Espreso. Global
Interview

Russia talks only possible after battlefield power shifts in Ukraine's favor — Fried

26 May, 2024 Sunday
17:37

Daniel Fried, former U.S. State Department Coordinator for Sanctions Policy, tells Anton Borkovskyi, host of Espreso 's Studio West program, about the U.S. support for Ukraine, Euro-Atlantic prospects and peace talks

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What are the prospects for the Peace Summit in Switzerland to propose a new and clear strategy to deter Russia, and for the Russians to be forced to listen to this position?

The Ukrainian initiative of an international forum to discuss its 10-point peace proposal is a very good idea. It's good strategically, it's good tactically, and I mean that it is important for Ukraine to propose and be seen as proposing its framework for a political settlement of the conflict based on the principles of the 10-point plan, which are consistent with the UN Charter.

It is important that Ukraine reaches out to countries around the world, including in Africa, Asia, South America, and the Middle East.

There have been several sessions held, and the next one will be in Switzerland in the middle of June. Again, it is a very good idea. For one thing, we don't want the Russians to be able to argue that Ukraine is unwilling to engage in negotiations.

Secondly, it is important for Ukraine to be able to organize as much consensus as possible among as many countries as possible based on certain of its fundamental points.

The Ukrainians have shown, I think, great skill. The Ukrainian government has shown great skill in identifying areas of possible consensus among a very large group of countries internationally, thereby building the basis for more serious discussions in the future and preventing Russia from isolating Ukraine.

So I think for all of these reasons, the Ukrainian initiative is a good one, and I hope that my government will be present in Switzerland at the highest possible level. We'll see.

We understand that our enemy will not be in Switzerland, so the key story is China's position. Will Chinese emissaries be sent to the Peace Summit as observers, since Chinese game and influence are extremely important in this situation?

China's position is one of the key international factors in Russia's calculations about the war. China has supported Russia by providing a lot of the technology and parts it needs to conduct its war. The United States is not happy with this. 

Secretary of State Tony Blinken visited Beijing and urged the Chinese to back off. The United States has imposed sanctions on certain Chinese companies that have been evading sanctions. These efforts are likely to continue and even escalate if China continues its current course. It is interesting that President Putin visited Beijing, and from what I understand, the results of this visit were limited. The Chinese are willing to help the Russians but not quite as much as the Russians would like. It seems that in this Chinese-Russian partnership, so-called "without limits," there are indeed limits.

Nevertheless, the Chinese position seems to be that it doesn't want Russia to lose and will support Russia. The United States and Europe need to continue to urge and, if necessary, push the Chinese to back off their support for Russia. Now, this is easier said than done. This is not simple. But China's position is a significant problem, and we should not make it easy for the Chinese to continue supporting Putin's aggressive war against Ukraine.

Are there any prospects of reaching an agreement with the Chinese? Or will they still try to stick strictly to their strategy of entering the European continent and approaching European markets?

China is attempting to solidify its position as a major, and if it succeeds, a dominant counterweight to the United States and Europe.

It is seeking out potential allies in Europe, whether on an ideological basis, like Hungary, or on a commercial basis.

The United States has decided that China is a long-term strategic competitor and possibly an adversary, and there is a debate in the United States about whether China is such a menace that the United States needs to focus all of its efforts to deal with China and even withdraw from Europe and lower its support for Ukraine. This is the position of the so-called Asia First group, which is associated with Donald Trump.

The Biden administration, on the other hand, believes that it is important to support Ukraine and Europe. The administration argues that if Russia wins its war against Ukraine, it will make security in Asia worse, not better. This position, by the way, is shared by the leaders of Taiwan, South Korea, and Japan, all of whom have said repeatedly and publicly that they favor supporting Ukraine and that supporting Ukraine is in their interest. This is an important, critical message.

It does mean that there is a debate, which will continue through our elections, about the way the United States should conduct its foreign policy: whether we support security in both Asia and Europe, or principally security in Asia and weaken our interest in Europe. This is a long-standing American debate that has come back to us.

So far, the pro-European group, which believes that the United States should support both its Asian and its European allies, holds the dominant position. However, the people around Donald Trump tend to be Asia Firsters, meaning they prioritize China at the expense of Ukraine and Europe, which I think personally is a very bad idea.

Regarding Donald Trump and the months before the US presidential election, what might happen before and after the election, because we don't know what Trump 2.0 will be like if he becomes president?

We don’t know. Simply. The Ukrainians are absolutely right to be both grateful to the United States for the assistance we've provided and frustrated with the long, unjustified delay in voting on additional assistance for Ukraine.

Ukraine should also be pushing the United States to do everything we can – more than we are doing, in fact – to support Ukraine at this critical moment.

Within the United States, there is, as I said earlier, a debate about strategy. President Biden and his administration believe in what I would call a free world strategy: supporting democracies in Europe and Asia in particular because we cannot succeed in contending with the China challenge if we allow Russia to threaten Ukraine and Europe. We need to deal with both great power adversaries, China and Russia.

That is the position of the Biden administration. The position of Donald Trump and his supporters seems to be that Ukraine is of lesser value and priority. There have been times when Donald Trump has been hostile to Ukraine and favorable to Vladimir Putin, which is an appalling position to take.

It is also true that Donald Trump, in recent weeks, has to some degree modified his position about Ukraine. Right before the Congressional vote to provide additional assistance to Ukraine, Donald Trump issued a statement on his Truth Social website stating that Ukrainian survival and strength were in the US interest. This statement was buried in the middle of a longer tweet that was very political and attacked the Biden administration, but nevertheless, it was a rare occasion in which Donald Trump acknowledged the importance of Ukraine to the United States.

Now, I am no fan of Donald Trump, but I thought this was a good step, and hopefully, it will be continued. However, it is certainly the case that President Biden has been a far more reliable supporter of Ukraine than Trump ever was or, I think, ever will be.

Ukraine is now in a critical situation, and only decisive US assistance can dramatically change the situation on the battlefield. We need additional air defense systems, long-range weapons and aircraft. And will there be permission to use long-range American weapons to protect our citizens, so that our military and political leadership can decide where to hit when Russian interventionists shell our cities?

Ukraine and Ukrainian civil society are perfectly right to push the Americans to send more weapons systems and sophisticated weapons systems. Frankly, I agree with the Ukrainians and with Americans like Tori Newland, the former acting Deputy Secretary of State, who has said that the United States needs to allow Ukraine to use its weapons to target military targets inside Russia, not simply within Ukraine.

This is important militarily to help the Ukrainians in Kharkiv.

Friends of Ukraine have been pushing the Biden administration to lift some of these restrictions. I hope that the Biden administration will act as it did with respect to the longer-range ATACMS. It turns out the administration had sent longer-range ATACMS to Ukraine without announcing it, allowing the Ukrainians to hit new Russian targets without warning the Russians in advance that the new weapons were there.

It is better just to let the Ukrainians act, to talk less and do more. That is what I hope the Biden administration will do.

The Biden administration sometimes appears to have been worried about escalation. I don't know why it would restrict the Ukrainians from defending their country by attacking the sites in Russia that are being used to attack Ukraine.

There is a vigorous debate in Washington about this, and my friends and I have been urging the administration to do whatever it can to lift these restrictions, either publicly or privately, and let Ukraine use its weapons the way it needs to.

​​As for the statements made by Macron and then General Brown, which refer to the prospect of sending the military of our friends and allies into Ukraine to serve not only as instructors, can we talk about the seriousness of such a scenario?

President Macron has been pushing the envelope of support for Ukraine, and I welcome this.

I think it is a good idea to start considering different kinds of options. There have been many ideas floated recently about sending technical experts – Americans and Europeans with technical abilities – to help the Ukrainians, to train Ukrainian soldiers, and to repair Ukrainian equipment inside Ukraine. There have also been proposals that NATO units stationed in Poland or Romania, but principally Poland, be allowed to use their weapons to shoot down Russian missiles and drones attacking targets inside Ukraine. There have been several such proposals. None has been accepted yet, but it does show that the United States and Europe are considering what more they need to do to help Ukraine defend itself. There are, of course, many issues being worked on in the run-up to the NATO summit in Washington in July. This is coming up very fast, and that summit needs to show that Ukraine's ultimate place will be as a NATO member in the future.

The US administration and Secretary Blinken have started talking about building a bridge to NATO. That's an imperfect metaphor. However, if that bridge is strong – made of steel and not of paper – if it actually leads to NATO membership, and if it is short and not too long, the metaphor can be useful. It can be a way to push through policies that will actually achieve this goal.

The story with the F-16s is dragging on and on, some of our pilots have already gone through some training, but we still haven't seen these fighters. Perhaps you can say more about the big discussions about providing Ukraine with aviation?

By aviation one means the airplanes, the training, and the logistics to support them.

I agree that it took the U.S. too long to make the decision about the F-16s. We should have made that decision in 2022 and acted on it promptly. It took too long, and I think some criticism is justified. The program is now proceeding. I don't know the details, but the sooner the F-16s piloted by Ukrainians are able to enter service and help defend Ukraine, the better.

With respect to mobilization, the Russians do have an advantage. Therefore, I believe the Ukrainian government and Parliament were right when they lowered the mobilization age. Ukraine cannot afford to have young men not serving in the military. I understand they have to be trained, but Ukraine does need to act to address the shortage of soldiers. This is not an easy decision, but it is an important one, and we can't help with that. That is the Ukrainian decision.

The U.S. and Europe can help with the provision of weapons, and I agree that we must do more. Now that Congress has voted for assistance, we need to make sure that assistance gets to Ukraine as soon as possible. The Russians are trying to attack in the North and the East before the weapons are fully delivered to Ukraine. We need to act. We in Europe and the United States need to do more and act faster to help Ukraine stop the Russian offensive. We need to do that right now. This is urgent, and I think the United States needs to lean forward and push to get the weapons to Ukraine as fast as possible.

The Lend Lease and the prospects for its use as a certain auxiliary instrument.

Whatever instruments are used, we need to make sure the weapons get there. We all need to ensure that the resources are available for Ukraine in the future. The Biden Administration has been pushing very hard to use as much of the immobilized Russian sovereign assets – the ones that the U.S., Europe, and the G7 locked down after the invasion in February 2022 – as possible.

Some progress has been made, but not enough. We need to be able to take as much of that money as we can and use it to help Ukraine. This needs to be done quickly. The money is there; the time to use it is now.

We know that hundreds of billions of dollars of Russian assets are frozen around the world, and more than $300 billion is still waiting to help Ukraine fight Russian aggression. The Russians destroyed almost all Ukrainian thermal power plants, while US National Security Advisor Sullivan said that it was not worth hitting oil refineries in Russia.

The US and the G7 countries need to reach an agreement on using as much of the frozen Russian assets as possible. We need to use Russian money to pay for Russia's illegal war of aggression.

Secondly, with respect to sanctions, there are additional steps that should be taken. I believe that the Biden Administration is looking into this, and some of my friends are speaking with the Biden Administration about what more can be done to put pressure on the Russian economy. We need to look at all the levers we have to push Russia out of Ukraine and weaken Russia's ability to make war. Russia is a violent, dangerous adversary. Ukrainians need no American to tell them that. We in the West must understand that Russia will not stop in Ukraine. If Putin succeeds in Ukraine, he will move on quickly. He's threatening the Baltic states. He is threatening Moldova. There are reports of Russian agents at work applying methods of disinformation and worse, reports of actual sabotage within Europe, including Western Europe. Russia under Putin is a threat, and we must act accordingly.

We in Ukraine don't believe Putin, and I don't think anyone in the world does. However, he regularly gives certain false signals about Russia's alleged readiness to negotiate. What does Putin mean by these signals, that maybe Russia would be ready for some significant concessions?

At the moment, I believe that Russia has absolutely no interest in any serious negotiations to end its war of aggression. They would merely look at proposals with a cynical eye toward exploiting them. If the Russians are serious about negotiations, they know how to negotiate. The basis of negotiations should be the Ukrainian 10-point plan and not the Russian claims that negotiations have to start through Ukraine's recognition of Russian conquests of some of its territory again. The Russians are not serious about negotiations. They may only become serious when they are losing, and when the balance of the battle is shifting away from them in Ukraine's favor.

Are the military exercises on the use of tactical nuclear weapons announced by Putin a kind of intimidation or something more serious?

I think Putin has used the possibility of nuclear escalation as an attempt to frighten the United States and Europe. I don't think this will work.

In the fall of 2022, the Kremlin was also threatening nuclear use, and I believe that the United States sent a message to the Russians that if they used nuclear weapons against Ukraine, there would be a swift and devastating response from the United States, which I believe included a threat of military action.

I believe that the United States told the Russians that if they used nuclear weapons against Ukraine, the United States would attack Russian positions inside Ukraine. Now, I don't know this for a fact, but I know that the Russians backed off. They take this seriously. It may be that Putin is continuing to attempt to intimidate the United States and the West through these nuclear drills. We must not give in to that kind of pressure.

Russia has nuclear weapons, and so do we.

When we talk about Ukraine's full membership in NATO, the Euro-Atlantic community is somewhat cautious. What prospects do you see, especially given the positive experience of Sweden and Finland?

The issue of Ukraine accessing NATO certainly is on many people's minds, including in the Biden Administration. I doubt that there will be an invitation to Ukraine to begin accession negotiations at the Summit.

There are some, like former Prime Minister of Denmark and former NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, who favors beginning accession negotiations with Ukraine. Frankly, I think it's a good idea, but I don't think the Biden Administration is there yet.

However, unlike the situation a year ago before the Vilnius Summit, the Biden Administration is now speaking about what they call a bridge for Ukraine to NATO. Now, I know many Ukrainians don't like the talk of this bridge; they want an invitation. I understand this, and on some level, I certainly agree with them. However, it is possible that at the NATO Summit, the United States and NATO members will make clear that they are serious: European security cannot be complete without Ukraine in NATO.

Leaving Ukraine in a grey zone is a formula for instability and a possible invitation to continued attacks from Russia. So, I think progress will be made; the issue of Ukraine will be the premier issue at the NATO Summit. Much will depend on how the battlefield is going, and the United States needs to send a strong message that NATO needs to stand firmly behind Ukraine and its principled position that Ukraine's future is in NATO. NATO needs to show that this is serious.

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