Interview: Former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Steven Pifer weighs in on the European Security Order After Crimea

On Thursday, February 25th, 2016 The European Policy Center (EPC) hosted a prestigious panel discussion in Brussels titled: “EU-U.S. Security Forum – The European Security Order After Crimea.” The panel, moderated by EPC’s Senior Policy Analyst Paul Ivan, consisted of:

  • Robert Bell, Senior Civilian Representative of the Secretary of Defense in Europe; Defense Advisor to the U.S. Ambassador to NATO
  • Steven Pifer, Director, Brookings Arms Control and Non-Proliferation Initiative, The Brookings Institution; former US Ambassador to Ukraine
  • Stefan Lehne, Visiting Scholar, Carnegie Europe
  • Joëlle Jenny, Director for Security Policy and Conflict Prevention, European External Action Service (EEAS)
Steven Pifer, FormerAmbassador to Ukraine (1998-2000)

The U.S. Mission to the EU’s press team had the opportunity to ask  Ambassador Steven Pifer some questions about the effects of the Russian invasion and illegal annexation of Crimea on the European Security order. Steven Pifer was the  U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine from  1998-2000 and has had a long career with the U.S. Foreign Service. He is currently the Director of the Brookings Institution’s Arms and Non-Proliferation Initiative in Washington DC, which addresses global arms control and proliferation challenges, as well as the central negotiations between the United States and Russia.

(The Views Ambassador Pifer expresses in this interview are his own and do not necessarily reflect the policy of the Government of the United States)


Ambassador Steven Pifer’s Past Positions

  • Senior Adviser, Center for Strategic & International Studies (2006-2009)
  • Deputy Assistant Secretary of State (2001-2004)
  • Visiting Scholar, Institute for International Studies, Stanford University (2000-2001)
    Ambassador to Ukraine (1998-2000)
  • Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director for Russia, Ukraine and Eurasia, National Security Council (1996-1997)
  • Prior assignments as a Foreign Service officer (1978-1995) included postings to the U.S. embassies in London, Moscow and Warsaw as well as with the U.S. delegation to the negotiation on intermediate-range nuclear forces in Geneva.


Do you believe the Security order in Europe has changed significantly because of the illegal annexation of Crimea? If so, in what way?

Ambassador Pifer: Russia’s illegal seizure and annexation of Crimea followed by its support for armed separatism in eastern Ukraine have seriously damaged the European security order. The cardinal rule of that order—dating back to the 1975 Helsinki Final Act—was that states should not use force to change borders or take territory. The Kremlin seems to want to play by different rules, including its insistence on a sphere of influence in the post-Soviet space. Given concerns about Russia’s behavior and the security challenge it poses, it is not clear how soon trust could be restored or the rules for a new security order agreed.

How significant would you rate the Russian threat to the European Union and its neighbors?

Ambassador Pifer: Russia has shown that it poses a real threat to the European Union’s neighbors, having used military force against Ukraine and Georgia in the past eight years while continuing to support a separatist regime in Transnistria. The probability of Russian use of force against one or more European Union member states, for example, in the Baltic region, is not high. The probability, however, is not zero—which we would have said four or five years ago. The European Union and NATO cannot ignore Moscow’s recent actions or the more bellicose posture that it has adopted toward the West.

How successful would you judge US and European efforts to counter Russia following Crimea?

Ambassador Pifer: The United States and Europe have not achieved their stated policy goals, which would require that Russia give up Crimea, withdraw its soldiers from eastern Ukraine, and end support to the separatists there. But the United States and Europe have surprised the Kremlin with their unity, their political and economic support for Ukraine, their sustained sanctions on Russia and their initial steps to bolster NATO’s conventional deterrence and defense capabilities in the Baltic region and Central Europe. The West needs to build on these steps if it wishes to change the policy calculations in Moscow and bring Russia back to a more cooperative approach on European security.

What more should the U.S. and its allies do to counter Russia?

Ambassador Pifer: First, the West should press Kyiv to make faster progress on reform and be prepared to offer additional financial assistance if it does so. Building a more resilient Ukraine will reduce the opportunities for Russia to destabilize the country. Second, NATO should take further steps to strengthen its conventional force posture, including in the Baltic region. Third, the United States and European Union should hold to their policy that there will be no easing of economic sanctions until the Minsk agreements are fully implemented. In this regard, it would send a useful signal to Moscow if the European Union would apply the sanctions on an indefinite basis instead of renewing them for just six months at a time. Finally, the West should signal that it would like to return to a more cooperative relationship with Russia, but that will depend on Russian actions.

What effect would a successful implementation of the Minsk protocols have on the security order in Europe after Crimea?

Ambassador Pifer: Successful implementation of the Minsk agreements—which, unfortunately, does not appear likely—would have a positive impact on the European security order. It would allow Kyiv to reassert full political sovereignty over the Donbas region and make it more likely that Ukraine would progress to become a stronger and more stable state. Full implementation of Minsk presumably would also mean that Russia had adopted a policy more conducive to better relations between Moscow and Kyiv, and between Moscow and the West. While Crimea would remain a problem, a settlement in eastern Ukraine could help move West-Russia relations back to a more normal pattern.

To what extent has the Russian intervention in Syria influenced your perception of the security order in Europe?

Ambassador Pifer: Russia’s intervention in Syria is another manifestation of Moscow’s desire to reassert its power and of its readiness to use military force. To the extent that the Kremlin’s policy in Syria is motivated by a desire to aggravate the refugee crisis in Turkey and the European Union, it reflects a Russian effort to further divide and weaken Europe.

Do you believe Crimea will ever be returned to Ukraine?

Ambassador Pifer: Realistically speaking, it is difficult to see how Kyiv can muster the leverage in the near term to secure Crimea’s return, which likely explains why the Ukrainian government has said it will deal with this issue in the longer term. That will still be a tough challenge. The United States and Europe should continue their policy of non-recognition of Crimea’s illegal incorporation into Russia, and they should maintain those sanctions linked to Crimea until such time as it is returned or Kyiv otherwise reaches a settlement with Moscow regarding the peninsula’s status.

The United States Mission to the European Union thanks Ambassador Pifer for appearing as our special guest in this blog.


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