Espreso. Global

I believe Ukraine will win if US provides promised assistance - diplomat Bryza

21 January, 2024 Sunday

Matthew Bryza, former US Assistant Secretary of State, former Director for European and Eurasian Affairs at the US National Security Council, told Espreso TV about NATO troops in Ukraine and assistance to Ukraine under President Trump

First of all, I would like to start our conversation with what happened in Davos. The Davos Forum is a key event when it comes to synchronizing the geopolitical clocks of the European Union, the United States, and what is called gray power, including the financial sector and beyond. The Prime Minister of China was there. There was no one from the Russian Federation, particularly when we talk about official emissaries. This story is extremely important because it is not just a question of finance; it is a question of medium-term prospects for Ukraine and, in general, of supporting our civilizational choice. But Russia treated the Davos Forum extremely aggressively.

Russia is no longer welcome at the World Economic Forum in Davos, and the Russia House used to be the biggest spot in Davos during the forum. And now it is the Ukraine house. At least last year it was dedicated to the victims of Russia's aggression. This is another sign of how Russia has played itself off the global stage, whereas in the past it had been a partner that many countries sought to work with, and today it's turned itself into a pariah.

How will the European community, America, in particular the Biden administration, and Russia deal with this now? We understand that there are very long debates between Republicans and Democrats. In Ukraine, we are extremely nervous, if not hysterical, about the internal American political debate, but we hope for the best. On the other hand, we understand that our European allies are extremely worried, because we see Russia preparing its population not just for confrontation with the West, but for possible aggression against certain NATO member states, in particular against Estonia. So, what is happening with the position of the United States and how ready it will be to respond clearly and aggressively in the event of an immediate threat to NATO states or aggression against Ukraine. We saw in Yemen that it is possible for them to act clearly and boldly.

I don't think there's really much debate about aid for Ukraine going on in the Biden Administration. The Biden Administration wants to provide the additional 60 billion dollars worth of aid to Ukraine and the vast majority of members of Congress, as I've told you before, want that aid to come to Ukraine. There's just a small group of radical far-right-wing Republicans that are using Biden's desire to provide that aid to Ukraine to demand other things from Biden most notably a new policy on protecting the US Mexican border.

All the way through the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the Biden Administration has been good on providing rhetorical support and slow on providing military support, always delivering the next type of weaponry that Ukraine desperately needs later than it should be delivered. That's going to go on for a while. I don't foresee Russia attacking NATO territory in Estonia, Latvia or Lithuania in the near term. Russia is stuck in its trenches in Ukraine. Ukraine has pushed back the Black Sea Fleet out of Ukrainian territory. And Putin knows that if he attacks NATO territory, he's going to be at war with NATO and he does not want that. But when I used to run a think tank in Tallinn, Estonia after Russia invaded Ukraine the last time in 2014, we were worried and we were studying possible scenarios according to which, like in the case of Crimea, Russia could send in some deniable troops. Let's say little green men again, saying it's not Russian troops. Those troops would occupy some insignificant administrative centers and then Putin would say ah. These are Russian troops. We have captured NATO territory. And do you want to go to nuclear war to try to free these unimportant buildings? That's something that worries me or something below the threshold of an article 5 response, whereby Russia could attack NATO territory and that would discredit NATO forever.

Now let's analyze the Kremlin's message, which was voiced by former Russian President Medvedev on his telegram channel. This is an extremely aggressive text, and it is not about changing their narrative. At one time they said that they were at war with the bad Ukrainian government, but not anymore. Medvedev announced a plan for an existential war with what is called Ukrainianness and said that it is simply dangerous to be Ukrainian, and made huge claims, including the occupation of our country.

First of all, throughout Russia's invasion of Ukraine former president and prime minister Medvedev has seemed to have lost his mind in terms of being so aggressive and so threatening, constantly warning us all that Russia is about to use nuclear weapons. And of course those were empty threats. But what you refer to is deeply worrying because I think it's the truth. Putin and Medvedev and the Putin regime's elite have decided that their goal is to eliminate Ukraine. They've said as much. Putin said as much when he wrote that very long essay a couple of summers ago, arguing that there is no such thing as the Ukrainian nation. So Putin's goal is to destroy Ukraine and he will fail. Why is Medvedev saying something like this? To me, really maybe sincere but an unattainable set of goals must have something to do with Medvedev trying to position himself among Putin's elite as we say in American English trying to be more Catholic than the Pope. I think there's no chance Russia will achieve those objectives. But it is urgent that Europe and the United States deliver to Ukraine the assistance that they've promised and there must be the ability for Ukraine to defend its own skies in a much better way than to date. It's absurd to expect Ukraine to be able to dislodge entrenched Russian forces without control of the skies.

We see some extremely positive signals from our friends in the West, including the signing of a number of security agreements. The key one is the security agreement with the UK. On the other hand, there are unpleasant signals, in particular, from the Swiss federal minister, who said that it is very difficult to discuss the peace formula and it will be very difficult to implement it without having certain negotiating positions with the Russian Federation. How are we going to implement the peace formula and how ready will our friends, partners and allies be to implement it if Russia escalates?

There's practically no opportunity for there to be any negotiations with Putin because Putin just a week and a half ago said that his goals in Ukraine remain unchanged - which are denazification and the demilitarization of Ukraine and Ukraine never joining NATO. Putin when he makes those demands and when Medvedev makes those sorts of threats like he did, they're clearly saying they're not ready to negotiate. So if Russia further escalates, of course, there won't be any negotiations. And as I recall the Italian Federal minister said the support for Ukraine remains strong, but he would like to see negotiations because we want the war to end. But make no mistake, we do support Ukraine and we want to provide continued aid to Ukraine. So I'm not worried about those statements at all. I think in the case of European Union assistance to Ukraine, it's either going to happen at the level of 27 if Victor Orban finally gives in or as many European leaders are saying it'll happen at the level of the EU 26 without Hungary. But the assistance is coming, and the more Russia escalates, the more assistance there will be for Ukraine.

I have already mentioned the security agreement with the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. We understand that additional security agreements are in the pipeline. The key story is how such things as, for example, the provision of the necessary military assistance will be filled in, because this will determine how much and how far our partners in security agreements will be willing to go.

The limit is putting actual NATO boots on the ground in Ukraine. However, there are some members of NATO we've talked about sending not under the NATO umbrella but their own military capabilities to Ukraine. That comes up from time to time. And there's no clear answer to what the limits are for individual Western partners of Ukraine other than NATO not getting directly involved unless some of NATO membership countries are attacked by Russia, but going back to your previous question, the greater Russia escalates, the more likely we are to see I believe some NATO member states getting involved on the ground. And at the same time, I think that the more Ukraine is able to succeed and keep the Black Sea Fleet out of the Black Sea and then to get ready, when it gets the military capabilities it needs from its Western friends, to break the land bridge between Crimea and Donbass and Russia. We will see even more assistance coming from Ukraine's friends in the West.

Former President Donald Trump has demonstrated that he can gain votes. He won the primaries in a landslide. Accordingly, European NATO member states are very worried, and we are as well. Donald Trump is giving some strange signals. In his most recent interview, he said that he knows how to negotiate with Putin and could help Zelensky. These are rather skeptical promises. But Donald Trump is the reality of political life in the United States. What can we expect in the coming months?

First of all, it seems almost certain that Donald Trump will be the candidate of the Republican party. I think Tuesday in New Hampshire is the next primary and he is likely to win by a gigantic margin again, as just happened in Iowa. And at that point, I think two candidates Nikki Haley and Ron DeSantis will drop out. So Trump will be the Republican candidate. It's way too early to predict whether he will be able to defeat Joe Biden, but if he does in November, he has already said several times he believes NATO is obsolete and suggested the US should fall out of NATO. But he'll be unable to do that because people weren't paying attention that Congress passed a law that said the US president cannot pull the United States out of its treaty obligations to NATO. It's the Senate that confirms treaties and the Senate would have to nullify the US participation in the North Atlantic Treaty and it will not. So the US will remain in NATO. 

Trump talks aggressively about ending the war the first day he is in office, if he's reelected and that means he would put pressure on president Zelensky to negotiate even though Ukraine may not be ready for that and that's worrisome. On the other hand, we should always keep in mind that it was president Trump not Barack Obama who refused to do the following but president Trump who finally delivered meaningful lethal assistance to Ukraine, meaning anti-tank weapons after 2014, after Russia invaded Ukraine and after Trump became president. So once in office, if God forbid, Donald Trump is elected again, he will be limited in how radical his actions can be. But I agree he is threatening some very radical actions. Yes with regard to Ukraine and NATO, and also in terms of the US domestic political system. He's threatened to fire tens of thousands of professional civil servants and replace them with his political cronies. I don't think he'll be able to do that either, based on American law, but he will try to do some radical things.

What mistakes would be the worst and most fatal for us? What mistakes can we not afford to make? 

I think losing the spirit of the fight that Ukrainian society has shown until now. In other words, political divisions within the country that begin to try to take advantage of the tensions resulting from the war. Now is the time for Ukraine to remain united. I happen to agree with president Zelensky that now is not the time for elections, not in the midst of an existential war. And other than that I have every confidence that Ukraine will prevail. I am confident eventually we will get Ukraine the weaponry it needs, and if Ukraine continues fighting, not only by those incredibly brave soldiers, men and women, on the battlefield, but all of civil society that's come together to support Ukraine, and if Russia remains as demoralized as it is on the battlefield, it's inevitable that Ukraine will win. But Ukraine must maintain the internal unity mirroring the transatlantic unity that we all in NATO have to maintain with Ukraine. So the biggest threat to Ukraine's victory I think is our ability to deliver the assistance that Ukraine needs to bring the victory.

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