VOA’s Eastern Europe bureau chief Myroslava Gongadze discusses the situation in Ukraine with Ambassador Michael Carpenter, U.S. permanent representative to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). The transcript has been edited for clarity:
VOA: Thank you so much for this interview on this Russian invasion. The war has tested the international community, international organizations, and their ability to actually withstand and deal with the crisis. How would you assess the effectiveness of the nations of the Security Council, of OSCE, in this particular crisis?
Carpenter: Well, first of all, the crisis that we have is one of the biggest challenges to the international order since the Second World War. Every single major principle encoded in the U.N. Charter and the Helsinki Final Act — but also let's not forget in the Geneva Conventions of war — has been violated. So we're dealing with a complete upending of the established system of rules and norms that we've all grown up assuming are set in stone essentially, with occasional violations here and there, but now it is really a rupture.
And so international organizations, you know, they bring people together around the table, but in and of themselves they can achieve very little unless there is consensus among the membership. And so at an organization like the OSCE where I work, we sit around the table with, on any given day, around 45 states that see the world the same way we do in the United States. But then we've also got Russia and Belarus there and then we've got the Central Asian states and a few others that are scared in the current context, but are maybe unwilling to take on Russia directly. So that is not a recipe in which we can achieve a lot of success in terms of implementing new mandates, putting institutions on the ground, but nevertheless the institutions or the organization remains.
VOA: What does it say about the ability of international organizations or the West to actually stop the war — that they were created to actually intervene in this kind of situation but they're not able to?
Carpenter: Well, so, I mean, when you have a member of the Security Council, when you have a major player like Russia that violates all the norms of the given organization, then multilateral diplomacy becomes much less effective. And right now, I have to say multilateral diplomacy is hamstrung as a result of Russia's violation of all these basic norms.
So what do we do in this circumstance? Well, we have to rely on what we can do bilaterally to help Ukraine, meaning: I'm the ambassador of the United States, not the ambassador of the OSCE, although I work in the OSCE. But my job is to look for ways for the United States to support Ukraine through the provision of military equipment, imposition of sanctions and export controls on Russia, looking to galvanize support from our allies and partners.
And that last piece is probably one of the most important ones. So we are working daily with our allies and partners — like, for example, the Germans, who had this internal norm against providing weapons to another country, which they've broken through now. The Swedes have also broken through this sort of notion of military neutrality and are providing weapons to Ukraine. So we are working on the margins at the OSCE to convince our partners that this is what we have to do, not just to support Ukraine, but to support the whole system of rules that frankly the decent civilized world ought to support.
VOA: Talking about leadership, specifically here in Europe, we see all the Eastern European countries like Poland, Baltic states and some others are pushing older Europe, specifically Germany and France, to be more active in supporting Ukraine and basically trying to defeat Russia. Does it mean that there are new alliances forming here in Europe? What does this war mean for Europe, per se?
Carpenter: Well, I think it's a sea change actually that we're seeing in attitudes towards Russia, and it's to a large degree being driven, as you say, by a lot of those Eastern members of the OSCE or of NATO who have lived — their family histories are embedded with stories of Russian imperialism, repression against the languages in the nations of this region — so they understand what Ukraine is facing right now and they understand that appeasement is not a solution. And so they are taking a strong stand.
The Irish, for example, have taken a very strong stand. Ireland is as far away from Russia on the European continent as you can get. The U.K. has had a fairly strong stance against Russian aggression for some time. The problem has been the influence, especially financially, on the city of London and on British, sort of, vested interests, if you will, but that too is starting to change. I mean, we're 100 days into this tragic war, which is 100 days too much. But we are seeing that those geopolitical trends are really profound, and they're going to shape the future of Europe for decades, I think, to come.
VOA: Very soon, the European Commission, European Union, will be deciding to grant or not to grant Ukraine membership status in the European Union. A couple of countries and the leadership of the European Union are saying it's a moral obligation for the European Union to accept Ukraine. Some countries are reluctant. Do you think Ukraine should be granted European Union membership?
Carpenter: Our position as the United States — obviously, we're not a member of the EU so we can't tell the EU what to do — but we strongly support Ukraine's Euro-Atlantic integration because this is the best way for Ukraine to anchor itself in a set of institutions that preserve its democracy, its sovereignty, its territorial integrity, and all the attributes of independence that we support and have long supported inside Ukraine. And my personal feeling is that once Ukraine emerges from this conflict — whenever that time may be — that we have a generational opportunity to rebuild Ukraine, also a moral imperative to rebuild Ukraine as a stronger, more vibrant, more resilient country than it already was. And it already was very united and very resilient. But even more so.
VOA: Russia was trying to stop expansion of NATO to the east, but they achieved quite the opposite because now a couple of countries that had been neutral are trying to get into NATO. What does this war mean for the NATO alliance?
Carpenter: This war is critical to NATO. This is NATO's raison d'être, that is, as a defensive alliance to protect the members against a considerable threat. And we have now a threat that is larger than any that we've faced since the existence of the Soviet Union. And it is imperative for NATO to adapt to deal with this threat. But the fact that you have countries like Finland and Sweden now vying for membership in the alliance is a perfect illustration of the fact that NATO is not expanding into territory along Russia's borders because somehow it seeks to gain additional territory. Just the opposite: Countries that are for decades neutral, that feel threatened by Russia's aggression, are coming to NATO and seeking the protective security guarantees that come with Article 5. So, it is a demand-driven process and it's, frankly, it's been that way all along from the very start. Poland, Hungary, Czech Republic, which initially formed that group of countries from within the Warsaw Pact that wanted to join, they joined because they saw what Russian troops on their territory meant for their freedoms. So this has never been NATO from Brussels pushing itself outwards. It's always been countries on Russia's periphery feeling threatened by Moscow and looking to NATO for that defensive guarantee.
VOA: For a long time, the West had this policy of appeasement of Russia or not maybe taking it seriously as a threat and trying to be a partner with Russia. Do you think there were some kinds of mistakes that the West made?
VOA: And do you think that the West didn't understand what was going on and didn't basically listen to some of the warnings that were there?
Carpenter: I think the primary mistake that the West collectively made in the '90s and 2000s was to assume that through a process of economic interdependence with Russia — through trade, through mutual investment, through admitting Russia to various international organizations like the World Trade Organization and many, many others — that somehow over the course of time Russia would become a responsible stakeholder in the international community. But a state that is governed by essentially a small group of KGB officers that have a very different view of the world — zero sum in terms of their mindset as to their relations with the West — that state could never truly become a Western liberal democracy. And in fact it has moved further and further away from Western liberal democracy since the Yeltsin era. So I think the biggest mistake on the part of the West was to assume that somehow, naturally through economic trade — the sort of wandel durch handel, to use the German term — the change would happen through trade and economic relations. That has proven to be absolutely wrong ... and actually allowed the Kremlin to exploit vulnerabilities in Western societies rather than making Russia a more responsible stakeholder. So now we've learned the lesson.
VOA: Talking about this war, President Biden said that the West has to be ready for a long war. The United States took the lead to create this coalition to support Ukraine and is taking the lead in all those processes. However, it's Ukraine's suffering and the people are dying every day. How do you see this war develop and how do you see this war end?
Carpenter: Well, we have recognized — we meaning the United States — that this is likely to be a protracted war. Putin tried to decapitate the leadership in Kyiv and launch a quick, sudden assault that he probably thought would be over in a relatively short period of days.
VOA: Do you think he abandoned that plan?
Carpenter: He failed in the plan. My personal view is that the Kremlin has likely not abandoned its plan to maintain control over all of Ukraine. Right now, it is focused in the Donbas and this has become a war essentially of rockets, of artillery systems. And that is why you've seen President Biden really take a leadership role, as you said, in the world in providing the most advanced U.S. capabilities — the HIMAR system, high mobility artillery system — to Ukraine, even though it is NATO equipment. I mean, I as a former Pentagon official, my mandate was in the 2015, 2016, 2017 timeframe to help Ukraine transition to NATO interoperable equipment. We got some of the way. In retrospect we could have moved much more, but that's behind us now. The imperative is to train Ukrainian forces on this modern equipment to enable them to receive additional deliveries — because frankly there's not a lot of Soviet-era equipment left — so that they can outrange the Russian systems and they can defend what is essentially their homes, their cities, their regions, their neighborhoods from this brutal onslaught. And that's going to take time, our military analysts tell us. But we're there for the long haul. We're there to help Ukraine defend itself.
VOA: Putin warned the West and specifically the U.S. to not send equipment and we saw the results of that warning in the bombarding of Kyiv, even a couple of facilities that they destroyed. What is your assessment and what do you think Putin is capable of? And do you have fears about the chemical or nuclear arsenal being used?
Carpenter: Well, we've seen that the Putin regime has essentially broken every norm of international behavior, including the Geneva Conventions. I mean, I'm not a lawyer and I'm not ready to pronounce anything specifically, but what we've seen are obviously war crimes on the ground, and so those will have to be adjudicated as war crimes by courts of law — either national courts or the International Criminal Court or other jurisdictions. When it comes to what Putin is willing to do next — I mean, I think we all have to be cautious, but we can't be blackmailed into not providing Ukraine with the weapons that it needs to defend itself. So it is obvious that Kremlin leaders would say that the United States and other Western countries shouldn't provide — well, you know, they shouldn't be invading their neighbor. So let's back up and look at who started this. They don't need an offramp, They can retreat to Russia anytime. They are the ones who are invading another. I hate it when the impetus is always put on us for what might be an escalation; the impetus is on them to leave now from the country that they are invading.
VOA: There is a lot of discussion of peace talks and maybe Ukraine giving up some territories and so on, or not humiliating Putin, as some of the leaders of European countries say. How do you see a possibility of this war ending and how do you like the ideal situation and maybe a kind of intermediate option?
Carpenter: Well, the only thing that's being humiliated is the composite norms and rules of the international system with rape, torture, summary executions, forced deportations — this is humiliating. This is what needs to stop. I think as someone who worked in the Pentagon and who is realistic about the situation, my belief is that the war will end when the situation on the battlefield is clarified. So this will be a war of artillery in the Donbas until the situation is clarified militarily. At some point all wars typically end with a negotiated settlement, a cease-fire of some sort, and so we'll have to see where that ends up. But our prerogative as the United States — I'm speaking as the U.S. ambassador to the OSCE — is to help Ukraine to position itself to win and to negotiate that resolution from a position of strength.
VOA: Ukrainians emerged in this crisis as very strong, resilient people, ready to fight and ready to die for their country. How do you see Ukraine's position in Europe when it’s over? And how do you see the process of rebuilding the country? And what do you think Western communities should plan for already? Probably at this point?
Carpenter: Well, it's going to be a colossal project to rebuild all of the infrastructure in Ukraine. The advantages that we have — or that Ukraine has, rather — are a highly educated, skilled human workforce — human capital, if you will — but then also this sense of unity and sense of purpose to defend the nation and then to rebuild the nation. And I think the opportunity that will come at the end of the war is to completely bury the oligarchic structures of the past and to build a democratic society. I mean, Ukraine has always been democratic. The problem is that the oligarchic structures have allowed for corruption to set in over the course of the three decades since independence. There have been moments like the Maidan Revolution of Dignity that sought to overcome some of that — with some success, I might add — but now really there will be, I think, an impetus to rebuild sort of a Ukraine 2.0 that is stronger, more resilient, and that doesn't have these vulnerabilities of the past.
VOA: There is a lot of talk about specific plans with a Marshall Plan, whatever it would be called. Do you think that the West should actually execute something like that?
Carpenter: Oh, I think there's no doubt that the Western community is going to have to be prepared to chip in with significant financial resources, but not just in terms of budgetary support, although that may be necessary, too, but in terms of the expertise and the ability to jump-start investments and to rebuild Ukraine where there is — you know, the IT sector is once again thriving. It was thriving before the war. So it's a matter of bringing that human capital together and creating enterprises that can really compete in global markets. And if Ukraine has a Euro-Atlantic future ahead of it, as I believe it does, then also shifting its view towards the West, because those are the markets where Ukraine is going to be exporting to.
VOA: And probably one more question about Russia. How do you see the future of Russia after this war ends? And how do you see the alliance that is kind of forming between Russia and China at this moment, and does the West worry about the possibility of them building a stronger kind of authoritarian region?
Carpenter: Well, one of the tragedies I think, for Russia is that this war — but generally speaking the last two decades of President Putin's rule — is that it's become more repressive, more corrupt, less open to the outside world, has become a little fortress, but one that now because of sanctions and because of export controls is going to have a very hard time maintaining any sort of forward progress. I mean, there are already estimates that this year alone Russia's GDP is going to go back 15 years in time. And if that trend continues for another year, a lot of the gains of the Putin era could be completely wiped out because of his aggression. Not because of anything else — because the Kremlin chose to launch this war against Ukraine, previously Crimea and previously Georgia, and so on and so forth. Aggression is not the answer in international politics; it will not be the answer for Russia, but it will be authoritarian for as long as this regime exists. And so I have no doubt there will be some alignment with China. But I think there's limits to that relationship. I think if you look just at natural resources in terms of the size of their markets, there are two very different countries.”
VOA: And are you generally optimistic about this? I mean it's a sad situation but generally in the long run, are you optimistic about the future?
Carpenter: I think Ukraine will succeed. I am optimistic in the long run. I think it's going to be very tough for the foreseeable future. But ultimately, I may be naïve — maybe it's because I graduated from high school in 1989, which is the year that the communist system and dictatorship was wiped away and democracy came in place of it. But look at the tremendous success of Poland, of the Baltic states, of the Czech Republic, even of Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria — they've come so far. And I think ultimately people get that. I think ultimately they see that repression in the Chinese style or the Russian style is not the solution. They're not going to be the ones that produce a cure for cancer. It's going to come from the West. All the major innovations currently come from the West. So I'm optimistic in the long run. They have tremendous challenges both in Moscow and Beijing. And democracies are just more vibrant, they're more innovative and they will be more successful.