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Sanctions ‘only pressure point the West has’ in Ukraine-Russia crisis

August 30, 2014 at 6:21 PM EST
For more perspective about what options the United States and its Western allies have to deal with the Russian military intervention in Ukraine, Nicholas Burns joins Hari Sreenivasan via Skype from Massachusetts. Burns is a former Under Secretary of State and now a professor at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government.
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HARI SREENIVASAN: Returning now to the crisis in Ukraine. For more perspective about what options the United States and its western allies have to deal with the Russian military intervention there, we’re joined now via Skype from Westfield, Mass., by Nicholas Burns. He is a former undersecretary of state and now a professor at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. Thanks for joining us.

So, what should the West’s role be here? What is the appropriate balance between diplomacy and military action?

R. NICHOLAS BURNS: This is a major turning point in the crisis because President Putin has now put Russian soldiers, Russian-mechanized equipment over the border into Ukraine. They’ve encircled the Ukrainian military, and they’ve turned the tide of this war. It’s an outright violation of international law, so I think that the West has three options ahead of it and there will be a very important NATO meeting in Wales to consider this.

Number one, stronger sanctions against the Russian government and the Russian economy. And this will mean very severe financial sanctions, the kind of sanctions that will really drive up the cost to President Putin for what he has done. Second, the Ukrainian government is asking for sophisticated arms transfers from Europe and the United States – and intelligence support where they can fight back and control its own territory.

I think President Obama has been very clear, and rightly so, the United States is not going to go to war with Russia over Ukraine. But certainly we have an interest in helping the Ukrainians to defend themselves and defend their territory.

And third, continued economic support and here the Europeans should take the lead, led by Germany, because the Ukrainian economy as you know is faltering, and it needs a dramatic infusion of western capital.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Is there any reason to believe these sanctions will work? We’ve imposed some sanctions on Russia and so have the Europeans. It just seems they have just escalated no into a sanctions war.

R. NICHOLAS BURNS: It’s really the only pressure point that the West has right now because, again, we’ve rightly given up the alternative of war. It doesn’t make sense legally or politically for us to tangle with the Russian government. We’re two nuclear weapons countries.

And so it’s really the Russian economy’s vulnerable. The Russian economy is very much integrated, particularly with the European economy. It depends on infusions of international capital, it depends on manufactured imports from Europe, especially.

And if the Europeans will agree to substantial financial sanctions much stronger than the first two rounds of sanctions over the last five months, that will be the best way to get Putin’s attention and show him, demonstrate to him that there’s a real cost to what he’s done in violating international law in the way that he’s done so.

HARI SREENIVASAN: If we began arms transfers, are we essentially engaging in the equivalent of a proxy war against Russia?

R. NICHOLAS BURNS: No, we’re simply helping a friendly country. And Ukraine in the last 15 years has been a friendly country to the NATO allies, including the United States. We’re helping that country defend itself, protect its borders, police its streets, take back two big cities — Donetsk and Lugansk — in the eastern part of the country that are critical for the survival of an integrated Ukraine.

And I think the reason to do so, Hari, is the principle at stake is so important. At the end of the Cold War, we achieved a democratic peace in Europe, something that Europe had not been for centuries. That’s now all at risk because Putin very cynically is using force to divide countries and draw new dividing lines in Europe.

So it’s that important that the United States and the Western Europeans get engaged here and next week’s going to be and important week. We’ll know the answer.

HARI SREENIVASAN: So how consequential is Ukraine’s attempt to join NATO, and how long would that process take?

R. NICHOLAS BURNS: Well, you know, Ukraine has been a partner of NATO since the late 1990s. It’s not at all realistic that Ukraine will become a member of NATO, given the fact that Ukraine is fractured. It has these massive territorial disputes with Russia. Ukraine can hope to be a partner, continue to be a partner with NATO and work with it.

But I think what the Ukrainians need and want most, Hari, is not NATO membership. They want a trade relationship with the European Union. They won’t be a member of the European Union any time soon as well. But they need the trade, they need the capital investment. They need the economic assistance that some kind of association, a partnership or association would have.

And remember, President Putin’s invasion of Crimea and everything he’s done was precipitated by the fact that the Ukrainians were threatening a trade agreement with the European Union. He is that paranoid about states along his periphery looking west as opposed to east.

HARI SREENIVASAN: And what about this idea of Novorossiya, something that the Russians have said, ‘Sure, we’ll stop all of this if we can just go ahead and annex this portion of Ukraine back’? It seems that whether we like it or not, they’ve already sent the troops in and are, in fact, taking over that part of Ukraine. 

R. NICHOLAS BURNS: Well, it’s a very unsettling and destabilizing concept that you’d say that, ‘We have a right as Russians to unite all Russians outside the borders of Russia.’ There are significant populations of Russians, of course, in Ukraine, but also in Moldova, in Belarus, in Kazakhstan, in Uzbekistan.

Should we support the Russian government’s right to march into those countries, take over portions of those countries simply because ethnic Russians are living there? This is an inexact comparison, of course, but that was essentially the philosophy of the Nazi party in Germany in the 1930s, that they would unite the Germans living outside the German Reich.

It’s a very dangerous, destabilizing concept we vowed after the second World War we would not allow that kind of action in Europe. And here it is with President Putin, with this Novorossiya, New Russia concept, which is dangerous. And it needs to be opposed by the United States and the Western Europeans.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Alright, Nicholas Burns, thanks so much for your time.

R. NICHOLAS BURNS: Thank you.