Around the Institute

Panel: Russian Identity at Heart of Ukraine Crisis

August 12, 2014  • Catherine Lutz, Guest Blogger

Above, watch the full conversation among former US Secretaries of State Madeleine Albright and Condoleezza Rice and former US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates on Russia.

Two former US secretaries of state and a former secretary of defense agreed that the current Russia-Ukraine issue is the most serious East-West crisis since the end of the Cold War.

Former US Secretaries of State Madeleine Albright and Condoleezza Rice, along with former US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates spoke to a sold-out crowd about the crisis with Russia as part of the McCloskey Speaker Series in Aspen, CO. All three former high-ranking officials had met with Russian President Vladimir Putin in their careers, and all three agreed that Putin’s empire-rebuilding and overall strategy is driving the country’s strategy toward Ukraine and other former Soviet satellite states.

Pointing out that Putin had publicly said that the collapse of the Soviet Union was the greatest tragedy of the 20th century, Rice added that he had told her in private that Russia has only been great when it was ruled by strong men, and that Ukraine was a made-up state. 

“So we have now a very dangerous perfect storm between a leader who is unreconciled to the post-Cold War order in Europe, a combination of military pressure and surrogates to undo that order, and an international community that seems unsure how to respond,” said Rice, who compared Putin’s autarkic approach to Stalin’s and sees his tactics on the world stage as being part of reestablishing Russia’s identity as a great power.

Calling Russia’s annexation of Crimea one of “two huge game changers” in the last six months (the other being events in the Middle East), Albright noted that Putin “lives his own version of history and makes it up as he goes along.” Not being able to predict Putin’s behavior makes it tricky to know how to deal with the escalating situation, Albright added, and highlights the greater difficulty of helping a former superpower find its place in a new world order.

Gates added to this sentiment. “In the early ’90s, we didn’t fully appreciate the magnitude of humiliation Russians felt not just about the collapse of the Soviet Union but of a centuries-old Russian empire,” said Gates, who added that Putin has been trying to upend two aspects of international order that were thought to be settled at the end of the Cold War: border changes by anything other than peaceful negotiation, and the freedom of sovereign states to choose which countries they want to ally with.

In terms of what to do about the situation, Albright, Gates, and Rice all agreed on a three-pronged strategy: a strengthening of NATO to provide a broad international response, providing the Ukranians with lethal weapons and intelligence, and an economic strategy.

The economic piece is the most nuanced. Rice suggested continuing to pressure Russia economically through sanctions and greater energy independence in the United States (such as approving the Keystone pipeline), but to also “try to hold in place relations with Russians for whom Putin is not the future, too.”

Noting that Ukraine and other former Soviet satellites are indeed buffer states geographically, Albright suggested that we should figure out how to help Ukraine turn westward. 

“We want an economic relationship with Russia,” she said, suggesting that a country with a destroyed economy and resentful population would be much more difficult to deal with.

Expanding on that thought, Gates said that the United States and international community needs to think in the long term, like Putin is. He suggested creating an “economic safety net” in the Baltic states, “so if Putin starts turning the screws, they don’t have to knuckle under. We need a more pro-American, pro-Western agenda, along the periphery of Russia.”

Summarizing his fellow panelists’ analyses, Gates suggested Putin’s goals are twofold: furthering a historical mission to bring back under Moscow’s wing those Russians who were “orphaned” by the dissolution of the Soviet Union, and the creation of a band of states on Russia’s periphery that lean toward Moscow for economic, political, and security reasons.

“He does want to recreate this buffer, which was very much a part of Russia’s history,” said Gates. “And I see Ukraine as the lynchpin of that. Kiev was where the Russian empire was founded. Putin sees Ukraine as a made-up state, and he’ll never rest if he thinks Ukraine might slide west.”

All three agreed that there are many challenges to the Russia-Ukraine crisis, not the least of which is an increasing reluctance by the American people to engage internationally. “None of our wars have really been popular,” said Gates, “and it’s always fallen to the leadership to persuade people why it’s necessary.” 

The problem now, he added, is a lack of persuasive leadership both in the White House and in Congress to help convince Americans that circumstances could be far worse if the United States doesn’t lead in these situations. 

People are understandably tired of war, and have been for several years, said Rice. “But the great power can’t afford to be tired. Putin isn’t tired. China isn’t tired. ISIS isn’t tired.”

Albright, who said that “terrible things have happened when the United States has turned inward,” noted that Americans in general don’t like the word “multilateralism. It has too many syllables and it ends in ‘-ism.’ But it means ‘partnership,’ and there have to be partners out there that I think can help the dynamic,” she said. 

In terms of the role of both the Unites States and its partners in these international crises, she added, “I believe it’s a good time to reassert our vows. I think Europe needs to pull up its socks. There needs to be a reaffirmation of Western values, and we need to understand who we are and what role the US and its allies can play. The world is a mess, and it needs us and a reaffirmation of Western values.”