5 Questions with James Goldgeier on Ukraine and U.S.-Russia Relations


This is the latest edition of our Five Questions series. Each week, we feature an expert, practitioner, or leader answering five questions on a topic of current relevance in the world of defense, security, and foreign policy.Well, four of the questions are topical.  The fifth is about booze. We are War on the Rocks, after all.

This week I spoke with James Goldgeier, currently Dean of the School of International Service at American University and before a professor at George Washington University where he directed GWU’s Institute for European, Russian and Eurasian Studies. Dean Goldgeier’s books include: America Between the Wars: From 11/9 to 9/11  (co-authored with Derek Chollet), Power and Purpose: U.S. Policy toward Russia after the Cold War (co-authored with Michael McFaul); and Not Whether But When: The U.S. Decision to Enlarge NATO. He is the recipient of the Edgar S. Furniss book award in national and international security and the Georgetown University Lepgold Book Prize in international relations. Dean Goldgeier also presently leads the Bridging the Gap initiative, which is dedicated to promoting policy-relevant scholarship and theoretically informed policy work.


1.  Dean Goldgeier, thank you for doing this. I know you’ve been following the protests and rising instability in Ukraine closely. Do you see the situation resolving or will things continue to get worse before they get better?

Ukraine is in the midst of a revolution against a corrupt order.  How the situation resolves itself depends greatly on the capacity of a new leader to rally support from the Parliament and the population with promises of an end to the kleptocracy and the prospect of a brighter future.  But it won’t be easy.  Ukraine thought it had such a leader after the Orange Revolution a decade ago, but Viktor Yushchenko was not able to deliver.  There are still plenty of individuals in the country with a stake in the private gains they’ve been able to make who remain opposed to change, and Russia wants to control events in Ukraine.  Any successful leader will have to navigate the internal divisions in the country as well as the interests of Russia and the West.  It’s a tall order, and as with any revolution, violence and civil war loom as possibilities.

2.  President Obama has said that Ukraine should not be seen as “some cold-war chessboard in which we [the U.S.] are in competition with Russia.” How and why should Ukraine’s internal political order matter to the United States?

The United States has believed a stable, secure and democratic Ukraine was important not only for that country but for the region ever since the population voted for independence from the USSR in December 1991.  In the second Clinton term, the State Department promoted the idea of a community of democracies, and identified four countries  Ukraine, Nigeria, Indonesia and Colombia  that merited special attention as countries whose democratic future would make a big difference.  The Bush administration hoped the Orange Revolution would deliver on that promise.  The reason successive administrations have seen Ukraine’s future as important is pretty simple: a secure, stable and democratic Ukraine would help fulfill the stated promise of the past four U.S. administrations to foster a Europe whole, free and at peace by reducing the risk of renewed Russian imperialism in the former Soviet space.  Most of formerly communist Europe has been able to join the “new” Europe.  Ukraine and Georgia are the most notable exceptions.

3.  If you were sitting with President Obama right now in a meeting about Ukraine, what would you advise him to do?  The US has already issued visa bans and asset freezes for some Ukrainian leaders. Should it go further?

We are now in a fast-moving situation.  The president should focus on the process by which Ukraine moves forward, both with respect to parliamentary leadership and the new presidential elections.   While President Obama will continue to say that the future of Ukraine belongs to Ukrainians, the United States must convey the message that we support aspirations for a democratic future and are prepared to work with the European Union to provide further assistance as Ukraine moves along a different path.  Moreover, President Obama should be clear with the Russians that promoting any violent response from the deposed president is unacceptable.

4.  You’ve written extensively about Russia and especially U.S. policy toward the country since the Cold War. Given the stark disagreements over Syria, Edward Snowden and now Ukraine, what should U.S. objectives and approach be when it comes to the bilateral relationship?

The main challenge now for the relationship is there is very little substance in it.  When President Obama established the reset in 2009, there existed a set of important U.S. objectives: Russian support for a new supply route into Afghanistan; maintaining sanctions on Iran in order to motivate the Iranian government to participate in negotiations on its nuclear program; and an arms control treaty.  The reset was hugely successful early on but there are no major substantive issues for the relationship today as there were then.  The United States is leaving Afghanistan, so the supply route is rapidly losing its importance.  The main issues on Iran will be worked through the P5+1 as well as the bilateral U.S.-Iran channel, minimizing Russia’s role in this effort.  And another arms control treaty is neither a priority for Russia nor a realistic possibility with the U.S. Senate.  There is talk about creating a new economic relationship, but that is mainly to find something to do.  As for Syria, the Russians are focused on ensuring that radical forces don’t take over the country and preventing the United States from using force.  The United States has demonstrated its ambivalence toward undertaking any serious action to improve the situation, allowing the Russians to dominate the international response to date.  But Russia faces multiple serious challenges domestically and internationally  negative demographic and economic trends at home; extremist forces on its southern territory and increased instability from the broader Middle East; a rising China; potential rapprochement between the United States and Iran; decreasing leverage from its oil and gas reserves.  Putin knows his country is weak and seeks to generate a false sense in the world and at home that Russia is “back” as a great power.  We don’t need to assist him with that pretense.

5.  Who is the most interesting political or intellectual figure you have met and enjoyed a drink with? What did you speak about and what were you each drinking?

A little over two years ago I met and enjoyed a drink with Nobel Laureate Tom Schelling.  At the time the big question was whether the West could deter Iran from pursuing a bomb. Who better to engage on this issue than the father of deterrence theory? During our conversation, I invited him to speak at the School of International Service (SIS), which he agreed to do on the spot. We had a great time during his visit to SIS last year.  At the party where we met, I was drinking red wine. Can’t recall what he was having.


Stephen Tankel is a Senior Editor at War on the Rocks. He is an Assistant Professor at American University and a non-resident scholar in the South Asia Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He is the author of Storming the World Stage: The Story of Lashkar-e-Taiba.


Photo credit: Shasha Maksymenko

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