Daniel Fried: Without Sanctions against Russia the Situation Would be Worse

  • By Octavian Manea

The Russians could have driven deeper into Ukraine and they could have tried to seize Mariupol or driven on land all the way to Crimea or attack Harkhiv, said Daniel Fried the State Department’s Coordinator for Sanctions Policy.

"It is important, I suppose, in every generation to remind ourselves why Western solidarity is critical" said Daniel Fried, the State Department’s Coordinator for Sanctions Policy in an interview with Defence Matters while on a visit to Bucharest.  During the interview Ambassador Fried also discussed the Russian sanctions and highlighted the fact that "...without the sanctions the situation might well be much worse" adding that "if you don’t think it can be worse then I think you just lack imagination". 

This is what he told us:

Are the sanctions against Russia really working? Are they achieving the purposes for which they’ve been designed? Where are we in the process of restoring Ukrainian sovereignty?

I think the sanctions work in two ways and don’t work in a third. One way that they work is that without the sanctions the situation might well be much worse. And if you don’t think it can be worse then I think you just lack imagination. The Russians could have driven deeper into Ukraine and they could have tried to seize Mariupol or driven on land all the way to Crimea or attack Harkhiv. The sanctions may have stopped the Russians from going further.

Second, and related, the sanctions may have provided a grater opening for diplomacy than would have been otherwise the case. Without sanctions there might not have even been the Minsk framework. So they’ve worked in these two ways but they’ve not yet worked in a third way because there is still Russian support for separatists and indeed Russians all over the Donbas. But with sanctions patience is important. Let’s remember the Iranian sanctions. It has been said for years they would not work and all of a sudden it turned out that they’ve worked very well after all. In sanctions as in policy making in general, timing doesn’t always work according to you political calendar, your wishes or predictions. You have to enter in such a process determined and you have to mean it. That is what we do.

What can be learned from the Iranian experience in implementing the sanctions?

The principle lesson is: be patient, be determined and when the time comes for diplomacy take it and don’t hesitate. We don’t want to claim to sanctions that are not an end in themselves. I would be delighted to take down the sanctions when Minsk is fulfilled.

Is this strategic patience in sustaining the sanctions sustainable in Europe? 2017 will be a tough electoral year especially in France and Germany. Is the future of the sanctions in jeopardy?

Many observers and many journalists have asked whether the EU would sustain the sanctions. I’ve heard all this before. Europe so far has shown great determination and unity. There are differences of views in Europe. It may be the case that the Russians indirectly, working through various media outlets known and unknown are putting out the story that Europe is divided. There are differences of view, there are countries who have strongly supported sanctions from the beginning-the Baltics, Poland, Romania, Germany, Great Britain. There are also countries that were more skeptical publicly - Hungary, the French National Assembly. So this is debated. The West is an open democratic society. There are going to be a range of voices and as an American who am I to speak of a range of voices given our own presidential campaign. But all that said, Europe has done the right thing. Europe has formally just extended the sanctions on the individuals for another 6 months. Here we are discussing in theory, but Europe is proving itself in practice.

Do you expect the issue of Brexit to affect the European consensus on sanctions?

Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson has reaffirmed Britain support for maintaining sanctions until Minsk II is fulfilled. Whether or not Britain’s voice will be as strong within the post Brexit’ EU is something on which you and I and everybody else can have an opinion. Probably it doesn’t strengthen Britain’s voice within EU. Happily Britain is not the only strong country.

US is not part of the Normandy format. Why is the US supporting the implementation of Minsk II?

My colleague, Assistant Secretary of State for European Affairs Victoria Nuland is active, committed and serious about supporting the French and the Germans. She is doing this with the full support of the President and Secretary of State because we believe that the framework of Minsk offers the best deal for Ukraine. Minsk is not self-executing. Minsk is actually pretty good in the ways it outlines the steps, but it is neither specific about some details nor crucially doesn’t contain sequencing. The question is how the Minsk process can be properly sequenced so the right things happen in the right order. Basically security has to improve. It is hard to ask the Ukrainian government to put some difficult issues to the vote when their soldiers are being killed. The ceasefire is the first part of the Minsk agreement that has to be respected. Victoria Nuland is working closely with the French and Germans, she does speak to the Russians but this is not a separate American channel, we coordinate very closely with Germany, France and Ukraine.

How important is the successful implementation of the reforms in Ukraine for NATO and especially for the Eastern Flank countries?

At the basic strategic level what we the West can do is give Ukraine the time and space it needs to reform itself and draw closely to Europe which is what Ukraine wants to do. That is what we can do but that is all we can do. Ukraine has to make these decisions itself. Not entirely by themselves, we can help them and we should. The analogy I make is to the process in the 1990s. Poland, Baltic states, Romania all in their own time and pace reformed and transformed themselves. This process has not ended, it certainly has not ended in Romania but you’ve come a long way. That process and the success of that process it gave Romania the credibility to join the EU. What Romania did may not be replicated by Ukraine, we are not talking about Ukraine joining the EU, but we are talking about Ukraine that in a broader sense is Europeanizing itself and reforming itself. The more Ukraine does the more credibility it will have. Romania in its time, Poland in its time all generated enormous political capital for themselves by virtue of their reforms. In Romanian people remembered the Revolution of 1989, the Romanian people coming together to defeat communism when communism was shooting the people in the streets and then struggling with the reforms. It was not easy here for various reasons, it was harder here than in Poland. But starting in the second half of the 1990s with president Constantinescu, continuing with president Iliescu’s second term, reform gained momentum. So we have both right and left, liberal and social democrats and the reform gained momentum. That political capital that Romania built for itself got you where you needed to be. We did our part but mainly you did it. Had Romania failed, I wouldn’t take the blame. How can US possibly take credit for success when you did the work. That’s part of the message for Ukrainians: you do your work, we will do ours and don’t underestimate what could happen.

Are the current elites in Ukraine the right people to be in charge of these reforms? They are essentially old guard. Can we expect to Europeanise a country working through an oligarchical kind of elite?

Let me just put it this way. As all post Soviet countries, Ukraine has faced enormous challenges. And there is a difference between Ukraine and Romania. In the early 1990s there were Romanian politicians who were young adults but adults before communism, so pre-communist times, of European norms, were a living memory. In Ukraine that was true only to a very limited degree in Western Ukraine and not so much. The pre-1917 was no longer living memory in 1991. So maybe we the Americans and West Europeans underestimated the differences between what it used to be  Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. For a time we thought that post-communism and post-Soviet were interchangeable and it turned out that they weren’t. So the Ukrainians have faced enormous challenges but look at Maidan, look at the Ukrainian society. By the way, last time I was in Kiev it was the day after the Eurovision contest when Jamala won. Just pause for a moment and think about that. The Russian media, RT and the propaganda machine sometimes equates Ukrainian patriotism with fascism and they use all kinds of analogies. This is a Muslim woman, a Tatar from Crimea singing about the deportation of the Crimean Tatars in 1944 and on that day she was celebrated literally on the Maidan as a Ukrainian hero. In other words the definition of Ukrainian patriotism was broad enough to incorporate this kind of a person under the blue yellow flag. If I can abstract from it that means not that nationalism is dead, but the Ukrainian patriotism is finding a modern expression in a multiethnic, multi-religious fashion. This is very good news. Ukrainians were celebrating her as a Ukrainian patriot. That undermines the Russian narrative. The Russians always use the word fascist to mean any patriot in this part of the world whether it is in the Baltic, Poland, Ukraine or Romania. Yes this part of the world has had a terrible history and the XXth century was awful. All that is true and every nation has its dark past, including my own. But one must build on the best not the worst of one’s nation and Ukraine seems to be doing that. It may be American optimism at play here but we should have faith in the possibility, not inevitability, of success.

You mentioned Poland and Romania and their hard work for becoming members of NATO during the 1990s and beyond. I remember reading the memoirs of Ron Asmus about the fact that you were famous for developing the so-called SAT test for enlargement. I am wondering how far are Ukraine and Georgia from fulfilling the criteria of the Dan Fried SAT test?

The NATO membership is not the issue at hand. NATO has not advanced these topics since the Bucharest summit, 2008. The Russians and some of their defenders in the West argued that the West was trying to bring Ukraine to NATO and therefore Russia was justified in occupying Crimea. Let’s not distort history. The record shows that the issue at hand was the Ukrainians’ desire to sign the association agreement with the EU, Russia is pressuring Yanukovych not to do so and the Ukrainian demonstration against Yanukovych’s decision which grew and in response, he tried to put down with violence which led to social revolt and his ouster. NATO reaffirmed the Bucharest Summit decisions and I was there when chancellor Merkel working with Condoleezza Rice, Radek Sikorski and a lot of others worked out the language, it was a good language and we should not agonise over it. But since you brought up, Ron Asmus, we were friends, colleagues and I miss him every day. He contributed a great deal to the successes we all enjoyed. Ron Asmus would also thoroughly approve the NATO Warsaw Summit decisions to move forces here. These are all decisions to be proud of and things to build on as well as great challenges ahead.

You’ve dedicated a big part of yourself to NATO. How do you see the results of the latest NATO summit in Warsaw? Are we at that stage that deterrence is made credible again?

Of course, I would never agree that deterrence was not credible. The NATO Warsaw summit decisions were of tremendous importance. Some were overlooked by the world media because Brexit just happened. But it is a very big deal. NATO took important steps. It did so in response to questions about Article 5. Speaking more broadly, NATO enlargement and EU enlargement are means to an end, the end being a united West or a Europe whole, free and at peace. The results of all those efforts is that roughly a hundred million people between the Baltic and the Black Seas have enjoyed security and prosperity more than at any time, arguably, in history. That is a tremendous achievement and given the history of the XXth century not one to be overlooked. But human beings naturally tend to take good news for granted. The younger generation which has grown up in Romania not cut off from the West by Nazi Germany and not occupied and dominated by the Soviet Union, the European generation may start to take this for granted. It is natural because this is what human beings do. But a hundred million European have enjoyed better chances. This is not the end of the process. Hardly. Romania is going now to enter the period of accelerated growth and convergence with Europe. You got the highest growth in Europe right now. This may be the start of a good period. I remember in Poland, when they started achieving growth at about this level many people thought it couldn’t last but it lasted for a long time. Their GDP tripled. This may be very good and it is the result of hard work by Romanians and support for the West.

In his 2011 farewell address to NATO, Secretary Robert Gates was very firm in his warning: “future US political leaders – those for whom the Cold War was not the formative experience – may not consider that the return on America’s investment in NATO worth the cost.” Are we approaching that moment? We see a lot of tectonic political waves currently at work in the United States.

It is important, I suppose, in every generation to remind ourselves why Western solidarity is critical. Romania has to be congratulated and I believe you have reached the level of 2% defense spending. The US is likely to enter in this kind of burden-sharing discussion. The argument for NATO being a valuable investment is strong, it is even stronger now than when Secretary Gates spoke because what happened in Ukraine, because of the Russian aggression. But his point is still a good one: we must recall what it is we set out to achieve.


Daniel Fried is the State Department’s Coordinator for Sanctions Policy. Daniel Fried served as Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs (2005-2009) and as Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director for European and Eurasian Affairs at the National Security Council (2001-2005). In his service during the Administrations of the first President Bush, President Clinton, President George W. Bush, and the early months of the Obama Administration, Ambassador Fried was active in designing and implementing U.S. policy to advance freedom and security in Central and Eastern Europe, NATO enlargement, and the Russia-NATO relationship.