David Kramer: “Putin's great­est ex­port is cor­rup­tion, but we im­port it, we al­low it into our coun­tries”

“Putin’s great­est ex­port is cor­rup­tion, but we im­port it, we al­low it into our coun­tries”

The Ukrainian Week - - CONTENTS - In­ter­viewed by Yuriy La­payev

Former Pres­i­dent of Free­dom House on his new book, the West and Ukraine, and Amer­ica's for­eign pol­icy

Former Se­nior Di­rec­tor for Hu­man Rights and Democ­racy at the McCain In­sti­tute and Pres­i­dent of Free­dom House re­cently pre­sented his new book Back to Con­tain­ment: Deal­ing with Putin’s Regime in Kyiv. The Ukrainian Week spoke to him about the book, as well as the cur­rent state of af­fairs at the US Depart­ment of State and the fore­cast for Amer­ica’s for­eign pol­icy.

In your book you high­light some of the char­ac­ter­is­tics of Vladimir Putin and his regime. Do you think there is a cor­rect un­der­stand­ing of him among top-level Amer­i­can politi­cians?

If you look at the com­ments made by many se­nior US of­fi­cials, in­clud­ing when they ap­peared in the US Se­nate for the con­fir­ma­tion of their cur­rent po­si­tions — I would in­clude Am­bas­sador to the UN Nikki Ha­ley, Rex Tiller­son as the Sec­re­tary of State, Jim Mat­tis as Sec­re­tary of De­fense, CIA Di­rec­tor Mike Pom­peo, — they all have been quite clear and can­did about the threat the Rus­sia poses and very crit­i­cal about Putin and his regime. Vice-pres­i­dent Pence made a trip to Es­to­nia, Ge­or­gia and Mon­tene­gro in the sum­mer. It was also very clear. In Ge­or­gia in par­tic­u­lar he re­it­er­ated sup­port for Ge­or­gia’s as­pi­ra­tion to join NATO; by im­pli­ca­tion, I think, the same thing could be ap­plied to Ukraine. If you look at the US Congress, it has passed leg­is­la­tion this year call­ing for ad­di­tional sanc­tions against the Putin regime. All of that is pos­i­tive. You have the ap­point­ment of Kurt Volker as US Spe­cial Rep­re­sen­ta­tive for Ukraine, who I think is ter­rific and said all the right things. He is clearly look­ing out for Ukraine’s in­ter­ests. I think he is re­fresh­ingly blunt about where the prob­lems lie and where re­spon­si­bil­ity lies. That is in Moscow.

Then you do have Pres­i­dent Trump and his com­ments which con­sis­tently have been soft on Putin and Rus­sia. I agree with Pres­i­dent Trump and can­di­date Trump, that it would be nice if the US and Rus­sia could get along. Ev­ery­one would like that. Ukraine would like that. I just don’t think it’s pos­si­ble with the cur­rent regime in Moscow.

Mr. Putin has talked about out­side pow­ers want­ing to take a chunk of Rus­sia since as far as 2004, af­ter the Bes­lan tragedy. Then, of course, the Mu­nich speech of 2007 and hold­ing the US, NATO and the Euro­pean Union as the threats to Rus­sia con­tin­u­ally ever since. He needs to per­pet­u­ally push this myth that there are the out­side threats to Rus­sia in or­der to jus­tify his au­thor­i­tar­ian con­trol. As long is that is the case, I don’t see how we can have a nor­mal re­la­tion­ship with Rus­sia. I don’t give up on Rus­sia as a whole, I also think it is im­por­tant to dif­fer­en­ti­ate the Rus­sians from their lead­er­ship. And I think that the level of sup­port (for Putin – Ed.) is shal­low in Rus­sia. If there were a real al­ter­na­tive and there were real elec­tions, Putin might still win but not by Turk­menistan stan­dards. Many cur­rent se­nior US of­fi­cials and the US Congress have a proper un­der­stand­ing of the threat that Putin’s regime poses. I don’t know if that view is shared by the Pres­i­dent, but I do think the Vice-Pres­i­dent has that view. And if you look at the in­creas­ing ex­port of US en­ergy, that is a pos­i­tive thing which also has an im­pact on Rus­sia. If you look at the in­crease of mil­i­tary pres­ence and at the ad­min­is­tra­tion fol­low­ing the sanc­tions, then th­ese ac­tions are speak­ing louder than words. It’s a mixed pic­ture in some as­pects. But state­ments by the US ad­min­is­tra­tion have been right. Nikki Ha­ley was sit­ting near Madeleine Al­bright and Con­doleezza Rice at the con­fer­ence in New York spon­sored by The Bush In­sti­tute. She re­ferred to Rus­sia’s in­ter­fer­ence in last year’s elec­tion as a kind of war­fare — such strong words. And she has been very out­spo­ken about that.

Some say that West­ern politi­cians some­times make a mis­take by try­ing to deal with Rus­sia in a more soft, civ­i­lized and diplo­matic way, be­cause the Rus­sians un­der­stand and re­spect power and hard skills in­stead…

I do agree with that. I think Putin re­spects strength, when some­body has the courage to push back. And he ex­ploits weak­ness, what he sees as soft­ness on the part of the West and oth­ers. In my book I ar­gue about a tougher line in deal­ing with Rus­sia. We need to in­crease sanc­tions, not sim­ply main­tain the cur­rent ones. And that is what the dis­cus­sion is about. With main­tain­ing the cur­rent sanc­tions we lose the ar­gu­ment, we lose that de­bate. Putin has to think and to ex­pect, that he will re­ceive tougher sanc­tions if he doesn’t change his be­hav­ior. We have to keep push­ing the sanc­tions up. Cou­pled with the drop in oil prices, the sanc­tions have had an im­pact. I think Putin didn’t ex­pect that. I think he didn’t ex­pect sanc­tions at all be­cause there was no re­ac­tion af­ter Ge­or­gia. I de­scribed this in the book. And I do see the fault of the Bush Ad­min­is­tra­tion in which I served. But it was dif­fer­ent cir­cum­stances – the end of the Bush Ad­min­is­tra­tion and a five-day war that was over quickly, al­low­ing Rus­sia to con­tinue this creep­ing an­nex­a­tion in Ge­or­gia. And al­most no losses com­par­ing with Ukraine or Syria. The US did not re­ally im­pose any con­se­quences on Rus­sia for its in­va­sion of Ge­or­gia. And then you have a new Obama Ad­min­is­tra­tion com­ing. Not even one year passed, and the Obama Ad­min­is­tra­tion was talk­ing about Re­set Pol­icy, ac­tu­ally say­ing that the Rus­sian in­va­sion on Ge­or­gia was just swiped off the map. They never re­ally looked back. That came across in Moscow as an im­pres­sion that the US needed this re­la­tion­ship more than Rus­sia did. As long as we give that im­pres­sion and cre­ate that image, we won’t win. It is not the kind of com­pe­ti­tion in which we can win or lose. It is in ev­ery­one’s in­ter­est. And some­times our poli­cies can make it worse.

Do you think that the cur­rent ad­min­is­tra­tion can play harder?

Again, if you look at the ac­tions of the ad­min­is­tra­tion, they are bet­ter than some of the words the Pres­i­dent has said. If they im­ple­ment the sanc­tions leg­is­la­tion, that would be another in­di­ca­tion that they are in fact tak­ing a tougher line. The US Congress has been great on deal­ing with this. I mean, in 2012 when the Congress passed the Mag­nit­sky leg­is­la­tion over the Obama Ad­min­is­tra­tion. But it is ac­tu­ally the ad­min­is­tra­tion which im­ple­ments the sanc­tions.

The other ques­tion which is specif­i­cally re­lated to Ukraine is whether Pres­i­dent Trump will ap­prove the pro­vi­sion of lethal mil­i­tary as­sis­tance. I have ar­gued since 2014 that the US should pro­vide it. It is to help Ukraine de­fend it­self, not to go on the of­fen­sive. And it is in line with our com­mit­ments in the Bu­dapest Mem­o­ran­dum. Ukraine is not ask­ing for US sol­diers on the ground to fight for Ukraine; it is ask­ing for Javelin mis­siles, anti-radar equip­ment and other things that are de­fen­sive in na­ture. If Rus­sia does not send tanks to Ukraine or fly into Ukrainian ter­ri­tory, then it has noth­ing to fear. Ukraine is on the front­line in de­fend­ing the West against Rus­sian ag­gres­sion. And it seems to me, that the least we can do is to help Ukraine in de­fend­ing its own ter­ri­tory. Sec­re­tary Mat­tis was here, he said all the right things. Kurt Volker is out­spo­ken about this. State Depart­ment seems to sup­port it. But I don’t know when the White House will make a de­ci­sion. Pres­i­dent Obama op­posed this even though the Congress sup­ported it. Vice-pres­i­dent, Sec­re­tary of State, Sec­re­tary of De­fense, Chair­man of the Joint Chief of Staff – they all sup­ported it. And yet Obama re­fused to do this. I think that was a ter­ri­ble mis­take on Obama’s part.

In your opin­ion, what mea­sures can be ef­fec­tive in man­ag­ing the Rus­sia-Ukraine con­flict? Would it be the mil­i­tary, eco­nomic or diplo­matic ap­proach?

The in­crease of sanc­tions is im­por­tant. Ev­ery few months when Rus­sia re­fuses to com­ply with the Minsk Agree­ment — which I think we should aban­don be­cause it’s not

work­ing – we should in­crease sanc­tions. In Septem­ber 2014, the Minsk Agree­ment 1 was signed and didn’t work. Then Minsk 2 was signed in Fe­bru­ary 2015 and it isn’t work­ing. At some point we have to re­al­ize that either we have to be more cre­ative to come up with Minsk 3, or we have to ap­ply more pres­sure on Rus­sia. For me, ap­ply­ing more pres­sure on Rus­sia is about the only way we can solve this prob­lem.

Rus­sia right now does not feel enough pres­sure to change its pol­icy. Un­til Rus­sia is af­fected by tougher and wider sanc­tions, it doesn’t have many rea­sons to get out of Ukraine. To be clear, I in­clude Crimea in this. Crimea is not men­tioned in the Minsk Agree­ments. And yet the US and other coun­tries should never rec­og­nize Rus­sian an­nex­a­tion. It’s il­le­gal; it would re­draw the map of Europe and vi­o­late the prin­ci­ples of sovereignty and ter­ri­to­rial in­tegrity. There are sanc­tions which are specif­i­cally for Crimea, they should stay and be in­creased.

We should sup­port Ukraine in a diplo­matic way. We should make sure that we are clear: we side with Ukraine in this cri­sis. Af­ter all, this is the sit­u­a­tion where Rus­sia in­vaded Ukraine, Ukraine didn’t in­vade Rus­sia.

We should also make sure that things like Nord Stream 2 are not car­ried out. Nord Stream 2 is a ter­ri­ble idea; it is not even vi­able com­mer­cially. And it hurts Ukraine, as well as the Baltic States, Poland and even Ger­many. Be­cause it makes Ger­many more de­pen­dent on Rus­sia di­rectly. Lastly, we need to clean up our own sit­u­a­tion in the West. Putin’s great­est ex­port is cor­rup­tion, but we im­port it, we al­low it into our coun­tries. So we need to fix our sys­tems. Putin and his regime can­not both de­mo­nize the West, view us as a threat say­ing that we try to launch color rev­o­lu­tions against Rus­sia, and at the same time put their money in the West, send their kids to the West or buy real es­tate here. We must do a much bet­ter job at fix­ing our own sys­tem and mak­ing sure that this cor­rupted money is not in­fect­ing our sys­tem.

Half a year ago Pres­i­dent Trump pro­posed a se­ri­ous cut in in­ter­na­tional aid, which many see as Amer­ica's soft power. How could this af­fect Amer­i­can ap­proach to for­eign pol­icy? What dif­fer­ence does this make com­pared to the pe­riod of Obama's pres­i­dency and the rule of the Democrats?

I think that the Congress will leave a lot of fund­ing that the Trump Ad­min­is­tra­tion wants to cut at the end of the process. There is strong sup­port for for­eign as­sis­tance in both the Se­nate and House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives. The lead­ers at the Pen­tagon, cur­rent and pre­vi­ous, have said that the mil­i­tary bud­get will have to in­crease if you cut for­eign as­sis­tance bud­get. Be­cause the Pen­tagon will be called upon more and more to step in and deal with crises. The whole idea of for­eign as­sis­tance is to pre­vent sit­u­a­tions from ex­plod­ing.

I think that de­spite the 30% cut that the Ad­min­is­tra­tion re­quested, this won’t hap­pen. And then, if the money is ap­proved, the Ad­min­is­tra­tion will have to spend it right. There is a great per­son in charge of the US Agency for In­ter­na­tional Devel­op­ment, Mark Green. He un­der­stands the im­por­tance of for­eign as­sis­tance. So I ex­pect that this soft power will con­tinue to be a key part of US for­eign pol­icy. The Bush Ad­min­is­tra­tion and Ge­orge Bush spoke about the free­dom agenda: Bush be­lieved in that pas­sion­ately, but the war in Iraq did some dam­age to this con­cept. It dis­cred­ited pro­mo­tion of democ­racy. Barak Obama said five days be­fore be­com­ing pres­i­dent that we can’t im­pose democ­racy through the bar­rel of a gun. And he is right. But then Obama showed lit­tle in­ter­est in democ­racy and hu­man rights is­sues. The cur­rent ad­min­is­tra­tion has shown even less in­ter­est. And yet, if we don’t sup­port demo­cratic forces, the world will be­come a less safe place. The US has sup­ported democ­racy for decades, and I hope we will re­turn to that.

There seems to be a huge dif­fer­ence in the way the US Ad­min­is­tra­tion (and po­lit­i­cal es­tab­lish­ment) per­ceives East­ern Euro­pean states that are NATO mem­bers and Ukraine, not even sug­gest­ing that the lat­ter might one day leave the grey zone and join the West­ern club of na­tions. Is that a cor­rect im­pres­sion? Is there any way for Ukraine to bridge that dif­fer­ence?

We have to go back to 2008 when both Ukraine and Ge­or­gia asked for mem­ber­ship ac­tion plan (MAP). NATO al­lies, in par­tic­u­lar Ger­many, would not agree to do it. They agreed only that Ukraine and Ge­or­gia would be­come mem­bers some time. There has been slow progress in that area. One of the chal­lenges in Ukraine was a lack of pop­u­lar sup­port for join­ing NATO. That, of course, has changed since Putin’s in­va­sion. Now you have more than 50% of sup­port­ers. I think that this is a very pos­i­tive devel­op­ment. Putin has done more to unite the coun­try than any­one else in some way.

Another rea­son is that Ukraine be­came a vic­tim of bad re­la­tions be­tween An­gela Merkel and Mikheil Saakashvili. Be­cause it was a duo, Ukraine would not join with­out Ge­or­gia. The US de­cided not to push for one or the other.


How­ever, it is NATO’s pol­icy since its found­ing to keep the door open for coun­tries that are in­spired to join. As long as the coun­try wants to join, we must act right. Ar­ti­cle 5 has made Es­to­nia, Latvia and Lithua­nia safer, in par­tic­u­lar th­ese days. If we close the mem­ber­ship door to Ukraine, we are grant­ing Rus­sia a de facto veto over your coun­try’s as­pi­ra­tions to join the Al­liance. We must show some roadmap which has the end of the process, make some cri­te­ria for Ukraine to meet. It will make Ukraine safer and more se­cure. When Ger­many joined NATO in 1955, it was di­vided be­tween East and West, and yet that did not pre­vent the coun­try from join­ing the Al­liance.

Do you think that the cur­rently un­filled vacancies in the Depart­ment of State can pose a se­ri­ous threat to Amer­i­can for­eign pol­icy?

Wess Mitchell has re­cently been ap­pointed the new As­sis­tant Sec­re­tary for Europe and Eura­sia, re­plac­ing Vic­to­ria Nu­land. He is a great per­son who knows the re­gion very well and has a very clear un­der­stand­ing of the threat Putin poses. I think hav­ing him there is a big plus. But your ques­tion is right: the State Depart­ment is sig­nif­i­cantly un­der­staffed. I don’t re­mem­ber that in pre­vi­ous times. Now many of the po­si­tions are not filled. Not be­cause the Se­nate is block­ing con­fir­ma­tion of the in­di­vid­u­als, but be­cause the White House and the State Depart­ment have not nom­i­nated peo­ple. This has cre­ated low morale at the State Depart­ment; it has left em­bassies and other bu­reaus un­clear about who has au­thor­ity. This is a big prob­lem.

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