UKRAINIAN CONFLICT ASSESSMENT

Written By: Bruce A. Percelay

Expert opinion from former United Nations Ambassador Nancy Soderberg.

Ambassador Nancy Soderberg

As the world watched in horror as Russia invaded Ukraine, few have a more informed perspective on the conflict than longtime Nantucket summer resident, Nancy Soderberg. The former Ambassador to the United Nations under the Clinton administration, Soderberg now serves as the director of the National Democratic Institute in Kosovo where she works to promote democracy throughout the Balkans and in over sixty countries around the world. Stationed in Kosovo, Ambassador Soderberg says that the Russian actions witnessed in Ukraine have been experienced in the Balkan region since the 1990s. N Magazine spoke to Ambassador Soderberg from her office in Kosovo.

In hindsight, should we have done anything differently in advance of the invasion?

Could we have done more over the last few years? Of course. The big question is should we have expanded NATO to include Georgia? Georgia has basically been invaded twice—some count three times. There was such a firm red line that at the time, it wasn’t really deemed as possible, and it didn’t seem that urgent. No one really expected this to happen. We could have done more to train and equip the Ukrainians more dramatically when this started.

It was only December that people started realizing how serious Putin was. I am hopeful that there’s a lot of support for the Ukrainians going on that we don’t know about yet. I hope there’s a lot of cyberattacks going on against Russia that we’re not hearing about. Can we help the Ukrainians jam the Russians, mess up their command and control? There’s another whole chapter to be written down the road of what we’re doing that we don’t yet know about. But yes. The answer, we can always do more. Honestly, I don’t think anyone expected it to be this dramatic a play by Putin.

Nancy Soderberg while serving as the Ambassador to the United Nations under the Clinton Administration in 1993 (photo courtesy of Nancy Soderberg.)

Are you surprised by how quickly NATO has united in its support of the Ukrainians?

I’m less surprised by NATO than I am with the EU [European Union] economic measures, because Europe is on the front line of these sanctions. They usually hem and haw and don’t do it. The fact that the Germans and the rest of Europe have stuck by these is pretty extraordinary.

What role could China play in all of this?

I think China is caught between a rock and a hard place here. They like the disruption of the Western narrative that Russia is portraying: antidemocratic, sowing discord in democracies, including here in the United States. But they also don’t want chaos. They’ve been oddly silent. Putin went to Beijing right before the Olympics, and by all accounts, [Chinese President] Xi Jinping asked Putin not to do anything until the Olympics were over. It’s not a coincidence that literally the day after the Olympics ended, Putin invaded. China has a real choice to make. Does it want to support Russia as it sows chaos over the world…undermining the Western narrative of democracy and integration? China can play a major role in reining Russia in, if it chooses to do so. As this spirals out of control and disrupts the world economy, China could step up and rein him in more than they’re doing right now.

Could there be a more frightening scenario, where China comes to Russia’s rescue, and they develop an alliance that makes them, in effect, a world superpower?

I think that’s already happening to a certain extent. Neither of these countries are superpowers yet. China is on the way to becoming a superpower. No matter what Russia does, it’s going to be a regional power and not a global power. Those days are over, whether Putin realizes it or not. My best guess of what will happen is that they will create a banking system outside of the Swiss banking account that large pieces of the Russian economy have just been cut off from. But if the reports are correct, and Putin is becoming increasingly unhinged and erratic, that’s really not how China likes to do business. And so I think the wild card here is what China will do. That depends on a second wild card: How crazy is Putin? He’s just lost it. He’s going all-out killing civilians. He’s already bombed a maternity hospital in Ukraine. It’s unbelievable that this is happening in the twenty-first century, in the year 2022. We thought we left this behind. It’s just absolutely horrifying and tragic.

President Volodymyr Zelenskyy (far right) with commanders in Ukraine.

What does Putin gain by “winning” the war in Ukraine?

Another feather in his delusional czar cap that makes him think he’s ruler of a revived tsarist Russia. It’s a complete fiction. There is no scenario of victory here for Putin. He can control the country militarily, but that’s not a victory, because it will be slow urban warfare. It will be just a slog, worse than Afghanistan, where they were for ten years. If they think Afghanistan was bad, try occupying Ukraine for ten years. On top of that, the other part of the equation that’s unique here is the wall of sanctions that the Europeans have agreed to do. That is unprecedented. Ours are unprecedented as well.

What was Putin’s miscalculation?

Putin miscalculated in the information warfare. Last time he did this was 2014; social media wasn’t as big as it is now. We know exactly what he’s doing and we’re calling him out. That’s undermined his ability to sell his narrative.

I have friends whose parents live in Russia, and the older population buys Russia’s line. But you look at the people who are out there demonstrating—it’s the youth—and they are not going to put up with this. A lot of people think that Putin’s going to get overthrown. I’m not one of them. I think this is going to be a slow slog, and Putin’s going to dig his heels in. Ukraine is going to get very messy. I can’t predict who is going to win the battle. The military balance is overwhelmingly in Russia’s favor. But why are Russian soldiers shooting civilians in the streets of Kyiv? So I think he’s grossly miscalculated.

Do you see a possibility where the U.S. gets drawn into this deeper than it already has?

Yes. I think the U.S. is driving the Western response. As Putin escalates it, we’re going to get drawn deeper and deeper in there. President Biden has drawn a firm line: no troops. We’re not going to do a no-fly zone, but there’s a lot up to that point that we can do. I think we’re going to keep escalating with cyberattacks, more training and equipping of the Ukrainian army. We can do things right along the border. As this escalates, we will escalate. And I don’t see the end of that until Ukraine is free.

What do you think the Biden administration is doing behind the scenes right now that we don’t know about?

As I mentioned earlier, there’s a lot going on with cyberattacks that you don’t know. I wonder whether we have people on the ground clandestinely to help coordinate some of the defensive weapons that [are being distributed]. You can’t give this vast amount of weapons to a country and not have people on the ground to help execute it. They might be doing it in Poland, but how much behind-the-scenes training and equipping are we doing? How big are we going to go in terms of defensive weapons to the Ukrainians? I don’t actually rule out some kind of no-fly zone that is enforced by the Ukrainians with a lot of support behind them.

I don’t agree with Trump’s decision to paint the planes Russian, but there’s a lot of secret ways in which we can make it look like it’s a Ukrainian operation. Reading between the lines, I think there’s a lot of that going on that we won’t hear about for years, and it could tip the balance to make sure that the Ukrainians succeed in the short term, instead of the long term. They will succeed. It’s just a question of how long and how bloody.

Oil and energy are now becoming a key component of this entire episode, and Europe is much more vulnerable than we are. How does this play out?

As the price of oil escalates—which it will whenever there’s a war going on with sanctions and embargoes—the U.S. will figure out how to get dollars into the pockets of Americans to offset that very difficult increase in pricing. Rather than open up the debate about the Keystone Pipeline, it’s likely to increase the debate about getting off of fossil fuels and being completely energy independent. I think people understand that in the middle of a crisis, you have to deal with the temporary situation. We’re on a track to get off of fossil fuels over the next couple of decades. And I think we’ll stick with that. I don’t see this pushing us back to more fossil fuel. Costs need to be offset, though. It is going to hurt people’s pockets in the middle of an inflationary period.

Photo by Adi Beqiri for National Democratic Institute (NDI)

A year from now, where do you see all of this?

It’s impossible to predict, but there are a couple scenarios. One is a year from now: It looks like just a protracted conflict, with the Russians trying to hold various towns, and the Ukrainians taking potshots at the Russians so that there’s a stalemate that’s bloody on both sides. That’s probably the most likely scenario.

The other scenario is that Putin recognizes the folly of his actions, the high cost given the sanctions, and he finds a way to declare victory and get out, which probably involves taking the Donbas region and getting out. That’s always what everyone thought he was going to do.

Another is that it gets completely out of control, and Putin actually makes good on his threat of a nuclear attack somewhere. I doubt he’d lob a strategic missile at the United States, but I don’t think people rule out him using a small tactical nuclear weapon somewhere in Ukraine, just to send a message, and then we are in World War III.

Are you surprised by how Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has emerged as a leader?

Yes, I think everybody is. I’ve not met him, but the world got to know him when President Trump was trying to extort him for dirt on Hunter Biden. The way he stood up to that got people’s attention. But no one expected him to have the grit, the muscle and the leadership that he’s shown through this. He really thinks he’s going to get killed—and he might. He’s the number one target of the Russians to decapitate the Ukrainian government. But he’s just standing up and representing the Ukrainian spirit of freedom, grit and determination in a way that nobody saw coming. Throughout history, normal people do extraordinary things when pushed to the limit. You never know which of those normal people are going to step up and become true leaders. And Zelenskyy has done that.

Clearly the Ukrainian people have responded.

You have to admire the gut and grit of the Ukrainian people. No one expected the Ukrainians to dig in. And it’s been an inspiration to everyone watching throughout this tragedy just to see the heroism and the pride in their country. That’s what’s going to defeat Putin; the Russians don’t have pride in this war. The Ukrainians have pride in defending their country, and ultimately, they will succeed.

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