November 28, 2018
THE ATLANTIC COUNCIL OF THE UNITED STATES
Members and Press Call: Escalating Tensions Between Ukraine and Russia
Ambassador John E. Herbst
Director, Eurasia Center, Atlantic Council
Ambassador Daniel Fried
Distinguished Fellow, Eurasia Center and Future Europe Initiative, Atlantic Council
Moderator: Geysha Gonzalez
Deputy Director, Eurasia Center, Atlantic Council
November 26, 2018
11:00 a.m. ET

Geysha Gonzalez: Good morning everyone, my name is Geysha Gonzalez and I’m the deputy director of the Eurasia Center here at the Atlantic Council.  Yesterday Russia fired on the Ukrainian Navy in the Black Sea, injuring at least three Ukrainian soldiers.

We’ve seen the tensions in the Sea of Azov for a really long time, at least since 2003.  And the escalations this weekend, between yesterday and today, have led to quite a bit of discussion about what the U.S., NATO and Europe should do about this conflict and Russian aggression in Ukraine.

It is my pleasure to introduce Ambassador John Herbst, who is the director of the Eurasia Center and the former ambassador of Ukraine to really lay -- give us a bit of a background about what this conflict is, what has been going on, and then take us all the way to what happened yesterday.

So, Ambassador Herbst, if you could kick us off.

John Herbst: All right, if you want to go back to 2003, you’re going back to efforts by the Kremlin to take control -- or to change the flow of water through the straits of Kerch by building a dam out from their sides of the straits of Kerch.
This crisis took place in the fall of 2003, and eventually led to negotiations, which turned the -- by agreement of Ukraine and Russia, turned the Sea of Azov into an internal sea of the two countries, not international waters.

And that’s the background -- that’s part of the background to the crisis that began yesterday.  The second point of reference for yesterday’s crisis, of course, is Moscow’s war on Ukraine that began with the seizure of Crimea in February of 2014, and then Moscow’s undeclared covert war on Ukraine in Donbass, which continues to this day. 

In April of this year, the Kremlin began a new line of action.  They began under the treaty that was concluded in 2003, 2004, between Ukraine and Russia to inspect ships going to and from the Ukrainian ports of Berdyansk and Mariupol.

Under the agreement, both Ukraine and Russia have the right to inspect ships.  So, that is not a violation of international law.  But the purpose of the Kremlin inspections has been to harass, slow down shipping to and from Ukrainian ports in Donbass.

And Donbass of course is the area where Moscow’s conducting this covert, or not so covert, hybrid war.  As a result of the Kremlin inspections, shipping from Mariupol and Berdyansk has dropped by two thirds, which is a major increase of cost for Ukraine’s economy in Donbass, increasing the cost of Moscow’s war on Ukraine.

But what happened on Sunday is now a new escalation on the Azov front.  What happened was three Ukrainian boats, naval vessels, one a tug boat, two small warships were approaching the straits of Kerch in order to enter the Sea of Azov.

It’s my understanding based upon good information here in Kyiv -- I’m in Ukraine, I’ve been here since Saturday -- that the ships notified Russian authorities at the straits of their desire to pass through, but they only notified them on November 25th, the day of the incident, not earlier than that.

The Russians did not grant permission and instead you have the events that follow, the events meaning first Russian naval vessels rammed the tugboat and then they opened fire on the Ukrainian warships.

This all took place in international waters of the Black Sea, approaching the straits of Kerch.  All as a result of Russian attack, I believe there are six Ukrainian sailors who were wounded.

The Russians then seized the vessels, all three are now in Russian custody as are 23 Ukrainian sailors.  Why did Moscow do this?  At a minimum, they were trying to prevent Ukraine from increasing its naval presence in the Sea of Azov.

Russia has greatly increased its presence in the Sea of Azov since they began the inspections in April.  They now have eight ships or eight boats, not -- some of them are rather small, but all military in the Sea of Azov.  They didn’t want Ukraine’s two additional small warships to enter. 

Two, they were clearly trying to provoke Ukraine into firing.  What Moscow was seeking was a justification for them to employ their navy against Ukraine.

This is very similar to what they did with Georgia.  They tried to provoke Georgia for years after Saakashvili became president, provoked Georgia by occasional missiles landing in Georgian territory, many, many over flights of Russian military planes, occasional bombs landing in Georgian territories.

And then of course ceasefire violations from Russian occupied territory of Georgia like southern Ossetia, all of which provoked some Georgian military action, which led to Russia’s war on Georgia in 2008.

They were trying to repeat that scenario, but Ukraine did not follow this scenario so therefore they attacked Ukrainian ships.  What they are trying to achieve now is, having undertaken this new form of aggression, they’re trying to get away with it without any international reaction.

And that’s -- I can explain that further, but I think I’ve probably spoken enough for the moment and happy now to take questions.

Gonzalez: Ambassador Herbst, I will ask the first question, while we encourage the participants to start getting in the queue should they want to ask a question during this call.

But I -- my question is more about the timing.  Why did Putin choose this time to increase aggression ahead of the G20 meeting, that’s -- what is -- what about the timing?

Herbst: I think -- I think the timing of this incident is actually related to Ukrainian decisions in the first instance, meaning again, Moscow has increased -- Moscow has increased its presence in the Sea of Azov, so they have a major, major military advantage.

And they wanted to maintain that very large advantage and prevent Ukrainian ships from entering.  Now having said that, clearly the Kremlin had plans for what to do if Ukrainian ships tried to enter.

Those plans presumably were not hatched on Sunday, they were developed months before.  Because again, Moscow has been cultivating this crisis since April.  And for sure, for Russian ships, even coast guard ships under FSB control to fire on the Ukrainian Navy would require high level clearance from Moscow, and I presume the president of Russia’s involved since he is a micro manager, especially when it comes to national security matters.

Having said that, the timing was actually not bad for the Kremlin.  You mentioned of course the G20 summit is coming up; that’s not ideal.  On the other hand, it was Sunday of the Thanksgiving weekend in the United States and the government pretty much shuts down on Thanksgiving weekend.

And of course, Europe is consumed by the Brexit crisis.  So, Moscow prefers to commit its aggression when the world’s not paying attention.  This was true back in Soviet days when the Russians invaded Hungary in 1956 because the world was occupied by the Suez Crisis.

So, we’ve seen this story before.  But again, the specific incident was a result of the tactical decision by Ukraine to increase its naval presence in the Sea of Azov.

Gonzalez: Wonderful, thank you, Ambassador Herbst.  We’re ready to take questions.

Question: We’re hearing from a number of people in Kyiv and elsewhere in Ukraine some suspicion that indeed President Poroshenko did time this incident to what he thought might be his advantage in order to win electoral support and possibly even to provoke a crisis in which he could declare martial law.

What do you think of that kind of theory about the events?

Herbst: I think that there is an unfortunate tendency in Ukraine -- and not just in Ukraine, for politicians to play political games with national security issues.  But I don’t think that’s what has provoked this crisis.

Poroshenko had nothing to do with the fact that Moscow began to, quote unquote “inspect” Ukrainian ships.  Poroshenko had nothing to do with the fact that these inspections have caused shipping from Mariupol and Berdyansk to drop by two-thirds with all the intended economic damage that results from that.

And Poroshenko is also -- has been criticized by many politicians over the past four years for not declaring martial law, because Russia is conducting a war against Ukraine that began when they -- when Russia seized Crimea in February of 2014.

So, what’s happened is all about Kremlin aggression.  I can understand why politicians want to improve their advantage vis-à-vis other politicians, but that’s really not what’s going on here.  What’s going on here is an escalation of Moscow’s aggression against Ukraine.

Question: Thank you.  Ambassador, I would like to ask what can be requested from the United States which could be a real support for Ukraine and real measures that can be undertaken right now, whether there is something that can be requested from the Congress, from the administration, from the Pentagon?  What would be your advice?

Herbst: First, let me make the following point.  What’s happened over the past 36 hours is a significant Kremlin escalation.  Because before, Moscow always denied in real time its hand against Ukraine, right?  So, the little green men who seized Crimea were not Russia soldiers.  Only months later did Putin say, “Oh yes, they were soldiers.”

To this day, Moscow has denied that it -- thousands of its officers and its military equipment are active in the war against Ukraine in Donbass.  Here, you know again, in the light of day, Russian naval vessels attacked Ukrainian vessels unprovoked.  Unprovoked.

So, Moscow has just demonstrated that it will attack Ukraine with its conventional forces.  Therefore, it’s very, very important for the United States and its allies in NATO, and for that matter, for the E.U. to demonstrate to Moscow that such behavior is unacceptable.

And we should be looking at a variety of measures to punish the Kremlin for this new, more dangerous form of aggression.  I think we should be looking at additional sanctions.  It could be sanctions on a major Russian bank like VTB or like Sberbank.

We should be considering giving Ukraine additional military equipment.  I would strongly support providing surface-to-ship missiles.  The Trump administration bravely and correctly made a decision to send javelins which kill tanks.

Well, now that Russia has expanded the war to the Sea of Azov, we should provide a similar capability that can destroy ships.

Now that Russian conventional forces have publicly attacked Ukrainian forces, we should also consider giving surface-to-air missiles, right?  They’ve not used their navy.  Maybe they’ll next use their air force.  Let’s make them pay -- excuse me.  Let’s provide weapons that make it less likely that the Kremlin will use its air force to attack Ukraine. 

So, these are two types of things we could do -- sanctions and weapons -- but I also think that NATO should look at increasing naval patrols in the Black Sea.  A greater NATO naval presence off Russian shores in the Black Sea would demonstrate that Kremlin aggression has, in fact, reduced Russian security.

If we can demonstrate that via package of NATO deployments, sanctions, and weapons, we reduce the possibility of escalating Kremlin aggression.  We know there are many in Moscow who understand that Putin’s war in Ukraine is bad for Russia.  We need to help drive that lesson home.

Question: Yes, to follow up on the military equipment, if Ukraine will pass martial law today, they say it will be passed for 30 days, not for 60 like it was contemplated yesterday.

Herbst: Right.

Question: The military assistance is not allowed for the country, which would pass martial law.  What would be the way around that or what would be your advice on this matter?

Herbst: Well, I don’t think that martial law is an unreasonable step depending upon what its provisions are.  I believe that the Rada -- Ukraine’s parliament -- passed the law a few years ago describing the possible elements of martial law.

Martial law which does not impinge upon elections -- would not delay Ukraine’s elections, martial law that does not get in the way of political demonstrations, martial law which enables Ukraine to better concentrate its resources to defend itself against aggression from the world’s second most powerful military, meaning Russia -- that’s not unreasonable.

So, we need to see what the provisions of martial law if and how its passed look like.  If those provisions are not unreasonable, again, given the fact that Ukraine is facing aggression from a much larger power, we should find ways to support Ukraine even with martial law.

Question: So, I’d like you to expand on two topics.  The first is the region on the north coast of the Sea of Azov east of Crimea.  The two ports, Mariupol and Berdyansk, are heavily dependent on their exports and on the steel industry.  Should those ports shut down, a majority of the population would very quickly be out of work.

If you could run through the scenario regionally, how that destabilizes that critically important piece of geography.  And the second part -- when you talked about sanctions -- perhaps you might talk to the potential for port embargos on Rostov-on-Don, which is a relatively small port.  But most of what gets shipped there can be transshipped to Novorossiysk in the Black Sea, which is a very significant port.

So, a shipping embargo, not per se a blockade, but ships that dock and companies that bring ships in and out of those ports would be frozen out of western ports.

John Herbst: I agree with just about everything you’ve said.  Sanctions on Russian shipping is one possibility.  Forbidding any Russian ships to enter EU or US ports might be one step.  Forbidding any international shipping that stops at – I would say it would have to be Russian proxy as well as Sea of Azov ports could be another measure.

All of these things should be considered.  I mean, they need to be considered carefully to look at all the possible ramifications.  But again, a price must be imposed on Moscow for escalating its aggression to discourage them from escalating further, because I can tell you right now what the Russian game is.

They had tried to provoke Ukraine into taking military action so then they could deliver a truly punishing military blow with their own forces.  They failed with that.  So, what they’re trying now is to say to the world, “Oh, nothing’s going on here folks.  What happened, happened, and we want things to calm down.  It’s those crazy Ukrainians who are trying to provoke things.”

If they get away with that, and if weak-kneed politicians, especially in Europe, accept that logic, then Moscow has just raised the level of aggression and paid no price, which means that Mr. Putin can perhaps consider using air power next time as I’ve already described, because he demonstrated once again that the west can be galled into saying, “OK, the Russian’s misbehaved a little bit.  No big deal.”

We have to make sure that it is a big deal so that the voices in Moscow that say, “Maybe what we’re doing to Ukraine is not good for Russia,” become stronger.

Question: Would you like to speak a little bit more in terms of the economic impact on the region just to the east of Crimea towards the Russian line of contact?

Herbst: The drop in shipping has already had an economic cost.  I can’t tell you what it is in terms of GDP or in terms of increased unemployment in especially Mariupol, but it’s real.

Beyond that, it’s hard to say.  I mean, Ukraine has borne the cost of this war reasonably well.  I mean, there are 1.5 million internally displaced people in Ukraine, which is an enormous economic cost in addition to the actual cost of the war in terms of funding the military, taking care of disabled veterans.

 But there’s another political element here that’s worth discussing, and, of course, that is that it’s the east of Ukraine where you have a greater concentration of ethnic Russians and of Ukrainians who in the past looked more favorably towards Moscow who are suffering as a result of this.

It seems to me that this will further increase their alienation from Moscow, a process that began four and a half years ago when Moscow began the war in Donbass.  And it raised a peculiar challenge for those politicians in the east or those politicians in Ukraine who represented peoples of the east, especially for the Opposition Bloc and for the party Za Zhitya.

I think it would be very useful for Ukrainian media, for that matter for national media, to be seeking the opinions of Mr. Boyko, who heads the Opposition Bloc, regarding Moscow’s latest aggression. 

Question: Hello.  Thank you for putting this together.  I’d just like to ask what type of response you’d expect from the US president.  Trump was very critical of how Obama handled the Crimea situation, and if we could just talk about how this is alike, not alike, and what you’d hope to see out of his response.  And if you’re willing to, then what you expect to see as well.

Herbst: This is, again, a new -- this is further escalation by the Kremlin.  Yesterday there was no U.S. government statement, which is unfortunate, but it was Thanksgiving Sunday and that can explain it.  My understanding is that I think as we speak, Nikki Haley is laying out the US position at the UN.  So maybe after the call we’ll see some news stories on this, or maybe (people can Google) news stories now.  Regarding US policy on Ukraine and US policy on Russia, we have seen under the Trump administration a stronger, more realistic policy. 

So, Obama, while he was pretty good on sanctions and he provided some military equipment to Ukraine, he refused to send javelins.  He thought that was provocative.  Obama was wrong.  Trump made the decision to send javelins and he deserves praise for that.  Of course, President Trump’s own statements on Russia have been peculiar, to use a somewhat diplomatic word.  But his administration’s policies have been tough.  And that’s good.  So, I expect that we will see a strong US government reaction to this latest form of Kremlin aggression, although it may take a little bit more time than I would like.  But I think it will be pretty good. 

Question: Hey, John.  Thank you very much for having this call.  Look, John, I know it’s hard to predict where this may go, but if you’re looking at the various scenarios as to how this unfolds, assuming -- OK, the aggression has been fixed and the Western governments know about it and have done their own intelligence to confirm the Ukraine side of the story, and also you’ve got the 30 days of martial law, assuming that that’s happening.  Where does this go over the next 30, 60, 90 days?  I know it’s very hard to predict, but I’m sure you’re already thinking through what the various scenarios may be. 

Herbst: I mean we can’t be certain what happens next.  I’ve already described what I think the Kremlin was up to.  They were truly hoping to get Ukraine shooting so then they can launch a much larger military strike.  So, that failed.  So now, the Kremlin is in a “reduce the possible damage to Russia” mode.  So, they’re saying “Oh, nothing really going on here, folks.  It’s those crazy Ukrainians trying to provoke us and we’re not going to be provoked, so you can all calm down now.  In fact, we hope you calm down Ukraine.”  And if Moscow is able to sell this to the West, then the chances of further Russian escalation go way up.

So, maybe there’ll be a repeat of this at sea or maybe they’ll do something in the air.  Or maybe they’ll turn to land and do something a little bit more provocative than what they’ve been doing for the past six or eight months.  But if the West puts down some serious new sanctions, then suddenly what seemed to be a Kremlin tactical victory becomes a strategic defeat.  And again, I think it’s in the great interest, the overwhelming interest, of the United States and even more of European countries, who are, after all, Russia’s neighbors, to give Putin that defeat, to increase, again, the arguments that people in Moscow who understand the dangers of Russian foreign policy, to give their arguments greater force. 

Gonzalez: Thank you, Ambassador Herbst.  Before we continue with the questions we have Ambassador Fried -- Dan Fried on the line.  Ambassador Fried, would you like to add any comments?   

Dan Fried: OK.  In addition to what John Herbst laid out -- and I’m in agreement with him -- the West in general, the United States in particular, does have sanctions options in this situation.  We don’t have to invent those from scratch.  Way back in the end of the Obama administration, we -- the US and the Europeans -- understood that Russia might escalate somewhere in Ukraine.  And a scenario around Mariupol, the port of the Sea of Azov, was one of the scenarios. 

If the Russians back off now -- which is what we want -- and deescalate and allow Ukrainian ships to have access to Mariupol, well OK.  But in the more likely event that they do not, there are sanctions options available.  The Trump administration officials handling this issue are well aware of the import.  They’re now -- my sense of it from some conversations this morning is that they want to see whether they can deescalate the situation, but they’re prepared for the more likely scenario that those efforts will fail.

And though I won’t dare to predict anything the Trump administration does with respect to Russia, sanctions options are available, and they are reasonable ones that could be put into effect.  We need to think it through before we act, because you want those sanctions options to be painful enough to do, as John said, turn a Russian tactical victory into a strategic defeat.  But also, of a scale that means they can actually be used and implemented.  And hopefully, best case scenario, the Europeans would join us. 

So, I don’t think it’s the time immediately to impose sanctions, but it is the time immediately to start thinking through the options and making clear to the Russians that those options exist, and that the West is united in defending Ukraine and deploying sanctions if needs be.  So, that’s just really a footnote to what John said based on some of the conversations I’ve had this morning here in Washington. 

Question: Yes, thank you for taking a second question.  One of our reporters says that at about the same time as the naval engagement, someone hacked the website of the Ukrainian defense ministry.  Is this taken to be part of a multi-faceted hybrid war?  Can we say that this was part of this coordinated effort or does it seem to be something else? 

Herbst: It’s certainly part of a multi-faceted hybrid war.  Whether that specific attack was timed to the naval engagement, we just don’t know.  It’s a plausible hypothesis but we just don’t have the evidence at this point.  We may over time. 

Question: Hi, John.  Thanks very much.  Pretty good to talk with you.  You used the analogy of Georgia, but in that instance the Russians had a battle-trained army from Chechnya available in North Ossetia and had clearly war-gamed this out, as Putin later acknowledge, ahead of time.  What I wanted to ask -- there are two questions.  Was there any evidence of any similar Russian military build-up, in other words, in preparation for this?  You talked about delivering a more damaging blow to Ukraine, but what might that have been?  And secondly, is there any indication of increased fighting in the separatist areas on the part of the rebels? 

Herbst: On the first point.  What happened in Georgia in 2008 and what’s going on right now -- what happened near the Straits of Kerch yesterday are things of quite different orders of magnitude.  But the dynamic is similar.  You mentioned that the Russians had built up forces in Northern Ossetia prior to the engagements there.  Well, in the Sea of Azov, the Kremlin also greatly enhanced its forces since they began the inspections seven months ago. 

And if in fact Ukraine had fired on the Russian ships, I think there’s at least a good chance that the Kremlin would have sunk all the Ukrainian vessels.  And I would not rule out that they had plans to take additional action against Ukraine’s navy.  What I just said is speculative but not unreasonable. 

What Moscow has achieved thus far is a tactical victory in the form of embarrassing Ukraine, injuring its soldiers, holding on to the ships.  And if -- given the fact that Ukraine has been very, very cautious -- well, that's not a bad day's work for Mr. Putin.  And again, it's completely -- it's unimaginable that the sailors near the Straits of Kerch, the Russian sailors, would have fired without this being cleared way up the chain to either Mr. Putin himself or someone very close to him.

Question: I agree on that.  How about in Donbass now?

Herbst: I am unaware of any increase in firings yesterday.  There were -- there have been ups and downs over the past six or eight months -- as there have been, for that matter, over the past four and a half years since the great Russian adventure began in April of 2014.  But this does not look like an effort by Moscow across the board to escalate.  But they certainly re-escalated at sea.

And escalated not just at sea, but by making clear that Russian forces engaged Ukrainian forces.  That's the dangerous point.  And if the West doesn't respond to that, the chance of this being repeated at a greater level of magnitude goes up.

Question: Good morning.  Thank you very much indeed.  And I apologize if somebody's already asked some of these questions.

Anyway, do -- there's two questions -- the fact that this occurred over the Thanksgiving weekend, do we think, or do you think it's a coincidence, considering that the Kremlin has a past record of acting when they think that the West is on vacation?  Prominently, Afghanistan, Christmas 1979, Georgia, the opening of the Olympics in 2008.  So, is this further evidence that this was a carefully prepared trap to get the Ukrainians shooting and provide a pretext for a wider accent to snatch more territory, perhaps? 

And the second question is, because this is flouting so many maritime laws, is there, do you think, a possibility that Western countries would be prepared to provide naval escorts not for the Ukrainian navy ships, but just for international shipping that's trying to make its legitimate way towards the Ukrainian ports of Mariupol and Beryansk in the Azov Sea?

Thank you.

Herbst: OK, the first question was covered before, but just to briefly repeat, this crisis -- clearly the Russians were prepared to act as they had.  It had to have been cleared at high levels in Moscow, but the actual timing was driven by the fact that the Ukrainians were trying to increase their naval presence in the Sea of Azov at this point in time.  For Moscow, it was convenient that this could occur at a time when, again, Washington was on vacation, and Europe was consumed by Brexit. 

Regarding your second question, under the agreement that Moscow and Ukraine concluded either in late 2003, early 2004, the Sea of Azov is considered internal waters to the two countries, which gives either country the right to bar the presence of other actors.  And Moscow, as I understand it under the terms of that treaty, could say no to naval escort for merchant ships in the Sea of Azov -- non-Ukrainian naval escorts.

Moscow has no weight under that treaty to deny Ukraine the right to have its navy in the Sea of Azov, which is one more reason why their attack on Ukrainian ships was a violation of law. 

Question: Hi.  Thanks so much for doing this call.

And my apologies if this has come up earlier, but I'm wondering if you could comment on the silence from the administration.  And the EU, Canada, any number of lawmakers have commented and condemned, but apart from one completely dry tweet from Nikki Haley about the Security Council this morning and a quizzical tweet from Kurt Volker, we haven't heard anything from a senior administration official.  And I would just love your perspective on that.

Herbst: First, I had heard, but maybe what I had heard was wrong, that Nikki Haley was going to be doing a -- some sort of press event around this time.  I don't know if that's true, but I ...

Question: ... she did -- she made an opening statement at the Security Council, but Nikki Haley's an outgoing UN ambassador.  She's not the Secretary of State.  She is cabinet-level, but she’s outgoing.

Herbst: If she made a strong statement, I think that probably covers the administration.  Although having said that, I don't disagree that having a senior official whom we expect to see in office six months from now would be better.  But still, that's not -- that's not bad at all.

But the larger point is this, we all know that President Trump has some sort of unexplained affection for the Kremlin and for Mr. Putin, but that unexplained affection has not prevented his administration from taking some very strong steps against Kremlin aggression -- in fact, stronger than the Obama administration.  And I expect that that dynamic will play out here too.

Question: Thank you for the comprehensive briefing.

Can you briefly describe, is there -- are there actions that have been discussed that would require congressional involvement, or can most of what's been discussed be done by the executive branch?

Herbst: Well, it's ultimately an executive branch decision to transfer, for example, military equipment to Ukraine, but Congress can certainly encourage that.  It has traditionally been an administration decision to do sanctions, but Congress can in fact legislate sanctions.  And I believe Congress has played a very helpful role in firming up American policy against Kremlin aggression, both in the Obama and the Trump administrations, and I would personally love to see more of that in reaction to Moscow's latest escalation.  

Gonzalez: Thank you, everyone, for joining.

I want to highlight three efforts, then I'll pass it over to Ambassador Herbst to close us out. 

Please do keep in mind that through the UkraineAlert and our Ukrainian Election Task Force effort, we will continue to cover this very closely, so be on the lookout for articles on that.  And the Atlantic Council will also hold a public event on December 5th at 11:30, where we will continue to point the spotlight on what is happening in the Sea of Azov and potential U.S. and European responses to the conflict.

Ambassador Herbst?

Herbst: I would just double down on what Geysha said.  While this whole incident, again, was a result of a tactical decision by Ukraine to increase its naval presence in the Sea of Azov and Moscow's willingness to escalate to stop it, this is also part of Moscow's efforts to destabilize Ukraine in the run-up to its presidential elections.  Moscow is conducting a multifaceted war on Ukraine, a multifaceted intervention in Ukraine's presidential elections.

And we will be following this very closely and making our findings public via our Ukraine Elections Task Force. 

Gonzalez: Ambassador Herbst, we actually have one last question.

Question: Ambassador Herbst, I was just reading the Q&A that you did, and it was published on the Atlantic Council blog, in which you said, quote, if Western media facilitate this by focusing on sideshows like martial law ...

John Herbst: ... right.

Question:  ... assuming -- yes, well, let me -- maybe you could elaborate a little bit, because myself being a part of Western media and also being someone who's been in Kyiv for nine years now and reported extensively on the conflict and Russian aggression in eastern Ukraine, I'm wondering how the unprecedented possible introduction of martial law here could be considered a sideshow?

Herbst: Well, the question is, what is of truly historic significance here?  An attack by Russian military forces on Ukraine's military unprovoked, or the possibility that martial law may be introduced?  I'm not saying the martial law issue should not be covered; of course, it should be covered.  But if you've been following Moscow's war on Ukraine since it began, you know that the Kremlin always tries to change the subject from what it is doing on the battlefield to what is happening in Ukraine's political system.

If the main story of the day is martial law and not Kremlin aggression, we're missing the most important element.  That's why I wrote that.

Gonzalez: Thank you, Ambassador Herbst, and thank you, everyone, for joining.  That's it for today's call.

END
 

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