War in Ukraine: airstrikes, drones and a looming counteroffensive
This week saw heightened tensions in the ongoing conflict in Ukraine. A wave of drone strikes hit the Russian capital Tuesday morning, bringing the war to Moscow for the first…
In a phone call this week, President Barack Obama warned Russian President Vladimir Putin against further aggression into Ukraine. As tension mounts between Russia and Ukraine, understanding the political motivations of Vladimir Putin.
MS. SUSAN PAGEThanks for joining us. I'm Susan Page of USA Today sitting in for Diane Rehm. Diane is on a station visit to KCRU, in Cape Girardeau, Mo. The crisis in Ukraine escalated this week after the country's military used force against pro-Russian militants in the East. To discuss the latest in Ukraine, and the man behind the crisis, Russian President Vladimir Putin, I'm joined in the studio by Clifford Gaddy of the Brookings Institution and Leon Aron of the American Enterprise Institute. Thanks so much for being with us.
MR. LEON ARONYou're welcome.
MR. CLIFFORD GADDYYou're welcome.
PAGEJoining us from Cambridge, Mass., Stephen Sestanovich of Columbia University. Welcome.
PROF. STEPHEN SESTANOVICHThanks.
PAGEAnd joining us by phone from Palo Alto, Calif., Michael McFaul, former U.S. ambassador to Russia. Thanks for being with us.
AMB. MICHAEL MCFAULThanks for having me.
PAGEWe invite our listeners to join our conversation later in this hour. You can call our toll-free number, 1-800-433-8850, send us an email to email@example.com, or find us on Facebook or Twitter. Well, Michael McFaul, let's start with you. You left the position as U.S. ambassador to Russia just in February. Are the results, the actions, that things that have happened since then, the developments, have they been a surprise to you, or were they foreseeable at the point you left?
MCFAULWell, I left right before Vladimir Putin started his project of annexation of Crimea. And I would say, you know, we worried about these things in the U.S. government. We planned, you know, as we always do, for contingencies, negative contingencies. But I never, as ambassador, thought that just a few weeks later we would be talking about the possibility of war between Russian and Ukraine. So for that, to me, that is deeply surprising and unexpected.
PAGEAnd, Stephen Sestanovich, you were the U.S. ambassador at large to the former Soviet Union during the Clinton administration. How dangerous a moment do you think we face right now?
SESTANOVICHWell, it's pretty dangerous in the sense that, whenever you've got one large country engaging in a strategy that seems designed to tear apart another large country nearby, the ramifications are very dangerous. And in this case, you've got further countries on the periphery that are deeply concerned about it, wondering where Putin is headed, and where he's going to stop.
PAGESo, Clifford Gaddy, tell us what you think the calculus was for Ukraine in deciding to take -- to deploy its military forces just yesterday.
PAGEUkraine's calculation, yes.
GADDYWell, I think they felt that they had to react in some way. They couldn't simply stand there and watch this proceed from the Russian side or from the militants' side. So they had to act. I'm not sure they know what is going to come next because they have to see what Russia does.
PAGESo, Leon Aron, what do you think Russia will do next?
ARONWell, there are three options, I think, for Putin. One is sort of the introduction of this sort small cavalry of Trojan horses in, by now, about 10 Ukrainian towns that in essence are hostages to Russia, but also do Russia's bidding and sort of humiliate and destabilize Ukraine by a thousand cuts. That's, I think, the strategy that he started to implement.
ARONThe other option is to -- and I'm afraid we could be moving towards it -- is to provoke, I think, a fairly lawful effort by the Ukrainian government to essentially dislodge the militants -- the militants -- the armed Russian special operations forces, very well armed and equipped and trained, dislodge them from the center of these towns and the government buildings that they occupy, in which case bloodshed is inevitable.
ARONAnd at that point, Putin -- he likes to point out to various false parallels, such as with Kosovo -- he will say, well, the West intervened in Libya to stop the civil war and protect the civilians. We're going to do the same, and hence his 40,000 troops on the Russian border.
PAGESo, Michael McFaul, do you think it's possible that Putin will deploy the Russian military?
MCFAULYes, of course, I mean, just along the lines that Leon said. It's the Kiev government. The government of Ukraine has very bad options here, right? They're damned if they do. They're damned if they don't. If they don't take further action, they look weak and de facto. They're ceding the sovereignty of eastern Ukraine, and so far their operations -- it's hard to figure out exactly what's going on, happening on the ground. But it doesn't look like they've been very successful over the last 24 hours.
MCFAULBut if they are successful and they do shoot their way into these cities, and they will be bloody battles. There's no doubt in my mind, looking at the way that these -- I'm not quite sure how to describe the militants, rebels, terrorists, but these very well-armed soldiers that have taken these buildings. It's not going to go peacefully. It's going to be a real fire fight, and people are going to get killed.
MCFAULAnd then it's hard for me to imagine Vladimir Putin just watching that and not reacting, given everything he said publicly, what he said to the president in his phone calls about what he considers his right to defend ethnic Russians everywhere in the world, including in eastern Ukraine. So I -- it's just really hard to see a positive outcome through this moment that we're in right now.
PAGEStephen Sestanovich, what is your feeling, your judgment on what Vladimir Putin is doing? Is he reacting in a -- does he have a strategy in mind? Is he acting in a very calculated and careful way? Is he acting impulsively? What's your assessment?
SESTANOVICHWell, I think he's been improvising throughout the Ukraine crisis and the improvisation was most evident when the government that he supported, that of Viktor Yanukovych, was discredited and brought down by the massive use of force inside Kiev. That was the moment that demolished the government that Putin had hoped to work with. And since then, he's been looking for new options, upping the ante, but always trying to avoid the appearance of outright aggression.
SESTANOVICHThat's why you have these Russian soldiers without insignias. That happened in Crimea. That's now happening in eastern Ukraine. But I would think that he wants to avoid the appearance of outright aggression. He is trying to show that the new Ukrainian government is as weak and discredited as the Yanukovych government was. And you see some of the signs of this.
SESTANOVICHThe -- I've just been looking on Twitter on a few minutes ago, and it seems as though some of the -- maybe many of the Ukrainian soldiers that deployed there to try to retake some of the facilities, have themselves been captured by the Russian militiamen, without a shot actually, with no bloodshed, but looking totally comical and feckless.
PAGEDo you think, Clifford Gaddy, that we are seeing Putin improvise as Stephen was saying?
GADDYAbsolutely. He improvises, but that's -- this is tactical. Putin is not an impulsive person. He's not a gambler by heart or a risk taker. If compelled to take risks, he will, but he will always have a Plan B. And he will always think through as many of the contingencies as he can. And that, I mean, that is a trait that he's had throughout his life, his career. However, of course, there are many unpredictable scenarios that can unfold. And both Steve and Leon have outlined them, and Mike as well, depending on how the Ukrainian forces react.
GADDYBut I do think, as Steve said, he wants to avoid the appearance of outright aggression. That's absolutely true. I think he also wants -- Putin wants to avoid direct military action in Ukraine, being, in a sense, lured into an armed conflict against Ukraine and possibly engaging with other western forces. This is not something he wants, probably feels that this is maybe a trap being laid for him. So we'll see how that plays out in his tactics.
PAGELeon, you said earlier that one strategy might be this death by a thousand cuts, which would, I guess, have the advantage of making it hard for the West to ever respond in a really decisive way because it's just one little criminal thing after another.
ARONPrecisely. And that I think is very clever tactile move by Putin because, you know, from -- you don't need -- you know what I mean. You can go to the years before World War II or even before World War I, Western democracies extremely reluctant not just to engage in the military conflict, which President Obama said is, of course, out of the question, but even to act as if you actually have a well-defined catastrophic or pre-catastrophic situation that requires emergency measures, which usually requires sacrifices, economic sacrifices.
ARONSo what Putin does is that he did not establish a clear threshold, but it's one thing after another. And at what point -- and, in fact, this is the key question, of course, for the western leaders, at what point in one of those, you know, you zoom in on one of those -- of a thousand cuts and say, well, this is it. But then you have to sell it to your public. You have to sell it to your businesses that are going to suffer from sanctions. And I think this makes it very difficult.
PAGEMichael McFaul, do you agree that this makes it hard for the United States to respond in a really bold way?
MCFAULWell, just like the government of Kiev, I don't think the United States nor the European countries have great options here. Clearly, they want to do whatever they can to deter further aggression in Ukraine, right? The first wave of sanctions, I think, were designed just to punish those close to Putin, but not to change his calculus. I don't think that anybody that I know in the U.S. government thought by sanctioning these two dozen individuals that that was going to get him to change his mind about Crimea.
MCFAULHowever, President Obama made very clear, I thought, when he announced those earlier sanctions that there is a specter of more comprehensive sanctions, sectorial sanctions against whole sectors of the Russian economy, should President Putin decide to go into eastern Ukraine. So that's their strategy. And, you know, I can't think of a better strategy. I want to say that clearly. I don't think there -- there's not a military option, obviously. I think there are some things one could do on the margins…
MCFAUL…to strengthen the Ukraine government.
PAGENow, we're going to take a short break. And when we come back, we'll continue our conversation. Stay with us.
PAGEWelcome back. I'm Susan Page with USA Today sitting in for Diane Rehm. She's at station KRCU in Cape Girardeau, Mo. today, so I'm sitting in for her. We're joined in the studio by Leon Aron, resident scholar and director of Russian studies at the American Enterprise Institute, and Clifford Gaddy. He's a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and co-author of the book "Mr. Putin: Operative in the Kremlin."
PAGEJoining us from studios at Harvard University, Stephen Sestanovich -- I'm sorry, I've messed up that name -- author of "Maximalist: America in the World from Truman to Obama." He was a U.S. ambassador to the former Soviet Union during the Clinton Administration. And joining us by phone from Palo Alto, Calif., Michael McFaul. He's a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and the former U.S. ambassador to Russia. Now, the scene we see unfolding in Eastern Ukraine, is this, Clifford Gaddy, simply a replay of what we saw happening in Crimea so recently?
GADDYI don't think so. There are of course some parallels, many parallels, but there are also some very strong differences. And that's what causes me to doubt that there is a real plan to annex parts of Eastern Ukraine the same way that Putin did with Crimea. Crimea had a real military significance for Russia. It was very much an existential issue of the Baltic -- the Black Sea fleet. It also has a different historical status, Crimea and the city of Sevastopol. The population predominance of Russians, Russian speakers there is much greater.
GADDYAnd the sentiment for annexation for joining -- rejoining Russia was very great. And it, of course, had been -- that had been part of Russia -- the Russian empire before. There's a number of differences also much militarily, a completely different situation, a completely different situation. So we had strong domestic support at home for that, strong support within the area itself, a militarily relatively simple operation. All of those don't apply to something that would be attempted if so in Eastern Ukraine.
PAGESo, Leon, how does that affect what's going to happen next?
ARONWell, I think Putin has three primary targets, or call them objects, in his calculations. He does cost benefit analysis based on his assessment of each of them, I think, all the time. The west, which needs to be controlled or intimidated into diluting sanctions or, you know, withholding sanctions. Then there is domestic audience, which is extremely important. I hope we can talk about this because I think Putin domestically is doing things that I think long term are going to be with us and perhaps even more damagingly than the aggression in Ukraine.
ARONBecause he's refashioning, I think, a very scary regime inside, much more repressive messianic anti-American. We could talk about this. And I think Mike caught the beginning of it as well. But most importantly the goal is also to punish, humiliate, destabilize and derail a new government in Ukraine which, as you know, Russia still does not recognize legally. So the calculation, the cross benefit analysis -- you know, cost benefit analysis across all three targets is, I think, what he always evaluates and keeps in mind.
ARONAnd I think at this point he feels that the sanctions have not been biding, that the domestic audience has been sold. And of course the United States closed out propaganda vacuum. And the New York Times actually has published a number of very good articles including today about the situation there. And frankly, I was in the Soviet Union, growing up in the Soviet Union in 1968. Nothing like that happened during the invasion of Czechoslovakia. I mean, this is -- I mean, I thought that was bad. This is truly scary, what's going on in the Russian media today.
PAGEStephen, what do you think Vladimir Putin's overall goal is? What is his endgame?
SESTANOVICHWell, he obviously wants to restore Russian influence in Ukraine which has been at risk. His whole policy has made it possible that he will lose a big prize of his policy. And that's why Leon is absolutely right that the target right now is to delegitimize the Ukrainian government. That's why Russian TV refers to them as an illegal criminal government, why President -- Prime Minister Medvedev yesterday referred to them as usurpers, nationalists, bandits.
SESTANOVICHThe west has tried to treat that government as legitimate. Putin wants to delegitimize it so that -- and that's why he says this is on the verge of civil war -- he wants to legitimize his own role in setting the future of Ukraine. And that has been something that the west has resisted. But once Ukraine seems to be in chaos, I think western governments may re-examine this question.
SESTANOVICHThere's going to be a discussion in Geneva tomorrow between the U.S., Russia, the EU and the Ukrainian government. At that -- one of the lines that the Russians take, if they choose to sit down in that meeting is, this is a government that is not capable of speaking to the situation inside its own country. We have to dictate to it.
PAGEMichael, what do you expect to happen at the meeting in Geneva tomorrow?
MCFAULWell, I mean, I agree with my colleagues in that there's most certainly one objective of President Putin is to destabilize the current government in Ukraine. And part -- one of the, you know, secondary objectives of that is to increase their negotiations leverage for the meeting tomorrow and in general with respect to what the Russians say is a necessity, which is a new constitution with more autonomy for the region, for more federal a system of government as opposed to a unitary system of government.
MCFAULBut I would remind everybody that you can -- the means to achieve that is what we're seeing inside Eastern Ukraine right now. You know, the fact that -- I mean, we're talking about occupation already, right. There's no longer a unitary state of the government of Ukraine. The state does not have a monopoly of a use of force in its own territory, that means can also be used for other objectives down the road, more aggressive objectives.
MCFAULAnd, you know, I do think Putin -- we were talking a lot about Putin and his strategy and his rational calculating and cost benefit analysis. And, you know, I've worked with him and his government for several years. And I agree generally with that kind of caricature of him as a leader. But I think he changed his strategy after the fall of the government in February, and in a very, very emotional tactical way decided to go into Crimea.
MCFAULHe wasn't planning that for 20 years, you know. I challenge anybody to show me the speech where he talked about how Crimea needs to be part of Russia. No. He totally did that in response, and now he's in a different strategic environment. Before he cared about the west. Now he doesn't care about the west. Before he was very nervous about using force. Now he's used force, and he's seen little resistance.
MCFAULSo I think it makes him a much more difficult person to rationally presume that we know what his strategy is. And I'm -- you know, the thing that I know for certain, or I think I know for certain -- I should be careful because I don't know myself -- but if there are dozens of people killed in Eastern Ukraine over the next 48 hours, I just can't imagine that Putin is not going to respond to that. That to me is the tripwire. So that to me is what is very worrisome about the current situation right now.
PAGESo what would you expect to happen at Geneva, nothing? It sounds like the ground has not really been laid for much to happen.
MCFAUL(unintelligible) no, it's obvious. I mean, this is the rope-a-dope they've been planning the whole time. They're going to talk about federalism. Foreign Minister Lavrov is going to talk about the aggrieve citizens of the Eastern Ukraine and how their needs are not being met. But what's different of course is they're putting pressure on the Ukrainian government.
MCFAULAnd there's already talk -- you know, certain ministers and certain people in Kiev have talked about, well maybe we do need to make these changes. And so that will be -- to me that will be the discussion. I don't expect any outcome of it but that -- it will be the discussion about changing the Ukrainian constitution.
PAGELet's go to the phones and let some of our listeners join our conversation. We'll start with Will who's calling us from West Palm Beach, Fla. Will, you're on the air.
WILLYes. Thanks for taking my call. I am no fan of the style of the Russian government and, you know, its clear heavy-handedness inside and some of its policies outside. But I'm very concerned about the constant cacophony about how the west -- well, NATO and the United States, you know, always trying to just bring about stability and peace. That's utter nonsense. NATO has been encroaching over and over and over again closer and closer to surround Russia and China. This has been their policy for sure for over 30 years.
WILLAnd I just want to ask, my question is this. Why is it there isn't some, you know, critical analysis of the fact that the Ukrainian government was an elected government that was overthrown in a coup that was obviously backed by the United States with U.S. high officials going there? And how would the United States respond if that kind of thing happened from Russian government officials in say, Canada or Mexico? And I'll take my answer off the air. Thank you.
PAGEAll right. Well, thanks so much for your call. Clifford, what would you say to Will?
GADDYI always seem to get questions that I'm not really an expert on. That particular question about U.S. policy should be asked to people who have served in various administrations, it seems to me. But I would like to pick up on what the questioner addressed as the Russian perception of what's been happening to them and what's been happening to the world is indeed exactly as he described. That doesn't mean we have to agree with it.
GADDYYou asked a question of Steve Sestanovich a couple of questions ago about Putin's endgame. And we got focused very much on Ukraine. Ukraine is not the endgame. Ukraine is a means to an end for Putin. The end is essentially to reverse the post-Cold War international order that the United States, in the Russian view, imposed on a weak bankrupt Russia that could not oppose, as if they signed the contract under duress.
GADDYAnd Putin has maybe not planned exactly the Crimean operation for 20 years, but he has planned for a long time. Step by step, he has to put an end to the situation in which Russia is treated as a third rate power whose interests are not taken into consideration when the United States and the rest of the west moves. And that is what's going on, I think, with Ukraine.
PAGEI'm Susan Page, and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." We're taking your calls at 1-800-433-8850. Leon, you were nodding your head.
ARONWell, I think certainly Mike McFaul should answer the question. I mean, I think there are all kinds of factual errors in the questioners -- you know, the U.S. engineered the crisis, the U.S. sent high officials. I know about (unintelligible) going there and distributing cookies. You know, maybe the questioner has some inside track there.
ARONBut -- yeah -- which, you know, the Russians probably thought were poisoned or stimulated in a way to provoke political crisis. But -- so I think Michael and Steve would be, I think, more effective in addressing and most likely, I think, demolishing this argument. However, I want to pick up on something very important that Cliff said. I would go even farther than that.
ARONPutin's endgame, his long game is -- I'm more and more convinced of that, that although he did not engineer this crisis, he clearly seized on the opportunity, I think, to create a kind of messianic revisionist, much more repressive domestic regime with him -- and, you know, we'll see, we'll see in 2018 -- as a president for life and the gatherer of the Russian lands, the father and defender of all Russians.
ARONAnd if you -- if that's your strategy then, you know, maybe we should change our calculus. To Putin, what's happening now, is not a nuisance. This is what you do if you plan to be a dictator for life. You create the situation where you're surrounded by enemies, imaginary or provoked or however you want to perceive them.
ARONYou crack down, which he did, on independent media or closing almost -- you know, virtually about to close the last vestiges of independent media, even on the internet, seeking fifth column everywhere, calling them national traders. So, I mean, there are all kinds of signs that he wants to use this crisis to refashion the domestic political regime. And again, let me repeat, Susan, this to me is the most disturbing feature of this situation.
PAGEBefore we talk about the idea of president for life, Mike, I want to give you a chance to respond to Will's call and some of the comments and assertions he made.
MCFAULWell, just a couple of points. I mean, the media narrative that he described is incorrect. I still was in the government at the time. And let's just be clear. The government of Yanukovych shot and killed peaceful protestors. It was not a coup d'état. It was a reaction to that. There then was a negotiation. And the United States, the Obama Administration supported the negotiation 100 percent between President Yanukovych and the opposition. And we thought we had an agreement Feb. 21.
MCFAULAnd the next day, Yanukovych fled the country. And we were surprised by that, by the way. We did not expect that. We didn't like the -- I'll tell you honestly, we didn't like the terms of the negotiation. But we thought that was better than the alternatives. So that's what happened there. And then when he left, the elected members of the parliament -- this is a frequently forgotten piece of information -- three-quarters of them -- they were all elected in the previous election -- three-quarters of them, including many supporters and members of the Yanukovych party, voted in this interim government.
MCFAULSo with a perfect democracy now, but given the alternatives, I think that's the best you could've done. But I want to get to the bigger point about this notion that somehow this is all the west's fault because of pressuring Russia. That narrative is true. I've written about it -- written books about it. And it is important to remember the Russian perspective about NATO expansion, the bombing of Serbia, Iraq, Libya. And I've heard Putin himself tell the President of the United States that that interpretation of historical events.
MCFAULBut that makes it sound like this was all inevitable as a reaction to NATO. And I just want to remind people that just two to three years ago when I was still in the government, the Russian government had a very different attitude towards the west and towards the United States. President Obama, just to be clear, did not expand NATO. Five years -- he's the first president, whether good or bad, but it's just an empirical fact that this is not a period of NATO expansion under the Obama Administration.
MCFAULAnd I think President Obama listened to those grievances and reacted and had a different strategy for engaging Russia. And by the way, you know, just literally two years ago, 65 percent of Russians had a positive attitude towards the United States. So the situation we're in now, it was not from inevitable result of decades of grievances. It's a very concrete response by a very concrete man, President Putin, who's decided he has now changed his strategy and his course of action. And so to blame the west for that I think is just a misreading of the historical trajectory.
PAGEWe're going to take another short break. And when we come back, we'll go back to the phones and take some more of your calls and questions, 1-800-433-8850. Stay with us.
PAGEWelcome back. I'm Susan Page of USA Today sitting in for Diane Rehm. We're joined from Harvard University by Stephen Sestanovich, the former U.S. ambassador to the former Soviet Union and from California by Michael McFaul, the former U.S. ambassador to Russia. And in the studio with me, Leon Aron from the American Enterprise Institute and Clifford Gaddy from the Brookings Institution. Let's go to the phones and let some of our listeners join our conversation. We'll go to John who's calling us from Ann Arbor, Mich. John, thanks for holding on.
JOHNSusan, thank you very much for taking my call. I have a short statement followed by a related question.
PAGEJohn, please just ask the question. We've got a panel of experts we want to hear answer it.
JOHNWell, it -- I need to say the whole thing. I don't mean to be offensive, but I think it is very relevant to the question. And it'd put it in a much better context if I could.
PAGEPlease go ahead.
JOHNThank you very much. In light of Putin's support of Assad, I could not argue against anybody who labeled Putin a thug. But given our failed commitment not to expand NATO, given the ban to right ties with (word?) and the right force, given the attempt by a clearly (word?) parliament to illegalize the official use of Russian and given the information coming out of Germany on the Midan shootings of February, I don't see how any responsible leader -- Russian leader could've behaved much differently than Putin has.
PAGEAll right, John. Thank you so much for your call. I wonder, Stephen, what you make of John's comment. Could another Russian leader have responded to current events in a different way?
SESTANOVICHAbsolutely. I mean, the choice that Putin made was an extremely risky, inflammatory, escalatory one. Imagine how another Russian leader could have handled this? You've got the government collapsing in Kiev. You've got a new government coming in with a lot of uncertainty about its direction. What does the Russian president do? Absolutely reaches out to try to understand how the new government's actions are going to affect constituencies that matter to him, like Russians in Ukraine.
SESTANOVICHHe could've called for a dialogue. He could have opened the channels. Instead he immediately labeled them as fascist thugs, when there's no real basis for this. They were -- the new government was, as Mike had said, voted in by every single one of the deputies in parliament represented of the party of the old government. So there was an opportunity really for a kind of government of national unity. And Putin could have tried to reach out in that way. He chose not to do that. He chose the line of confrontation. And everything that we've been seeing since then is a result of that.
PAGEYou know, Michael McFaul, you said before the break that this was a change in policy by Putin, and at a time when the Obama Administration had not engaged in provocative behavior toward him. What do you think prompted that change?
MCFAULWell, he's always had this view of the world. I want to make that clear, right. He always had -- the west was not treating Russia with respect and that the west, and the United States in particular, was quick to use its force, covert and overt force, to undermine regimes that were not friendly to the United States. But I would argue most certainly, when I was in government -- and I think going back to his first term as well -- next to that world view was also a realization that it was in Russia's national interest to engage with the west, cooperate with the west, increase traded investments with the United States.
MCFAULYou know, I've heard Putin say many times the most important event in U.S.-Russia relations over the last decade is the deal between Exxon Mobil and Rosneft. And just -- that's all illustrative of the fact that he wasn't just planning for this confrontation for decades. And, remember, right up to -- and, you know, days before the events surrounding Crimea, he released Mr. Khodorkovsky from jail from 10 years.
MCFAULHe released the Pussy Riot singers from jail. And he threw a party -- I was there -- fantastic party. Allegedly, he spent $50 billion on it to -- as they said, to introduce to the world the new Russia. That was the Sochi Olympics. You don't do all those things if you're then planning just to, you know, thumb your nose at the west and go into this more confrontational way that he did.
MCFAULSo I do believe that the straw that broke the camel's back was what happened to the government in Kiev, where from Putin's point of view -- not my point of view -- it was yet again another instance of the west lying to him, of the west using its covert means to undermine a government that they didn't like. And that's when he decided to move into Crimea.
MCFAULAnd now he's in a different world, right. Before he was seeking to have Ukraine as part of what he calls his Eurasian Economic Union, right. When I was ambassador, that was the most important foreign policy issue for the Russian government at the time. Now he's lost that. He understands that Ukraine will never be a part of that. And now he's moved into this other more coercive strategy for dominating the territories and annexing some of the territories from the former Soviet Union.
GADDYI probably have a more cynical view of Putin than Mike does, although it's hard to believe. Mike's had very close contact with Putin. Mike said it's hard to imagine that someone would throw the Sochi Olympics and present a picture of Russia in the world and still be planning for operations in Ukraine. I think Putin's the guy who could do it. In fact, I'm pretty sure that he had plans, fairly concrete plans for the Crimean operation, probably since late 2012.
GADDYThe real change in his attitude, I think -- it's undergone several changes -- but Putin has made a couple -- thought that he had options for good relations with the west on a couple of occasions. Most of the time he's assumed that the west and the United States were out to get him, that in fact they have an undeclared war against Russia. They sooner or later will try to undermine Russia in various ways, not necessarily militarily. But military is certainly the most urgent of those threats and that's why, of course, Ukraine becomes important for him.
GADDYThe idea of an association agreement with the European Union, which would keep Ukraine away from that Eurasian union that Mike McFaul referred to was absolutely vital. And for Putin it is really a matter of he never trusted -- it's not how much trust he had in the United States, how much we wanted to be his friends. It was always what was his capability to make us understand that we had to -- that we the west, and the United States in particular, had to stop encroaching upon Russia's interest.
GADDYIt was all about the capability of doing that. He thought he had made this clear. In February 2007, he made a very well-known speech in Munich at the security conference there, which was very, very, very direct basically saying, stop it, you've crossed the redline. There'll be no more of this activity aimed against us. I think he believed at that point that the west understood that the west really was not going to do that.
GADDYAnd then the war in Georgia happens. It's seen from the Russian point of view provocations by Georgia, which they responded to. Ever since then there's been a fairly well-coordinated concerted effort to build up, in particular military capacity to deliver the message again. And I think he chose -- indeed there are circumstances contingent that dictated exactly when the move in Crimea was made perhaps. But it was, I think, seen from Putin's point of view inevitable.
PAGEStephen, we had Leon argue that Putin hopes to be president for life, dictator for life. Do you think that's true?
SESTANOVICHYou can't ever count Putin's ambition out, and he's got many reasons to fear losing his position. The history of deposed leaders in this part of the world, even in retirement, isn't so great although he treated Yeltsin extremely well. You know, I would say there are a lot of uncertainties about where Putin is headed. But I would say the internal uncertainties are not as great as the external ones.
SESTANOVICHWe have seen Putin -- and here we have to do some mind reading but I don't think we can come up with the answer -- we've seen him over a couple of months challenging the international norms in this confrontation over Ukraine. What is -- you've asked this question, Susan, is his aim -- is his expectation to be admitted back into the family, the international family because the west will back down? Or is he ready for a new life, if I could put it this way, outside the family leading a kind of anti-western block of malcontents hostile to the United States and Europe?
SESTANOVICHThat will be a quite different world in which there is a deep estrangement between the United States and Russia, and in which Russia tries to ally with a lot of other countries that have the same kind of dissatisfaction with the west. In that respect, we could be looking at a kind of inflection point in international relations.
PAGEMichael McFaul, you've just come back from Russia. Is it possible for him to do this in today's Russia? After all, we have had some democratic innovations in Russia, it's the age of the internet and Twitter. Is it possible for him to set himself up as a kind of dictator apart from any kind of democracy or any of the changes that we had hoped to take route in Russia?
MCFAULWell, to circle back to something Leon said earlier, I most certainly agree that the foreign policy, this new more belligerent foreign policy we're seeing from Putin is a result of domestic politics in Russia, which is to say that he was nervous about demonstrations against falsified elections in the fall of 2011. They felt that the regime was being challenged.
MCFAULI was ambassador at the time and -- you know, and I want to again emphasize there were different ways to respond to that. And while he was still president, President Medvedev actually responded by seeking to negotiate with the opposition seeking marginal political reforms as a way to get them out of the impasse.
MCFAULWhen Putin finally was inaugurated president, he pivoted in a very different direction cracking down, constraining the space for opposition in civil society. And this now is -- he's in the siege mentality, you know, and that makes the necessity of an enemy much more important to him domestically. And think about -- if you watch as much Russian press as I do, what are the two, you know, code words that are there every single night. It's Nazis and NATO. You know, Nazis and NATO, the two greatest enemies of the Soviet Union, and, you know, I guess maybe you could say Russia.
MCFAULSo that's the new world he's in and I agree with what Steve said. I think he has already made that decision that he's opted out of being part of the family, the G8 respected leaders of the world. And he's content now to be fully in this revisionist position that he's now set on. Before he wanted to have his cake and eat it too, right. He wanted to have -- host the G8 but also call us enemies. And that -- this continuity, by the way, was very difficult for our administration to deal with.
MCFAULBut now I think he's just content to be, OK, they are the enemy, the world is zero sum and I'll go it alone, even if it just means -- as, you know, one of his ministers has said many times, even if it means that the only allies we have are the Russian army and the Russian navy, this is now the course of action that he -- foreign policy course that he's taken. And I do think it really is tied to his need to consolidate his basis of legitimacy back home.
PAGEI'm Susan Page, and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." We're taking your calls. In fact, let's go to Lamine who's holding on from Houston. Hi, you're on the air.
LAMINEHi, Susan. Thanks for taking my call. I just have a basic question to ask your panelists. And that is, if we -- the international community keeps mentioning and making it clear that military option is not an option to deter Mr. Putin from -- for annexing former members of the Soviet Union. If that is clear, then to get to the bottom line of this, what are we saying?
LAMINEAre we inadvertently giving Putin a green light to just go ahead and annex any former Soviet Union member that he wants to annex? If military option is not on the table and if sanctions are not considered to be anything deterrent to Putin, then basically we're saying that he can just literally go and annex any country that he wants to annex. Am I not right?
PAGELamine, thanks for your call. Let me ask our panel. Stephen, do you want to try that first?
SESTANOVICHWell, I think that Putin is confident that he's not going to face military intervention by the west, if that's what he decides on his part. But I think he has to worry about the prospect of a more complete economic breech between Russia and Europe. And the Europeans, although they have been very reluctant to push sanctions, if there is a policy of open dismemberment of Ukraine, even the, you know, divided, disorganized, irresolute Europeans are going to be in favor of a more robust set of measures to punish Putin.
SESTANOVICHAnd that can be very costly to him. A breech between Russia and Europe and the west more generally, on the economic front, will be quite dangerous. And he has to worry about the impact even internally, if that happens.
PAGELeon, is that -- could that be enough to force a change in behavior?
ARONWell, you know, in these situations, all kinds of components and elements are responsible for changing behavior. I think Putin has gone very far, and I completely agree with Mike. I mean, you know, the thing that worries me the most is that after this two, three months of this incessant drumbeat propaganda of the west going after mother Russia -- and I'm saving mother Russia and Russians outside Russia -- it might be very difficult for Putin to put a break and go down, even in the face of sanctions.
ARONBut the sanctions are -- could be very, very biding. There's no doubt about that. I think it might be -- it will not dislodge Putin from Ukraine if he decides to annex East Ukraine. But I think domestically it could arouse support very significantly.
PAGEClifford, we'll give you the last word.
GADDYI don't think the sanctions are critical. The military action itself, if Putin were to actually engage in military action in Ukraine, invade Ukraine with official Russian troops, that would be -- I think he would regard that as a much bigger cost than anything sanctions would do. So it's up to him to make that decision. If he feels he's forced to go in to defend Russian citizens or whatever reason, if he's compelled to do it, he will do it. No sanctions will prevent him from doing it, and he will continue in the same direction as far as he needs to go.
PAGEClifford Gaddy, Leon Aron, Stephen Sestanovich, and, Michael McFaul, thank so much for being with us this hour on "The Diane Rehm Show." I'm Susan Page of USA Today sitting in for Diane. Thanks for listening.
ANNOUNCER"The Diane Rehm Show" is produced by Sandra Pinkard, Denise Couture, Susan Casey Nabors, Rebecca Kaufman, Lisa Dunn, Danielle Knight and Allison Brody. The engineer is Erin Stamper. Natalie Yuravlivker answers the phones. Visit drshow.org for audio archives, transcripts and podcasts. Call 202-885-1200 for more information. Our email address is firstname.lastname@example.org and we're on Facebook and Twitter. This program comes to you from American University in Washington, D.C. This is NPR.
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