Updates on what Brookings Scholars Are Saying about Ukraine and Crimea Crises

The crisis in Ukraine continues, with Russian military forces in control of key areas in the Crimean peninsula while the United States and other allies consider possible responses. Brookings experts continue to offer their insight and recommendations on the crisis.

Steven Pifer, a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, has been continually offering his insight and recommendations on the crisis. He just published this piece on Ukraine’s agreement to give up the nuclear weapons it had after the collapse of the Soviet Union:

Russia’s military occupation of Ukrainian territory on the Crimean peninsula constitutes a blatant violation of the commitments that Moscow undertook in the 1994 Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances for Ukraine. The United States and United Kingdom, the other two signatories, now have an obligation to support Ukraine and penalize Russia.

Marvin Kalb reacted to German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s statement that Russian President Vladimir Putin seemed to be “in another world”:

Putin is not mad, and he is not in “another world.” He is very much in his own world, which is for him a very realistic world of a new, frothy, determined Russian nationalism. Indeed, he is master of this world.

Strobe Talbott, who was ambassador-at-large and special adviser to the secretary of state for the new independent states of the Soviet Union, has been observing on Twitter:  

Pifer spoke on CNN to the demographic questions in Ukraine, which has large Russian-speaking populations in the eastern half of the country and in Crimea:

To be sure, there is an East-West divide in Ukraine, but I think it’s often overstated in the West. Certainly in the last two decades of Ukraine’s independence, that line has blurred a lot. Bear in mind, in eastern Ukraine, while the majority of the people there may speak Russian, it’s still a majority population that are ethnic Ukrainian. The only place in Ukraine where Russians are an ethnic majority is Crimea.

My sense is that in eastern Ukraine while they might not be wholly comfortable with what has happened in Kiev in the last 10 days, they are not talking about separatism. It’s a very big distinction between eastern Ukraine and Crimea.

Pifer spoke with WBUR on the current situation:

Michael O’Hanlon explains why he thinks that “it does not look likely to become catastrophic.”

Pifer and two other former U.S. ambassadors to Ukraine wrote of the consequences if Ukrainian and Russian forces clashed, and urged restraint on the part of Ukrainian forces. “The Ukrainians,” they wrote, “should leave an opening for Putin to back down.”

Pifer also appeared on “The Takeaway with John Hockenberry,” where he spoke of the risks to Russia for expanding its current actions:

If Mr. Putin goes beyond [Crimea], there are big risks for Russia. A Russian military intervention in Eastern Ukraine would lead to a situation where some Ukrainian military units would fight, there would be Ukrainian nationalists from Western Ukraine who I believe would head East and conduct basically a guerrilla war. It could be very nasty for Russia, and my hope is that the Russian military understands this and is telling Mr. Putin, “This is not something we want to get into.”

Listen below:

Fiona Hill, director of the Center on the United States and Europe, told CNN’s Anderson Cooper that up to last summer, the Russian government “didn’t care that much about the association with the EU,” referencing the European Union Association Agreement that Ukraine was determining whether or not to initial.

The Russian government actually told the Armenians, the Ukrainians, the Georgians and others that they actually didn’t care that much about the association with the EU. It’s the case that they certainly pressed home the strong feeling on their part that NATO was impermissible … But the Russians right up until this summer … led everyone to believe that the EU was fine from their perspective. And then it seems that they started to look at the small print of the EU association agreement and decided that actually EU was just as much of a threat to their interests as NATO.


In the video below, Pifer called attention to the fact that following the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991, all parties, including the Russians, agreed that existing borders would be recognized. Pifer also talked about the Budapest Memorandum of Assurances of 1994, which he helped negotiate and which “bundled commitments” previously made concerning post-Soviet security. Pifer says that Russia is “now is clearly violating those commitments and its time for the United States and Britain to act to show support for Ukraine.” Pifer outlined some steps that the international community can take to isolate and punish Russia. Watch below:

If Russian forces attempt to move into eastern Ukraine: “There will be some Ukrainian units that will resist, and a flood of people from western Ukraine saying, ‘This is my chance to be my grandfather and fight the Communists.’” – Steven Pifer, New York Times (March 1)

“What can we do? We’ll talk about sanctions. We’ll talk about red lines. We’ll basically drive ourselves into a frenzy. And [Putin will] stand back and just watch it. He just knows that none of the rest of us want a war.” – Fiona Hill, director of the Center on the United States and Europe, New York Times (March 1)

In their recent Big Bets & Black Swans briefing memo, “Putin’s Russia Goes Rogue,” Pifer and Hill wrote of Putin’s outlook and how he might use a crisis in Crimea to his advantage:

Putin perceives the European Union as a genuine strategic threat. The threat comes from the EU’s potential to reform associated countries in ways that pull them away from Russia. The EU’s Association Agreements and DCFTAs are incompatible with Putin’s plan to expand Russia’s Customs Union with Belarus and Kazakhstan and create a “Eurasian Union.” Putin’s goal is to secure markets for Russian products and guarantee Russian jobs. He also sees the Eurasian Union as a buffer against alien “civilizational” ideas and values from Europe and the West. … 

Moscow could take actions that weaken the coherence of the Ukrainian state, e.g., by appealing to ethnic Russians in Crimea, or even by provoking a violent clash in Sevastopol, leading to the deployment of Russian naval infantry troops from the Black Sea Fleet to “protect” ethnic Russians.

See all Brookings research and commentary on Ukraine on this topic page, as well as earlier collections of what scholars have been saying here and here.