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Former US deputy assistant secretary of state on the response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine

A silhouette of a bicyclist in front of a cement tunnel lit up with blue and yellow stripes.
Mark J. Terrill
Associated Press
A bicyclist rides past the famed 2nd Street tunnel as it is lit up in the colors of the Ukrainian flag Wednesday, March 2, 2022, in Los Angeles.

Victoria Holt is director of the John Sloan Dickey Center for International Understanding at Dartmouth College and a former U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state for international security who worked in the Obama administration. She spoke with VPR's Mitch Wertlieb about the global response to Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

Their conversation below has been edited and condensed for clarity. Mitch begins by asking if the nearly universal outrage expressed by the world's governments are a sign that Russian President Vladimir Putin may have bitten off more than he can chew in invading Ukraine.

Victoria Holt: Europe, many of the democracies, the G7, have all imposed sanctions, which is very important. But in a sense, the countries that are not fully on board could potentially also be conduits to telling Russia, "This won't stand, you need to find a way out, we will not fully back you." And you can look to countries like China, India, some of the Gulf states, including the UAE who abstained on earlier votes, but may be able to talk to Putin and the Russians.

A photo of a woman who appears white sitting at a desk with papers on it and a computer in the background
Robert Gill
Dartmouth College

Mitch Wertlieb: I'm going to be saying this a lot through our conversation, so I apologize ahead of time, but at the time we're speaking now — and I mention that because this is such a fast-changing story — but at the time we are speaking now, this is coming on the heels of President Biden's State of the Union speech.

Did you hear anything in that speech that spoke to this issue that you think might make a difference?

Absolutely. President Biden began State of the Union talking about the activities and what's happening in Ukraine, and that the U.S. is standing by the Ukrainian people. I noted in particular, he took it to another level and said, in the battle between democracy and autocracy, democracies are rising to the moment, and the world is clearly choosing the side of peace and security. And he called this a real test. There has been a long-going challenge between the rise of authoritarian and the diminishment of democracy over the last 10 to 15 years.

And I think it's important for Americans, in particular, to see what's at risk and what we can do to play a part in strengthening democracies.

You've mentioned sanctions. How do you think they're working so far? Have they gone far enough? And what can be done more to target leaders like Putin and his inner circle more effectively?

Yes, sanctions are very important. The political punch of so many countries coming forward to join in sanctioning the Russian regime, oligarchs, cashflows, visas, travel bans, freezing assets, is very powerful.

Some of those effects will take a long time. And often the best sanctions are the ones that the United Nations approves. But with Russia's veto, we couldn't go that route, which is why these sanctions are so impressive in their speed and their depth. But they may not stop the immediate conflict — that will take time.

More from VPR: A Bennington College student on being home in Ukraine during Russia's invasion

A lot of talk has moved recently to more aggressive prevention measures, things like putting up no-fly zones. Ukraine's president has called for this, but you know, NATO countries seem resistant to that, hesitant about it, worried that a move like that could prompt Vladimir Putin to perhaps turn to something extreme, like his nuclear arsenal. And we know that Russia has a huge one.

Are those valid concerns?

That's a really important question. Russia is likely to start striking infrastructure, as it's begun to do, targeting civilian residences, going after water supplies, and even potentially using illegal weapons such as cluster munitions.

So that kind of impact has led to calls, as you've noted, for no-fly zones. The challenge with a no-fly zone, it's not a defensive measure. It's an offensive one, which means that if the United States set up a no-fly zone without the consent of all the parties, which unfortunately now includes the Russians, it would make the United States a party to the conflict and indirectly involved.

And I think that's what you're hearing, both for the advocates saying, "Please help us protect Ukraine," and those concerned, that this measure would take us into potentially a direct war with Russia. For them that, understandably, may be a step too far.

I'm wondering if there's an X factor here with the Russian people. I mean, it was remarkable to me to see people in the streets of Moscow, protesting in a nation where they know that they will be immediately targeted by the police there.

Do you think that makes a difference, if the people of Russia themselves actually stand up to their president, and say, "We don't want this either."

I think it always makes a difference when people speak up for their rights and for democracy. And it's a particularly challenging thing to do. In Russia, as you've noted, a lot of NGOs, human rights activists here, human rights monitors, journalists have really felt the pressure in Russia, if not been pushed out or injured themselves.

It demonstrates the desire for all humans to live in freedom. And that could have an impact absolutely on the calculation of those in leadership in Russia.

I wonder too, if the nature of the world now with so much interconnectedness with video, and with ways to get in touch with people electronically, is making a difference in that the people of Ukraine must know now that the world is with them and seeing messages from around the world. And even if they are symbolic, some of these small things as these people are going through such a terrible crisis, do you think that may help?

Well, absolutely. And it may help in the immediate term. What an amazing citizen journalism aspect we have in social media today. Where you and I can see what's happening in Ukraine, we can see what the people are experiencing. It gives more meaning when international leaders call say for humanitarian assistance, which is over requesting now over a billion dollars, they're expecting upwards of 4 million people to seek to flee as refugees in the coming weeks.

That all has a real face to it. You see the pictures of people, we hear their words, we hear the reporting of their experience. So that kind of social media and technology has really made a difference. And I think it also makes it more easy for all of us to understand the consequences of this kind of conflict, and why countries like ours can make a difference in trying to support the people of Ukraine.

More from VPR: A vigil for Ukraine in Montpelier spotlights unfolding humanitarian crisis

Finally, Victoria Holt, I wonder if you think there is — I mean, again, as we're talking, things are changing so rapidly — but does the time frame matter here?

The time frame does matter. My concern is that the tactics of war could get increasingly grim for the people of Ukraine. If Russia escalates its attacks on cities, on infrastructure, on civilian residences, and reduces access to food, water and shelter, this is where the grinding nature of conflict can be very destructive.

We have over 40 million people who have been living in Ukraine, they can't all flee. And so how to keep those people alive and safe and healthy, if that's the way the war turns, is a huge challenge.

So for that, I hope, the political pressure, the economic pressure, the military pressure, the sanctions that have been put on, accelerate pressure on Russia, to withdraw. But I am worried that the conflict may go in a different direction, at least in the short-term. And that's the most challenging part of what we're watching.

Have questions, comments, or concerns? Send us a message or tweet your thoughts to @mwertlieb.

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