While Ukraine’s military is in much better shape than when Russia first invaded in 2014, USIP’s William Taylor says it’s “not able to hold off the entire Russian military” alone, and that the United States and NATO must “make it clear to President Putin that the costs of invading will be much greater than the benefits.”

U.S. Institute of Peace experts discuss the latest foreign policy issues from around the world in On Peace, a brief weekly collaboration with SiriusXM's POTUS Channel 124.


Julie Mason: Ambassador William B. Taylor, vice president of strategic stability and security at the U.S. Institute of Peace. Former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine. Ambassador, thank you so much for joining me.

William Taylor: Morning, Julie, how are you?

Julie Mason: I'm very well, how are you?

William Taylor: Good. Good.

Julie Mason: Good. Glad to hear it. So the U.S. is sending some weapons to Ukraine. What do you know about that?

William Taylor: So the United States has been sending weapons to Ukraine since the Russians invaded Ukraine in 2014. So this is, yes, we've been sending about two and a half billion dollars’ worth of equipment, of training, of weapons, that has gone to Ukraine to help it defend itself against the Russian invasion, the Russians invaded in 2014. And as you say, they're threatening to invade again.

Julie Mason: Is Ukraine prepared for–even with all this assistance, and you know, and given their position–are they prepared for an invasion? Could they handle one without outside help?

William Taylor: So the Ukrainian army and armed forces are in much better shape today than they were when the Russians invaded in 2014. The Ukrainian military is better lead, it's better trained, it's better equipped, it has better equipment, has better weapons. A lot of that is coming from the United States and other NATO allies. But a lot of that is coming to training, and the leadership of Ukrainian military is Ukrainian. And the answer to your question is, they are ready. They are not able to withstand a full Russian invasion, there's no doubt about that. The Russian military is enormous. And the Ukrainian military, while stronger than it was before, is not able to hold off the entire Russian military.

Julie Mason: It was so interesting, that kerfuffle over a possible false flag that Russia could use as a rationale for invasion and their huffy denials, that that was their plan at all.

William Taylor: Of course, their huffy denials will come each time, this is what false flag is. So the false flag is the idea that the Russians already have some of their special forces in Ukraine, already inside Ukraine. And these Russian special forces are prepared to attack other forces, other Russian forces to make it look like Ukraine is attacking these Russian forces. So of course, the Russians are going to deny it. That's the whole purpose of a false flag is to generate a provocation, generate a reason that the Russians will point to say, look, the Ukrainians are attacking us, when in fact, it's the Russian special forces in a false flag that are attacking the Russian forces. And so the Russians will say the Ukrainians are attacking us, and so we have to invade. That, that will be their lying rationale.

Julie Mason: The Russians have reduced their staff at the Ukrainian embassy. What does that signal?

William Taylor: That's part of this whole message that President Putin is trying to send. President Putin is trying to indicate, to intimidate, to bluster, to bluff, maybe, too, in order to get what he wants without an invasion. I'm sure President Putin, who knows what's in his mind, let's just be clear, no one, no one does. But I would imagine that he would like to get the Ukrainian president or President Biden to cave, to give in to President Putin's demands without even an invasion. So that's why he is amassing all these forces. That's why he is sending signals that yet he's ready to invade by drawing down his embassy in Kiev. That's why he wants, he really wants to intimidate to try to get President Zelensky, President Biden to give in to President Putin's demands right away. So this is part of his bluster.

Julie Mason: Well, and I imagine another part of it was a cyberattack on the Ukrainian government last week, which was quite ominous.

William Taylor: Very ominous. This, again, is part of their playbook, these false flags, these cyberattacks, these messages of preparing for war, the bringing of all of this equipment and military to the borders, all part of the Russian playbook. My bet is that President Putin hasn't decided yet. He hasn't made a decision. So what the West has to do, what the United States has to do with the Ukrainians, with NATO, with the European Union is make it clear to President Putin that the costs of invading will be much greater than the benefits, there are no benefits that he that he can justify. So that's what has to happen to try to deter him from making this decision.

Julie Mason: Ambassador, what can you tell us about President Zelensky? Has he grown into the job? He came without much experience.

William Taylor: He came without much experience. You're exactly right, Julie. And I think the answer is yes. He's, he's grown into the job. He's been in it for now, two years, the first year, he thought, the fact is he campaigned, on the platform of trying to end this war, and he thought he could end this war by sitting down and talking to President Putin. It occurred to him and it became clear to him that that was not going to happen, that President Putin was not going to negotiate, that President Putin was just going to continue to do what he's been doing now. So President Zelensky has, as you say, grown into this job, he's realized that his real support is from the United States and from NATO. And so he has been holding strong, he has been holding, trying to hold, the country together, although there are these internal political problems that he's got that in some cases that he's created. But he has grown into this job. And I think he is now ready to defend himself and Ukraine against this Russian invasion.

Julie Mason: So one of Putin's premises is that the Ukrainian people are basically Russian, and wish to be part of Russia again, but I don't believe that's the feeling of the Ukrainian people.

William Taylor: That is not the feeling of the Ukrainian people. And you're right. That's what President Putin thinks. Putin thinks that Ukraine is not a real nation. He doesn't recognize the sovereignty of Ukraine. He doesn't think that the Ukrainian people want to be Ukraine. And what he has done, what President Putin has done, is to consolidate the Ukrainian nation against him. He's doing the opposite of what he wants. He is forcing the Ukrainian people to make a decision. And they've decided they want to be with Europe, and they don't want to be with Russia, who is invading them, who is killing 14,000 Ukrainian citizens, soldiers and civilians. 14,000 people have died, thanks to President Putin's aggression against them.

Julie Mason: Now at the U.S. Institute of Peace, I know you concern yourselves with conflict-free de-escalation. And I know you talked about like making the case to Putin that it's not in his interest. But he's so often gone marauding abroad when he has domestic problems at home. That seems to be part of his playbook.

William Taylor: It does. It does. He has. He has a fragile regime. He's been there for a long time. And he's got it, he can stay in office, Julie, until 2036. So President Putin is kind of insulated from the fragility of his autocratic rule. So that that's why it's hard to get through to him the message of the cost of invading. So again, the idea is to deter an invasion. The idea is to deter aggression. And that is what has to get through to him.

Julie Mason: Wow. Ambassador William B. Taylor, Vice President of strategic stability and security at the U.S. Institute of Peace. Former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine. Ambassador, thank you so much for joining me.

William Taylor: Thanks for having me.

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