The Ukrainian Week
June 11, 2021
The Ukrainian Week met with Dr. Phillip Karber, the head of the US think tank The Potomac Foundation, to discuss new US policies, countering authoritarian regimes, and Ukraine’s strategic importance to European security
What is the current mood in Washington? What could Ukraine expect from President Biden?
There are several points. Since 2014, The United States has not had a strong enough strategy when it comes to tempering Russian aggression in Ukraine. The US does not have an ambassador to Ukraine at this time despite having a strong nominee with bipartisan support. When a presidential transfer of power occurs in the US as in any other country, it takes several months to restructure and fill many key positions. Some 70% of the positions haven’t been filled yet because it takes time. It is a slow frustrating process which we have been historically better at especially in terms of international security matters.
What could Ukraine expect from President Biden?
I think that Biden’s policy and strategy will become more evident in a few months. When you come into a new administration you have people that you are close to, you have people who are in from the same political party but with differing opinions on issues, and then you have people who are professionals, who served in previous administrations and have their own political parties’ interests and opinions. You can see how mixed signals are sent. I’m not defending President Biden’s decision regarding Nord Stream 2 but I do understand his reasoning behind it. First – the pipeline should have been stopped a long time ago, it is essentially completed. Second, after the last four years of terrible relations between Washington and Berlin, trying to sanction an ally is not the best way to mend relations. It was a mistake to have Nord Stream 2 and I think the Germans will later regret it. It puts demands on them that will grow very quickly. Russians could start the same gas manipulations like with Ukraine, it is not against their principles to play games and that makes Western countries very vulnerable. In terms of Ukraine I’m optimistic that President Biden will come up with a coherent strategy which should and will contain economic, political and military components. I wish he already had one. I would rather have any strategy than no strategy. But I understand with so many people missing it is very difficult to address issues like putting together intelligence, defense, economics, and trade in a coherent way especially when dealing with the current situation in Congress, a pandemic and domestic issues at the same time. I think by Fall good people will be put in key positions and you will see a coherent American strategy for Ukraine.
The Russians made a very big mistake this spring. They brought attention to Ukraine. It took a few weeks for people to start talking about Ukraine again and questioning what Russia was doing. When they brought ships from The Baltics and the Caspian Sea, journalists started publishing articles with aerial photography. People like me could make hundreds of presentations or lectures, and it doesn’t have nearly the impact of one Wall Street Journal or New York Times column with pictures of the Russian buildup at the Ukrainian border. American public support for Ukraine is the strongest it has been in the last decade. I firmly believe, Biden won’t throw Ukraine under the bus. He will assess whether arms control agreements with Russia will work. They can’t be divorced from Russian aggressive behavior towards Ukraine. First of all, Russians have violated five different treaties, like INF, Helsinki, and Budapest. There is no reason to sign another treaty if it won’t be upheld. Biden’s upcoming meeting with Putin gives him the opportunity to access whether a stable relationship with Russia can be achieved or not.
You call Ukraine a new center of gravity in Europe. What does this mean for Ukraine, European security and for NATO?
The term center of gravity is from the famous strategist Clausewitz and he applies it to three different levels– in a specific military sense, a political sense and in terms of the State. You can take all these three and apply them to Ukraine.
The Black Sea is a closed body of water. Last summer an American bomber tested a guided missile to take out a ship sized target in the Black Sea. This ability to hold the Russian fleet vulnerable to airpower cannot have gone unnoticed in Moscow. If you look at Sevastopol – it could make Pearl Harbor look safe, because of the ability to close it off. In terms of Southern Europe, most of NATO members are marginal in military capabilities. Ukraine offers a breakwater against waves of Russian hybrid efforts. Strategically, if for some reason we don’t help Ukraine, we are going to miss it when it’s gone because the military stability which Ukraine offers is irreplaceable.
And then there is the situation in Belarus. Lukashenka tried to be more independent and in fact, he did not endorse the occupation of Crimea, and even offered Minsk as a location for negotiations. Lukashenka’s internal political vulnerability and external isolation now leave him dependent on Russian economic and military support with Putin pressuring him for closer military integration with the Russian armed forces. Now we should understand that the Belarussian army is becoming the Russian army. This situation is a dangerous model for other countries – if you do not have friends, if you are not a part of a bigger fraternity, when the bear comes knocking it won’t end well.
If talking about Belarus – the Western approach on authoritarian countries (like giving them access to the global market in hopes of liberal democratic changes) fails?
There are some places, where it worked and marginally at best, like Spain after Franco. But in most cases, it doesn’t like in North Korea and most likely in Iran. I don’t think we (as Americans and West Europeans) have put a strategy together to help Belarus (not Lukashenka, but the country).
Is it time to change the strategy to something that is more hard line?
As for me – Zapad-2021 and the integration of the Belarussian army and Russian forces is the perfect justification of why Ukraine should be a part of NATO. Since we can’t stop the former, we should make the later happen. It’s tough putting heavy pressure on an authoritarian leader like Putin and not having the general population suffer or alienating them.
I think the best policy is to harden and strengthen the areas around Belarus so it’s territory cannot be used as the starting point for aggression or pressure. During Zapad-2017 the Belarussian and Russian forces had a training exercise in which they marched through Latvia to Kaliningrad. This was only an exercise and not real but nonetheless alarming. The Russians have deployed a tank army on the Belarussian border which can rapidly be employed against the Baltics, Poland or Ukraine
The Poles are buying a Patriot missile defense system. I think the Baltics and Ukraine need one too. We have to finish the network of integrated air and anti-missile defense. What is interesting, in the 1950-s there was a Nike-Hercules belt, one of two NATO air defense systems. This belt was put in by infrastructure funds so individual countries didn’t have to pay for it. Every NATO member donated and it came out of the monies from a common fund. I think something like that has to be done with the Patriot system. When implemented in Ukraine it could give enormous early warning potential in terms of air activity to NATO. The Russians themselves feel very uncomfortable about committing forces to the Baltics and having Ukraine on their left flank. Thus, Ukraine can make an enormous contribution into a larger deterrence.
The best deterrent to Russia is Ukraine as a strong part of the West and member of NATO. I would recommend a two-step process. The first step is Ukraine becoming a “Strategic Non-NATO Ally.” with The United States. Second – we need to implement a “Lend-Lease Plan”, like we did for Great Britain early in World War II. General Mychailo Zabrodskyi, Ukraine’s first Hero of the Donbas War and now member of the Ukrainian Rada, last year gave a very interesting lecture in Washington that was very well received by the US Congress using the British example. He proposed a strategic exchange. Ukraine has airbases, and space for American aircraft, which would allow us to offset the Russians in the southern flank. The US has excess aircraft, like the F-15E, strike-fighter that the US has put into storage. In essence his proposal would be to trade American access to Ukrainian airbases in exchange for America modernizing Ukraine’s Air Force.
This mutual exchange is the basis of a strategic partnership – Ukraine becomes a formal American ally with a level of modernization it could not otherwise afford, and the United States receives strategic positioning in Eastern Europe to offset Russian malevolent behavior in Belarus and the Black Sea.