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Story Publication logo September 25, 2015

Why Putin is Prepared to Fight for Ukraine

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Marvin Kalb, resident senior adviser at the Pulitzer Center, has covered U.S. foreign policy for...

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Margaret Warner interviews Marvin Kalb on his newest book, 'Imperial Gamble: Putin, Ukraine and the New Cold War.' Image courtesy of PBS NewsHour.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now, another addition to the NewsHour Bookshelf. In March of 2014, Russia annexed the Ukrainian territory of Crimea. In the last year-and-a-half, Russia also has encouraged and supported militarily separatists in Eastern Ukraine.

The motivations behind these actions, as well as the response of the West, particularly the United States, is the focus of a new book by veteran diplomatic correspondent Marvin Kalb, "Imperial Gamble: Putin, Ukraine and the New Cold War." He spoke with Margaret Warner.

MARGARET WARNER: Marvin Kalb, welcome.

MARVIN KALB: Thank you.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, in this book, you say Putin has won his gamble. You also recently wrote, Putin has won Ukraine. Is that where we are?

MARVIN KALB: I think that what he has done from the very beginning was have a far more limited goal in mind than what a number of people felt at the very beginning, when this all started.

He never wanted all of Ukraine. He wanted for historical purposes to take Crimea. He did. Then he wanted a part of Ukraine that he could always use to advance Russian interests. And he is now at a point where nobody in the West is shouting, hey, stop. Give us back Crimea. It's all accepted. And so he has won.

MARGARET WARNER: And you write that the U.S. and the West grossly miscalculated, have even been shocked that he made this play for Crimea, violated international borders.

MARVIN KALB: There is no question he violated the borders. There is no question he's used to getting his way. We had in the West a very romantic vision of Russia back in 1991, when the Soviet Union died and whatever is Russia began to emerge. And we began to think of it as a democracy. We're going to bring it into the West. All is going to be wonderful. That was never in the cards.

MARGARET WARNER: So what was at the root of this for Vladimir Putin himself, in his spirit and in his world view?

MARVIN KALB: Vladimir Putin is a Russian czar. He's kind of a mix of Peter the Great and Stalin. He's got both in his veins. And he looks out first and foremost for the national security interests of Russia. He accepts that, in Eastern Europe, that is a Russian backyard, that is a Russian sphere of influence. Ukraine lives most uncomfortably and unhappily in a Russian backyard.

If anything good is going to emerge out of this, it's going to be the result of an acceptable modus vivendi between Ukraine and Russia. The two of them will have to get together at some point. It is going to be a result that many people in the West will not like, because Russia, as the bigger power, is going to get the better of the deal. So, a lot of people will say, that's appeasement. That's this — that — it's reality.

MARGARET WARNER: Sounds it like you're speaking to the West and to the United States when you say things like that.

MARVIN KALB: Very much so.

MARGARET WARNER: And that the U.S. should, what, step back and let Ukraine fend for itself with Russia now, settle it among themselves?

MARVIN KALB: Every nation at the end of the day must fend for itself. Sometimes, it needs help. And Ukraine deserves all the help in the world. I'm very sympathetic. But I'm also a realist. I think President Obama would love to help. I think Chancellor Merkel of Germany would love to help. But there are realities governing what they can do. And Ukraine cannot live with the false image that somehow or another the West will come and rescue her. It's not going to happen.

MARGARET WARNER: Go back to Vladimir Putin. There was one interesting point I thought you made in the book, is that he is…

MARVIN KALB: Just one?



MARGARET WARNER: The key is really, he didn't just spring out of nowhere, but he's very much in the tradition of many Russian leaders, not just Peter the Great and Stalin. What do you mean by that?

MARVIN KALB: He was the man in the Kremlin at the moment. He feels a personal responsibility to reconstitute Russia in his image, which is that of a czar, which is that of a nation that has an empire. Russia can never be an empire unless it is in control of Ukraine.

MARGARET WARNER: And that has to do with the very close historical ties between the two…


MARGARET WARNER: Which we in the West also didn't really grasp.

MARVIN KALB: Well, we have got to understand, for example, Russia is an orthodox Christian nation. So is Ukraine. That happened in 988 in Crimea, a place called Kievan Rus, which was the Russia around Kiev at that time. It's 1,000 years ago, but, to a Russian, it's yesterday.

MARGARET WARNER: Yes. Let me ask you finally about a phrase that you use in your subtitle, and you call it "The New Cold War."


MARGARET WARNER: In terms of the broader relationship between the West and Russia, is it really that dire?

MARVIN KALB: It is not the same as a cold war, and I didn't in the subtitle have the ability to stretch it out. But I was trying in the book to say that we are dealing with a return to what might be a far more normal relationship between the West and Russia. Russia is what it is that we see. It's not dressed up in its birthday costume. It is what it is. It regards its national interests as important enough to fight for. And the difference on the whole Ukraine situation is that the Russians are prepared to fight for their position on Ukraine, and the West is not.

MARGARET WARNER: So, finally ending back up with Putin yet again, if this scenario you stretched out, which would be Ukraine and Russia getting together and finding this modus vivendi, if that doesn't happen any time soon, what should we — what do you expect next from Putin?

MARVIN KALB: That's a rough question. He is so totally unpredictable. The answer — and it's not ducking — the answer is that which satisfies the immediate national security interests of Russia.

MARGARET WARNER: As he sees it?

MARVIN KALB: As he sees it. And he is a despot, and he's a very good despot. And he will see things in a narrow way. What is good for Russia? That is what he will do. If that's represented by a move toward the Baltic, that would be very dangerous, but he would do it, on the assumption that he would ask himself the question: I am prepared to fight for Estonia. Is the United States? Is Germany? Is Britain? France? And the answer in his mind would be no. That doesn't mean he's going to do that.

MARGARET WARNER: But it's all thoughts in his head perhaps.

MARVIN KALB: It's very much up in the air.

MARGARET WARNER: Marvin Kalb, author of "Imperial Gamble," thank you so much.

MARVIN KALB: Thank you.


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