Steven Pifer was born in San Francisco but considers Sebastopol, Calif. (not the contested Crimean port) to be his hometown. Pifer had a lengthy career in the U.S. Foreign Service, including a stint as U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine from 1998 to 2000, under President Bill Clinton. He is currently director of the Arms Control and Nonproliferation Initiative at the Brookings Institution where he focuses on Russia and Ukraine.
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Pifer visited Boise on June 2 to deliver a lecture to the Boise Committee on Foreign Relations and sat down with TBR to discuss his recent trip to Ukraine and his views on U.S. options in the region. In the interview below, Pifer elaborates on a series of recommendations to the U.S. government, based on a fact finding mission to Ukraine in early 2015 that he made with seven other former U.S. officials, including Strobe Talbott, president of Brookings.
TBR: You recently sat on the “Sisyphus in Security” panel at the Kyiv Security Forum with Pavlo Klimkin, Ukrainian foreign affairs minister. What did you discuss?
Pifer: [Klimkin] was talking about some of the challenges that Ukraine faces now and the main challenge is they’re dealing with Russia. I mean, it’s not an openly declared war, but it’s basically, they see what’s going on in Eastern Ukraine as a conflict with Russia. And I think it’s correct in that if Russia did not want that conflict to go on in Donetsk and Luhansk, the Russians could certainly cut off the flow of money, leadership, weapons, ammunition and make it very hard for that separatist struggle to continue.
Part of the problem that Ukraine has is the geopolitical motive for what the Russians are doing. The Russians do not want to see Ukraine move toward the West… Vladimir Putin says the Ukrainains, they’re not a different people. Some Russians refer to Ukraine as “Little Russia,” they both go back and claim the Kievan Rus’ a thousand years ago as kind of where they got started; it was the prince of Kyiv that founded Moscow. So for Putin, bringing Ukraine back toward Russia plays well domestically, but I think in Putin’s world view — he looks at Russia as a great power and believes a great power should have a sphere of influence and wants Ukraine there. Ukraine, if it’s moving toward Europe, leaves a big hole… and Klimkin, as foreign minister, has to deal with that.
TBR: We published an article last year by Phillip Turner about some of the far right parties in Ukraine. Do they have a significant presence there?
Pifer: I thought that [the article] missed some of the subtleties there. I mean, yes, no doubt there is a far right movement in Ukraine, but it’s influence is usually exaggerated and it’s purposely exaggerated by the Russians. There’s a Russian narrative that the far right, the neo-nazis, have taken over Kyiv. But if you go back and look at the presidential election in May 2014 where two far right candidates ran, between them they got about 2 percent of the vote. And then if you look at how the far right parties did in the parliamentary elections, again, not very well.
There have been conversations I know going back two or three years between U.S. officials and Svoboda [party] basically saying, “we’re prepared to deal with you but you have to stay far away from anti-semitism, you’ve got to be a reasonable party” and when I’ve talked to people in the U.S. government, their view is Svoboda has sort of stayed on the acceptable line.
But the article made the point that in Feb. 2014, when they put together a new government, Svoboda ended up with like five of the 19 cabinet positions. What the article didn’t explain was how that happened. And that happened because there were two other parties. You have the party called UDAR [Ukrainian Democratic Alliance for Reform], which is headed by the mayor of Kyiv, a guy named named Vitali Klitschko who used to be the heavyweight boxing champ of the world. Klitschko is also thought to be the first boxing world champion with a Ph.D. UDAR had a significant presence in the parliament. UDAR was offered to share the seats. UDAR chose not to and my guess is Klitschko was thinking about running for the presidency and came to a conclusion that this new government is going to have to make some really hard decisions, it may be better to be on the outside.
They also went out to the Party of Regions, which was the political party associated with the now discredited Viktor Yanukovych, the previous president who fled Kyiv on Feb 21, and… the Party of Regions said, no, we don’t want to be in the government and I think their calculation was very much the same as UDAR’s which was, look, this government is going to be making some hard decisions; it’s going to be pursuing policies that we probably disagree with. Why would we want to be in that government? It’s probably better to be on the outside so we can oppose and criticize.
So Svoboda ended up with more seats, or more cabinet positions, than it would have had otherwise because two major parties chose to stay out.
TBR: The latest report you worked on, “Preserving Ukraine’s Independence, Resisting Russian Aggression: What the United States and NATO Must Do,” offers a very recent history of the conflict in Ukraine. Were there divisions when you served as U.S. ambassador there, or even before?
Pifer: About four years before I got there, in 1994, the National Intelligence Estimate on Ukraine, the title was something like “Ukraine: A Nation at Risk” and the question it posed was, “will there be a Ukraine in its current boundaries 10 years from now?” And I remember in 1998, when Vice President [Al] Gore came and I was giving him the car briefing, I said, “Mr. Vice President, I don’t think that NIE is correct at all.” Read a 1992 CIA report on Ukraine [pdf].
I had travelled to Eastern Ukraine and my sense was that while the sense of national identity in places like Donetsk and Kharkiv was not as deep as it was in the west, that most people there still saw themselves as Ukrainians even if they spoke Russian as their first language, even if they were ethnic Russians. And that Ukraine would deal with its problems as Ukraine.
Crimea was the one exception. Crimea was the only place in Ukraine where Ethnic Russians constitute a majority; they’re about 60 percent of the population and it was a fairly nationalistic group because a lot of those Russians are retired military, bearing in mind that Crimea was the Soviet Union’s answer to Florida and Arizona. If you want to retire somewhere the weather’s nice, you went to Crimea.
But, Donetsk and Luhansk, it’s something I can’t prove, but had it not been for the Russian intervention in supporting, providing leadership for, encouraging the separatism beginning in April last year, if there had been any kind of conflict it would have been a relatively short conflict.
If you go back and look at polls from March and early April of last year, before if became hard to do polls, polls showed that in places like Donetsk and Luhansk, people wanted to speak Russian, they wanted to have good relations with Russia, they were uncomfortable with how power had changed in Kyiv, but polls still showed 70 percent of the population wanted to remain part of Ukraine. So I think the kind of ugly bloodshed that you’ve seen now, which has killed 6,000 to 7,000 people, I don’t think that would have happened if the Russians had stayed out.
TBR: What is the role of NATO expansion in the Ukraine conflict?
Pifer: In early 2008, I testified to Congress that Ukraine merited a NATO membership action plan and that was based on looking where Ukraine was at that point in time compared to where, say, the Baltic states were when they got their membership action plans… when I look at my testimony, I [make] a distinction — that’s a different decision from actually inviting Ukraine to join the alliance and Ukraine is not ready for that at this point and it won’t be ready unless there is a societal consensus in favor of joining.
In March or April of 2008, at the NATO summit in Bucharest, President [George W.] Bush tried to persuade NATO to get Ukraine and Georgia on a membership action track, and he was blocked, I’m told, by a relatively small number of NATO allies, but they included Germany and France who were not prepared to put Ukraine and Georgia on a membership track. I would argue, if you look over the last 5 or 6 years, there’s been no interest within NATO in putting the Ukraine on a membership track. First of all, the Germans and the French are actually quite sensitive to the Russians on this one.
The Obama Administration was quietly very comfortable when Vicktor Yanukovych became president of Ukraine in Feb 2010 and said “I don’t want to pursue membership with NATO.” I think the Obama administration was very comfortable with that because it took what potentially could have been a very negative issue between Washington and Moscow, they took that off the table… and of course in 2010 they were still pursuing the reset with Russia and they were happy to not have that issue.
My guess is that in some of the conversations in the last year, Chancellor [Angela] Merkel has told Putin repeatedly that Ukraine is not getting a membership action plan, they are not getting into NATO. Putin I think though has built up this mythology or this narrative, and it goes back to the early 1990s, and it says: the Soviet Union collapsed, Russia was weak and the Americans drove NATO enlargement. The idea was to hem us in and put NATO military forces on our borders, and I just think that’s flawed.
What generated the idea of NATO enlargement was that in the early 1990s you had countries like Poland and the Czech Republic emerge from the Warsaw Pact and say, we want to join NATO. There was a discussion in the United States about doing that and the question was, if they do what NATO would ask a country to do — it’s not just military reform, but you have to have a democracy, you have to be willing to build a market economy — how can you say no? And the idea was that NATO, and then the European Union, would underpin countries which were still taking, at that time, some pretty difficult economic and political reforms, so you’d lock them into a European course.
Enlargement was always demand driven; the only countries that have joined the alliance have gone to NATO and said, “we want to join.” NATO hasn’t sought countries out.
In 1997, just before they extended the first invitation to Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic, there actually was a meeting with the Russians to setup a NATO-Russian relationship. In retrospect, we underestimated Russian antipathy towards NATO enlargement and we overestimated our ability to deal with it, but the idea was to build a NATO-Russian relationship that would be so cooperative that the Russians would see NATO as a security partner, so they wouldn’t care if NATO enlarged.
In 1997, NATO said certain things to the Russians. They said, “No intention, plan or requirement” to place nuclear weapons on the territory of new member states, so you are not going to see NATO’s nuclear presence get close to you. And the other one was a statement that said in the current and foreseeable security circumstances, there is no need for permanent deployment of substantial combat forces on the territory of new NATO members…
Putin has a very different angle which is: it’s America running forward. It ties into the Orange revolutions. I mean when Putin talks about the Maidan Revolution or the Orange Revolution in Ukraine or the Rose Revolution in Georgia, these were not acts of people in those counties who were tired of bad government or tired of stolen elections. This was a carefully planned out plot by the CIA and MI6 and some other sister services aimed at hemming in Russia. I actually spent an hour and half with a colleague talking to a Russian scholar yesterday and he drank the kool aid, he bought into this.
TBR: You work at Brookings, writing and speaking about American policy and views of Ukraine. How does the Russian point of view circulate?
Pifer: Putin, on the television. Ninety-plus percent of the Russian people get most of their news from Russian television. You’ve got several official channels and then you’ve got channels which are owned by, like Gazprom. Everybody that watches the Russian television comes back and says it’s actually worse than Soviet times. I think a part of this is to distract people from the fact that the economic sanctions — their impact is being deepened by the low price of oil — are having a negative economic impact, so Putin’s trying to rally people on a more nationalistic course.
There are newspapers, for example like Novaya Gazeta (“new newspaper”), which actually have a certain amount of editorial freedom. So in some of the newspapers, for example, Novaya Gazeta ran an interview about three months ago with a Russian tank soldier who had been wounded in Donetsk and basically said in Ukraine… we fought here, we fought there. And then they actually went in last week and interviewed the two Russian soldiers who were captured about two weeks ago in Ukraine.
And then on digital media, social media, that’s kind of a free space. To the extent that I would make recommendations to the U.S. government, I mean you are not going to break into Russian television, newspapers are hard. I’d really try to get into social media because that’s a space where I think it’s still possible to get a story out.
TBR: Has the White House or Congress responded to the suggestions in your February report?
Pifer: It was sort of received with interest in the U.S. government. We talked to State Department, Defense Department, the White House; we had a chance to talk with the Vice President about it, the National Security Advisor… This is my surmise — we didn’t talk to the President — I think the President is cautious on this question and part of it was the timing. This became a big issue in February, and then Chancellor Merkel came just before she was going to try to negotiate the cease fire. I wasn’t in the room, but I guess Chancellor Merkel said, “hold back on this now.” And so I think as long as the ceasefire that was negotiated in February — you are not seeing major fighting, but Ukrainians are getting killed every day — as long as that thing at least partially holds, my guess is the White House will be cautious.
This is not a slam dunk decision. I’d say it’s a 60/40 call. I think the White House is wrong in their caution, but I think they are worried about two things. Both escalation — if we do this and the Russians escalate then do we have to do more and how do we stop before the 82nd Airborne in on the ground fighting the Russian Army in Donetsk. To which my response was look, the things that the Ukrainians asked for are mostly actually nonlethal. There was only one item that they asked for that was lethal, which would be light anti-armor weapons. We can draw a line. We can tell the Ukrainians, “we’ll give you this, we’re not giving you F-16s, we’re not giving you advanced offensive weapons.” We can build in the fire break that keeps us from falling onto an escalation ladder that gets us into a war with Russia that we don’t want.
The second point I’d challenge them on is certainly there’s no doubt that the Russians can out-escalate the Ukrainians. Even if we gave them $10 billion in equipment, the Russians would find a way to trump that… But escalation it seems to me is not an easy option for Vladimir Putin because escalating means presumably taking more territory. If they go much beyond the current line, they begin to occupy areas where there really is a strong anti-Russian sentiment so they have to worry about a guerilla campaign. When we were there in January, people were already talking about… “we’re ready for the partisan campaign,” and that means more dead Russian soldiers.
I don’t think Putin cares that much about dead Russian soldiers per se, but I think he cares a whole lot about the impact on his public image. You’ve seen over the last year, the Russians go to extraordinary lengths to hide the fact that the Russians are fighting and dying in Ukraine…
If you had a major offensive by the Russians and the separatists, the Russians would have to be involved in an overt way and that would likely trigger additional economic sanctions both in the United States and in Europe. Escalation is a possibility, but I’m not sure Putin wants to make that decision, because as much as they try to poo poo the sanctions, the sanctions are having an impact.
TBR: Your recommendations are to arm the Ukrainian opposition… how does that square with your advocacy for nonproliferation?
Pifer: There were seven specific recommendations, six of which were non-lethal: counter-battery radar, so they could pinpoint where incoming fire was coming from, reconnaissance drones, equipment so they could jam the Russian drones, secure communication, armored humvees and medical support equipment. There was just one piece, and it would only have been probably about 1/5th of the expense, and it would be light armor weapons, manned portable antitank weapons.
On the arms control initiative we’re focused mainly on nuclear weapons issues and the arms control dialogue, unfortunately, in the last couple of years, has slowed down. Ukraine has made things difficult, but it was probably stuck already before Ukraine.
The U.S.-Russia dialogue on arms control has been stuck for a couple of years. You had in 2010, President Obama and then-President [Dmitry] Medvedev signed the New Strategic Arms Reductions Treaty, New START, and the good news is despite all the tensions between Washington and Moscow, that’s being implemented. So by February 2018, the United States and Russia each need to be down to 700 deployed strategic missiles and bombers and 1,550 deployed warheads, and by all appearances the numbers are coming down and they’ll meet that.
What disappointed the White House, and what disappointed the President, is that after the New START treaty, the Russians weren’t prepared to go further. Two years ago, in Berlin, President Obama said we’d like to take the 1,550 limit and bring it down by up to a third. They’d like to talk about reserve weapons… the Russians have instead come up with a variety of reasons for not doing further negotiations. They expressed concerns about U.S. missile defense, which on one level I can understand that there might be those concerns in the future, but right now U.S. missile defenses are not a threat to Russian strategic forces…
They talk about third countries, and at some point, arms control has to bring in other nuclear powers, but if you look at total arsenals now, the U.S. and Russia are each at about 4,500 total nuclear weapons, not counting several thousand more each country has in retirement, just waiting for dismantlement. The nearest third country would be France, at about 300 weapons. The Russians made these linkages and I’m not sure why. I think part of it is psychological, Putin aspires to have Russia regarded as a superpower and the only thing Russia really has as a basis of that claim is a lot of nuclear weapons.
TBR: What is the interest in Ukraine for the American people?
Pifer: Let me give you three reasons why I think we should care, above and beyond the fact that I spent three years there and have some attachment to the place. First of all, if you look at big foreign policy issues in the last 25 years, the Ukrainians have basically done what we needed. So in the early 1990s they gave up 2,000 strategic nuclear weapons; all that stuff was built to strike the United States. In 1998, when I was there, we were all worried about the Iranian nuclear program… Ukraine was building the turbine generators for that power plant and they agreed not to provide turbine generators; they pulled out. And in 2003 after the American military occupied Baghdad, we asked countries to contribute troops and stabilization forces. The Ukrainians came up with about 2,000 troops, so for about a year and a half they were the fourth largest contributor, after the U.S., the U.K and Poland. So on big foreign policy issues, where we’ve asked, they’ve responded in a positive way… I think that gets them a bit of attention.
The second thing is the Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances that I mentioned, which is the U.S., Britain and Russia telling the Ukrainians: we will respect your sovereignty, territorial integrity and independence. We won’t use force against you, we won’t threaten to use force. Russia’s violated all of this. And I think that imposes a certain obligation on the United States to respond by assisting the Ukraine and penalizing Russia.
There may be cases in the future where the idea of an American security assurance could be one of the pieces that helps persuade a country not to acquire nuclear weapons. And what the Russians have done in the last year here is they’ve thoroughly trashed the idea of security assurances, so if the United States now responds in a more robust way, we may be able to restore some merit to the idea of security assurances and that could be a tool later on.
The third reason, I would argue, is that I think the West does have a Russia problem and the rationale for helping Ukraine is that we don’t want a situation where Vladimir Putin concludes that this hybrid warfare tactic he’s used in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine, that it works, and that it works at tolerable cost, because then he might be tempted to try it somewhere else… I worry about the Baltics. I don’t think it’s a high probability event that you are going to see the Russian Army in Eastern Estonia… but three years ago I would have told you that’s a zero probability.
TBR: Do you know Putin?
Pifer: I’ve been in a room with him twice… he did once call me an ogre but that was in a press conference. He was coming to Washington in September 2003. He was going to go to New York to give a speech at the United Nations… and then he was going to fly down to Washington and then go up and spend a day with President Bush at Camp David. About 10 days before he went, I was called up to testify to Congress about Chechnya. There was still the war going on in Chechnya at the time and there was going to be an election in Chechnya in about October. There were six or seven candidates and five of the candidates — occupying places one to five — all were either forced off the ballot or dropped off for unspecified reasons, clearing the way for the guy who was number six, who happened to be the Kremlin’s choice, a local warlord whose son is now running Chechnya, a guy named Kadyrov, to win.
I was asked to react to that in my testimony and I said look, we had hoped that this election would produce somebody who would have credibility with the Chechens and could perhaps be an interlocutor and find peace. Given that they just wiped the top five candidates off the slate, it’s hard to see this election having any real credibility with the population. The Washington Post translated the proverb: “in every family there will be somebody who is ugly or retarded.”
On the next Saturday, Peter Baker, who’s the Washington Post reporter in Moscow — the American reporters get to meet with Putin for an hour to do a press conference before he goes to the U.S. — and Baker says, “Deputy Assistant Secretary Steven Pifer said blah, blah, blah, Chechen election not going to be very critical,” and Putin’s reaction was a Russian proverb which means every family has its ogre. And then he says, “I’ll let Colin Powell deal with that bureaucrat.”
The views and opinions expressed here are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of Boise State University or the School of Public Service.