According to the New York Times, senior Biden administration officials last week told Congress that Russian President Vladimir Putin “has assembled everything he would need to undertake … the largest military operation on land in Europe since 1945.” The Justice spoke with two Brandeis faculty members, Gary Samore (POL) via email and Steven Wilson (POL) in person, to provide some insight into this complex situation. 

Samore served as the White House coordinator for arms control and weapons of mass destruction from 2009-13 and was a key advisor to President Obama on these issues. In that capacity, he was part of major negotiations with Russia to reduce nuclear weapons stockpiles. He is currently the professor of the practice of politics and the director of the Crown Center for Middle East studies at Brandeis. 

Wilson, an assistant professor of politics, specializes in Russia and the post-Soviet states in addition to the effects of the internet on politics. 

Interviews have been edited for length and clarity. 

Prof. Samore:

The Justice: When you served in the National Security Council under President Obama, I imagine you saw then-vice president Biden in the Situation Room. Could you describe what he is like under pressure during foreign policy crises? 

Samore: In my experience, Vice President Biden was a great asset to President Obama. He always offered independent and straightforward (and sometimes profane) advice on foreign policy issues, even if others disagreed. Biden has an excellent sense of the personalities of foreign leaders he deals with and a strong commitment to working with U.S. allies. So far, these qualities have served him well in dealing with Putin and the Ukraine crisis. 

TJ: You helped negotiate nuclear weapons treaties with Russia a little more than a decade ago. Right now, a State Department team led by the deputy secretary, Wendy Sherman, is negotiating with the Russians. Could you describe what it is like to negotiate with the Russian government? I know the situations are not exactly analogous, but I think it is helpful to give color to the sort of people who represent Russia to the US. 

S: Russian arms control officials (like Wendy Sherman’s counterpart Deputy Minister Sergei Ryabkov) are expert professional negotiators. They understand the technical issues and are prepared to explore compromises, within the limits of their instructions. The current situation with Ukraine is very different because ... Putin is personally calling the shots and only he knows whether Russia is prepared to use military force to achieve his goals. In other words, the policy professionals in the Russian Foreign Ministry and Defense Ministry don’t have much latitude to negotiate, unless Putin decides to strike a deal. 

TJ: If there is a diplomatic solution — either short-term or long-term — can the Russians be trusted to hold to agreements based on your experience with them? Are there good accountability mechanisms? 

S: If some kind of deal is reached, it won’t satisfy Putin’s basic demands that Ukraine be banned from joining NATO nor will it prevent Kiev from continuing to improve relations with the U.S. and Europe, including military cooperation. Therefore, I don’t expect a permanent settlement of the Ukraine issue. As long as Putin (or his successor) continues to see the West as fundamentally hostile, seeking to weaken Russian security and undermine its government, any agreements on Ukraine and broader issues of European security are likely to be temporary. 

TJ: For someone who has lived through the Soviet Union, its collapse, Russia’s indirection in the 90s, and now Putin’s rise, what has stood out to you from watching the history play out? 

S: The most important historical trend is Russia’s failure to evolve into a democratic state with genuine political freedoms and rights. Under Putin, Russia has emerged as an atavistic, authoritarian state, with a deep sense of insecurity and hostility towards the West. Unfortunately, I don’t see that changing anytime soon. 

Prof. Wilson: 

TJ: Why does this frozen tundra of eastern Ukraine matter to Americans? 

Wilson: I think the most important part is that Ukraine is a democracy. They may be a flawed democracy in a lot of ways, but they’re an independent country that has democratic institutions in a world where democracy is often in retreat, and that’s something that should be protected and defended. And that’s not me necessarily saying we should have American [troop] divisions on the ground in eastern Ukraine, but it’s the idea [that] we have an obligation on some ethical level to defend democracies that want to run their own affairs and be their own place. And fundamentally this comes down to Russia not wanting that for Ukraine. Putin is very hostile to the sovereignty of Ukraine and the rights of the Ukrainian people to elect their own government and have democracy in the first place. So without turning it into some Cold War rehash, there really is an element of democracy versus authoritarianism. The people of Ukraine have a right to self-determination that doesn’t get to simply be run over with Russian tanks. 

TJ: We often think of current events in the context of a period of time, and then we base our analysis on what happened in that time. In history, it’s called “periodization”. The Ukraine situation is often framed within the past few months, or in the past eight years (when in 2014, Russia forcibly took Crimea and supported anti-Ukrainian militants in the country’s east). In thinking about the current situation, at which point(s) in history does it make the most sense to begin analyzing what is happening now?

W: I think [that in] terms of the Ukraine crisis you have to go way back. Not quite to the beginning of time, but you have to appreciate the very long history of Ukraine and its relationship with Russia. There is a very strong sense among a lot of Russians, in particular Russian power holders like Putin and the various military and intelligence folks, who simply don’t see Ukraine as a legitimate, sovereign country. They see Ukraine as simply being part of Russia, and they have their historical mythic perspective of the founding city of Russia as Kiev [Ukraine’s current capital]. It’d be like telling the English that London is part of a separate country that is not English. 

TJ: No country is a monolith. Can you speak a little bit to the internal politics in Ukraine, and the different views in that country towards this situation? 

W: The west side of Ukraine is far more oriented towards Western Europe and central Europe, not just physically, but historically and culturally and politically. And running right down the middle you’ve got the major river [Dnieper] where Kiev sits. You can look at essentially any map of Ukraine where you regionally map something — whether it’s the GDP, presidential vote share, who voted for what party, education rates, ethnic breakdown of where it’s majority Ukrainian versus majority ethnic Russians, etc. — all the maps look the same. It’s a split of two countries in a certain sense. The eastern part of it has historically been part of the Russian Empire, going back far, far longer in time. 

TJ: For Brandeis students interested in learning more about the situation in Ukraine, what resources should they look to? 

W: The Council on Foreign Relations and Wilson Center has some good coverage of events in Ukraine. In addition, for some news out of Russia proper, the independent news site Meduza has some great coverage. Here’s one article that links to many more.