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Amb. Sarah Mendelson on Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine

Ambassador Sarah E. Mendelson, head of Carnegie Mellon University’s Heinz College in D.C., and Distinguished Service Professor of Public Policy, is a renowned expert on Russia. As the situation in Ukraine continues to evolve, we sat down with her to get some insight into Russia's invasion, the humanitarian crisis it has caused, and what comes next.

Heinz College: Can you tell us about the timing of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine—why is this happening now?

Sarah E. Mendelson: It’s happening for a number of reasons, and I think, unfortunately, that President Putin is unhinged. There may also be a COVID effect after two years of isolation. He displays evidence of having grown increasingly paranoid. It’s not as if he didn’t always have a broad collection of grievances. This is the person who announced that the “collapse of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century.” That belief has been a [guiding principle] for him and that’s partly why he’s doing what he’s doing, and he’s been brutal in the 20+ years I’ve been observing him.

But this unprovoked war on a peaceful neighbor, for many of us, goes well beyond his past behavior and for that reason it is extremely worrisome. Another part of 'why now?' is that he has a very closed circle of advisors, and it seems he’s surrounded by people who won’t challenge him. This really hearkens back to the days of Stalin. There’s a parody of when Stalin died, that nobody wanted to touch the body. We’re kind of at that level of “The Great Leader.” And this has been evolving over a couple of months.

Over the summer, Putin issued this completely bizarre “historical” report about Ukraine and then delivered his February 21 speech claiming that Ukraine isn’t an actual country.  And that’s the moment when I became particularly concerned. Ultimately, the reason he’s doing this is because he sees a free and independent, democratic Ukraine as an absolute threat to his ability to rule. And I also think that there’s a sense that this is the moment to strike—since the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, I think he’s thought the U.S. and the West were in decline and weak and that if there were ever a moment to do this, 2021-2022 was the moment.

Finally, the younger generation in Ukraine is absolutely looking West. In another ten years, it would be even harder. And, you know, he’s 69. So I think this is also about a legacy for him.

HC: Is there anything else about Putin that is important for us to understand?

SM: There’s some disagreement among experts, but it has always been my read of him that he does look at various things that happen in the international sphere and interpret them in terms of what they mean for Russia. I’ll give you a couple of examples.

When the NATO bombing of Kosovo and Serbia began in March of 1999, there is reason to believe that was about the time that the Russian General Staff began to draw up plans for a second war in Chechnya, which Putin oversaw. The thinking was: "Ok, if NATO is doing this, we can do that."

There is no question that the very weak international response in August 2008 to the Russian incursion in Georgia also emboldened Putin. I think he personally made a decision to return to the presidency because Russia, under the presidency of Dimitri Medvedev, abstained in a 2011 UN Security Council Resolution about what to do about Libya. And that outraged Putin. Of course, ultimately, [Muammar] Qaddafi was killed and the country collapsed.

Putin is very sensitive to dictators fleeing. This particular branch that he’s on really originates eight years ago, when the then-pro-Kremlin President of Ukraine, Viktor Yanukovych, fled Ukraine and went to Russia—the Maidan Revolution, the Revolution of Dignity, was a success. People were calmly walking around Yanukovych’s estate, seeing the golden toilet bowl and the exotic animals and all sorts of excesses. That sent shivers down Putin’s spine. I think it really hearkened back to the time when Putin was a KGB officer in Dresden, the Berlin Wall was falling, and he was frantically calling Lubyanka [KGB headquarters] in Moscow and, in his own words, “Moscow was silent.” There are these moments that have left deep imprints on him.

HC: What are America’s options now that military conflict has begun?

SM: The option that the Biden Administration chose—to declassify and share as much information as they did over the last few weeks—was a real policy innovation and a very smart move. They really got ahead of the curve with a more active information stance than, for example, in 2014-2016 in the Obama Administration. I think there is clearly a sense that some of the same people have learned lessons and that they were willing and able to declassify and share with allies and partners information about what the Kremlin was doing. That doesn’t mean everybody believed them, but they were saying for weeks that this war was coming.

The other thing is that there is a lot of open-source information, such as commercial satellite imagery, that we didn’t have even a couple of years ago.

But the options are relatively limited. Ukraine is not a NATO ally, it is a partner. Because it is a partner, NATO has for the first time in its history stood up a Rapid Defense Force, which means that thousands of allied troops will be stationed along NATO’s eastern borders because a partner has been assaulted by military force. Perhaps the best tool in the toolkit is the cohesion of NATO, and Putin has inadvertently enabled that in a way that we haven’t seen for decades. There seems to be no daylight between the NATO allies and that is very powerful. And the United States and dozens of other countries are sending weapons, supplies, and humanitarian assistance to Ukraine.  Various organizations are also beginning to accumulate information on war crimes. When the time comes, these will be vital in terms of holding war criminals accountable.   

There also seems to be very little daylight between the United States and the European Union in terms of sanctions. Individual countries are also putting on sanctions. There’s more to be done to ratchet them up—there is a lot of illicit money floating around in cities like London, but also in real estate in New York and Florida. If we can uncover who the beneficial owners are, and if they are Russians on the sanctions list, then there are things that we can do about those properties, and certainly bank accounts can be frozen. 

There are many hard things about this and there are, obviously, implications for energy prices. Trying to come up with a strategy for Europe to be energy independent from Russia is difficult but critical. The Germans coming out and not certifying the Nord Stream 2 pipeline was extremely important, but it begs the question of why did they go so far down that road? Ten years ago, we should have been thinking about and actively working on energy independence from Russia. 

This is a shattering moment for the United Nations. The Russian Federation held the presidency of the UN Security Council in February. So it was painful to watch the mockery; the Security Council was presided over by somebody who was trying to shred the UN Charter by invading a neighboring country and killing civilians. And, of course, Russia vetoed the Security Council resolution on February 25 condemning Russia’s war in Ukraine.

Now, there have been many times in history where [we've been] painfully aware the United Nations was not living up to its Charter, its commitments. Watching the bloodshed in Syria, which Russia was a part of, is one example. And like in that case, when you cannot work through the Security Council, the General Assembly will take up the case, but then the resolution doesn’t have any legal ramifications. Still, it represents the consent of the community, and there is outrage in the global community; 141 countries expressed this on March 2 and only four countries voted with Russia.

Unless attacked, the U.S. is not going to be fighting along with Ukrainians. But what constitutes an attack? The fear is that there will be cyber attacks and to what extent does a Russian cyberattack constitute war? Does it trigger [NATO] Article 5?  Does it trigger an armed intervention by a NATO country? The other really big fear of mine is that there’s a piece of Russia that is not contiguous with the rest of Russia, and that is Kaliningrad. Does Putin try to create some sort of corridor through Lithuania to Kaliningrad which would be a clear violation and would trigger Article 5? And then we are in a World War.

HC: Any final thoughts?

SM: I spent a lot of time in Russia over the course of my career, but I cast my lot with Ukrainian independence as a way forward, in part because by Fall 2006 I’d come to the conclusion that democracy in Russia was not going to happen in my professional lifetime. And I thought I’d have to diversify my portfolio, but I was still interested in this region and of course colleagues working inside Russia thought that Ukraine held out this other democratic possibility.

The best election observation experience I ever had was in Ukraine. People were welcoming us at the polling stations, and were all speaking Russian. They were all so excited and proud in May 2014 to have free and fair elections in Ukraine. So I was really humbled by the incredible bravery of the Ukrainians, then and now. I am thinking of them today as they come under fire from Russia and show the world what it means to fight for freedom.