Thomas Graham: No Good Options for the West in Ukraine Crisis

August 27, 2014 In the sixth installment of the Ukraine Crisis Interview Series, CGI spoke with Thomas Graham, a former Foreign Service Officer who served as Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director for Russia on the National Security Council staff from 2004 to 2007. Dr. Graham recently co-chaired the Boisto Group meeting in Finland, where American and Russian experts outlined a path for negotiating a diplomatic solution to the Ukrainian conflict. He spoke with CGI about the Finland meeting, the Germany’s new role in Europe, and whether the Ukrainian crisis matters to the West.

Center on Global Interests: You were a part of the Track II talks in June that outlined a potential pathway for a resolution in  Ukraine. What were the most contentious issues in those discussions?

Thomas Graham: We had a confidential discussion, so I’m not at liberty to talk about the specific issues and what was contentious. The goal of the meeting was to discuss in as open a fashion as possible the differences between Russia and the United States. The reason to meet was the deterioration in U.S.-Russian relations more broadly. Obviously, Ukraine is at the forefront of the agenda now, but we’ve all understood that the relationship has been in decline for at least a year and a half, if not longer.

CGI: In the outline of the plan that was released, the return of Crimea was not mentioned as a requirement. Why not?

TG: Crimea is there, and the important point is the settlement of the Crimean issue. Everyone realizes this is a major point of contention, and the issue has to be resolved in a way that is satisfactory to Kyiv, as well as to Moscow and the people in Crimea itself. What the outcome of that negotiation would be is not clear at this point.

CGI: The plan also does not mention negotiations between Kyiv and the separatists, which separatist leaders and Russian officials have both repeatedly called for. Why not?

TG: In part because we thought that [negotiations with rebels] was an internal Ukrainian issue, although the Russians may have an interest in it. It’s something that would be worked out subsequent to a resolution of what we see as a crisis between Russia and Ukraine on the one hand, and Europe and the United States on the other. But how Ukraine organizes its political system is a subject for the Ukrainians themselves to work out. That was not something we thought would be a key point in discussions between the United States and Russia.

CGI: Do you think the recent escalation of the crisis by Russia was aimed at strengthening its hand prior to the meeting between Putin and Poroshenko in Minsk?

TG: It’s hard to say. I think we are moving into a phase where everyone is looking more closely at a diplomatic solution to the crisis. The destruction has increased significantly over the past several weeks, in part because of intensified fighting on the ground. If you look at the military situation at this point, it can only get more destructive moving forward. That President Putin and President Poroshenko met in Minsk on Tuesday is a sign that at least they’re opening a channel of high-level discussions. It’s a first step in what could be a more prolonged and very tough negotiating process.

CGI: How should the United States and European countries respond if Russia invades Ukraine?

TG: I don’t think Europe and the United States have a lot of good options at this point. There would be some sanctions, obviously; there would be talk about reassuring our east European allies in NATO; and there would be consideration of providing some form of military support to Ukraine, whether it be intelligence sharing, equipment, or supplies. There would also be an effort to condemn Russia in the harshest terms through various international organizations, starting with the UN and the OSCE. I don’t think the West or NATO is prepared for a military response that would put NATO troops or American troops on the ground or anywhere near the conflict.

CGI: What role do you see Europe, and specifically Germany, playing to resolve the crisis? When the dust settles, is there going to be a new security framework for Europe balanced on the Russo-German relationship?

TG: The Germans are clearly playing a much more central role in European security discussions than they have previously—it’s a consequence of both the size of their economy and the quality of their economic growth. We are seeing the reemergence of Germany as a major foreign policy actor, and I don’t think that is going to change with the resolution of the crisis. Angela Merkel is a central figure in Europe and she will continue to be as long as she is chancellor of Germany. And once she’s departed, I would imagine Germany itself will continue to play a significant role in foreign policy in the years ahead.

CGI: As you mentioned in a recent article, the Russian economy is in dire need of innovation–some are comparing today’s situation to the Soviet Union in the 1980s. Do you think President Putin understands the urgency of Russia’s economic problems, or can Russia simply live off new oil revenue from the Arctic and other regions?

TG: People have talked about the need to modernize for several years at this point; the political problem is building the coalition that is prepared to do that. Putin understands that, but he is looking for a way to modernize in a way that is consistent with the way he thinks Russia should be governed—that is a significant challenge, and I don’t think he can square that circle. But I don’t think he has foresworn modernization as an economic goal. In fact, it is critical to Russia’s standing in the world going forward.

CGI: Ukrainian President Poroshenko seems to be backed into a corner. If he continues to fight, he risks alienating the East even more; if he stops fighting, he will lose territory. What do you think the best course of action for Poroshenko is at this point?

TG: I don’t think he loses territory; I think people are absolutely wrong about that. If you have a ceasefire and a negotiating process, it’s possible to reintegrate that part into Ukraine as a whole. I think the Rada elections will demonstrate that there is significant support in eastern Ukraine for remaining a part of the Ukrainian state, even if there are certain areas that remain at that time under separatist control and don’t participate in the vote. My own assessment is that these so-called statelets of Donetsk and Lugansk have very little popular support, and even less support as the fighting has dragged on. That doesn’t mean that people are pleased with Kyiv, but I think the overwhelming majority of people in eastern Ukraine see themselves as part of the Ukrainian state. The question is what the political system is going to look like and what kind of powers will be devolved to the regional and local levels, so that the people closest to the problems have a significant say in the policies that are implemented to address them.

CGI: Aleksandr Zakharchenko, the prime minister of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic openly said there can no longer be any negotiations that see Donetsk and Lugansk as part of Ukraine. How do we reconcile these statements with efforts to maintain territorial integrity of the Ukraine?

TG: I think those are the views of a certain set of individuals. At the end of the day, in a diplomatic resolution, people have to make the best deal they possibly can. I don’t think a diplomatic resolution to the crisis is going to lead to the creation of independent statelets around Donetsk and Lugansk.

CGI: You have a situation in which the U.S. is trying to manage China’s rise as a global power, and now Russia is asserting itself once again. Can the U.S. manage both, or is Europe going to have to pick up some of the slack?

TG: I think Europe is going to have to play a larger role in global affairs, and one of the big debates going on in Europe today is how it should present itself internationally. There are clear tensions because of the number of members in the European Union and their slightly different views of national interests, as well as what the interests of Europe should be. But the world is going to need a more unified European foreign policy. It may come that a country likes Germany plays the lead in defining that foreign policy, and that’s going to be important for managing Europe’s relations with Russia, and also with China. We’re moving into a period where there will be a number of major powers, and finding a balance among them is going to be the challenge for statesmen across the world.

CGI: In your recent Politico article, you write that the West doesn’t care about Ukraine. Should it?

TG: I think [the United States] should be concerned about Ukraine and European security. The article states what I think is obvious at this point: that there are limits to how far the United States and Europe are willing to go to help Ukraine. In part that’s because of vulnerabilities in their own economies and the domestic political challenges they all face. We need to have a serious discussion of how we might help Ukraine repair its economy and rebuild its state. On the economic side, I think it’s just objective reality that you can’t do this without the Russians, given the state of Ukraine’s economy and its energy needs, which can only be met in the short-term with a significant element of Russian energy, particularly gas. So yes, I think Western thought about building a durable security system in Europe would focus more on Ukraine. But political leaders and publics are more focused on domestic issues than long-term strategic issues right now.

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