TOPICS > World > MH17

Will the MH17 disaster cause Putin to change course in Ukraine?

July 21, 2014 at 6:12 PM EDT
Since the tragedy of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, a tenuous U.S.-Russia relationship has deteriorated even further. Will international pressure force Russian President Vladimir Putin to promote a cease-fire in Ukraine? Gwen Ifill sits down with Stephen Sestanovich, former U.S. ambassador-at-large for the former Soviet Union, and Eugene Rumer, a former national intelligence officer for Russia.
LISTEN SEE PODCASTS

TRANSCRIPT

GWEN IFILL: When the Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 was shot down, the stakes in the fight for the future of Ukraine went up. At the center of what has rapidly become a global flash point is the deteriorating relationship between the U.S. and Russia. But what, if anything, can the U.S. or Russia do in the face of international grief, recrimination and derailed diplomacy?

Stephen Sestanovich was U.S. ambassador-at-large for the former Soviet Union during the Clinton administration. He’s now senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. And Eugene Rumer was the national intelligence officer for Russia and Eurasia during the Obama administration from 2010 to 2014. He’s now director of Russia and Eurasia Programs at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Stephen Sestanovich, how much — how much good can international pressure do?

STEPHEN SESTANOVICH, Council on Foreign Relations: Well, there’s no doubt that Russia faces the most appalling public relations predicament that it’s been in, in decades. And it is going to be responding to international pressure.

No government wants to have the kind of criminal reputation that the Russians are acquiring for their handling of this. And the result is — you already see — is a kind of backing off of some of the positions that they have taken. They supported a U.N. Security Council resolution today. The separatists have been urged to release the bodies. There is that kind of minimal level of cooperation that is meant to rescue their international position right now.

GWEN IFILL: But, Eugene Rumer, this does seem like a minimal level of cooperation. Is there room for more?

EUGENE RUMER, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace: There is certainly room for more, but I think we have to keep in mind that Mr. Putin has to speak to several different audiences.

One of course is the audience that Steve talked about, the international pressure to do the right thing. But don’t forget that he has a domestic audience. And the narrative in Russia has been very different about this disaster, as well as about the relationship between Russia and the United States and the crisis in Ukraine, than what we have been hearing here in the United States.

I was in Moscow last week. And in every meeting I went to, it was very clear that the Russians have a very different view of this situation, that it’s not as black and white as it’s portrayed. If anything, it’s more black and white sort of to their favor. And Putin has to speak to that, has to take into account what’s been broadcast on Russian television and media.

And I think, to the extent that he wants to comply with international pressure, he has to be aware of the fact that — we have to be aware of the fact that he doesn’t control the situation on the ground 100 percent.

So he doesn’t want to be embarrassed if he gives orders to the separatists and they say, you’re not in charge, we are in charge here.

GWEN IFILL: Ambassador Sestanovich, you probably noticed over the past several days that there have been mixed reviews about whether the president has been tough and direct enough in his scolding of Russia and Vladimir Putin in this. What is your sense of that, and would it help?

STEPHEN SESTANOVICH:Well, I think the president has been pretty clear about the Russian role.

There is some criticism of his tone. It is kind of clipped and affectless. And I think his handlers are clearly urging to take a more — slightly edgier, more emotional approach to this. You saw that in his statement today.

GWEN IFILL: Would that make a difference?

STEPHEN SESTANOVICH:I think it is probably going to silence some of the critics who say he’s not hands-on enough, he’s not feeling the pain of the victims and their families.

But I think there’s a bigger problem for the president here, apart from just laying the blame at the Russian doorstep for access to the crime site, for example. That’s a passing issue. The fundamental issue here is Russian support for separatism in Eastern Ukraine.

GWEN IFILL: Well, let me ask you about that, Eugene Rumer.

I’m sorry.

STEPHEN SESTANOVICH:Yes.

GWEN IFILL: I just want to pick up on that point, which is, does Vladimir Putin have the leverage that some people think he does to actually get the pro-Russian separatists, as we have been calling them, to back off?

EUGENE RUMER: I believe he does have some leverage, but I’m not at all convinced that he can get them to back off, because this is not a regular army.

There are all kinds of actors with different agendas reporting to different commanders and different interests. And Putin actually at the time when he was encouraging a cease-fire was being bad-mouthed in the Russian press, in the radical Russian right, extreme right-wing press, as a traitor, as someone who was betraying the freedom fighters, if you wish, the separatists, as we call them, rightly so, and he wasn’t really doing what he is supposed to do as president to advance Russian national interests.

I think that he has some ability, but I wouldn’t bet on him being able to control them.

STEPHEN SESTANOVICH:Putin is in a fix here largely of his own making.

The nationalist hysteria that Gene talks about that dominates the Russian media right now has been encouraged by Putin. It is the consequence of the campaign that he’s been on to stoke Russian nationalism as a source for his domestic popularity. That is something that does limit his maneuvering room, but he can’t let himself be in a position where he makes Russia so isolated that it has severe consequences for the economy and for Russia’s political standing.

GWEN IFILL: Well, that’s what the U.S. is counting on, it’s what the Europeans are counting on, more now than they were before, and certainly it’s what we have heard or — which is that sanctions and tougher sectoral sanctions are going to change the calculus here, and that’s what the president should be walking out and talking about.

Do you think that would change the calculus?

EUGENE RUMER: I don’t think it is going to change the calculus. Maybe in the long term.

But I just don’t see Putin stepping away from the course that he’s on now under pressure, under threat of sanctions. And those sanctions, be they sectoral, be they a demand for Europe to stop buying Russian gas, are simply not realistic in a practical policy time frame. It’s just not in the cards.

GWEN IFILL: OK, so I want to ask both of you gentlemen what anybody should be doing here to force some sort of action in the wake of this tragedy. Is there something the U.S. could be doing? Is there some sort of diplomacy? Is there some sort of arming the rebels, arming the Ukrainian government? What is the solution?

STEPHEN SESTANOVICH:Well, a lot of support for Ukraine is coming at us. That is going to be the issue that has to be faced by the administration.

They have indicated that they’re prepared to do a lot of support, give a lot of support for the Ukrainian economy. They have offered a lot of diplomatic and political support in recent days. Security assistance is probably the next issue on the agenda. It used to be said, you know, the Ukrainian military is so pathetic that they can’t even use any help or they use it irresponsibly.

The record of recent weeks has been that the Ukrainian military has been able to make advances against the separatists, and they probably need further help.

EUGENE RUMER: I don’t think that there’s really a military solution to this crisis.

If the Ukrainian begins to really win and push the separatists, squeeze them into smaller and smaller areas, I think Putin will have no choice but to open the spigot again even more so. And I think that could actually push them to the option that I believe he really doesn’t want to pursue. And that is more of a military intervention that he’s been pursuing so far.

And, frankly, I don’t see any solution to this crisis, other than for all parties to just say, enough is enough, let’s negotiate, let’s all come to the table without any preconditions, and start — I know it’s a bad term — start freezing this conflict and looking for a way out of this situation.

GWEN IFILL: All right, Eugene Rumer and Stephen Sesan — Sestanovich — I’m going to get your name right one day — thank you both very much.

STEPHEN SESTANOVICH:Thank you.