“We must try to stop the conflict as soon as possible, or it will almost certainly escalate, as public pressure for more involvement by NATO will mount with the piling up of atrocities and Putin will see the need to double down,” former U.S. career diplomat Susan Thornton said in an interview with the Athens-Macedonian News Agency (ANA) and Dimitris Manolis, given ahead of her appearance at the Delphi Economic Forum on April 6-9 in Greece.
“I don’t know what will happen any more than anyone else does, but what should happen is a negotiated agreement between Ukraine and Russia that provides for some degree of Ukrainian military neutrality in exchange for preservation of Ukraine’s sovereignty, serious security guarantees and the ability of Ukraine to associate itself economically with whomever it feels best serves its interest,” said Thornton, who retired in 2018 as Acting Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs. She is currently a Visiting Lecturer at Yale Law School and a Senior Fellow at the Law School’s Paul Tsai China Center.
“Although many claim to know Vladimir Putin’s mind, no one really knows how he is thinking and for what he would settle with respect to Ukraine. Many hope that Putin will disappear, but I do not believe we should count on that. I envision, in the best case scenario, a Russian withdrawal that leaves Crimea, Donbas and the Sea of Azov coast in de facto Russian control,” she added.
“Ukraine cannot move its geography, so needs to wisely assess prospects for its long-term future and make the most of its position. This will clearly be very difficult in the wake of current Russian devastation, but Volodymyr Zelensky is proving to be a remarkable statesman, so maybe it is possible. On this last point, EU membership for Ukraine may (and probably should) be far in the future, but a roadmap that spells out how Ukraine could enter both the EU and the EEU, with interim steps that mark progress toward this goal, could be helpful,” Thornton said.
She noted that the West “will have to seriously consider what to do about sanctions if a cease-fire is reached and whether to leave Russia with an economic path forward while negotiations are conducted over what will be in effect another post-Soviet ‘frozen conflict.’ The world learned after fighting two world wars that it is important to leave the enemy with some dignity and prospects, but memories are short and emotions are running high.”
“I fear Russia’s invasion will cement in place a re-dividing of the globe in a Cold War redux. The narrative is seductively simple,” she concluded.
Asked whether she considers that the world is heading to a new Cold War, with spheres of influence, Thornton replied: “Yes, we appear to be headed to a new Cold War division of the world, but what the spheres will be are not yet clear. It will affirm the Biden administration’s vision of a ’21st century battle of democracies vs. autocracies’ in which democracies will make it their mission, at the least, to raise defenses against and ostracize, and potentially to ‘convert,’ non-democracies. This will entail a re-ordering of resource prioritization away from global governance and the economic integration of globalization toward defense spending and efforts to prosecute and transform autocracies and those seen as enabling them.
“I don’t foresee spheres of democracy vs. autocracy. Much as we may desire a simple narrative, in reality the world is very complicated.
“Not many people have yet worked out that this will mean a decline in global living standards and well-being, as countries beef up defense, deterrence and security forces and trade butter for guns and exchange free trade for barriers and protectionism. Whether people will, in the end, believe the price paid is worth it…well, let’s just say that I am skeptical. And this decline will lead to even more problems and instability, of course.
“This is likely to weigh negatively on global growth, efforts to combat borderless issues such as climate change and other problems and will put non-OECD countries in the difficult position of being caught between the developed West and its designated foes, China, Russia, Iran and others. It will be a world filled with more tension and conflict than what we have seen in the recent post-Cold War period.”
Regarding the significance of Germany’s decision to increase defense spending in response to ‘Putin’s war’, she said it was “a decision that acknowledges that globalization is over and we are retreating to a more dangerous and divided world.”
Asked whether there was a need for a more sovereign and independent Europe, with its own defense, Thornton agreed, noting that the United States “will be increasingly unable to underwrite Europe’s defense going forward, so at a minimum, Europe will have to increase its defense spending, and along with that will come a desire for increased say in how it is deployed.”
On whether there should be a contingency plan to support a Ukrainian government without President Zelensky at the helm, Thornton replied that “neither NATO/the U.S. nor Russia should get to decide who helms the government in Ukraine.”
She also spoke about current relations between Russia and China, as well as the imposition of sanctions against Russia by NATO member-states, such as Turkey:
“On February 4th, while Putin was in Beijing for the Olympic opening, the two Presidents signed a joint declaration that gushingly declared ‘no limits’ to Sino-Russian cooperation, and China’s apparent lack of objection to and attempts to make excuses for Russia’s unprovoked invasion of a sovereign partner state is appalling. So in that sense, yes, they are closer than they have been since the 1960s. Whether the war in Ukraine will change that is something that many people are asking.
“But in the current western narrative, the closeness between the two is nevertheless exaggerated. This is not an ‘alliance of autocracies.’
These are two states whose diplomacy is based solely on their own interests, with their apparent closeness driven in large part by their common and growing antipathy to U.S. hegemony and pressure and not by common values or other abstract notions. Putin and Xi Jinping do not do each ‘favors’ and neither side will put itself in a position to ‘owe’ the other. The mistrust, jealousy and basic lack of respect between the two countries runs very deep, but is being set aside by both in the cause of furthering pragmatic interests in a world where both believe they are oppressed and disrespected by the West.
“Turkey and every other major country in the region has a big stake in how this conflict turns out. Turkey should be interested in halting the conflict as soon as possible, both to stem the damage to Ukraine and Russia who are both Turkish partners, but also to halt damage to and destabilization of the global economy. Absent sanctions, it is hard to see how to bring added pressure on Russia to negotiate an end to the war. Of course, to get a political settlement, there must be a path that allows for sanctions lifting.”
Regarding Turkey’s threat of war against Greece, an EU member-state, if it exercises the rights provided by the Law of the Sea and the initiatives that could be taken at European level to resolve the issue of the EEZ delimitation between Greece and Turkey, she emphasized that this was not a dispute that warranted armed conflict:
“First of all, it should be clear that a dispute over exercising the rights in an EEZ should not result in armed conflict in the 21st century. Greece and Turkey have a long and difficult history, but there has been much progress and we should not lose sight of it. The war in Ukraine should remind us that we have much to lose and little to gain from such actions. When political will and statesmanship emerge, a negotiated settlement can be worked out. Until then, we must hope that the standoff does not devolve into something regrettable.”
Susan A. Thornton is a former career U.S. diplomat who retired in 2018 as Acting Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs. She is currently a Visiting Lecturer at Yale Law School and a Senior Fellow at the Law School’s Paul Tsai China Center. Thornton is also Director of the Forum on Asia Pacific Security at the National Committee on American Foreign Policy and a non-resident fellow at the Brookings Institution.