Russia and Ukraine, Explained

A conversation with Ivo H. Daalder and Robert Siegel
Latest, World
Ivo Daalder and Robert Siegal

Just hours after Russia invaded Ukraine, Ivo H. Daalder, president of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and the U.S. Ambassador to NATO under President Obama, sat down with Robert Siegel, former host of NPR’s “All Things Considered,” to discuss the situation. They spoke about Russia and Ukraine’s contentious relationship, the role of NATO, the costs of war and the resolve of the Ukrainian people. Watch the conversation in full here.


Ivo, thank you very much for being with us. How significant is what happened today? 

This is momentous. This is a turning point in European and global security; we will look back at it in the same way as December 7 or September 11. For four months, a powerful country prepared an invasion of a neighboring country that posed no threat, that didn’t do anything to deserve what we’re seeing. We haven’t seen anything like this—in Europe at least—for a very long time; I would say since 1945. Why is this happening? This has to do with Vladimir Putin, fundamentally and completely.

Remember where Putin was on November 11, 1989, when the Berlin Wall came down. He was a KGB colonel in Dresden, hardly where the KGB sent its most capable agents. He saw the end of the Soviet Empire, and he resented it from day one, believing that Soviet leaders had betrayed the Soviet Union and its people. When the Wall came down, the prospect for German unification, for European unification, and for freedom of people who had hungered for freedom for a long time, became possible; but for Putin, it was the end of Soviet dominion, the end of the Russian Empire, and now he’s trying to re-establish it. He became prime minister of Russia under Boris Yeltsin, and then the acting president. From that moment on, he strengthened the Russian state and the capacity for it to revisit the end of the Cold War. 

Why Ukraine? There’s Finland, or the three Baltic Republics, which are independent and they’re members of NATO now. There’s Belarus, which is extremely close to Russia. And then there’s Ukraine. What is so significant about Ukraine in Russian eyes, that we’ve seen this invasion and the months that preceded it?

Two things are significant about Ukraine. In many chapters of history, Russia and Ukraine were one country, not two, although there have also been times in history during which Ukraine was independent, as it is today and for the last 30 years. But there’s a historical affinity, there’s a religious affinity. 

What distinguishes Belarus from Ukraine is that since 1994, and certainly since 2020, Belarus has been completely and totally subservient to Moscow. It dances to Putin’s tune. Alexander Lukashenko, who stole an election in 2020 and brutally repressed civilians who were protesting the stealing of the election, turned to Russia, and Russia gave him the support he needed, directly and indirectly, to survive, but at the cost of him becoming completely subservient to Russia.

That’s what Russia wants from Ukraine, a completely subservient state. Ukraine has had two revolutions, one in 2004-2005, and another one in 2014, in which the people of Ukraine said, “We don’t want to be governed by people who have the interest of Russia in mind. We want to be governed by the people who have the interest of Ukraine in mind.”

Putin sees that as a threat because if it can succeed in Ukraine, why can’t it succeed in Russia? And what is Vladimir Putin’s role in a country like that?

The invasion that Vladimir Putin has undertaken obviously includes some likely loss of life, and it includes economic sanctions imposed by the United States and Europe. Are those costs seen as minor and manageable by Putin, or is taking control of Ukraine so important that it’s worth feeling real pain to achieve it? Or has Putin perhaps miscalculated the consequences of his actions?

I think he’s miscalculated. I think he has been surprised by the united reaction that the U.S. has been able to forge together with its allies, which meant that he had to move militarily. I think he would’ve preferred to do it through bluff and intimidation. This is going to be very costly in terms of Russian lives. The Russian military is far more capable than the Ukrainian military, and probably in relatively short order will be able to take control of whatever part, if not all, of Ukraine it wants to control. But then what? 

In 2003, we took control of Iraq quickly. And today we’re still in Iraq, still facing an insurgency, because there are people in Iraq who don’t want us there. I can guarantee you, there are people in Ukraine who don’t want the Russians there, and they’re willing to fight for it. That’s one cost. And then, of course, there are sanctions, which are going to be very, very, very significant. And those costs may turn out to be unacceptable to the Russian people.

Do you think that those costs, though, would be unacceptable over the course of months, or would it be over the course of several years before the pain is really felt?

I think it’s going to be the latter. I think we are into a long period of containment, the kind of policies that we pursued during the Cold War, where we are trying to impose costs on Russia from the outside, in order over time to affect internal change from the internal dynamics.

We know how this works because we’ve seen this movie before. It is the policy that George Kennan wrote about in his famous Long Telegram in 1947, later published as the X Article in Foreign Affairs, and that we’ve pursued in one form or another for 40 years.

Columnist Tom Friedman cited George F. Kennan the other day. He recalled interviewing him as the Soviet Union had collapsed, and as NATO was expanding east. Kennan cautioned that it would be reckless to move NATO farther east, to absorb the former Warsaw Bloc countries, and that NATO had achieved its goal in defeating the Soviet Union. What was the need for the alliance after that? Which was something that the Russian leaders have said since: What other purpose is there to your alliance, other than to attack us? 

I admire both Tom Friedman and George Kennan greatly, but on this point, I fundamentally disagree. This was not NATO expanding east, this was the countries of Central and Eastern Europe demanding to be protected. To enjoy the independence and freedom that the people of Western Europe and indeed the United States have been enjoying since 1945.

These were countries under the yoke of Soviet power, who had long been denied independence. They believed, rightly in my view, that membership in the Western club, which was at that time defined by the European Union and NATO, was the best way to secure the freedom and prosperity they had long sought. Just think what would’ve happened, given what we are seeing today, if the Baltic states, Poland, Hungary, Slovakia and Belarus weren’t part of NATO. What would be happening right now?

Why isn’t Ukraine a member of NATO, and why would it be important for Ukraine to be a member of NATO?

Ukrainians themselves have always been divided on this issue. This is not something that NATO wants to impose on countries. It was only in 2014, after the Russian invasion and annexation of Crimea, and then Russia’s support for the breakaway separatists in Eastern Donbas, that Ukrainian popular opinion turned in favor of membership. But even today, it’s only 62 percent. 

Many Ukrainians don’t want to have a bad relationship with Russia. Many of them have Russian family, or family in Russia, and want to maintain the strong, direct link between the two countries. Only when their independence and sovereignty is threatened do they say, “Hey, listen, maybe NATO’s the way that we can protect ourselves.”

Do you think the Ukrainians would ever agree to cede the eastern separatist regions of Donetsk and Luhansk to Russia?

It wouldn’t be the first time in history that a war takes place and then new borders get drawn. But it would not be Ukrainians’ choice. In 1990, all of Ukraine voted on the question of independence from the Soviet Union. In Donetsk and Luhansk, 84 percent of the people voted in favor of independence. This notion of an ethnic idea, that people who are like us must live in the same country, under the same rule, just isn’t realistic in the 21st century. In fact, it wasn’t realistic in the 19th century either, which is one of the reasons we have these states in which borders don’t necessarily coincide with ethnic, tribal, religious, national or other divisions.

The Kenyan ambassador to the Security Council the other day gave a remarkably insightful speech about how borders drawn in places like London, Paris, Berlin and Africa cut right across national, tribal and other divisions. There was an agreement in Africa early on in the decolonization process that if one country was going to change borders, everybody was going to change borders, so let’s just live with it and try to figure out how to move forward together. That’s what Vladimir Putin should have done in this case too.

Germany, very significantly, moved to stop work on the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, intended to take gas from Russia to Germany. How long will the Germans stand by that decision? Which is greater, Europe’s need for Russian gas and oil, or Russia’s need for European customers?

European customers are far more important to Russia than Russian gas is to Europe. Although Europe, particularly the Baltic states and others, still depends on Russian gas, the overall demand can be met by alternative sources. And over time, natural gas is just not going to be as important as we have alternative means of generating electricity and heat. When you are a fossil fuel economy these days, you don’t have long given what’s happening on the climate change front, and given Europeans’ leading effort to change its reliance on fossil fuels.

Why are Russia and Ukraine of such great interest to the United States?

We want to make sure that this war stays where it is. Russia is trying to reclaim parts of the European system that we can’t allow it to have, and therefore we are back in war. Better to be there in large numbers to prevent that from happening. 

I’m born and raised in the Netherlands, a country occupied by the Germans. I had family that was lost in the Holocaust, and my mother had to flee to Switzerland. We looked to the United States, as Europe has looked to the United States, as the final protector of not only our country, but who we are, and our democracy, our freedom, our prosperity. We built a system in the second half of the 20th century that we maintained to the 21st century, in which the presence of the United States in foreign countries isn’t about dominating them, it’s about protecting them. That’s why we need to be there; freedom in Europe is at stake. 

Since you’ve raised the experience of Europe and the Holocaust in the Second World War, what do you make of Vladimir Putin’s use of the words “genocide” and “denazification” as his pretext to invade? Let me add that there’s no whataboutism here. We have journalists who have been based all over Ukraine—it’s not a Nazi regime and there’s no genocide that’s been underway there. But Vladimir Putin tells that to the Russians; what do you make of that? He also throws in the fact that Russia is a great nuclear power, which is also rather menacing.

Ukraine is one of the few countries in the world run by a Jewish president and a Jewish prime minister. Zelensky lost a large part of his family to the Holocaust, as he recounted recently in a really moving speech. But this is who Putin is. He is using propaganda to whip up public sentiment. It’s not going to work. It’s certainly not going to work for a younger population, which is far too savvy and far too understanding of what’s really going on. Which is why this war is not going to be seen as popular in Russia.

Do the Ukrainians have the necessary resolve and the firepower to resist this invasion?

Ukrainian defenses are far different than they were eight years ago. They have significantly bolstered their capacity to a standing army of 250,000 troops, and that’s not nothing. They have been trained by NATO countries, including the United States, over the last eight years. They have been outfitted with much more modern equipment. The Russian Army, Air Force and Navy will overwhelm them, but they will pay a big price doing so. This ain’t no cakewalk. The cost is going to be high.

And wars don’t end just because tanks stop rolling. Wars end when one side is subjugated to the other. Again, the Iraq analogy is useful. We will find Ukrainians fighting an insurgency, and indeed I would hope that the United States and NATO allies would help the Ukrainians in fighting that insurgency.

I think it’s understood right now that actual NATO involvement in the fighting in Ukraine is off the table. Would supporting an insurgency movement from across the border in Poland be on the table? Would Putin again invoke his nuclear arsenal if such a thing were to happen?

I think it’s very much on the table, and I think there’s an obligation for us to help the Ukrainians defend themselves. This is an independent country that has been attacked, and if we’re not willing to send our own troops, the very least we could do is to help the Ukrainians defend themselves. Putin may well throw around his nuclear saber, but the reality is, we have nuclear weapons too. We don’t have to remind him that any use of nuclear weapons by the Russians would lead to retaliation by the United States. It’s a risk he can’t afford any more than we can, which is why, even during the Cold War standoff, we never actually got to a nuclear exchange—and indeed, never got to a direct exchange between American and Russian forces, because of the fear of escalation.

What do you make of Putin’s behavior? Where do you come down on the question of how rationally or irrationally Vladimir Putin is behaving?

I don’t think he’s irrational. I think his rationality is different. We can say he’s miscalculating without saying that he’s irrational. We know this from recent interlocutors with him, most importantly the Finnish president, who has spent quite a lot of time talking to him, and President Macron of France, who said that he was a different person than the last time they met in 2019.

We know he has been very, very afraid of catching COVID, so he’s been very isolated, and through these two years, he hasn’t had people telling him things he didn’t want to hear. He may have become really convinced of the arguments that he’s laid out about why Ukraine is not really a country, which he relayed in a remarkable speech on Monday. If you read that speech and still think that this is all about NATO, you’ve got a problem. He is working from an image of Russia, Ukraine, and what needs to happen that is quite different from ours. He’s surrounded himself with people who are only yes men.

Learn more about Russian and Ukraine and stay up-dated with Moment’s Guide: “Russian& Ukraine, Explained”

 

 


Ivo H. Daalder is president of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. Prior to joining the Council, he served as the U.S. ambassador to NATO for more than four years. He also served on the U.S. National Security Council staff as director for European affairs. Before his appointment as Ambassador to NATO, Daalder was senior fellow in foreign policy studies at the Brookings Institution. 

Robert Siegel was the senior host of NPR’s award-winning news magazine “All Things Considered” for 30 years. Currently, he hosts “Navigating the New Abnormal,” a series of web seminars sponsored by American Friends of Rabin Medical Center on the Jewish Broadcasting Service (JBS) television network. Siegel is a special literary contributor to Moment Magazine.

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