Event Summary by Richard C. Longworth
One year after Russia annexed Crimea, the Ukrainian crisis remains a vexed issue with no clear solutions but with deep implications for the West’s relations with Russia and Russia’s role in the world, an expert panel told The Chicago Council Thursday evening.
The audience heard arguments for and against sending lethal defense weapons to Ukraine; pleas for both strengthening and reforming Ukraine economically; the potential and problems for integrating Russia into international institutions; and the reality that any nuclear deal with Iran will need Russian help.
The panel included Ivo Daalder, the Council president and former American ambassador to NATO; Jane Harman, the president and CEO of The Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington and former member of Congress from California; and Lamberto Zannier, secretary general of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). It was moderated by Washington Post associate editor Karen DeYoung.
Daalder is a leader of a top-level group that has urged the Obama administration to send lethal defense weapons, including Javelin anti-tank missiles, to Ukraine. That armed aid is still necessary, he said.
“Foreign military elements are in a country that hasn’t invited them,” Daalder said. “That’s normally known as an invasion. It’s a foreign power occupying a country that isn’t theirs. … So how do we respond? We should give the country that’s being invaded the means to defend itself. … And yes, including anti-armor missiles.”
Harmon noted support for military aid in Congress but opposition among important European allies, including Germany. She herself clearly had her doubts.
Economic sanctions “are the better tool,” she said. “Is our strength our economy—or is it weapons against a Russian army that is right next door?” The problem is exacerbated by a Ukrainian army “that is not very capable,” presenting the danger that any American weapons might end up “in the wrong hands.”
Harmon drew a parallel between World War I, which began a century ago “through a series of miscalculations,” and the current tensions with Russia.
“I worry about World War Three,” Harmon said, “what with all this saber-rattling by Russia.”
Zannier, whose OSCE has observers on the front line in eastern Ukraine, said that Russia “is not present enough” in broader European institutions, but noted that Moscow itself hasn’t tried hard enough to join in.
Daalder agreed that Russia does “have legitimate grievances on how the post-Cold War world has evolved.” But its suggestions—“that NATO be disbanded, that the European Union shouldn’t reach out to its neighbors”—are unrealistic, he said. In addition, Russia has not complied with arms control agreements and has sent nuclear-armed bombers flying into Western space, he added.
“This is serious stuff,” Daalder said. “It’s an over-reaction to whatever humiliation the Russians are feeling.”
Harmon cautioned that, while the world is focused on Ukraine, Russia has a potentially crucial role to play in limiting Iran’s nuclear ambitions and in stabilizing the crisis in Syria.
The Russians are members of the negotiations seeking to deter an Iranian nuclear bomb. Any deal would probably include Iran’s promise to limits its stock of enriched uranium by sending any surplus to Russia to be turned into fuel for peaceful uses.
“In Iran, Russia is very central to helping us forge a right deal,” Harmon said. “So we are trying to pull Russia into the world order, to feed Russia’s need to be seen as a good world citizen.”
Arming Ukraine could send this process in the wrong direction, according to Harmon.
Daalder agreed that the arms debate has overtaken the issue of Ukraine’s overall future, “and that’s not where we wanted to go. … The only solution is a viable Ukrainian state. The only way to defeat Russia is to help Ukraine succeed.”
The key to this, Daalder said, is substantial economic aid. “Let’s disagree over whether to send a bunch of Javelin missiles, but let’s agree on helping Ukraine succeed.”
Zannier urged the West to try to engage with Putin to seek the elements of a solution. But he recalled that Russia was one of the guarantors of Ukraine’s security when that nation gave up its nuclear weapons, “and now the guarantees are being violated by the country that gave them.”
An audience member asked if the next step in sanctions should be closing the SWIFT bank messaging system to Russia, which would in effect close that country off from the world banking system.
Daalder said Russia is already largely out of that system, but barring them from SWIFT would be both symbolic and important.
Harmon cautioned, though, that “we don’t want the Russian economy to collapse.” Sanctions should be a tool to influence Russian behavior, she said, but the economic collapse of the world’s biggest country “would wreak geo-political havoc.”
Richard C. Longworth is a distinguished fellow at The Chicago Council on Global Affairs. Read more of his program summaries and recent publications or follow his blog.