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Playing with Fire? A Debate on U.S. Arming Ukraine & NATO Expansion to Russia’s Border

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As fighting continues in Ukraine, President Obama said Monday he has not ruled out arming the Ukrainian military against Russian-backed rebels. Meeting with Obama at the White House, German Chancellor Angela Merkel reiterated her opposition to arming Ukraine, saying the conflict could not be resolved militarily. Merkel is set to hold talks in Minsk on Wednesday with the leaders of Russia, Ukraine and France in a bid to end the crisis that has killed thousands and displaced 1.5 million people over the past year. Should the United States escalate its role in the conflict by arming Ukraine? We host a debate between retired Air Force general Charles Wald, the former deputy commander of U.S. European Command, and University of Chicago professor John Mearsheimer.

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StoryFeb 03, 2015Is Ukraine a Proxy Western-Russia War? U.S. Weighs Arming Kiev as Violence Soars
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AARON MATÉ: We begin in Ukraine. As fighting continues, President Obama says the U.S. has not ruled out arming the Ukrainian military against Russian-backed rebels. Obama made the comment Monday during a joint White House news conference with German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Now, it is true that if in fact diplomacy fails, what I’ve asked my team to do is to look at all options. What other means can we put in place to change Mr. Putin’s calculus? And the possibility of lethal defensive weapons is one of those options that’s being examined, but I have not made a decision about that yet. I have consulted with not just Angela, but will be consulting with other allies about this issue. It’s not based on the idea that Ukraine could defeat a Russian army that was determined; it is, rather, to see whether or not there are additional things we can do to help Ukraine bolster its defenses in the face of separatist aggression. But I want to emphasize that a decision has not yet been made.

AMY GOODMAN: German Chancellor Merkel reiterated her opposition to arming Ukraine, saying the conflict could not be resolved militarily.

CHANCELLOR ANGELA MERKEL: [translated] We continue to pursue a diplomatic solution, even though we have suffered a lot of setbacks. These days, we will see whether all sides are ready and willing to come to a negotiated settlement. I’ve always said I don’t see a military solution to this conflict, but we have to put all our efforts into bringing about a diplomatic solution.

AARON MATÉ: On Wednesday, Angela Merkel will travel to the Belarus capital of Minsk for talks with leaders of Russia, Ukraine and France in a bid to end the crisis that has killed thousands and displaced 1.5 million people over the past year. Over the weekend, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov accused the West of helping to escalate the conflict in eastern Ukraine.

SERGEY LAVROV: [translated] Unfortunately, at every stage of development in the Ukrainian crisis, our American colleagues and, under their influence, the European Union, as well, made steps leading to escalation of conflict. It’s happened so when the European Union refused to discuss, with Russia’s participation, the consequences of putting into effect an economic block of the Association Agreement with Ukraine. Then there was a direct support for the state coup and, before that, for anti-government protests. The same happened when our Western partners again and again found excuses for everything done by Kiev authorities, which, instead of launching nationwide dialogue, started a wide-scale military operation and called “terrorists” their own citizens who did not agree with the regime change and the rise of ultranationalists.

AMY GOODMAN: To talk more about whether the United States should arm the Ukrainian military, we’re joined by two guests. Joining us from Chicago is John Mearsheimer, professor of political science at the University of Chicago. He’s the author of The Tragedy of Great Power Politics; his most recent piece, “Don’t Arm Ukraine,” published in The New York Times.

In Washington, D.C., we’re joined by General Charles Wald, retired four-star Air Force general, former deputy commander of U.S. European Command, co-author of a new report titled “Preserving Ukraine’s Independence, Resisting Russian Aggression: What the United States and NATO Must Do.” It was published last week by the Brookings Institution, the Atlantic Council and the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. He now works at the consulting firm Deloitte Services, where he serves as vice chair, the Federal Practice senior adviser, leader of Deloitte’s Department of Defense practice.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! General Wald, let’s begin with you. With this report you put out, along—these three major think tanks, why you feel the U.S. should arm the Ukrainian government?

GEN. CHARLES WALD: Thank you for that. The report talks about how we can get to an end state, or at least move the ball down the court on the negotiations for a removal of the Russian military from the eastern Ukraine and go back to the Minsk, at least the line of agreement there. Our belief is—and I heard the discussions, and I actually agree with a lot that’s been said. But I think the difference, for us and others—maybe John will talk to this—is that we don’t believe just a single path—in this case, diplomacy—without some other consequences for Russia, and Putin particularly, will make a difference. So our belief is that we—number one, I think the Ukrainians have the right to defend themselves. And number two, we need to make sure that Russia finds some consequence to the fact that they are attacking Ukraine. Nobody in our report believes that the military solution is the best end state or the fact that Ukraine can defeat Russia, but we do believe that the Ukrainians deserve the right to defend themselves and make it difficult for the Russians to move forward.

AARON MATÉ: But, General, do you believe that all diplomatic options have been exhausted? I mean, on the right to defend oneself, people living in eastern Ukraine, the ethnic Russians there who identify more with Russia than with Ukraine and the West, would say that they have the right to defend themselves against the West, because their president was ousted a year ago. So, do you believe that their concerns have been sufficiently—not addressed, to the point where a diplomatic solution isn’t possible at this point and one has to escalate the fighting, as arming Ukraine would suggest?

GEN. CHARLES WALD: Absolutely not. I believe the—first of all, the fact that Yanukovych left the Ukraine was not necessarily through force. It was through a diplomatic means. Number two is, the Minsk agreement has agreed to ceasefire line that allows for lands in the eastern part of Ukraine to be an autonomous region. The Ukrainian military did not initiate the fighting in the east; they’re defending themselves. So, I think that argument, made obviously by Russia, is not correct, it’s specious, and I think it clouds the issue.

AMY GOODMAN: Professor Mearsheimer, you say that the U.S. should not arm Ukraine. Why?

JOHN MEARSHEIMER: Well, the basic game plan here is to drive the costs up for the Russians. As the general said, there’s no way that we can create a situation where the Ukrainian military can defeat Russia, so what we’re going to try and do is significantly drive up the costs for Putin, and we’re assuming that he’s then going to throw his hands up and quit, that we’ll be able to get him to do what we want him to do. That’s not going to happen for one very simple reason: He considers to be what’s happening in Ukraine to be of vital strategic interest to his country. This is the equivalent of Canada or Mexico for the United States. It’s a country right on his border. And he sees NATO and the EU marching up to his border, trying to peel Ukraine away from Russia and make it a Western bulwark. This is just unacceptable to him. And when states get in a situation like that, where their core strategic interests are at stake, they’re willing to suffer enormous costs. So we can inflict great punishment on him, but the fact is, he will not throw his hands up. And this is why the sanctions haven’t worked so far and why arming him is not going to do the trick.

But let’s assume that I’m wrong. Let’s assume that we really drive the costs way up, and he is, Putin is, in a desperate situation. The question you want to ask yourself is: Do you want to put a great power, that sees its vital interests at stake and has thousands of nuclear weapons, in a situation where it’s desperate? I do not want to do that. I think that this is playing with fire. And for this reason, I think there is no military solution to this crisis. It has to be solved diplomatically.

AMY GOODMAN: General Wald?

GEN. CHARLES WALD: Well, in response, first of all, it’s great to hear somebody articulate what seems to be a logical argument on why we shouldn’t go down the path of arming up the Ukrainians. First of all, if Canada or Mexico had an election tomorrow and a different government was put in place, I don’t think we’d feel threatened. Number two, nobody is arming up Putin. Putin has armed up the rebels. And a matter of fact, they have at least a thousand Russian officers in eastern Ukraine today. The argument that we’re going to somehow make Putin feel threatened as a country by arming the Ukrainians is really almost laughable.

But I think the big issue, again, is that—first of all, our report emphasizes the fact that the best outcome and the preferred outcome—and the only outcome, frankly—is a diplomatic outcome. The issue is, you can’t have a single-pronged approach to this problem with a person like Putin. He does not listen to international norms. And the fact that we are trying to impose the way we wish things would be in the world on a world that isn’t how we like it doesn’t make any sense. And we do that invariably in areas like this. So I think we need to have a sophisticated approach.

I think there’s many different parts of the policy or the diplomacy or the strategy, if you will. One, primarily, is diplomacy, which we’re involved with. And matter of fact, President Obama said Monday, again, we’re going to wait to see how the discussions in this week, on Wednesday, go. But number two is, our logic in the West—I mean, I would think that we would say, “Let’s have a diplomatic approach. Let’s come to a solution. Let’s get it over with. And let’s go back to some kind of normalcy in the Ukraine today. We can allow for an autonomous region in the east, not any bigger than was agreed to in Minsk.” But the fact of the matter is, Putin will not go down that path unless he sees some kind of consequence. I do not think we should get into a large international military conflict with Russia. But Putin has to have some kind of penalty and price to pay to get to where he needs to go.

AARON MATÉ: Let’s go back to Professor Mearsheimer, this argument that Putin has to pay a price for supporting the rebels is the only way to resolve the crisis.

JOHN MEARSHEIMER: Well, again, the key point you want to understand is that Putin thinks that his core vital interests are at stake. Ukraine is a country that has great geostrategic importance for him. And he is going to pay an enormous price to keep NATO and to keep the EU out of that area. He’s made that clear since 2008. The Russians have been against NATO expansion from the beginning. They have said that this was going to lead to a strategic disaster. And we’re basically on the precipice of that.

You know, I would ask the general this question: Do you believe in the Monroe Doctrine? Do you believe that President Kennedy was correct to force the Soviets during the Cold War to get their missiles out of Cuba? If 20 years from now China were to try to form a military alliance with Mexico and Canada, would you say that’s OK, the government in Canada and the government in Mexico want that, and they have a right to have whatever they want? I think the answer is categorically no. I can’t believe a former general doesn’t believe in the Monroe Doctrine and doesn’t think it’s in our interest—that’s America’s interest—to make sure that no distant great power comes into our backyard with military forces.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, let’s put the question—

JOHN MEARSHEIMER: What is going on with Putin is essentially the same thing.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s put the question—

GEN. CHARLES WALD: Well, you’re actually—you’re, first of all—

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s put the question to General Wald.

GEN. CHARLES WALD: OK, OK, I get it. And, first of all, if you want to do a history lesson, that’s probably a different show, but, yes, I believe in the Monroe Doctrine.


GEN. CHARLES WALD: No, I don’t believe the Soviets should have invaded Cuba. No, I don’t believe Russia has the right to invade Ukraine. If China and Canada want to have an alliance, that’s their problem. I don’t think that’s an issue militarily. So you’re mixing up several situations to try to make an issue, a point.

The point—the fact of the matter is, Russia has invaded and helped to invade—they have people there, they have equipment there—a sovereign territory. I don’t care if Ukraine is part of NATO or the EU, for that matter. Matter of fact, President Poroshenko has agreed publicly to swear that they will not go toward a membership in NATO as part of the agreement. He has said they will not do that. He has said, probably, they won’t go to the EU, although economically I think what Ukraine needs more than anything is a good economy. So I think this idealistic, misplaced argument that everything is similar in the world, the Monroe Doctrine, the invasion or the movement of Russia into Cuba are similar, is an argument for people that haven’t studied history, frankly.

JOHN MEARSHEIMER: When I was a little boy, my mother taught me that what’s good for the goose is good for the gander. And if it’s OK for us to have a Monroe Doctrine, if it makes perfect strategic sense for us not to want to have distant great powers on our borders, it should make equally good sense for the Russians to think that way—and, by the way, for the Chinese to think that way. That’s the way great powers behave. And the problem in Washington is that people cannot put themselves in the shoes of leaders in distant capitals. We have to appreciate how Putin thinks about this thing. You don’t have to like Putin. Putin may be a thug. But the fact of the matter is that he and almost all of his colleagues in the Russian leadership believe that NATO, and the West, more generally, are a threat to Russian interests, and what is going on in Ukraine is unacceptable.

GEN. CHARLES WALD: Well, here’s the point to that. Here’s the answer to that. First of all, you’re mixing up the situation again. The United States is not going to occupy the Ukraine. NATO is not going to occupy the Ukraine. NATO has said the Ukraine is not going to be part of NATO. So, the fact of the matter is there’s no—

JOHN MEARSHEIMER: It has not said that. It has never said that.

GEN. CHARLES WALD: Hold on a second. Yeah, they did. They just said it with the agreement of Poroshenko in negotiations with Putin. Poroshenko said, “We are not going to,” the Ukraine in this case. And the Western powers, not NATO, but Germany and France, in this case, have agreed that as part of the Minsk agreement, the resetting of the Minsk line, the removal of Russian troops from the Ukraine, that Ukraine would not pursue a NATO membership. That is a fact that’s on public record. Two is, the United States has no intention whatsoever of occupying the Ukraine. Three, the United States would like to see Ukraine be treated as a sovereign nation and have their economy come back to health. Four, we don’t want Russia invading and occupying the Ukraine or going further. Five, we don’t want Russia threatening the other NATO nations that would possibly be of threat, and that could be Poland and Baltics, and obviously Moldova not being part of NATO, but part of the frozen conflict. So, the argument that we’re making, this idealistic, intellectual argument, comparing this to the Monroe Doctrine, is basically unfortunate. I think it’s a smart argument that a professor would make, but it’s wrong.

AMY GOODMAN: We have to break, but we’ll come back to get Professor Mearsheimer’s response. We’re also speaking with General Charles Wald. This is Democracy Now! The debate: Should the U.S. arm Ukraine? Stay with us.


AMY GOODMAN: Our guests are General Chuck Wald. He was part of a group of three think tanks that issued a report on the arming of Ukraine. We’re also joined by University of Chicago professor John Mearsheimer. Aaron?

AARON MATÉ: Well, yes. On Saturday, Russian President Vladimir Putin says Russia will not accept a world order where one leader dictates what others will do.

PRESIDENT VLADIMIR PUTIN: [translated] It’s a fact that there clearly is an attempt to restrain our development with different means. There is an attempt to freeze the existing world order, which formed in the decade which followed the collapse of the Soviet Union, with one incontestable leader who wants to remain as such, thinking he is allowed everything, while others are only allowed what he allows and only in his interests. This world order will never suit Russia. If someone likes it, if someone wants to live under conditions of semi-occupation, let him. We will never do this.

AARON MATÉ: That’s Russian President Vladimir Putin. Professor Mearsheimer, there was some debate before the break about the issue whether Ukraine has disavowed joining NATO. The only reference I’ve seen recently is that Poroshenko said the issue would be put off for several years, during which time Ukraine would deliberate this. But can you explain the history behind Putin’s fear, why he is upset about what he says to be NATO encroachment on Russia?

JOHN MEARSHEIMER: Well, NATO expansion started in the late 1990s. And the initial tranche, or the first wave of expansion, included countries like Poland and Czechoslovakia. That, again, happened in 1999. And then there was a second big tranche in 2004, which included the Baltic states. And all along, the Russians screamed out loud that this was unacceptable. But there was not much they could do about it because they were very weak, and also the expansion was at a distance at that point in time. Then, in April 2008 at the Bucharest summit—this is the NATO Bucharest summit, April 2008—the end of that summer, a communiqué was issued that said that both Georgia and Ukraine would become part of NATO. And this, by the way, is what precipitated, in large part, the war between Georgia and Russia in August 2008. The Russians made it very clear at the time that NATO expansion into Georgia and into Ukraine was categorically unacceptable.

And what has happened since 2008 is that relations between the Russians and the Americans and the West Europeans, more generally, have gone south, in good part because of NATO expansion—but not only because of NATO expansion, also because of EU expansion, and, furthermore, because of the West’s interest in facilitating the spread of democracy in eastern Europe, maybe even in Russia itself, because the Russians see democracy promotion by the West as basically an attempt to overthrow pro-Russian leaders, or Russian leaders themselves, and put in their place leaders who are pro-Western. So the Russians are very sensitive about this, and therefore it’s no accident that this whole crisis started last February, February 22nd, 2014, when there was a coup in Kiev where a pro-Russian leader, Yanakovych, was overthrown with help from the United States. This is something the Russians considered to be unacceptable, and it led to the present crisis.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to ask General Wald about how military contractors in the United States feel. You are a retired four-star Air Force general. You’re the former deputy commander of U.S. European Command. But you’re also currently Deloitte’s Federal Government Services Department of Defense Practice leader. Would the weapons industry in this country benefit from arming Ukraine?

GEN. CHARLES WALD: First of all, I’m not a weapons dealer, and I don’t represent Deloitte in this discussion. Number three is, I doubt if—seriously, if anybody of logic at all would think this is really a good idea so we could sell more arms to NATO, or Ukraine in this case. You know, it’s just—that’s the wrong argument.

Let me go back to Professor Mearsheimer’s last discussion. Great synopsis of the recent history. I couldn’t agree more. The part that I kind of take a little bit exception with is the last part. That was an implication that expecting nations in the world, the world order today, the Westphalian model, which is being pressured a little bit today, that Westphalian model of national sovereignty—but the fact of the matter is that the implication that we shouldn’t expect governments to treat their people with dignity, respect, and have human rights in mind, to me, is unfortunate, because that’s really what this is really all about.

Now, going back to the NATO implication, of the Ukraine joining NATO—and Georgia, for that matter—a personal opinion, this is not representing any particular organization or group, but I think NATO overstepped their bounds a little bit, particularly after the Bucharest statement, that we were going to try to see if Ukraine and Georgia then could become members of NATO. I think that was a mistake.

I think the issue should be: Are people—are countries, in this case, in Europe—going to abide by international law, have governments that treat their people with dignity and respect? And the fact of the matter is, Putin has no claim to any sphere of influence whatsoever in Europe, other than Russia, period, dot, over and out. And so, to keep comparing us to what he’s doing, as a counter, that we actually have done the same thing, is, I think, an incorrect argument and actually, I think, puts a lot of good people in America in a position that makes us compared to Putin, is the wrong thing whatsoever at all to do.

So, the issue today is: Does Russia and Putin—do they have the right to invade a sovereign territory because they don’t like the government’s action from the standpoint of sovereignty? I think that’s as simple as that. And is the West and the rest of the world going to stand by when you have a thug like Putin intervening and invading, basically, a sovereign territory, and just stand by and say, “Maybe we could talk about it until you get what you want, Mr. Putin”? That is a big mistake. And to compare Russia to NATO in those objectives, I think, is intellectually kind of interesting, but it’s totally incorrect.

AMY GOODMAN: Professor Mearsheimer, your response? Is the rest of the world just standing by?

JOHN MEARSHEIMER: Well, let me make a couple points. First of all, the United States sometimes violates international law when it thinks it’s in its interest. The war in Iraq was a clear violation of international law. The war against Serbia over Kosovo in 1999 was a clear violation of international law. The idea that the United States obeys international law and the Russians are simply an outlaw state is not, in my opinion, a correct argument.

Furthermore, with regard to democracy promotion, I’m all in favor of promoting democracy around the world. But the United States has a rich history of overthrowing democratically elected leaders. And furthermore, when it comes to democracy promotion, especially in places like Ukraine, you want to understand that we’re not just simply interested in promoting democracy because it represents our best values; we’re interested in promoting democracy there, and in many other places, as well, because we think it will end up putting in power leaders who are pro-American. And by the way, when that doesn’t happen, we then overthrow those leaders, which contradicts the basic assumption that underpins the policy to begin with. So the United States does not have a particularly good record with regard to either international law or democracy promotion.

With regard to Putin and what’s happened in Ukraine, the fact is, he, right, is now in Ukraine, or his military forces, in however many numbers, are in Ukraine. We’re in this mess. And the question is: How do we get out of it? And I would argue that using big stick diplomacy, which almost everybody in the American national security elite loves to do, is not going to fix the problem. We have been using the big stick in Iraq, in Afghanistan, in Libya, and we’ve made a mess everywhere we’ve gone. It’s going to be the same story again if we do arming of the Ukrainians. It’s not going to work. It’s just going to escalate the violence, more Ukrainians are going to die, the Russians are going to redouble their efforts, and the crisis is going to escalate. And as I said early on, you want to remember that you’re dealing with a country that has thousands of nuclear warheads and thinks its core strategic interests are at stake. If you put that country in a precarious position, you put Putin in a situation where he feels desperate, it’s not clear what he’ll do. And given he has nuclear weapons, I don’t want to go down that road.

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