Russia’s war in Ukraine and its impact on countries with close ties to South Florida.
War has broken out in Eastern Europe. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is felt here with higher gasoline prices, but it also impacts countries with close ties to South Florida.
Between the two of them, retired U.S. Navy Admiral James Stavridis and Council on Foreign Relations Pres. Richard Haass have circled the global countless times. They have been in some of the world's foreign policy hotspots such as Northern Ireland, Bosnia and the Mideast.
The most visible sign in South Florida of Vladimir Putin's war in Ukraine is the skyrocketing price of gasoline. Yet, as the human toll of the violence in Ukraine mounts, there are questions how Russian aggression may impact its influence in Latin America, the role of Israel as it inserts itself into a mediator role, and how China may ultimately respond.
Stavridis and Haass appeared at the Festival of the Arts BOCA on Mar. 7. This is an edited of the conversation.
U.S. Strategy with Ukraine
WLRN: Should the United States and Europe stop buying energy from Russia?
Stavridis: I think so. I have felt the administration has done a good job of working through options of trying to control the vertical ladder of escalation. But if we're not prepared to go that step, which I think takes sanctions from kind of seven or eight out of 10 and ramps it up to nine-plus out of 10. What else are we waiting for at this point?
Haass: The United States stopping purchases of Russian energy is extremely modest in in its impact, just given how small the amounts are. Europe's much more significant. The problem is given European policy over the last two decades, they've allowed themselves to grow extremely dependent on it. There's no short-term one-to-one substitute. And it's still winter in Europe
WLRN: Is the US prepared economically for that kind of decision?
Stavridis: We get about seven percent of our hydrocarbons from Russia. We could easily substitute that from our own sources. By the way, sometimes commentators act as though, "Oh, if Putin turns off the taps, the lights are going to go out in Europe." That's not what's going to happen in terms of total energy. [Putin] has control of 10 percent of the natural gas going to Europe. I think that can be made up from the Gulf.
WLRN: Should NATO institute a no-fly zone over Ukraine?
Haass: No. I understand the frustrations, the temptations, but people need to understand what a no-fly zone entails. It sounds very almost mechanical or antiseptic, but you need to not just deny the other side's ability to fly, but in order to do that, you have to assert your own ability to control the airspace. In order to do that, you have to make sure they do not have weapons systems hundreds of kilometers inside their own territory that could reach your aircraft in order to create and sustain safely a no-fly zone. We would essentially have to initiate military operations against significant chunks of Russian territory. That would mean war, and it's the sort of direct military action we avoided for four decades during the Cold War, which is one of the principal reasons the Cold War stayed cold.
Stavridis: I think I can reliably say I'm the only person in Palm Beach County who has actually implemented a no-fly zone. I did it in 2011 over Libya. It is hard. It's complicated, it's dangerous. To put it in the skies over Ukraine, facing well-trained — not as good as ours, but well-trained Russian pilots — and also extremely capable surface-to-air missile systems, notably the S-400 big range, that’s a very, very big step to take. [A] no-fly zone [is a] blinking red light.
Haass: The other reason is, from the get-go, Putin's narrative is that Russia is a victim and that this is necessary because of NATO and for Russian security interests. I don't want to do anything, if I can help it, that reinforces this false narrative about where we are and how we got here. I want to keep the focus on Russian aggression.
WLRN: How about the calls for Polish Air Force assets to be sent to Ukraine?
Stavridis: Two thumbs up. Do it today.
WLRN: Then back-filled by NATO equipment into Poland.
Haass: I would disagree. Do it yesterday.
Stavridis: Let's do the math here because a lot of people have this view that, "Oh, the Russian military is on a par with NATO.” They are not. We outspend Russia 15-to-one. We have 25,000 combat aircraft in NATO. Russia has about 5,000. It's a five-to-one advantage. The point is, we can afford to send those MiG-29 aircraft. They're very capable, not super modern, but could be extremely significant on the battlefield. If we gave them 30 from the Poles, we would then backfill with 30 F-16s from the United States. We have that capacity. We have that inventory. We have this technology. We should do that. I agree with Richard, yesterday.
WLRN: Should the United States commit soldiers to more border NATO countries Poland, Romania, Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania and others?
Haass: Yes. We were worried initially that Putin would go through Ukraine like a knife through butter and then when he gained some momentum, he might not stop. Now, we're worried that a cornered, frustrated Putin might be thinking about widening the conflict. We ought to discourage that. NATO is a defensive alliance. We ought to be taking steps to enhance its defensive capability. We shouldn't be waiting. We are not provoking this sort of thing. Putin has revealed himself. We should have no illusions about who he is. We ought to be taking steps to get him to recalibrate.
WLRN: What about soldiers on the ground and sailors?
Stavridis: I was going to say it's more than troops to the border. I'll give you some specifics. We should move six brigade combat teams of 1,000 to 2,000 troops into Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland and Romania. We ought to bring a three-star corps headquarters and put it in Poland. We ought to take our four Arleigh Burke-class destroyers currently home ported in Spain and move them forward. I like home porting them in Haifa, Israel, or Athens, both of which I think would welcome them. Get the naval piece forward. And last point, look north. Putin is seized with the Arctic. Start patrolling there. Start moving assets up there. Increased surveillance. Put everything around Putin because that's everything he doesn't want.
WLRN: In the 1990s, the U.S. pledged it would not get involved in the Balkans. It did get involved in the Balkans. President Biden has pledged that the U.S. will not send armed forces to direct lead to fight Russians.
Haass: In Ukraine
WLRN: Are we setting ourselves up for a similar situation where an administration has to go back on a pledge of using force?
I thought the president was exactly right early on to take off the table direct American military intervention.Council on Foreign Relations Pres. Richard Haass
Haass: No, the decision in the Balkans was wise. It was based upon the conflict at the time that had large dimensions of a civil war and that people were worried that this was not the sort of situation where we could insert U.S. military forces and be worth it. At the end, we felt compelled to after various violations of international arrangements, we did in a very limited way. It turned out surprisingly well, at a limited cost on our part.
This is qualitatively different. I agree with the president's decision, by the way. I think the administration's done a good job in how they manage this crisis. I thought the president was exactly right early on to take off the table direct American military intervention. I don't think it would have been credible to Putin, and I never want to threaten something that you're not going to do. We weren't ready for it as a country. I didn't think it made a whole lot of sense militarily. It's important to get right what you're going to do and what you're not going to do. Here's the things we're going to do to strengthen Ukraine. Here's what we're going to do with sanctions. Here's what we're going to do with energy. Here's what we're going to do with diplomacy. So we had a comprehensive policy built around that. I thought it actually made sense.
Stavridis: What the Biden administration has to do is steer a course, on the one side, do nothing, just sit back and watch like we did in Rwanda, like we did in Serbia. Do nothing. Obviously, we don't want to be there. On the other side of that passage is a war with Russia. We don't want to be there. But here's the good news — it's a pretty big fairway. There's a lot you can do in there.
The steps that the administration is taking are about the right package as we sit here tonight on this balmy evening in South Florida. Could something change that? Yeah. Do we need at some point, maybe we're going to have to steer a little closer, take more risk on this side of the fairway next to risk of war? Maybe we will. I don't think we're there yet. I think we continue up the center path.
We don't have to theorize about what happens if the world descends into competing trading blocs if free trade fails.Retired US Navy Admiral James Stavridis
Russia in Latin America
WLRN: Russia was pretty active here in the western hemisphere in the weeks and days leading up to it launching its war in Ukraine. The Russian foreign deputy minister was visiting Cuba and Venezuela and Nicaragua just a matter of days before launching the invasion into Ukraine. What should we make of the activity of Russia within the past few weeks in Latin America?
Stavridis: We should not overreact to it. We're a long way from Russia. Their navy doesn't have the kind of global scope and scale. They can't afford to plunge money into rebuilding a rotten society, such as you see in Venezuela. To them, Nicolás Maduro is a kind of a joke on a sideline. Cuba presents a threat to its own people, crushing their standard of living. I would say with Russia, we ought to be monitoring what they're doing, but I don't see them as a serious threat that we need to be managing.
Haass: Let me suggest one thing that I would not be shocked if it were to happen. If Putin ever does wake up and for whatever reason, because of military difficulties, economic sanctions and internal pressure, and looking for ways to get away from this, I think the Western Hemisphere might tempt him. What he might try to do is, for example, increase Russian bomber presence in this part of the world as a way of saying ‘NATO has done things close to my borders to threaten me’ and to create a kind of parallelism.
WLRN: Already, Russia had said that it has not ruled out military deployments to the Western Hemisphere.
Haass: We have to decide what we want to signal. What we would react to. What we would want to avoid overreacting to. Not every Russian deployment military in this hemisphere is a replay of 1962. So, we just need to be calm.
WLRN: Venezuelan oil is seen as a possible fill for Russian energy in the United States, perhaps not necessarily the world. How should we think about that?
Haass: I think in places like Venezuela, there's two considerations: Is the kind of political change we want in the offing? And secondly, we have a foreign policy need right now with energy. And it's not just Venezuela. I think we're going to have a similar conversation potentially about Saudi Arabia. Conceivably, one about Iran. At this moment, we've got to think a little hardheaded about what our priorities are. What are the opportunities? What are the risks? What are the priorities? If Venezuela were on the cusp of massive political change, it might be a different calculation.
WLRN: If Russia were to be less potent post-war in Ukraine, if that's one of the outcomes, what does that mean for some of its satellites here in the Western Hemisphere, particularly Cuba?
Stavridis: They themselves will be diminished. There'll be less resources to come at them. We ought to remember, what Putin has undertaken in Ukraine is incredibly expensive, and not just the lives that are being lost. He will be pedaling pretty hard to control the kind of broken-toy countries he's assembled around himself. Belarus, however, Ukraine comes out Transnistria, this region of Moldova, Kazakhstan, a few others. He's going to have pretty empty coffers.
Haass: The critical factor here could be China.
Haass: Will China ultimately extend a lifeline in terms of asset buying commodities from grain to various sorts to energy? China has been trying to straddle this. I think this would be the time for the United States to think about — can we shoehorn China somewhat away and to be less unhelpful or conceivably even somewhat helpful? This is not good for [Chinese leader] Xi Jinping given his agenda right now.
Stavridis: I think [China] will ultimately buy Russian oil and gas, but they'll do it at a pretty favorable price for China. They'll extract concessions. I think they will allow Russian banks [access]. China will try and steer a kind of middle course. China will not seek to completely [Putin’s] behavior. On the other hand, they're not going to disavow it completely.
WLRN: China also needs the European Union as an economic partner.
Stavridis: They do. And this brings us to how do we deal with China as we go forward? I agree diplomacy, [but] I think it's bigger than that. I think what is missing is a strategic plan that has a military component to it. It has a diplomatic component. I think it needs a technology component. We're in a race in artificial intelligence, quantum computing. What are the incentives we can bring to the table in that regard? I think it needs a values component because we're going to have to square the circle of treatment of Uyghurs with our desire to get a good outcome with Russia.
Haass: We are making a major, major, major strategic error by not participating fully in the economic arrangements that are coming to dominate the wealthiest part of the world, the Indo-Pacific. We helped bring them about. And then at the last minute, we said, "Nope, we changed our mind. We're not going to join." We helped design and negotiate. This is nuts. One of the things we have to do is reshape the conversation in this country about why American participation in global trading arrangements makes sense. It makes sense economically. It makes sense strategically.
Stavridis: I couldn't agree more. We don't have to theorize about what happens if the world descends into competing trading blocs if free trade fails. We don't have to guess what's going to happen. We watched that happen in the 1930s. Here in the United States, we created massive trade barriers. We created these zones. We walked away from the League of Nations. We isolated ourselves. How'd that work out? Well, you can drop a plumb line through the Great Depression to the rise of fascism, to the Second World War. We need free trade. We need to be smart about it and protect ourselves. Finding the right economic relationship with China needs to be part of that larger plan I spoke of a moment ago.
WLRN: The prime minister of Israel has been very active trying to become a go-between with Putin and NATO, particularly in some of the Western allies. What do you make of that action?
Stavridis: I'm happy to see anybody trying to talk to both sides. I think that trying to be an interlocutor in a moment like this, particularly with a leader like Vladimir Putin, who I don't think is crazy, but I think is deeply angry and bitter and capable of a wide variety of actions. I think those missions are probably not going to be successful. But as Churchill said, "Jaw, jaw is better than war, war." Right now, we're in the latter.
Haass: Israel is one of a number of countries that's also straddling here. Israel's got various reasons for do it. There's several hundred thousand Jews still in Russia. There's somewhere between 200,000 and 500,000 Jews in Ukraine, depending upon whether you're using the Orthodox definition of who's a Jew or something else. Israel has the geopolitical concern that Russia has emerged as the principal external power in Syria. The Israelis as a result have been very hesitant to condemn what Russia is doing. I think Israel has been short-sighted here. I think its relationship with the United States is its single most important bilateral relationship. Israel is a fellow democracy. This is a time for Israel to stand up.
WLRN: What do you believe Israel's motivations may be in the role that the prime minister has been playing here within the first couple of weeks of this war.
Stavridis: They're looking for stability in the Middle East. They are drawing closer to the Arab world. They're entrepreneurial. They see markets. They see activity and engagement. And above all, they feel, I think correctly, that they can play this role.
WLRN: How long does it have before it gets a little sideways with the United States?
Haass: That process is underway, and it's a mistake.