Interview | Putin's war failing, but return to normalcy will take years

Christopher Robinson.
Christopher Robinson. Source: US Department of State

Getting back to normal relations with Russia might take a generation even as the current war in Ukraine is going badly Vladimir Putin, US diplomat Christopher Robinson said in an interview with ERR's Ilja Dotšar, which follows in its entirety.

Let's start with the most important question right now. It is clear that the war is not going the way the Russian side wants it to, and one day it is going to have to end. It cannot turn into a second Korean War. Can there be any kind of meaningful dialogue with the current Russian regime?

I think there are two questions here. One is about ending the war, and then one on how to engage the Russians.

I think you're right. Putin has failed in his objectives. He laid out they were going to seize Kiev in the first few hours. It was very clear his objective was to topple and destroy the Ukrainian government, prevent Ukraine's western trajectory, and divide the Western alliance.

He has failed. There is no other way to measure it than "he has failed" most importantly at great cost to both Russian and Ukrainian lives. But he has failed in those objectives. We don't think he's backed away from those objectives, just changing his tactics. He's shifted the battle to the Donbas.

The Ukrainians continue to fight and we will stand with them to protect and strengthen their sovereignty and territorial integrity. And I think Ukraine can count on the entire transatlantic community support in that effort, but certainly from the U.S., and I know from Estonia.

So, we will continue with that. We do want to see a diplomatic solution to this crisis, but not at the expense of Ukraine's freedom in its sovereignty and territorial integrity. And so we will stand with Ukraine as it makes those choices.

We don't see Russia as serious about engaging at this point, and we will continue to increase the pressure on Moscow. Sanctions will be part of that, as well as strengthening Ukraine's military capability. But we do hope there can be a negotiated end to this conflict.

To that end, we are still interested in having diplomatic relations with Russia. We've not withdrawn our ambassador. We're still open to talking to Moscow. We just don't see Moscow as serious about engaging diplomatically at this time.

But do you see a possibility for this kind of dialogue with the current regime?

To stop the conflict? Of course, that will be necessary. The challenge with engaging Putin's regime is they have violated all of their international legal obligations. So whether it's the UN Charter, the Helsinki Final Act, the INF Treaty, the NATO-Russia Founding Act, chemical and biological agreements and so forth. Russia does not honor its international commitments.

Diplomacy is based on meeting and complying with your commitments, and that's really a challenge. We are still open to that bilateral dialogue and I think the West is open to that dialogue. But with a Russia that will meet its commitments and will fulfill and honor those obligations. And Putin's Russia does not do that. That is a real challenge.

Peace in this kind of situation will not be just about stopping the gunfire and withdrawing the forces. There has to be some kind of limitation, some kind of reparations, some kind of, well, mechanism to compensate Ukraine for all this.

I think there are several aspects there. One, we think accountability is very important, that it is undeniable there have been atrocities committed on Ukrainian territory by Russian forces. So, accountability is critically important for going forward. We have already imposed visa bans, we have imposed sanctions and we will continue to use those tools, among many others. We are working directly with the Ukrainian prosecutor general's office, as are many other countries, to help investigate and document these so that we can bring accountability.

It is important that Putin's Russia, Kremlin officials are held to account so that this does not happen again. So that Russia can't launch a war of aggression like this again against any of its neighbors or non-NATO countries. We think that's an important principle. We do think we need to engage to help Ukraine address the humanitarian and the economic crisis it is facing. We have committed resources to do that, and we will work with our European partners to strengthen those resources as well.

You talk a lot about accountability, yet I have a hard time imagining how that would happen in reality. I mean, we have a case of MH17 going on right now and there's not been too much cooperation from the Russian side.

No, they've obstructed that entire process, but that judicial process has moved forward. Look, we all are rules based, law- abiding societies. We do think those are important for the long term. We want to see Russia return to abiding by the rules-based norms of international behavior. Accountability is an important part of that.

Whether it's MH17 or Bucha, we do think it's important to hold Russia to account for these, to document what happened and to hold them accountable as we look forward. I think it's important ultimately for the Russian speaking people and the Russian audiences back home in Russia to know what has happened in Ukraine. So, we can document and share reliable, accurate information to the Russian people so that they know the consequences for Putin's war.

Do I understand it correctly that you are in some way expecting inner pressure from Russian society to do something about the regime?

I think you've seen that already. This is why Putin's cracked down so hard on Russian civil society. Some 200,000 or more Russians have fled their country since the start of the war. We've seen nearly every independent media organization shut down and forced to flee, but they don't stop. I mean, that's the dynamic vibrancy, if you will.

The life of Russian civil society is that they reorganize and come back and keep reporting on what's happening and trying to communicate that back to their people at home.

Well, right now, one of the jokes going around in the Russian segment of the Internet, one of the memes is that their country is more northern than North Korea. And last year we saw the uprising scenario in Belarus stamped down by Lukashenko's regime. And I think the Kremlin has learned a lot from that.

Belarus and Russia are two examples. Authoritarian regimes cannot stop the people from organizing themselves. Belarus went into the elections the previous year, in a very repressive, very difficult environment. Yet you saw how the Belarusian flags of independence erupted across the country and people came out because they wanted to exercise their voice. And I think that's still true in Russia, too. We see Russian civil society trying to find a way to organize themselves and to communicate what's happening. And we hope that will continue.

Is there an understanding of what needs to be done to stop the hostilities in Ukraine right now? And I don't mean just Ukraine not losing this war because it's not the same as winning the war.

I think there are many factors here. One is we will continue to support Ukraine to protect itself and to defend its interests on the battlefield. We just submitted a request for additional funds to our Congress so that we can continue that in the short term, but also that Moscow understands that there is a partnership for Ukraine with the West for the long term, and that we are committed to Ukraine's defense, its sovereignty and its territorial integrity. And so that part will continue.

I think whether there's a cease fire, it's really up to Moscow. Moscow began this aggression, and it is Moscow's responsibility to end the war and withdraw its forces. If it does not, then we will continue to increase pressure. We will continue to support Ukraine militarily. We will continue to increase sanctions on Russia and Putin's regime will pay the consequences for that.

And yet I have a hard time imagining Ukrainian tanks going up to Moscow to force the end of the war. So it could end up being a frozen conflict?

I think you've seen many of us, senior officials have commented that there's a real risk this war could go on for many, many more months. The Ukrainian people have demonstrated enormous resolve to defend their country and the capability to do so. And the Russians are facing severe morale problems, logistical problems, bad planning, and we think those challenges will continue on. The question, though, presupposes that somehow Ukraine is the aggressor. We've seen Ukraine.

That is not a case of driving to Moscow with the tanks. Ukraine is ready to defend its borders. It's Russia that crossed the borders and invaded Ukrainian territory. That's what we want to see stop. If Russia stops, we're prepared to lift sanctions that started this and we are prepared to engage in dialogue with Moscow. But Moscow needs to stop the war.

Let's for a moment, assume that the Kremlin stops the war, stops the aggression. Troops are pulled out. How does one walk the line between appeasing the Kremlin and possibly risking them thinking that the West is weak or pushing them into despair, when the only solution is nuclear?

You've seen a lot of very dangerous rhetoric coming from the Kremlin and Moscow over and over in the past week or two about potentially using nuclear weapons. And we have warned Moscow very clearly and consistently that any use of a nuclear weapon, even if it's a so-called tactical nuclear weapon, non-strategic. For the U.S., any nuclear weapon is a strategic weapon with strategic consequences. Likewise, if Russia is ever to use a chemical or a biological weapon, then there will be severe consequences beyond what we have already imposed and we've communicated those risks to Moscow.

I think the challenge here is that Moscow needs to understand that aggression will not succeed and that the West stands firm in its resolve. With Ukraine, we're still open to a negotiated diplomatic solution to this conflict, but we will stand firm with Ukraine. Moscow miscalculated in the beginning that the West was divided and that we would not stand with Ukraine.

They were fundamentally wrong. Estonia has made significant contributions to the Ukrainians as have many other NATO allies. And that effort will continue. Moscow should be under no illusions. The West stands firmly with Ukraine and that if Moscow wants to stop the deterioration of its economy, the loss of Russian lives, then it needs to come to the table with serious proposals.

Somehow, I do not think that Russia's economy is of great consequence to Vladimir Putin himself, and right now this seems like his personal war. So how do you strangle him into submission without causing despair?

Your point is right. This is Putin's war. This is not the Russian people's war. There are 15-20 thousand Russian mothers who will not see their sons ever again. And there are some people who need to know about the consequences and what the real costs for their country are in the long term.

These are consequences that could endure for an entire generation with the talent that has left and the effect of sanctions. I think you're right, though. This is Putin's war. But we do think imposing costs is an important part of making clear to Moscow that escalation has consequences, aggression has consequences. The West stands firmly against this. And if that can help drive Moscow back to the negotiating table, then we are prepared to use these tools.

It seems Putin right now listens to only a few chosen close to him. And, well, as far as I know, Lukashenko is one of those. Yes, he does not fully support Russia in its endeavors, but still, Russia has very few friends in politics. Maybe one way to end this war would be through Lukashenko?

I guess that's an interesting concept. Look, we likewise stand for Belarusian sovereignty and that we don't want to see Belarusian people lose their sovereignty to build Putin's personal empire. I think you make a good point. Russia is a terrible ally and partner. Their military is unreliable. Their equipment is unreliable. If you look at their Eurasian Economic Union partners, they've cut off grain and sugar shipments to them for at least through the end of the summer, when many of them need it most because of rising food prices.

They're driving up global food insecurity challenges because of their war in Ukraine and stopping shipment through the Black Sea. They are terrible allies and partners. I don't know that Lukashenko will be the one to help bring peace, but I think the Belarusian people need to know the risks of being drawn into the Russian empire.

Let's say the war ends tomorrow. What happens then?

I think it very much depends on how it ends. We want a good peace that preserves Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity so that Ukraine can continue on its western democratic path. We think that's essential. We think that's in the interest, frankly, of the Russian people. In that sense, if Russia withdraws its forces, then we are ready to lift sanctions that led to that in the first place. But we also want to make sure that this does not happen again. There needs to be real arms control. There needs to be ways to ensure that Russia cannot launch aggression again, whether it's against non-NATO member states near its border, against NATO's states along its border, or frankly, the hybrid campaigns we've seen Russia conduct around the world to destabilize and foment tension.

Moscow has increasingly resorted to the use of force and aggression in order to carry out its foreign policy objectives. And we need to counter and deter those for the long term. I think the alliance is doing that. The EU is doing that. Individual countries are taking steps to ensure that doesn't happen. The world sees this. We witnessed that with the UN General Assembly vote, the vote to eject Russia from the Human Rights Council.  The world sees what Putin's Russia, - not the Russian people, I want to be clear about that - what Putin's regime is and that we will hold Russia to account. Should there be change, should Russia return to abiding by its international commitments, then we're ready to engage with Moscow.

That sounds a lot like what happened to Germany after World War One. How do you not go into World War Two scenario with Russia? How do you stop revanchism?

I think nobody wants this conflict to escalate. We have sought to communicate clearly and early. We engaged with Moscow from early in the fall, from when we saw increasing signs of Moscow's military buildup and Putin's personal intentions. We engaged in a strategic stability dialogue with Russia to see whether we could address their concerns and avert a war without compromising principles or the territorial integrity of Russia's neighbors. In the end, Putin chose war to pursue his agenda. We will continue to communicate clearly to Moscow.

We will warn them of the risks. We will work as an alliance to manage those risks. We will work with the EU as part of the trans-Atlantic community to build up resiliency and resolve across the European space. We think all those can help us mitigate and reduce the risks of escalation over time. And Putin needs to understand, as he's learned in the battle to try to take Kiev, that his aggression cannot succeed. They need to choose a different path.

Is there a plan to counter post-war propaganda?

I think this is a long running issue - Russia's use of disinformation and frankly, a war on truth. And that's not just for governments to do. I think that's for societies to do and to expose Russian disinformation, but more importantly, to put out accurate, truthful information about what is happening both in our countries.

As I've said before, make sure that information is getting back to the Russian people about what is happening abroad, what are the real consequences of Putin's aggression. And I think that effort needs to happen all the more, no matter how the conflict ends. That challenge is one that will endure, and we will need to address Russian disinformation and hybrid tactics.

And how does one go about doing that with the US being one of the greatest 'enemies of Russia' according to their siege mentality?

We and the Czech Republic were the first two countries placed on the unfriendly list but we're not the enemy of the Russian people. We're not trying to impose costs on the Russian people. We're trying to constrain the Kremlin's aggression. And so we want cultural communication to happen. We'd like a scenario where our scientific communities and academic communities can re-engage. It's Putin that's cut off the access of his people to the West. So we need to find ways to keep that up for the long term. But it's really about constraining and stopping Russia's aggression, Putin's aggression in the short term.

And the final question would be, and it's probably personal for a lot of people in Estonia, do you think there is a chance for having a normal relationship with Russia in the next five to 10 years?

This is one that really worries me. Moscow was my first assignment when I became a diplomat back in 1995. I remember Yeltsin's campaign in 1996 very clearly. And the worries about what might happen to the Russian democracy should the communists take back over.

That seems very different from Putin's Russia today. And Putin has taken his country into a different trajectory. I think it is in our interest to have a better relationship with a free, democratic, Western oriented Russia over the long term, that has an open society that is integrated into a rules-based international order, that doesn't use energy as a weapon, that doesn't engage in hybrid campaigns in our own countries. That's not what Putin's Russia is today, and we have worked together as the trans-Atlantic community to counter that, to deter it. But I do worry it may take yet another generation because of what has happened, what Putin has done to his own country.

That's my concern. I hope to be wrong on that one. We were right about the war and Putin's intentions against Ukraine. I'd like to be wrong that it will take a generation to get back to a constructive, productive relationship with the Russian people.

Christopher Robinson is a career Foreign Service Officer with over 23 years of experience as a diplomat. He currently serves as Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs.


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Editor: Andrew Whyte

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