As tensions build, U.S. has ‘zero options’ in Ukraine


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HARI SREENIVASAN:  What’s driving Vladimir Putin’s thinking about all of this? What is the Russian perspective? For more about that, we are joined now by Stephen Cohen. He is professor emeritus of Russian Studies at New York University and of politics at Princeton University. Thanks for joining us.

Putin just raised the stakes a significant amount, why?

STEPHEN COHEN: We hear the American view that Putin is a neo-imperialist and a Soviet leader and he’s trying to recreate the Soviet Union. He’s something fundamentally different. Remember he came to power 14 years ago and he inherited a collapsed state. Remember also that the Russian state has collapsed twice in the 20th century – in 1917 and again in 1991. Putin’s mission as he sees it, and as the Russian political elite sees it, is to restore Russian stability, greatness at home and that includes to secure Russia’s traditiona, historical security zones around Russia. First and foremost, that is Ukraine.

So what Putin did when he mobilized his forces, was to say to the United States and to Europe, you are crossing my red line and I have no choice. And politically at home, and given the pro-Russian forces and sentiments in Eastern and Southern Ukraine bordering Russia, I don’t see that he had a choice. Now, he has a choice of what he will do next, but that will depend on us, I think.

HARI SREENIVASAN: What are the options for the U.S. here?

STEPHEN COHEN: Zero. Zero, unless we want to go to war. Putin holds all the cards for better or worse. He holds the military cards because it’s his territory. He holds the political cards because a very large portion of Ukraine supports Putin, not the West. He holds the economic cards because Ukraine is part of the Russian economy. And legally — you’ll have to ask a lawyer — there is the question of whether the Russians are right – is the government in Kiev which overthrew, 10 days ago, the constitutional order in Kiev and threw out the elected president — is it a legitimate government – whatever that word means? Putin says it it’s not legitimate. We haven’t recognized it as yet, but we’re acting as if it is legitimate. I don’t know what a lawyer would say.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Are we following the same path of 2008 in Russia and Georgia? Where essentially this escalated into an all-out war for a few days?

STEPHEN COHEN: You’re right, there is a similarity in the sense that that two was a red line — the Former Soviet Republic of Georgia. But there was something else there. First it was of much lesser importance to Russia than Ukraine because of its location and its size. Secondly, even though we always say that Russian and Putin invaded tiny little Georgia, the fact is that the war was begin, by the American-backed military forces of Georgia– because they attacked Russian enclaves in Georgia.

Today, nobody fired a shot and if nobody fires a shot there is a way out. But there is a worse scenario and that is if the Russians think they have to move their troops not only into Crimea, this peninsula where their naval base is and historically part of Russia, but also into eastern and southern Ukraine as well.  There will be enormous pressure for NATO to move into western Ukraine and then all bets are off.

HARI SREENIVASAN: What is the capability of capacity of the Ukrainian army? Where do their loyalties lie?

STEPHEN COHEN: That’s a terrific question, after all, as much of the Ukrainian army, such as it is, 130,000 troops, is ethnically Russian. We don’t know whether they would follow Kiev’s orders.  But if there was a war – and literally even if we’re not religious we need to pray there’s not a war – because this would be a turning point in history. If there’s a war, Ukrainians who support Kiev and the West will become partisan fighters. They don’t really have an army that can fight and that will be as bloody as anything. It will be a civil war and ancient hatreds – tombstones will be kicked over as they say – and all sorts of ancient hatreds will roam the land for years and years.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Briefly, you’ve studied American-Russian relations – how bad is this point now?

STEPHEN COHEN: I think we now have seen the descent of a new Cold War divide –this time not in Berlin but on Russia’s borders. Can it end there? I mean it’s already fateful – can it not get worse? I think it depends on whether the West now rises to leadership and gives Putin the guarantees he needs to back off. Now, in America there’s a different view – that he has to back off first. But that’s where we stand.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Stephen Cohen thanks so much.

STEPHEN COHEN: My pleasure.

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