20 years under Putin: a timeline

On September 17, staff members of IMR’s The Interpreter project led an impassioned discussion about Western policy toward Russia and Ukraine at the presentation of their new report, “An Invasion by Any Other Name: The Kremlin’s Dirty War in Ukraine,” in Washington, D.C., on Thursday.


Left to right: John Herbst, Michael Weiss, James Miller, Myroslava Gongadze, Stephen Pifer. Photo: IMR


The Interpreter editor-in-chief Michael Weiss and managing editor James Miller opened the event, held at the Atlantic Council, by providing an overview of the 88-page report, which describes in extensive detail Russia’s invasion and support of armed separatists in eastern Ukraine. Steven Pifer of the Brookings Institution and Myroslava Gongadze from Voice of America then joined the panel, along with Atlantic Council’s John Herbst, to hold a wide-ranging discussion about the U.S. response to the conflict, the current state of affairs in Ukraine, and the Kremlin’s possible strategy moving forward.

Weiss outlined the structure of the report, which is broken into two sections, the first of which catalogues the Russian military equipment observed in the Donbass. The second section, titled “Cargo 200,” examines proof that Russian soldiers have died in the conflict.

Miller recounted how the conflict began with Russian-backed separatists seizing buildings in towns across Ukraine’s east following the Euromaidan Revolution. As Ukrainian forces fought back and the clashes intensified, the Kremlin gradually increased its military support of the rebels. In the summer of 2014, Russian equipment such as T-72 tanks, which the rebels could only have acquired from the Russian army, started to appear on the battlefield, and in some cases Russian servicemen operated the equipment themselves.

The Kremlin’s decision to move heavy weaponry into the region led directly to one of the major civilian tragedies of the war: the downing of flight MH-17. “The civilian airliner that was shot down was a casualty of this constant ramping-up of direct, very reckless military intervention on the part of the Russian military,” Miller said.

Weiss said the report relied in part on the work of Russian journalists, from outlets including Novaya Gazeta and Slon, who sought out proof that Russian soldiers had died while fighting in Ukraine. Due to the Kremlin’s secrecy regarding Russia’s role in the war and the frequent dissemination of disinformation, it remains difficult to obtain an accurate picture of Russian casualties.

“It’s reached the point where Kremlin denials about Russian presence in Ukraine simply are not credible,” Pifer said. “I would go further and actually say it’s disgraceful. They demean their own soldiers when they disavow them when they are killed or captured in Ukraine.”

The discussion then turned to the approach of the U.S. and NATO toward Russia in light of the Kremlin’s brazen invasion of its neighbor. Pifer laid out a three-pronged strategy for addressing a newly aggressive Moscow that he called “deter, constrain, engage.”

Deterrence, he said, should come from the U.S. and NATO, who he said must make clear to the Kremlin that the border between Russia and NATO countries is a “bright red line” that cannot be crossed without serious consequences. To constrain Moscow, the West should seek to limit the Kremlin’s opportunities to interfere in the affairs of countries he called the “in-betweens,” meaning those nations that lie between Russia and “institutional Europe” such as Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine. He said this could be achieved by continuing to use sanctions against Russia as long as it remains aggressive, and by strengthening the governments of those “in-between” countries.

The third point, engagement, entails the need for the West to keep an open dialogue with Russia in areas where cooperation makes sense, such as arms control and counterterrorism, Pifer said. In particular, he recommended that NATO and Russia re-open communication on the military level in an effort to avoid accidents between their forces.

Gongadze criticized the West for taking a tactical approach to Russia, selecting a course of action on a case-by-case basis, instead of formulating a clear strategy. “We have to stop seeing Putin as just a badly behaved boy,” she said. “He is a criminal.”

She also argued that the Donbass conflict would not become frozen, as some analysts have predicted, due to the nebulous borders of the separatist-held territories. But Herbst noted that the current ceasefire, which began on Sept. 1, seems to be holding and could last another month or more as Vladimir Putin tests whether the West can be convinced to ease sanctions.

Weiss warned that the current lull in fighting did not necessarily signal that the war was coming to an end, however.

“Even when there is not an uptick in kinetic activity—a so-called ‘hashtag invasion’—it doesn’t mean that the Russians have gone quiet,” Weiss said. “They are fortifying an ongoing occupation. You can call this many things—I would call it a ceaseless invasion.”