Can Russia be stopped?

Alexander Vershbow, former U.S. ambassador to Russia and Perry World House Distinguished Visiting Fellow, discusses Russia’s military buildup along the Ukrainian border that’s stoking invasion fears.

Trudy Rubin and former U.S. Ambassador to Russia Alexander Vershbow sit in chairs on a stage with a sign between them reading Perry World House
Trudy Rubin (left), foreign affairs columnist with the Philadelphia Inquirer, and former U.S. Ambassador to Russia Alexander Vershbow discuss tensions between Russia and Ukraine at Perry World House. (Image: Courtesy of Perry World House)

With Russia amassing more than 100,000 troops along its border with Ukraine, diplomatic talks seemingly stalled, and the United States pulling embassy staff out of the capital city of Kyiv, the threat of a Russian invasion of Ukraine looms over the region and globe.

While Russian President Vladimir Putin maintains he has no plans to attack the former Soviet state, President Biden and other Western leaders have said Putin seems intent on acting. They vow that Russia will pay a heavy price for any invasion, including possible sanctions on Putin himself.

What exactly does Putin want, and what would an invasion in Ukraine mean for peace and security in Europe and beyond?

Alexander Vershbow, former U.S. Ambassador to Russia and Perry World House Distinguished Visiting Fellow, tackled those questions and more in a conversation at Perry World House this week, moderated by Trudy Rubin, Perry World House Visiting Fellow and foreign affairs columnist and a member of the editorial board at The Philadelphia Inquirer.

Putin considers any NATO push into Eastern Europe as a direct threat to Russia, but leaders in the West counter that the real threat is Russian aggression.

Vershbow said the current crisis was “entirely fabricated” by Putin.

“There is no threat to Russia’s security from NATO or from Ukraine. This is much more about President Putin seeking to avenge what he claims are three decades of U.S. and NATO efforts to weaken and encircle Russia to promote popular rebellions or ‘color revolutions’ in the neighboring states and to deprive Russia of its great power status,” he said. “This is a narrative that is far removed from the facts.”

Ukraine’s existence as an independent state threatens Russia’s ability to hold back the growth of democracy, which is Putin’s main objective, he said.

“Ukraine’s progress in consolidating freedom and democracy despite Russia’s efforts to dismember it and destabilize it, in my view, are seen by Putin as an existential threat,” he said. “If Ukrainian democracy is able to lay down deep roots, the Russian people will wonder why a country like Ukraine can have democracy and Russia cannot. Western ideas are much more of a threat than anything NATO has done.”

Russia’s ambitions go beyond reclaiming Ukraine, Vershbow contended, and seek to turn America’s Eastern European allies and partners into “defenseless buffer states,” he said.

Members of Ukraine's Territorial Defense Forces, volunteer military units of the Armed Forces, train in a snow covered city park in Kyiv.
Members of Ukraine's Territorial Defense Forces, volunteer military units of the Armed Forces, train in a city park in Kyiv, Ukraine, Saturday, Jan. 22, 2022. Dozens of civilians have been joining Ukraine's army reserves in recent weeks amid fears about Russian invasion. (AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky)

However, Vershbow isn’t convinced Putin is set on invading Ukraine.

“He may still be testing whether by threatening to invade he can frighten the West and the Ukrainians into accepting the sum of his demands, while avoiding the risks of punishing sanctions, heavy combat casualties that he knows new aggression with bring, as well as NATO buildup on Russia’s western borders that he’s trying to prevent,” Vershbow said.

The U.S. and its allies are holding out hope that Russia, despite its current bluster, is still looking for a diplomatic way out, he said.

“I personally worry that Putin, frustrated by his failure to break Ukraine’s will since 2014, may feel he has no choice but to deliver on his threats and impose a new Iron Curtain across Europe,” Vershbow said. “I hope I’m wrong.”

Asked what Putin’s motivation was, Vershbow replied that Putin regards the USSR’s collapse as “the greatest catastrophe of the 20th century,” and he means that.

“The fact that Ukraine is not only resisting Russia but succeeding in establishing itself as a democracy makes it harder to control, so he needs to prevent this challenge to the Putin system on Russia’s doorstep,” Vershbow said.

He sees a main challenge ahead for NATO to stick to its larger policies of supporting newly independent states, noting the 2008 announcement that Ukraine and Georgia could join the body never provided a roadmap to make it happen. He said Putin’s actions are “actually forcing NATO to take Ukrainian membership more seriously than it has for the last 13 years.”

The talk shifted to audience questions, which addressed the chances of Russia shutting down pipelines and whether China might be incentivized to invade Taiwan by Russian success in Ukraine.

Vershbow said there’s a serious risk of oil and gas supplies being cut off.

“Unfortunately, Europe is way too dependent on Russian energy supplies; 40% of their gas comes from Russia,” he said. “The U.S. is scrambling to come up with some ways to provide alternative sources of energy, or at least mitigate costs. That’s not easy.”

Asked what the U.S. strategy is in bolstering NATO’s commitment to mutual defense and support for Ukraine, Vershbow noted the Biden administration was hesitant to act initially, but, since Putin remained uncooperative, the administration moved to give greater technological support to Ukraine. That help isn’t sufficient for Ukraine to defeat the Russians but raises the prospect of a difficult invasion and makes a diplomatic way out preferable.

Asked if these moves are a precursor to Russia annexing further former Soviet countries, Vershbow said he sees Russia trying to keep a lid on future popular rebellions, like they recently did in Kazakhstan, by having troops in territories like Georgia and Azerbaijan.

He added that the Putin repressive model might be spreading to other leaders in the former Soviet states, but it’s not necessarily a recipe for long-term stability.

Vershbow said he thinks de-escalation is still possible. What the coalition has put forward does have face-saving items for Putin, like committing not to place weapons in Ukraine, allowing Russian experts to visit NATO missile defense sites, and cutting back on large military exercises near each other’s territory, he said.

Wrapping up the conversation, Rubin asked Vershbow to comment on what he thinks Putin’s end game might be.

“I think his end game is that he wants to bring Ukraine back under Russian control,” he said. “He’s been trying to do that through this undeclared war in the East, subversion, economic pressures, and it hasn’t worked. The next step is to impose some formula of Russian domination, whether installing new governments or by expanding Russia’s footprint into Ukrainian territory. He sees Ukraine slipping from Russia’s grasp and thinks the time has come to either pressure the current authorities to capitulate or to find new political authorities for Kyiv.”

To view the conversation in its entirety, visit Perry World House’s YouTube channel: