A former NATO ambassador gets inside Putin’s head

Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP
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·9 min read
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More than 100,000 Russian troops are mobilized along the Ukrainian border. What is Vladimir Putin’s ultimate goal? Today, Playbook author Ryan Lizza talks to former U.S. Ambassador to NATO Kurt Volker — who led Trump’s Ukraine negotiations — about how President Biden is responding to the Ukraine threat and how he would counter Putin’s strategy. Plus, journalist Uliana Pavlova joins us from Moscow to describe the sentiment on the ground.

On the worst that could happen

Ryan Lizza: "President Putin has placed over 100,000 troops in and around Ukraine. There's a sort of war of words going on between NATO's leaders, especially President Biden and Russia. An increasing list of deterrent actions by the United States, including threats of sanctions. President Biden is also saying that he might personally sanction President Putin. A determination to reinforce NATO's troops in Eastern Europe. Some signs that there are Russian soldiers penetrating beyond their current positions. As we sit here and talk, give us the sort of worst-case scenario that we're trying to prevent here."

Ambassador Volker: "The worst-case one would be that Russia launches a major invasion into Ukraine that attempts to take over the entire country and subordinate Ukraine to Russia again, as was the case with the Soviet Union. That would cause, you know, massive fighting inside Ukraine. The Ukrainians are far more capable than they were in 2014 and 2015. There would be internal resistance in Ukraine, and there would be a lot of assistance to Ukraine this time compared to 2014, 2015, when it was Crimea and the invasion just in the Donbas. So I think that countries are much more prepared to help out. That would lead to a wider conflict with Russia, which could even cause Russia to then, as part of its doctrine, consider the deployment of nuclear weapons. That would really escalate in a tremendous and terrible way if that were to happen. I do not think that scenario is likely. I think what is much more likely is that Russia does invade Ukraine, but does it in the south, the east, maybe a few fronts in the north as well, tries to take more territory, does it quickly and then tries to, or is willing to then have a new cease-fire. I think they're interested in linking Crimea to the reservoirs to the north of Crimea, which used to feed water to Crimea. And I think they're interested in connecting Crimea by land to Donbas and to Russia. That would include taking, for instance, the whole coastline in the Sea of Azov, city of Mariupol, and that would create a contiguous territory that would connect all of this to Russian territory itself. And then we'll see whether he just leaves it at that, whether he recognizes it as an independent state of Novorossiya or whether he decides to annex it to Russia. I think a lot of those things are then possible. Even in doing this, there would be substantial fighting, there would be people killed, there would be refugees that Ukrainian forces will fight back. It is going to be a big and messy war if they do this. But Russia does have superior military forces, particularly superior air and naval forces, and I think is in a position to prevail. But I think that is a more likely scenario, and that's what I think the efforts of the administration and NATO and European allies are all seeking to prevent now."

On Putin’s motivations

Ryan Lizza: "There's a lot of talk, and we heard it from President Biden recently, that he [Putin] is driven by reintegrating all of the former Soviet states. I want to get your take on whether that's an accurate understanding of Putin as time has gone on and the decades have passed, that he has a slightly less ambitious view of what actually can be regained. I don't think anyone really thinks that Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania are ever going back. He'd have to be — tell me if I'm wrong — quite deluded to believe that. Give us a little bit of background on your education in 'Putinism' and what your view is of his goals and intentions here and what sort of drives them."

Ambassador Volker: "This is the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Soviet Union this year. Dec. 30th, 2022, will be the 100th anniversary. The Soviet Union was founded on the territory of the former Russian Empire, and I do think he is trying to build a greater Russia on the territory of the former Soviet Union. He has taken security control of Belarus already. He has taken control of the security forces of Kazakhstan. He has taken part of Georgia. Already, he's taken part of Ukraine. He occupies part of Moldova and I think he is ramping this up to do more. So that's one thing, is rebuilding a greater Russia. The second thing is, I think he resents the European security order that has been in place since the 1970s with the Helsinki Accords. If you remember, after World War II, there was an agreement with Stalin at Yalta to divide up Europe into an east and west and there was [these] two spheres of influence. I think the Helsinki Accords effectively changed the principles in Europe and said no, look, every state is a sovereign state. Every state has a right to its independence, has a right to choose its own security orientation. There should be no change of borders by force, no threat or use of force in Europe, no interference in the domestic affairs of other countries. All of these principles that were established in 1975 — not necessarily fully implemented as the Warsaw Pact and the Soviet Union were still there — but these were agreed principles with the Soviet Union, with NATO, with the Warsaw Pact. And when these countries had a chance to be free after 1989 and 1991, a lot of them chose to be democracies, market economies, to align with NATO, to align with the EU and to be part of a collective self-defense entity in Europe. Putin wants this to be reversed. He wants to go back to Yalta. He wants to go back to having a Russian sphere of influence that is recognized by everybody else in Europe, and that's what his proposals to the U.S. and NATO in December [2021] are all about."

On geopolitics and timing

Ryan Lizza: "One question is why now and why with Biden, rather than with the previous American presidents? What do you think it is about this moment that drove him to this decision? There's a lot of commentary out there, especially from the right, that the pullout in Afghanistan somehow drove this decision because it made Biden in the United States look weak. Others take the opposite position and say, well, actually, the pullout from Afghanistan made Putin realize that Biden was very aware of where the American military should be around the world, and this might be the perfect moment to get Biden to engage on what the European security architecture should look like and maybe rethink that. So, why now, and how do you think the change in American president changed his thinking?"

Ambassador Volker: "Well, that's an excellent question because he invaded Georgia in 2008. He invaded Ukraine in 2014. He's kept the fighting there at a low level ever since. But this is a new level of threat. And I think there are several factors here. One of them is [that] he sees weakness in the U.S. and in Europe both. Here he sees a lot of focus on domestic issues and domestic turmoil in the U.S. about our own democracy. So that's also an opportunity. You mentioned Afghanistan, and I believe that is a significant factor: that he saw that the U.S. does not have the stomach to exercise force. That we are tired of this. We want to pull back. We were not willing to keep even 2,500 troops in Afghanistan, and the chaos that ensued when we pulled out I think is something that everybody in the world saw, including Putin, and he thought, OK, the United States is no longer committed to exercising power in the world the way it used to be, and that this situation may not last forever. Russia is gradually getting weaker over time. Ukraine is gradually getting stronger over time. NATO may bounce back, the U.S. may bounce back. So this is a propitious time to act."

On the response

Ryan Lizza: "Let's talk about the NATO response so far, and especially the White House response. Let's start with your sort of overview of how Biden has handled this crisis so far. You've been critical at the outset. I think you've been a little bit more complimentary more recently, but give us your view of where they've gotten it right and where you think they've fallen short so far."

Ambassador Volker: "Well, you know, what I think is positive right now is we are finally getting into a proactive mode, and that's what I would criticize as well. I don't think we got there fast enough. We saw the Russian military build-up already in the fall, and we knew that this was a threatening move. It was Dec. 17th, I believe, when Russia delivered its proposals to the U.S. and NATO demanding this rewriting of European security architecture. I think we should have been very clear immediately. These are unacceptable. We're not negotiating about these, and we should have been putting in place things that would strengthen our position on the ground so that it would be clear to Putin not only are we rejecting these proposals, but we are defending our principles. That's where I think we are today. We now have President Biden activating 8,500 U.S. troops. We have NATO countries deploying forces to the eastern part of the alliance to help reassure the allies there. Some allies in the east are now transferring military equipment that we've given them to Ukraine with the U.S. blessing that they would do this, and the U.S. has increased its security assistance to Ukraine. These are all things that we could have and should have been doing back in December, and I think that we would have had more of an impact on Putin's thinking than we see today. I still think that we have an opportunity to apply some sanctions on Russia as well."

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