to actually turn to Donald Jensen.
Because one of the big issue that Moscow took as a threats to them what were the Colored Revolutions in Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan. So my question is, did United States fully recognize how threatening this were for Kremlin and Putin personal power? And that’s maybe why he decided to go with invasion of Georgia and Ukraine.
DONALD JENSEN: Thank you, Myroslava. Thank you to John, and Melinda, and the Atlantic Council team for putting this fine event together and all of you for being here. Let me make several points and ask you a question, Myroslava.
I think the Colored Revolutions that you described were a series of important but largely overlooked US foreign policy triumphs. And as you recall, in 2004, ’05, and ’06, the US was preoccupied with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and terrorism. And I think they barely received any attention in Washington, looking back.
But that’s quite a different story in Moscow. In many ways– and it’s often been compared to 9/11. These were fundamental changes that shocked Moscow, that surprised Moscow, and that were key drivers in its subsequent much harder line toward the West and to its neighbors.
Why? First of all, the Russian elite saw these revolutions as leading to a potential security threat to Russia, which wants to control its neighbors, which wants to extend its influence abroad. And they saw these very much, as well as NATO expansion, as direct security threats.
Number two, they saw it as a threat to the Kremlin or a hold on its people, as well. If it could happen in Kyiv or in Tbilisi, it could happen in Moscow. And this, I think, spurred, as I said, a long, long evolution or regression in the regime’s view of the world and the regime’s behavior, the Munich speech, the war in Georgia, ultimately culminating in, of course, the events in the Maidan, which became, looking back, increasingly not just soft power, but increasingly militarized. So today we have a much tougher– you have Kremlin starting going back to the Colored Revolutions for all those fits, and starts, and disappointments they had at the time. But I want to ask ourselves and ask you, what are the lessons we have learned from this subsequent history since those days 15 years ago?
Number one, I think it tells us that Russia’s strategic culture, the way it looks at the world and how it behaves accordingly, is quite a bit different from that in Brussels, or London, or the United States, maybe even in Paris. Russia sees problems, issues very differently. And so when you see, as you often do here in town, about the calls to engage Russia, well, that’s simply not enough. We have to engage Russia cautiously, realizing how they see problems quite differently, and acting accordingly.
Number two– and it’s a more hopeful lesson, I think– is that I think that Putin repeatedly underestimates and misreads the power of grassroots political and social movements not just in the Maidan, but elsewhere, as well. An advisor to Putin once told me he thinks that there’s nobody he can’t buy or manipulate. Well, the people of Ukraine showed that he was wrong. And I think that this is a short sightedness. There’s a keen vulnerability in the Kremlin.
And the third lesson, I would say, is that all of this Colored Revolution and the Kremlin reaction to it shows to what a key extent Kremlin domestic politics and regime preservation drives Russian behavior. It’s not just about the realist paradigm of national interests and spheres of influence. It’s about a much more fundamental thing, which is, will these people rule forever or will they not?
So, let me conclude by saying, this is not just a call to realism. It’s a call to all of us for idealism. Because there’s much more we can do to respond to the threat and the challenge. And that’s why I’m so grateful to see so many people here today.
MYROSLAVA GONGADZE: John has a comment.
JOHN HERBST: I’d like to follow up on one point. We’ve seen emerge over the past several years, but especially recently, a group that calls itself realists. But I think they should be really described not as realists, but as ostrich realists, who somehow think that Kremlin aggression was a result of American policies. And the case is made by the ostrich realists that it was, in fact, the expansion of NATO that’s produced the crisis in Ukraine.
What they don’t understand is that the Kremlin’s policies in Ukraine, which is currently a policy of war in Donbas after the seizure of Crimea, is the natural result of the frozen conflict policies that they put into effect the day the Soviet Union died. Literally, years before, people began to talk about NATO enlargement. The policies of frozen conflicts evident in Georgia, in Moldova, and also in Nagorno-Karabakh went into place right away.
The people running those policies were in the power ministries in Moscow. We don’t know if these were their policies without Yeltsin’s approval or with Yeltsin’s approval, who was then president. But these were the policies. And the natural extension of that was the Kremlin war in Georgia in 2008 and of course the war on Ukraine since 2014.
MYROSLAVA GONGADZE: Yeah, actually, I just– one more– emphasize this. Russia manufactured conflict– first, Transnistria, in Moldova, then occupation of Abkhazia, and South Ossetia in Georgia, the second invasion of Georgia 2008, and finally the invasion of Ukraine and occupation of Crimea– those manufactured conflicts. So, Ukraine has been fighting now the war with Russia for more than five years. And it was almost 14,000 people killed.
The new Ukrainian president, though, seems to think that he can make a peace with Putin. December 9 can become a decisive moment. United States, unfortunately, is not present at that discussion. It’s only observer for the Normandy Format negotiation.
I would like to ask you a double question. What are the pitfalls for Ukraine in these negotiations? What would be the best outcome? And how do you see United States respond their position in these negotiations? Thank you.
LEON ARON: Myroslava, can I start? thanks. This is a very important question. And frankly, given the position or at least the way I read the position of Chancellor Merkel and especially President Macron, there is not much hope.
So, let me start. Many in this room may have read a very interesting, for the want of a better term, interview that President Macron gave to The Economist. It gained the currency, largely because he called NATO brain dead. But there are some other interesting things that he said.
And of course, he is the host of the December 9. The hosts, as we know, are not merely providing physical space for such negotiations. They really play an oversized role in the framework.
So one of the things he said was that we need to rethink Europe’s strategic relations with Russia. He believes, exactly as John said, that it was the fear of NATO’s and EU’s expansion into Russia– what you call safe zone– especially Ukraine, that led to Moscow’s decision to put a stop to it. So Macron asks, what guarantees does Putin need?
And he answers– sort of like in Odessa– with another question, which is, no further advances in his safety zone. He poses as a question. But to him, it’s a rhetorical question. So what the implication is, so long as everybody agrees not to intrude into Russia’s security zone and so long as we remove this unnecessary irritant of Donbas, Russia will become responsible European citizen.
And I touched on that already. I don’t want to repeat why Putin recast himself as a wartime president. But there are very good economic reasons for that and the reasons of domestic legitimacy. But in terms of the details, it has been said– in fact, Zelenskyy said it during his campaign, but also, of course, in the long, rather interesting interview he gave the other day to Time Magazine. He said, absolutely no election in Ukraine. The Steinmeier formula is that their election is certified by OCD. And then Luhansk and Donetsk get the autonomy status, which, of cause, in effect, means a Russian-controlled enclave inside Ukraine.
Well, Zelensky said, no such election will take place until three things happen, the establishment of Ukrainian control over the border, the disarmament of what– well, Putin recently called up Opolchentsy which is the volunteer commander rebels totally supported by Russia and maintained by Russia– and the third thing, the withdrawal of all so-called foreign troops. Well, we know what foreign troops there are.
And it is here, I think, where the crux of the problem is. Because I think that, on December 9, Ukraine will be pressured to skip over those three things. And let’s postpone them. Let’s do it later. But now let’s hold elections and therefore legitimize– essentially by proxy but de facto– Russia control over that territory. And I think this is what I think ought to bother us the most at the moment.
HEATHER CONLEY: Thank you. I think, in some ways, when the Normandy Format was created, it was a spontaneous format on the anniversary of the Normandy invasion. And it was that moment when the US– and I would argue, the UK because of their own responsibilities for the Budapest Memorandum– needed to engage in that and be part of that conversation. And decisions were made to manage it unilaterally, a US-Russian dialogue which was with help with Mr. Surkov. But we missed that opportunity to strengthen French and German resolve.
I don’t disagree with Leon about President Macron’s view. His speech in August to the French Chief of Missions began to set the stage for a new approach. Of course, that was not a European position. That was a unilateral French position.
But I would offer a thought. If you are following the news that’s coming out of Berlin today, it looks as if the German intelligence has determined that there was a Russian government assassination on the streets of Berlin. And they have now expelled two Russian diplomats.
This has actually been hardening German views. So, we could, I think, see some German firmness here. This is not an agreed position.
But you’re absolutely right. What has always been the problem with the Minsk agreement– it’s been the sequencing. And the sequencing is where the contradiction is, where the Russian’s interpretation is that the Ukrainians will change the Constitution, decentralize, hold the elections, and then the Russians will not do anything.
And I think this is where we need to compare the so-called cease fire in Georgia, which has never been implemented, which the lines have continued to push out. They will never implement that. So, if President Zelenskyy has to give on his three conditions– and I thought that interview is extremely important and powerful. If he has to relinquish those, I think he has an internal problem that he does not need at the moment.
And I just cannot see the security situation in Donbas allowing elections to be held. There are ceasefire violations every single day. The OSCE monitoring mission is under fire every single day. Even if we suspended the situation and said, OK, hold elections, they could not physically hold them, because the security situation cannot happen.
But I do applaud– just one final note and I’ll pass it to John. I think President Zelenskyy has been correct in addressing the need to help the people that are trapped in Donbas for getting for ease for pensions. We need to help people who are suffering. And his message of unity is powerful.
That’s powerful. We need to support in that effort. But if he gives on those conditions and follows a Steinmeier formula, I believe we will have our third frozen conflict in the region.
JOHN HERBST: I think we should understand that the United States, the Western hemisphere, the North American continent, is not the only habitat for ostrich realists. They can also be found in Europe. And I’m saying that now, because President Macron, if he pursues the policies that he seems to be suggesting, will be following in the footsteps of President Sarkozy, who led the diplomatic effort after the Kremlin war on Georgia.
And the terms that were set for Moscow’s withdrawal from Georgia, which Heather referred to, have not been implemented. And so, one bad French-led negotiation should not be followed by a second.
MYROSLAVA GONGADZE: Thank you. Why don’t we hear from Mr. Jensen.
DONALD JENSEN: Thank you, Myroslava. This discussion reminds me of what my friend and colleague, Ben Hodges, says, that the Russian peacekeepers, they want a peace, and then they’ll keep it. My concern, in addition to what John and Leon have said, is that I think some people on team Zelenskyy and sometimes the president himself say things that either seem uncoordinated, or naive, or unrealistic. And I think this is an invitation to the Kremlin to try and test them on what they perceive or assess as weaknesses in the Ukrainian position. And that’s why I think the Normandy process is fraught with danger, not because I don’t support President Zelenskyy, but because sometimes they say things which I don’t fully understand where they’re coming from.
And I’ll just leave it at that. Although, I think in the end, they’ll be OK. But again, there’s room for concern, given the factors that Heather, and Leon, and John said, that they’re going to be under pressure to do things that are not fully thought through, not fully coordinated, or not really hardheaded enough to deal with the threat that remains if more sophisticated, in a way, from the East. But it’s certainly as strong as it has been in the last five years.
MYROSLAVA GONGADZE: Thank you. Do you have specialty in the US?
ILAN BERMAN: I always have. I always have.
MYROSLAVA GONGADZE: Yes, OK.
ILAN BERMAN: So, I would just contempt myself. I fully subscribe to what Leon has talked about. I would only make two final points, macro points, in particular, on the US policy question.
I think it bears noting that the current status quo is a status quo that favors Russia. Russia wants to stay, but it doesn’t want to pay. And it has created a situation that has de facto eroded Ukrainian sovereignty by depressing Ukraine’s economic vibrancy.
So, the optimal solution– and it’s not up to us to dictate the particulars of what Ukraine should or shouldn’t do. But I think the optimal solution in the broad brush is one that imposes costs upon Russia for this adventure and one that strengthens Ukraine’s economic integrity and, as a result, its sovereignty and its political integrity. And that’s the broad brush of what the US policy should be.
The particulars, I think, can be negotiated out by people who are far above my pay grade. But in general, I think it bears noting that, going into these negotiations, it’s very clear that delay, drawn-out, protracted talks benefit only one place. They don’t benefit in Washington. They don’t benefit Kyiv. They benefit Moscow.
MYROSLAVA GONGADZE: I would like to move ahead with a NATO question since we just celebrated 70th anniversary of NATO. US is planning to cut its spending on NATO. And there are talk of increasing support for Ukraine and Georgia. How do you see this dynamic play out?
HEATHER CONLEY: I’m happy to– I think there’s a little bit of misunderstanding. The announcement of the US reducing its contribution to the NATO Common Fund, which is a common pot, and the German government, others increasing that– that actually does not necessarily impact anything about NATO’s contribution in its support of its efforts in Ukraine. In fact, if anything, the US loses a bit of rebate that it gets out of the Common Funds. But it was a demonstration to reduce the US bill and to increase Europe’s bill.
I see support for Ukraine increasing bipartisanship, whether that’s through the European Deterrence Initiative– of course, that fund did get hit because of the White House’s decision to redirect funds to construction of the border wall. But I think is increased– as I’m seeing in the conversations around the Defense National Authorization Act– of increasing those funds. Again, this is again very much what this conversation has been. People are redoubling their efforts, because they its importance.
I think you’ll speak– in Don’s reference to General Hodges– I think when you speak to US military leaders, they are incredibly impressed with Ukraine’s military– and again, Ukraine is a laboratory for Russian tactics and tools. We wish it were not so. We are learning an enormous amount of how that works. And that’s incredibly beneficial to the United States and to NATO.
So I actually, again, see this as– this is going to redouble our efforts to support Ukraine. But across the way, there is military and security assistance, absolutely. There has to be strong support economically. There has to be strong support politically.
We cannot do this for Ukraine. Ukraine must do this for itself. And now if not the moment, I don’t know when it will be. So, this is an incredibly important moment. But I see strong support for NATO.
The concern that I have is the Hungarian government and its continued blocking of a formalized NATO-Ukraine commission discussion. And that is something that must be resolved as quickly as possible.
MYROSLAVA GONGADZE: Anyone would like to comment on NATO? Then another question on NATO– yesterday, Ukrainian parliament’s three parties actually joined together was their statement and their strong desire to become a NATO member. How do you see this issue play out? And is NATO even ready to discuss this issue in this particular moment of time?
LEON ARON: Myroslava, it’s a symbolic measure. One of the purposes of seizing and effectively holding Donbas is sort of a permanent Trojan horse inside of Ukraine. Any time there is a movement towards even the EU, that conflict either could be restarted, or it could be– remember that, as a result of the election, those areas will essentially send, eventually, deputies to the Rada, the Ukrainian parliament, that are wholly beholden to Moscow. And so, they will, of course, spearhead any opposition to Ukraine’s orientation to the West.
There’s one of the leading Russian experts whom I respect very much by the name of Valeriy Solovey. And he said that Donetsk and Luhansk are built in circuit breakers. And anytime there is a danger of– this is a symbolic statement. But say, it proceeds to some sort of concrete legislative measure, that circuit breaker could be flipped for Moscow, and that effort would be derailed.
MYROSLAVA GONGADZE: NATO expansion?
HEATHER CONLEY: So I would just say in the interim, because there’s not going to be, right now, the political space to allow this, I would argue NATO just needs to be more present in Ukraine– very similar to, in Georgia, NATO now has a center in Georgia. There just has to be more physical presence, more engagement, more interaction. And as I said, the more Ukraine reforms, the more it returns its strength. NATO just needs to be with it step by step, shoulder to shoulder, as does the EU, as does the US.
ILAN BERMAN: Myroslava, can I just hop in?
MYROSLAVA GONGADZE: Yes, yes.
ILAN BERMAN: At the risk of being the skunk at the garden party, I don’t think we do ourselves any favors when we paper over the very significant problems that the alliance currently has. What we’re seeing yesterday, what we’re seeing today is not a show of great unity among the alliance nations. So, the question about bringing in additional partners potentially– the truism is that alliances creep along at the pace of their most grudging member.
This is a conversation, this is a conference about Ukraine. It’s not a conference about Turkey. But it’s relevant here. Because at a moment where we have serious doubts about the integrity of the alliance as a whole, I think– what Heather talked about, about being present, being there, being fully capitalized, being fully capable in a military sense of defending the current parameters of the alliance become supremely important. And it’s the prerequisite for having any further conversation.
MYROSLAVA GONGADZE: Strengthening Ukraine, that’s the main– John?
JOHN HERBST: There’s one more point followed up on with what Heather said. We have not discussed today the front that the Kremlin opened in its war on Ukraine in the spring of 2018, which was the strangulation of trade from Donbas in the Sea of Azov. One thing that NATO has done partly in response is to increase naval patrols in the Black Sea, particularly in the Eastern Black Sea.
But in fact, under the understandings of the Straits of Montreux Convention, which regulates military traffic, among other things, of the Black Sea, there can be more NATO patrols. So, this is something that I believe the United States should be advocating and that NATO should be doing, sending more ships into the Black Sea as a reminder to the Kremlin that the Naval component of its action against Ukraine is producing a response which is not helpful to Kremlin security.
MYROSLAVA GONGADZE: Donald?
DONALD JENSEN: Yeah, John, preempted me. Yes, I would emphasize, in terms of making the case for Ukraine’s eventual membership in NATO, we have to see the Black Sea region as an emerging security area that needs much more attention. We’ve spoken a lot about Slovakia gap or the Baltic states.
But the Syria, Turkey, Sea of Azov region needs much more attention. It’s very threatening, very ominous and is a cardinal keystone to Russia’s move to the southwest in that region. I think Ukraine can pay a lot more than it does in addressing some of those threats.
HEATHER CONLEY: And this is where to bring Ilan and John together. This is where the Turkish/Russian relationship has to be watched very, very closely. And certainly, Turkey has been a very focused and, right now, proper actor in following and implementing the Montreux Convention. But there is– as again, this is history repeating itself. There is enormous pressure being placed from Moscow to prevent exactly those NATO Maritime forces into the Black Sea.
And I think, again, strategically, we need to see– the theater of operation is the Black Sea, Turkish Straits, and the Eastern Mediterranean. These are now one continuous area of operations. And we need to think in those broader strategic terms.
MYROSLAVA GONGADZE: Up until now, this current crisis in American politics, Ukraine enjoyed strong bipartisan support in Congress. I don’t want to talk about impeachment. But does being in the middle of US partisan battle make Ukraine toxic? And is it possible for Ukraine to avoid falling victim to partisan politics in the United States?
ILAN BERMAN: Let me grab that bull by the horns.
HEATHER CONLEY: You’re the courageous one.
ILAN BERMAN: Yeah, I am. So, I would actually point out, at least from where I’m sitting, obviously, it’s a huge problem. And this is a conversation that, at least in Washington, is all consuming. And it’s very hard to talk about legitimate strategic interest. After all, that’s the purpose of this conference, to talk about legitimate strategic interests in Ukraine and why the long game prevails here.
I would actually point out something else, which is to throw the ball over in the court of the Ukrainians themselves. Because the more pervasive and potentially dangerous trend that I see is Ukraine fatigue on Capitol Hill, where there are a lot of demands for greater transparency, greater anti-corruption efforts. And there’s been a lot that’s been done economically, in the health sector, in the transparency of the security services. But there is a sense that it’s not moving fast enough. It’s not moving as broadly enough as at least certain members of Congress expected.
And the longer that situation in that appearance prevails, the harder it is to drum up bipartisan support to continue to support Ukraine despite all the political craziness that’s going on. My sense is that’s a real problem. And it’s a problem that, I think, at least in my interactions, Ukrainian officials don’t adequately understand what the temperature is on Capitol Hill. And it’s a conversation that needs to be had.
JOHN HERBST: I think that there is a danger that the intense partisan fight could lead to problems in our support for Ukraine. But I think it’s an unlikely outcome. I think that there remains strong bipartisan support in Congress– and for that matter, strong support for Ukraine in the executive branch, despite all the things we’ve seen over the past few months.
And I would agree with Ilan that Ukraine forcefully going after corruption and working on reform will improve their standing in Washington. But I think that, even with the ambiguities on that front over the past couple of years, support for Ukraine has remained strong. And “Ukraine fatigue,” quote unquote, has been kept in check. And again, we had excellent turnout for this event today. We have bipartisan support for this event, reflecting the understanding that this is a critical American interest to stop Putin’s revisionism in the east of Ukraine.
HEATHER CONLEY: So I would just briefly say that there is no substitute for Ukraine doing the work. There is no substitute. And that is where all of this comes down to.
For Ukraine to be successful, it has to do the work. I would also just note that President Zelenskyy’s interview– I thought that was extremely powerful. He himself is a very powerful voice. And sometimes there are many voices saying they speak on behalf of. And it gets very confusing.
I would argue, right now, there needs to be fewer voices but voices of clarity, not shifting around, particularly as it gets closer to the questions that are being raised here in Washington. Clear, consistent messages from President Zelenskyy himself are critical and doing the work. And then the fatigue is not there. The support and the hope are present, because we can see that work.
MYROSLAVA GONGADZE: OK. So, we will be summarizing. So, I would like each of the panelists to actually go back to the question of our panel. Why does Ukraine matter? And what is United States strategic interest in Ukraine?
HEATHER CONLEY: Do you want to go down the line?
LEON ARON: In the same order?
Well, just very briefly, again. Vladimir Putin is a wartime president. He is a president for life. And because of his own, I believe, very deeply-held ideas and the domestic political imperatives, he needs essentially a Russia and Russian people believing two contradictory things at once, that Russia is under siege. It’s a besieged fortress– and at the same time, it’s victorious in its dealing with the West. The rhetoric in the Duma, the rhetoric in the government-owned television channels leave no doubt about that.
So then the question becomes– returning to what I said– if the aggression is not punished but condoned and, in effect, rewarded– and you reward an aggressive if you let them keep what they seized– then there is a famous Russian saying by Nicholas II, Minister of Internal Affairs and secret police chief, [INAUDIBLE], about small, victorious wars. Now, that small, victorious war with Japan did not turn out the way they planned in 1904, 1905.
But the point is that, if you grant the aggressor one victory after another, there is there is a growth of confidence. There is a pressure. And to me, the greatest problem is that the growth of confidence and the domestic political pressures on Putin may result in another small, victorious war.
ILAN BERMAN: All right, so two points, hopefully amplifying what we talked about and what I tried to get across– the first concerns Russia. And I think it’s become clear over the last hour as we’ve had this conversation that what we’re actually talking about is a false choice. We’re not talking about whether to confront Russia or not to confront Russia. We’re talking about whether to confront Russia over Ukraine or to confront Russia later. And so that means that resolve in the support of Ukraine and seeing Ukraine as a frontline state becomes enormously important.
And the second point is the question of Russian hybrid warfare. Russia has spent a lot of time, and energy, and national capital on inertia, on articulating the fact that– ceding doubt in democratic institutions in the West, on confusing the issues such that Western governments don’t have a resolute response. In that context, what Ukraine has chosen becomes all the more remarkable.
Because even as we’re confused over exactly which end is up, the Ukrainians don’t seem to be confused. They seem to have made a very concerted choice, a choice in favor of the West, in favor of Europe, and the United States, and against Russia. And that should be recognized. And frankly, that should be nurtured.
MYROSLAVA GONGADZE: Thank you.
HEATHER CONLEY: So I will go back to 30 years. The US strategic framework for Ukraine is Ukraine whole and free. It is not free, and it is not whole. And we have to stick to that framework, and give the Ukrainian people every opportunity to see that aspiration. I think that the most inspiring thing to me, as difficult as it was, when the Ukraine election was held, President Poroshenko stepped down. A new leader, freely selected was installed. And you cannot do that in Russia.
And so that is why Europe whole and free you must extend to Ukraine. Someday, it must extend to Russia. And that’s its greatest challenge.
And of course, again, the American people must understand that US national security begins in Ukraine. And when you understand that that’s where our security may lie, then you’ve put a very important point on it. So those are the two messages that I’d like to refrain.
JOHN HERBST: I’d like to end on an optimistic note.
MYROSLAVA GONGADZE: Good.
MYROSLAVA GONGADZE: Donald has to speak, too.
DONALD JENSEN: No, no, no.
HEATHER CONLEY: Keep it rolling. Keep rolling.
DONALD JENSEN: John, I can’t wait to–
JOHN HERBST: To use an old Marxist term, I think that the–
HEATHER CONLEY: (Inaudible)
JOHN HERBST: Just, you’ll like this.
HEATHER CONLEY: OK, OK.
JOHN HERBST: I think that the correlation of forces in the current fight favors Ukraine and the West for the following reasons. This where I may disagree with Ilan. The war in Ukraine is a Kremlin war against the Ukrainian people, not a Russian war against the Ukrainian people.
So, Putin has two great vulnerabilities. One is that, in the current circumstances thanks to sanctions, the Russian GNP is losing one to 1.5 percent of growth per year. Over time, that’s real money. And the impact on the Russian standard of living is greater. So, Russia, too, is suffering from Putin’s aggression.
The second point is the Russian people don’t want their soldiers fighting in Ukraine. So Russian casualties are a Kremlin political liability. Now, Ukrainians want the war to end but not at the expense of their territorial integrity or their sovereignty.
In other words, they’re not going to agree to terms which allow Putin’s control of Donbas to exercise a veto power over Ukraine’s security. As long as Western support remains strong for Ukraine, as long as the aid and the weapons flow to Ukraine, as long as the sanctions remain in place on Russia, Ukraine will win this war at relatively low cost to the United States. That’s the key point. And I hope, as part of that, this institution will find a way before the year ends to sanction Nord Stream 2.
MYROSLAVA GONGADZE: Thank you.
DONALD JENSEN: Optimistic or negative? I think the glass is half full and half empty. I very much agree with John’s comments. But let me end on a commentary about Russia, which is that, in these circles in which everybody at the table frequent, drink, eat, you hear a lot of cliches, one of which is that Russia is back. And that’s from the ostrich, as John described.
The corollary is that Russia is back. We must deal with it, both of which are very shallow and not very thought through. And the third is Russia is in decline. And that’s the school I belong to.
But for me, Russia’s decline is probably, almost certainly going to make it more aggressive, not less aggressive. And we’ve seen that all around the world. What was Maidan is now Syria, Venezuela, Central African Republic, where they get a lot of bang for their relatively few bucks. And this is going to continue.
Russia in decline is more of a threat than Russia back. And that means we have to respond adequately. We have to not support Ukraine, as all of my colleagues and friends here have said, and not let it be the boy and the finger in the dike holding it back.
Because if they don’t succeed– and I agree with John. Ultimately, they will– there’s going to be much trouble elsewhere. And there already is. So, it’s a summon for all of us to respond a little more effectively and a little more coherently to what’s going on, and throw aside some of these cliches and these naive assumptions about either Russia’s benign behavior or that Russia’s back and somehow is going to have their appetite satisfied. Because it’s not going to happen. There’s no, at all, evidence that that is going to happen. So that’s–
MYROSLAVA GONGADZE: With that beautiful summary, I’m ending this panel. Thank you very much for your interest. And let’s eat.
US strategic interests in Ukraine: What can be done to ensure Ukraine succeeds?
The Hon. Ron Johnson, US Senator for Wisconsin, US Senate
Panel discussion: What can be done to ensure Ukraine succeeds?
Luke Coffey, Director, Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy, Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for National Security and Foreign Policy, The Heritage Foundation
Glen Howard, President, The Jamestown Foundation
Jonathan Katz, Senior Fellow, The German Marshall Fund of the United States
Dr. Alina Polyakova, Director, Project on Global Democracy and Emerging Technologies, The Brookings Institution
Dr. Paul Stronski, Senior Fellow, Russia and Eurasia Program, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
Moderated by: Melinda Haring, Deputy Director, Eurasia Center, Atlantic Council
MELINDA HARING: Afternoon. My name is Melinda Haring. I’m the deputy director of the Eurasia Center at the Atlantic Council. Thank you for staying for part two.
And this panel’s going to be a little complicated because Senator Johnson is going to come in the room in 7 to 10 minutes. So we’re going to pause our panel and our discussion and give the microphone to Senator Johnson. So please bear with us.
But this panel is about the domestic reforms in Ukraine. Our question is, what can be done to ensure that Ukraine succeeds? Before we dive into the panel, we owe– I owe a number of thank-yous.
Ambassador Herbst and I have been thanked a number of times. We don’t deserve the thanks for this. I’d like to thank specifically Nick in Representative Kaptur’s office. He did an amazing job making this event possible.
And I’d like to thank our staff, Shelby, Colby, Michael, Adrian, Doug, and Adair, and our events team at the Atlantic Council. You are phenomenal. Congratulations on a terrific event. Can you all help me thank them?
Terrific. Thanks. So, among heads of state, Volodymyr Zelenskyyy may have the hardest job in the world. I don’t know if you’ve had a chance to read Franklin Foer’s excellent article that just came out in The Atlantic, but I really encourage you to take a look.
Zelenskyyy, of course, was elected on the– a couple of promises this year. He was elected on the promise of bringing peace and prosperity and finally stamping out corruption in Ukraine. Of course, there’s many obstacles to these goals. I made at least four. And Russia, Russia, Russia was at the top of the list. The other obstacles are obvious– oligarchs and entrenched elites, a complex US-Ukraine relationship, and waning support in Ukraine, as we’ve discussed on the first panel.
Since he was elected and since the parliamentary elections this year, there’s been a huge amount of activity in the Rada. There’s been a raft of legislation that’s been passed. And frankly, it’s been really, really hard to keep up with everything that the Rada is doing.
Much of it is positive, in my assessment. There’s been a package of anti-corruption bills that have passed. There’s bills that have made it easier to do business as well.
But Ukraine is still the poorest country in Europe. And the war has entered its fifth year. So our panel is really going to focus on the question of war and peace, and on corruption and prosperity.
Now, it’s my great honor and pleasure to introduce five terrific top Ukraine experts and foreign policy thinkers. All the way on my right is Glen Howard from the Jamestown Foundation, Jonathan Katz from GMF, Dr. Alina Polyakova from Brookings, Paul Stronski, Dr. Paul Stronski from Carnegie, and all the way on the left is Luke Coffey from the Heritage Foundation. Thank you all so much for joining us.
LUKE COFFEY: (Inaudible)
MELINDA HARING: Sorry, the other left.
GLEN HOWARD: You’re on the right for the audience.
MELINDA HARING: We’re not inferring anything. Luke, I’d like to start with you on this question of war and peace. Can you please bring us up to speed and remind us how much the US has given Ukraine in lethal and nonlethal assistance since 2014? What equipment and training have they given them specifically? And what else should we be giving?
LUKE COFFEY: Yeah, of course. Well, thank you very much, Melinda, for chairing this. And I want to thank the Atlantic Council for taking the effort to organize this very important event on a very important topic at a very important time.
Before I get into the details on what the US has done in terms of support, I just want to quickly point out as a reminder, and I don’t need to tell this audience what I’m about to say. But I feel obliged to repeat it.
We should not forget that it was, in 2014, it was Russia that invaded Ukraine and not the other way around, OK? Russia is the aggressor here. Ukraine is the victim.
It is a matter of fact that a chunk of Ukraine that was recognized as the international community as being part of Ukraine is now not under their sovereign control. So that’s why we’re here today discussing this. That’s the most important fact when it comes to Ukraine is that this is a nation that’s at war, fighting for its survival.
Ukraine represents this idea in modern Europe today that sovereign nation-states should have the ability to choose how and by whom they are governed, and which organizations and alliances they wish to join. And no outside country should have a veto on that. So that’s how we got to where we are today with Ukraine.
In terms of US support to Ukraine, since 2014, the US has provided, on average, just over $300 million a year in nonlethal military, or nonmilitary assistance, and during the same period of time has granted Ukraine three separate $1 billion lines of credit loans. On the military side, the US has provided in terms of lethal and nonlethal military assistance since 2014 about $1.5 billion. And, of course, the eye-catching aspect of this are the Javelins. But there’s also more less-sexy but crucial capabilities we’ve provided, such as secure communications, UAVs, counter-battery radars, sniper rifles, grenade launchers, these sort of things.
But I want to say that while this is all welcome for the Ukrainians, the most important thing the US has provided the Ukrainians by this military assistance has been the symbolic value of America’s support. In fact, there’s not a single US Javelin on the front line in the Donbas today. But that doesn’t matter because what does matter is the message it’s sent to Russia and to our European allies, that we’re going to provide the Ukrainians the most advanced anti-tank missile system in the world. And if they need to use it, they have it, and we have Ukraine’s back.
So it’s the symbolism. We shouldn’t get caught up on the numbers and the capabilities. We have to remember, in international affairs, symbolism matters. And that right now for Ukraine is probably the most important thing.
MELINDA HARING: Let me ask you a follow-up question. So, the Javelins were a really big issue for a long time. But have they actually changed the balance of forces beyond the symbolism?
LUKE COFFEY: No, not right now. We– you have to remember, when you fire off a Javelin missile, it’s essentially shooting a Porsche in terms of the cost for one of these missiles, right? And so, these are very precious assets.
And right now, the front lines in eastern Ukraine are relatively aesthetic. Of course, Ukrainian soldiers are dying on a weekly basis. They are fighting, but there has been no major push, certainly no major armored push to change the front lines right now. So, I would still stand by my point that this is right now more about symbolism. And it should always be remembered that Ukraine does have these missiles and has trained to use these missiles in case they actually ever need them.
MELINDA HARING: Thanks, Luke. The first panel talked a lot about NATO. And some experts say that NATO can’t count on– or, I’m sorry, some experts say that Ukraine can’t count on NATO membership anytime soon.
But NATO could still offer EOP status, Enhanced Opportunity Partner status in NATO. Is that a good idea? And what would EOP status signal?
LUKE COFFEY: Certainly, anytime you can advance that NATO-Ukraine relationship, we should, including EOP status. Georgia has EOP status, Australia. Jordan does. So, these are serious countries, right?
And Ukraine is a serious country in Europe. And all things considered, going back to the Bucharest Summit, where Ukraine was promised eventual membership into NATO, points to the direction that, yes, EOP should be given to Ukraine. But I feel like sometimes we get too wrapped around the axle on these acronyms and these terms and everything. We need to make sure that the Ukrainian path towards full NATO membership continues in the right direction.
You know, it might be a long journey. It might be a bumpy journey. But it needs to continue down the right path.
And one concern I have, not necessarily with EOP but with some of these other initiatives like major non-NATO ally status, for example, I understand the appeal of something like this. But in terms of major non-NATO ally, the clue is in the name. So short term, it might sound great. But in the long term, you know, we don’t want a major non-NATO ally with Ukraine. We want a NATO ally with Ukraine, so I think we have to be careful in how we look at these things.
MELINDA HARING: Great. Thank you. Glen, I know you’ve done a lot of thinking and looking at Ukraine’s army and navy. And the army itself has massively improved over the last five years. A lot of people have noted that. But the navy remains underdeveloped.
What more can the US and Western allies do to shore up Ukraine’s navy? Beyond providing more boats, what kind of equipment and training would you recommend?
GLEN HOWARD: Well, first of all, thank you for allowing me to come here today, Melinda. And thank you for your excellent job on moderating the panel. I’d also like to thank Ambassador Herbst for thinking of me and inviting me today, and for the Atlantic Council’s leadership in trying to put this event together. It’s a great group of people.
I think the first thing you need to do when we talk about Ukraine and the navy is to try to fixate on what is the role in American national interests. Now, you have to start, first of all, with history. And starting with the annexation of Crimea by Catherine the Great, after that occurred, Russia became a Mediterranean power. Now, why is that? Because Crimea became very much a launching point for the Russian navy the tsarist navy began to challenge in the Mediterranean.
Today, there are up to six Kilo submarines that are based inside the Black Sea. These submarines are moving back and forth through the Bosporus into the Black Sea, from the Black Sea into the Mediterranean. And these groups of subs are trailing American carrier battle groups.
So, if you begin with the importance of Crimea, then you start to be able to fixate on what are American national interests and why it’s a threat. Now, ever since– now because I’ve talked a lot about and focus on the navy, you know, it’s very key important– many people have always focused on Donbas. But they always get kind of sidetracked and don’t understand that even the basic symbol of the Ukrainian flag is a trident.
A very large percentage of Ukraine’s Littoral is facing the Black Sea. As much as a quarter of the GDP of Odessa depends on sea trade. So, it’s very, very critically important. And then you throw in the Sea of Azov and the agricultural exports, then you put in the context of Mariupol.
Now, the long and short of what has been happening with US policy has been they have– in desperate need of trying to get a strategy. And they’ve become, as many of us do, fixated on objects. Now, you heard Luke talk about the Javelins.
Well, Ukraine, for various reasons, because the Poroshenko administration was very much fixated on building its own indigenous gunboats and shipbuilding industry, decided at a– late in the game not to try to make use of the United States offering of what they call Island-class patrol boats. And only late in the game did the Poroshenko government decide to go with this. But they finally did at the end of the day.
Now, what we’ve seen is the rival within, and great pressure put on by many groups here in Washington, was the pressure to try to get Ukraine to get these patrol boats. Why? Because the Gyurza gunboats that they have are nothing but a bunch of boats for your backyard lake. They’re not really the type of military weapons that one can try to use in a way to deter the Russians.
The bottom line is if a quarter of Odessa’s GDP or the Ukraine’s GDP is coming from Odessa, you have no navy. There’s no one other than rotating groups of the American Aegis-class destroyers and NATO boats, NATO warships coming into the Black Sea and rotating due to the Montreux Convention. So therefore, when they’re not in town, Odessa is wide open to the Russian navy.
Now, the problem increasing now has become very quite desperate. Now Melinda asked me for a recommendation. With the delivery of the Island-class patrol boats now in Odessa, it’s a great benefit. But the problem is they don’t come with weaponry.
So the key desperate thing that they need now, are– or what they’ve been looking at are a naval variant of the Hellfire missiles. And so these are– Hellfires are also located on the Apache helicopters. But they also, there’s a naval variant of that. And if they can give Ukraine the Hellfire missiles, then that would allow Ukraine slowly to be able to build out from Odessa, and protect the port, and also challenge Russian naval superiority in the Black Sea.
Now, this is– I know the discussion is underway, but this is not going to solve the problem immediately. But what is happening all across the seaboard, since May 2015, May 15, 2018, when Putin crossed the Kerch Strait Bridge, is that Russia has increasingly applied what they call the boa constrictor strategy of slowly strangling Ukraine’s economy, because whether we like it or not, much of Ukraine’s steel exports come– have to be exported by sea from Mariupol. Currently, our wait time since they created the Kerch Strait bridge and closed it off, the wait times have alternated between 73 hours up to 143 hours for ships waiting for transit through the Kerch Strait. So basically, it’s basically Ukraine saying, mother may I, can I go through the Kerch Straits?
And so, Russia is using this type of economic strangulation and a type of warfare on Ukraine that’s very much impacting Mariupol. If Mariupol cannot keep people employed, and cannot produce steel, and cannot export it– and it can’t go by land. The steel exports are too much to go by railroad. But if they can’t get this, we’re facing the death of Mariupol.
Now, I looked at some of the economic statistics recently. Mariupol has lost 9.8 percent of its cargo turnover in 2018 compared with 2017. So far, from January to June of 20– of this year, they’ve lost 13.8 percent. So slowly, you’re starting to see the death of Mariupol. And if– and as long as this problem occurs, it’s going to be increasingly a problem.
Now, the way militarily you try to do this is through the concept of sea-denial capabilities. There’s these Gyurza gunboats that the Ukrainian navy wants to transport, and move to Mariupol, and slowly be able to protect the port, be able to slowly edge out its capabilities. But the United States has to develop some type of military strategy in the Black Sea that has some thought behind it, and not one that’s focused on Aegis-class destroyers and carrier battle groups, OK?
The way the British and the French defeated the Russians in the Crimean War was through the economic strangulation of Sevastopol. That’s the long and short of it, and it was done by sea power, OK? And this is something that historians and military experts often forget. But this is really critical because when you look at Odessa and just exclude the fact that we’re talking about Mariupol.
Look at Odessa. There’s something called floating gas rigs that Russia has appropriated– took, seized from Ukraine when they invaded Crimea in 2014. There’s one of these gas rigs that’s called the Tavrida gas rig. The gas rig has now 24.5 miles from Ukraine’s Serpent Island.
Now, why am I pointing this out? Because when you have a gas rig off the coast, and the main shipping channel for all of Ukraine’s maritime exports through Odessa have to go through a narrow corridor of 24.5 miles between Serpent Island and the Tavrida gas rig, the gas rig is floating. It’s weaponized. It’s equipped with all types of air-defense weaponry. And this thing keeps drifting out.
And what the Russians are doing is what they call creeping annexation. And we’re not paying attention to it. But this stuff is starting, and is already slowing to diverge over.
And we may wake up one morning, as we did several months ago when the Russians said, oh, we’re going to have live firing exercises in the entire Black Sea region, so all commercial traffic in the Black Sea get out. And whoa, I mean, what do– so you have navies. You have commercial ships. You have all these things occurring, and people are asking questions.
But you could wake up one morning, and the Russians have declared an exclusive economic zone around the Tavrida gas rig. And suddenly Odessa is wide open. And everybody’s going to be saying, oh, well, freedom of navigation, maybe we should think about that.
Well, they thought about it. They thought about it for Kerch Strait, and unfortunately Admiral Foggo said, no, we’re not– the US Navy’s not going to get involved. We’re not going there, so case closed. OK, well, OK, and what are we seeing? Mariupol is slowly dying.
But now you’re starting to see the case of this danger between Serpent Island, which is it used to be part of Romania, and it’s now part of Ukraine. It’s a piece of rock, but pieces of rock can also, like Gibraltar, can be very strategically significant. Now, why– and this is where it requires some type of strategy. And the United States isn’t putting its time and effort into that.
For example, you have the strategic problem of the Montreux Convention, which restricts US warships being able, and all non-signatory nations of the Montreux Convention to have access to the Black Sea. They have to rotate in and out of the region. It was a 24-day schedule, I believe.
But the problem here is that the United States needs to start thinking, and Ukraine, in a trilateral way about security of the Black Sea with Romania. Now the problem is Romania depends a lot of its trade through the Bosporus. So it’s kind of a little bit touchy about how it deals with Turkey.
But the problem is, is through the Danube, you can create and deploy warships, small warships that could become part of a rapid-reaction force that could be used to reinforce Odessa, because when– the way the US Navy operates in the Black Sea is these ships are always in transit in the Mediterranean. But they’re always keeping some of these ships ready for deployment outside of the Bosporus in the Mediterranean, ready to go into the Black Sea to protect Ukraine if there’s a crisis when they’re not there. But the problem is, is that takes time, OK? And time is a problem in the Black Sea. We don’t have 48 hours to wait on these warships sometimes because the Russians can strike at any chance they want into this region.
MELINDA HARING: Thanks, Glen. Thanks. That’s a terrific answer. And we’re definitely going to look for you and watch your writing for the strategy, because it sounds like you’ve done a lot of really good thinking about it.
Thank you for mentioning Hellfire missiles. Luke, you dodged my question before. He gave a very passionate answer, or a very passionate explanation for why Hellfire missiles should be one of the things that should go on the US list. Is there anything else in terms of equipment and training that you’d want to put on the list? You gave us a very full explanation of what we’ve done so far.
LUKE COFFEY: Yeah, well, I would add lifting restrictions on US service personnel operating east of the Dnieper River. I think having US military personnel not embedded as combatants but at least as observers could better inform the debate in the DoD about what the Ukrainians actually need on the front lines. And right now, US troops won’t go anywhere– can’t go anywhere near the front lines.
And this is the same for the defense of Mariupol, I would say. I agree 110 percent with Glen. And I think that when the three ships were apprehended, well, almost a year ago to the date, in fact, the response from the US was very lackluster. I would’ve had the commander of Sixth Fleet in Mariupol observing the situation, seeing what’s going on to get an idea on what the US needs to do to help Ukraine improve their maritime capabilities.
So, for sure we often focus about the land component. But there are maritime domain awareness capabilities that we should be helping Ukraine with. NATO should be doing this.
For example, NATO has these trust funds that were created at the Wales summit that focus on different capabilities for Ukraine. And I think it’s time to hit the Refresh button on some of these. They’re underfunded.
One of these trust funds is a counter-IED capability trust fund for the Ukrainians. When’s the last time Ukrainian soldiers have been hit by an IED? I mean, perhaps it’s happened, but I don’t think it happens all that often where they need a trust fund for this. But yet there’s no trust fund for maritime domain awareness. So, I think we need to take a step back and re-evaluate five years on from the invasion what Ukraine needs right now, not what they needed in 2014.
MELINDA HARING: That’s a great point. Thank you so much. So, Paul, Alina, I’d like to bring you into the conversation. On December 9 is a really big deal. It’s a really big date for Ukraine. All eyes are going to be fixated on Paris, when the presidents of Ukraine, Russia, France, and Germany meet and try to find a way out of the war that Russia started.
It’s become a truism that everything depends on Moscow. What do the Russians want? What do the Ukrainians want? And what could Ukraine and the international community offer to incentivize them to finally get out of the Donbas? I’ll start with Paul, then turn to Alina.
PAUL STRONSKI: Well, first of all, I think this meeting is a win for the Russians. The Russians have long wanted respect. They’ve sort of been ostracized from the world, from the Western world. And a big meeting like this shows that Putin can still be influential and not totally isolated. And the sheer fact that it’s happening is good for the Russians.
Now, the Russians certainly would like to have sort of– they want the Ukrainians to give in to sort of recognize the self-proclaimed entities as legal entities. You sort of bring them back into a federalized system. That would give Moscow a lot of clout.
But if it doesn’t get that, I think Moscow is perfectly happy with the status quo the way it is. It can ratchet it up. It can ratchet it down.
I think Moscow is still trying to size up Zelenskyyy, and sort of figure out where he is, and where he stands, and how much leeway he has from the Ukrainian population. And he seems to sort of want to be sort of a peace-builder and sort of de-escalate. But, you know, what is the notion?
And then finally, I think, you know, I don’t expect a whole lot. I think we’ve been through this before. And I think we’ve seen these European leaders try to do this without great results.
But I just want to sort of underscore that for Russia, I think a Ukraine that’s struggling with its security means that it’s struggling with its political reform. It’s struggling with its economic reform. And Russia really doesn’t want a Ukraine that is a successfully democratic, functioning Ukraine for multiple reasons, most of which is it’s an alternate model for the region overall.
And if there is a successful democratic change– we’ve already seen a democratic shift in power, which is tremendous, in other parts of the world, where everybody’s voicing their concerns through the street. Here we have a tremendous positive result through the ballot box. So, I think if they can’t get exactly what they want, as long as they can get the status quo and be able to keep on turning that pressure on Ukraine and complicate its reform effort, the Russians would be quite happy.
MELINDA HARING: Great. Thank you. Alina.
ALINA POLYAKOVA: Yeah, thanks so much, Melinda. And, again, thanks to the Atlantic Council for organizing all of us here today. Since you mentioned the December 9 meeting, this is the first meeting of this Normandy format negotiations around the Minsk agreements, the first meeting, I believe, since three years ago that’s going to be taking place.
And I think one thing that’s different now than was three years ago is the US was never officially at the table because the Normandy format. But this year, and this, I think, pretty important meeting, because the first one in over three years, we’re really not going to be at the table. And I think it’s critical that the United States continues to be engaged, not in an official way, but as we have been in the past through these informal channels that the Obama administration established, Trump administration also had, to continue to work our European– with our European allies to make sure that this doesn’t play into the Kremlin’s interests.
And my concern now is that if the US is, in fact, absent from those negotiations in a informal capacity, that we may not end up in a good place. I think Zelenskyy has pushed multiple times for better– for closer US engagement. He’s also pushed for the UK to take a more active role at some points. And in a recent interview, he also clarified kind of what they’re looking for, meaning they’re not looking to hold elections in the so-called LNR or DNR while there are still Russian forces on the ground, while there’s the weapons on the ground.
But it seems unclear why Moscow would want to remove those weapons or remove those forces. The Moscow strategy is let’s hold elections now, which should be akin to the Crimea referendum, quote, unquote, “referendum,” and that would give the special status to those regions without any changes on the Russian side. And I think this is, of course, untenable and very, very problematic for the Ukrainians. But they seem to want to move towards the Minsk sequencing.
And the Minsk sequencing is really beneficial to Russia and really detrimental to Ukrainian interests. So, I guess my hope for December 9 is that nothing happens, because that would be the– because that would be probably the best outcome for Ukraine. Even though that’s not a great outcome, in the whole, it’s better than moving closer and closer towards the Russian position.
MELINDA HARING: I think that’s a lot of our hope. Alina, just to push you a little bit, what options does Ukraine have? Is the best option just freezing the conflict and waiting it out?
ALINA POLYAKOVA: Well, this is such a touchy issue. In Ukraine, there have been a series of protests in Kyiv ahead of these meetings because the concern that some have in Ukraine is that Zelenskyy, in his desire to have peace– I mean, if he ran on any platform, that was his platform. It was no more war– I’m a peacemaker– and no more corruption, without a lot of details. We’re getting more details on that now.
But I think the concern is that in his desire for a deal of some kind that he will take steps that will actually be quite unpopular among most Ukrainians. And there is a movement now to organize a series of protests right before December 9 in Ukraine to really signal that the population will not be behind him if he moves too close to fulfilling some of the Russian goals in the negotiation process. And so, I think the reality is that there is no good outcome for Ukraine unless the Russians change their calculus and do something. And they’re very unlikely to do that.
So, I think the problem that we face is that, of course, the majority of Ukrainians don’t want to see those territories be completely cut off and to be these unstable gray zones on Ukrainian territory. Yet it’s not clear what the next steps would be. So, I think we’re going to be stuck with the status quo for a very long time, unless there’s a change from the Russian side.
MELINDA HARING: Great. Thank you. Well, one other question. You’re a Europeanist by training, and so I’d like to ask you about the thinking of the French and the Germans. We understand why Zelenskyy is eager to sit down in Paris. But why are the French and Germans so eager now?
ALINA POLYAKOVA: I’m glad you asked that. I wanted to make one comment. We’re talking a lot about why Ukraine is some important for US interests. But, of course, Ukraine is far more important for European interests.
Ukraine is a European country. It is on the border with EU members. It is the frontline state. And the EU has done quite a bit to support Ukrainian economic reforms and various other kinds of reforms.
And I think we forget that, that this is not just a US priority. It’s a transatlantic priority. And in terms of funding, the EU as a whole has provided at least 15 billion in funding since 2014. That’s a huge amount and doesn’t take into account a lot of other programs and things on the ground that various EU member states and the EU has been funding in Ukraine. I just think it’s important to remember that, that this is not just a US transatlantic priority.
But I have my doubts about the current environment in France, and especially some of the comments of the president of France, President Macron, has been making. And, again, this is why US presence at the negotiating table is so critical, because we’ve seen Macron, one, we all have heard the NATO brain-death comment. But that comment didn’t happen in isolation. That comment is part of this strategic shift or pivot towards a closer relationship with Russia, which Macron himself has described as rebuilding some– or rethinking some sort of new security architecture for Europe that includes Russia, while at the same time the EU’s sanctioning Russia, while at the same time Russia has invaded European countries, not EU member states but European countries, and continues to launch various kinds of information cyber warfare against EU member states, including his own campaign back in 2017. And so, I’m really, really concerned about Macron’s presence and his administration’s presence at the negotiating table on December 9, which is, again, why I said the best outcome would be no outcome.
I think the problem we face in the French-German dynamic is given the state of politics in Germany, Germany has taken a back seat to decision-making at the European level. And that has left the way completely open for Macron’s temper tantrums when it comes to NATO and then when it comes to the broader European security architecture. And I’m really, really concerned about these overtures to the Kremlin. I don’t know what he has in mind or why this has become part of the new strategy.
It seems like the Élysée has been completely disconnected from the diplomatic corps on this. But I’m really concerned about it. And I think Macron is doubling down on it. And that’s really problematic.
MELINDA HARING: Where is it coming from, though? Is it business interests that are shaping his opinion? Who’s– how do you understand it?
ALINA POLYAKOVA: Great question. It’s a great question to ask some of our French analysts who are not here, who may have a more insightful view into this. But my conversations with you, because I’ve been trying to figure out this question as well. You know, what is driving this? And the answer seems to be that it’s driven by, one, Macron’s frustration that he can’t be the president of Europe, that he’s the president of France, and that he has been incapable of building the kind of coalition you need to push through your vision for Europe because the Germans haven’t been behind him. Even though initially it seemed like there was this great relationship between Macron and Merkel, that hasn’t really panned out in terms of policy.
And I think he sees himself, you know, in this very French way, as sort of the– in the neo-Gaullist tradition, as a great power that’s at the table– sounds familiar– you know, making deals with other great powers about the future of geopolitical order. And Russia’s a great power. And there’s no clear economic reason, given Russia’s economic state, which is absolutely detrimental and in deep decline, for a country like France to have a more strategic economic relationship with Russia, which, of course, Macron has gone back to multiple times.
And I think what’s driving it is probably a lot of ego and probably a lot of frustration with the decision-making process in Europe, where Macron sees himself as being the president of the continent. But, in fact, he’s not. And I think that’s a probably very frustrating experience for him.
MELINDA HARING: Thanks a lot, Alina. Paul, you wanted to hop in here.
PAUL STRONSKI: Yeah, I do think– I mean, I– you know, I think I can never dismiss a business interest because I think, you know, particularly some French and Russian business interests are always there and always knocking on the door, as they are throughout Europe. So, I wouldn’t totally dismiss that. I would very much agree with your comments about him being frustrated and frustrated– I think there’s a lot of frustration within the NATO alliance in general. And sort of he’s sort of seeing his role as perhaps, you know, leading a more robust Europe. Whether or not that will come is difficult to say.
I also sort of see, you know, this kind of suits Russia perfectly well, because Russia is keen to stoke problems within the NATO alliance. It’s keen to stoke problems within the European Union. And we know that NATO countries on the eastern flank are very unhappy with this initiative. NATO countries on the other side of the Atlantic are not very happy with this interest– with this initiative. So, I think, you know, it just causes problems broadly within the Euro-Atlantic community that doesn’t– that he might not be fully thinking of, and just adds to some of the tensions that we already have in NATO.
I would also agree. I mean, the French have had a long history of trying to sort of be the negotiator between Russia and the West. You look back at Sarkozy in 2008. Didn’t go too well back in 2008. And I see sort of a lot of repetition of that.
I think, you know, Macron, to me, seems like he thinks he can deal with Putin. But I’m not quite sure. Putin has been through, I think he’s the fourth French president Putin has dealt with. I think Macron was probably still in college when Putin came to power.
And then you just look at the international leaders. I mean, he’s been there. He’s been through four French presidents, four US presidents, five British prime ministers.
So Putin knows how to sort of deal with these people. And I think having a much more coherent, unified Western approach would really be quite helpful as we move into this. And I don’t see that happening yet.
ALINA POLYAKOVA: I think one comment on the French that I forgot to mention–
MELINDA HARING: You have more to say about the French? Oh, my goodness.
ALINA POLYAKOVA: I will just say that there is a domestic political component here. The French right, which Macron constantly has to straddle, has always been– because Paul mentioned Sarkozy– has always had this pro-Russian or soft Russian kind of tilt to it. And I think a lot of what Macron is doing now is also playing into that.
On top of that, we’ve also had the French veto over future accession talks with regards to Albania and North Macedonia for the EU. And that has also now been part of this broader rethinking, strategic rethinking that’s coming, I think, directly from the Élysée. And I think that kind of skepticism about continued EU enlargement is not unwarranted. But when you take all of these things together, meaning the NATO comments, the pro-Russia comments, the veto on accession talks with the Balkans, it’s starting to look deeply, deeply kind of isolationist for France, meaning that I do think it’s isolating France within the EU. And as Paul absolutely correctly said, that very much serves the Russian interest of further driving wedges, especially between France and Germany.
MELINDA HARING: Great. Thank you, Alina. Did you have a comment on France? Because I want to go back to Ukraine.
JONATHAN KATZ: OK, well, no, no. I mean, who can stomp on the French? No, I just want to– I was going to make those two very points about the domestic politics in France, and how, you know, I think a lot of us several years ago were looking very concerned that Marine Le Pen would win. And Macron comes in and sort of breathes life into French politics.
And I think he still is that bulwark. And lest we forget, too, he’s also been one of the few leaders who’s really talked about democracy. Whether the French words match the actions, that’s a different story.
And I one hundred percent believe that the French government and Macron very much understand exactly who Putin is and what he has done. And so there’s a lot of domestic politics. There’s a lot of transatlantic challenges. And I think that that is feeding into this situation where you have a disjointed EU and a disjointed transatlantic relationship which is impacting this.
I would just say on the NATO front, if you look at the NATO summit declaration, for those people who are worried about it– and, of course, the French had a sign-off on that– the door is still open. And that was part of the initial, I think it’s within like the first paragraph of the London Summit Declaration. So, I think the French, despite some of these things, are still there, still in NATO, and still supporting the expansion of NATO in countries like North Macedonia.
MELINDA HARING: Great. Thank you, Jonathan. OK, we’re going to take a break now for Senator Johnson. Please help me welcome him.
RON JOHNSON: (Inaudible). And I apologize for being late. (Inaudible) part of the panel and part of the eventually coming here (Inaudible) and start talking about stuff. And so I’m not quite sure where you’ve been.
(Inaudible). But I understand this topic’s Ukraine.
So, I think I have that.
RON JOHNSON: Pardon?
RON JOHNSON: Sure. Talk loud enough. But this is– now you get to hear me even louder. Because I haven’t been part of this, this may be a little disjointed. But let me try and tell you why, first of all, I think Ukraine is important.
My own background, never been– traveled the world before I ever got in the United States Senate. But I’d never been to Ukraine. So literally it was over Easter in 2011, first congressional delegation I ever went on. Visited Georgia, Ukraine, and then the Baltic states.
And at that point in time, the issues were all about corruption. And Tymoshenko had been released from jail. The whole issue was corruption in terms of the wheat markets within the press.
And you– just taking a look at all those ring nations, you know, the belt between Soviet Union, former Soviet Union, Russia, and now Western democracies, really, the front lines. And all those nations were certainly trying to shed themselves the legacy of corruption, trying to govern properly, follow the rule of law, create the kind of prosperity their nations had the capability of providing for their populations. When you take a look at Ukraine, it should be the breadbasket of Europe, should be incredibly prosperous. But, I mean, that’s the same story across so many different countries of the world. But for decent government, but for the rule of law, but for the respect for individual rights and liberty and a free market system that allows people to aspire, and create, and build, it doesn’t happen.
So as a private-sector guy, you know, I take a look at that, and I go, oh, there’s so much potential there. And we want to support them. Fast forward to the events on the Maidan, which is extraordinary what happened.
And my own interpretation is you had a group of individuals, obviously, that recognized the future, the economic future, obviously lied in the West. You know, Russia offers nothing. And this is a consistent theme whenever I’m in Europe. Russia offers your populations nothing other than destabilization, disruption. Your economic futures lie with the West– again, democracy, freedom, a free market system.
So, you had a group of Ukrainians that obviously wanted to integrate more with the West. And, of course, Putin’s puppet wanted nothing to do with that. Obviously, Putin didn’t want that.
But what created the Maidan– again, this is my telling of the story– is then the young people, who were tired of the lack of prosperity– I mean, you’ve got social media now. Around the world, people look at, well, look at what that country, look at what those people have. Why can’t we have it? And you see that playing out in so many areas of the world. Probably right now Iran, for example.
So, you had young people who wanted what we believe is an unalienable right granted by our creator. They wanted that for themselves. And so, they joined, they combined with the more political part of that. And you end up with the extraordinary events in the Maidan.
I, unfortunately, did not go with John McCain. And Senator Murphy did, and were actually on the Maidan with hundreds of thousands of people at night, in the cold, feeling that pulse of the desire for freedom and liberty. I was there a few months later, when we walked the Maidan after the slaughter, seeing the memorials, seeing the bullet holes in the lampposts.
And so, to me, Ukraine is important, first and foremost, because it’s a modern-day birthing of a nation. I know Ukraine is old. But the new Ukraine is new. And it’s a country that is trying to shed itself of the corrupt legacy of the Soviet Union. It is a country where the people are yearning to breathe free and to take advantage of what prosperity their land, and their nation, and their economy can really provide.
And I think Americans want to support that. It’s 240 years later than our own birthing. But we’ve gone through that. We’re still going through it.
What are the words to the Constitution? “To form a more perfect union.” We’re far away from that. The division in this country is incredibly unfortunate. But we’re still struggling.
Freedom is not easy. It’s hard. So just as a freedom-loving human being, I have a great deal of empathy and sympathy for the citizens, the people of Ukraine that delivered an unbelievable mandate to President Zelenskyy, who I believe is the real deal, complete political neophyte, as I am, as was President Trump. We have an affinity toward that, recognizing the long knives come out very quickly. And there’s very difficult to find anybody you can trust within the political environment.
So here you have a young man who has made the statement. He realized this election was not about me. This election was about the people of Ukraine. This election was about what they desire– a corrupt-free, or certainly a less corrupt nation. And he understands that mandate.
So, to me, Ukraine is important just because of that. I sympathize with freedom-loving people just wanting what everybody in the world basically wants– safety, security, some measure of prosperity, the ability to raise your family in, hopefully, a better country in what– than what you grew up in. Isn’t that what everybody aspires to?
And it’s really, from my standpoint, what America represents. Yes, we have a strong military. And we sometimes need to project that power. But what we primarily need to project is the idea and promise of America.
What this country writes– represents– I always talk about the vision statement in our Declaration of Independence, “we hold these truths to be self-evident,” that these are God- or creator-granted rights. That’s what we need to project. That’s why Ukraine is important.
Now, you throw into that mix the fact that it just happens to be the ground zero in our political competition with a thoroughly corrupt regime that is Russia under Putin, and we can’t allow Russia to become more and more aggressive. And Putin is incredibly opportunistic. And if we don’t help Ukraine, who’s going to? So–
So that’s my primary message. Now, unfortunately, unfortunately this debate has, in some respects, with what President Trump’s concern about providing the military aid, which by the way, he provided the Javelin missiles. They were in place. They deterred further aggression.
I certainly think it’s very unfortunate this debate blew up into the public, where the sausage-making process– in this case, the foreign policy– was fully exposed. It didn’t have to be. It’s not helpful.
There’s a lot of damage being done to our democracy right now because of this exposure. President Trump felt he had to release the transcripts. What world leader is going to feel comfortable being candid with any future American president? We are weakening executive privilege.
I know I’m a member of the Senate. But I have a great deal of respect for the executive branch and the ability for a chief executive, the president of the United States, to get candid advice from his advisers as well. We need to understand the damages being done to our democracy in this process as well.
We were well on our path to completing that sausage-making process, if not within the executive branch– and by the way, when I was in Ukraine with Senator Murphy on September 5, the first thing that President Zelenskyy asked us was, OK, let’s put– set aside the diplomatic talk here. What’s happening with the aid? Because I had just spoken to the president, I laid out what the issues were.
I was unsuccessful getting President Trump to give me the authority to say that the hold has been released. But it was about corruption, and it was about lack of, or insufficient support from the Europeans. That– those are the reasons.
But I– in that same meeting, I said, let’s be unified. Let’s not blow this out of proportion. Let’s not make this a big deal.
The truth of the matter is there are deficit hawks in the administration. I know them. They’re looking at the end of fiscal year.
This money hasn’t been spent. There’s all kinds of money that hasn’t been spent. What can we save?
If– if– President Trump doesn’t release the hold, no big deal. Senator Murphy’s on Appropriations. You know, Congress will remedy this. Few weeks from now, we’ll appropriate the money and not give the executive any option whatsoever.
So, within the executive branch, between the two branches of government, this sausage-making process was being resolved. It ended up being resolved on September 11, OK? Now, again, I know there’s all kinds of controversy. There’s all kinds of the worst possible construction put on everything said.
But coming from a business background– I was in manufacturing– you’re solving problems all the time. The first question I would always ask myself when I confronted a new challenge, a new problem was, is there an opportunity in this? Can something good come out of something bad?
Generally, there is. And I would say in this case– and I’ll conclude my marks– remarks on this point– in this case, although this has not been good, in this case, we can utilize this to convey to the Ukrainian people, first of all, congressional support. I think they realize almost universally within the administration the administration support, and hopefully the American people’s support for the courageous people of Ukraine that stood up against Vladimir Putin and his puppet and yearned to be free. And more than 100 of them lost their lives in that courageous effort.
And as Americans, we should support that time and time and time again, whether it’s in Ukraine, whether it’s in Iran, whether it’s in Hong Kong. That’s who we are. We’re a compassionate nation. That’s how we provide the kind of leadership that I think this world is craving for. Thank you much.
MELINDA HARING: I think that was well put, that the pulse for freedom and liberty is still alive and well. And the fight is still on in Ukraine. And that’s a perfect transition to the domestic picture. We’re going to move from Paris to Kyiv, Ukraine.
So, we’ve heard Senator Murphy and Senator Johnson have both said Volodymyr Zelenskyy is the real deal. I’d like to ask Jonathan and Alina, I want to turn to Jonathan first. Jonathan, do you agree with this assessment? What do you make of him so far?
So, we’ve talked about the platform he was elected on. And he talks a big game on corruption. But he also has done some weird things that aren’t necessarily in line with his talk. He appointed Andriy Bohdan as his chief of staff. And he keeps playing footsie with Ihor Kolomoisky.
At the same time, he has done good things. Activists praise his appointment of Prosecutor-General Ruslan Riaboshapka. How do you understand these contradictions in Zelenskyy?
JONATHAN KATZ: Well, I think you, early on, you mentioned that– the Rada in particular. And let’s step back. President Zelenskyy was elected last spring. A new Rada was elected this summer, took office in September. So, we’re about three months into a new Rada and, really, a new government.
And I think they came out very quickly passing a number of reforms, some that were widely praised, including the lifting of parliamentary immunity. It still needs to go through the legislative process. And I think for many people, yeah, there’s a lot of hope in President Zelenskyy, but more so if you’re looking at the polling numbers, when you look at how the Ukrainian public views what’s taking place and almost in an unprecedented way in terms of support.
So, President Zelenskyy, his promises were both on anti-corruption. He also made a promise on the Donbas. And I think part of the conversation that we’re having here about the Donbas is also about his wanting to ensure that he follows through politically on that promise.
But also, I think in understanding now, I think even with the protests that were mentioned, that it’s a more challenging issue to resolve domestically politically, and let’s not forget that similar type of pressure was put on Mr. Poroshenko as well. And as we all recall, there was a deadly incident in front of the Rada, where people were killed. There was a grenade attack.
It has been– it’s a very difficult domestic political issue, rife with a number of challenges politically amongst different groups. And one of the things I admire, which we really haven’t focused on today, is President Zelenskyy’s efforts in the Donbas, not on necessarily just the resolution of the conflict, but really reaching out to those in the government-controlled, non-government-controlled areas, opening up new bridges, creating people-to-people contact, which means that even if there’s not a deal now– and I associate with Alina. I’m hoping, in this case, a bad deal, you know, is not acceptable. Hopefully, the US and others will be standing with the Ukrainians in the strongest possible way to ensure that a bad deal doesn’t happen.
But I think what he’s doing is laying, I think, a very important groundwork, and laying the groundwork for engagement between those who are on both sides of the Donbas, getting down to the people to people. And I think that’s something that’s been seen. There was a great economic conference held in Mariupol to raise concerns about what’s happening there.
You know, it doesn’t replace the ability to conduct the type of trade they should because of blocked or clogged, or waterways that Russia won’t let Ukrainians, their transportation or economy or trade through. But it’s really important. And I think he should be praised for that. So, he gets high marks right now for doing that.
I think the areas where there are some concerns are what you laid out, which is who is he bringing? Who is he surrounding himself with? And I think we’re all aware of one really sort of major elephant in the room, which is PrivatBank, his relationship with Mr. Kolomoisky, an oligarch.
You mentioned, I think, earlier– someone mentioned earlier when you start to look at the list of things that have an impact on the Ukrainian leader, and this is not the first go-around. I see Ambassador Herbst. You’ve been through various leaderships that promise reforms but then get caught up in the same process again, where you have invested political and economic interests that have ended up, even in the most promising of circumstances, whether it’s the Orange Revolution or post-Maidan. And so, with Mr. Zelenskyy, this is a real opportunity.
Now, the question is whether or not oligarchs will, you know, that are still out there, that haven’t left, that claim that they will reclaim PrivatBank again, like Mr. Kolomoisky, will win the day. And I think that’s the $10 million question. It’s the question that the IMF has been discussing with him.
It’s disconcerting to see the attacks on those of the National Bank of Ukraine. It’s unacceptable. They need to have protection. Those who are responsible should be brought to justice.
And it’s quite clear who is responsible and behind these attacks. And so, Mr. Zelenskyy, I think even over the next couple weeks, filling all the reform legislation that exists, not just in the first passage of the law but in the second passage as well, is going to be critical. He is taking the right steps in a number of areas.
But the proof will be not only in the passage of laws but the implementation. And I have seen, just as someone who oversaw US aid projects back during the Obama administration, we saw many great laws passed, but they were not implemented. New anti-corruption bodies stood up but were blocked from being able to carry out their duty.
And it’s not lost. I think it was Senator Johnson who mentioned seeing the bullet holes in the Maidan. The lack of prosecution of those responsible for the deaths of those during the Maidan is reprehensible. And that needs to be addressed. Or the attacks on civil society where nobody has been brought to justice, unacceptable.
So, there’s a lot of important things that this government– I’m a glass-half-full with Mr. Zelenskyy. But this is– the reforms are not short term. This is a long-term effort.
And just– so I want to add this. And I don’t want to monopolize. The American component to this– and what you’ve done today. And I want to thank you for hosting, and Atlantic Council for leading. And all– everybody who’s participated, all the think tanks, I think it really shows the strong support for Ukraine in Washington.
And I think there would probably be many more organizations who would have loved to place their names in support of this. But the US support is really critical. I’m happy to hear that the senator mentioned that. Maintaining the funding and assistance levels for Ukraine is incredibly important, not just a one-year funding level but multi-years. This will be a multi-year process.
And so, doing that, the US is the second-largest provider of assistance in Ukraine. Maintaining those levels are important. And that’s why, you know, that joint, that bipartisan support, congressional support has been critical, especially if you have executive branch that may seek to cut assistance, not just based on the political moment of Ukraine, but more so on the issue of we don’t believe in foreign assistance. Let’s go– that’s a deeper issue.
But I do think that for Ukraine– and I want to just sort of add this. The US example of rule of law, of democracy, of respect for that is critical. And having the ability to engage the Ukrainians in a voice that backs up what we say is important. And so, I only think that as we have a process in Washington right now– some may agree, some may disagree– it’s so important to actually show Ukrainians and the world that we do have a process that upholds the rule of law, regardless of political party or who’s in charge. And I think if we lead by example, because we are not perfect as a nation, I think that’s really important.
MELINDA HARING: Thanks a lot, Jonathan. In Zelenskyy’s latest interview in TIME magazine, he mentioned that US support for Ukraine is just incredibly important, exactly how you said it, because it affects everyone else. So, I think that’s a really important point.
Alina, what’s your take on Zelenskyy? Is Jonathan right? Are the senators right? Or do you see other– something else?
ALINA POLYAKOVA: No, I mean, I tend to agree what Jonathan laid out. You know, he is still very much an unknown, I think, in his own thinking and view of the world. But we’re learning much more about that, not just in his public commentary in the interviews that he’s doing. But I’ve really found it refreshing that at one point he did this very informal marathon with journalists at a cafe in Kyiv.
And they could just come and ask him questions directly. And I think that was unprecedented. I mean, you can’t really imagine, obviously, any world leader, a president of a country doing that.
MELINDA HARING: Hold on a second. That’s impressive. But he also refuses to talk to the press and only gives interviews– interviews– to people he knows and gives pre-canned Facebook interviews. That’s not real press freedom.
ALINA POLYAKOVA: Well, I’ll let you– this was not a commentary on press freedom.
MELINDA HARING: (Inaudible)
ALINA POLYAKOVA: It was more a commentary on his personality–
MELINDA HARING: Sure, sure, OK.
ALINA POLYAKOVA: –that I can’t imagine any other president doing that. And we can debate whether he’s actually answering the questions or evading them, like many– most politicians do, you know. And to what extent he’s actually out there and having the hard debates, he isn’t in the way that he could be. But I still think it is a reflection of how he thinks about himself in this role. And it’s very different than we’ve seen before in Ukraine. And that was a point that I was trying to make.
I think on the other hand, we’ve seen this huge flurry of activity that you mentioned from the Rada. And Jonathan talked extensively about that. But I think right now Ukraine has the opportunity to really set itself to be on this path to becoming the model country for post-Soviet transition, right?
We– post the era of the Soviet Union ended a long time ago, especially in Ukraine in 1991. But we haven’t had a generational shift until now. I mean, I think we forget that. He is the first leader who doesn’t come from the old guard, right?
And we kind of had the old guard going back and forth for the entirety of Ukraine’s independence. So, I think this is such an opportunity for Ukraine. And I think he embodies that opportunity.
And he will make mistakes. And he has made mistakes. And not everything that Rada has done has been great, as you all know. But they have passed this large anti-corruption package that tries to relaunch some of the institutions that had kind of gone dormant, or were paralyzed, and highly politicized, and blocked from doing their job on investigating and pursuing cases of high-level and political corruption.
(Inaudible) the privatization of state industry– this is huge. It’s huge. And the Rada has passed this.
And we’ll see what happens on land reform. But that would be a huge thing as well that no other Ukrainian government’s been able to get through. So, I think Ukraine has an opportunity to emerge as a model of what a successful post-Soviet transition could look like and get out of this hole that it’s in, in terms of being the poorest country in Europe.
I will just mention that Senator Johnson’s comments were right on, except that Ukraine is unique in terms of its transition to democracy because of the Russian invasion, right? Because it has an active war. I mean, so does Georgia, but we can’t really say that about a huge number of countries across the world. And that is stifling and stymieing its ability to develop and grow, for obvious reasons.
I think lastly, I will just say, to follow on Jonathan’s comment on the bipartisan support for Ukraine and the fact that we have all of these institutions represented here, and we’ve had such great bipartisan participation from members of Congress, I think that needs to be followed up with some action. Like it’s great to have these conversations. But I would really like to see a bipartisan statement renewing the commitment to standing with Ukraine.
At this critical moment, I think that will send a really strong message that despite our politics, the policy is still going in the right direction. And since we are in Congress, I hope that’s a message that those of you who may be staff can relay to your bosses and think through, because that would send the clearest symbolic message. As I think Luke said earlier, symbolism really matters in the world of international relations. And that would be a very, very powerful symbol to get through Congress today.
MELINDA HARING: Fantastic. Thanks, Alina. I think there’s interest in that. And we will definitely be in touch with all the various think tanks to put something very robust together. And we’ll look for your leadership as well.
Jonathan, another question for you. You went to judicial reform. Let’s dig in a little bit there.
Everyone knows it doesn’t matter who you talk to, the courts are the most important reform that affects FDI. It affects– basically, it affects the economic picture. It affects whether people want to stay in Ukraine or leave. That’s– brain drain is another big issue in Ukraine as well.
Now, Zelenskyy has just passed a new judicial bill that– and a package of anti-corruption reforms that Alina mentioned. How good are they? Will these reforms, if they’re implemented– I take your point, if they’re implemented– finally assure investors that their money is safe and deliver impartial justice?
JONATHAN KATZ: Yeah. I think these are all really important steps forward. And if you’re an investor, I think maybe some of the things that you’re most worried about is that– is the implementation part of this, too, and whether or not– you’re going to want to see courts, reform courts. You’re going to want to see the type of judicial reform in the sense of who are the judges.
If you’re looking at laws where they’re not– the prosecutors are able to prosecute in an economic case, that your money that you’re investing in Ukraine is safe. And so, if I was an investor, Ukraine is incredibly promising, I think as somebody mentioned, with both human resources, natural resources as well. But you’re still concerned about whether or not the reforms that are being passed.
So, like if we’re, you know, if we’re using football analogies, we’re getting 20-yard line. You’ve got a lot of ways to go. And I know that, for example, Georgia is a good example of a country that has spent a lot of time looking at the World’s Bank ease of doing business and addressing the different criteria in that, and then moving significantly down, in fact, as a space for countries to do business.
And I know that as part of what the Ukrainian government is looking to do right now. But you still see in certain areas like agriculture, you still see vested interests pushing back. The thing I’m more concerned about goes back to PrivatBank, which is even if you are critical of Poroshenko, one thing in his government, one thing that they worked to do was to address the challenges in the banking sector and what the corruption. And sort of basically, either, you know, they either took over certain banks or those that were sort of ended.
And I think the stability in the banking sector is particularly important for Ukraine. It was a success. And that’s why I brought up PrivatBank, which is some thought or idea that Mr. Kolomoisky would then return as the owner of PrivatBank after, one, using it for his own interests, two, bilking Ukrainians out of billions of dollars. And then to receive it back after that bank was bailed out by international partners on top of that, to me, is the ultimate in hutzpah, which I know Mr. Kolomoisky knows about.
And so I would just hope that when you start thinking about judicial reform, we also look at sectoral reforms, energy-sector reforms, agriculture as well, and just to make certain that the United States and international partners, even if as distracted as they are, are really holding these conditionalities to bear when it comes to these things, because Ukraine’s economy is still fragile. And we all remember what it was like in 2014, for those of us who worked on the macroeconomic account of engagement with Ukraine. The economy was on the verge of collapse.
The international community came in. And there were certain conditionality that Ukraine had to fulfill. And one of them was to address the banking sector problems in the banking sector to fix those. And so, any hint of that going in the wrong direction is it going to be a bad signal to investors and to Ukraine’s international partners.
And it could– it has an impact not only just economically, but on Euro-Atlantic track as well, because it’s the fundamental of upholding rule of law. And it will be, I think, the quintessential issue for Mr. Zelenskyy, who has a relationship with Mr. Kolomoisky if he remains strong on this. And I think if he’s truly a servant of the people, then he’ll hold firm.
MELINDA HARING: OK. All of that’s true, Jonathan. But is Zelenskyy going to cut a deal with Kolomoisky over PrivatBank?
How does he– how does he get out of this?
JONATHAN KATZ: He holds firm. He holds firm. I think his international partners are saying, don’t do this. I think it’s quite clear what he has to do.
And I remember the hemming and hawing, too, of what took place in the previous government on PrivatBank, too. It took a lot of effort to get Ukraine to where it is. That’s why a distracted United States, a distracted EU, distracted partners of Ukraine is not good, because right now the pressure needs to be there at the highest level of the US government on Zelenskyy not to do this. But there also has to be support in return.
And the things that worry me is Zelenskyy saying, I don’t trust anybody in the international community. I don’t trust the United States. I don’t trust the French. I don’t– you know.
So, we need to work at rebuilding that trust with him as well. But part of that will be how do we support the economic growth going forward? There’s a number of different ways the US can do that.
Whether new macroeconomic support would be needed as part of a IMF package, whether we’re talking about trade, enhancing trade and cooperation through various means, the US has other tools. And we should be looking at those tools, even as we’re looking at these ideas of how to support Ukraine. I would go further than a resolution. I do think that another type of Ukraine support act, building on the initial– taking the initial funding levels that are there, taking into account all the progress that’s been made in various sectors, and retooling it to a Ukraine in 2019-2020, versus to what Ukraine looked like in 2014.
MELINDA HARING: Jonathan, I take your point. I think it’s harder– it’s easier said than done. And if Zelenskyy says, to hell with Kolomoisky, he’s going to get blasted, and we’ve got local elections coming up. I mean, I think you’re right fundamentally. But there is definitely a political calculation there.
JONATHAN KATZ: But I would just say that even a deal that provides some type of monetary relief– and people say that Kolomoisky will never go for anything but full return– to me, is, I would think, for the Ukrainian public would be a sell-out. How can you, you know, handing more money over to somebody who already took billions seems to me to be almost criminal. And so I think, I can’t speak for Mr. Zelenskyy. It’s a tough situation. But stick to his guns and recognize that when you make tough political decisions, there’s going to be some fallout.
And eventually, at some point I understood that they– Mr. Zelenskyy had a certain honeymoon period in which he wanted to move legislation forward. But none of these things, he can’t predict all the things that will happen. He couldn’t predict the things that have happened over the last couple of months. And it’s about him maturing in this position and taking some tough decisions.
MELINDA HARING: Sure. And his numbers are actually starting to slide now. We’re starting to see the end of that honeymoon. Paul, I think you wanted to jump in on Zelenskyy. And turn on your microphone, please.
PAUL STRONSKI: Yeah. And that one thing that I was mentioning is I would agree with Jonathan. I mean, I think he needs to stick to his guns because his numbers have been very high. He’s had legitimacy, and he’s only going to lose that legitimacy over time. And so, the sooner he does this, and the sooner he deals with, you know, tries to address Kolomoisky, it’s going to mess up the entire sort of shady political system that’s behind the official political system. But I do think that that needs to be done, or else it will be too late.
And I think there is a history of, in Ukraine, and I think we have somebody who’s got tremendous personal legitimacy right now. He’s got tremendous legitimacy in the Rada. He’s got a lot of power still. And so now is that time to really try to deal with it. And I think now is the time where the United States, our European partners, but I think the United States across the board, in the administration, in Congress, really need to sort of make that very clear in any way it has.
And then the second bit, I think we do need to recommend– recognize that he does have a lot of time now. But he really does need to get to work. And another bit is not just curbing corruption, but people want a better life.
And so, things like agricultural reform might help give some better lives. And there’s a whole bunch of other things– improving services, you know, making local governments more accountable. All of these types of things that are there are things that he really needs to work on.
And he’s got strong partners right now in Ukrainian civil society. It’s one of the most impressive civil societies I’ve seen in the former Soviet Union, the former Soviet space right now. It’s a model.
I go to Ukraine. I’ve gone to Kazakhstan. They all look at what’s happened in Ukraine over the past 10 years and see that as where they want to go.
And so, I think, you know, he’s got a lot going for him. But I think he needs to use his legitimacy and be aware that he’s going to take some hits, and his polls are going to go down. But if he’s successful, it’ll be good for him, and it’ll be good for Ukraine in the long term.
MELINDA HARING: Thanks, Paul. Luke and Glen, did you want to weigh in on Zelenskyy at all? No, OK, great.
GLEN HOWARD: I– getting back to the United States and the Paris meeting, I think that whatever Putin’s strategy is, the role of the United States here is we faced a very large setback with the loss of Kurt Volker. And Kurt’s presence is something they call strategic mentorship. And Kurt was trying to instill in the Ukrainian government and in Zelenskyy, I think he, to great effect, he stiffened their spine.
And I think that with the loss of Kurt that we have to find a way to keep stiffening Zelenskyy’s spine with some type of influence. Now, what I would be looking for is somewhere along the lines in the next day or two before the Paris meeting, but is to have a phone call from Pence to kind of, you know, encourage Zelenskyy, and show US support, or Pompeo. And I think that would go a great– go a great way in helping kind of to deal with the Macron factor, and letting these meetings not sensibly become just the Macron show.
But I’m also more worried about Putin’s salami tactics, because with each meeting and each phase of them– of Ukraine accepting the Steinmeier formula in some form, some shape is leading, what I fear, is leading from one meeting to the next, with each step kind of further re-endorsing, re-reentering the whole concept of direct negotiations with Donbas, which is Putin’s endgame. Now, we don’t know what’s going to come out of the meetings. But even if we don’t see anything, and there’s going to be another round of meetings, it’s, again, it’s progress in the effort of trying to create the impression that Russia is slowly agreeing as it– to a rapprochement with Ukraine, that some type of end deal is underway.
We saw the return of the Gyurza gunboats that were given back to Ukraine recently. That got a lot of visibility and publicity in Europe. So that’s what really is worrying me and wondering what’s going to come out of the big “what if” of the meetings in Paris, and what is going to be the future US role in this, because we do play a role. And when our role is to either clone Kurt or find somebody close to him.
And so, we’ve got Ambassador Herbst over here. I’ll– he gets–
MELINDA HARING: He’s busy, sorry. We need him.
GLEN HOWARD: He gets my vote. But we have to find someone of Kurt’s stature. And that’s, you know, to really help Ukraine and mentor them, and in this process, because we’ve got to play a role. And that’s what worries me a lot. So, I’ll end on that note.
MELINDA HARING: Thank you. That’s an excellent way to conclude this. So I’d like to just go through the panel to summarize what you said. So ,a call from Pence would be helpful, Hellfire missiles, a new Ukraine support act, and looking at the assistance figures, and an attitude of tough love and mentorship, and a new Kurt Volker. Is there anything else on the list, that you guys would want to put on the list for Congress to consider?
PAUL STRONSKI: Just one other thing. I mean, we haven’t– when we talk about Ukraine, we talk about politics. We talk about geopolitics. But sometimes we forget the human costs of what’s going on in Ukraine, the tremendous number of people who have been killed, the tremendous number of people who have been displaced, and the tremendous number of people who experience extreme hardship.
And I think as we have these conversations about geopolitics, Putin, you know, what we can do, I think we also need to remember that there is a horrific situation going on in those communities. And we need to make sure that we can help those communities, in addition to sort of the bigger picture as well.
MELINDA HARING: Terrific. Thank you. Go ahead, Luke.
LUKE COFFEY: Yeah, I would say patience. The reforms we’re seeing in Ukraine are a generational– will be a generational change. It’s going to take time.
Reforming your economy, your system of governance, your military, your security services, your courts, all while fighting a war is kind of like building a boat while you’re already out at sea. And we need to understand that Ukraine is going to face many challenges along the way. And we should encourage them, but we shouldn’t expect things to just improve overnight, however frustrating that might be for us.
MELINDA HARING: I’m not sure how to quantify patience, but I’ve added it to the list. Alina, Jonathan, Glen, anything else?
ALINA POLYAKOVA: Well, I think if we get all of the things on that list, that would be amazing. So, I would just double down on that. But I think on the other hand, you know, it’s so critically important.
I was mentioning earlier in more opaque and less direct terms than Glen about US presence, and US coordination with our allies and Ukrainians and the Russians. And that’s exactly what we lost with the loss of a special envoy. And, of course, that channel was maintained in the previous administration as well by Victoria Nuland, and that was then passed on to Kurt, more or less, to Ambassador Volker. And I think this is going to be a very difficult position to fill, unfortunately. But someone has to have that portfolio because otherwise, Ukraine is sort of left rudderless, I think, in a very increasingly problematic geopolitical negotiating environment that we’re going to see unfold in just a couple of days.
MELINDA HARING: Jonathan.
JONATHAN KATZ: No, I just– more of this, more of the bipartisan focus. I think it will require a real effort to keep people focused on the issues versus the political, you know, sort of whirlwinds all around. And I think if you do that, then that will probably– to me, is the most helpful thing to do is just to get people back on track, focusing on the issues, focusing on how to work with partners like Ukraine.
Thinking out of the box on the congressional side, I think, is helpful, because if you have a marker that you can set as to what Congress wants to see happen or the administration over a number of years, that’s going to be most helpful to establishing the baselines. I want to think about Ukraine 2025 as a vibrant democracy, well on its way to NATO membership or the EU, and the United States central to the engagement, the same type of engagement that was critical to putting sanctions in place, that’s been critical before, and in a number of diplomatic settings. That’s where you need to get back to.
And not many people mentioned sanctions here. But that’s also one area where looking at the sanctions related to the Donbas, taking a look at those related to Russia. Please remember Crimea in this process as well. Sometimes you see Normandy, and it’s almost as if the Crimea situation doesn’t really exist in the diplomatic conversations.
But I think it’s incredibly important because that was precedent-setting, illegal, and it has to be at the front of the conversation, despite what certain people may feel as to Russia’s position. So please keep that on there. Please keep Crimea on the list of things to focus on. But more of the same of this. And thank you to the Atlantic Council for your leadership in pulling this together, and the congressional support as well.
MELINDA HARING: Now it’s my time to say thank you for being a wonderful audience. And I’d like to thank all of our partners, the American Enterprise Institute, the American Foreign Policy Council, Brookings, Carnegie, Heritage, CEPA, CSIS, GMF, and Jamestown Foundation. Thank you all so much.
Let’s continue to focus on Ukraine as it is and continue to push. It’s a fantastic country, and it can be even more fantastic. Thank you so much for your attendance today.