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Published on: March 6, 2014
A Conversation
Coping With Crimea, In Ukraine And Beyond

With the Crimea crisis showing no sign of winding down, TAI editor Adam Garfinkle sat down to talk with Dr. Zbigniew Brzezinkski about the broader repercussions for American foreign policy around the world.

AMG: Let’s put on and take off the table quickly the fear that this business in Ukraine is going to lead to World War III. We can both imagine pathways to such a result, but it isn’t going to happen, is it?

ZB: I don’t think so, unless—and it’s a very remote possibility—Vladimir Putin has lost his understanding of reality and has become a victim of clinical megalomania. I doubt that. The operation in Crimea seems to be cleverly constructed, with a safety valve.

AMG: And you don’t think that the Obama Administration will overreact or mis-react in some way to compensate for the perception that it has been weak in the past?

ZB: I think the more likely difficulty we’ll face is this: Putin is less likely to use military force against Ukraine if the Ukrainians are sufficiently united and determined to resist. However, if he uses force and they do resist, there is going to be a significant local conflict, which then has threatening implications for the immediate neighbors to the west of Ukraine, countries that were formerly part of the Soviet Empire. In that context, while I don’t think we can intervene directly, I think it’s certainly in our interest to provide assistance to the Ukrainians, in the sense of weaponry, aid, diplomatic support and so on. It is in the U.S. interest that the resistance be effective and the outcome not be entirely one-sided if there is a fight. In some fashion, communicating that intent, without being brazen about it, may reduce the probability, whatever that probability might be, of a further Russian attack. So we have to be more than just passive, but we mustn’t be hyperactive.

AMG: Speaking of probabilities, as you just did, the rub is that we don’t know what Putin’s motives are right now. The discussion goes from “Crimea is just a face-saving act in order to compensate for their loss of their guy in Kiev” all the way to the view that he doesn’t intend to stop at the Dnieper but intends to seize and reintegrate all of Ukraine into a Russian state. Isn’t that uncertainty part of the dilemma?

ZB: It’s hard to understand how Putin could calculate that doing what he did in Crimea would make the Ukrainians more supine toward him in Kiev. So unless it’s a sudden burst of poorly calculated activism, the Crimea operation could be the first stage of a series of steps he’s planning, perhaps to create exploitable unrest in eastern Ukraine. The aim would be to demonstrate that Ukraine is falling into anarchy, thereby making a case for a wider Russian intervention, and then we’re back to having to ask ourselves: “How do we react to make that not happen, and if it does happen, how do we make it prolonged and costly?”

AMG: Right, we need to act now to make Putin’s more expansive possible ambitions so expensive, one way or another, that we can deter them. But as you say, we mustn’t overreact. Some people are advocating mobilizing NATO, and I think that’s foolish and even dangerous.

ZB: I don’t think mobilizing NATO makes sense because, for one thing, that’s a very major undertaking. But NATO cannot sit and pretend nothing is happening. The Allies have to get together; we have to discuss contingencies. We have to consider perhaps placing some U.S. troops back in Europe since we have drawn them down to an almost zero level, and so forth. But we can only do that if we have a larger strategy and a sense of balance between deterrence and capitulation on the one hand, and deterrence and accommodation on the other hand.

AMG: I’m glad you used the word accommodation. It’s not a dirty word. Obviously, for Russia Ukraine is a vital interest. It’s right next door to them and always will be. There are at least 400 years of relevant history here. The United States is far away. In other words, while the balance of power in some objective sense may not be very uneven, the balance of interests—which is just as important most of the time—is not in our favor.

ZB: We’re so much stronger and richer, so I don’t think that the balance of power is not in our favor. But it’s not so decisively in our favor that we can simply snap our fingers and have the Russians do what we want, any more than, were the situations hypothetically reversed, they could do the same to us if there were a major crisis in Mexico. I think we are engaged in this crisis, and we have to be steady. We have to calculate more carefully but firmly what might be the escalation we might want to avoid, and what enticements could encourage the Russians to find some way in which we both settle together on an arrangement for Ukraine (as I’ve written elsewhere) somewhat like Finland. Finland is very much part of the West—politically, socially, culturally—but it has simultaneously good relations with Russia and is at the same time not a member of NATO.

AMG: The origins of that circumstance are very interesting, as you certainly know: The Russians decided to not satellitize Finland after the World War II I think for two reasons. One is that the Finns put up a damn good fight in the Winter War…

ZB: Precisely.

AMG: But the other was that Stalin worried that if the Soviets pushed Finland into satellite status, then Sweden would join the West, and that was a bad deal for the Russians.

ZB: Sweden did actually secretly do that. But it was the fact that the Finns fought very well that reinforces my point that if the Ukrainians fight well, if it comes to that, the Russians may accommodate.

AMG: Let’s shift a bit to the meta-narrative being spun by the Western chatterati on Crimea. Everybody is pulling out historical analogies. I’ve heard several so far. The most common, of course, is that this is like the Cold War, except that it isn’t really, is it? No ideological dimension remotely akin to the Cold War is present here. And then I’ve heard some say, a little glibly I have to assume, that here you have a nasty bunch holding an Olympics and then shortly thereafter invading a country—the reference being, obviously, the 1936 Munich Olympics and the ensuing Czechoslovak crisis. Then some cite a second Crimean War. But none of these analogies make much sense to me. Are there any historical analogies that are less misleading and more useful?

ZB: Well, it depends on where it ends. One analogy that comes to mind is the Munich agreement of 1938, which castrated Czechoslovakia, and the West went along with it. And then a few months later, emboldened by that, Hitler struck and occupied all of Czechoslovakia. We now know that the German general staff was prepared to rebel against him during the first phase, because they thought he was plunging them into a war that would be too expensive and perhaps not winnable. But after he staged the coup and got the Sudetenland and the West acquiesced, Hitler became emboldened and the German military decided that maybe he is right and supported him. And then, half a year later, the world plunged into war.

I don’t think that’s going to happen, because in the nuclear age total war between us and the Russians is not conceivable. But there may be an indirect conflict. And the best way to avoid that indirect conflict is to indicate right now that if there is an indirect conflict, we will have no choice but to wage it. And, again, if the Ukrainians resist particularly well, we have to make it clear to Moscow that we will have no choice but to provide some support from the outside, but not engage as direct participants.

AMG: Let’s talk for a moment about the proliferation/counterproliferation implications of what’s already happened, and what might happen in the future if the Russians try to reach further, beyond Crimea. In the Budapest Memorandum of December 5, 1994, the Ukrainians gave up the nuclear weapons left on their soil from Soviet times in return for a pledge that Moscow would respect their territorial integrity and their sovereignty. One could draw the conclusion from this that it was a bad idea for the Ukrainians to give up their nukes, because had they kept them maybe the Crimea wouldn’t be under Russian occupation today. Do you credit that argument? More important, do you see any proliferation/counterproliferation implications from all of this in how other actors around the world are likely to interpret the situation?

ZB: It’s impossible to make a rational judgment on that. Certainly, if Ukraine still had nuclear weapons, it is conceivable that the Russians might not be playing the kind of a stunt that they’re playing in Crimea.

AMG: Of course the matter has to be speculative, but do you think other countries, including the Iranians, for example, will take the lesson?

ZB: Well, that’s an interesting point. Maybe you’re right. This is another negative aspect of what Putin is doing.

What is most negative about what Putin is doing, however, is that it is not necessary. Why is he doing it? It’s not going to enhance Russia’s power, it’s not going to make it more credible. It’s not a contribution in the longer run to making Russia an attractive, increasingly—we would have hoped—democratic and successful state. I think that what is happening is, perhaps above all, a tragedy for Russia.

AMG: A colleague of ours, Slava Inozemtsev, has argued that the Russians could have had the Ukrainians eating out of their hand if they had done the right things all along—attractive things—as opposed to the wrong, bullying and aggressive things.

ZB: Yes, I think Putin’s blown it. I have a sense from casually observing his recent press conference that he’s somewhat shaken, uncertain, and groping. And I think, in that context, that there is a possibility of playing this out intelligently. But not by crawling. Nor by announcing, as some of our thinkers in international affairs have been doing, that we have no choice, that we have no influence, that there’s nothing we can do. Nor, as the British seem inclined to argue, “Well, there’s a lot of Russian money in our banks…”

AMG: On your first point here I think of Cuba, 1962. The Kennedy Administration was strong, but it left Khrushchev a way out. You can’t close off all the ways for an aggressor to back up if you want to avoid confrontation. If Putin’s made a mistake and he wants to take a step backwards, we have to keep a door or a window open so he can do that.

ZB: That’s right.

AMG: Let’s talk about your second comment, the one about the British bankers in the City of London. Some are arguing that wherever Putin and the allied oligarchs keep their money, these bankers are so powerful that they have the capacity to essentially neuter any bold Western riposte to what’s gone on. And that includes Wall Street as well as the City of London, according to some of these arguments. I see the point, but I can’t quite bring myself to credit that argument at a time like this, a time of heightened geopolitical stakes. But I wonder what your view is.

ZB: I’m not sufficiently paranoid to think that the bankers are secretly governing us. But the bankers doubtless have a lot of influence, particularly in political systems in which money is increasingly the mechanism that oils the “democratic process.”

AMG: We’ll leave it at that for now; I agree with you.

So: now a question, please, about the collateral effect of what has happened on the Administration’s Middle East policies. Obviously, Secretary Kerry and, for that matter, the President, have made it clear that they are depending to one degree or another on Russia to help with the Syria portfolio and the related Iranian portfolio. And now many are saying, in effect, look, when you trust the Russians to help you out in places like that, and then they turn around and invade Crimea…. What light does that cast on the assumption that they would ever have been helpful in the first place? I have to say that I never bought the idea that the Russians were going to be useful partners with regard to Syria and Iran, and to me that now just seems more obvious than ever.

ZB: I look at it a little differently. I think the Russians have an interest in being somewhat helpful in those cases, not because they want to bail us out, but because Russia could be adversely affected if push comes to shove too broadly in the region. Ultimately, a nuclear-armed Iran might be more likely to collide with Russian interests than with ours, particularly if the Sunni-Shi’a sectarian war were to spread. Similarly with Syria: They have a residual interest, they have been present there for a long time. They may well be driven out by the Sunni side of a sectarian war, which certainly is not friendly in its attitude toward Russia.

The problem here is that the Russians might calculate that, even if that is the case, we’ll suffer more than they will, and therefore they may be tempted to let that demon out of the cage. I think they would be mistaken to take such a short-term view. Consider that of Russia’s 140 million people, Muslims make up between 25 and 30 million. That’s a lot. And they are going to be increasingly inflamed, and they are geographically close while we are far away.

And then look at the extraordinarily strong reaction by the Turks, at least verbally so far, to what is happening in Ukraine. The Foreign Minister of Turkey, who is a prominent, influential and thoughtful man, Ahmet Davutoglu, flew to Kiev and made extremely strong statements of how Turkey cannot ignore what is happening, how its security is being affected by what is happening in Crimea specifically.

AMG: This is the neo-Ottoman mindset at work; the Turks fought at least thirteen wars with Russia, depending on how you count.

ZB: Yes, and won some of them, actually!

So, if I was Russian, I would ask myself: Do I really want to create a situation in which the whole Muslim-Russian issue is ignited, as it already is in Dagestan and Ingushetia, and as it was brutally suppressed in Chechnya, which could erupt again, and so forth? So I think the Russians, assuming their leadership is not dependent on one, perhaps megalomaniacally minded leader, ought to give this some consideration.

AMG: When we think about our menu of possible responses, both kinetic ones and other ones, to the Ukraine crisis, our allies matter critically. Obviously, our European allies matter most directly in this case. And I have to say that I find the views inside the European Union right now to be somewhat opaque. I can’t figure out what the Germans, the French, the British and even the Poles are really thinking, let alone what they’re thinking together, or even if they’re thinking together beyond the superficial level of readying public statements. It’s hard to liaise effectively with allies that don’t have their own thinking straight. What’s your sense of how things are going to the west of Ukraine?

ZB: When you say the Europeans can’t get together, it’s partially true, but it’s partially not true. After all, they were together in Kiev a week or so ago. The three foreign ministers of Poland, Germany and France had negotiated an arrangement, and that means, respectively, the country nearby which is potentially affected the most, the most powerful European country which has had a troubled history with Russia, and a country which has been a major historical player in European affairs and which historically has had a good relationship with Russia. The three put together a package. Now, of course, we’ll see whether that cohesion will stand together under the circumstances of stress and threat that Putin has created. But my guess is that if Putin overdoes it, it will—although, as you suggest, individual and distinct national interests may create problems. And here, particularly, we come back to the British interest in having the City of London serve as a kind of global Las Vegas for world finances.

AMG: How about other allies, like those in the Far East, and notably Japan? The Japanese security establishment has of course been watching the Obama Administration foreign policy carefully, and they have not been especially reassured of U.S. constancy. One official told me recently, in private, that the Japanese are not sure if we could act as an ally or a mediator should Japan and China find themselves in a fight on the high seas in the South China Sea. How we react to the Ukraine crisis will be carefully read in Tokyo, and Delhi, for indications of what it means for them.  Do you have a sense that the Administration is mindful that what they do will ramify beyond Europe, beyond the Middle East, all the way to East and South Asia?

ZB: We have to be very deliberate in making it clear that Japan is our primary ally in the Pacific. Japan is not necessarily our primary ally on the mainland of Asia, however. But we should be able to steer a course in which Chinese-Japanese tensions don’t force us to make a choice. And that depends, I think, in turn on the degree to which we can talk intelligently to the Japanese and discourage them from engaging in acts which remind the Chinese that they were the victim of Japanese aggression. At the same time, we have to say to the Chinese, “Don’t blow this up beyond proportion, because you’re not going to force us to abandon Japan; we are a Pacific power, and have been since 1905.”

And we can do that without necessarily using threatening words, such as “pivoting” militarily, which is the impression we gave the Chinese at one point.

I think in that context we should be able to manage this relationship. And after all, we can also in private conversations with the Chinese simply say to them: Look, we understand your concerns about these islands, because even though they are insignificant, there might be some oil deposits there, and so forth, and perhaps you should figure out a way of adjudicating this somehow, and we’re willing to help. And we can also ask them at the same time, in effect: “You know, it’s sort of striking that over the years you were compelled by force to cede something like 750,000 square kilometers of your land to Russia. Why are you so aggressively picking on the Japanese while ignoring that other aspect?”

AMG: Well, they’re repopulating that area, informally…

ZB: Very informally, and very slowly—it’s two million that are now across the border, estimated. But the point is, if you have grievances with your neighbors, whom you pick to concentrate on is in some ways indicative of how you are thinking.

AMG: That’s the psychological baggage of history at work weighing everyone down, and it’s as true of Russia with regard to Ukraine as it is of China with regard to Japan.

ZB: Yes, that’s right. But the other thing, the Russian thing, is also close to the Chinese heart. It’s only been, what, 40 years, since they killed a lot of Russian border guards on Damansky Island?

AMG: One last question: Justifiably or not, there is a sense in the world that the United States is having a Greta Garbo moment, as our colleague Joe Joffe has put it—that we’re a bit tired, inwardly distracted, that we want to be alone for awhile. The concern is that revisionist powers that are dissatisfied with the status quo for one reason or another will be more inclined to act on grievances if the United States is perceived to be inadequately robust in its vigilance. Some interpret the Crimea crisis as evidence of excessive U.S. quietude, and worry that it could foreshadow cascading future crises if we do not respond vigorously. Do you credit the cascade theory of present and future trouble?

ZB: Well, I’d like to see some examples.

AMG: Some would say that the Chinese erected their recent air defense zone out of this general context.

ZB: And how did we react? We flew two bombers right through it. And ever since then, the issue’s gone.

It’s true that arguments like these are easier to make in a world that is threatening and dangerous and unstable. And it is all those things right now.

Obviously, as you suggested by your question about us possibly over-reacting to what is going on in Ukraine, one has to be cautious not to precipitate massive escalation and irrational conflict erupting at a moment when the world is very agitated. And as I have argued, we are no longer living in a hegemonic age. We are still pre-eminent, but we’re no longer hegemonic. And that does require a different pattern of conduct, not excluding the use of force if necessary, but not relying on it as a first or principal response.

AMG: Thanks, Zbig—plenty here for the TAI readership to chew on.

ZB: A pleasure, as always.

show comments
  • Pete

    Zbigniew Brzezinski —- you couldn’t do any better than to dig up his that old Jimmy Carter relic?

  • Anthony

    Thanks, Adam Garfinkle.

  • Jim__L

    “What is most negative about what Putin is doing, however, is that it is
    not necessary. Why is he doing it? It’s not going to enhance Russia’s
    power, it’s not going to make it more credible. It’s not a contribution
    in the longer run to making Russia an attractive, increasingly—we would
    have hoped—democratic and successful state. I think that what is
    happening is, perhaps above all, a tragedy for Russia.”

    Isn’t he doing it because he wants to maintain the Black Sea ports, which could be threatened by an EU-oriented Ukraine?

    What do you mean by “attractive”?

    Does Russia see this as a tragedy for Russia, when seen through the filters of a Russian (non-Western, non-Liberal) point of view?

    • ShadrachSmith

      Russia’s military doctrine requires Black Sea Hegemony. The Ukrainian revolution put Russian control of Crimea in danger, so Putin took Crimea back. The motivation is simple enough.

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