Ahead of the proposed July meeting between President Biden and Ukrainian President Zelensky, panelists give an update on U.S.-Ukraine relations and policy options to deal with continuing Russian aggression.
MENDELSON: Good morning, good afternoon, good evening wherever you are. Welcome to today’s Council on Foreign Relations meeting on “Tensions in Ukraine.”
I’m Sarah Mendelson, distinguished service professor of public policy at Carnegie Mellon’s Heinz College in D.C. I’ll be presiding over today’s discussion.
I’m joined today by Andrea Kendall-Taylor, senior fellow and director, Transatlantic Security Program, Center for a New American Security, and former deputy national intelligence officer for Russia and Eurasia at the National Intelligence Council; Volodymyr Dubovyk, associate professor, Department of International Relations, and director, Center for International Studies, Odesa Mechnikov National University; and Anton Troianovski, Moscow Bureau chief, New York Times.
So let’s start with the topic at hand, “Tensions in Ukraine.” Now, we can look at this from a number of different perspectives, including U.S.-Ukraine, Ukraine-Russia, Ukraine-European Union, and tensions within Ukraine. So let’s actually start in Ukraine—(laughs)—with Volodymyr, then we’ll move to Anton, and then Andrea. And feel free to address any of these perspectives and lay out what you see as the main tensions. Thanks so much. Over to you, Volodymyr.
DUBOVYK: Thank you, Sarah. Thank you, Sarah.
Well, obviously, I think that a better would be, actually, “Tensions in and Around Ukraine.” And I’m sure we’ll talk about both within Ukraine and outside of Ukraine and around Ukraine because there are some formative, decisive factors of external nations that influence in Ukraine, obviously. We will get to that.
But let me start from within Ukraine. Obviously, there is always some tension. I mean, Ukraine is not monolithic. There’s never been anyone in power who had a monopoly on power. There has always been some degree of diversity and political pluralism. There’s been some healthy/unhealthy competition for power. But there have been always, always something like that.
So right now is no exception. I mean, Volodymyr Zelensky, who’s president, now in his third year. He started quickly and had a huge mandate and carte blanche and massive support, but then he squandered much of it, actually, and now he’s back in a position familiar to any previous Ukrainian president: maneuvering for political power, trying to keep parliament under his control, trying to keep even his formal party in—faction in the parliament under his control because it’s a very diverse faction, actually. So that’s interesting.
He is also always in a tug of war for influence with president—previous president predecessor, Poroshenko. He has his own political party, obviously, and appetites of returning back to power. And the previous two previous presidents, Yanukovych—who is now in Russia, of course; he’s not there and there’s no Party of Regions anymore, but there are many different platforms that have emerged in place of Party of Regions, and they’re also jockeying for power and some influence in Ukraine.
There is a huge influence of oligarchs, as well, and there’s now been some unprecedented squeezing of them, at least it seems so.
Medvedchuk, for instance, who is very close to Kremlin, you know, mediator figure between Kremlin and Kyiv, he is squeezed, very much so. He’s under house arrest, basically, as we speak.
And then there is Kolomoisky, who once was very pro-Ukrainian, then turned away and against Poroshenko, and then he was outside of Ukraine for a while. Then he came back and actually contributed to Zelensky becoming president, but then they had—they had—have had—fallen apart. Well, that’s interesting. You know, Kolomoisky is being squeezed.
And finally, the last few days we are hearing about Firtash, who is also—Dmytro Firtash, who is also a big figure, and we’re hearing from Washington as well that Washington’s not given up on trying to get him to justice in U.S.
So, with that being said, I don’t want to go to for too long, but there’s always some tensions in Ukraine for sure. And there is many, many important threads in foreign policy, including U.S., Russia, EU, and NATO. But I suspect that we’ll get to that in detail.
TROIANOVSKI: Yeah. I think from the perspective of Russia and Ukraine what’s worth noting at the outset is that there’s been a lot of signaling from the Kremlin, from Putin directly in recent weeks that the Ukraine issue will remain at the very top of the priority list geopolitically for the leadership in Russia.
So going into the summit with Joe Biden in Geneva, for instance, there was a lot of speculation, will Putin lay out various red lines for Russia in the meeting with Biden? And the only red line that was verbalized ahead of time by the Kremlin was specifically Ukraine joining NATO.
And just today, a few minutes ago Putin’s annual four-hour-long call-in marathon ended and Ukraine came up. He said—and the Defender in incident in the Black Sea of last week came up, and Putin said that, you know, he’s not worried about World War III or anything like that, but what he’s worried about is the West gaining a military presence in Ukraine. He described that as being an existential risk to Russian security.
So we’re just hearing all these noises. Even though the—kind of the escalation that we saw in the spring has passed—some Russian troops have been withdrawn; we can get to that in a bit—but Russia and Putin specifically have made very clear that the risk of further escalation is still there.
MENDELSON: And he used the words “existential risk”?
TROIANOVSKI: He certainly used the word “existential.” He said that the possibility of the West building up a military presence is—touches on an existential issue for Russia.
KENDALL-TAYLOR: Great. So we covered Ukraine and we covered Russia, so maybe I can chime in on the U.S. front.
And I would say I think kind of in the earliest days of the Biden administration, in the first hundred days, there was maybe some mounting tension—and “tension” would probably be a little bit too strong, but mounting concern on the part of Ukraine and also of kind of Central and Eastern Europe more broadly that President Biden and his administration was kind of, you know, sleepwalking—we heard the word a lot—sleepwalking into a reset with Russia. And people would point to, obviously, the Biden administration’s decision to provide waivers on German companies involved in Nord Stream 2 and the announcement of the summit with Putin itself. And I think that was causing a little bit of anxiety in the early days in the relationship, but I would say I think with the summit with the G-7 and the NATO and EU, and even the Geneva summit, that there’s been a lot of good news that has at least alleviated some of the tensions.
I think with the first three summits—with the G-7, NATO, and the EU—those summits really underscored the progress that President Biden is having in revitalizing the transatlantic relationship. He’s renewing confidence in U.S. leadership. And we all know that when that unity, that transatlantic relationship is working well, that we’re all more effective in protecting liberal democratic values, our interests, and especially in pushing back on Putin and his provocations, and that’s good news for Ukraine. And I think, you know, in all of those settings—or at least on the European side—Ukraine was on the agenda, and that’s positive. That Ukraine is part of this renewed and revitalized U.S.-EU relationship is a positive thing, and that we’re discussing it as a shared interest. So I think that was all good news.
Two, with the Biden-Putin summit, I think there was good news there that maybe cleared up some of the tensions. It was clear that this is not a reset. Biden, you know, very clearly communicated he’s not going to tolerate Putin’s aggression against allies or our friends. He voiced that strong support for Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity and its Euro-Atlantic aspirations. And I think he—you know, in that way, he demonstrated that that support to Ukraine as the tensions were mounting on the border—the military was mounting on the border of Ukraine, that that was not a one-off thing and that there is a very genuine and a high priority placed on helping Ukraine stand up to Kyiv. So that’s the good news.
But obviously, some of the longstanding tensions still remain, and first it’s the NATO membership issue. You know, ahead of the summit Zelensky was making his full-court press for Ukraine to get a NATO Membership Action Plan. The allies, and Biden in particular, made clear that that’s not in the cards anytime soon. Biden, you know, talked about the need that Ukraine has to address corruption issues before any progress on the NATO front is going to be made. So I think the fact that that will remain a longstanding tension, that there is really no clear path or any timeline to NATO membership for Ukraine, is still, you know, going to hang there.
Obviously, the corruption issue is going to remain a persistent tension, and we talk more about that.
And I think the other thing I think we’ll also talk about is just the fact that how the conflict in eastern Ukraine is going to be addressed is still a significant tension. You know, in his summits, President Biden did reaffirm that there is only a political solution to the conflict. He reaffirmed, you know, that the Minsk process is the mechanism to settle this. But I still think it’s pretty unclear, you know, how the United States plans to breathe any life into that process, whether it does, and whether the United States wants to play a more significant role.
So I think tensions remain, but overall some good news. And you know, a bottom line is we have a president who wants to build a more trusting relationship with Ukraine. And that, I think, should go at least part of the way in lowering some of the tensions or concerns in the relationship.
MENDELSON: So, Andrea, given everything that you’ve said, what does this proposed summit or the meeting between President Biden and President Zelensky, the date of which I don’t believe we have yet, what does success look like from a few different perspectives? What is—Andrea, what does success look like for the Biden administration? Anton, from the Moscow or the Kremlin perspective, what does success look like? And finally, Volodymyr, what is success for President Zelensky? Andrea, let’s start with you.
KENDALL-TAYLOR: Yeah. So, I mean, I think the very fact that the meeting is being held early in the administration is in and of itself success. And I think we would all agree, yes, it probably would have been better if Biden could have gone to Ukraine before the Geneva summit, but it’s positive that Secretary Blinken did.
And I also think, just kind of to step back, it’s important to remember that I—that I don’t think that anyone in the White House was thinking that there would be a Putin summit that far in advance. And you remember the context in which it was announced. I think it really was largely a product of the fact that Russia’s troops were mounting on the Ukrainian border, and so the Biden administration was basically saying, time out, we got to lower the tensions; he doesn’t want a huge crisis in the first hundred days, you know, a defining moment in the first hundred days that’s going to derail his priorities. So I think maybe there could have been some kind of logistical issues where it would have been difficult to get Biden to Ukraine ahead of the meeting, given that it wasn’t something that was really planned all that far in advance. So success, number one, it’s just that the meeting is happening this early, and that’s positive.
In terms of kind of deliverables and expectations, I would say I think if Secretary Blinken’s trip to Ukraine is any indication we should probably have fairly modest expectations for what the summit is going to produce, just as we did for the Biden-Putin summit. You know, we—it was about low expectations, and I think that’s probably going to apply here. When Blinken went, there wasn’t really any significant announcements. It was just about the steady show of support, the steady drumbeat of the administration’s priorities for the relationship, and I imagine this will be a little bit of the same.
So I think success is just the signal of strong U.S. support. It’s the signal by President Biden to normalize the relationship, to put it on better footing, creating trust between the two leaders. And it’s going to be just, I think, largely about the administration just rearticulating its priorities. You know, they have laid out clearly that Ukraine—it’s about helping Ukraine stand up to Russian aggression, and in doing so providing that unwavering support for Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. And that has two pieces, so I imagine they’re going to talk about helping to support Ukrainian defense.
You know, we already had the announcement in the runup to the U.S.-Russia summit that the United States was providing the $150 million package of security assistance, so that’s already happened. Maybe they’ll consider upping the security assistance, but I am not sure that there will be a major announcement there.
And then the second pillar of the policy, about helping Ukraine stand up to Russian aggression, is by increasing the resilience of Ukraine’s institutions and especially fighting corruption to limit the effectiveness of the Kremlin’s malign influence. And so it’s going to be a lot of discussion, whether it’s about establishing the independence of the courts or—you know, there’s a long list of things that I’ll think that they’ll discuss.
But again, low expectations. Maybe one positive thing would be if there—it was timed with the announcement of a new U.S. ambassador to Ukraine. That would be fantastic.
And I think the other area that many would welcome—although I have to say I don’t think I necessarily see this forthcoming or in the cards—but would be some sort of announcement or signal about the United States wanting to play a more active role in the Normandy Format. You know, it’s pretty clear that the process isn’t working. You know, lots of people argue it’s because the United States isn’t at the table. But I do get the sense and I’m hearing still that Germany and France are still relatively resistant to the idea, and so I—so I—and in the administration at this point, you know, we don’t have all the people in place. We don’t have an assistant secretary. There are still seats that are unfilled, and it’s unclear that the—that the administration would be ready to take that step with this meeting.
MENDELSON: So from Moscow, Anton, what’s success look like? (Laughs.) The opposite of everything Andrea just—
TROIANOVSKI: (Laughs.) Yeah, right. Well, I think to—you know, on that kind of top level, all those tensions between the U.S. and Ukraine that Andrea laid out at the beginning—on Nord Stream 2, on NATO membership, on corruption—you know, the more those rise to the surface during the meeting, during the Biden-Zelensky joint press conference—(audio break)—more that will look like a good thing from the Kremlin’s perspective because, of course, they do not want to see Ukraine—they do not want to see Ukraine integrated into the West.
But I’d also be interested to see a level further, specifically the way the image of Zelensky evolves here in Russia, because, obviously, Zelensky, you know, when he—when he was elected, that really changed the way that a lot of Russians saw Ukraine. You saw people’s approval rating, so to speak, in Russia of Ukraine in polls go up. Zelensky is a—is a Russian speaker, a very familiar showbusiness star to many Russian TV viewers. So when they saw him elected, here in Russia Russians also saw Ukraine as a country that perhaps still is amenable to some kind of decent if not friendly relationship with Russia.
Recent months have changed that picture yet again with the—all the rhetoric surrounding the troop buildup, with Zelensky’s moves against the pro-Kremlin oligarch Medvedchuk that Volodymyr mentioned. But now, in this summit in Washington, Zelensky will once again have a major stage. That will be something that’s going to be closely watched in Russia by Russians in general, not just in the Kremlin. And I’ll be really interested to see to what extent that changes people’s views of him here because that could also affect, then, people’s views of Ukraine and interest among Russians as a public to engage.
MENDELSON: So from Zelensky’s perspective, Volodymyr, what does success look like? And you’re on mute. You need to unmute yourself.
DUBOVYK: (Off mic)—for U.S.—oh. Yeah. Obviously, “tension” would be a wrong word for U.S.-Ukraine relations today. It’s more the contrary. It’s actually good working in cooperation and interaction of the two sides.
But we should also remember there are some frictions in bilateral relations. One of them is lingering drama, the landscape these people have from 2019. They just came to power, and the first thing they saw from U.S. was a push, was pressure coming from Trump’s White House, and they haven’t quite recovered yet from that. And also, they got, I’m afraid, this understanding that you can play games. I mean, the Americans can play games with us? I mean, why wouldn’t Ukraine try and play some games, focusing not necessarily on national interest but maybe on some—(inaudible)—interest or, you know, for political party interest and stuff like that? So that was interesting.
But ever since Biden came to power, of course, this course to support Ukraine has been reinforced. There’s been talk on both sides for the strategic partnership to come back, really, or to be filled with new meaning and things like that. Zelensky always ever wanted—was seeking this big stage that you mentioned. He wanted this big visit, his big visit to Washington, D.C. with fanfare, you know, the guards marching, stuff like that, because Poroshenko did have all of that before. And I’m afraid that Zelensky’s very much obsessed with what Poroshenko did have and what he is not getting, and one of those things is this big visit to D.C. Unfortunately, he is very much obsessed with his predecessor, so it reminds of me of some certain previous American president as well. So there’s some parallel here, I’m afraid.
But in terms of bilateral relations, they’re healthy enough. I mean, there’s definitely support for territorial integrity. There is defense assistance and security assistance. But in America’s eyes, there’s always been two frontlines for Ukraine—one in Donbas and Crimea, and another one—with quotation marks—“within” Ukraine, being the reforms and being corruption. And that is often underappreciated here in Ukraine or neglected, and people will say, oh, OK, Americans will support us forever because we have this war with Russia so we shouldn’t worry about that. And that’s a mistake. I mean, that could lead to some troubles. And also, that’s not a holistic view that Washington has, especially this administration, especially an administration which is headed by someone who for eight years was hammering this idea that you need to do more about corruption and reforms to Ukrainian leadership, previous leadership at this point in time.
But things have stalled in Ukraine with judicial reforms, with banks, with many other issues, with transparency, with some of the people being fired from, like, Naftogaz person—head of Naftogaz firing, which led to some troubles. And it was done, actually, just on the—on the eve of the visit of Secretary Blinken to Kyiv, which was also strange, so he had to talk about it.
And Zelensky often doesn’t mince words, which troubles me a little bit as someone who believes in a brighter future for U.S.-Ukraine relations. But for instance, he will say: On Nord Stream 2, America is making a huge diplomatic mistake. It’s a loss. Or he would say: America should show to everyone whose side it’s on. I think America has shown since 2014 and again and again whose side it’s on if you’re talking about Russia-Ukraine conflict, so Zelensky should be more careful, I think, about not—you know, not hurting, not really jeopardizing this relationship, which is very important to Ukraine’s future—crucial to Ukraine.
MENDELSON: Is there anything positive you can say about the corruption front? And I ask that because the energy that came from the Dignity Revolution, you know, this is in a lot of ways a worldwide movement of people around the world being very sensitive around these issues of corruption, right? This gets people onto the street. It gets people onto the street in Russia. But in many other countries, we see mass protests. Is there no good news, Volodymyr, from Ukraine in terms of the corruption fight?
DUBOVYK: Right. Well, there is always some good news, but I mean, it’s all a matter of are we satisfied with something that is done but probably not enough—maybe some technical small steps, baby steps—or do we want something which is systemic change? And of course, we would want to have systemic transformation and change, and we’ve been talking about it for years. I’m not saying that ever since 2014, for instance, under Poroshenko, even under Zelensky there hasn’t been any progress. There’s been some progress, but not enough. You know, there has been one progress, one step forward here, and then two steps back, so that’s problematic. You know, it’s very—it’s a lot of deviations from the course.
And people are tired. People are seeing corruption. I mean, people are not stupid. People are seeing corruption everywhere, and that’s a problem. So that’s not only a concern for our international partners like the United States, but it’s also a huge concern for a lot of Ukrainians. And we seem to think often, many of us, that we are kind of doomed, and that’s actually not a good sign. I mean, we can talk for ages about Ukraine having vibrant civil society—and we do; a lot of NGOs, very active activists—but still we are in this sea of corruption, and that’s a problem.
MENDELSON: So before going to the members I want to touch on the military situation with Russia, both conventional and hybrid. This is a topic that’s likely to take us right back to where we started—(laughs)—in terms of tensions. What’s your view of a possible settlement of the war in the east? I’m hearing a lot of negativity, Minsk being dead. But please feel free to comment also on the military deployment along the border, as well as the exercise taking place right now, Exercise Sea Breeze 2021. Let’s start with Andrea, then go to Volodymyr, and then to—finally, to Anton. Andrea?
KENDALL-TAYLOR: Sure. So I think—unfortunately, I think we probably all agree that we’re pretty pessimistic about any prospects for settlement of the conflict, and that’s just really because the underlying factors haven’t really changed. And by that I mean, you know, Russia is still committed to keeping Ukraine in its orbit. It’s still committed to destabilizing and to distracting Kyiv to make reforms more difficult.
And I mean, we still have that dynamic in which, you know, a successful Ukraine on Putin’s border is a—you know, we heard that—an existential threat to Putin, and I think that’s particularly poignant and important to highlight at this point when Russia is moving in the exact opposite direction, right? So they have—the more the crackdown, the repression, I think it’s fairly clear that President Putin doesn’t have a lot left in the tank after twenty-one years in power, and he’s growing more reliant—you know, repression is really all that he has. And so, you know, the juxtaposition of a more vibrant, more democratic, more successful Ukraine with where Russia is, with growing repression and a stagnating economy, that would be too much. And so, for Russia, it really is very important to keep Ukraine kind of in this current status.
I also think just from a defense—from a military perspective, the cost of a military solution would be too high. You know, we just went through this exercise with the troops amassed on the border, and there were a lot of arguments about how—a lot of points made about just how expensive it would be and how hard it would be for—you know, to do things even like taking the water canal down Crimea. It would be hugely expensive, and that’s in part because Ukraine’s forces are more capable. And you know, again, just getting back to that point of where things are in Russia, you know, Putin doesn’t want body bags coming home. So I think the costs of a military solution are too high.
And so, you know, the expectations that we can get to any settlement anytime soon is low. Going back to the points about Minsk and the Normandy process, again, I don’t see at this moment—although it could change over time with this administration as people come into place and—you know, in the State Department, in the Pentagon, and other places—so we shouldn’t write it off. But I think for the foreseeable future, until people are in place, I don’t really see a big push on the political front yet. But maybe I’m optimistic that we could get there—(off mic).
MENDELSON: So stalemate, not much gas in the tank, particularly if you have to go after Bard University (sic; College) and Smolny Institute in Petersburg. But, Volodymyr, do you see—what’s going on right now? You’re near the Sea Breeze, yeah?
DUBOVYK: I am. I am right there. (Laughs.) Actually, it just started the day before yesterday. There was a grand opening. I think it’s going to run for almost two weeks. It’s the biggest one, they say, in years. It’s actually number twenty-one. And we should remember, Russia was taking part in it. At some point in time it was fine to them, and now they see it as some kind of a, you know, subversive measure against Russia or something like that.
And there is some tension, you know, with the Defender coming—(laughs)—along, across the Black Sea. And people wonder, because of Russia having their own exercises already for months, basically, and they’ve kind of—kind of blockaded a portion—big portion of the Black Sea, so that’s a problem if we do not recognize. But what if they start—they start shooting, something like that? The blockade of Azov has actually been implemented for a long time now, but there could be a blockade of the Black Sea coast where I am, you know, in Odessa as well, and that could have a tremendous impact on Ukraine’s security and Ukraine’s security in a broad sense, including the economy and the well-being of people here in the region. Because actually, when Crimea was gone, quite frankly, a lot of other regions on the Black Sea coast actually benefited a little bit, including Odessa, because many of the cargo routes went through Odessa instead of Crimea now. But if you blockade the entire coast, then Ukraine is in big trouble.
In Donbas it’s a stalemate, as you say, and it costs us dearly. And there’s a heavy toll on Ukraine because it’s a very public conflict here in Ukraine. Unlike in Russia where people don’t really know who is dying there, who is going there, who is getting killed in Donbas on the other side of the conflict line, here in Ukraine it’s very public. We have seen the pictures and photos of people who have been killed or injured, just another (victim, actually, ?) casualty. So that’s a problem for us. And we are—you know, we’re trying to increase our own resilience, but also at the same time we are hoping that others will help us.
The EU can help us not with the war effort. It can get us stronger in terms of energy in reforms and fight against corruption.
NATO is helping us to some extent. But because we are not a member, I mean, obviously, that’s why Zelensky and others are preoccupied with this idea of at least give us a prospective. And that wasn’t given by the last summit, which actually reiterated the decision of the famous or infamous Bucharest summit 2008—you know, you will get there someday, but no one knows when and what conditions. And it should definitely be through Membership Action Plan, but we are not giving you Membership Action Plan anytime soon. Georgia is in the same kind of a situation there. So that’s—it’s problematic.
So, with U.S., I think it could be explored. This idea has been in the air for years now of the major non-NATO U.S. ally. Would it give actually some benefits to Ukraine? Probably so. But would it allow us to actually solve the conflict, settle the conflict, and reintegrate Donbas? I actually don’t think so.
So it’s a wide-open situation. And I’m afraid, you know, that we actually will be in it for a long haul, should be getting ready for it to be a protracted conflict.
MENDELSON: Let’s go to Anton briefly before we open it up to members. I mean, how do you see it, Anton, between stalemate and the real Achilles’ heel, which is costs of the war and the casualties for Putin?
TROIANOVSKI: Yeah. I mean, the—all that rhetoric we heard from people like Margo Simonyan, the editor of RT, at the beginning of this year about why isn’t—why don’t we finally bring our brothers and sisters in the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics home and make them part of Russia finally, we don’t hear that anymore. Just now I can tell you, assuming you all didn’t watch the four-hour Putin call-in show, there was one question only that specifically addressed the LNR and DNR, and that was someone there asking why don’t we get more vaccines here. And Putin said, yes, you already have some and more are on the way. And that, of course, is a sign that these territories are a financial tax on the Russian state at a time when, as Andrea said, there isn’t really all that much extra resources to go around.
Yeah, I also agree, though, at the same time there isn’t a ton of appetite in the Russian public right now for new foreign military adventures. You’ve got the parliamentary elections coming up in September where, you know, you would think, yes, on the one hand it would be nice maybe if there was a foreign distraction/new foreign tensions from the Kremlin’s perspective, but at the same time all the polls make it clear what people are interested in now is getting out of the COVID crisis, solving economic problems. So, yeah, I think all that speaks to us expecting that this conflict will roll along with much resolution.
MENDELSON: And of course, this is not the only foreign engagement that Russia is involved in, right? I mean, Syria, CAR, Libya—I think sometimes people don’t realize just how much foreign policy is going on.
TROIANOVSKI: Yeah. Yeah. Mmm hmm.
MENDELSON: So at this point—go ahead. Sorry, Anton.
TROIANOVSKI: No, I was just going to say absolutely. And when you talk to people here in Russia just on the street or travel around the country, you know, you very frequently hear, why is it that on TV they’re telling us all about Ukraine and Syria and not about the state of our roads.
KENDALL-TAYLOR: Sarah, the one other point, too, is just to remember—and I think you alluded to this—although we kind of breathed a sigh of relief, you know, with the pullback from the border, a lot of that stuff is still there. And so they’ve basically reset their military posture in the region, and that gives them a lever where they can kind of ratchet up pressure and dial it back much more easily. And so in many ways, you know, they set this up so that—so that, you know, they—that they could still achieve many of the goals that they want to accomplish without the military intervention just because now, like, their military presence is so significant, so.
MENDELSON: So at this time I want to invite members to join our conversation with their questions. This is a reminder that this meeting is on the record. The operator will remind you how to join the question queue. Over to the operator.
OPERATOR: Thank you.
(Gives queuing instructions.)
We’ll take the first question from Roger Myerson.
Q: Thank you.
You know, at the beginning we heard that Putin used the word “existential” to talk about the question of Ukrainian membership in NATO. And anybody who understands Russian history should recognize, while Putin doesn’t always speak the truth about everything, probably a lot of people in Russia who care about the history would see an alliance that could bring, say, German forces so close to the battlefield of Stalingrad would be a deep emotional issue, and that that would be important to any Russian leader to avoid.
So my question—it was disturbing, then, to hear talk that this question was being put off because of corruption issues when—instead of addressing it as something that was provocative to Russia. Do you think it would make a difference if Biden firmly took NATO membership off the table while at the same time asserting America’s obligation to assist Ukrainian security against direct threats under the Budapest Memorandum of 1994? Thank you.
MENDELSON: Any takers?
KENDALL-TAYLOR: I can go.
MENDELSON: Sure. Go ahead.
KENDALL-TAYLOR: So I think taking NATO membership off the table would be a huge mistake. I mean, you know, NATO, we have an open-door policy. It’s open for any country that wants to join. And it has been a longstanding U.S. policy that, you know, we don’t let other countries have a veto over the foreign policy or the domestic decisions of another country. And so it’s critical that the door remains open, and as Ukraine kind of makes the reforms needed, addresses the corruption issues that that remains kind of a real option if Ukrainians so decide. And so taking that off the table, and especially doing it because we think it would create some sort of tension or friction with Putin, I think is just a huge mistake.
And so the policy, I think, from the United States remains the same. It’s very much about—fundamentally about helping Ukraine stand up to Russian aggression, and that has both kind of a defense-and-security piece and a resilience of democratic institutions piece. And I think they will continue that dual approach for the—for the foreseeable future.
So just kind of—I don’t know if anyone else wants to chime in, but—
DUBOVYK: Right. So, yeah, well, interesting how Putin in Geneva, when he was asked about Ukraine in NATO, he said it was nothing to talk about, and then again he talks about Ukraine in NATO all the time as he appears in a public setting. So that shows you and tells you that Ukraine is a big—as Anton said earlier, it’s a huge priority for Putin, so—remains to be one—ideological, geopolitical, what have you.
And as why he’s saying that, you know, he’s sending a message to EU. He’s sending a message to the Western backers of Ukraine, as well, like stay back. You know, he’s basically trying to, you know, talk to the choir of voices actually growing in number and in volume in the West of realpolitik people who are saying, oh, let’s leave Ukraine right there, you know, next door to Russia, because it’s going to be doomed to be there in the sphere of Russian privileged special interest. There’s nothing we can do. There’s nothing we should do. You know, President Obama himself, in his final (address ?), he said, well, we’re limited—levers that we have in terms of helping Ukraine are much more limited compared to what Russia has.
So he’s definitely sending a signal to those capitals within NATO who are saying, oh, no, no, we shouldn’t do it—you know, we shouldn’t poke the big bear because, yeah, look what happens if we actually open a real prospective for Ukraine track towards membership within NATO; it’s going to be even worse. But the problem is, of course, when dealing with Russia, if you are weak, sending a signal of weakness, that could lead to escalation. But also, sometimes—definitely, if you are responding by force and strength—that could also lead to escalation. It’s hard to predict how they will react in this particular case. But in the case of Ukraine, clearly, we’re not enthusiastic about this idea of Finlandization or neutralization of permanent neutrality and what sort of mechanism there could be for the guarantees of Ukraine’s security, how much better it would be from this basically meaningless, unfortunately, Budapest Memorandum.
MENDELSON: Anton, do you have anything to add?
TROIANOVSKI: Yeah. I mean, I’d just add that I think here in Moscow from the realpolitik perspective there is a prevalent view that no matter what Washington says about support for Ukrainian territorial integrity and helping Ukraine stand up to Russia, that at the end of the day when push comes to shove Russia has a bigger stake and is willing to put more resources into influencing events in Ukraine than the U.S. is—that, at the end of the day, Russia cares more about Ukraine than the U.S. And that, I think, has been kind of the—one of—part of the driving philosophy of Putin’s Ukraine policy for the last seven years.
MENDELSON: Let me widen the conversation a little bit to the neighborhood and ask a question that maybe is not top of mind in many Council on Foreign Relations meetings, and that is about exile. We see particularly in Lithuania, from Belarus, Lithuania is hosting a number of journalists, activists, political figures. Can you imagine Ukraine doing the same? Is it happening in Ukraine? I mean, as repression in Russia increases and space closes for all sorts of people—and you know, I made the comment about Smolny, but really—(laughs)—my heart breaks. I mean, that was just such a—it was a wonderful place for young people to go and growing the next generation, and to close that off is really—I mean, there’s been lots of this going on, right? They’ve gone after just about every organization that you can think of. But there has to be a place for people to go, so people are going. They’re going to Lithuania. The government of Lithuania’s been very—a willing host. What about Ukraine? Is that happening at all? Can you see that happening?
TROIANOVSKI: I mean, Volodymyr, maybe you’ve met some of these people, but I know some Russians like Dmitry Gudkov, who went into exile recently, the opposition politician, has gone to Ukraine. And Tbilisi, Georgia, is another place. So yeah.
DUBOVYK: Yeah, it happens. Not on a huge scale, but it happens, you know, with some politicians, with some journalists, with some people. But you know, look, Yevgeny Kiselyov was a big star of NTV at one point of time. He’s here in Ukraine for ages now. (Laughs.) I often have a dialogue with him on his TV program here talking about the United States. So that’s interesting. But there are many people like him, and for a number of years since last Maidan in 2014 there have been Russians coming to Ukraine, actually, to enjoy those freedom holidays—(laughs)—two or three days of actually walking the streets and seeing different opinions and watching TV on different channels, to have different positions with regard to what government is doing. So that is something which is unusual, let’s say, unprecedented for a lot of Russians, so—if you talk about the major TV stations at least, you know—not internet, but major TV stations.
So, yeah, I mean, Russians are coming. Russians are actually welcome. I mean, if you are willing to come and see, you know, ever since 2014 that this country is not being run by Nazi thugs or something like that or anti-Semites who would hurt you in the street if you are a Jew, you know, come and see how life is in Odessa. We’re all welcome. You’re all welcome.
MENDELSON: Yeah. I mean, I think it’s an interesting question when the Summit for Democracy takes place, which is something the Biden administration has talked about and presumably has talked about with allies, the degree to which actually there can be joint action—not military, but in support of activists, of human rights defenders in new and different ways.
Let’s go back to the operator to see if there’s any question from the members.
OPERATOR: We’ll take the next question from Beth Pond.
Beth, please accept the “unmute now” button.
Q: Yeah, OK. Can you hear me?
Q: OK, good. OK. Hi.
First of all, to Volodymyr—(laughs)—I see that Skorkin at Carnegie Moscow yesterday was saying that the Kremlin is planning on replacing Kurchenko in Donbas with Yevgeny Yurchenko, and presumably to have a bigger grip on the business and the economics in Donbas. And I wondered, is that significant? What would be the impact on Medvedchuk, on Akhmetov, and on politics in Kyiv? Do you have any ideas about that?
DUBOVYK: Thanks, Elizabeth. Good to hear from you, if not to see you in D.C. because of the pandemic. (Laughter.) (Inaudible.)
Well, I don’t expect any big changes in the content of Russian policy as it—as it is for Donbas. I mean, there might be some small changes here and there, personnel, but no big changes. I don’t know if co-panelists disagree with me, but I think it’s been a pretty much steady course and, you know, one that they’re not going to change much.
Well, they’ve done probably some cleaning, indeed, with these warlords who actually got in control, and at some point in terms of squabbling and fighting each other and quarreling and so on. And that, of course, wasn’t really a nice thing—(laughs)—for Russia to witness, so probably they’ve done some cleaning. And we think in Ukraine most of those—most of those big fighters on the other side in Donbas had actually been gone not due to the activities of the Ukrainian special services, but mostly due to that cleaning operation by Kremlin, so—even though, of course, obviously, we don’t have proof for many of those cases.
But naturally and mainly, I don’t—I don’t expect any changes there. I think Donbas is right where Russia wants it, unfortunately, vis-à-vis Ukraine. It’s destabilizing Ukraine. It’s weakening Ukraine. It’s bleeding Ukraine. You know, it’s undermining the consolidation here. It’s eroding some trust because people are getting questions for themselves here, like for how long. It’s been seven years already now. Going for, like, seventeen, twenty-seven? What price we’re going to pay in terms of the economy, human lives? So I guess, you know, Putin is really betting on a patient approach with Donbas. He is not rushing for any resolution at all.
TROIANOVSKI: Yeah. I don’t have much to add. I agree that Putin is not rushing to any resolution. Like I said, there’s no more talk of or not as much talk of annexing those territories straight up, but there also doesn’t seem to be any path for a negotiated settlement that we can see.
MENDELSON: Let’s go back to the operator.
OPERATOR: We’ll take the next question from Alexander Vershbow.
Q: Hi. Sandy Vershbow with the Atlantic Council, former ambassador to Russia among other things.
MENDELSON: Among other things. (Laughter.)
Q: I’m concerned that we aren’t really thinking more creatively about how we can change Putin’s calculus. I mean, ask all of the speakers to offer their thoughts on what we could be doing that we’re not doing now to incentivize Russia to genuinely deescalate rather than maintain this kind of hair-trigger posture that they’ve built up since the spring, persuade them to negotiate more seriously on Minsk, and actually discussing mechanisms to reintegrate the occupied territories. Is it more military support to Ukraine? Should we be ratcheting up sanctions? Should we be waging a much more aggressive information war to expose, you know, what Putin is still able to deny about the Russian presence in the Donbas?
I fear that we’re getting into a situation—and I think this was possibly compounded by the Geneva summit—that we just don’t want the Russians to take more territory, but if they just kind of stick with what they’ve stolen so far but don’t steal any more we’re going to accept this as the new status quo. And doesn’t that play into Putin’s sense of victory, that he has drawn a red line and we blinked first? So I’m looking for a way to change Putin’s calculus. I don’t see it. And I think what Biden has done out of the best of intentions may have created this impression that, you know, we’re kicking NATO membership way down the road—it’s more lip service than real commitment—and Nord Stream 2 also shows that we’re more interested in our existing allies rather than our future allies. I think it all adds up to lack of a convincing message to Putin. What’s wrong with this picture that I’ve just painted?
MENDELSON: It’s a pretty grim picture. It’s a big challenge. Who’s going to take it on?
DUBOVYK: Well, thank you, Ambassador. Well, I think that, indeed, one of the main reasons for the Russian—recent Russian escalation around Ukraine was for the de facto escalation, the permanent escalation which is there around our borders for years now to now seem to a lot of people in the West as a de-escalation. So, basically, it’s normalizing a Russian troop presence and their equipment and their bases around Ukraine’s borders, and now they have a little bit slightly decreased the amount of troops that the have around Ukraine everyone is suddenly relaxing, saying, oh, that’s good, we got through this. And of course, that’s basically normalizing this permanent escalatory status and potential that Russian troops have—forces have around Ukraine.
What should the West do? I mean, denying Putin this big status, probably a good idea. You know, that’s why I’m still conflicted about the Geneva meeting. On the one hand, I understand where it’s coming from from Biden, someone who believes in personal diplomacy, eye-to-eye contact, and someone who thinks that, you know, we should actually talk to the guy even if we don’t like him at all and tell him what our red lines are. But on the other hand, it’s exactly what Putin wants from all this—you know, we are a great power, we got off our knees and we are now standing proudly, and look who is the new president of United States is calling for a personal meeting? Just one person outside of NATO/EU; that’s Russian president. So I don’t think that was probably a good idea.
But a combination of some, you know, tough rhetoric and sanctions, and then suggestions for the dialogue on Biden’s part towards Moscow—if you change your behavior, then we can talk, then we can deescalate, then we can have a meaningful dialogue—I think it’s working. I think it’s actually an interesting approach by this administration if it’s done by choice, not intuition, that you combine those different things. It actually kicks the Russians often of understanding of the how you—how you react to that, because one day it’s sanctions and you call the guy a murderer, and then another day you say, OK, let’s meet. And Moscow is like, so what is their mind? (Laughs.) I mean, it’s kind of confusing to them.
And I think that that’s an approach to have more initiative being recaptured from Putin, because ever since 2014 Putin’s been driving the agenda in the region and the West has been reactive. And with Biden people I’m trying—I think I’m seeing them try to recapture that initiative, so I can understand that. But with sanctions, of course there could be more sanctions, but then what, again? If you’re out sanctions, if you do everything now with we have done everything, you know, what do you have left for the times when Russians, God forbid, indeed move their troops, let’s say, to Odessa or to Mariupol? Because you have to need something in reserve if you are the—if you are the West, if you are the United States.
So I don’t have any easy answers to the question.
MENDELSON: So, Andrea, let me sharpen it a little bit and ask, is there—what are we not doing that we could be doing? I mean, is there a way, even, to pick up on what Navalny has done in exposing more corruption? Clearly, that is a place where there’s a lot of not only tension, but, you know, this is where the Kremlin and many around the Kremlin are vulnerable.
KENDALL-TAYLOR: Yeah. So I think—I mean, just to start by saying I think the picture that Ambassador Vershbow laid out is really accurate and spot on, and I do think it captures the mood of kind of where we are currently.
I guess my sense is, you know, you think, if you’re sitting in the White House, again, we’ve seen such a priority placed on China. The full team on China is in there. There’s been such a big push to take on China and there—we don’t have the personnel and the energy and the momentum has not been there in the same way on the Russian problem set necessarily, although Russia has tried—you know, demonstrated that they, too—you know, Putin thinks he will have a say on where Russia falls in U.S. foreign policy priorities. But that said, I think, you know, at this moment—and again, this can change as more personnel come into place. There hasn’t been a big push on the Ukraine front. There hasn’t been anyone in the administration so far who has picked up this mantle and kind of run with it.
So what are some of the things we could be doing?
Obviously, people have talked about using sanctions as leverage. So ratchet up the sanctions and target it—you know, peg it to tangible progress from the Kremlin.
I could see, like, as I said before, more energy and a desire for the United States to breathe life into the Normandy process. I could imagine perhaps at some point there could be more of a U.S. push, and of course it would happen in conversation with allies, with France and Germany, about joining the Normandy Format so that the United States is present.
So I think there could be pushes on both of those fronts to try to shake things loose and generate a little bit more momentum, although I still think that those two things are unlikely. And I think it’s in part because the Biden administration, you know, very much recognizes just how difficult it is to change Putin’s calculus. And I thought one of the most telling things of the Geneva summit was as Biden was leaving the stage the comment from the CNN reporter, when he got very riled up about this idea—you know, are you confident now that we’ve changed Putin’s calculus—no. You know, there was some expectation-setting that he wanted to do there because that is a tall order.
And so for that reason, I think, then, the Biden administration is very much doubling down on the resilience side. So if we can’t change Putin’s calculus, then we need to chart an agenda on those areas where we can at least mitigate the effects of the Kremlin’s malign tactics.
And so this gets to your point, Sarah, about anticorruption. Obviously, the Biden administration has elevated that. They have articulated that they see corruption as a national security issue. That has moved way up the agenda. There will be a push to galvanize allies and partners in an effort to make that more of a priority.
Cyber is another big priority. That was a big focus of the Geneva summit. There is going to be more conversation with allies and partners about how do we push back and how do we become more resilient in the face of Russia’s malign cyber activity.
You talked about the in exiles. But this idea of are there things that the United States and Europeans can do to support the media environment and all of the kind of democratic reforms.
So I think my sense is that the Biden administration is pretty clear-eyed about the actual ability to change Putin’s calculus. And it’s not an instead, but so—because that they’re clear-eyed about it, then they are also taking very seriously all of these resilience mechanisms. And those are all important parts, I think, of supporting Ukraine in its ability to push back against Putin.
MENDELSON: There are things that we can do jointly with allies around things like beneficial ownership and making sure that our financial and real estate entities are not enabling the flow of money into our countries. I mean, you know, there’s things that we can do that would be good for us and, ultimately, affect oligarchs.
But, Anton, did you want to add anything before I go back to the operator?
TROIANOVSKI: Yeah. I would just say it would be interesting—I think it’ll be interesting to see how the talks go coming out of the Geneva summit on some of these other problems that the U.S. and Russia seem to be planning to engage on—so strategic stability talks, cybersecurity, Afghanistan. Just to Ambassador Vershbow’s point of thinking creatively, I suppose if Ukraine is not solvable right now perhaps there will be things coming out of those other tracks that could be interesting to look at.
And I mean, on sanctions, I would just add, you know, that Russia has spent now seven years, essentially—(audio break, technical difficulties)—
MENDELSON: And the Kremlin didn’t like that comment on the sanctions. (Laughs.)
TROIANOVSKI: (In progress following audio break)—the sanctions—(inaudible)—et cetera. So I think—(laughs)—right.
Anyway, yeah, I think just the question of the efficacy of future sanctions in terms of changing behavior, I don’t—I don’t think we see much evidence that they can be hugely effective or that their efficacy will increase as we go forward.
OPERATOR: We’ll take the next question from Timothy Frye.
MENDELSON: Hi, Tim.
Q: Hi, Sarah. Thanks, everyone. This has been a really terrific panel.
I think my question is for Volodymyr. It seems that a necessary condition for solving any of these problems—membership in NATO, strengthening the Ukrainian state—revolves around anticorruption efforts, and they’ve certainly risen to the fore. Can you talk about what has been effective and what more can the West do? Solving corruption is a really difficult problem, and I’d be interested in your thoughts about what has worked and where should we be paying more attention and devoting more effort in the anticorruption fight in Ukraine.
DUBOVYK: Well, hello, Tim. (Laughs.) Good to hear you. And I hope that I’ll be able to see you again at some point in the future, hopefully. (Laughter.)
But on the question of corruption, I think the West is pretty much doing everything it can. I mean, it’s been doing it for a number of years in pushing Ukraine gently and sometimes not so gently in the right direction. And I mean, it’s unfortunate for us here in Ukraine—in Ukraine for us Ukrainians to understand that without such a probing on the Western part there will be no success with reforms, but that’s how it is because there is such a huge backlash and resistance of the system. And the system is very much entrenched, as you know, and has been there for years and years, and is based on a lot of political influence by people who are invested in keeping that system running and also, I’m afraid I have to say, by a lot of—you know, a lot of agreement to some extent on the part of the public, which got used to living in this situation when you can, you know, resolve certain issues around the law or under—you know, under the carpet or something like that.
The West is doing what it can. It’s been trying to even use sticks and carrots. You know, I think that probably at some point of time there will be—(laughs)—patience will be definitely gone on the part of Washington and other friends in Ukraine in the West when there will be more sticks—when they will finally say, you know, why—you, Ukraine, why are we helping you if you’re not trying to help yourself? I mean, it’s not enough for you to do what you do heroically on the front line in Donbas, but help yourself within Ukraine—the rest of Ukraine in terms of reforms and fight against corruption. And I can imagine a moment in the Congress, as well, when people would start standing up and saying we’re all for Ukraine, but Ukraine is not doing their homework and we cannot—you know, we cannot support this idea of limitless, endless support for the country which is not doing its homework.
And I worry—and I think that probably those sticks should be—should be actually used. Yes, I’m not calling for the sanctions against the current officials, public officials here in Ukraine, but it should be made very clear in no uncertain terms that there is not an open support for Ukraine regardless of what Ukrainian government does here because it has conditions, it has certain, you know, conditions that needs to be met—need to be met if Ukraine really wants to continue to receive Western support.
But other than that, I think the West has been trying to do that for a number of years. It’s just very hard because resistance is so tense.
MENDELSON: I do want to acknowledge the colleagues who work for the Open Government Partnership in Ukraine who have been, I would say, part, again, of that global movement to try and open up procurement and budgeting.
So, lightning round. Andrea, Anton, final thoughts?
KENDALL-TAYLOR: I don’t know. I mean, so we’re, obviously, pessimistic about the prospects for resolving the conflict in eastern Ukraine, but I think there is some good news here at the beginning of the Biden administration. And as—I mean, I keep coming back to this point, but as more people take their seats, I am even more optimistic that there will be more energy and a greater push to do even more to continue to support Ukraine—not just on the defense front, which there has already been a very clear signal of the desire and intent to do that, but I think that there—we will start to see—and especially as we repair the transatlantic relationship, there will be more and more momentum on this resilience front, whether it’s on the cyber or anticorruption, democracy, support for civil society, support for media. I think that we will start to see more and more momentum. After four years of the Trump administration, that was largely atrophied.
And you know, it’s—we haven’t been in this administration very long. We have a very transatlantic president. We have a very pro-Ukrainian president. And I am optimistic that more and more energy will mount and that there will be a more sustained push. So, you know, solving the conflict is one thing, but I do think that we will start to see more progress, more energy. And that leaves me kind of more optimistic than I have been for the last four years, certainly, about the prospects for the U.S.-Ukrainian relationship and where—what that might mean for Ukraine’s ability to stand up to the Kremlin.
MENDELSON: We’re at time, but, Anton, any final thoughts?
TROIANOVSKI: You know, Putin said again today that he believes that Russia and Ukraine are one people. He even promised to write a separate article about that so that we can all learn his thoughts on that issue in detail. But I was—you know, I got the chance to travel around the Ukrainian-controlled part of Donbas in Kherson Oblast near Crimea in April as this military escalation going on, and it was striking that even there, where, you know, Russian is the lingua franca, where many people have—like, their parents live in Russia, consider themselves Russian even, even there it really felt like these last years have taken a very significant toll on Russia’s image in Ukraine. So I think from—sort of viewed from here Russia is losing Ukraine right now, no matter what we hear Putin saying.
MENDELSON: Thank you all for joining today’s virtual meeting. Thank you, Andrea Kendall-Taylor, Volodymyr Dubovyk, and Anton Troianovski.
Please note the video and the transcript of today’s meeting will be posted on CFR’s website, and we’ll see you next time. Stay safe. Bye-bye.