“There’s no doubt in my mind that President Vladimir Putin knew what was going on and had given the general guidance,” says William B. Taylor, regarding Russia’s seizure of Ukrainian ships in a vital maritime trade route for Ukraine. The United States and Europe must jointly apply additional economic sanctions and provide military assistance to Ukraine to pressure Russia to cease its aggressive actions.

On Peace is a weekly podcast sponsored by USIP and Sirius XM POTUS Ch. 124. Each week, USIP experts tackle the latest foreign policy issues from around the world.


Tim Farley:    Yesterday at the State Department more condemnation of what Russia has been doing with Ukraine and the United States is looking to European allies. For increasing the pressure on Moscow, here is the State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert.

Heather Nauert:    That is something that's enshrined in our national security strategy, encouraging other countries to help one another around the world, so that the United States isn't completely, I don't want to say shouldering the burden, but so the United States isn't handling these issues chiefly alone.

Tim Farley:    William B. Taylor with the US Institute of Peace is the executive vice president. He is the former ambassador to Ukraine, and by the way, has just returned from the region and is joining us this morning for more perspective on this latest development. The Twitter handle is @USIP. Bill Taylor, welcome back. Thanks for being here today.

William Taylor:    Thank you Tim, it's good to be back.

Tim Farley:    What did you ... When were you there?

William Taylor:    I got back the day before Thanksgiving, so last week.

Tim Farley:    So right before this actual incident took place, correct?

William Taylor:    That is correct. When I got back here it started to unfold. 

Tim Farley:    All right. What is your interpretation of this? What is it in this, it seems to me is, intentional on the part of Russia by most accounts? And does it go all the way to Vladimir Putin? What is your interpretation of what we saw take place last weekend?

William Taylor:    As in most dictatorships and autocracies, big decisions, even some smaller decisions, are made at the top. We've had several examples of that recently. So there's no doubt in my mind that the president, Vladimir Putin, knew what was going on, had given the general guidance that these actions were to take place.

Tim Farley:    All right, so it's the Sea of Azov, the Kerch Strait. Explain to us how important this waterway is. Is this an unusual place for ships to be? What do we need to know about that?

William Taylor:    Right, so picture the Black Sea. There's a peninsula that sticks into the Black Sea from Ukraine, it's part of Ukraine, it's called Crimea. And as we know the Russians have invaded Crimea because the Russian mainland is right across the Kerch Strait from Crimea, so Crimea is a peninsula. The eastern-most tip is a place called Kerch. It turns out it's an old ruined Greek colony there from many centuries and centuries ago, and it is a strategic strait, waterway, because the Black Sea goes through then the Kerch Strait into the Sea of Azov, and Russia has part of the Sea of Azov, and Ukraine has ports on the Sea of Azov, including Mariupol, one of the most important ones for Ukraine. 

So commercial ships go from the Black Sea through the Kerch Strait into the Sea of Azov and to Mariupol and other Russian ports as well, and that's been fine, and the Russians and the Ukrainians have worked out since 2003 how those ships, of all kinds and of all nationalities, can go through there. And so that had not been a problem until this past weekend.

Tim Farley:    We do have a developing story on this, developing that is to Kurt Volker, who is U.S. Special Envoy for Ukraine, says that Washington sees no reason to doubt information from Kiev that its vessels were operating in line with international maritime rules. I guess there was not real doubt in the first place, but now he's just confirmed that, correct?

William Taylor:    And Ambassador Volker is a very close observer of all things having to do with Ukraine and having to do with Russia as it applies to Donbass, where Ambassador Volker has been trying to negotiate to get the Russians to leave Ukraine. Again, at the same time in 2014 when they tried to illegally annex Crimea they also sent their troops and special forces and security services into a southeastern part of the Ukraine called Donbass, and Ambassador Volker has been focused on that issue to try to get the Russians out. So he follows this very closely.

Tim Farley:    William B. Taylor with us, the former ambassador to Ukraine, U.S. Institute of Peace executive vice president. Bill, but I also note that we'd said in the beginning that the United States has been trying to ask for some support from European allies. The European Union today also insisting that Russia restore freedom of passage in that disputed Kerch Strait between Russia and Crimea to guarantee Eastern Ukraine a sea opening into the Black Sea and beyond.

I guess the question is, what measures should the United States and/or the European Union and other countries take in order to pressure Russia into taking action to ease off on Ukraine?

William Taylor:    Exactly, and you said it exactly right Tim. That is the Americans and the Europeans need to work jointly, work together, in a coordinated fashion to do a couple things. One is on the economic side. They clearly need to raise the sanctions above where they now are, so impose additional sanctions for this additional action that the Russians have taken. The Russians now have dropped all pretense about their hostility and their military action against Ukraine. Now they have, under Russian flag they have attacked Ukraine, so the Europeans and the Americans, we ought to jointly put on additional sanctions. One way to do this is through this pipeline that the Russians want to build to Europe that goes around Ukraine, the Nord Stream 2, that would be a good target.

But that's not it, what we should also do is take military action in the form of additional armaments for Ukraine, surface-to-ship missiles would be in order; more PT boats for the Ukrainian Navy; radar for maritime observation would be important, and joint exercises with NATO and Ukraine, and obviously European partners.

Tim Farley:    Bill I have a quote from ... let's give a listen to Senator Jeff Merkley, he's a Democrat from Oregon. He's also a member of the Foreign Relations Committee, yesterday. The upcoming G20 he says the president and President Putin should not be meeting.

Jeff Merkley:    I don't think he should meet one on one, and it's a list of reasons. First, he's under investigation for possible collusion with the Russians. We don't know what kind of connections he has financially, conflicts of interest. There was no transparency on his last meeting, this one-on-one meeting where only a translator was there. We still don't know what was said at that meeting.

Tim Farley:    For whatever reason, Bill Taylor, what do you think is the advisability of the president and President Putin meeting together?

William Taylor:    I think the U.S. president should not meet the Russian president, irrespective of all the other issues going on that the Senator talked about, for the U.S. president to meet the Russian president, who just oversaw and undoubtedly authorized a military attack against its neighbor, against a Russian neighbor, would be totally inappropriate. It's not to say we should call off all contact, because we should have lower-level contact with Russians, but for the U.S. president to meet the Russian president is totally inappropriate.

Tim Farley:    So what do you do in a meeting when you've got the G-20 and everyone is gathered around you? At least acknowledge and say hello, but you don't smile. What is the protocol for this kind of a get together?

William Taylor:    You don't leave ... that's a very good question, and this happened in the World War I commemoration, it was notable that people did not go over to see President Putin. They had the discussions among themselves, had little clusters among themselves. In previous times people would have gone over to shake his hand. They didn't do that, and that's what you do, you isolate the president. Unless you actually want to dis-invite him for these actions, I mean he is violating international norms, international treaties, international understandings, and to participate in international forum like this is inappropriate. So at a minimum you don't associate with him and maybe you dis-invite.

Tim Farley:    All right, we will see how this one turns out. William B. Taylor, thank you for joining us on POTUS. I appreciate it Bill.

William Taylor:    Thank you Tim.

Tim Farley:    That is William B. Taylor, U.S. Institute of Peace executive vice president, the former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, recently back from the region and his perspective on, right now, what is considered Russian aggression against Ukraine and what should happen afterwards including what should happen at the G-20 meeting this weekend at which Russia will be in attendance, and of course the United States will be in attendance. The Twitter handle is @USIP.

Related Publications

Amid the Central African Republic’s search for peace, Russia steps in. Is China next?

Amid the Central African Republic’s search for peace, Russia steps in. Is China next?

Thursday, December 19, 2019

By: Leslie Minney; Rachel Sullivan; Rachel Vandenbrink

The 2017 National Security Strategy refocused U.S. foreign and defense policy to address resurgent major power competition with Russia and China. In U.S. foreign policy, Africa has emerged as a frontline for this competition, as in recent years both Moscow and Beijing have sought to expand their influence and promote their interests on the continent. Nowhere is the role of major powers more apparent than in the Central African Republic (CAR), where Russia has emerged as a key power broker amid a civil war that has simmered since 2012. Despite concerns about the need to counter other major powers, the best course for U.S. policy in CAR is to not allow competition with Russia and China to distract from the fundamental priority of supporting a democratic, inclusive path to peace.

Type: Analysis and Commentary

Conflict Analysis & Prevention; Global Policy

The Ukraine-Russia Summit: An Unproven Chance for Peace

The Ukraine-Russia Summit: An Unproven Chance for Peace

Tuesday, November 26, 2019

By: Leslie Minney

The presidents of Ukraine and Russia will meet the French and German leaders in Paris December 9 to consider prospects for ending the five-year-old war in eastern Ukraine. Recent steps by Ukraine and Russia to reduce tensions highlight the summit’s potential, although questions for any real peace plan remain unanswered, most critically by Moscow. Despite signs that Russians at home are tired of the war and its costs, it remains unclear whether President Vladimir Putin might seriously consider ending his armed incursion into Ukraine’s Donbas region. But one potential benefit of the Paris summit is that his intent can be tested.

Type: Blog

Peace Processes

In Syria, Russian-Turkish Deal is a Game Changer on the Ground

In Syria, Russian-Turkish Deal is a Game Changer on the Ground

Wednesday, October 23, 2019

By: Mona Yacoubian

A chain reaction of events over the past two weeks in Syria have effectively reordered the conflict’s balance of power. Russia has emerged as the key power broker in Syria. Meanwhile, both the Assad regime and Turkey have achieved important gains, while the Kurds have suffered a significant loss. A 10-point deal negotiated between Russia and Turkey—if implemented successfully—will fulfill Turkey’s long-held demand that Kurdish forces be pushed approximately 20 miles off the Syrian-Turkish border. Following a U.S. decision to withdraw the majority of its forces from Syria, the deal also cedes control over significant portions of northeast Syria to the Assad regime and Russia. USIP’s Mona Yacoubian looks at the elements of the Russian-Turkish deal and its implications for Syria and the broader region.

Type: Analysis and Commentary

Conflict Analysis & Prevention

In Global Hotspots, China and Russia are Stepping Up Coordination

In Global Hotspots, China and Russia are Stepping Up Coordination

Wednesday, June 5, 2019

By: Jacob Stokes

Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin are in the middle of a rapid-fire series of bilateral meetings. Beijing and Moscow’s relationship spans a number of areas including energy, defense, infrastructure, trade, and finance. A shared sense of geopolitical competition with the United States over issues ranging from nuclear weapons to sanctions to human rights propels bilateral ties as well.

Type: Analysis and Commentary

Global Policy

View All Publications