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Damon Wilson on Significance of Biden Trip to Ukraine and Georgia

Atlantic Council International Security Program director and former ranking Bush administration official Damon Wilson* spoke to VOA Ukrainian on the significance of Vice President Joseph Biden’s trip to Ukraine and Georgia. The interview was conducted by Myroslava Gongadze on July 16 at the Voice of America in Washington, DC.

Part 1 - for Parts 2 and 3, please see below

MG: As a former high-ranking official of the Bush administration do you see a shift in U.S. foreign policy towards Ukraine and the region with President Obama coming to power?

DW: I think it’s hard to answer that question right now. I think the administration hasn’t taken the time or had the opportunity to really articulate its positive agenda for a country like Ukraine. And that’s why Vice President Biden’s upcoming trip is so important, because it is an opportunity to do that. The administration has spent the early months focused on how to change the rhetoric, change the tone of the relationship with Russia, resetting the policy button with Russia, if you will. And that’s driven a lot of the work inside the government, inside the agency, to prepare Obama’s trip to Moscow. But I think the administration is learning that in order to get its policy right towards Russia it must also have as robust and developed of a policy direction for Europe’s East, including countries like Ukraine and Georgia. And we haven’t yet seen that. To some degree that’s understandable. It’s part of a transition and a new administration getting up to speed. And part of it is a reflection that some think that you have a little bit more time, that issues like Ukraine and Georgia are not necessarily on the front burner. I think there are others inside the administration that recognize that they really are a priority. And this is why I think the vice-president’s trip is both an important signal, but it’s also important substantively, because it forces the administration to work through what its strategy is, what its policy will be. So I think it’s still too early to say whether you’re seeing a policy shift. You’ve certainly seen an effort to calm the waters with Russia. But remember, that’s exactly the same kind of approach that President Bush took at the beginning of his term. It seems to me that we sometimes repeat that cycle with our Russian colleagues, only to become more frustrated down the line. But it certainly makes sense for them having taken this approach. Now, I think the onus is on the administration to articulate a very clear and strong policy towards a country like Ukraine. And I think there is some good hope for those watching this, because it’s important to remember that U.S. policy towards Europe’s East, towards Ukraine in particular, has enjoyed pretty strong bipartisan support in the United States. This hasn’t been an issue of Democrats or Republicans. In fact, all of the presidential candidates in the elections last year were quite strong on Ukraine, quite strong on Ukraine and NATO. And I think we wouldn’t expect that to change. But we are still waiting for a clear policy out of the administration, a positive agenda, not just how to think about Ukraine through the prism of Moscow, but how to deal with Ukraine directly and bilaterally from a United States perspective.

MG: It’s not a secret that for years there was a lot of frustration with Ukraine’s lack of reforms and democracy development. Still, you are arguing that the U.S. should not give up on Ukraine. Why is Ukraine important for the United States and why should US-Ukraine relations be important for Ukraine?

DW: First of all, Ukraine is an incredibly important country. It’s a large country. Geostrategic issues are at play. It’s significant in terms of its size, its population, its location. But the more important reason is what’s been happening in Ukraine. Since the Orange Revolution, and since independence, Ukraine has really been struggling with the process of reform. And it’s been two steps forward, one step back. All of us who are supporters of Ukraine have been frustrated that we haven’t seen as much progress as we would have liked to have seen. But the reason Ukraine is important is because the Ukrainian people essentially stood up and said, ‘We’re tired of business as usual. We’re tired of a corrupt government here that doesn’t represent really the will of the people.’ And it’s incumbent upon countries in the West, democracies, along with the United States to say, ‘We support you in your right to determine your own future.’ When I was in government that was a very strong rationale for the basis of our policy towards Ukraine. We didn’t just pick Ukraine and say, ‘OK, Ukraine is strategically important.’ Or we didn’t pick and say, ‘Yushchenko is the man we want to back.’ We watched what happened internally. We watched the evolution of Ukrainian society. And while we have been frustrated, it certainly has developed dramatically in a democratic fashion. In some respects Ukrainian politics is very messy, and that can be very frustrating. On the other hand, it is a reflection of the fact that here is no authoritarian control, there is no centralized control. There really is a plurality of voices, a plurality of views. There really is open competition. And while that can be frustrating because it doesn’t lead to as clear a policy direction as many of us would like to see, in many respects I say ‘Thank goodness that it’s been messy, that it has been a democratic process.’ And think as Ukraine goes through what is a very difficult process of continuing transition, that it’s incumbent upon democracies to stand with the Ukrainian people with this process. We’ve gone through this process in Eastern and Central Europe. It was not easy. It takes leadership, first of all from Ukrainians. But because of the risk that I think many Ukrainians have taken on this front, they deserve the support both from the United States, from Europe, in this quest to really build a Ukrainian nation, a Ukrainian state that is democratic, that is integrated into the world economy and is drawing closer to Europe.

MG: What can the United States give Ukraine? What kind of leverage does the US have in this relationship, in support of Ukraine?

DW: I think what the United States has to do is approach it from two directions. One, we need to be unequivocal about our support of Ukraine as an independent, sovereign country, as a democracy, as a free-market economy. And we need to do everything we can from our perspective to be able to support the evolution of democratic institutions, solidification of free-market economics, and the development of civil society, an independent media. And I think that’s where you see U.S. policy continuing. It’s a question of support, not for any particular individual. This is not about choosing particular political figures in Ukraine. This is about supporting the process, the painful process, sometimes, of the democratic evolution of a country. And that’s where you need a clear, strong policy from the United States, that it supports internal reforms, and that it supports the aspirations of the Ukrainian leadership to draw closer to Europe. And that is where you need a clear message and a clear policy to back it up. At the same time it takes a little bit of tough love, if you will, as we often say here, because Ukraine is in a crisis. Ukraine is in a deep economic crisis, it’s a very serious situation and a very difficult political climate, a lot of tension, as you well know. And I think that the Ukrainians in private need to hear tough messages from their friends about the importance of not putting difficult decisions to the side, but taking some difficult decisions to continue to move the country forward, to ensure that Ukraine comes out of this economic crisis stronger rather than weaker. And to ensure that its political development isn’t affected, isn’t retarded by the economic crisis. There are some difficult decisions looming on the horizon for Ukraine, as it heads into yet another election cycle and I think Ukrainian leaders need to hear both a very public message of support from the United States, but also a very private message of the responsibilities that they have as good stewards of the Ukrainian nation. We can’t tell Ukrainians what their own national interests are. That is for Ukrainians to determine. But we can point out where we think that the policies, the goals they have articulated, we can sometimes question whether they have put the policies in place, whether they’ve taken the tough decisions to actually help the country reach that point. Corruption is a good example. You hear most of the political class with a pretty uniform message on the importance of transparency and anti-corruption efforts. And yet, we still have some very serious concerns. And maybe in private meetings Ukrainian leaders need to hear a tough message from their friends in the West. Because, at the end of the day, if issues like that go unaddressed, they’re very damaging to Ukraine’s economy, and over time certainly to Ukraine’s sovereignty and even its independence.|

Part 2 of 3

MG: You’ve already mentioned the visit of Vice President Biden. He’s going to Ukraine next week. What kind of signal does the United States want to send to Ukraine and other countries?

DW: I think it sends a very important sign. I think the administration is trying to signal that Ukraine does matter to the Obama administration, it does matter to Washington. And it is a sign of reassurance that while the administration has been focused on resetting policy with Russia, and President Obama’s visit to Moscow was the most visible element of that, that it isn’t taking for granted its relationship with countries like Ukraine. And I think that’s important. I think that it’s both a sign to the Ukrainian people of the enduring support and solidarity of the United States and the democratic evolution that the country is going through. It’s also an opportunity to have some tough conversations and some direct talks with a range of political leaders – the president, the prime minister, the leader of the opposition, the speaker of the Rada – the range of political figures that need to be able to be engaged with the American leadership on these issues. Because we recognize the importance of a range of political actors in Ukraine. But even as important I think this is an important signal to Moscow that just because the administration has been focused very much rhetorically, publicly, substantively on the relationship with Russia, it’s not at the expense of our relationship with Ukraine. Many of us that have been in government before and are on the outside now have pushed to see the administration takes clear positions along these lines. And I think that the administration has listened to the concerns of its friends in Ukraine, the concerns of its friends in Central and Eastern Europe and those on Capitol Hill and Congress here in Washington as well as of the outside community that it needed to take some steps to reassure its friends and to make clear that the United States would have a strong policy of support for Ukraine. And that this is not just a function of Russia. It also sends an important message to some of our friends throughout Europe. It helps those who are policymakers in Paris and Berlin and London, it helps them see that the United States still values very much the relationship with Ukraine and is still very much supportive of Ukraine’s aspirations to move towards Europe. So, first and foremost a message to the Ukrainian people of support, a message to Moscow that we don’t recognize a privileged sphere of interest, and a message to our friends in Europe that Ukraine is still high on the American agenda and that [the US] expects it to remain high on their agenda as well.

MG: Mr. Biden, in addition to visiting Ukraine, is also going to Georgia. Does this mean that the United States views these two countries as reliable partners of the US in the region?

DW: In some respects – yes. I mean, obviously Ukraine and Georgia are dramatically different countries in dramatically different situations. But what brings them together is that over the recent years both of these countries have stood up and said, ‘We want to strengthen our democracy, we want to strengthen our free market economy, as we make these reforms at home we want to move towards Europe, we want to move toward the institutions of Europe and the Euro-Atlantic community.’ And that’s what brings them together in this message. And, frankly, the other issue that brings them together is Russian policy. Russia, in some respects, has had a policy of containment and rollback, if you will. Very clearly, with Russian leadership articulating its interest in a privileged sphere of interest. I mean something that is so 19th century policy in thinking about the region. And so, unfortunately, Russian policy has put them into the same type of category. And I think that is something we can’t accept and won’t accept. So it’s clear that the trip does represent our view of Ukraine and Georgia as important partners, as partners where there is a lot of work to be done. And they have been reliable partners over the years. Sometimes not quite as reliable as we would have wanted on some issues. But they have been tremendous allies and partners on a lot of issues on the international agenda. And I think this trip will hopefully be able to cement that fact.

MG: You described the similarities between the two countries. One of the similarities is that both expressed a wish to become members of NATO. How do you see the relationship with NATO for both countries at this point?

DW: I am a strong supporter of the aspirations of Ukraine and Georgia to move towards the alliance. I helped to craft and advocate that policy when I was in government and I’m still a strong proponent of it now. And I think that we’ve left the relationship in a strong position, where we have a NATO-Ukraine Commission and a NATO-Georgia Commission that is positioned to use the Bucharest decision, where Alliance leaders decided that one day Ukraine and Georgia would be part of the Alliance, that you’ve got the structures to be able to pursue that objective and implement it. It’s incumbent upon the Ukrainians and the Georgians to ensure that they are developing plans, concrete and specific plans with the Alliance, that, frankly, are the type of plans that we would have been doing if there had been a Membership Action Plan in any case. But at the same time I think, you can’t take this for granted. And, honestly, that’s where some of my concerns are in that some in the West are saying that, OK, you’ve had Bucharest, you’ve had that decision, it’s taken. But it riled the waters, if you will, it complicated our relationship with Russia. So we need to enter a period of calming the waters, where we might put this issue on the backburner, and we sort of set it aside for a couple of years, while we put our focus elsewhere. And I think that’s a mistake. I mean, it’s true that, first of all, the process of integration has to be driven from Kyiv and driven from Tbilisi. It’s incumbent upon Ukrainian leaders and Georgian leaders to advocate what they want, to communicate their aspirations, and to do the work and the reforms to underpin this process of moving closer to the Alliance. But I also think we are invested in that process with you and we can’t say we’re going to put this on the backburner for two years, because you have a lot of work anyways. We need to be there, rolling up our sleeves, being partners with the Ukrainian people, the Georgian people, and helping them to address these tough reforms, whether it’s defense reform, whether it’s anti-corruption efforts. What you do domestically, what Ukraine does domestically, has a direct impact on its foreign policy agenda. And I think we need to be very cognizant of the role that we can play in being an active partner with Ukraine and Georgia on this front. It’s not time to put this on the backburner and say, ‘We’ll come back to the NATO issues in a couple of years. But let’s keep things quiet for a while.’ It risks an opportunity of drift. It risks an opportunity of falling back in some of the reform processes. And that’s, frankly, where my biggest concern right now is. I think you need a clear policy from the West that we do continue to support the aspirations of Georgia and Ukraine to move towards Europe, to move towards the Alliance. We’re going to be partners with the people and with their governments in making the reforms necessary to do that. And we all know the issue of NATO membership is not an imminent issue, it’s not an imminent question. There’s a lot of hard work behind us. But you can’t put it on the backburner and expect that hard work to be done. You’ve got to stay focused on that, both in the West and in Ukraine and Georgia.

Part 3 of 3

MG: Do you have partners in Europe who share the same view?

DW: Absolutely, we certainly do. But I think your question is probably hinting at something that is also a concern. We certainly have partners that are very clear, very strong on where they see Ukraine and its future, how they see Ukraine as part of Europe. But, frankly, we have a lot of other allies in Europe that are much more cautious and much more skeptical. And on the one hand they have reason to be concerned and cautious, because they see some of the disarray in the Ukrainian political situation. They understand the continuing questions that loom from further election cycles. And many of them are concerned, very concerned, about the depth of public support for some of these objectives as well. And I do not dismiss any of those issues. I do draw some different conclusions sometimes. And so I think it is that some of our partners are quite cautious, quite skeptical and it means that Ukraine continually has to make the case that, one, it really wants to be a part of this community, two, that it does share the values that bring this community together. And that means what Ukraine does at home can over time help change the minds of those who are skeptical about this in other capitals in Europe. And, frankly, here in Washington, as well.

MG: When you say ‘over time’, what do you mean by that? How many years?

DW: I wish I could answer that. And, frankly, I would love to see this be much sooner rather than later. But the United States doesn’t control the answer to that question. The United States can help shape the environment in which that question is answered. But Ukraine is really going to determine that question. Because if you think about the issue of the Baltic states and their aspirations to join NATO and the EU, it was a very, very controversial issue many years ago. And many in the West, including here in Washington, were very skeptical that one day we could envision that that would be a real possibility. And yet, as you watched with time the reforms and the dedication that the leadership in the Baltic states undertook were dramatic and quite far-reaching and significant in such a way, that when we began to look at those countries that said they wanted to be a part of the Alliance. And we started looking at various indicators and seeing how they were doing on economic reforms, financial reforms, defense reform issues, reform of the intelligence services, as well as a whole range of other issues, we started to say, ‘Well Lithuania and Estonia, frankly, are doing better than some other countries.’ And it changed the nature of the debate. How could we say, ‘No. No. We’re not going to talk to Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, when the reality was they were making more progress on a set of issues that NATO cared about than some other countries. So they helped change the debate, they helped shape that debate. Now, it still took some dedication and conviction in the West that this was the right thing to do. It still took a lot of diplomacy from Washington to work with Moscow. But because of what the Baltic states did, we had a different debate than what we thought we were going to have. And I think that’s the power that Ukraine has to control its own destiny here. It really can help determine its own future by what it does at home. And, frankly, many in Europe are skeptical. Many have very low expectations of where Ukraine is going on the domestic front. If Ukrainian leaders could put together a coherent program and stick to it, emerge from an economic and financial crisis, emerge from an election cycle, with a very decisive reform agenda and begin to implement that decisively, people would notice. And it would begin to impact this debate in Europe. And some of those skeptics today would certainly over time become more favorable to Ukraine’s aspirations for NATO and the EU. That could shorten the years. That could make it a few years, rather than many years. So, it’s hard to predict an answer to that question.

MG: Yes, there is a lot of work to be done in Ukraine. But Russia is a serious question here. And is the Russian government ready to give up on Ukraine, as they see Ukraine and Georgia in their sphere of influence. They probably gave up on Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, small countries and closer to Europe. How would Russia react if Ukraine and Georgia would be really close to becoming members?

DW: First of all, remember, many Russian policy makers have not given up. We’ve been in a dispute with Russia over missile defense in Poland and the Czech Republic not because of missile defense, but because they’re Poland and the Czech Republic. It’s important to think, if that debate, if we were moving forward with new facilities in Denmark and Italy and Turkey, we wouldn’t be talking about this. So, we’re talking about Poland and the Czech Republic – NATO members, EU members – because the Russians are trying to project their sense that they do see this part of the world differently and they don’t want to accept the fact that Poland and the Czech Republic can take decisions that impact their security without Russia being a factor in determining the outcome of that. So I think it is important to remember – we can’t accept that, we can’t accept that Russia has a say over the future of what Ukraine does. It’s been a core principle of European security that a country has a right to determine its own future and to determine the alliances and institutions that it would like to belong to. So, do the Russians have concerns? Do they object? Do they absolutely hate when Ukrainians say they want to be a part of the Alliance? Sure. But that’s an argument that we can’t accept. We can’t allow that. And I think it’s important to be clear with the Russians, in private discussions, as I think and believe that President Obama probably was, in Moscow. I’m saying that we really do believe and know that Ukraine and Georgia are sovereign, independent countries. The era of 19th Century diplomacy, the era of Yalta, where great powers come together and can determine the future of small states – that’s not a game that the United States is going to play in. And so we hear these concerns, we hear these arguments. We need to respect the concerns of our Russian colleagues to some degree so that we engage them in dialogue, that we listen to them. But it doesn’t mean we accept their arguments. So I think that’s something we need to be cognizant of, we need to have smart diplomacy in how we deal with Moscow on some of these issues. But it’s a very dangerous line if we allow Moscow’s concerns to creep over into determining what U.S. policy is towards Ukraine. If we do that, it really is a major step back for what Ukraine has achieved since its independence.

MG: Do you think the Russians are listening?

DW: They may not listen, they may not want to listen. But it’s important that we continue to be clear and firm in our views of the importance of Ukraine’s sovereignty and independence and do what we can to stand by that.

* Damon Wilson is the Director of the International Security Program at the Atlantic Council of the United States, focusing on NATO transformation, European defense, emerging global security challenges and transatlantic defense and intelligence cooperation. From December 2007 to January 2009 he was Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director for European Affairs at the National Security Council.


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