Putin mostly fears a united European action (Scott Uehlinger)

Scott Uehlinger, a US Service Academy graduate, served ten years in both the US Navy and merchant service.  Entering the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in 1996, he served abroad in US embassies located in the former Soviet Union for more than ten years. A Russian speaker, he retired from a career at the Agency. Uehlinger answered Cyceon’s questions about the situation in Ukraine:

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1) Days ago, French President François Hollande said about the conflict between Ukraine and Russia that “if we can’t reach a peace accord, it’s called war,” do you think the word “war” is appropriate?

S.U.: I think that the more proper phrase would be “conflict” – a matter of semantics, unfortunately, because more than 5000 have died. However I applaud President Hollande’s willingness to speak openly about the gravity of the situation. Russian President Vladimir Putin‘s decisions to provoke crisis in Ukraine, however, have been rational from his own viewpoint. He also considers himself the defender of Russia’s heritage and history in the face of the continued insults by the West. His actions have been in the face of perceived weakness and lack of resolution by the West. While Putin believes in recapturing the “glory” of the old Soviet Union, I believe he will ultimately shrink away from large scale military incursion – even authoritarians have to be wary of a nation’s youth coming home in body bags.

2) In Europe, a large majority thinks that Russia’s military is unbeatable and has no equivalent except the US.  Do you agree?  Can’t a nuclear-armed and advanced military force like France’s do anything about it?

S.U.: Certainly France has the type of modern, well-equipped, deployable ground and air forces that would give Russia pause should it be partially deployed to Ukraine. Operation Serval and Operation Unicorn are recent examples of French capability. The larger question is, however, the willingness of the European powers to stand up to Russian aggression. Putin‘s calculus has always been to take advantage of European disunity. His use of energy politics is the most visible example. France has always been able to “hit above its weight” on the diplomatic front,  and I tend to believe that a strong French stand, potentially more than an American one, would give Putin great pause to reconsider his present actions.

3) Recent articles in the business news media affirmed that Russia is on the brink of a financial banqueroute. With a GDP that is less important than Italy’s, does it mean Russia will likely stop the escalation before it gets any worse? 

S.U.: The Russian people have historically been able to bear long stretches of privation. I expect sanctions to bite, but to be ineffective in cowing Russia in the short/medium term; the Russian mentality is to “dig in” in the face of adversity. Also strengthening Putin‘s resolve is his belief that this latest “crisis” is really a devious Western design to keep Russia down. Putin is, above all, however, an opportunist. He is intent, like any intelligence officer, on exploiting weakness for operational gain. I believe he will back down, IF confronted by low-key but strong Western resolve – provided he has the ability to “save face” through a gradual de-escalation of the crisis. This might be done by crafting an International Settlement that upholds Russian dignity.

4) In a recent lecture at Lehigh University (PA, USA) you said that Russian spies are very good at “disinformation”. What kind of disinformation could be currently used about Ukraine? Can they use disinformation to influence financial markets to their advantage, i.e. Oil prices?

S.U.: I think Russia has been skillful with disinformation during this crisis.  It seems that any Western article on Ukraine draws comments remarking on the “fascist” nature of the government of Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, its being entirely a creation of the USG (Soros, CIA or both), et al.. I believe that Putin is using bloggers to provide the majority of such comments to shape western perceptions (see the Atlantic.com). Russian press has also “gone against the narrative” by charging Ukraine in downing Malaysian Airlines flight 17.  While I don’t believe that Ukraine is blameless in this crisis, disinformation weakens Western resolve and ensures that Putin can continue to take advantage of the lack of a unified western front.  Also, I greatly respect Russian cyberwarfare capability, and given the overextended state of the Global Economy, I believe it is very vulnerable to Russian destabilization. Putin would only consider such a move if he was backed into a corner, however.

5) An increasing part of the EU’s public opinion thinks that the United States is meddling with a situation that concerns Europe in the first place, to the point that sometimes the United States would be viewed as bellicose as Russia. What should the United States do to reassure the Europeans?

S.U.: US actions in Ukraine and Russian relations have been marred by missteps – many taken years ago, which likely served to “encourage” Russia to take advantage of a fluid international situation. The Hillary ClintonReset” campaign was an epic failure; this was because Administration politics obscured political realities.  Russia views regional chaos as manageable and to their national benefit.  This philosophy is consistent through centuries of foreign policy – and to believe it will change – through a “reset” or a “charm offensive” – is foolhardy and naive in the extreme.  The US should closely consult its European allies – I believe a unified European response with features of present US assistance to Ukraine (if it were possible) would be better than US action. Putin, a clever gambler, anticipated US assistance. However, if France were to lead an analogous action, it might give Russia pause. French action would unbalance Russian leadership, presenting Putin with evidence of what he fears: united European action.