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Former U.S. Ambassador To Ukraine John Herbst On U.S.-Ukraine Relations


The ongoing impeachment inquiry has steered a lot more attention now to the conflict between Ukraine and Russia. About 13,000 people have died since that fighting began, and next week Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy and Russian President Vladimir Putin will meet. And to discuss what both sides hope to accomplish, I'm joined now by former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine John Herbst. He spent three years in Kyiv as the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine under President George W. Bush.


JOHN HERBST: Thank you. It's my pleasure to be here.

CHANG: Well, let's start by talking about why this meeting is so important to President Zelenskiy. He's only been in office for a few months now. Tell us why this meeting with Putin is important for him politically.

HERBST: Well, it's been important to him since the moment he took office. He sought a meeting because he thought the diplomatic approach, an agreement, was the quickest way to resolve the conflict since he really doesn't have a military option.

CHANG: And the quickest way to resolve the conflict might be achieving one or all of the three goals that we hear Ukrainian officials are very interested in, those being a prisoner exchange, a lasting ceasefire and regaining full control over Ukraine's border with Russia. How likely is it that these three goals could be accomplished through this meeting next week?

HERBST: Just about zero. Mr. Zelenskiy is a political neophyte, and he is in the process of learning that, at the moment, President Putin is only willing to accept Ukraine's surrender. By surrender, I mean Putin is using his war in eastern Ukraine...

CHANG: An undeclared war.

HERBST: It is undeclared. And he's using this war in order to pressure Ukraine to essentially give the Kremlin a veto over Ukraine's foreign policy so that Ukraine does not develop a closer relationship with the EU or with NATO. Instead, Ukraine joins the Eurasian Economic Union, which is an economic union to nowhere.

CHANG: And you don't see Putin ever interested in giving up that veto power.

HERBST: I think at the end of the day, he will have to, but that day has not yet come.

CHANG: But as we've been saying, you know, Russia has never formally declared war on Ukraine. Ukraine believes there's a war. Russia's backing an insurgency there. How do the two sides strike a deal if they don't even agree on the nature of the conflict?

HERBST: Essentially, the Kremlin is lying. Putin denies it because he doesn't want the damage to his international standing and to his standing at home from acknowledging his aggression. The Russian people have shown for years in poll after poll conducted by the Levada Center they do not want their soldiers fighting in Ukraine.

CHANG: What does Russia want to get out of this upcoming meeting between the two leaders?

HERBST: Well, there are two things here. First of all, as I mentioned, Zelenskiy has wanted this meeting for over six months - it's now December - and Macron also for almost as long. And Putin kept trying to raise the price on Zelenskiy to have this meeting take place.

CHANG: What was the price that he asked?

HERBST: Well, he wanted some indication from Zelenskiy of willingness to make a real concession.

CHANG: OK. So on top of all that, there is now this additional layer of the ongoing impeachment inquiry happening here in the United States. How has the impeachment inquiry affected the negotiation posture of both of these leaders, Putin and Zelenskiy?

HERBST: What Putin hopes is that Western support for Ukraine will weaken. In the fight regarding impeachment, there is a portrayal of Ukraine which is not positive, and it could lead to a diminution of American support for Ukraine. The erosion of American support for Ukraine has not happened, and I do not think it will. But the Kremlin is hoping that it will, and Ukraine is concerned that it might.

CHANG: All right. So that's what's at stake for Ukraine. What's at stake for the U.S.?

HERBST: The U.S. has critical interests in this fight. Ukraine is a country with over 40 million people, the largest country in terms of geography in Europe - true great natural resources. And it wants to move in a democratic direction. That is in our interests. Equally if not more important, Putin is pursuing a revisionist agenda. He wants to upturn the institutions, the security frameworks that were established after World War II and after the Cold War. And those security frameworks have guaranteed no great power conflict. They've overseen a period of unprecedented stability, unprecedented prosperity. Putin wants to take that apart. He has said there'll be new global rules or there'll be no rules.

Putin is also pursuing provocations against NATO members, especially the Baltic states. If Putin wins in Donbas, if he wins in Ukraine, he's more likely to commit a serious provocation against the Baltic states, whom we are bound by treaty to defend. So we need to stop Putin in Donbas. We need to help Ukraine do that. That is a vital interest of the United States.

CHANG: John Herbst is a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine. He's also the director of the Eurasia Center at the Atlantic Council.

Thank you very much for coming into the studio today.

HERBST: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.