Steven Pifer, 60, has served as the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine and as a senior official in the State Department and the White House National Security Council, specializing in Russia and Ukraine. He is now director of the Arms Control and Non-Proliferation Initiative at the Brookings Institution. He was interviewed Thursday at Brookings for USA TODAY's Capital Download.
Questions and answers have been edited for length and clarity.
Q: The crisis between Ukraine and Russia continues. There are reports today that Russian military forces are gathering near the border with Ukraine. Is this worrisome?
A: It causes a little bit of tension, but I think that the Russian military would have to think really hard about going into eastern Ukraine, because I think there is then a very high probability that at least some Ukrainian military units would fight, and they would then end up in a shooting war.
Q: The referendum in Crimea on annexation to Russia is scheduled for Sunday. Will that vote go forward?
A: There's no doubt that the referendum is going to go forward, and it's pretty much a given that the box that will be checked by most people will be to join Russia. The interesting question then is what do the Russians do. They have two real choices. One choice is to move outright to annex Crimea, and then it becomes very apparent this is just an outright Russian land grab. And that would be unfortunate because if Russia annexes Crimea, there's no chance it's ever going back to Ukraine. But that would also be the option most likely to provoke a very hard Western response. The alternative is that the Russians note that but Ukraine stays in something of a limbo status, which might create a little bit of bargaining room.
Q: Secretary of State John Kerry meets today in London with his Russian counterpart. But does Russia seem interested in a diplomatic solution?
A: Unfortunately, so far, not yet. The administration has been very careful since this crisis blew up 10 days ago to leave what they call a diplomatic off-ramp for Russia, a way to get to a negotiating path. ... The stumbling block so far is that Russia refuses to deal with the government of Ukraine, and until you have that dialogue going it's going to be hard to find some kind of a solution.
Q: President Obama said Wednesday the world would "completely reject" a "slapdash election" and there would be "a cost" for Russia. What cost?
A: Already you see a number of steps taken. For example, the other seven members of the G-8 unanimously agreed to stop preparing to go to the G-8 summit in Sochi. My guess is that the G-8 mechanism itself is somewhat at risk now. If the Russians continue this action, at some point the other seven are going to say, we don't need a G-8, we're going to go back to the G-7 that we had in the 1990s.
The United States has already terminated negotiations on a bilateral investment treaty, halted all military-to military-exercises, and begun to impose some visa sanctions on targeted individuals. They're working up the mechanism for further steps, including broader financial sanctions.
Q: But there are costs to the U.S. as well with these steps. We're been trying to cultivate relations with Russia to deal with things like money laundering and organized crime.
A: But I think the perception not only in Washington but also in Europe is that Vladimir Putin by this military occupation of Crimea has violated the rules of the game. Since 1991, after the collapse of the Soviet Union borders were seen to be sacrosanct. And this kind of blatant grab — you haven't seen this in the last 25 years.
Q: Is a new Cold War coming?
A: We certainly are headed toward perhaps the rockiest period in U.S.-Russia relations since the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. ... Unless the Russians change course, we're going to be in a very difficult time, unfortunately.
Q: Some Russians might say the United States now says borders are sacrosanct. But there have been other cases where the U.S. has stood up for self-determination of peoples. Is there an element of hypocrisy here by the United States?
The case the Russians will cite to us is, they'll say Kosovo. Let's take Kosovo as a case. In the end, Kosovo made a unilateral declaration of independence which the United States recognized and 100 other countries recognized. But that only came about after 10 years of negotiations with Serbia. So there was an effort by Kosovo to see if they could work out a separation in a way that was agreeable to Serbia. And that ultimately failed.
In this case, you're talking about a situation that is really not only in its second week, and you have Crimea, I think very much with the backing and the prompting of Moscow, pushing this kind of referendum. The cases aren't comparable at all.
Q: Why should Americans care about this?
A: Let me give you three quick reasons.
First of all, if this spins out of control, it's going to be a big issue for Europe. We're going to get pulled in one way or another. Getting involved now to try to contain it may save us a lot of energy, time and expense down the road.
Second, it's important that the West and the United States show Vladimir Putin that there are consequences for this. We don't want him to conclude that he can break the rules like this and then do it elsewhere.
And then, third, in 1991 when the Soviet Union collapsed, Ukraine had on its territory the third largest nuclear arsenal in the world. They gave that up at our urging, in part because we extended, along with the Russians and the British, security assurances to respect Ukrainian independence, their territorial integrity.
That was part of the price agreed to get rid of 1,900 nuclear weapons targeted at the United States. We have an obligation to basically help them politically and diplomatically and economically now. It's not just about Ukraine, but if you look at the nuclear proliferation challenges in North Korea or Iran, security assurances might be some part of those solutions. If we discredit the security assurances we gave in 1994, though, we take that tool out of the diplomatic toolbox.
Q: There are reports the Kremlin is considering suspending the inspections of its own strategic nuclear arsenal. How serious a step would that be?
A: That could be a pretty serious step and I think it would be something that the United States would very much regret. But it's also not in the Russian interest. The Russians do have an interest in making sure that American strategic nuclear forces be capped. And the 2010 new START treaty caps both sides. Both sides appreciate that limit and also the predictability. So I think there's that threat, but my guess is the Russians would think long and hard before doing that.
Q: If the annexation of Crimea proceeds, could that embolden other countries with disputed claims on territory – for instance, China?
A: Certainly it's in the world's interest to say if there's going to be a territorial dispute like this, it needs to be resolved by negotiation. You don't do what the Russians did, which is just basically take the place over militarily. We don't want that to become the new norm.
Q: Why has Putin done this?
A: It's not just about Crimea. What the Russians are about here and what Putin is about — he wants to have a sphere of influence in the post-Soviet space, and Ukraine is a very important piece of that. And he's concerned that Ukraine is interested not so much in NATO but in the European Union and in signing an association agreement with the European Union. I think Crimea was really a means to an end to try to pressure and destabilize that government. I think in a way, though, it's had an unintended consequence, which is: Within Ukraine now, I think the population supports even more drawing closer to the European Union.
Q: Where does this go?
A: The Russians fundamentally have a choice to make. They could choose the diplomatic off-ramp, at least get into the negotiating process, which I think would take a long time. It would be at best some time before Ukraine could reassert sovereignty over Crimea, if ever. But that would at least get the negotiating process underway that might find a solution without being a real crisis in U.S.-Russia relations.
But if they were to go the route of annexing Crimea, then I think you will see some fairly stiff Western sanctions, including financial sanctions, applied jointly by the United States and the European Union.
Q: Some congressional Republicans have said President Obama opened the door to this action by Russia by not being more forceful in places like Syria. Is that a fair criticism?
A: I think that's a little bit overstated. The White House made some mistakes in terms of how it handled Syria, particularly back in August and September. But I think that this is an issue, given the way that Putin looks at it, regardless of how we would have handled Syria, we probably would have been having this kind of crisis with Russia today.