“There Has To Be An ‘Or Else.’” Washington Analyst Whitmore On War, Ukraine, Russia, Hybrid Containment, And More

“Putin’s a hybrid man. He’s waging a hybrid war. And we have to respond with hybrid containment”. Brian Whitmore talks to Marta Dyczok

Show hosts

Marta Dyczok


Brian Whitmore

“There Has To Be An ‘Or Else.’” Washington Analyst Whitmore On War, Ukraine, Russia, Hybrid Containment, And More
“There Has To Be An ‘Or Else.’” Washington Analyst Whitmore On War, Ukraine, Russia, Hybrid Containment, And More

Hello and welcome to this week’s episode of Ukraine Calling. I’m Bohdan Nahaylo for Hromadske Radio in Kyiv and we’re bringing you our feature interview followed by some new music from Ukraine. This week we’re focusing on the war. Ukraine’s President announced a new Joint Forces Operation in the Donbas, and US missiles arrived in Ukraine. Marta Dyczok speaks to Washington CEPA analyst Brian Whitmore who explains what this means and puts things in a global context. 


Dyczok: This Monday on the 30th of April President Poroshenko announced that Anti-Terrorist Operation was over and Ukraine was starting a new Joint Forces Operation. On the same day the first US Javelin missile launch units arrived in Ukraine. To explain what is this all about we have with us Brian Whitmore, who is Senior Fellow and Director of the Russia Program at the Washington Center for European Policy Analysis. 

Some of our listeners remember Mr. Whitmore was Senior Analyst at Liberty Radio Free Europe in Prague where he gave us an excellent interview about a year ago. Thank you very much for finding time to speak to us. Let’s start with what and why. What does this mean? For four years Ukraine has been on the receiving end of a war and defending itself. Suddenly it changed the name. What does this mean?

Whitmore: That’s a very good question, which a lot of us are trying to answer, and to be quite honest with you, Marta, I am having trouble figuring out what it means myself. It’s hard to figure if it’s simply a rebranding or there is something significant here. There are couple of important points. The fact that the Law designates Russia as an aggressor country and establishes the territory of Donetsk and Luhansk oblast as temporarily occupied by Russia and uncontrolled by Kyiv and therefore Russia is held responsible for moral and material losses inflicted on Ukraine in these territories. This strengthen Ukraine’s position in international courts. It also effectively rules out Russian peacekeepers ever being deployed in Donbas. It also appears to increase the power of the President who has now an authority to use armed forces without declaring martial law. The authority of the operation moves from SBU, Security Service of Ukraine, to the Joined Operational Headquarters of the Armed Forces.  But beyond this, he proof is going to be in a pudding. We have to see how this plays out whether it is going to spell a significant change in Ukraine’s strategy in the war or not. I know some parliamentarians are worried about the lack of parliamentary oversight in the conduct of the war. So, I think we have to see going forward, I know what everybody else knows from reading what’s been written about this in the media and talking to people in Ukraine about it. But I really don’t know if this is going to change anything or if it’s a rebranding or if it’s a really significant change.

Brian Whitmore Courtesy of Brian Whitmore

Dyczok: Well that’s actually exactly what I was thinking. Is this going to be an escalation? Is it possible that we’ll just have to wait and see? The other thing that caught my attention yesterday was the fact that the US is finally sending offensive, lethal weapons to Ukraine. Now the delivery happened on the same day as the announcement of this rebranding, so that may or may not have been a coincidence. But the fact that Ukraine has been asking for help. They have been saying “we can’t fight this war by ourselves, we signed the Budapest memorandum, the US guaranteed our security, now we are being attacked, please help us, give us weapons, let us buy weapons.” Under Obama the answer was “no.” And now Trump is in the White House and the answer somehow became “yes.” What do you make of that?

Whitmore: You mean the Obama administration, and the personalities, who were much more cautious on this issue. The Trump administration is a little bit more open to this. I think the atmosphere in Washington toward Russia has changed dramatically, for reasons that should require little elaboration, since the last election in the United States. I think you do have an increasing bi-partisan consensus moving in favor of this. That just tipped it. This is one of those issues where there are compelling arguments on both sides of it. I mean the argument against sending defensive lethal weapons to Ukraine was that (I’ve heard this argument made by military, very “Hawkish” people) who have said effectively Russia has escalation dominance in Ukraine vis-à-vis the United States and vis-à-vis the West in general because, let’s face it, Russia is going to be willing to escalate more in Ukraine.

Dyczok: Right.

Whitmore: So, if the US sends anti-tank missiles, Russia will send stronger offensive weapons, so on and so forth. The argument against sending lethal weapons to Ukraine had nothing to do with not supporting Ukraine. It was about not wanting to escalate in a theatre in which the West does not have escalation dominance. Now that is a compelling argument.

Dyczok: Now what’s changed?

Whitmore: Now there’s another argument that Ukraine is not the only theatre of operation. In other words, by sending defensive weapons the Soviet Union also had escalation dominance in Afghanistan. Not saying that Afghanistan was the same as Ukraine, but just looking at these two theatres. But the US supply of Stinger missiles to the Afghan Mujahedeen, leaving aside all the problems created later, did inflict a lot of damage on USSR, despite the fact that the Soviet Union had escalation dominance. So, the idea here is that if you raise the cost in Ukraine for Russia, Ukraine is not the only theater of operations that the Russian armed forces are going to be operation and are thinking about operating. So, if you raise the cost there you raise the cost everywhere. So, there’s compelling arguments on both sides of this debate, and I think that due to the changing attitudes towards Russia in Washington due to the fact that the current administration is a lot less cautious on these issues than the previous administration. Making no value judgments about which of those things is better, just stating simple observation. I think that’s what we are seeing. We are seeing a change in attitude towards the conflict and those in Ukraine that were lobbying for these defensive weapons. They were the beneficiaries of this. We will see how this plays out. How Russia’s going to respond to this.

Dyczok: Well that’s my next question. You’re a Russia expert, you’ve been watching Russia very carefully for a very long time. You’re one of the top analysts. So, what do you think? How is Russia going to respond to this?

Whitmore: Russia is not going to let Ukraine go. This is seen in the Kremlin, in Putin’s Kremlin, as an existential threat – the emergence of a democratic Ukraine, the emergence of a European Ukraine, the emergence of a Western, successful Ukraine – which is something we all want to see – is seen by this Kremlin as an existential threat. Any Russian imperial project begins and ends with Ukraine. And the Putin regime understands that to see a democratic Ukraine turn West, would mean the end of this regime. So, I think they’re going to stop at nothing, which is why I believe the war in Ukraine is about actually much more than Ukraine. It’s basically about the future of Western civilization, to be honest.

Dyczok: Well starting with Putin and then the rest of the world as well, but what you’ve just said, makes me a little worried. Because if you’re right, that Putin is not going to give up, and Ukraine is now saying OK, we are intent on de-occupying the Donbas, which basically means kicking Russia out, and we’re launching this new operation, and there’s this new weaponry appearing from the United States – to me that looks like an escalation.

Whitmore: It could be interpreted as such, for sure. But I mean, because I painted this very bleak picture does not mean that I think, I mean, if the West loses Ukraine, I think that is a very bleak picture, it’s an even bleaker picture for the West. Because Ukraine is not the end game here.

Dyczok: No.

Whitmore: Ukraine is the beginning. Because, while there’s a reason why a successful democratic Ukraine is an existential threat to this Kremlin, and it’s the same reason that the European Union, a successful, unified, strong Europe, is an existential threat to this Kremlin in its view. It’s the same reason why a strong trans-Atlantic relationship is viewed in this Kremlin as an existential threat. The way I like to put it is that Putin’s regime is not threatened by anything the West is doing; it’s threatened by what the West is.

There is an assault going on against Western civilization right now, and all these things are part and parcel of something larger. I’m working on what I hope to turn into a book about the key to understanding Putin is to understand the ideological part, and the kind of mafia part. It’s kind of like the spook meets the godfather. The kleptocrat meets the ideologue. And how these two things operate together. And this kind of kicks up into a larger view of Russia, where it’s not just an ideological state, and it’s not just a kleptocratic state, it’s an ideological kleptocracy. It’s both. It’s a hybrid state. Putin’s a hybrid man. He’s waging a hybrid war. And we have to respond with hybrid containment.

Dyczok: That’s actually a very good thing.

Whitmore: It’s hard not to get pessimistic about the situation now.

Dyczok: But that’s why Ukraine is so interesting in my opinion. So many times there’s been dark history, and it looks pessimistic, and bleak. And then something happens and it just spins it the other way and makes it positive. Even in the past 25-30 years. We saw the Kuchma dark days, and then that changes. And then we saw the Yanukovych kleptoracy. And he got booted out. So, watching Ukraine’s recent history, and longer history, it doesn’t stay in those dark places. And I’m also still optimistic that Russia will find that spark, and change things.

Whitmore: There was a point in the Cold War when everything looked very bleak. We thought that the Soviet military was stronger than ours [US]. They were kicking our asses in the espionage game. But yet, we won. Why did we win? Because our model was superior. It’s simply that simple.

Dyczok: Or, perhaps, their model wasn’t working.

Whitmore: Well, because our model was superior. There was an effective alternative out there that was working, and working very well. So, I think in the long run we’re going to win this. In the short run, yes, we’re going to see a continuation of the war in the Donbas. There’s no question about that.

Dyczok: And that’s so depressing.  I have a friend from Mariupol and her parents still live there. And they say, ‘how much more of this are we supposed to endure?’

Whitmore: Oh I know.

Dyczok: How many more people have to be killed before this is all over?

Whitmore: It’s not going to be over as long as this regime [Putin] is in power. It’s not going to be over until they calculate that the costs of it outweigh the potential benefits. And again, they are looking at something that they see as existential. They don’t see Ukraine as a separate country.

Dyczok: But I would isolate Putin from the rest of Russia’s elite and society.

Whitmore: I would, but I would not isolate it too much. You would be surprised how many Russians do not view Ukraine as a real country.

Dyczok: That part I wouldn’t disagree with. But, I believe that a lot of people around Putin like having power and wealth, but they also like to be part of the world. And I think they don’t like to be isolated. I think they want to send their kids to Oxford and buy property in Vienna.

Whitmore: This is where we beat them. This is their Achilles heel. Kleptocratic Russia needs engagement with the world. Ideological Russia can deal with isolation.

Dyczok: But the people with the power and money, they don’t want the isolation. They don’t want to vacation in Sochi [a resort town on Russia’s Black Sea coast, site of 2014 Winter Olympics] and send their kids to MGU [Moscow State University], right? They want to be part of the world, for lots of reasons, including making money, but also being part of a cosmopolitan society. And Putin’s actions are limiting their ability to do that.

Whitmore: This is our ace in the hole. We just need to learn to use it more effectively. I want sanctions to be made permanent. Another element of my hybrid containment policy is something that I call exclusion. Because for decades now, Russia has been able to have it both ways. 

Dyczok: That’s right.

Whitmore: They’ve been able to earn their money in a kleptocracy, and stash it under the rule of law. They’ve been able to try and undermine the Western system while…

Dyczok: Using it to their advantage.

Whitmore: Right. So, we have to send the message to them that it’s one or the other. You want to be North Korea, be North Korea. You want to be part of the West, abide by the West’s rules. We can do that. There were things during the Cold War, like this institution called CoCoM. That forbade the sale of any dual use technology to the Soviet Union and its allies.  Let’s deprive them of their iPads! Let them buy Chinese knock offs. Silicon Valley would scream bloody murder because they’d lose that market.

Dyczok: It’s not such a huge market.

Whitmore: It’s a pretty big market. But they’re going to scream bloody murder over losing any market! But let’s start thinking about things like export restrictions. Let’s start thinking seriously about a SWIFT ban. Cutting them off from the world financial system.

Dyczok: That would work in an instant!

Whitmore: But that would harm our [US] European allies, and that’s what gives me pause about that. It would be so disruptive to Europe’s economy. The SWIFT ban is the financial equivalent of a nuclear weapon. Because it’s going to hurt us too. But export restrictions. Let them choose. If you want to be North Korea, be North Korea.

Dyczok: They won’t choose that. North Korea doesn’t even want to be North Korea any more!

Whitmore: This is our ace in the hole, and this is how… I don’t think we can win this on the battlefield in Ukraine. I think the best we can do is what the Ukrainian Armed Forces are doing right now. Fight Russia to a draw. And raise the cost. But in the broader war, we have escalation dominance.

Dyczok: There’s been talk about peacekeeping as a strategy to end this conflict in a way that’s face-saving and will prevent further killing. I don’t know, is there, the fact that Ukraine is taking sort of a harsher position, if you would agree with that, maybe you won’t, as a way of saying, OK we’re going to stand up, and then let’s get some peacekeepers in there. I mean, is that part of, at all, potentially what’s going on?

Whitmore: I mean that issue, that began to get some traction late last year. Putin surprised everybody by this, a lot of people were suspicious about what this would actually mean in practice, because let’s say we get the peacekeepers in. The first question is, who are they going to be?

Dyczok: Who’s going to qualify, yes.

Whitmore: Who’s going to qualify, I mean Russians are of course off the table, right, CIS peacekeepers in general, are just off the table, that’s unacceptable to Ukraine. But any peacekeepers from any NATO countries are going to be off the board from Russia’s perspective. So what kind of peacekeepers are we going to get in Ukraine? I don’t know how we square that circle. I mean what are we really going to be talking about here? But let’s say we get over that hurdle right, and you get some peacekeepers in Ukraine. Those that are suspicious of this will say OK, now we have a ceasefire in the Donbas, we’re complying with Minsk, I guess they might try to make that argument. Now Ukraine has to comply with its part of Minsk and that is effectively decentralizing itself to the point of dysfunction, right? So, I think there’s a lot of fears that this would be a clever ruse on the part of Moscow. Quite frankly, what worries me, is that Russia’s going to return to its old tricks in Ukraine, and rely on the political system being dysfunctional, that it will continue to try to exert its power through the oligarchs, and just over time, just wear Ukraine down that way. That’s also a risk, I mean I think we have to pay attention to the non-kinetic part of Russia’s war as much as to the kinetic part. Because Russia is weaponizing things like corruption, and finance, and organized crime, and cyber space, and all sorts of other tools…

Dyczok: Effectively.

Whitmore: Very effectively. I think much more effectively than they are using their kinetic tools, to be honest. We have to be paying as much attention to this. One of the things I’m working on here at CEPA is to come up with what I call a “hybrid containment strategy.”

Dyczok: Tell us about it!

Whitmore: We’re facing a hybrid war.

Dyczok: Yes.

Whitmore: And this term has been used very loosely, and I think we want to be careful about what we mean by this. I see two types of hybrid war. One is using non-kinetic means to prepare the battlefield for kinetic action. This is something Russia did in Georgia and this is something they did in Ukraine. But we also see Russia using non-kinetic means in Germany, the United States, in France, throughout Western Europe, in Canada. And I think I can reasonably assume that Russia is not planning to start a kinetic war with Canada or the United States anytime in the near future. And this is something that we have to me a lot more mindful about containing. We need to have a coordinated, multi-lateral, coherent approach to this. Just like in 1947 we had a containment policy of the Soviet Union, in a military sense. We have to start thinking about how do you contain weaponized corruption? How do you contain weaponized organized crime? How do you contain weaponized finance? Because these are the tools, in addition to the military tools that Russia is using against Ukraine, they’re going to be using against Ukraine across the board. And they’re going to be using these tools against the West in general. The goal here is to, I think, not just subjugate Ukraine, but to destroy the European Union, to destroy trans-Atlantic unity. And we have to wrap our heads around this fact and be very mindful. The fact that we’re in a war. Outside of Ukraine we’re not shooting at each other…

Dyczok: Not with guns.

Whitmore: Not with guns. But that doesn’t mean that we’re not at war. So, we have to start thinking about that. Part of this is resilience. Part of this is reforming our own institutions. Vladimir Putin did not invent off-shore. But he’s using it very effectively, to spread corruption in Western society. To create networks of influence. He didn’t invent money laundering. He didn’t invent shell companies. Right? But he’s using these things really, really effectively. He didn’t create the polarization in our societies. But he’s exploiting it. So, part of this is taking a good look at ourselves, and becoming more resilient. It’s funny, the further east you move, you hear that term used more and more often. You hear it in Ukraine, you hear it in Georgia, you hear it in the Baltic States, you hear it in Poland. But as you move West and you say resilience, people kind of look at you like, huh? What are you talking about?

And this is what I mean. We have to look at our institutions, look at ourselves very clearly. And plug these holes. Because these things are becoming national security threats.

Deterrence has to be an element of containment. There has to be an ‘or else.’ It was the lack of an ‘or else’ that allowed Kremlin-backed hackers, before they even thought about hacking the National Democratic Committee of the United States, that led to the hacking of Estonian banks and government institutions in 2007.

Dyczok: And Georgia.

Whitmore: And Georgia in 2008. And later, where did they move on to? Well, they hacked the Bundestag. They hacked the Polish Stock Exchange. They hacked a French television station, posing as ISIS terrorists, to spread fear in France about migrants. They hacked a German steel maker. They hacked the US State Department.

So, the lack of an ‘or else,’ and they got away with it in Estonia. They got away with it in Georgia. They got away with it in Ukraine. They got away with it in Germany. They got away with it in France. They’re going to keep going. There has to be an ‘or else.’

It was the lack of an ‘or else’ that allowed Putin’s agents to assassinate Alexander Litvinenko in the UK. And to attempt to assassinate Sergei Skripal in the UK. Both of whom are UK citizens, by the way. It was the lack of an ‘or else’ that allowed Russia to kidnap Eston Kohver, a law enforcement officer, from Estonian territory. And drag him back to Russia, and put him on a show trial for espionage. For doing his job as a law enforcement officer inside Estonia.

Incidentally, very interestingly enough, what Mr. Kohver was investigating at that time, was a cigarette smuggling ring, run out of eastern Estonia, by Russian organized crime groups, and the FSB [Russian Secret Service] working in collusion with each other. And the deeper you dig into this, the more and more interesting it gets. Because this wasn’t just a case of corruption, with the FSB taking a cut from the cigarette smuggling ring and lining their own pockets. They were taking a cut to create what the Russian call a ‘chornaia kasa,’ a black cash box. And suddenly you have all this unaccountable black cash, that you can use for all sorts of other active measures, across Europe, and beyond.

So, this is an example how organized crime is being weaponized. There has to be an ‘or else.’ You have to have deterrence. And then the West has to be ready to retaliate.

Dyczok: So. Deterrence. This is a good phrase (term) you’ve been using. I think it went out of favour after the Cold War.

Whitmore: Yes.

Dyczok: But to wrap things back to supplying Ukraine with weapons, is that possibly part of that deterrence thinking, that perhaps Washington is coming around to?

Whitmore: Yes, I think the thinking here is that the West can inflict as high a cost as possible on Moscow in Ukraine, even given the fact that Russia has escalation dominance in that theatre, that this will raise the costs for Russia. And anything that raises the costs, will raise the likelihood that they will eventually have to sue for peace and back off. I think that’s the logic there. My thinking is that, the thinking we’re using in these hard security situations, we also have to be using in these non-kinetic situations. Where things like corruption and organized crime are being weaponized.

The Former US Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense, Michael Carpenter, had a very, very good article in, I believe it was in Foreign Policy, right after the decision was made to supply Ukraine with the Javelins. He said this great. Now we have to help Ukraine defend itself against weaponized corruption. Because all the Javelins in the world aren’t going to defend Ukraine if Moscow is able to continue to create networks of influence inside of Ukraine.

Dyczok: Inside Ukraine and in other countries.

Whitmore: And beyond!

Dyczok: I think the really interesting point you made is that Ukraine is not the “end game,” Ukraine is really just Moscow probing.

Whitmore: No, it’s not, it’s the front line. Ukraine is West Germany. And I’ve made this argument before that the security of Ukraine is no less important than the security of West Germany was in the Cold War. That’s the unhappy role that Ukraine has to play right now, along with Georgia. But these are the frontline states right now. This is the battle between two normative systems. One to the West that’s based on all these things we hold near and dear: the rule of law, the rights of the individual, the sanctity of contracts. And one to the East that’s based on cronyism, corruption, and the subordination of the law to power. The stakes are very high here, and the stakes are high not just for Ukraine, but for all of us. And these are our institutions that are at stake right now and these are the institutions that gave us everything we have that’s good. So, I can’t over-estimate how important this is and yes, Ukraine’s the beginning, it’s not the end.

Dyczok: You made the point that Ukraine has fought Russia to a draw, which I think is an excellent point. How do they get out of this situation militarily though? Because I hate to keep coming back to it because, you’re right, the corruption and all those things are part of the war, but it seems to me that Ukraine is now thinking about what to do on the military front and I don’t see any good answers there.

Whitmore: I don’t see any good answers either. I don’t see any good answers at all. As long as Russia insists on continuing this kinetic assault on Ukraine, the only thing Ukraine can do right now is to continue to fight them to a draw. And the West can continue to raise the costs with things like sanctions. We have to, I believe, get away from this fixation that both sides need to implement the Minsk Agreement. I have a big problem with that. The Minsk Agreement when it was signed I had a problem with it, because effectively, Russia was allowed to participate as somebody who is helping resolve a conflict when in fact they were the aggressor. And they’re very good at this. They create conflicts and then they present themselves as a broker or an honest mediator in a conflict that they created. They’re probably not going to stop doing this, but we in the West can at least stop falling for it. I think we have to get away from this notion that both sides need to implement the Minsk Agreement and get away from that mantra. And this is where I think that new law is a very positive thing, where it basically designates Russia as the aggressor. This is self-evident and obvious to anybody that’s been watching this conflict, but I like the fact that it is now part of a normative act passed by the Ukrainian parliament. The territories of Donetsk and Luhansk are occupied. I’m surprised it took this long to get that in black and white in a normative act, but we’re there, and that’s good. That part of this I think is good, and a lot was made of the fact that this law doesn’t say a lot about Minsk.

Dyczok: I think that was very deliberate.

Whitmore: I also think that was deliberate and I think that I actually like that. I think it’s a very positive thing, because I think we have to call things as they are. Russia invaded Ukraine. Full stop. The responsibility for ending this war lies with Russia and Russia alone. Full stop. Ukraine has a right to defend itself. Full stop. I think we have to change the way we talk and think about this war. Full stop.

Dyczok: Thank you very much Brian, I think that’s a really nice place to stop. The way we think about this war, and that leads perhaps to new approaches and new solutions.

Whitmore: Lets hope so.

Dyczok: Thank you very, very much for your insight and your commentary.

Whitmore: Thanks, lets talk soon.


“What Shall Become of Us?” Ким ми будемо. That’s the name of a song that the L’viv group PIANO has been performing at all their live concerts. But they never recorded it. Until now. It’s on the new album they just released called Знаки (which means signs) that was featured in Hromadske Radio’s music show Pora Roku this week. Enjoy! The song and album are also awailable on Spotify and iTunes.


Next week we’ll be looking at the politics of religion. Professor Frank Sysyn of the Canadian Institute of Ukrainian Studies will explain why Ukraine’s recent move to secure independence for its Orthodox Church is so controversial and important. So, tune in. And we would be happy to receive any feedback from you. Write to us at: [email protected]. This is Bohdan Nahalylo in Kyiv. Thanks so much for listening.

Interview transcribed by Marta Dyczok, Caroline Gawlik, Larysa Iavorenko, Nykole King, and Caitilin O’Hare. Music by Marta Dyczok. Sound engineers Adam Courts and  Andriy Izdryk. E-mail distribution Ilona Sviezhentseva. Web support Kyrylo Loukerenko. Special thanks to 94.9 CHRW Radio Western.