What You Need to Know:
✓ "I think Russia went into Syria to create a deal and free itself from the problems it created by going into Ukraine";
✓ Paris attacks and the SU-24 shoot down changed the dynamic between the West and Russia;
✓ Governments can compartmentalize foreign policy and treat different issues like Ukraine and Syria separately;
✓ Ukraine is as important right now as West Germany was in 1947.
Brian Whitmore of Radio Free Europe says, "I don’t think that the Syria intervention was working for Russia, it was obvious to the West what Russia was doing, they weren’t bombing ISIS but rather the anti Assad rebels who are supported by the US, by Saudi Arabia, by Turkey."
He goes onto say that "I think the downing of the SU-24 by Turkey shows everyone that Russia’s intervention in Syria is not cost-free. In Syria, Russia’s opposing the interests of a lot of actors, not just the West but Turkey, Saudi Arabia."
He believes we underestimate the degree to which governments can compartmentalize their foreign policy. "There doesn’t necessarily have to be a link. I think the West has indicated that it can separate Ukraine from whatever deal they might make with Russia on Syria."
He goes onto say "I think it’s pretty clear that Putin doesn’t see Ukraine as an independent country. He famously said it to former President Bush in 2008 at the Bucharest conference. Those were his words."
He thinks that Putin still sees the world in old terms. "The way Putin looks at the world is that the world consists of great powers who have spheres of influence and the countries within those spheres are just playthings. Putin wants a free hand in Ukraine."
On the recent fighting in Ukraine he adds, "escalating fighting in Donbas is Russia’s way of keeping pressure on Ukraine because Russia didn’t get what it wanted in Ukraine."
"It was surprising to Russia that Russian speakers in Ukraine were loyal to Ukraine. That fact showed itself time and time again in places like Kharkiv, Odessa, Mariupol, Dnipropetrovsk. They showed that they prefer to be a linguistic and ethnic minority in a democratic Ukraine rather than be a linguistic and ethnic majority in an authoritarian kleptocracy. That showed me very clearly that this was about values."
"Ukraine finds itself between two normative systems, and this isn’t the cold war, but we do have this emerging bi-polar order right now and if we look at it, the importance of Ukraine is equal to the importance of West Germany in 1947."
He says that "getting Ukraine right at this time is as important as it was for the West to get things in West Germany right in 1947. The benefits of getting Ukraine right are huge. First of all it makes the Western system much stronger by bringing this very large and very important country into it. Also, as Timothy Snyder said, European history doesn’t make much sense without Ukraine in it. The effect that success in Ukraine would have in Russia would be enormous. I don’t just mean that it would be an existential threat to Putin’s regime, it would be, but it would provide catharsis to the Russian population.
Hromadske International's Christian Borys interviewed Brian Whitmore of RFE/RL in Kyiv in November 2015.