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Can U.S. balance deterrence and diplomacy in responding to Russia’s move in Ukraine?

March 12, 2014 at 6:12 PM EDT
Days before Crimea’s planned referendum on whether to split from Ukraine, the White House made a symbolic gesture by hosting that country’s interim leader. How far should the U.S. go in supporting Ukraine’s new government? Hari Sreenivasan gets two views from Adrian Karatnycky of the Atlantic Council and Stephen Walt of Harvard University.
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HARI SREENIVASAN: So, how much should the White House support Ukraine’s new government?  And how far should it go to extract costs for Moscow’s actions?

For that, we get two views. Adrian Karatnycky is a senior fellow at The Atlantic Council, and Stephen Walt, professor of international relations at Harvard University.

Adrian, I want to start with you.

You met with the interim minister later this afternoon. Is he satisfied with the support that President Obama said that we would lay out?

ADRIAN KARATNYCKY, The Atlantic Council: I think this is all a work in progress.

And from the point of view that he is getting reassurances of very deep and significant engagement on the part, especially of Europe and the United States, both in dealing with the economic travails and problems that face Ukraine and trying to come up with a muscular or assertive response, not a military response, but an assertive response to the Russian invasion incursion into Crimea, I think he is satisfied.

But I would say that everyone is now waiting to see how far Mr. Putin will go. And I think that the types of responses that will come will be commensurate to the game that Mr. Putin plays out in the coming weeks and months.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Stephen Walt, you have seen what the president said. Any more insight into what the administration is willing to do?

STEPHEN WALT, Harvard University: Well, I thought what President Obama said is actually fairly restrained. One billion dollars in loan guarantees is really not a very substantial pledge, and he didn’t make any military commitments, commitments to use force to try and reverse what has happened.

I think the key thing to understand here is the United States wants to defend Ukraine’s territorial integrity, but it also needs to start issuing some reassurances about Ukraine’s future geopolitical alignment. Our interest is for Ukraine to remain a neutral state between East and West with good relations on both sides, not — not to become something that Russia regards as a bulwark of the West against it.

That’s the taproot of this crisis, and the one thing that’s been missing so far is an attempt to play that card back at Putin and try and work this out diplomatically as soon as possible.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Stephen — is it possible that events like today, the photo-op, the shaking of hands, the solidarity and the show of support actually backfires and that we look like we’re clearly on one side of this?

ADRIAN KARATNYCKY: You know, Russia kept moving the goalposts. Russia initially was opposed to Ukraine’s movement towards NATO. There’s no national consensus in Ukraine. There’s overwhelming public opposition to Ukraine having a military alliance inside — being a part of a military alliance.

But there was support, a majority support for joining the European Union. If Russia keeps moving the goalposts and suggesting that somehow an economic free trade agreement with the European Union is a sign of some sort of a threatening security issue for Russia, then I think the problem is with the Russian side, not with the Ukrainian side or with the West.

HARI SREENIVASAN: All right, Stephen Walt, let’s a little bit talk about those economic sanctions and about those possibilities here.

Do we have enough leverage over Russia, where economic sanctions would act as a deterrent for what they’re doing in Crimea right now?

STEPHEN WALT: I think we probably don’t.

Remember, the United States has various sanctions we could impose, but Russia has various ways to retaliate against that. For example, they can start cut off — cutting off energy supplies to Ukraine and also to other states in Europe, which gets about 30 percent of its energy now from Russia.

So, in a sense, as we start down that particular road, we have to recognize it’s going to impose significant costs on us and significant coasts on our allies. Most important of all, this is an issue that matters far more to Russia than it does to us, because of where Ukraine is located, because of the historic ties there, and because of Russian perceptions that we have been expanding our geopolitical influence into what they regard as a vital security sphere.

They’re going to be willing to pay a much bigger price than we’re likely to be willing to pay, and that’s why we need to be starting to look to ways — for ways to diffuse this, get it resolved as quickly as possible, preserve Ukraine’s territorial integrity, but also reestablish its neutral status.

HARI SREENIVASAN: And, Adrian, what about that?

ADRIAN KARATNYCKY: Well, first of all, there are historical ties that Poland has had.

You know, Right-bank Ukraine was historically integrated into Polish life for many centuries as well. There are cultural ties between Romania and the south — the southwest of Ukraine. So, this idea that Ukraine is simply some kind of an appendage state of Russia is just not borne out by the facts. Ukraine is a European state.

You know, Odessa is on the border very close to Romania, so it borders Hungary and it borders a lot of the Central European countries. It’s really not a country that’s in the sphere of Russian influence. It’s also in this cultural sphere of Central and Eastern — Eastern Europe and should be perceived that way.

And as to the cost, yes, Russia may be willing to bear more costs. But we have to remember that the GDP of Russia is the GDP of Italy, full-stop. Yes, it has some disproportionate influences through nuclear weapons, through military might, and through energy. But as an economic power, it has very little to play. And if it is jostled by sanctions, it could have a very debilitating effect.

And Mr. Putin may, if there is a firm response, pay a price, a political price several years down the line for this reckless action.

HARI SREENIVASAN: So, Adrian, you’re actually in favor of Ukraine showing more teeth, actually ramping up the National Guard and possibly even creating guerrilla groups?

ADRIAN KARATNYCKY: They have to prepare, because we don’t what kind of — I’m not encouraging the West to be a party to this.

What I’m saying is that Ukraine has to have a very vigorous deterrent. And I think, over time, the West, if things stabilize, should help quietly Ukraine to improve its military capability. That’s the reality. If you have been invaded and that invasion is an accomplished fact several years down the line, you cannot ignore it. Ukraine will have to change its posture, its defense posture.

It has been reducing very substantially. It reduced — it got rid of its nuclear weapons, presumably on Russian assurances. It’s made all sorts of steps. And its military today is behaving and its people with great, great restraint. I think it’s to be admired.

And I think — but I fully agree with Stephen Walt that this has to be handled, and we should try to handle the territorial integrity diplomatically. But, if we fail at that, the West really has to have a backup plan. And that backup plan is sanctions, building up Ukraine’s deterrent capability, and helping the country survives an eastern outpost of a new — of a newly-divided — of a newly-divided Europe at Russia’s — at Ukraine’s eastern border.

That’s the regrettable result of Mr. Putin’s folly.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Stephen, what are the options here about trying to build up Ukraine’s deterrent ability?

STEPHEN WALT: Well, we have — I think those are not very effective options.

The United States is not going to commit itself militarily to defend Ukraine at this stage. If Russia were to do more, say, go into Eastern Ukraine, that, I think, would be a huge blunder on their part, because then the western part of Ukraine would gravitate towards NATO, and we would have the United States, NATO, and Russia at odds over a now divided Ukraine. That’s not in Russia’s interest, but that’s also not in our interest either.

Our interest is, again, for a unified Ukraine that gets its economy and its dysfunctional political system back in order, but also one that reassures Russia that it’s not going to be a bulwark of Western influence right next door to the Russian borders, that reaffirms that neutrality, and then tries to go and have good relations with both sides.

That’s the one part of this that has been missing in the way the United States has talked about it, and I’m afraid the way that Prime Minister Yatsenyuk spoke about it today in Washington.

HARI SREENIVASAN: All right, Stephen Walt, professor of international relations at Harvard, and Adrian Karatnycky, a senior fellow at The Atlantic Council, thank you both.

STEPHEN WALT: Thank you.