“Time for the West to assume the worst”: Conclusions of the roundtable discussion “How to support Ukraine and deter Kremlin aggression”

01 February 2022

The Victor Pinchuk Foundation, the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center and Yalta European Strategy hosted a roundtable discussion “How to support Ukraine and deter Kremlin aggression” in Kyiv. A delegation of retired US ambassadors and former government officials and experts focused on how Ukraine and its Western partners can work together to deter the threat of a new Kremlin offensive against Ukraine, which would also be a major blow against NATO, EU, and American interests. 

In the opening remarks, John Herbst, former US ambassador to Ukraine said: “I can tell you that American support for Ukraine in this crisis situation is substantial. You all know that Biden administration laid out three things that they would do if Moscow sends those +100,000 troops or some portion of those +100,000 troops into Ukraine: there would be punishing sanctions, there would be an increase in American military assistance to Ukraine, and there would be a strengthening of NATO’s posture along Moscow’s border.” And U.S. policy is toughening as it is sending additional weapons to Ukraine now

Commenting on the decision to withdraw the families of U.S. diplomats from Ukraine, the former U.S. ambassador said: “The decision to withdraw the families is a decision that as an ambassador I would have taken, because that is what we do around the world.”

“Senior U.S. administration’s officials have said that Putin has not made up his mind yet,” Amb. Herbst added about the prospect of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Philip Breedlove, former Supreme Allied Commander Europe General (Ret.), mentioned Putin’s recent paper on Ukraine: “It’s clear in his paper about Ukraine that Putin still sees this great country as a part of Russia. And clearly he has a sight of making that happen again sometime. And we see that his ambitions and his desires are even bigger than Ukraine, and that in his heart he wants to rewrite the security architecture of Europe, to re-approach what we had in the Warsaw Pact then. Remember what he said about the fall of the Warsaw Pact? He said it was the biggest catastrophe of our time. And now we see him positioning force and pressuring nations to try to recreate that security environment that he had. And this crisis is completely manufactured and completely contrives by Mr. Putin to advance those two goals.”

 

General Breedlove mentioned the incursion of Russian troops into Georgia in 2008 and said that time “the West didn’t get it right”, but “Now is the time for the West to get it right”. He suggested that Russia “built a toolkit on the border with Ukraine” and invasion is possible in three directions:

  • in the north through Belarus
  • in the center through Donbas
  • in the south through Crimea from the Black Sea

“Each of those options have different strategic goals: possibly the overthrow of your great government in the north, possibly the embarrassment and the splitting of NATO and Europe by invading through the center, and saying ‘I’m here, you are not. I’m in control, you are not’. And then possibly from the south for a more punishing economic blow to your great country,” General Breedlove suggested.

Answering a question about whether Putin is really going in or taking the debate about the possible invasion of Ukraine as a leverage to push forward negotiations about NATO, Alexander Vershbow, former US ambassador to Russia and deputy secretary general of NATO, said: “Putin has not yet made a decision to invade. Deterrence are still working. I think Putin is constrained by the direct costs of the invasion itself, whether it’s a large-scale invasion or a smaller one. He has to reckon with the possibility of material losses, human losses, casualties.”

“The fact that Russians are allowing diplomacy to continue, suggests that they might be looking at some points in U.S. and NATO responses that might be worth pursuing and could start a path towards de-escalation,” he added.

Answering a question about why the current situation in Ukraine matters to the U.S., Marie Yovanovitch, former US ambassador to Ukraine, said: “We are supporting Ukraine because it is in our national security interests. It is the smart thing to do to support Ukraine. The U.S. is a country of values. And supporting Ukraine is the right thing to do as well. It reflects who we are as Americans, as a democracy supporting another democracy in the face of an authoritarian and increasingly aggressive atmosphere.”

“We need to support Ukraine by deploying deterrents, but also by deploying diplomacy,” she added, and warned that Russia would continue its aggressive actions if the West doesn’t do this.

“The outcome of the next month will certainly affect Ukraine’s future. Perhaps on the positive side, or perhaps not. But it will have the impact more broadly for the U.S. and for the other countries around the world, because I think in some sense it will shape the world that we live in. So I would say that the stakes of what’s happening right now, could not be higher, certainly for Ukraine, but also for the West and the U.S.,” Amb. Yovanovitch concluded.

Answering a question about whether Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is imminent or not, Steven Pifer, former US ambassador to Ukraine, said: “It’s hard to predict when this might happen, and it might be that Vladimir Putin himself has not yet decided whether or not to use the force. But I think that it’s time for the West to assume the worst.”

Andriy Zahorodnyuk, Center for Defence Strategies and a distinguished fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center, in turn, said that a large-scale invasion is unlikely, despite the rising number of Russian troops on the Ukrainian border to 135,000, which is more than last week: “It’s a small increase compared to last week. We think that a large-scale apocalyptic scenario is not realistic, however there is a very high risk of escalation in eastern Ukraine.”

Commenting on the current security threats, Anton Herashchenko, an aide to the Interior Minister of Ukraine, pointed at the security gaps on the Ukrainian state border: “We still don’t have properly equipped from the engineering point of view the state border with Russia and Belarus. Around 900m UAH has been allocated to beef up security on the border since this year started.”

Addressing the economic fallout of the current situation, Ambassador Roman Waschuk, the Canadian business ombudsman of Ukraine, said: “A serious economic stabilization prudential package needs to be worked out. Ensuring that Ukraine stays on the even economic keel through this crisis is important.”

Summarizing the discussion, Amb. Alexander Vershbow said: “Putin does see the window of opportunity closing. Since the invasion of Ukraine in 2014, he has been trying to bring Ukraine back into his orbit but has failed. Ukraine is slipping from his grasp.

In his closing remarks, Amb. John Herbst concluded:Putin’s objectives go beyond Ukraine. Your fight is our fight. Putin’s Munich speech in February 2007 laid out a world, in which our world can see a real damage. The documents that the Kremlin sent to the U.S. and NATO in December lay out the world in which Moscow and Germany return not just to the borders of the Soviet States, but to the whole of Western Europe, whole Warsaw Pact. Putin wants to rewrite the security system. He wants to rewrite basic principles like national sovereignty and territorial integrity.”

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Shimon Peres
Shimon Peres
6th YES Annual Meeting, 2009
«High technologies will lead the world out of the crisis»