The NATO summit cleared major hurdles for Sweden to join the alliance and offered a consensus for Ukraine’s eventual accession. With Moscow still dealing with the fallout from Prigozhin’s recent uprising, signs indicate that “Putin is now weaker than anybody in the West thought he’d be two months ago,” says USIP’s Donald Jensen.
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.
Steve Scully: Don Jensen is joining us from Washington. He is a senior adviser focusing on Russia and Europe at the U.S. Institute of Peace. He was stationed at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow back in the early 1990s, when the breakup of the Soviet Union took place. And he is a longtime U.S. diplomat, Don Jensen, thank you very much for being with us.
Donald Jensen: Well, thank you for having me. That '90s assignment seems a long time ago now.
Steve Scully: Time goes by so quickly. Let me begin first on Sweden's entry into NATO. And what do you think was the tipping point for President Erdogan? Certainly, those F-16 fighter jets, the U.S. is now going to provide Turkey, I think might have sweetened the pot for the Turkish government.
Donald Jensen: Well, I certainly think that it did. I think that the relationship with Sweden appears to be improving as well on trade and on the other issues that were separating both sides. But, you know, I think we have to look also at what's going on in Moscow. And I think Erdogan likes to zigzag and kind of tilt one way and the other despite its NATO membership. I think he sees Putin is not on the ropes, Putin is weakened. And I think he sees now that it's got to be better to stay with the winning side, or the side that has the strong advantage at the moment. And that's certainly Ukraine and NATO, because I think that the whole big origin, uprising really hurt Putin a lot. The second thing I would mention about Turkey, and of course, the prisoner return on those guys who were supposed to stay in Turkey, per the agreement with Moscow, but they're gonna go back to Ukraine as they should. And again, that's the second thing in a few days, which shows Erdogan is leaning toward the west and not to Moscow.
Steve Scully: So, if you could explain something to me, we talk to David Andelman, who writes for CNN and his sub stack, that is available is well, he's a longtime author and journalist. And yesterday we were talking about President Erdogan saying that they will not allow Sweden to become a member of NATO until Turkey is part of the European Union and then a complete flip flop just a few hours later, what was behind that?
Donald Jensen: What was behind that is not only what I just said, but what you said, which is the sweetening of the pot. We have to separate out the negotiations by timeline and all that kind of thing. And while I personally have no doubt at the end of the day, Turkey would let them go in, I think Erdogan was holding on for the best deal he could. He got a pretty good deal, frankly, on several things that the West had been about, the rest of the West, had been unwilling to give him so I think he got the best deal he could he realized that. And again, the strategic balance was moving away from Moscow. So, he did the Putin thing and for him, it was far more rational, I think, sensible, then sometimes we see them behave.
Steve Scully: You know, we've talked about historic significance, but it does seem that this has been a very important meeting again, it's only day one, another day tomorrow that communique that will be released, President Zelenskyy is in Vilnius. But this could be a turning point for the war in Ukraine, could it not?
Donald Jensen: It could indeed, and I think, and everybody has been focused this morning on the tweet that Zelenskyy made about absurd and that kind of thing. But again, that's his frustration, he is leaving a country at war. But frankly, I think the NATO position, as we've seen in the communique has been also moving toward Ukrainian's mission. Sure, everybody in Kyiv and elsewhere, including many people in Washington want a more definite timeline. But I think this is most definitely a step forward. When you're waiving the Membership Action Plan, you're pledging more assistance, we saw the French, they're gonna give cruise missiles, this morning. You're talking about a Ukraine, sooner or later, more likely, in a medium term in a few years will be in NATO, I think I have no doubt about that. And this is just partly just a difficulty of getting 30-plus nations with different perspectives, different security interests, all on board a common position. This is an organization and alliance that have Hungary on the one hand, but also Estonia and they're in markedly different positions. But I think what we see in the communique is not surprising. I understand the Ukrainian desire for more specificity, but they're going in the right direction. I think the Ukrainians should focus on that. It's good for them and it will happen maybe next year, maybe the year after but it will happen.
Steve Scully: And Don Jensen just to look at the arc of all of this because I covered the Bush White House, the George W. Bush White House. And it was the 43rd president who said, yes, it is time for Ukraine to become a member of NATO. Of course, that didn't happen, then for a number of reasons. And now this war could fast track that plan.
Donald Jensen: You're absolutely right. I think President Bush said the right thing. I think everybody wants Ukraine in NATO. And frankly, for all the, I don't want to call it squabbling, but let's say the discussion in the past few days, here in Washington, everybody knows that this was gonna happen. At the end of the day, if you look at the public opinion polls, Americans are still strongly behind supporting Ukraine. And that was not something people expected six months or a year ago, there's no sign of the U.S. public being tired of supporting Ukraine, it's the right thing to do. And Americans realize that. So, I think this is going in the right direction. We're all sort of frustrated, maybe by the vagueness of the assurance that maybe that timeline, but either way, everybody knows this is gonna happen. And I think when you combine this with the significantly enhanced assistance package, military assistance, that Ukraine is going to come out of this meeting with, I think it's in large part can be seen as another step forward. And that's what everybody wants to see.
Steve Scully: But let me follow up on that point. And again, remind our listeners, we're talking to Donald Jensen. He's a senior adviser focusing on Russia and Europe at the U.S. Institute of Peace. A veteran diplomat, he was in Moscow in the early '90s, when the Soviet Union broke up, and over the weekend, Martha Raddatz over at ABC News, traveling to Kyiv. And sitting down with President Zelenskyy. There is a small but vocal group, especially on Capitol Hill, some Republicans saying enough is enough. No more aid to Ukraine. Again, it's not a majority. But the President of Ukraine was asked about that.
Martha Raddatz: What would you say to those Americans who say, we've given enough we have our own problems? We can't continue to do that.
President Volodymyr Zelenskyy of Ukraine: I would like to say thank you to all Americans for what you have done. And I appreciate those who say that you've done enough. Trust me that no matter what I appreciate help when it comes to the word enough. Well, we Ukrainians are not people known for excessive appetites. Our victory is enough for us, honestly, when we have enough for our victory, then it will be enough.
Steve Scully: Donald Jensen, and again, that through a translator, the President of Ukraine over the weekend on ABC News, he is in Lithuania on this Tuesday, your reaction?
Donald Jensen: Well, I agree with the President, and I also agree with Miss Raddatz asking the question. I think we have to follow very closely, as I said a moment ago, the trend of U.S. public opinion. The polls were down a bit for Ukraine, but still very supportive, among the U.S. voters, maybe late spring, now they're back up, Americans see what's going on, they see that this is not a fight just about Ukraine and Russia. This is about a fight about the security of the Western world, the European Alliance, and ultimately U.S. foreign policy. And I think it's notable that some of the people who criticize the assistance here in D.C., that voice has gone down a little bit, because I think both parties by a large majority Speaker Ryan, the Democrats, they all support giving us, as the Biden administration would say, given what as long as it takes and what it takes, and that's what we're seeing right now. So, if Putin takes some support from what he hopes will be the West breaking up over this issue, or the U.S. becoming less supportive, there's very little evidence to support that. And I would note that the French and German so a year ago, everybody was worried about, and the Italian government are all now strongly in Ukraine's corner. Agreeing around Vilnius, these are the discussions that a large Alliance, which requires unanimity always has, and what's happening is that they've come to a consensus. Now Ukraine, being in NATO, and it will be in NATO, even though everybody including the President of Ukraine doesn't always agree about some of the particular issues. We all know that this is going in the right directions. And that's as it should be.
Steve Scully: Which nobody could have predicted a year and a half, two years ago, these fast-moving developments on the world stage. Don, I want to go back to an earlier point because you're talking about the Wagner group and Prigozhin. We do know from the reporting yesterday at CNN and the Washington Post that Putin met with Prigozhin back on June 29. You understand Russia, you understand the mindset of Vladimir Putin, what was going through his mind during that short-lived uprising? And was that a significant moment for Vladimir Putin and for his military?
Donald Jensen: Oh, it most certainly was. There's a lot of things going on, all of which go to one point, which is that Putin is now weaker than anybody in the West thought he would be two months ago. The Wagner Group has been funded by the Kremlin, the Wagner Group has ties all through the Russian military, military intelligence. And if you look at some of these, I was gonna say characters, but let me call them officers generals, who are around Putin, a lot of them have had ties with Prigozhin. Plus, there's a lot of money involved here. So, whatever the deal meant, on the end of June, when they hit it Wagner, they're still running around all over the place Prigozhin's in St. Petersburg, he's in Moscow, we thought he was going to be in Belarus. This is not a good time for Putin, things are starting to unravel. He does not now know who to trust. There are all these security institutions around him. A lot of them have ties to Wagner, a lot of them sympathize with Wagner, sympathize with Prigozhin. And now he doesn't know what to do. I think he's trying to spread the risk, as they say here. The people doing the investigation of the anti-Kremlin, pro Wagner and military generals, there's a new group because I don't think Putin can trust the FSB, their security services, who let the troops go halfway to Moscow, he doesn't know who to trust. And in that system, we're authority is so personalized, so intensely seen as vested in the President, when you show weakness, you're in deep trouble. I don't know whether that will play out in a week or a month or a year, but there will never be the Putin we've thought of on June 1, or May 1, it is just now, marked with a different character.
Steve Scully: Such an important point. So let me drill down just a bit further, if you were in that room on June 29, with Putin and the Wagner group, including Prigozhin, because as you and I both know, Putin has been one and we don't wish ill will on anyone, but he's been one to, you know, poison, and kill his enemies. That doesn't seem to be the case right now. Explain.
Donald Jensen: Well, we don't know for sure. I think everybody thinks and probably I would agree that Prigozhin should watch his back and stay away from hotel windows. There's two points to keep in mind here. One is what I just said, which is that there's a lot of people around Putin, who sympathize with Prigozhin, he must know that I'm sure he knows that. That's number one. Number two goes to the other direction, which is that this likely means it's likely will be tried by other groups in the country as well. There are a lot of armed bands not just the Chechens running around the Russian Federation, the Gazprom oil company, for example, has a private army. And now Putin can no longer be sure who's doing what. And it's a time I would not want to be around the Kremlin, because everybody I'm sure, and I've seen social media comment about it is pointing the finger at other people. And that is a very dangerous situation for Putin. And it's also something we've seen, I saw personally in '91, during the coup in Moscow, most people sit on the fence. And as we saw two weeks ago, a lot of the military didn't respond very quickly. They wanted to see how it would come out.
So, you've got the guys conspiring around Putin, with varying loyalties, varying allegiances, some uncertainty, but you've got the rank and file with the military, I think, which is not really convinced that they want to go to bat, if I can use the All-Star Game reference, to go to bat for this guy. And that's why you see so much fog around everything. Because people are readjusting, realigning, reassessing where their money is reassessing whether they're colleague can be trusted. That's all going on, at once behind the scenes of a very bloody war. And of course, ultimately, this will affect the Russian performance in the field because the boys who fight for Russia in Donbas are shown, may now know that a) when they turn around the Russian army and the rest of it may not have their back and b) a crazy bandit marched his guys 600 kilometers into the Russian Federation. And I would remind you that in the spring, that we had numerous ban raids, but from the Ukrainian side into Russia. So again, the message to Russian citizen at large is, well, Putin is the president, but he no longer can even guarantee our personal safety. And that's what I think the Ukrainians wanted all along by these guerrilla raids, by these attacks on oil derrick. So, the whole facade of the Putin regime, which was seemed to be unified under a tough guy is now under question. And again, in Russian history and Soviet history, and I think today, that is not going to be good for Putin in the long term.
Steve Scully: Donald Jensen he had a seat at the table during some of the most significant negotiations involving the START treaty and the INF he serves as a senior adviser on Russia and Europe at the U.S. Institute of Peace and thanks for the reminder, it is All Star week, American League or National League, will you be watching?
Donald Jensen: I am, I'm a baseball historian and worked at the Hall of Fame and I love it.
Steve Scully: Did you really?
Donald Jensen: I love it. Yeah, but I'm still giving over the guy on Cincinnati fielding home plate the other day and if that's not an antidote to excessive Home Run Derby I don't know what would be. Give me Jackie Robinson of this impressive young guy stealing home? I'll take that anytime.
Steve Scully: Hey, note to Nate Sweet, we'll have you come back on to talk baseball, not foreign policy. How many times you've been to Cooperstown?
Donald Jensen: I go there every year. I'm active in SABR which is the baseball research organization. I edit my own baseball magazine, and about the dead ball era with tobacco chewers and I go about once a year, I tried to at least.
Steve Scully: OK, so a lot of controversy still about why Cooperstown, the Baseball Hall of Fame defended if you would.
Donald Jensen: Well, it was certainly not invented there. But it's a wonderful, charming town even when the weather is awful, which is very frequent.
Steve Scully: Don Jensen, hey, thanks so much for being with us. Greatly appreciate it. Appreciate it.
Donald Jensen: Thank you, my pleasure.