Steven Pifer: Russia-Ukraine Tensions: What does Putin Plan to do with Troops Amassed on Ukraine’s Border?

An Interview with Steven Pifer [/et_pb_row][et_pb_row _builder_version="4.11.3" _module_preset="default" custom_margin="|auto|-52px|auto||" custom_padding="||56px|||" global_colors_info="{}"][et_pb_column type="4_4" _builder_version="4.11.3" _module_preset="default" global_colors_info="{}"][et_pb_divider color="#000000" divider_weight="14px" _builder_version="4.11.3" _module_preset="default" width="46%" global_colors_info="{}"][/et_pb_divider][/et_pb_column][/et_pb_row][/et_pb_section][et_pb_section fb_built="1" _builder_version="4.14.2" _module_preset="default" custom_padding="11px|416px|24px|45px||" global_colors_info="{}"][et_pb_row _builder_version="4.14.2" _module_preset="default" custom_padding="0px|||||" global_colors_info="{}"][et_pb_column type="4_4" _builder_version="4.14.2" _module_preset="default" global_colors_info="{}"][et_pb_video src="" ="||23px|||" global_colors_info="{}"][/et_pb_video][/et_pb_column][/et_pb_row][/et_pb_section][et_pb_section fb_built="1" _builder_version="4.0.11" min_height="2236.9px" custom_padding="||0px|||" global_colors_info="{}"][et_pb_row _builder_version="4.0.11" custom_margin="-47px|auto||auto||" custom_padding="7px|||||" global_colors_info="{}"][et_pb_column type="4_4" _builder_version="4.0.11" global_colors_info="{}"][et_pb_text _builder_version="4.0.11" min_height="2135.8px" custom_margin="||9px|||" custom_padding="|133px|12px|||" inline_fonts="Arial" global_colors_info="{}"]How would you characterize the recent diplomatic dialogue between President Biden and President Putin? How has it impacted the situation in Ukraine? What do you hope to see moving forward? One could note some small positive steps in U.S.-Russia relations following the June 2021 meeting between Presidents Biden and Putin in Geneva. Unfortunately, the Russian military threat that has been building against Ukraine since late October continues and has overshadowed those positive steps. After the presidents spoke on December 7, there were two things I hoped to see: one, abatement in the Russian military build-up near Ukraine; and two, a softening of the rhetoric coming out of Moscow. The military build-up has not yet shown signs of reversal and continues to be a cause of concern. The rhetoric may have reduced somewhat but remains aggressive. Last June, you wrote an article for the Brookings Institution on the Putin-Biden Summit that stated it was still too early to tell whether the June meeting advanced Biden's objectives of building a stable and predictable US-Russia relationship at a time when relations between these two states had reached an all-time low. What has happened in the months since then? How did we get here, and what path do you see forward? I believe that there were some small but positive, developments that took place following the meeting between President Biden and Putin in Geneva.  For one, we saw an expansion of the diplomatic channels between Washington and Moscow. The sides began talking about issues that they were not talking about before.  As to the second point, they have launched the strategic stability dialogue, which is looking at nuclear arms issues and related questions, to see if they can restart some kind of negotiation between the United States and Russia in the security sphere. At least so far, both sides seem to regard those discussions as constructive.  On a third point, I heard that there has been some progress on cyber questions, although not a lot.  However, the threat of a new Russian invasion of Ukraine puts all of that at risk. Nothing would kill those positive developments in the US-Russia relationship more than a major Russian military incursion into Ukraine, on top of the seizure of Crimea in 2014 and Russia’s continued presence in occupied Donbas.  President Putin seemed to want to have a slightly more positive relationship, but he puts that at risk if he's considering using military force in Ukraine. This also complicates President Biden’s objective of seeking a stable and predictable relationship with Russia. From what we have seen from Moscow, particularly from Mr. Putin and the Kremlin, it signifies a preference for unpredictability and instability. Canada has been a strong supporter of Ukraine's territorial integrity and sovereignty over the years. It was the first Western country to recognize Ukraine's independence over thirty years ago, and it has been a significant donor in areas of humanitarian assistance, capacity building, and military support. Does it say more about Canada's relationship with the U.S or perhaps our foreign policy in general, that Canada was not included in the December 26th phone call between the US, Germany, Italy, British and French leadership which followed the conversation with Putin and Biden? And what about talks in the Normandy format? Is there room for Canada to become more involved? I would not read too much into the fact that Canada was not included in the Quint phone conversation. What President Biden used was an established channel—The Quint, involving the United States, Britain, Germany, France, and Italy. There subsequently were a multitude of U.S. consultations with NATO allies and EU partners, including Canada. There is always this trade-off. Sometimes you want to have as many people as possible in the room to be inclusive. On the other hand, if you had all the NATO members or thirty people there, it's hard to engage in a real back-and-forth conversation and it quickly becomes thirty people just stating their positions.  As we have seen, particularly during the week of January 10, there are a variety of potential channels for dialogue following President Biden’s December 7 and December 30 conversations with President Putin. One is a more enhanced American diplomatic effort in support of the Normandy process, which would be the United States working with the Germans and the French who have led this process since 2015, trying to broker a solution between Russia and Ukraine over Donbas. My guess is that that process will stay fairly limited with regard to including other countries, although I would anticipate that the United States, Germany, and France will be briefing allies and partners on it.  The second process that President Biden held out in December was a channel for a discussion with Russia on broader European security concerns. On January 10, U.S. and Russian officials met for nearly eight hours in Geneva discussing these issues, though not negotiating. Washington officials have made clear they could not negotiate issues regarding European security or Ukraine without Europeans and Ukrainians at the table. This certainly cannot be a conversation just between Washington and Moscow. Ultimately, you have to find a way to bring all NATO members and Ukraine into that conversation, because that discussion will have an impact on the interests of everyone. And we saw on January 12 that the NATO-Russia Council met, and a session of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe was held on January 13.  Those discussions addressed, among other things, the draft U.S.-Russia and NATO-Russia agreements that the Russians handed over and then publicized in mid-December. The drafts contain provisions that are unacceptable, as the Russian drafters had to know. NATO is not going to agree to foreswear further enlargement, and it will not agree to abstain from deploying military forces on the territory of Alliance members that joined after 1997. However, other elements of the draft agreements—such as missiles in Europe or constraints on the size and scope of military exercises—could provide a basis for discussion and even negotiation, provided that Moscow is prepared to address Western concerns about Russian military activities. The big question, the answer to which we still do not know in mid-January: does the Kremlin intend these documents as the opening bid in a genuine give-and-take negotiation, or does it seek their rejection, so as to have another pretext for military action against Ukraine? How is Russia exploiting Ukraine’s socio-political vulnerabilities to destabilize from within the country? Can we see a difference in both the offensive methods and mitigation efforts between now and 2014? There are certainly people in Ukraine who have pro-Russian sentiments. The Ukrainian government is concerned about Mr. Medvedchuk, who's now under house arrest. This is someone with a very close personal connection to Mr. Putin, and over the years he has taken positions that are largely in the Russian interest and at some sacrifice Ukrainian interest. There are political players like that.  There is also the Party of Regions, now called the Opposition Bloc. Some people in that party may have connections back to Moscow, although there are some in that party whom I think just legitimately see a different course for Ukraine, in terms of having a different relationship with Russia. That view is largely a minority view in Ukraine, given what has happened in the last seven years. Nothing has done more to push Ukraine further away from Russia, and to antagonize people in Ukraine, not towards individual Russians, but towards the Russian government and towards Russia, than the Kremlin’s policies in the last seven or eight years. The $64 million question is: what does Mr. Putin plan to do with all those troops he's amassed on Ukraine's border? My own view is that he may not yet have decided. I believe that the costs to Russia of an attack on Ukraine would be huge, in terms of economic sanctions, in terms of Western countries providing weapons and equipment to Ukraine, in terms of a stronger NATO presence on NATO territories that are closer to Russia. There will also be costs the Ukrainians themselves impose on Russia—the Ukrainian military will fight, and there are already plans underway for territorial defence and partisan operations.  To my mind, those costs at the end of the day would outweigh the benefits, but I will be the first to admit that Vladimir Putin does not always operate on the same logic that I do.  Seeing a Russian military operation at this scale would certainly be different than 2014. Crimea was a largely bloodless operation for the Russians. They were able to use military forces that were in fact already in place in Crimea under agreement with Ukraine. The Russians have tried to hide their involvement in Donbas by calling this a separatist conflict, even though there's significant evidence of Russian military involvement there.  But if the kind of military operation that is now creating alarm, in fact, happens, this is going to be a major force-on-force Russian operation in Ukraine. That will be one of the things that makes this perhaps more difficult for Mr. Putin. The seizure of Crimea, particularly since it involved no Russian casualties, was very popular with the Russian public. The Kremlin has also been able to portray the conflict in Donbas at home as a separatist conflict that does not involve Russia at all.  However, if the Russian military launches a major attack into Ukraine, you are going to see the casualties—Russian soldiers coming home in body bags. I'm not sure how that plays with the Russian public, but I think that may be a factor of concern to the Kremlin. In your opinion, have the lessons learned by Russia in Afghanistan been factored into the threat assessment with respect to Ukraine? I do not know. The Soviet Union found out in 1979, and the U.S found out in 2001, that getting into Afghanistan is fairly simple. Initially, things for both the Soviet operation and the American operation looked like they were going well, but it was only a little bit later on that the costs, both economic and in terms of casualties, began to pile up.  I wonder if the Russians do remember that experience because we have seen that the Ukrainians are now placing more effort on Territorial Defence Forces. They have something like 400,000 veterans, who over the last eight years have had experience on the line of contact facing off against Russia and Russian proxy forces. I have heard stories that a lot of weapons have been handed out.  I go back to a conversation I had with a senior Ukrainian military official, maybe six years ago, after some Russian had made the claim that, if Moscow wanted to, the Russian army could be in Kyiv in two weeks' time. His response was, yes, the Russian army could be here in two weeks' time, but they would have one hell of a time getting out. I do worry that the Russians may make a huge miscalculation here. They could find themselves in a much longer conflict and a much more difficult conflict than they anticipated. Based on Russia's current military build-up on the border, do you think there are potential flashpoints for conflict more likely to be prone to strategic miscalculation? What political or strategic considerations might Putin prioritize? I think what is driving Mr. Putin here with regard towards Ukraine is a mixture of geopolitical and domestic political considerations—but we cannot say that with absolute certainty.  Geopolitically, there is this Russian concern, which has been expressed very clearly by Mr. Putin and others in the Kremlin, that Ukraine is getting too close to NATO. Well, Ukraine is getting close to NATO because Russia has conducted a low-intensity war against Ukraine for the last eight years, and many Ukrainians have come to see NATO membership as their only reliable security guarantee. This, to my mind, has been a strategic failure on the part of Russian policy.  There is also a domestic political consideration, which is that in Mr. Putin’s first two terms as president, regime legitimacy was based on economics. He was lucky—the price of oil went up and the Russian economy was growing 5% to 7% a year during those first two terms.  I recall conversations with Russians in Moscow when I was still in the government, where they said Mr. Putin has this informal social agreement with us, we're not going to have a political voice, but we're going to see our living standards rise and the economy is going to grow. This is what happened. When he came back to the presidency in 2012, the economic picture was much more grim. The Russian economy has been growing at an average of about 1% per year over the last decade. He did not talk about economics. Instead, he seemed to base regime legitimacy on Russian nationalism, and Russia as a great power reclaiming its place in the world. Part of that narrative requires an adversary, and he chose to make it the United States and NATO.  This robust policy approach is something that he calculates plays well with his constituency, which may be true, but what happens if that constituency sees the price of that policy is dead Russian soldiers?  Could you speak to the use of Nord Stream 2 as a diplomatic tool in the crisis as well as any variance in the position of Olaf Scholtz and Angela Merkel? Will this have an impact on the NATO alliance or the EU? The Scholz government has sent some mixed signals. Foreign Minister Baerbock said in December that, if there were a Russian escalation of military force, work proceeding towards certification of Nord Stream 2 simply could not continue, which tallies with what you hear out of American officials. My guess is if there were a Russian military operation to Ukraine, the most likely prospect is that the Germans would freeze Nord Stream 2.   If they did not, the Biden administration would likely not be inclined to grant waivers of sanctions on European companies that were dealing with Nord Stream 2. To some extent, Nord Stream 2 has been made something of a hostage—if Russia wants to get that pipeline going, military force against Ukraine is not going to advance that cause.  Chancellor Merkel did a good job in rallying the European Union to maintain sanctions and in fact strengthen sanctions on Russia over the time of conflict with Ukraine. Had you asked American experts in 2014, when the EU first applied the sanctions, if they would still be enforced and had been toughened in 2021, you would have encountered a lot of skepticism.  The sign so far is that Chancellor Scholz and his cabinet are inclined to follow through on the Merkel policy. It could even toughen towards Russia—the Greens who are now a party in the coalition and the Free Democrats brought a much more skeptical view of German policy towards Russia and are advocating a stronger stance against Russia than the previous government. If there is a Russian military attack on Ukraine, my guess is that it is going to galvanize and strengthen the view in Berlin that there has to be solid pushback against Russia.  Final thoughts... I think the West has done a good job of laying out the costs that the West would impose if there is a new Russian attack on Ukraine. One more step that would be valuable is if the United States and the European Union, again with Canada and Britain probably invited on the side-lines, could agree on the list of sanctions that would be applied and then privately communicate that to the Russians, to let the Russians know ahead of time how heavy the price would be. Of course, that only has an impact if, in fact, the sum of the sanctions has a real economic impact on Russia.  My view is you probably cannot resolve Donbas until you have that conversation on broader European security issues. The Russians have raised some questions there, but NATO, the United States, and Ukraine also have issues, which all need to be put on the table. That will be a long, arduous process, but that dialogue may find some ways to defuse some of the issues that are driving this current crisis. Washington and NATO appear ready for that dialogue. The most important thing is, do the Russians take the steps to de-escalate? It is hard to see diplomacy going very far if the Russians are still maintaining this threat of military invasion hanging over Ukraine.  And things become very different if the Russian military conducts a new major incursion into Ukraine. [/et_pb_row][/et_pb_section][et_pb_section fb_built="1" _builder_version="4.14.2" _module_preset="default" background_color="#c4c4c4" custom_padding="66px||83px|212px||" global_colors_info="{}"][et_pb_row column_structure="1_4,1_4,1_4,1_4" ="|auto||-76px||" custom_padding="|||0px||" global_colors_info="{}"][et_pb_column type="1_4" _builder_version="4.14.2" _module_preset="default" global_colors_info="{}"][et_pb_image src="" title_text="steven_pifer_0-modified" _builder_version="4.14.2" _module_preset="default" global_colors_info="{}"][/et_pb_image][/et_pb_column][et_pb_column type="1_4" _builder_version="4.14.2" _module_preset="default" global_colors_info="{}"][et_pb_text _builder_version="4.14.2" _module_preset="default" text_line_height="1.3em" custom_margin="|-343px||||" custom_padding="0px|73px|0px|||" global_colors_info="{}"]Steven Pifer is a nonresident senior fellow in the Arms Control and Non-Proliferation Initiative, Center for 21st Century Security and Intelligence, and the Center on the United States and Europe at the Brookings Institution, and a William J. Perry fellow at the Center for International Security and Cooperation at Stanford University. From January-May 2021, he was a fellow at the Robert Bosch Academy in Berlin. He focuses on nuclear arms control, Ukraine, and Russia. He has offered commentary on these issues on National Public Radio, PBS NewsHour, CNN, Fox News, BBC, and VOA, and his articles have run in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Financial Times, National Interest, Moscow Times, and Kyiv Post, among others. He is the author of “The Eagle and the Trident: U.S.-Ukraine Relations in Turbulent Times” (Brookings Institution Press, 2017), and co-author with Michael O’Hanlon of “The Opportunity: Next Steps in Reducing Nuclear Arms” (Brookings Institution Press, 2012).

Russia-Ukraine Tensions: What does Putin Plan to do with the Troops Amassed on Ukraine’s Border?

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