Thank you so much, Mr. Chairman and honourable members of the committee, for having me here.
With I think seven minutes at my disposal, I will focus my remarks on Russia and Ukraine, where I've recently travelled, but I'm happy to take broader questions.
I will start with Russia. In a global sense, I would say that Russian foreign policy has long been one of seeking prestige, prestige being seen as a valuable asset in and of itself, one that provides the influence and capacity to attain goals, even before those goals have been made clear.
That said, in the region in question, that of the other post-Soviet states, Russia's goals have long been quite clear. Russia has always had a proprietary view of these countries, which were part and parcel of the Russian empire before the Soviet Union came along. Unlike the countries of the Warsaw Pact, such as Poland and Romania, these countries, or these regions at the time, were integrated into the U.S.S.R. and ruled from Moscow. The Baltic countries are a somewhat different issue, which we can discuss.
Over the 25 years since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the countries of the so-called west have seen themselves as working together to, among other things, spread liberal democracy into the countries that used be part of the U.S.S.R. and the Warsaw Pact. While there was debate about the enlargement of NATO and the European Union, among the strongest arguments for the acceptance of new members into the institutions was the view that it would incentivize the reforms that in turn would enable these countries to free their polities and their economies.
This was seen as good for the states in question, which at least in principle wanted reforms but had a difficult time implementing them for political reasons. It was seen as good for the west and good for the world, in part because it was believed by many that it would increase peace and stability, based in large part on the hypothesis that democratic states are less likely to go to war with one another.
Russia, initially a comparatively willing participant in these processes, soon came to see them as antagonistic, aimed at limiting Moscow's influence in its neighbourhood, and thus limiting the very prestige it felt it was due. While the Kremlin accepted what it saw as the loss of the former Warsaw Pact states, and even the Baltics, it remained neuralgic about the other post-Soviet countries, which Dmitry Medvedev, now the Prime Minister and then the president, described as being in the zone of privileged interests for Moscow in 2008, at the time of Russia's war with Georgia.
Ukraine, in that context, has always been a particularly tendentious case. For many in Russia, the idea of an independent Ukraine is confusing at best. The similarities between the Ukrainian and Russian languages, the very limited historical experience of Ukrainian independence, and the closeness of the two populations over the years have fed a consistent Russian narrative of Ukraine as part of Russia. I would note that even Russian liberals, who speak out against the annexation of Crimea, see Ukraine as a model of what can be done in Russia by people who are basically, in their eyes, just like Russians.
Russia's actions of 2014 seem to many outside that country as highly disproportionate to any risk that the EU association agreement plans that sparked the crisis really presented. In turn, both the western and Ukrainian responses surprised Russia, and I believe constrained it, in that the Kremlin was forced to recognize the limits of any natural influence it felt it had over Ukraine and recognize the prospect of substantial resistance, as well as increased international pressure, should it push too far.
At the same time, Russia soon found benefits to the standoff that emerged with the United States. These took the form of increased global prestige and a bit of a “gloves off” environment for taking other actions, from Syria to election meddling, one presented as standing up to the United States. Some of this might have happened anyway, but I think a good bit probably would not have.
I would say that today the mood in Russia is one of increasingly cautious optimism. While most in Russia did not actually expect the election of Donald Trump, his statements of support for Vladimir Putin did play very well with the Russian media and public, and indeed outside of Russia in some of the other post-Soviet countries where the Russian media is prevalent.
The expert community, for its part, is concerned about the lack of a clear policy from the White House, and speculates that any honeymoons between Trump and Putin will be brief. This said, many specialists remain hopeful of rapprochement, though whether the Kremlin thinks that is in its interests or not, and under what conditions, remain quite unclear.
On a visit to Moscow last October and November, most Russians I spoke with saw the eastern Ukrainian adventure as a mistake. More recently, this past February, just about a month ago, I heard very little discussion of the situation in Ukraine and far more speculation about U.S. policy writ large. That's not a surprise.
As fighting in Avdiivka broke out just as I was in Russia, Russians speculated that Ukrainians had started it and were seeking attention. In Ukraine, where I was shortly after I was in Moscow, there was again, not surprisingly, a very different narrative. In regard to Avdiivka, Ukrainians emphasized the rapid and effective humanitarian response that they put together for the crisis as well as Russian perfidy.
Ukrainians are also speculating on what a Trump presidency in the United States means for them and remain very nervous about possible deals with Russia, but Ukraine is facing substantial challenges at home. Several Ukrainian and western officials spoke of “reform fatigue” and noted that, while some rapid and effective changes had been possible when the crisis was new, vested interests were now precluding the implementation of key components of economic, security sector, and energy reforms, from gas metering to delineating the roles and responsibilities of Ukraine's domestic intelligence security agency, the SBU.
Less reformist movements in parties are gaining in popularity, and the failure of the EU to grant Ukraine a promised visa-free travel regime has fed growing frustration. While few publicly argue that the occupied portions of the Donbas aren't worth fighting for, the recent resolution of the blockade of trains travelling to and from those territories with coal speaks to the conflicted attitude of Ukrainians as the crisis goes into its third or fourth year. After refusing protestors' demands for weeks, the government abruptly switched the position, decided to take their side, and cut off trade with the occupied territories. This is particularly interesting in light of its failure to give in to other protester demands, such as progress on reforms.
I would say Ukraine's history over the last quarter century is a repetitive one, as a genuine commitment to and impetus for reform run aground on corruption and cynicism. This has happened multiple times in every sphere of governance, leaving many who work with the Ukrainians to burn out, then creating room for those who haven't had that experience of disappointment to repeat their efforts.
It's also what brought us to where we are today. If reform had been more successful previously, the current crisis would not have taken place. Ukraine needs reform regardless of western policy, but insofar as the west wants to help, I'd argue that the answers lie in conditionality and informed assistance, which I can speak to more in questions and answers. I would say that, for all the importance of Ukraine's success, not least what message it sends to Russia, trying to prop up a Ukraine that is not viable or not doing its part is perhaps one of the worst and most dangerous ways forward.
I think I've taken the time allotted to me, and I'm happy to take questions and have a conversation.