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Calculating a U.S. response to ‘new reality’ of Russia’s claim in Crimea

March 18, 2014 at 6:13 PM EDT
What does Russia’s swift claiming of Crimea portend for the region and Russian ambitions? How should the U.S. and the international community respond? Judy Woodruff gets views from Dimitri Simes of the Center for the National Interest, Jessica Mathews of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and Richard Haass of the Council on Foreign Relations.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Russia’s swift claim of Crimea has raised serious questions about the future of the region, Moscow’s next moves, and what else the U.S. and other countries should be doing about it.

Tonight, we get three views on those questions from Richard Haass. He’s the president of the Council on Foreign Relations and former director of the policy planning at the State Department during the George W. Bush administration. Jessica Mathews, she’s president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. She served at the State Department during the Clinton administration. And Dimitri Simes, president of the Center for the National Interest, a foreign policy think tank, he’s a native of Russia.

And we welcome all three of you.

Dimitri Simes, today was, I think, the most — one of the most passionate, defiant speeches we have heard Vladimir Putin give. What do you think his main message was to his own people and to the West?

DIMITRI SIMES, Center for the National Interest: Well, his message to his own people was that mother Russia has arrived. It cannot be pushed around anymore. It cannot be ignored. Russia is a great power and has to be treated with respect, or else.

But the second message to the West was twofold. First, as far as Crimea is concerned, it’s all over but the music. It is a part of Russia, and this is the way it is going to be. However, Russia doesn’t plan to invade Ukraine, and Russia may be even under some circumstances a part of a constructive solution for Ukraine, a constructive solution where Mr. Putin would have his own agenda.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Jessica Mathews, what you take away from what Putin said today?

JESSICA TUCHMAN MATHEWS, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace: I would agree with part of what Dimitri said.

I don’t take very seriously what he had to say about no further designs on Ukraine, because, two weeks ago, we heard he had no plans to annex Crimea. And in — and if you read it very, very closely, he says, of course, Russia reserves the right to protect Russian citizens.

So there are enough Russians living in Ukraine and elsewhere in the former Soviet empire. So I would call that decidedly a mixed message at the very best.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Richard Haass, what about you?  How did you read what — what we heard from Putin?

RICHARD HAASS, Council on Foreign Relations: Not a lot to add, actually, Judy.

The real question for all of us is whether what we’re hearing is one of what you might call a Crimea exceptionalism. He did this in order, say, to compensate for the loss of Kiev. And this was his way of saving face and saving some strategic position.

That’s one — it’s one set of problems that poses to us, mainly the way he went about it. On the other hand, if this presages something more, an effort to rebuild parts of a lost empire, then, obviously, it’s far more worrisome.

We simply don’t know. Interestingly enough, I’m not sure Mr. Putin knows. One always assume that the adversary, the guy across the table has a fully articulated and elaborated game plan. It’s quite possible he’s improvising and making this up as he goes along, and what he does next will depend in part upon what domestic reactions are and obviously, even more, what the international response is.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Dimitri Simes, what about that? Could Dimitri — could Vladimir Putin be improvising as he goes along, waiting to see what the reactions are internally and from the West before he decides what to do next?

DIMITRI SIMES: I think that Richard is right.

Jessica just said something very important. Putin promised two weeks ago not to invade Crimea. And then we know they have done that. However, when Putin was promising not to invade Crimea, they were already talking about referendum in Crimea. And there was just one question, an extended autonomy from Ukraine.

And then things happened between Russia and Ukraine, between Russia and the United States, and they have moved the date of referendum forward. And they have added another question, complete independence for Crimea and then joining Russia.

I think that Richard is exactly right. Putin was changing his mind as a confrontation was progressing, as escalation was growing, and as the Kremlin got an impression that they wouldn’t have to pay a very heavy price. But, at the same time, they felt that the United States and the European Union were treating Russia quite provocatively.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Jessica Mathews, if Putin, if Russia does stop at Crimea, if they don’t move further, is that something that the West, Europe and the United States can accept, can live with?

JESSICA TUCHMAN MATHEWS: We’re going to have to live with it, because Crimea is done. It’s over. It’s not going to be reversed.

And U.S. policy shouldn’t be to roll this back. It — even as we refuse to recognize what has happened, our policy now should be focusing on Eastern Ukraine and the — the unification of a Ukraine as it now exists and on, I think, a new Russia policy.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And I want to pursue that in just a minute, but let me get Richard Haass’ take on that.

Is — if Russia were to stop with Crimea, can the West live with that?

RICHARD HAASS: Well, we will have to live with it unless such a time as Russia is forced to disgorge it because of some kind of a nationalist reaction.

But I think, for the foreseeable future, this is — this is the new reality. We have got to accept it. And what we want to do then is try to use this in ways that discourage further Russian moves, and this means the kind of thing that Vice President Biden is doing, stepping up, if you will, U.S. support for the neighboring countries that are part of NATO.

It means shoring up Ukraine itself. The rest of Ukraine has a history of political and economic dysfunction. We shouldn’t take its stability for granted. We ought to be opening up our ability to export oil and gas. We ought to dilute the principal lever now of Russian foreign policy, which is the hold it gets, the influence it derives from its energy exports.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, Dimitri Simes, if these are the kinds of steps that the U.S. and — and Europe takes, what would the effect be? I mean, what would the Russian reaction be, do you think?

DIMITRI SIMES: Well, I completely agree with Jessica and Richard.

Again, as far as the Crimea is concerned, there’s very little we can do. We can make clear that there will be no Western investment in Crimea. That is up to us.

But, in terms of removing Russian troops, that is not in the cards. What I think we should be doing are two things which are quite unusual for this administration. First, we should think strategically and understand what our objective is. And our objective should be not to allow Russia to invade Ukraine. And, in that regard, I don’t understand…

JUDY WOODRUFF: Any more of Ukraine?

DIMITRI SIMES: Any more of Ukraine, the Ukrainian proper.

I don’t understand why it was necessary for the administration to make clear that they would not be providing weapons to Ukraine, that there would be no security assistance, even if there would be further Russian invasion.

At the same time, I will be talking to the Russians about the possibility of building a new relationship, getting out from this hole to provide Putin an incentive, more pressure and more incentive.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But, Jessica Mathews, it sounds like what we’re hearing from the administration is more threatening talk, that if you do more of this, we will do X, Y and Z, rather than the kind of openings that we are hearing right now from Richard and Dimitri.

JESSICA TUCHMAN MATHEWS: I think we have to be operating on several different levels, some of which appear to be somewhat contradictory.

We have got to impose some costs, even if they’re very, very minor and they leave room for escalation. We have to be talking seriously to the Russians, because, as horrible as what they have done is, it is crucial for us to understand that a spark of this was a terrible European mistake, which the U.S. allowed to happen, which was to make the integration, economic integration agreement an either/or choice.

JUDY WOODRUFF: With — with — you mean with Ukraine?

JESSICA TUCHMAN MATHEWS: With the E.U. and Ukraine.


JESSICA TUCHMAN MATHEWS: And what that said to the Russians was, Ukraine is no longer a bridge between East and West. It’s a beachhead for the West right up against our border. And that, we know, was the Russian red line.

So someone has to be talking at a very — at the most senior level to get at that issue, and to say, we recognize that Ukraine needs to be that bridge. Long-term, strategically, that ought to be our position.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Richard Haass, pick up on that.

RICHARD HAASS: What I think we — I think it’s fair to say that, while the administration has probably done OK in responding to the crisis, it did miss the — it did take its eye off the ball.

And I think one of the real criticisms you can make is that for the last few years, we have allowed ourselves to become strategically obsessed with the wrong part of the world, which is the Middle East. And we have essentially lost our focus both on Asia and to a lesser extent on Europe, and now we’re trying to play catchup.

I would think the most important thing we could do is spend more time in Berlin, talking to the German government, and trying to fashion a really robust response that would basically tell Mr. Putin, here’s the cost, which is limited, you will pay for what you have done, but there will be a dramatically greater cost to be paid economically if you were to go on from here.

And that has got to be a U.S.-German and, through Germany, European response. We can also keep up the diplomatic side. And I take that point. The cliché of the day has become off-ramps. And we — there is an argument to be made that we shouldn’t allow the totality of the U.S.-Russian relationship to be fined — to be defined by Crimea on the chance that Crimea is something of an exception.

So we want to keep open the relationship. In part, we have also, Judy, got to be talking about things like Iran, Syria and North Korea. But, right now, I would really work the U.S.-European account to try to present the Russians with some very stark choices.


JUDY WOODRUFF: All right, we hear you. We hear you, all three.


JUDY WOODRUFF: We’re going to have to come back to this. And I know we will come back to this on many occasions.


JUDY WOODRUFF: But, for now, we thank you, Jessica Mathews, Dimitri Simes, Richard Haass.