How is the West going to counter Russia?

Richard WEITZ: “The sanctions might have a long-term beneficial factor in weakening the Russian military capacity”

Richard Weitz, senior fellow and director of the Center for Political-Military Analysis at Hudson Institute in Washington, DC, expert at Wikistrat, and senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS), visited Ukraine recently. His sphere of research includes issues of regional security in Europe, Eurasia, and East Asia, as well as the US foreign and defense policy. The Day spoke with Dr. Weitz during an excursion around the St. Sophia Cathedral, which he described as an “epitome of Ukrainian identity.”


Here is how the American expert explained the aim of his visit to Kyiv: “I was in Ukraine once before, back in 1986. I came here when I was studying Russian, I had a week between training programs. It was indeed in the time of the Soviet Union which went by the name Russia in America, and Ukraine was its constituent part. I really needed to come to Ukraine to get a sense of what’s happening, because your country is of critical importance for international security, for US foreign policy, and for the future of Europe. I don’t like to travel, but Ukraine is such an important country that when I was given an opportunity by the US Embassy and by the Institute of World Policy to come, I just couldn’t but take it.

“I’ve had a series of meetings with different groups. On Monday, I spent the day with students from Taras Shevchenko University. They took me around the city, we did a tour of all downtown, we talked a lot about their vision of the future of Ukraine, their understanding of US foreign policy, their aspiration and dreams, and I was really struck by how European they all were. Their mentality was very similar to people I see in Europe, I was very impressed. When I was last here, in 1986, it wasn’t the case. I was trained like most Americans in my generation. We learned Russian, and we studied the Soviet Union as Russia, so I didn’t know much about nationalities, I didn’t learn Ukrainian or Kazakh. That is not true anymore. People who are now being trained in the US have a much richer understanding, they know and study not only Russian, but also Turkish, Belarusian, or Ukrainian. But in my generation there’s a knowledge gap, you know. When I think of Ukraine, I think of ‘Russian’ Ukraine. So, this is part of my education, and that’s one reason why I am coming here: because I am told this is a central part of Ukrainian national identity.”


You have also met the officials from the Defense Ministry, National Security and Defense Council, President’s Administration, representatives of the US Embassy and various NGOs. What impression do you have after those meetings?

“There are certain questions I was very interested in, and I raised all of them, and then there were things some of them told me specifically, depending on their interests. Some of the general questions I was interested in, are what their understanding of US foreign policy is, what they think the US caused, how they interpret the Trump administration. We talked about Russian goals and tactics in Ukraine, what is the end game Russia wants, what kind of tactics they are using to pursue them, and in some cases, what kind of measures are Ukrainians using to counter them. We talked about the information space, I mean the main influences on public opinion in Ukraine, how the opinion has been changing in the last few years, the role of the US and Russia and other source of influence in that media debate. I guess that was the main thing I was interested in.

“And then each of them also raised specific issues of interest. Sometimes we talked a bit about the question of the weapons, NATO, and also about the structure this partnership ought to have. They expressed desire to see the revival of the bipartisan commission on the level of the US Vice President and the President of Ukraine, as it was under Gore and Kuchma, and it continued under Biden. The Ukrainian party is concerned that the lack of this kind of structure now is causing problems, because all this high-level coordination is needed.

“We talked a bit about US domestic politics affecting Ukraine’s, and sometimes we talked a little about Ukrainian domestic politics, about the questions we mentioned: US policy, Russian policy, what the future direction of the partnership might be, where people thought there could be improvement, and so on.”

And how are you going to use this information on your return to the US?

“I will publish some material openly, though often the rules of discussion were not quite traditional. So I will say, this is my understanding of Ukrainian government’s priorities, these are some of the differences I saw between different actors. And then, some of it I will send as private information to people in the Defense Department and the Vice President’s Office and so on.”

Who is now responsible for the US foreign policy?

“At the moment it is not clear. Now the cadres are being shuffled, and many posts remain unfilled. It creates a gap between the president’s statements and the policy developed by the bureaucracy. That’s why it’s all complicated. But General Mattis is very influential in the defense sphere. Tillerson does not seem that influential so far. The national security advisor and the chief of staff take no clear-cut stand. That is why it is not quite clear to which extent their influence stretches. And in some cases it is unclear what the policy looks like, in particular, towards Ukraine. There still is no clear picture as to what is the Trump Administration’s stand on their goals in Ukraine and what steps they will take (or what steps they might take) to achieve those goals.”


Currently we are observing the following picture: Trump is pursuing “America first” principle, while Russia says its borders do not end anywhere.

“A lot of us anticipated major changes in US policy towards Russia, towards Ukraine, towards China, and some other issues when Trump was elected. Even NATO, we thought, was under a question, a bit. There’s been a process of what I would call normalization of US foreign policy, as Trump is forming his administration, turning over his cadres, or because he might be rethinking some of the statements he made during his campaign, or deeper understanding, or clarification... We are now reverting back to this traditional US policy. And almost all issues, at least not in the security domain, but maybe in trade – like TPP, the revision of NAFTA, and now that the Korea-US trade agreement is under reconsideration – are somewhat changing in the economic realm.

“But in security we will hardly see a major change from this administration, compared to what the previous one did, regarding Russia and anything else. I think that Russians, as well as most Americans, have given up on any idea of a ‘grand bargain’ or a ‘great Russia-US reconciliation.’ Now it is the question of whether there will be any improvement of relations or whether they are going to stay in this kind of confrontation in a couple of areas, otherwise saying, there will be a standoff on many other issues. And the sanctions don’t look to be going away any time soon. And without the offer of scraping the sanctions Russia’s incentive to reach something by way of compromises will be weakened.”


How would you comment on Putin’s rhetoric concerning the possibility of supplying Ukraine with American weapons and the Kremlin’s eventual reaction?

“That is not the kind of things Putin normally says. It is something Lavrov would normally say, or Rogozin. It was unusual for Putin to make that kind of threat, you know: if the US provides weapons to Ukraine, then Donetsk might supply weapons to places sensitive to the United States. And it wasn’t quite clear what he meant, because Russia is already giving weapons to China, to Iran, and that is quite sensitive. I don’t know where else he had in mind.

“As for possible uprisings in Ukraine – that’s what they thought might happen in 2014, but there hasn’t been any genuine uprising. I don’t know where that would’ve occurred, it would have been a very artificial cul-de-sac. I don’t find those threats all that strong. I think the main argument I’ve heard against giving weapons to Ukraine is that Russia would then escalate more directly in the Ukraine conflict. Maybe a reoccurrence of what we saw in 2014, with Russian combat troops active in eastern Ukraine as opposed to using proxies, and so on. But if all that Russia is going to do is proliferate weapons, it is not a very strong threat because there are already so many weapons out there in the black market. So, I was surprised that it was more threatening than what Putin usually says, but not that threatening overall.”

Some experts in the US believe that it is necessary to provide Ukraine with lethal weapons, others say it would be a mistake. What is your opinion?

“In Washington there is a fifty-fifty split. The arguments in favor are that it would raise the costs for Russia in case of the continued confrontation in Ukraine, it would show American determination. There are more arguments: that as Ukrainians are willing to die to defend their country, then the US should provide them with aid to help them fight better, as much as they can. But the counter-argument is that it would feed into that Russian threat, as the Kremlin sees itself being contained and surrounded. This could lead Russia to more directly escalate the conflict. And given geographic proximity, and asymmetries and strikes, Russia would win any escalation.

“This was the question I was struggling with when I came here to hear the arguments. In Ukraine I have not heard that counter-argument. The people I have talked to had only arguments in favor and, in fact, demanded the weapons. So, I think that my opinion is shifting towards that view, because basically I was split. But now, given the arguments I’ve heard and given my understanding of calculations of the Ukrainians and the Russians, I would consider certainly anti-electronic warfare, information and cyber encrypted intelligence, weapons they can use to prevent UAVs from being taken over by Russians.

“The Javelins? I don’t know… What’s the argument in favor of the Javelin? I can understand your argument against or in favor of encrypting, radio and electronic warfare, but why the Javelins? Do the Russians have so many tanks, and the existing Ukrainian armaments cannot deal with this? I think the main problem now is that Russia has extended its air defense over eastern Ukraine, and that makes it difficult for Ukraine to use its war planes or UAVs, especially given that air defense is basically a shield. How do you penetrate it? I think there will be technologies that could be used to counter this air defense.”

After the involvement of Kurt Volker, who had already held talks with Surkov, there were expectations here of some dynamics in the progress of the Minsk process. However, we have not seen any shifts in Russia’s position. Why cannot we see them?

“I guess there appears to be some lack of harmonization between the Volker efforts and the Minsk group, and that Russians may perceive that as an opening to try and play off America versus Europe. So I think there may need to be a clarification and a harmonization of the Volker efforts and the Minsk efforts.”


Introducing sanctions against Russia, Obama expressed a hope that they would change Putin’s calculations and reverse his actions in Crimea and Donbas. Why hasn’t this policy of sanctions succeeded?

“My guess is, because Russia is not Iran. I think that the calculation of the sanctions was that it would hurt people near Putin, and so cause discontent within his ruling circle. It would hurt influential corporations that need access to certain Western technology, primarily energy, that it would also make the Crimea occupation unprofitable. And there is evidence of the last.

“But whatever the reason is – perhaps, the government in Russia has been skilled at sustaining popular support despite the economic hardships – there does not appear to be any weakening of support for Putin among the mass population, among the elite. It appears Russia accepted whatever decrement in its GDP by one or two percent, and is now going to continue to take that loss. But except that, because they see this occupation of Donetsk and Crimea as advantage, as policy that benefits and Putin’s national credentials, it is probably useful strategically to keep NATO membership outside the realm of Ukraine. It’s difficult to become a member of NATO and EU when so much of its territory is occupied. I think, like they did in Georgia as well.

“The sanctions might have a long-term beneficial factor in weakening the Russian military capacity, because it certainly means that some of the weapons cost more, and some of the technologies they lack, its slows Russian economic growth more, which gives it fewer resources to devote to its ends. So there is some impact, but they haven’t been the kind of overwhelming sanctions we had against Iran, let alone North Korea. We don’t have support in Europe or elsewhere to put in or basically cut off energy ties with Russia. They oppose the massive sanctions that might cause that change.”

Speaking of Europe, Germany’s Vice Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel called for weakening the sanctions against Russia if a true ceasefire in Donbas is reached. How would you comment on this?

“I don’t know. Maybe it is related to the elections in Germany, somebody said it might have been a misunderstanding, because the initial conditions (when we first heard about the ceasefire) were clear. And then, later it became clear that the conditions were unacceptable (like the Ukrainian government would have to recognize the self-proclaimed LNR/DNR authorities and so on). But when it first came out, those conditions were known in the stories we were getting – he may be reacting to that. But in general, Social Democrats are in a tough campaign against Merkel, striving to figure out some way to change the electoral balance and striking ball positions on Russia, so that might have been a new effort to try and shape the debate.

“So far, I haven’t seen Merkel giving an indication at that. When she was in Moscow, she took a very firm stand on a lot of these issues, not just Ukraine, but even Russian domestic politics.”


It is generally recognized that Russia has breached every international law, including bilateral treaties with Ukraine, the Budapest Memorandum, and the Helsinki Act. How can it be forced to return to respecting international norms?

“That’s a good question. Basically, the whole European arms control and security system is falling apart. I don’t see the US strategy in what to do about that. I think the INF is still under review; and I think that CFE is not being discussed. The Budapest Memorandum is a hard issue here, but it is not anything I’ve heard come up in the US. I think it is obviously an uncomfortable issue in the United States and in Great Britain, because they can be seen as not upholding that principle. If there is going to be a discussion about what to do with European security architecture, I think it will manifest itself in those reviews; but they won’t be out for a couple more months.

There are people in Washington who say that if you give more and extend your support to Ukraine, increase the sanctions, give Ukraine the weapons it needs to stand up to Russia, then Russia, even under the current government, would back down and understand that it’s facing a formidable competitor, and not a weak Western alliance. And then they would change quicker.

“Forcing Russia [to respect its international obligations. – Ed.] is a challenge. I think that the goals of the Trump administration will be more limited: to reverse the occupation in Donetsk is the priority. The larger question about how to do it is with the OSCE, the Helsinki principles – I don’t really know if that strategy is even going to be a goal. And I don’t see the Europeans pushing for it, either.”

So, it means rule of the strong instead of the rule of law?

“The US cannot force Russia to leave Crimea. But I think that the Donetsk question seems open, at least to some kind of agreement. It might be that you can shape the Russian incentives structure in a way that would cause them to compromise on Donetsk and still feel they gained something, security wise.

“A different way of phrasing what you said is that Russia is alienated from the European security architecture. They are not in NATO, they are not in the EU, they are not on the CFE, the INF is in trouble… So it’s a larger question of how do we get Russia into the European security architecture in a way that doesn’t threaten other countries, like Georgia and Ukraine. I’m not sure that there is something that can work with the current Russian government. It might have to wait till the next Russian government.”


Until the collapse of Putin?

“I don’t know what the scenario can be, but it cannot be a problem forever. There will be someone after him. In Ukraine people tend to worry that there can be something even worse than him, like nationalists or someone who would not compromise. But in the US it’s not so.

“Putin is a really smart guy, but some of his views on the US, NATO are strange and incorrect and difficult to overcome. That might be a way to the next Russian leader. That person might have a different view on what might be acceptable. Even the sanctions have not been effective now, you might think that some other Russian leader might have a different opinion.

“I think this might happen after Russians realize what the growing influence of neighboring China has in stock for them. At the moment it doesn’t seem to be a concern. But it could become one. And the rise of China could cause Russia to revise their security.”

So, Ukrainians should wait till Russia revises its position.

“Well, it’s easy for me to say that being in Washington. Next month I am going to Georgia, and Georgians are going to yell at me that there are no changes in the US policy. I think that it’s like the Baltic States scenario. That at some point there will be a Russian government that will calculate its interests. I can’t think about a more rapid, or a more predictable scenario. I could well be wrong. There are people in Washington who say that if you give more and extend your support to Ukraine, increase the sanctions, give Ukraine the weapons it needs to stand up to Russia, then Russia, even under the current government, would back down and understand that it’s facing a formidable competitor, and not a weak Western alliance. And then they would change quicker.”

Do you think that instead of the Budapest Memorandum, it would be better to make a treaty between the US and Ukraine on the model of the defense pact between the US and Japan? Could that stop Russia and force it out of Ukraine?

“I’ve had such conversations during my meetings with Ukrainian colleagues, but I don’t know if this question is being considered in the US. I don’t think that such a pact would stop Russia. It seems to me that the so-called DNR and LNR are Putin’s project. Therefore it will need another Russian leader, who would change his position on this issue. I guess he has invested a lot in this project. On the other hand, when he wins next year’s presidential elections, he will have much stronger positions domestically. That is, he could afford considerable concessions if he would. And this could be caused by the sanctions or some other reasons. But we need to wait and see what actually happens.”


How do you think the Korean nuclear crisis could be solved?

“The solution to Korea is clear to me, which is the regime change in the North and reunification with the South. That’s the solution, but how do you get there, I don’t know. It’s like the Ukraine-Russia problem. Right now, we’ve gotten an elevated risk of confrontation, because the North Korean capabilities have increased. The US considered a wider range of policies this time under Trump than previously, as far as we know. And they looked at questions like giving South Korea nuclear weapons or, conversely, having Trump negotiate with Kim Jong-un. But in the end, the US has fallen back on the same policies as always, based on three pillars. One is sanctions. We apply sanctions trying to put a lot of pressure on the North Korean government, and put pressure on other governments that deal with North Korea. Conversely, two – diplomacy: work closely with South Korea and Japan as allies, but also try and work with Russia and especially China to try and have some levers of influence on North Korea. And then the third pillar is military cooperation, and this is a bit more extensive than in the past: building up US missile defenses in South Korea; there are more exercises; there is now a discussion of giving South Korea and Japan a greater capacity to launch offensive strike weapons that would be used to preemptively destroy or at least eliminate many of the threatening systems. But it’s still fundamentally the same approach as before.”