On Tuesday, September 17 Carnegie held a media call on Ukrainian President Petro O. Poroshenko's visit to Washington, which includes meeting with President Barack Obama and addressing a joint session of Congress, in addition to the latest in the Ukraine crisis. Speakers on the call were Balázs Jarábik, visiting scholar based in Vilnius, Eugene Rumer, director of Carnegie's Russia and Eurasia Program, and Dmitri Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center. Tom Carver, vice president for communications and strategy, moderated.
CARVER: Good morning everyone, or afternoon, depending on where you are. It’s Tom Carver here at Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and this is a media call on President Poroshenko’s upcoming visit this week to Washington, D.C. I think we have a lot of people calling in, so the usual rules apply. Please identify yourself when you want to ask a question and if you’re not speaking, please make sure you mute your phone so that others can hear the conversation. I'm pleased that I have with me, next to me here, Eugene Rumer, who is director of our Russia and Eurasia Program and formerly from the National Intelligence Council. We have in Vilnius our non-resident scholar Balázs Jarábik who is an expert on Ukraine and has been spending many days and weeks there in recent months, and also currently serves as Project Director for Pact, Inc.; and then finally on the line from Moscow we have Dmitri Trenin, the head of the Carnegie Moscow Center.
So I’ll ask you a couple of questions and then we’ll throw it to questions from you, but let’s start with you, Eugene. President Poroshenko arrives on Thursday, meets with Obama and addresses both houses of Congress. What’s on the top of his wish list that he wants to get out of this visit?
RUMER: Well, I think there are two things that are very closely related. One of course he needs a show of political support from Washington, and he’s getting that with the White House visit and the address to the joint session of Congress, and certainly this is a very warm reception that he is going to get.
As you all know there are a lot of voices in Washington calling for more than just political support for Ukraine but also for providing military assistance to Ukraine in its hour of need and very difficult military situation in the East. I doubt that he is going to get much more at this point by the looks of it, beyond what is already being done which is non-lethal assistance and also training and other activities, some of which are taking place even now during the exercises in Western Ukraine. And then of course what is probably most important and what he is very unlikely to get is more economic assistance.
Ukraine’s economy is in very difficult shape. The IMF projection is for a six or seven percent contraction this year. It’s likely to be worse. Inflation is running on the order of 20 percent. Unemployment is rising, I think approaching 10 percent, and the war has cost a lot of money and reconstruction, if any, is going to cost even more. So I have not seen any indications that the United States or the European allies are really prepared to put a lot of money beyond the $18 billion or so that the IMF has offered as a reward for Ukraine to conduct its reforms.
There are additional monies available from the EU but that’s not a whole lot. So I think in terms of symbolism it’s going to be an important visit. In terms of tangible assistance for Ukraine I think it’s going to be less so. I think I’ll stop at that, and I’ll turn it over to whoever is next.
CARVER: Okay, and meanwhile we obviously have this ceasefire still in place and Poroshenko’s announcement of these various statuses for the East. Balázs, maybe you could just give us a view from the ground. Is the ceasefire deepening in your view and what should we make of these laws that Poroshenko is calling for?
JARABIK: Well first of all the ceasefire indeed is still hold but it’s very, very fragile. There were reports yesterday from Donetsk, there was shelling of the airport which is held by the Ukrainian forces still, and I see reports about three deaths, Ukrainian soldiers. So it’s actually more than fragile but that there are no clashes, and most importantly there is no attack on Mariupol which is a key port city in the Azoz Sea for the Donbas.
So I believe, and today we’ve seen in the parliament, not only signed and ratified, the association agreement with the EU– most importantly there were various parts of the peace plan adopted as a bill. Not all of the plan, so it has to be seen how the Donetsk Rebels will react on that. I don’t think that there is a unity on their part what exactly is gonna be the reaction.
The second, let me – and I think Yatsenyuk gave an interview, a televised interview yesterday which really nicely sum up what exactly Kiev, these officials are looking for from the Poroshenko visit. There are five points on that: first, financial aid; second, special status of non-NATO strategic partner for Ukraine; third, technical assistance for reforms; number four, technical assistance in the military sector, and number five, pressure on Russia.
And among these five points, Yatsenyuk mentioned there is no weapons anymore, either because they’re getting it as it was announced or they’re not getting it but still it was announced.
So, and I think Poroshenko has actually two or possibly three more objectives here, what he is looking for. First of all, you know, the Maidan coalition during the weekend basically broke up. Yatsenyuk is running to the people’s front. Poroshenko established his own block, Petro Poroshenko block, but Yatsenyuk is also separate. There are two other parties which has basically fighting for the heritage of the Maidan. So I do believe Poroshenko will want to secure support, political support for himself, and possibly limit support for others.
The number two is there is an ongoing not only talk but agreement between Poroshenko and Putin, and I think the announcement about Russia’s willingness to go back to the gas talks which obviously the Ukraine desperately needs, and perhaps this is also going to be on the table in Washington, and particularly toward the sanctions.
At this stage if gas talks would be continuing and Ukraine actually would be able to or the Poroshenko administration would be able to lock a deal, then perhaps Poroshenko’s interest wouldn’t be increase the sanctions but decrease it, de-escalate. And the possible third, and score connected to the energy issues, if there is no gas agreement then Ukraine will need coal. There will be – I’ve seen a report that they’re buying South African coal because the Donbas mines are down and Ukraine is facing a very tough winter and there is no coal.
So that could be also part of the issue and possibly the last and the fourth one, a U.S. company’s participation in Ukrainian gas transportation system privatization, that’s obviously a very big if, and I think it’s kind of my theory that it’s possible could be in the agreement as well. Thank you.
CARVER: Okay, great, thank you. Dmitri, how is this visit being treated in Russia?
TRENIN: Well there is a feeling of, one, things moving forward in terms of the cease fire holding. Poroshenko obviously or evidently delivering on his promises to Putin, the legislation on the special status of the two regions in Donbas has been presented to the Rada and approved by the Rada. The implementation of the association agreement between Ukraine and the European Union has been deferred until the end, by 15 months, and this is seen as a plus for Russia as well, and there is an agreement to re-start the trilateral talks on gas at the end of the month on the 22nd.
At the same time there is a feeling that the general situation remains exceedingly difficult. New sanctions are being digested. People talk about level four sanctions now being in place. There is a general expectation that only bad things will come from the United States and the European Union in terms of sanctions. There is a vow to stand firm under the sanctions. There is very little hope that somehow sanctions could be rolled back, and there is a move on the way to radically redesign Russia’s economic strategy in view of the sanctions regime which is considered to be a long-term phenomenon. Let me stop here.
CARVER: Do you get any sense that Putin is feeling political pressure from these sanctions yet?
TRENIN: No, I don’t feel that, not in Russia and as far as the pressure from the West they think it’s seen more as a challenge than as something that’s capable of changing his policies, but internally inside the country still has very solid support from the vast majority of the people, although I would say that the number of those who are becoming concerned among the middle class has grown, but it has not grown to the extent that it would be politically significant.
Russia has gone through elections last Sunday, regional, city, municipal elections, and Mr. Putin’s United Russia Party has gotten far more votes than was expected, even at the Spring of this year.
CARVER: Okay, great. Well let’s throw it open to questions. I know there’s quite a few people on the call. So if you could just announce yourself and go ahead.
REPORTER: Trudy Ruben.
CARVER: Hi, Trudy.
REPORTER: Hi, from the Philadelphia Inquirer, hi. You know, I’m curious to ask whether Dmitri or speakers feel like the Novorossiya option is dead or very much alive, and I missed the first couple of minutes. So you might have touched on this but is this peace deal likely simply to be the first bite for Russia and more will be sought?
strong>CARVER: Dmitri, do you want to give us some insight on that?
TRENIN: Yes, if I may. I think that the Novorossiya option basically failed as early as March and April. It is at that time that efforts to encourage anti-Maidan from Karkov to Odessa singularly failed and what Russia was left with was rebel forces in the two provinces of the Donbas region.
I don’t think that at this point there’s any strategy that would point to spreading the area of contestation to include other regions in Novorossiya, in the Ukraine Southeast. We’re talking about the eight regions that are collectively known now in Russia as Novorossiya. But things change.
If things change in very unpredictable ways also and I think that people in Moscow are watching very closely what’s happening in Ukraine at the social front, at the political front, on the economic front. Winter is approaching. Former allies are becoming competitors. There are many things that people will be responding to and projecting their interests accordingly.
CARVER: Okay, next?
REPORTER: Hello, it’s Paul Richter.
CARVER: Hi Paul.
REPORTER: I’m wondering whether Poroshenko and the people around him are feeling any sense that the West has really let them down economically and on the security side. This trip sounds like it’ll give him some things he wants but isn’t there any sense of that maybe the West is not living up to its language?
CARVER: Balázs, do you want to answer that?
JARABIK: Well I certainly believe that there is such a sense. I’m not sure about the Poroshenko Administration, and certainly they would not give such a sign. I’m not sure if you’ve seen the ratification of the ceasure agreement together in parole of the European Parliament, that was a very historical, it was at least heralded as a historical agreement, and a birth of a new Ukraine, a new European Ukraine.
So they wouldn’t give a sign but I think it was an increasing understanding of the Ukrainians and the society that they, not that they let down but they increasingly alone, and they have to finish what they started in the Maidan and they have to push through the country through this period.
Now the issue with this is that Ukrainians, I would say Ukrainians might be united against Russia but they’re not united against – and as many Ukrainians that that many idea where the country should go. You know, the European Ukraine is a very vague idea at this stage and therefore the decentralization, you know, as a reform is gonna be key, because the entire issue was that with the Maidan that we don’t want to live under Donetsk rules, that now Ukraine doesn’t want to live under the league rules or Odessa doesn’t want to accept charity but for one so – so the decentralization is gonna be I think the increasing test for Ukraine.
And when it comes to the Western support, obviously Ukraine expects more. Ukraine, I think, even deserves more, and the IMF, and the Western policymakers know exactly that this is gonna be a very difficult winter, and what is on the table now is very, very little.
<REPORTER: May I ask a question?
REPORTER: Okay, this is Indira Lakshmanan from Bloomberg News. Thanks for doing the call.
CARVER: Hi, Indira.
REPORTER: I wanted to ask the – hi, I wanted to ask Balázs and Dmitri whether you think the sanctions will have the newest, latest and most far-reaching sanctions will have any impact on Putin’s decision-making and if not, why not, and what would it actually take to get him to back down for Ukraine?
TRENIN: Well I think that, A, the sanctions are serious, and they are seen as serious. They are not window-dressing. They are not just for show. Clearly they are biting, and the people here are taking them seriously. However, the government, Mr. Putin primarily because he is truly in control of the entire political system at this point, he feels challenged, and he feels that if he were to give in sanctions, then that would be the end of his foreign policy, and maybe at some point it may be the end of his rule if he becomes – if he backs down and then he will have – he will have backed down more and more because if he backs down let’s say on Donbas, the next pressure point could well be Crimea.
If he gives on Crimea the next pressure point could be something else. So I believe that he feels emboldened by the sanctions. He has less and less to lose. On the other hand, the sanctions are making life more difficult, increasingly more difficult for Russian people and people are beginning to realize that things will not be the same as they were until the Spring or, in particular, until say August of this year. But this leads to investing phenomena in Russia.
There is perhaps more support for moderation on behalf of the middle classes who see their interests impinged upon by the sanctions. Say the ruble has fallen to its historical lows vis a vis the dollar and the euro. That makes traveling in Europe far more costly than it used to be. But on the other hand the bigger section of Russian people who do not travel as often abroad, who are patriotic, who support Mr. Putin will see the sanctions just like Mr. Putin does, as a challenge, and they are resolved to stand firm under fire.
So I think you have this dichotomy in Russian society and I would say that the stronger, the bigger and stronger part of Russian society is at this point determined to withstand Western sanctions which they see as totally unjust.
REPORTER: May I have a question. This is Michael Petro here from Maclean’s Magazine. >
CARVER: Yes, go ahead, Michael.
REPORTER: I have two quick ones, if I may. The first is I wonder if we have any clarity about NATO members allegedly providing arms to Ukraine. I believe Poroshenko himself and another official claim this is true, but I haven’t seen confirmation from the NATO members themselves.
And secondly, Poroshenko, prior to going to Washington tomorrow is going to be here in Ottawa, and I’m wondering if there’s anything different or unique about his decision to visit Ottawa as well that we should be reading into, or is this kind of just tacked onto the Washington trip? Is there anything unique or special about the Canadian diversion?
CARVER: Eugene, do you want to?
RUMER: I have not seen any confirmation of individual NATO member states supplying weapons. I don’t expect them to go on record with that necessarily because while they want to support Ukraine they may not want to get even more, even higher on Russia’s enemies list because I’m sure the Russians will retaliate with something like that and they have ways of doing that. So that’s one.
I think on Canada, well Poroshenko is looking for as much international support and endorsement of his policies as he can, as he can get at this point, especially going into the election at home and, you know, it’s very important to have broad endorsement of his policies from major world capitals. There’s a very simple explanation, as far as I can tell, of him going to Canada is that there’s a large Ukrainian diaspora in Canada and he’s guaranteed a very warm welcome there.
CARVER: Balázs, do you want to add anything?
JARABIK: Yeah, if I may just two points. I mean all of the five countries declined on the Bapam delivery, and my sense, knowing the Ukrainian and the League, I don’t think they would announce it if that would be happening. I think they announce it because it’s not happening and, you know, they try to kind of give a warning. I think they actually – they get much in the NATO summit, even when it comes to support and they’ve accepted it, and that’s combined with the Russian troops in country will actually make them more afraid of their own situation and understood that they’re actually alone, and that pushed them toward a ceasefire and keeping the ceasefire more in place.
And I agree with Eugene that the Canada is exactly for Poroshenko who is the president and the head of the most popular political block, the Petro Poroshenko Block is basically enjoying political victories and personal victories as well before their parliamentary elections.
REPORTER: It’s Neil MacFarquhar from the New York Times. Can I ask a sort of long-winded military question?
CARVER: Sure, Neil, go ahead.
REPORTER: I know Balázs said that they were not asking specifically for weapons but what do you see as the point or the factors in a non-NATO strategic alliance with the United States if it doesn’t include weapons. What would that include?
Two, there’s been a parade of Senators through here on both sides; McCain and Menendez being the most popular in saying that they should get anti-tank weapons and other armaments along with this alliance. So presumably that’s gonna end up on Obama’s desk and I’m guessing he’d say no, given his reluctance to be involved in military overseas, but I’d like your thinking on that. And three, some of the technical, their assistance they’re asking for is like putting up a border with Russia. Do you think the United States would help them with that?
CARVER: Okay, Balázs, why don’t you talk about the special status of non-native members, and then maybe Eugene on McCain and co?
JARABIK: Yeah, well first before we go into weapons, indeed I mean I think McCain, he’s right. This is what I’m hearing from military experts. That’s what the Ukrainian’s would need, anti-tank weapons. They also talk about these position-guided weapons, you know, and which would kind of tackles the modern Russian weapons.
But really the main issue is not that much about weapons but the integrating and the lack of – the lack of integrity and authority in the Ukrainian Armed Force. That was the issue from the very beginning. So it’s like giving weapons and the Army is not willing to give the Ukrainian weapons for their own volunteer battalions for the main, the majority of the fighters.
So it’s more internal cohesion and coordination and integrity issues within the Ukraine armed forces as they exist currently than the actual weapons and, you know, the Ukraine needs more reliable and more capable office corps and army units, and that’s not gonna be that easy and that short-term to provide, and this is certainly the West can only provide training and not the officers and the military units in posts to the ground.
CARVER: What about this thing of the special status for a non-NATO member? What does that mean in practice?
JARABIK: Well, I mean this is – I truly believe that this was discussed at the NATO summit in Wales and I don’t think that actually this is happening, and I’m pretty sure that the NATO, as a – that NATO as a group is not as divided over the issue, and I don’t think that exactly that President Obama is actually gonna push for it as hard as he was pushing on sanctions.
I think the main U.S. policy is basically making sure as President Obama is saying many times in making sure that Russia pays a price for its role and not that much, promising something to Ukraine which the United States cannot deliver vis a vis or within the NATO. I don’t think actually that is something which United States can do, and that would actually help Ukraine. It would be a certain political support but what kind of guarantee that could give, you know, I don’t think so.
I think the most important thing is really to push through the cease fire and making sure there is a political solution, and this is what Poroshenko needs to focus and this is where the U.S. needs to support him.
CARVER: Okay. Eugene, do you want to talk about McCain?
<RUMER: Yeah, I think the non-NATO strategic ally, that’s a U.S. designation. That’s not a NATO designation. It’s a bilateral thing. Of course it has the symbolic value that Balázs has very correctly described.
Beyond the symbolic value I think, and I’m not 100 percent sure of it but I’ll put it on the table. I think it makes Ukraine eligible for some additional resources to receive equipment and training from DOD. I’d need to check on that exactly but I think we confer that – gave the designation to Pakistan in the beginning of the war on terror, and I think Israel has that, and I think with that some military assistance would be easier.
And forthcoming the problem with Ukrainian military as Balázs so well described is that it does not – Ukraine does not need more weapons in my view or it may need certain kinds of weapons, but more weapons will not save the Ukrainian military from suffering the fate that it has suffered at the hands of the Russian military. When you have a force that consists of some military units, some really for the lack of a better term, mercenary units paid for by local oligarchs and also some volunteers, it lacks cohesion.
It lacks the basics of command and control, intelligence support, so all of the things that are really – you can call them intangible on the battlefield but essential to making a military organization function properly, and to step back, Ukrainian army has been neglected, was neglected for almost what a quarter of a century, just like every other aspect, every other element of the public sector in Ukraine. So we’re seeing the results of it on the battlefield tragically and just sending more weapons to Ukraine is not going to change that situation.
REPORTER: I have a question on it’s a border path, are they gonna get – are they gonna get help building the border?
RUMER: Well I think it’s such a – as yet, I think uncertain project. I think the United States can provide technical assistance in terms of border monitoring and actually possibly demarcation if Ukraine needs that. I think that’s largely going to be, or significantly going to be a political and a complicated bilateral issue between Russia and Ukraine.
So I don't know how much the United States will want to be involved in that but technical assistance, probably yes. United States has provided technical assistance to other former Soviet States with securing their borders. It has something that we have experience in doing, but I think it tends to be on a sort of lower end of the conflict on a military scale than what currently exists between Russia and Ukraine.
So I think that’s some ways away and hopefully we’ll get to that point but we’re not there yet. I don’t know if that answers your question but it’s the best I can do now.
CARVER: Okay, next?
REPORTER: Could I ask another question?
REPORTER: Great. I’m wondering if both of you can lay out – how stable or unstable you think the situation would be at the end of peace talks that basically removed the Donbas from Kiev’s orbit. I mean the people who are likely to be in charge then in Donbas, are either gonna be Yanukovych cronies or people from Moscow, or the intelligence assets.
Economically I would think the Donbas is gonna be pretty much finished. It undercuts Ukraine. It's a basket case that Russia will have to send money into us and doing with Crimea, with no land bridge to Crimea you have two basket cases disconnected that are hard to support, and it also undercuts economic reform efforts in Kiev.
So it seems to me it’s gonna be a basically very unstable situation and, as Dmitri said, Moscow is gonna be looking and it seems to me inevitably Moscow would have to try to link those two entities up, and that Ukraine’s efforts to reform would be fatally compromised. Am I wrong here?
CARVER: Okay, Balázs, do you want to take quick go at that?
JARABIK: Yeah, well very quickly I actually agree with the assessment that that’s a very neat or the very bleak description of the situation but, indeed it’s – you know – there is – I don’t see how it’s gonna be a win-win out of this, and the only way forward is actually stop the fight and try to make an agreement, and try to make a come on plan with Russia and actually Ukraine and the Western mobilizing resources for at least stabilizing that Donbas is not rebuilding.
I frankly am personally very skeptical that the Donbas can be rebuilt and returned through its life. Now the issue with--basically what we’re gonna see most likely that those people who were running the Donbas, and these are indeed as you call Yanukovych and his cronies ae gonna keep running the Donbas.
So both equates, it's gonna be a continuity and it may sound very strange but basically that’s gonna be the situation. I mean one of the reasons why such a scenario could be fermented because these people like a local mob, like a local mafia, was basically able to recruit their own people.
There were enough people who was able to take weapons and fight. So that’s the local reality unfortunately in the Donbas but, you know, as a way out, it’s gonna be very expensive and I think it’s gonna be barely enough resurgence to stabilize, to make it kind of stable with the Donbas again.
CARVER: Dmitri, do you want to add anything to that?
TRENIN: Well I think that there is a degree of difference from Moscow’s perspective between Crimea and Donbas. Crimea is intensely felt by the vast majority of the people to be Russian and to be reunited with Russia. Justice is done. Yes, it costs a lot of money but it’s such a jewel and we will pump money into that. We’ll turn it into something which is really – where it’s all our money’s worth.
The Donbas region is not ethnically Russian. The Donbas region is a depressed region that will clearly require a lot of infusion of money. We have other things to look at. It’s important, Donbas, in the sense of pressuring Kiev into staying neutral between the NATO and Russia but that is, frankly, the use of Donbas in the larger picture. That’s what I would say.
CARVER: Eugene, you just wanted to add something on that?
RUMER: Yeah, I think what is happening in Donbas really is it’s a real tragedy because these people have been brainwashed by propaganda of largely Russian, mostly, almost exclusively, Russian TV. They have suffered in this war. They will be left to their own devices with no assistance, either from Kiev or from Moscow, and they'll be left to survive there.
It's a very, very bleak picture, and I just don’t think that we have quite realized how tragic the situation is for people there.
CARVER: Okay. Well let's call an end to it. Thank you very much for everyone for participating. We will continue to watch these events closely and do media calls from time to time. Thank you, very much.