Putin Trying to Make a Basket Case out of Ukraine

Brookings President Strobe Talbott (icontwitter @strobetalbott) told MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell today that Russian President Vladimir Putin’s long-term goal is “a re-imposition of Russian domination of Ukraine” and all of the countries along the periphery of the Russian Federation to be either “vassal states” or “basket cases.” And “he is now trying to make a basket case out of Ukraine.” Talbott’s remarks on the show appear below.

Q: What is Putin up to?

He has a near term goal which is apparent and it’s been updated today … and that is to do everything possible to destabilize Ukraine to make sure that the government that succeeded the brutal and corrupt presidency of Yanukovych fails to have elections in another month.

And his long-term goal is to build upon that instability a re-imposition of Russian domination of Ukraine. He basically wants all of the countries around the periphery of the Russian Federation, with the exception maybe of China, to be in one of two categories. Either they are going to be vassal states, that they basically take orders from Moscow. Or they’re basket cases. And he is now trying to make a basket case out of Ukraine.

Q: Why does Moscow seem to do such effective PR work?

You put it very, very politely in saying “effective PR.” This is not effective PR. This is the worst, most grotesque kind of Orwellian propaganda. We haven’t seen this kind of big lie since the darkest days of the cold war.

And by the way … we have to be very, very careful about accepting the Russian version of what’s happening there. There has been a poll just within the past week that shows that a large majority of the Russian-speaking Ukrainians in fact want to be part of a unified and independent Ukraine. So there is a lot of mischief being made by the Russian side including in the area of propaganda

Q: The most vocal people on the streets are the Russian speakers …

Because of the sort of fraught intimacy of these two countries, which were one country not that long ago … a lot of the folks that are out there, not only raising Russian flags but raising Soviet flags with hammers and sickles, are Russians from the other side of the border. In other words, it’s just as we saw in the Crimea, this is not a local option being exercised. This is being not only stirred up, but actively magnified by moving Russians across the border.

Q: What should the United States do?

I think if it comes to lethal arms we want to make sure that we’re in very close touch with, as we are, the interim government of Ukraine. Because the interim government of Ukraine doesn’t want to give Moscow even more of a pretext to do what they’re already doing. But I can’t imagine that there isn’t plenty of room for additional non-lethal aid. I think you’ve reported on your show that meals-ready-to-eat, MREs, were going in. No toothpaste, no socks, no sleeping bags, that sort of thing. There’s a lot more that we could do that would have a practical use for the Ukrainian military, but would not be lethal. But the other thing about the Ukrainian military is that it is not in good shape. It’s been a casualty of the lousy government that Ukraine has had ever since it got free of the Soviet Union. And of course it hasn’t had the benefit of cooperating with NATO under Partnership for Peace that was the case for the early years of the ’90s.

Talbott and Mitchell finished the program by watching a video of a supposed large gathering of al Qaeda militants in Yemen. Talbott reacted to the video with a tie-in to the Russia-Ukraine issue, saying that:

What Vladimir Putin is doing today may look like a walkover for him and a big victory for him. In the long term it is going to be the opposite. It is going to be a defeat for Putinism and for Russia for the following reason. It has to do with organizations like al Qaeda. Putin’s basic line here is that he is arrogating to himself the right and obligation to defend what he calls “kinsmen and fellow citizens,” i.e. native Russians, or ethnic Russians on the other side of borders. That is going to create a pretext so that organizations like al Qaeda will say, well we can help our brethren in places like Chechnya and the Islamic parts of the Russian federation.

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