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5 February, 2022
Exclusive interview with Steven Pifer
- I think, this is one of the things the international community worked out. Certainly, it is understood in the United States and Europe that Ukraine is looking for all the help it can get. And I think you have seen in the last month and a half an effort by the United States and Europe to do more in a couple of ways. The first is to provide more military assistance and defence equipment to Ukraine. That’s where I disagree when people say we should do this cause it makes war more likely. I actually think that giving to Ukrainian military better capabilities to defend Ukraine is more likely to help deter the Kremlin from deciding to attack in the first place. Another thing that I think is worth looking at, can you booster NATO’s military presence in the Eastern Flank, in the Baltic states and Poland which is also a signal to Kremlin that the West takes it as a very serious threat.  But I’m not sure there is much more Ukraine needs to do on this wing. This is one of the things I think the western lands needs to work out.

- As international donors provide international security, there is also Ukraine’s responsibility for obtaining this security assistance. Usually, there are rules that should be fulfilled, some obligations should be fulfilled if the county wants to continue receiving support. Do you believe that so far, Ukraine is doing enough, is doing its home task properly?

- I think it’s a little bit different when you are talking about defence assistance, particularly within the last two months where at least the US government, but I also think most NATO allies see there is a very real risk of a new Russian invasion in Ukraine. And again, there may be some specific rules but those tend to be downplayed because the priority is getting assistance to Ukraine because that’s seen that hopefully persuading the Kremlin that any kind of military action or new military action would not be worthwhile.

- Let’s take the last ten years in Ukraine. Ten to fifteen, it’s up to you to decide. How would you assess the progress in Ukraine’s defence and security sector, how much have we progressed, if we have, in reforms, in cooperation e.g. with our best allies such as the US to improve our own defence capability?

- I think, certainly, we’ve seen in the last several years Ukraine do more in case its advanced capability. I think there are important things Ukraine though can and should be doing. As one, you want to make sure that you are getting the maximum value for the defence sector. And this is what we cope with within the United States too. And it is one of the things the American Congress is very. When we spend a lot of money, we want this money to be spent in the most efficient way possible and get the best capability for that. I think one of the other things Ukraine can work on. Transparency is important. You want for example the relevant committees in the Rada to be able to monitor how money is spent. And the public, people should be able – there may be some closed programs that are secret, but the bulk of the programs should be fairly open. So transparency is important for accountability reasons. It’s also important to the extent you wanna have competition cause competition for contracts is useful because that will push the price down. And so transparency enables competition. And then you also have the sense that the rules of competition. So I think there are problems that Ukraine had in the past, whether the hope that the current situation will really, with what the Russians are doing and the Russian capabilities, Ukraine really wants to get maximum impact for every hryvnia it spends. It’s important to be really transparent and competitive that reduces the possibilities for corruption and misused funds.

- That’s exactly the question that I wanted to ask and you did it before. I just wanted to mention that in my personal assessment as a NAKO representative, the biggest achievements which have been done are the Law on Defence Procurements and the Law on Corporatization of Ukroboronprom. In both cases, these are the laws that promote more transparency in the sector. At the same time, there are narratives that are still kind of common to claim that more transparency in the defence sector is more harmful to the country in the context of aggression, so let’s hide everything possible; otherwise, the Russians will know everything about our defence. What would be your answer to that?

- There is a tradeoff there. But I think on the whole, first of all, an assumption, and I assume that Ukraine this assumption that Russian intelligence is pretty active in this country. SO my guess is the Russians have a pretty good idea of how Ukraine is spending its defence dollars. So you don’t want to have a situation where the Russian intelligence knows but the Rada doesn’t know and the public doesn’t know. But even in this situation where – take the rest of intelligence out of it. I think if we could tradeoff, I guess I would still be inclined to say that the benefits of transparency in terms of accountability you get the best amount of impact for the money that you spend and in terms of competition probably outweigh the costs of the Russians have that information as well. There may be some certain programs, for example, in the United States, the B28 bomber. We know that the Air Forces spend a lot of money to build the B28 bomber, we have some ideas about how much it could cost, they are not allowed to give details. But that is purposeful because the Air Force, understandably, we do hide the capabilities of that air force from the Russians of from the Chinese or from other potential adversaries. But that’s not the whole program. We have certain programs that are basically in the black and secret, but it is a relatively small portion of the whole defence budget and that allows American Congress to basically examine these programs and ask the questions that should be asked.

- When you say it is a relatively small portion of the whole budget. What kind of per cent it could be? In Ukraine, when it comes to defence procurement, the State Defence Order is being removed from the Sector but still, like 80% of the State Defence Order is classified.

- I can’t give the exact percentage but it’s never 80%, it’s a much smaller percentage. In our course, you remember we in the US have a very large defence budget. But again, the programs that are really not openly discussed are pretty small.

- For the last several years, NAKO as a civil society organization and a strategic partner of Transparency International Defence and Security has invested a lot of effort to promote transparency, particularly in this sector. And this is quite a rare case for the post-soviet states, I can hardly think of any similar initiatives on the post-soviet territory where the results have been visible. So do you believe that it is helpful for the sector to have organizations, like civil society organizations, like NAKO, for asking questions, these questions can be uncomfortable for officials, they may be not willing to answer them. Do you think that such monitoring and pushing for reform from inside, from the civil society is helpful even though the aggression is here?

- I think it’s important for democracy. When I was in the government, I got asked questions that may be uncomfortable but part of the duty of the democratic government is to be open - again, there are some areas when you can’t – be open, with the legislator, with the Rada in your case, congress in our case, and be open with the public about how they spend money. And to the extent that you don’t have as much openness as people would like in Ukraine, having civil society organizations push that makes good sense. In the US you don’t really have the organization push say like this, the press does this, the press is pushing really hard. And also Congress, the emphasis is on Congress. Look at the Senate Committee on Defence and the Congressional Committee? they work hard to get this information out.

-In Ukraine, we do have some strong independent media but in defence and security, it seems that civil society is more effective in speaking about these difficult questions because it’s a difficult issue to deal with. Let’s come back to counter the risks of Russian aggression. Recently we’ve heard a lot from the world’s top officials that possible sanctions, even bigger sanctions that could be applied to the Kremlin. We also have heard that President Biden mentioned Russia can be cut of dollars in the banks. So in your opinion, is that possible that the strong financial sanctions could deter Russia?

- Loosely I think the threat of sanctions is only one part. Another part is providing even more weapons and defence assistance to Ukraine. Another part is, the Russians don’t like small NATO deployments in the Eastern Flank. If there is a Russian military assault on Ukraine, those deployments will go up. And understand me because I mean, if you are sitting in Lithuania and you are waiting, Russians are using military force to attack Ukraine, Russian military forces run Belarus, we have to be more concerned here in Lithuania than it was the case before. Now the sanctions we are talking about. Bearing in mind that we are now on a scale from 1 to 10, Western sanctions on Russia are about 3, so you can crank them up a lot. So what the administration said, said now is look, if the Russian military makes a new assault into Ukraine, we will not apply the sanctions gradually, we will hit all the sanctions at once. And now, they don’t have a specific list. I think the reality is, before you can work out a specific list for Europe or finalize at least the Europeans, they will have to see the nature of the Russian attack. They’ve been talking with the Europeans about this for two months now. And I heard a lot of common ideas, you have financial sanctions targeting Russian financial institutions, sanctions making it difficult to hold Russian sovereign debt. You know, if western banks can’t hold Russian sovereign debt, it becomes very hard for them to find their holders. They are talking about new sanctions that would look at the export controls and this is where the United States have a lot of power because a lot of the technology originates in the United States. And the United States can trend that flow after Russia. And I think there is a pretty wide range of sanctions which would be very painful to Russia. I don’t know whether the sanctions by themselves will deter the Russians, but that’s why there is always more military assistance to Ukraine, more military presence on NATO’s Eastern Flank, but to my mind, the big cost is gonna be the Ukrainian cost. And that is the Russian military is larger, it’s better funded, but I do think of the Ukrainian military, if necessary, it will inflict a significant cost on the Russians. My old view is that Putin cares about bad Russians shoulders but he cares a lot about how that impacts the domestic opinion towards the Kremlin. So I’m hoping that accumulation of sanctions will be such that the Kremlin says, the prices are too heavy, we don’t wanna pay that. And they will decide to back down. And there is a negotiating path forward. There is an offer of negotiations on arms control, on covenance property measures, there is a broad conversation about European security. But I think it’s also clear that the United States are ready to hold this conversation but it has to be based on certain principles. And these principes go back for example to the Helsinki Final Act, every member of Europe should have to right to determine its own foreign policy course.

- I cannot but ask about Ukraine’s NATO perspectives. The recent opinion poll indicates that 58% of Ukrainians would like to join. I also saw a very recent poll abroad by Yalta Conference it says that in certain big countries the support for that is like 51% and in many of them less. What do you think could or should be done to increase that support abroad by the power, by the people?

- The one thing is, understandably, everyone is focused on the Russians right now. But at the same time, looking longer, and Ukraine still wants to continue the process of reforms, that make basically Ukraine fully compatible with the EU norms. My guess is that inclination of the European states to wanna connect and defend Ukraine is gonna be higher to the extent they look at Ukraine and they see a country that shares our values, our norms, our practice, and we are the same. On the other question, it’s a tough question for Ukraine. My answer to the question of NATO membership for Ukraine is ‘Not now’ but not never. And ‘not now’ reflects reality. And here’s the problem. Russian troops have occupied Crimea, Russian troops are in Donbass. The question you will get from NATO members, and I think this is why in this point in time there is not a lot of enthusiasm for throwing Ukraine on the membership flank, today is Monday, let’s say Tuesday Ukraine joins NATO, on Wednesday is NATO then obligated go to war with Russia under radical fire? And I think part of the reason why Russians have occupied Crimea and Donbas is and hold on to Transnistria and South Osetia and Abkhasia is because they understand that is going to create that hesitation in NATO. Where NATO is, I think it was very clear on January 12th when Deputy Minister Grushko met with the NATO Russia counsel that NATO says look, our principle remains the same, we are not gonna close the open door, countries have the right to apply and ultimately there will be a decision between NATO and that country. But having said that I think Russians a kind of found a way not to exercise or de facto at least postpone that decision.  And my guess is there have to be some resolution certainly on Donbas before NATO countries are going to be prepared to move forward. And that’s why I think that probably in this point in time instead of talking about membership it makes more sense for Ukraine to focus on doing reforms, getting things in place, so it would be ready for membership if a political window opens up for it.

- You’ve mentioned a peaceful resolution on Donbass. We have the renewal of the Normandy discussions, so do you believe there could be some serious negotiation process if Crimea is put out of the whole framework of the negotiations? Or should it go all together as one set?

- I think for the Russians there is a big difference between Crimea and Donbas. They want Crimea, they moved away to annexed it. They haven’t done that with Donbas. I think Russians wanted to occupy Donbas, I don’t know if they want to annex it. Because I think they understand it will be very expensive to rehabilitate it after years of conflict. But what they do they see it as a mechanism, as a way to put pressure on the government in Kyiv, to destruct and destabilize it. What I mean though is that resolving Donbas is much easier than Crimea. So the policy Ukraine has focused on the last six or seven years is, focus on trying Donbas and while keeping Crimea as a long issue it probably remains a wise one. And I think you can do both, I mean, it’s hard right now to say how does Ukraine maser the political, economic, military, diplomatic leverage to get Crimea back. And legally I think it’s really hard to do right now. But politically I think the United States and Europe should continue the policy of non-recognition. Bear in mind the Baltic States. We did not recognize their incorporation into the Soviet Union for five decades. And certainly, if you go back to 1950 and you think of Baltics being independent, no it's crazy. The United States and other countries still maintained the position of principle and I would expect the West to maintain that position possible on Crimea. So I think Ukraine a kind of ability to focus on Donbas and Crimean is a longer-term question.

- Thank you so much, I think that’s all questions for today. Let’s hope that next time we meet, many of these issues will be out of the discussion.

- Right, it depends on the Kremlin.

- Right, not that much depends on Ukraine only.

- The Kremlin could say yes. My concern quite frankly there is they haven’t said yes. And they keep saying no, our big demands haven’t been answered. I pains of myself into corner and it’s limiting choices. And unfortunately, the one choice, military action stands very much alike.