US policy towards Ukraine has not changed, - Washington analyst Brian Whitmore
“The US policy on Ukraine remains unchanged”. Brian Whitmore talks to Marta Dyczok
Hello and welcome to this week’s episode of Ukraine Calling. I’m Marta Dyczok from Hromadske Radio in Kyiv. This has been a busy time on the international scene. A lot of things have been happening that affect Ukraine: the EU-Ukraine Summit, the NATO Summit, and of course, the Trump-Putin Summit.
FEATURE INTERVIEW: US ANALYST BRIAN WHITMORE TELLS MARTA DYCZOK EVERYTHING IS NOT ALL RIGHT BUT THE SKY IS NOT FALLING
Dyczok: To talk about what this means for Ukraine we have an expert with us Brian Whitmore, a senior fellow and director of the Russia program at the Center for European Policy Analysis, a Washington-based think tank. He’s a top Russia analyst, author of a very successful podcast, The Power Vertical, and a regular guest on Ukraine Calling. Brian, welcome back!
Whitmore: Thank you, Marta.
Dyczok: Ahead of the Trump-Putin Summit, I read a piece that you wrote, a very strong op ed, in the Washington Post, “The Russians are saying they’ve already won at the Trump-Putin summit. And they’re right.” Ukraine was only one of the issues in the US-Russia story, but let’s focus on that. What strikes me is that there seem to be mixed messages coming to Ukraine, about Ukraine. On the one hand the EU and NATO reiterate their strong support for Ukraine, it’s territorial integrity, etc. On the other hand, US President Trump is all friendly with Russia. What should Ukrainian leaders make of this?
Whitmore: Well, the first thing I would say is no policy has changed. The US policy on Ukraine remains unchanged. The fact that the US President seems to be seeking better relations with the Russians, and the way that that summit meeting has turned out may embolden the Russians right now. And that is certainly cause for concern for Ukraine. Also, right now, to put it very mildly, there’s a bit of a trans-Atlantic rift. And that is never good news for Ukraine. But the policy hasn’t changed.
Dyczok: But are we getting signals that it is possibly changing, given everything that is coming out of US President Trumps’ mouth?
Whitmore: I don’t think so. Because, again, the United States is bigger than the President. There is a policy in place. And that policy has not changed. I would stress that. I think we have to be very careful now. We don’t want to be too PollyAnnish and say, ‘everything’s OK.’ Because things are clearly, in a rather unusual state right now. But on the other hand, we don’t want to be Chicken Little and say the sky is falling. Because, again, the United States is bigger than it’s President. The trans-Atlantic relationship is more than about Presidents and Prime Ministers. It’s about a community of values that’s been in place for decades. And it is stronger than any one US Administration. So, we want to find that spot between those two things. We need to be concerned right now. There’s certainly cause for concern. Any time that the Russians feel emboldened is dangerous for Ukraine. But by the same token, the US policy towards Ukraine has not changed. At least as far as I can see.
Dyczok: Well, that’s actually, pretty reassuring. Because you probably saw this article in the Guardian after the Summit, titled, “Ukraine is the first casualty of Trump’s carelessness. It won’t be the last.” Ukraine’s President was tweeting right after that summit press conference, “We are ready to defend our land even if we remain all alone.”
Whitmore: Well, I think that has to be the attitude of the Ukrainian President. The Ukrainian President’s responsibility is the security of the Ukrainian people. So, I certainly hope that President Poroshenko is ready to defend Ukraine even if its alone. But I would say at the same time, I certainly hope that Ukraine is not now, and will never be, alone.
Dyczok: So, the signals that you saw coming out of that Trump-Putin Summit, you don’t think that there’s going to be a shift in policy.
Whitmore: I haven’t seen anything to suggest that thus far. Ukraine has a lot of friends in the foreign policy establishment in Washington. Those friends are still there. And the policy remains unchanged. The United States still affirms the territorial integrity of Ukraine, and that has not changed. The shipment of defensive weapons has already begun to Ukraine. That has not changed. So, I don’t see a change in policy. What worries me are things like the optics. What worries me is that a summit like this will embolden Putin to think that he may be able to try something in Ukraine, and that’s what makes me nervous right now.
Dyczok: To try more things in Ukraine.
Whitmore: To try more things in Ukraine. But, again, the policy has not changed. And to re-iterate my point. These are weird times. And we can’t be too PollyAnnish, we can’t think, ‘everything’s alright, nothing’s changed, nothing weird is going on.’ But at the same time we can’t be thinking that the sky is falling. We’re a nation of laws, the United States is, as are our European allies. Those laws and institutions remain in place. We’re bigger than our President. We’re bigger than any President, not just this President. I think we’re all trying to find that middle ground. We all should be concerned right now. But I think we have to be careful about panicking and becoming too hysterical and thinking the sky is falling. Because I don’t think it is. Yet.
Dyczok: You have a really good perspective because you’re in Washington, but you travel a lot and you’ve been speaking at various conference in Europe. The attitude towards Ukraine, Ukraine wasn’t the focus of a lot of these things, but the Brussels summit, the EU-Ukraine summit, there is this strong reiteration of support for Ukraine, is this the same mood that you’re hearing in Washington?
Whitmore: Well, yeah, among the Atlantisists in Washington, that is certainly what I’m hearing. I mean, support from the people who understand security understand that the security of Ukraine is intimately tied to our security. This isn’t just about some kind of charity; Ukraine’s security is intimately tied to ours. All one has to do is just study the history of the 1930s and 1940s to understand what happens when the security of small states – and Ukraine is not really a small state, it’s as big as France but it is smaller than its more aggressive neighbour to the east – all one has to do is understand that the history of the 1930s to understand what happens when the security of smaller states is up for grabs and is seen as a bargaining chip among great powers, we’ve seen what the world descends to. So, the security of Ukraine, the security of Georgia, is intimately linked to our security, the people in Washington who are Atlantisists and understand security get that, and so I think that is unchanged. The same people who were supporting Ukraine under this administration supported it under the last administration and their voices remain strong, so I think this is something we have to bare in mind.
Dyczok: Some of the analysis that I’ve come across, Ukraine has become an object of international affairs rather than a subject. This big power play between Washington and Moscow, Ukraine is being treated as who is going to be influencing and not influencing. At the G7 summit, back in June, in Quebec, there was talk about re-admitting Russia back into the G7, coming again from President Trump.
Whitmore: Well, there wasn’t. The only talk about that was coming from President Trump and that was quickly dismissed by the other six members of the G7, so there was talk but it only came from one person – nobody is seriously considering readmitting Russia to the G7, that’s not going to have any traction.
Dyczok: So, this concern that the western alliance is cracking is something not to worry about too much?
Whitmore: Well, I’m saying that the western alliance is going through a difficult patch right now, and again, we should be concerned, but the western alliance is bigger than any one US president. The western alliance isn’t just about prime ministers and presidents. Look at the conflict that erupted between the Prime Minister of Canada and the US President prior to the G7 summit. But I saw what Prime Minister Trudeau said, and he said to the American people “we disagree with these tariffs, but the American people remain our friends.” Now, I think that’s about right, the Canadian-American relationship – I certainly hope, as an American of Canadian descent, that this relationship is strong enough to withstand anything that may happen between their respective leaders of the two countries. I feel the same about the trans-Atlantic relationship.
Dyczok: I’ve sort of lost track of what’s happening with the Canada-US trade tensions.
Whitmore: I’ve lost track of it, but I know that the Prime Minister of Canada announced that there will be retaliatory tariffs but he made a point of reiterating that the “American people remain our friends and the American people remain our partner.” I thought that was exactly the right tone Prime Minister Trudeau struck – he always makes me proud to be a North American, but I thought that was the right idea. But more importantly, this goes back to the Canadian-American relationship is deeper than that and cannot be derailed by any comments that a president or Canadian Prime Minister makes. I think the same thing needs to be stressed with the trans-Atlantic relationship; this is a very deep relationship based on shared values across the Atlantic and it’s stronger than any US President and will survive any US President. And this also does reflect – amid all the noise – a debate that’s been going on in the United States about the degree to which the US should bare the burden of European defence.
Dyczok: Which is kind of an old discussion.
Whitmore: Which is a very old discussion, this goes back to the Clinton administration and even earlier. This is a very old discussion and I think that this discussion about the 2 per cent, I think that it is kind of an arbitrary figure, but it is a legitimate debate.
Dyczok: It is a very legitimate debate, absolutely.
Whitmore: It has to bring into consideration other things that European allies do for us. Ramstein Air Base is one of the biggest, if not the biggest, air base in the world and this a chunk of territory that the Germans have that they are just letting us have. So when we’re talking about burden-sharing, there’s a lot of things that come into this other than just a number. We’re going through a rough patch right now. A lot of this is the result of the rhetoric that’s coming out of the White House. But I think that this relationship is strong, that it will endure. And what this means for Ukraine – Ukraine does better when you have a strong Euro-Atlantic relationship. There is cause for concern right now. Any rift between the United States and the European allies is bad for Ukraine.
Dyczok: Absolutely. And I don’t know if you’ve been following, but there’s been reports that Russia is increasing its presence in the Sea of Azov, and people here are concerned about what could this mean, about this potentially further escalation, at a time when the Euro-Atlantic partnership is going through a difficult time. For Ukraine this is a huge concern, because they’re still trying to get into these institutions. And they’re on the one hand being welcomed, but on the other hand they’re facing this very real threat every day, where people are being shot at and killed. And fear of escalation. And then you see Putin and Trump smiling. So people here are getting really very nervous.
Whitmore: Now the Sea of Azov thing concerns me. I actually did a Vertical video on that, It’ll be coming out in the next day or so.
Dyczok: We’ll post a link on our show, because I can’t wait to see it. But let’s hear what you have to say.
Whitmore: I basically started with some comments Putin made during his press conference with President Trump, in which he said “WE held a referendum in Crimea”.
Who the hell is ‘we’ in this situation? According to the Putinist mythology, it was the people of Crimea, of their own accord, who had a referendum on the status of Crimea. Now we know this is not true. “We”, meaning, you and I. But I thought it was interesting that after the fact, the Kremlin changed the official transcript on this, and took the “we” bit out.
Dyczok: So it was a slip of the tongue.
Whitmore: It was either a slip of the tongue, or it was arrogance, or it was carelessness. But they did remove this from the transcript. But as this was all going on, it looks like Russia is not just trying to annex Crimea, it looks like they’re trying to annex the Sea of Azov. Because according to Ukrainian sources, no less than 148 vessels, Ukrainian and foreign, have been stopped in those international waters. And Russia is now trying to treat the Sea of Azov like its private lake. But the Sea of Azov is international waters and this would cut off Mariupol from access to the Black Sea, which could have devastating consequences for Ukraine’s economy, let alone for international law. These are supposed to be international waters. But Russia’s treating the Sea of Azov like its private lake.This has been going on for the better part of a year as Russia was building the Kerch Bridge, periodically closing this. But now it looks like they’re trying to…
Dyczok: …Actually cut it off.
Whitmore: Cut it off. This is something that certainly should be on our radar screens here in the West.
Dyczok: But again, what can Ukraine do about this and what kind of Western…
Whitmore: Poroshenko has announced, according to what I’ve seen, that Ukrainian naval escorts are going to start escorting commercial ships. What that portends – I don’t know.
Dyczok: This is another David and Goliath story, because…
Whitmore: This is another David and Goliath story, but are we going to start to see conflicts on the high seas here? It’s certainly something to keep an eye on. And how is the West, how is NATO going to respond to this? The free navigation of the Sea of Azov, the Kerch Straits, and the Black Sea is certainly in our interests. And so I’m very curious to see how the Western Alliance responds to this. Again, this is another example where the security of Ukraine isn’t just about Ukraine. It’s about all security.
Dyczok: What does your crystal ball say. What do you think the response might be?
Whitmore: I certainly hope that the Alliance is concerned about free navigation. I’m not sure what I think is going to happen. But I certainly hope that the Alliance views the free navigation of the Sea of Azov, the Kerch Straits and the Black Sea, because this is basically what we’re talking about, is access to the Black Sea. If we allow Russia to treat the Sea of Azov like a Russian lake today, does that mean we allow them to treat the Black Sea like a Russian lake tomorrow?
Dyczok: Well that’s the question. And that takes me back to your Op-ed. You said that it seems like Putin has already won just by getting this Summit. And that he’s basically getting away with everything that he’s done. And there don’t seem to be very serious consequences, apart from statements, apart from sanctions. It just seems like he’s just moving forward, and nobody’s really doing very much to stop him. And there’s no end in sight.
Whitmore: I thought that the message – and I wrote this pre-Summit – the message was that extortion pays. The message was extortion pays!
Dyczok: Violence pays…
Whitmore: Effectively, I would say that Putin has turned Russian into an international extortion racket. We have this binary choice out there right now. We’re saying: “We’ve got to have good relations with Russia, or else there’s going to be war”.
Dyczok: But there is war.
Whitmore: Well no I mean…
Dyczok: Bigger war.
Whitmore: A bigger war, right. That Russia is going to wreak havoc until we give it what it wants. And so this is effectively geopolitical extortion. Now, what did Russia get out of that meeting other than the optics, which were incredibly good for Russia? We don’t know, ‘cause we don’t know what happened behind closed doors – nobody knows.
Dyczok: So wish we could what that translator – wish we could talk to that translator and make them tell us what happened but I don’t think that’s realistic.
Whitmore: Well yeah, I don’t even know the legalities of that, and quite frankly I was watching the news over the past couple of days and I don’t think the people in the senate, who were talking about this, even know, but this is unprecedented. We’ve never been in a place like this before.
Dyczok: Sort of like the rest of the world, right? It’s like, things are happening that are crazy and we need to figure out how to respond to them.
Whitmore: Yeah, but I mean, I’ll have to remain kind of agnostic on that right now. We have probably the best law enforcement official of my generation and perhaps any generation working on this in the US; we’re going to have to wait to see the results of his investigation. And we can’t say that nothing is going on, because we do see an indictment that came down this week for this 29 year old Russian woman –
Dyczok: Yeah, that’s a great story.
Whitmore: Who’s been indicted for operating as a foreign agent on US soil without registering as a foreign agent. It’s not an espionage case yet; she’s being charged with working as a foreign agent without registering. Because you can work in the United States as a foreign agent if you register as a foreign agent. She was a student, a graduate student at American University, but was apparently trying to infiltrate certain political organizations including the National Rifle Association on behalf of the Russian government. We’ll see how that turns out, but this to me signifies a new degree of assertiveness with American law enforcement. This is not part of the Mueller investigation, this is a separate thing, it’s the US Attorney for the District of Columbia who brought this case forward, and so it’s happening here in DC. Last week we saw the incredible detailed indictment from the Mueller investigation against these 12 Russian GRU officials, which is, these people are never going to see the inside of a United States court room. But the fact that this indictment was brought was a signal I think to Russia that we see what they are doing in amazing detail, if you read that indictment it’s pretty amazing, the detail it goes into. And I think this was also a signal to Russia, so the American system is working, again we’re a nation of laws, and it’s working. The system is, to a degree, working right now, and I have to reason to believe it’s not.
Dyczok: The voice of reason from Washington. Don’t worry so much about what president Trump says, and then retracts his statements, but look at the laws, look at the system.
Whitmore: Pay attention to what we’re doing. Now that’s not to say let’s be Pollyannaish and say everything’s alright, because that’s not the case, everything isn’t alright. Everything isn’t alright right now, it’s far from alright. But I think we have to refrain from panicking at the same time.
Dyczok: Well, I think that’s a very nice note to end on. And I hope the Ukrainian leadership is reflecting that same thing, and being careful and being strong but not panicking and believing in the system.
Whitmore: Well Marta one thing I want to add before we wrap up. Because I did spend last week teaching at Warsaw Euro Atlantic Summer Academy which is sponsored by the College of Europe, and one thing I saw there gave me cause for a lot of optimism. And that was, the most active participants in this academy from where I was sitting were the young Ukrainians and young Georgians.
Dyczok: And who were these? These were students, or government officials? Who were these people?
Whitmore: These were a mix of journalists, civil society activists, and practitioners in foreign and defense ministries. So it was a combination. But what I saw there was a generation of Georgians and Ukrainians, and when they get their chance to be running the show, we’re going to be alright. Let me put it that way. Because really, let’s face it: we’re still seeing post-Soviet elites in these two countries. But what I was able to witness there; it’s the same thing I witness every time I come across Ukrainians and Georgians of this generation.
Dyczok: It’s an absolutely new world.
Whitmore: I’m kind of filled with optimism, because these people are indistinguishable from other Europeans. And they are not post-Soviet, they are not post-post-Soviet, they are Europeans. And once this generation is running the show in Ukraine and Georgia, we’re all going to be alright. I’m just hoping we can get Ukraine and get Georgia to that day where this generation has their chance. Because if they have their chance, we’re all going to be fine.
Dyczok: Brian that’s a wonderful note to end on, thank you so much for joining us. We’ve been speaking with Brian Whitmore. My name is Marta Dyczok from Hromadske Radio in Kyiv. Brian’s new podcast is coming up – when’s your podcast being posted Brian, so we can share?
Whitmore: Every Friday.
Dyczok: Friday, OK. And let’s talk again about this and that positive energy of the new generation, let’s hold onto that. Thanks very much.
Whitmore: Thank you.
At Night. Вночі. That’s the name of a new song by the Kyiv pop-rock band The Frunk. They’re doing a lot of live performing this summer, at various festivals and in clubs. For those who can’t see them live, here’s their song that’s making the charts in Ukraine. Enjoy!
Join us again next week when we’ll bring you a topical in-depth interview and some music. So, tune in. And we would be happy to receive any feedback from you. Follow us on twitter, our handle is @CallingUkraine. Or write to us at: [email protected] This is Marta Dyczok in Kyiv. Thanks for listening.
Interview transcribed by Marta Dyczok, Nykole King, Caitilin O’Hare and Oksana Smerechuk. Music by Marta Dyczok. Sound engineer Andriy Izdryk. E-mail distribution Ilona Sviezhentseva. Web support by Yaroslava Volvach.