Arun: Welcome back everyone. I'm Arun Venugopalin in for Melissa Harris-Perry. You're listening to The Takeaway. On Friday, US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken met with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in a bilateral meeting in Geneva with hopes of discussions that'll lead to Russia's de-escalation at the Ukrainian border. Here's Blinken speaking to the press after the meeting.
Anthony Blinken: Based on the discussions today, Foreign Minister Lavrov and I agreed that it's important for the diplomatic process to continue.
Arun: In recent months, Russia has stationed an estimated 100,000 troops near its border with Ukraine. That buildup has concerned many of Ukraine allies who are increasingly worried that Russian President Vladimir Putin is planning to invade the country. Speaking with reporters on Wednesday, President Joe Biden commented on the situation.
President Joe Biden: It's one thing if it's a minor incursion and then we end up having a fight about what to do and not do, et cetera. If they actually do what they're capable of doing with the force of mast on the border, it is going to be a disaster for Russia.
Arun: His use of the term "minor incursion" was criticized by the Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on social media. On Thursday, President Biden attempted to strike a bolder tone saying that "any movement by Russian forces into Ukraine would be an invasion". Despite those words from Biden, as well as recent sanctions issued by the US, Russian leaders do not appear to be reversing course. For more on this, I'm joined by Kimberly Marten, Professor of Political Science at Barnard College and a Faculty Member of The Harriman Institute at Columbia University. Good to have you here, Professor Marten.
Prof. Kimberly Marten: Great to be back. Thank you, Arun.
Arun: All right. Before we discuss how the Biden administration is handling this, take us back and explain Ukraine's relationship with Russia. Also, tell us how has Ukraine's pursuit of democracy threatened Putin?
Kimberly: Ukraine started out as being a republic of the Soviet Union, and then when the Soviet Union fell apart in 1991, Ukraine became an independent state. It has had a rocky road as an independent state, has gone through a fair amount of political instability. The key events for what are happening now is what happened in late 2013 and early 2014 when Ukraine, essentially, had a revolution on behalf of western leaning democracy.
The reason that Putin finds that so threatening is the idea of having a successful democracy on his border, in an area that comes from the same political background as his own country. Secondly, because he has felt that Russia should have a sphere of influence around its borders, especially in the former Soviet space. I think third because he has some criminal connections to particular wealthy oligarchs in Ukraine, and his own economic relationships might be somewhat threatened by what's happening in Ukraine.
Arun: What are Russia's security demands and why have they been rejected by the west?
Kimberly: They are over the top. There's three major demands that we know about. One is the argument that NATO should declare that Ukraine and Georgia will never be members and that it should go against something that's in the NATO founding charter. Which says that anybody who contributes to NATO security and who is a democratic country is welcome in NATO at some point.
The second thing that he's really demanded is that somehow NATO stops supporting the countries that are already in NATO that have joined since 1997. That would include Poland, Hungary, The Czech Republic, the Baltic countries, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, and then a whole variety of countries that are in the Balkan region. That, obviously, is not going to happen.
The third thing that he wants is a declaration that the United States will withdraw all of its nuclear weapons from Europe. That also is not going to happen because the United States has nuclear cooperation arrangements with other countries, and they're all part of what has been in place for many, many years in NATO.
Arun: Given that these demands are so over the top from the perspective of the West and NATO, what do you make of them tactically speaking? What's he doing?
Kimberly: It's a big mystery what Putin is actually trying to accomplish. I think what the negotiations over the past couple of weeks have actually been trying to do is give him some an off-ramp so that if he changes his mind. If he decides that he doesn't really want to engage in some new military activity in Ukraine, that he can declare victory to his home audience and go home with something that he can present to them as being something that he accomplished.
I don't think that anybody believes that these negotiations are going to determine Putin's decision about what to do next. I think nobody really knows what Putin wants and he has given himself a huge number of options. By creating this huge military force around Ukraine that he could use for a direct invasion, or he could use it merely to support the pro-Russian forces that are fighting in Eastern Ukraine that have been since 2014, or he could launch cyber-attacks. Nobody knows for sure what he's going to do.
Arun: How has the Biden administration approached foreign policy with Russia and Putin compared to the Trump and Obama administrations?
Kimberly: There's a lot of continuity from the Obama administration because Biden actually had responsibility for Ukrainian issues when he was Vice President under Obama. I think there are two differences with the Obama era. One is on Russian behavior. Previously when Russia took offensive actions of various kinds, they'd be tricky and sudden. The United States had to respond to something had already happened.
Whereas in this case, there's been this very long buildup over a series of months, and it's really not clear what Putin wants to do or what he intends, but it's been a much longer process. The second difference I think is that Obama was very concerned not to do something that might provoke Russia to take action. Whereas now, it's clear that Russia might go ahead and take action, and so that fear of provoking Russia is not so much on the table as it was in past years.
The Trump administration in contrast was just a mess. Not merely on Russia policy, but on foreign insecurity policy in general. We know that Trump did not pay attention to his own military and intelligence advisors. Trump seemed to actually admire Putin. Trump didn't seem to understand the value of having relationships that were longstanding decades-long relationships with our Western allies, with other liberal democratic countries. There's just no comparison between what Trump did and really what any president did before, or hopefully will do afterwards.
Arun: Professor Marten, were you as disturbed by Biden's use of the minor incursion terminology as a lot of people in the, I guess the commentator class were, or do you think it was overblown?
Kimberly: I think it was a little bit overblown. First of all, Biden has a long-standing reputation of making bloopers when he speaks. He is not particularly known for his rhetorical skills, he's known for his policy skills. I think it's not unexpected that Biden might let something flip, but you know, he also was just telling the truth. He was saying something that was obvious to everybody that there are differences across the alliance. There are 30 countries in NATO.
We have to expect that if Russia does not do something that is an all-out invasion, of course, there will be discussions about what an appropriate response would be. It's unfortunate that it happened, but I don't think it was really anything that marred the diplomatic relationship about what is happening. We know that the Biden administration has just been doing a great deal of work, an incredible amount of work, sending Blinken and sending others to speak to European allies and other allies to try to get really unity on board.
Arun: One of the things that's been discussed in terms of a response is economic sanctions. Do economic sanctions actually serve as effective deterrence?
Kimberly: That's a really good question. They haven't tended to be used as deterrents before. They're usually used when an action is already happening just as a way of expressing displeasure, and of trying to get whoever the sanction is against to change their behavior. We don't have a lot of experience with sanctions as deterrence. We do know that Russia has adapted very well over the years to the sanctions that have already been placed against it.
We also know that European allies, especially Germany, but also France and Italy, for example, have very strong, natural gas and other energy relationships with Russia, and therefore have very different economic concerns about sanctions than the United States have. The United States, frankly, has very little trade and investment with Russia. It's much easier for the US to put sanctions on Russia.
I think two things are different in this case. The first is that there's been so much discussion among allies already, and they have been floating things like kicking Russian banks out of the international payment system. Publicly, which indicates that that's on the table and it should be somewhat frightening to Putin that they're talking about that.
Secondly, something that we haven't heard a lot about lately, but that was talked about a couple of weeks ago, was cutting off a special advanced semiconductor export to Russia. Something that is useful for the Russian space industry, and for the Russian computer industry, as well as the defense industry. That's a little bit different way of looking at sanctions.
Arun: Kimberly Marten is a Professor of Political Science at Barnard College and a Faculty Member at Columbia University. Thank you so much, Professor Martin.
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