5 Questions with Paul Saunders on the Ukrainian Crisis


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 Paul Saunders, the Executive Director of the Center for the National Interest, where I am the Assistant Director.


1.  Paul, thanks for doing this. To start, what do you think the Russian intervention in Crimea tells us about the Russian military?

What has been most striking to me so far has been the apparent levels of discipline, training and coordination among the Russian forces.  Ukraine’s military is comparatively very weak, and the local population is largely supportive, but it would not be easy to do what Russian troops have done without any casualties.  The Russian soldiers (like the Ukrainian forces, but for different reasons) are clearly under orders to avoid use of force and have been successful in doing so.  There have been some tests of will between the opposing sides but no injuries or deaths have been reported.  This is a significant change from Russia’s performance in the two wars in Chechnya, where Moscow displayed little ability to apply calibrated force, and also from the war in Georgia, where Russian troops reportedly faced communications problems that forced some to use cell phones.  That said, maintaining this level of discipline over time could prove difficult.  How long can a situation like this go on before there is an incident that leads to loss of life?  And how will the two sides react if that happens?  Despite the relative calm in Crimea the stakes are very high.

2.  Do you think that Russia will invade eastern Ukraine?  

I think Moscow is unlikely to send troops into eastern Ukraine unless there is a major development that Vladimir Putin believes leaves him no choice.  There are only about two or three million people in Crimea, which is about the size of the state of Maryland.  It is low-density.  Eastern Ukraine includes some major industrial cities with populations of one to two million.  Occupying a city like that when tens or hundreds of thousands of citizens may resent your presence and are concentrated in one place would be much riskier and much harder than going into Crimea.  And moving into eastern Ukraine without controlling the cities would be dangerous – it could invite reprisals against Russian-speakers there.  My sense is that Putin would do this only if large-scale violence was already underway and inaction would create a backlash against him inside his own country.

3.  It is, of course, still impossible to know how this is going to turn out, but knowing what we know now, will the current crisis serve to revitalize the NATO alliance? Or do you think President Obama’s reaction, criticized as tepid by some critics, has given some NATO allies such as the Baltic States and Poland, a reason to be concerned about America’s resolve in the region to face down Russia?

Russia’s intervention will surely lead the NATO members closest to it to press for actual and symbolic support from the United States and other NATO allies.  Whether the U.S. response will be primarily symbolic or more determined remains to be seen – so far it is strictly symbolic.  It is a difficult balance between reassuring allies and deterring Russia, on one hand, and avoiding escalation, on the other.  In practice, it will probably not be possible to fully satisfy some of the NATO members nearest to Russia.  In the past, they have reacted to this by engaging in the U.S. political process, either with open letters or via complaints to members of Congress.  This is what happened after the administration cancelled Bush-era missile defense plans in Poland and the Czech Republic.  A similar response would put more pressure on the administration this time.

4.  How could this crisis impact our slow boiling competition with China?

As I see it this is the most important aspect of the crisis.  At this point, most of the plausible outcomes lead to a damaged relationship between Russia and the United States and actually between Russia and the West.  Particularly if this has serious economic consequences it is likely to drive Russia in the direction of closer cooperation with China.  Ironically, if Europe actually does reduce its natural gas dependence on Russia through imports from the United States or the Middle East this may further accelerate Russia’s engagement with China by making Russia accept the lower prices that China has been offering for gas imports.  Russia and China signed a framework agreement on gas years ago but have been unable to agree on the price, because Moscow wants European-level prices.  Russia could also sell more high-tech weapons to Beijing.

5.  I know you aren’t a big drinker (nobody’s perfect) but if you could sit down for a drink with any figure from Russian history, who would it be and why?

I expect that I would have a hard time relating to most Russian historical figures – we would have very different frames of reference – but I suppose I would pick Prince Alexander Gorchakov.  He was Russia’s Foreign Minister and later Chancellor under Tsar Alexander II.  He was Otto von Bismarck’s counterpart for much of this period and, like Bismarck, a quintessential foreign policy realist.  President Obama and Secretary Kerry seem to think that the twenty-first century is supposed to be different from the nineteenth but there is one critical point of continuity between then and now that they don’t seem to recognize – human beings.  As long as people are around, their interests will collide.


Ryan Evans is the assistant director of the Center for the National Interest. He is the editor-in-chief of War on the Rocks.


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