Maximalist Author Stephen Sestanovich On Ukraine
HH: This hour, all eyes on Ukraine, and I begin it with Stephen Sestanovich, who served as the U.S. Ambassador-at-large to the former Soviet Union during the Clinton years. He was a senior staff member on the National Security Council and at the State Department during the Reagan administration. I think we actually overlapped a year in the White House. And I think he was my teaching assistant in Gov 40 when I was an undergraduate. He’s also now the author of a wonderful new book, Maximalist, which I picked up this weekend, it arrived in the mail, and I began to read and engrossed immediately in this history of America’s foreign policy from Truman to Obama. And then when the Ukraine erupted in chaos yesterday, my thoughts turned to him immediately. And I’m pleased to welcome him for the first time onto the program. Dr. Sestanovich, welcome to the Hugh Hewitt Show.
SS: It’s a pleasure.
HH: Now did you, were in fact a TA for Gov 40 and Sydney Hoffman?
SS: I was indeed. I was indeed, several years in a row in the 70s.
HH: I think you were my TA in ’74-’75, and I think I did an A in the course, so I’ll stay with you here. It’s a great book. It’s a terrific book.
HH: But I don’t know what your opinion is on the chaos in Ukraine. Tell us how dangerous this is and whether or not you believe President Putin might actually end up intervening there.
SS: Well, I doubt that President Putin will intervene, but I’ll just say that right at the top, but let’s go back to how dangerous it is. Ukraine is a country that has actually been pretty good at resolving internal divisions, dealing more or less democratically, even if in a very disorganized, chaotic, corrupt way, with its problems, hasn’t succeeded all that well, but hasn’t had a lot of violence, and has not had a kind of backsliding into dictatorship of the sort that you’ve had in a lot of the other former Soviet states. But now that is at risk, and that’s why it’s dangerous. There has been a confrontation now three months old between the opposition in the streets and the government, and it has gotten increasingly violent. We’ve seen all these pictures today, and the past couple of days, of the Molotov cocktails, we’ve read the numbers of the deaths. You know, it seems like St. Petersburg in 1917, a genuine, sort of all hell breaking loose revolutionary situation.
HH: Now you used an elegant word there, and I left Maximalist at home, because I didn’t realize we were able to get you today, and I haven’t been able to look at Ukraine in the index. But backsliding is the elegant word. I say we’re losing, the West is losing Ukraine. Is that too strong of a term?
SS: Well, I think it’s true that both the U.S. and the European Union have been overconfident about the kind of influence that they could have in Ukraine. The Europeans have discovered how powerful their magnetism is for Ukraine. There’s a large part of the Ukrainian population that wants to be oriented toward Europe. And when President Yanukovych backed away in November from a deal that would bring Ukraine closer to Europe, the result was a huge series of demonstrations. The West, and in particular, the European Union, figured that they could kind of make this work without putting a lot of effort into it, without putting a lot of money on the table, to be honest. And I think that’s been a kind of missing element in their policy. They sort of figured that Ukraine would fall into their laps. And when Putin got into the running and decided he was going to push back, he was prepared to put $15 billion dollars on the table to keep Ukraine in his orbit. So I think we have not quite reckoned with what a serious struggle this is.
HH: Well, that sounds like we are losing.
SS: Well, we aren’t losing in the sense that the outcome is still very much in doubt in Ukraine, and the advantages keep seeming to shift toward the opposition. The popular anger with the government is so powerful that every time they try to crack down, the response is even more powerful than before. There’s been an escalation. I think the Ukrainian government, by the way, has handled this with unbelievable incompetence. And they have antagonized large portions of the population that were prepared to kind of go along with them.
HH: I’m talking with Stephen Sestanovich, who is the author of Maximalist, very, very down the middle, one of the guys who you could actually trust to be on both sides, because he actually worked on both sides. He worked for the Reagan National Security Council, he worked for the Clinton State Department. He’s a straight shooter. He’s a Moynihan Democrat. I guess I’ll put it that way. He’s like my buddy, Dan Poneman, one of those guys who they may play for the other team occasionally, but they get it right. So in light of this, Professor Sestanovich, I look at Georgia from another Olympic period, another six years ago, and President Putin sent in troops. Why are you confident he won’t do that if he’s actually gotten an elected government, or quasi-elected government, little dicey circumstances there, but if they ask for help from Russian, why do you think he would hesitate to send in, or send north from the Crimea, the troops he’s already got in the country?
SS: Well, because it would be a bloody mess. And while Putin managed to have an easy victory in Georgia, even there he didn’t press his luck, you know? He was in and out relatively quickly.
HH: But W. was in the White House then, right? That’s a different…
SS: That’s true.
HH: This is President Obama of the vanishing red lines.
SS: It’s true…
HH: That was W. who stared him down.
SS: But the problems that would keep President Putin from intervening in Ukraine are not primarily the ones associated with a Western reaction. He’s not thinking Angela Merkel or the president of the France are going to disapprove. He’s wondering about what would happen in Ukraine. And…
HH: Is he worried at all about President Obama? President Obama mentioned another line today in a sort of amazing, they probably told him right before he walked out, whatever you do, don’t mention a line, and he went out and he talked about another line. Do you think Putin worries about him at all?
SS: You know, the president of Russia can never ignore the president of the United States. That’s just the power reality that works to our advantage in the world. But it is true that President Obama has undermined his credibility by talking about things that he would do when he then didn’t do them. As I say, there is an effort being made by the Europeans and the Americans to put a little steel in their position. The President spent a lot of time explaining today that there would be consequences if there were a violent crackdown in Ukraine. The initial demonstration of that was not the most assertive kind of policy. The American ambassador in Ukraine announced that some visas of Ukrainian officials had been suspended, but he said there’d be more to come. And the European Union has said they’re definitely looking at sanctions today. They are kind of trying slowly to get their act together. The European Union does not get its act together easily.
HH: But how significant is the hangover from Syria, and the fact that John Kerry big-footed our allies on the Iran front just months ago? I see that foreign ministers from Poland, Germany and France are headed over to Kiev tomorrow, not John Kerry. Are they afraid he’d screw it up?
SS: No, they are thinking that this is a problem that they are in the lead on. They have done that pretty consistently. You know, when the Orange Revolution happened, the Western European officials who appeared in the streets of Kiev immediately were the president of Poland, the foreign minister of the EU, Javier Solana, at the time the former secretary-general of NATO. So there was a strong European interest, and the fact that they’re rushing to the scene, to me, is a good sign. That shows they’re really engaged. They’re playing catch up. They know that. Their influence has been shown to be great in a psychological way, and in the hearts and minds of the people you might say, but they haven’t yet shown that they can affect the next big issue which is up for decision in Ukraine, and that is does Yanukovych step down, and is there a new government. And those guys, the French, German and Polish foreign ministers, to their credit, are basically going to Ukraine to try to broker that deal.
HH: Okay, last question, Professor Sestanovich.
HH: And we’ll talk at length about Maximalist down the road.
HH: And I would encourage everyone to get it. If in fact, Kennedy went to Vienna and gave Khrushchev the wrong impression. Are we in a similar period of time where President Obama folded in Syria, and Putin might have a different impression of him as he, as Putin decides what to do in Ukraine?
SS: Well, I’d put it this way. I think that there is a lot of questioning around the world about what strong American statements count for. And there are countries that are very eager to believe in American commitment. You see that in East Asia, where countries are asking the United States to give them a little bit of support in their confrontations with China. You see that in the Middle East, where countries have been asking for American leadership at a time of the sort of chaos resulting from Syria. So around the world, there are countries saying we need more consistent, resolute American policy, and I think that word is getting through in Washington.
HH: I hope you are right about that. Stephen Sestanovich, author of Maximalist, thanks for joining us on short notice and illuminating what’s going on in Ukraine.
End of interview.