Steven Pifer: ‘Serious Russian Analysts Must Have Understood NATO Is No Threat’

July 11, 2014

In the second installment of the Ukraine Crisis Interview Series, CGI speaks with Steven Pifer, former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine and current Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution. In a strong argument for the official U.S. position, Pifer clarifies the nature of American involvement in Ukraine and argues that NATO had been seeking to engage with—not antagonize—Russia until the outbreak of the latest crisis.

Center on Global Interests: The government in Kiev and the separatists in eastern Ukraine have both said a truce is impossible unless the other side puts down its weapons, a demand that neither is willing to meet. Who will need to concede first, and what would persuade them to do it?

Steven Pifer: It’s difficult to second-guess what the government is trying to do here. My guess from 5,000 miles away is the Ukrainian military and security forces have significantly improved their performance compared to several months ago, as seen in their successes in retaking Slavyansk and Kramatorsk.

But it’s important that President Poroshenko not overplay his hand. While there will likely be a military operation, it has to be coupled with a political approach: the government should leave the door open for negotiations. It should continue to make the points it has made in the past about willingness to decentralize and push some authority to the regions, to give some official status to the Russian language, and to call for early elections. Those are things that will appeal to many people in Donetsk by making them feel the government is responding to their concerns.

It would be useful if the Russian government applied its influence on the separatists and got them to be more responsive to facilitating a dialogue. My impression was that between June 20 and 30 [the duration of the government-declared cease-fire], while Ukraine’s security forces did not cease all military operations, they significantly ratcheted down their operations, and that was not reciprocated by the separatist side. If the separatists want to create conditions for a discussion, they have to do more than they were prepared to do at the end of June.

It’s also good that there have been comments out of Kiev showing that they recognize the security operation in Donetsk has to be done with great care to minimize the risk of civilian casualties—but exactly how you go about doing that can be a challenge.

CGI: On July 9 the Kremlin formally approved John Tefft’s nomination to be the new U.S. ambassador to Russia. As we know, there has been no U.S. ambassador in Moscow the entire duration of the Ukraine crisis. How might his arrival impact the conflict?

SP: I have known Ambassador Tefft for 30 years. He is a superbly qualified diplomat and a superb choice for the position. But the question is, how much can he and the U.S. government do to affect Mr. Putin’s calculations? By all appearances, for the last four months—including but not ending with the seizure of Crimea—the Russian government has sought to destabilize the government in Kiev.

Perhaps the change of fortunes on the battlefield may have an impact on Putin’s calculations. Ideally, Mr. Putin and his government will come around to a position where they’re prepared to scale back their support for the separatists, close the border and stop the flow of arms to eastern Ukraine, and try to promote a peace settlement. But I don’t think the Russians are at that point yet.

CGI: The leader of the Donetsk People’s Republic Denis Pushilin told us last week that the EU agreement cut the region off from its natural economic partner—Russia. And for the east it would have made more economic sense to join the Russian trade bloc because most of their industry is oriented at Russia. Is Europe pushing eastern Ukraine into a situation that is not economically advantageous for the region?

SP: It’s been my impression that the majority of Ukrainian businessmen have favored the free-trade agreement, although their ideal situation is to have access to both. The EU market is a market of about $16 trillion per year. The Customs Union market is about $2 trillion per year. In the beginning, there will be more competition for Ukrainian companies. But Poland faced that in the 1990s, as did the Baltic states in the 2000s, and what they found was that industries very quickly became competitive.

An argument can be made for not joining a free-trade area with the EU in order to protect Ukrainian industry. But in that case, the industry will find that it’s much less competitive, much less efficient, and not world-class. Most economists project that after Ukraine implements the free-trade agreement, there will be an initial short-term period of dislocation followed by a long-term impact on the Ukrianian economy that will be huge and very positive. [One] economist predicted a long-term gain of up to 12% per year to Ukrainian GDP.

Ukraine has said it would like to have an Association Agreement but still have free trade with Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan. Russia has said that it can’t do that unless it joins the Eurasian Customs Union. The problem is that the two are simply incompatible; you can’t belong to two customs unions. You can belong to one customs union and have a free trade arrangement with a third party. So far, the Russians have said no to that. But now that Ukraine and the EU have signed an agreement, it would make sense for Ukraine, the EU and Russia to have a discussion about how to implement the Association Agreement and the free-trade arrangement in a way that does not damage Ukrainian-Russian trade relations. And that should be a soluble problem.

CGI: Do you think Russia is acting or reacting in Ukraine–are the past six months of actions part of a larger Russian offensive in Europe, or reactive measures against the perceived threat of NATO enlargement?

SP: I think it’s a silly argument for the Russians to say that their seizure of Crimea was a defensive move against NATO. In 2008, I testified to the American Congress that Ukraine deserved a Membership Action Plan [MAP] but added that Ukraine did not yet merit an invitation to join the alliance, primarily because neither elite nor public opinion supported joining NATO. If you look at the issue internally within Ukraine, it’s very clear there is not a societal consensus in favor of joining NATO, and it doesn’t make sense for Ukraine to pursue that question until the population supports it—which they may never do.

NATO does not want to take in countries that are divided over the question of membership, because those countries later become politically difficult. In the current situation, both President Poroshenko and the deputy head of his presidential administration said they’re not thinking about NATO now because they realize it would be hugely divisive internally.

Second, there is no appetite in NATO now for any big enlargement moves, and I have to believe that serious Russian analysts understood that. They saw, for example, that in 2008, despite a fairly strong push from President Bush, the Germans and the French along with others would not even agree to give Ukraine a MAP. If they had been following public opinion within Ukraine, they would have to understand that the Ukrainian public has not come to a consensus on this issue. So the argument about Crimea being a defensive move has no basis in fact.

CGI: Is NATO’s continued existence in the post-Cold War era inherently provocative to Russia?

SP: I think the Russians will say it is. But go back and look at what NATO did in the 1990s. The enlargement process was demand-driven; it was the Czechs, the Hungarians and the Poles who started pressing to join NATO. But when NATO began to think seriously, in 1995, about the enlargement process, it simultaneously began a parallel track about how to engage Russia and shape a NATO-Russia relationship, so that the latter would be comfortable with NATO and really not care about enlargement.

In the 2000s, the focus of NATO operations was out-of-area, particularly the coalition operation in Afghanistan, to which NATO contributed some 35,000-40,000 troops. The focus was not collective defense, and NATO said repeatedly that it did not regard Russia as an enemy. And if you look at how NATO structured and drew down its forces, you see military forces that were organizing themselves in a way that was not designed to defend against a threat from Russia, but were designed for these out-of-area operations.

Ironically, after the effort to change course over the last 20 years, NATO may come back for the September summit looking more closely like the original collective defense requirement with a renewed focus on Article 5. My guess is that now, given assessments of Russian behavior and the buildup of Russian military forces—despite the fact that virtually every NATO country has reduced its defense budget in the last five to seven years—, there will be a talk in NATO about giving renewed attention to collective defense, with an eye on how far the Russians will go in pursuing their policies.

CGI: What does Russia not understand about U.S. policy in Ukraine?

SP: When the Russians look at American policy, I think they still see it in zero-sum, Cold War terms, and as being about Russia. Russian policy looks at the U.S. approach to other countries and interprets it as the United States maneuvering to turn those countries against Russia.

I don’t think the history supports that interpretation. In 2010, when Mr. Yanukovych became president [of Ukraine] and made it clear he didn’t want to pursue a Membership Action Plan with NATO, there were some in the U.S. government who were very comfortable with that—because that meant that in the context of the reset with Russia, the question of Ukraine-NATO relations would not be an issue. And from about 2010 onward, the U.S. government was comfortable with the EU taking the lead on the West’s relationship with Ukraine. It wasn’t until early 2014, when Ukraine began to enter the crisis stage, that Washington began to engage more actively.

CGI: What about the $5 billion the United States reportedly spent in assistance to Ukraine?

SP: As I understand it, $5 billion is the sum total of U.S. assistance to Ukraine over the last 22 years. A minimum $700-800 million of that went to the Cooperative Threat Reduction Program: destroying the intercontinental ballistic missiles, the missile silos, the nuclear bombers and the infrastructure that was left in Ukraine after the Soviet Union collapsed.

Another large chunk of that went to closing down Chernobyl and building a new sarcophagus over the power plant. A lot of it was democracy promotion. A lot of it was economic assistance and promoting economic reform.

It’s important to see what the democracy assistance was really targeted at. When I was ambassador in Ukraine, I insisted that political reform money should be non-partisan. For example, the National Democratic Institute in the late 1990s would do seminars in Ukraine on how to build a political party. We in the embassy told NDI: you have to accept any party that walks in the door. If the Communists want to come in and get that training, that’s fine. It has to be open to everybody. In the end, the Communists wanted nothing to do with it, and neither did some other parties. We ended up training mainly pro-reform and pro-Western parties, because that was the choice the parties made.

I will give you one other example. In 2003, as we were thinking about the upcoming presidential election in Ukraine between Viktor Yushchenko and Viktor Yanukovych, there was no question whatsoever that the American government supported Yushchenko—the vision he had for Ukraine aligned with the American government’s vision for Ukraine. Three of us—myself, then-ambassador to Ukraine John Herbst, and the previous ambassador, Carlos Pascual—all sat down to ask whether we should help Yushchenko. And all three of us decided no, for two reasons. One, it’s not the right thing to do; our assistance should be designed to ensure a free and fair election, not to pick the winner—that’s the Ukrainian peoples’ choice. And the second reason was practical: we didn’t know whether an American expression of support would help or hurt Yushchenko.

I don’t think the Russians had that conversation. Vladimir Putin went to Kiev several times in 2004, in what clearly were campaign visits on the part of Mr. Yanukovych. And from what I heard from Ukrainians afterwards, that cost Yanukovych.

CGI: Do you think there exist separate Western and Russian values? And if so, are they ultimately incompatible?

SP: I think there is a harsh difference between U.S. and Russian values. Its starts fundamentally with the role of the citizen in the state. Western democracies, including American democracy, have laws, but there still is the idea here that citizens are the ultimate political authority. I think you can’t say that about the system that has been constructed in Russia.

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