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Former top U.S. diplomat Victoria Nuland talks to Meduza about winning in Ukraine by remaining tough on Putin and getting real about Chinese ‘neutrality’

Source: Meduza
Kevin Dietsch / Getty Images

In March 2024, Victoria Nuland stepped down as State Department under-secretary for political affairs, ending her tenure as the third-highest-ranking U.S. diplomat. Early in her career, from 1991 to 1993, Nuland worked at the American embassy in Moscow and was responsible for relations with Boris Yeltsin's government. Later, as America’s assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs, she visited the center of Ukraine’s Revolution of Dignity and publicly supported the demonstrators. Standing in the Maidan in Kyiv, Nuland even handed out cookies, which soon became a meme in Russia symbolizing supposed U.S. political interference. From the first days of the war in Ukraine, she helped develop Washington’s response to the Russian invasion. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken described Nuland’s work as “indispensable to confronting” Russian aggression. Meduza special correspondent Lilia Yapparova spoke to Victoria Nuland about the current state of the war in Ukraine, Russia’s claimed justifications for the invasion, and the future of the West’s relationship with Moscow.

— To outsiders, it seems like the war in Ukraine has already become a routine affair for many American and European politicians. It seems like the general concern and willingness to allocate funds are fading.

I would argue with that premise.

I think it took a while, but when you see the strong bipartisan vote for more than $60 billion from the U.S. taxpayers for Ukraine — including more than 100 House members, even as the Republican candidate was urging against that vote until the last minute — it shows that the American people understand that we can't allow a global bully to bite off a piece of another country and that that has ramifications for U.S. national interests.

And if we allow that to happen, he'll come for more. He'll come for NATO. And it sends a bad message to autocrats all over the world.

So, I'm actually encouraged that — in an election year, when this could easily have been a highly partisan vote — particularly the elders in the Republican Party listened to their voters, and we got the money.

Now, the Ukrainians obviously have to use the money, and we have to use the money, as well. Putin is ramping up his defense industry at a massive pace and pouring all the money of the Russian Federation not into schools or healthcare or any of those things but into the war effort. So, we need to stimulate our own defense industry and help the Ukrainians build up theirs, as well. And some of this money will help do that.

— You've proven yourself to be a determined advocate of tough policies towards Vladimir Putin's Russia and Vladimir Putin personally. You supported supplying defensive weapons to Kyiv and you visited the Maidan. The Kremlin has interpreted these actions as Washington meddling in its relations with Ukraine. If you could go back in time, would you do anything differently, perhaps with more caution in anticipation of Putin’s apparently great sensitivity?

I don't think it's a matter of how sensitive or not sensitive Putin is; I think it's a matter of Putin's aspirations going well beyond the borders of the Russian Federation. It is anathema to him, for reasons that we find hard to understand, for Ukraine to be a strong, independent, European country.

One would think that if Ukraine were prosperous, that would be advantageous for Russia, as well. If Ukraine were a route to the West, that would be advantageous for Putin, as well.

But instead, he's chosen to define his personal interests and insisted that they be Russia's interests, that the only good Ukraine for Russia is a subservient Ukraine, a Ukraine that essentially goes back to the 20th century and is under Russian domination.

And that's not what was agreed in 1991, and it's not what Russia as a country signed up to when the Soviet Union broke up.

And it is he who has twice invaded Ukraine. Ukraine was minding its own business, and we were minding our own business, including in the neighborhood.

So, I don't think that any amount of deference… unless we were willing to feed Ukraine to Putin, which we were not because that would have been just the first country he would have chosen to eat, would have been enough for him.

Victoria Nuland at Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Independence Square) in Kyiv on December 10, 2013
Vasily Fedosenko / Reuters / Scanpix / LETA

— Putin insists that Russia has a right to this kind of reaction, and he sometimes compares creating threats to Russia in Ukraine to Moscow creating an anti-American threat in Mexico. “They’ve started to create an anti-Russian bridgehead in Ukraine,” he says. “Okay, well, let’s try creating an anti-American bridgehead somewhere there on the U.S. borders, say, in Mexico. And just guess what would happen next.” What’s your reaction to that?

Let's just remember what the facts are.

The vast majority of Ukrainians — 60 percent [or] 70 percent — were pro-Russian, even after independence, until 2014, when Putin decided to grab and take Crimea illegally and send his little green men into the Donbas and into Luhansk.

It is Putin who has made Ukrainians anti-Russian.

And how could you not be anti-Russian when you see this massive invasion of your country, when so many of your young people are lost, when Russian missiles are targeted not just at the front lines, but at critical infrastructure, energy, water, etc., when you find mass graves like Bucha, when there are allegations of chemical weapons being used? If the United States did any of those things in Mexico, which we're obviously not going to do, then the Mexican people would be radically anti-American, regardless of what Putin did.

This is a dislike and an enmity of Putin's own making, and it was completely unnecessary.

— Many experts say Ukraine won’t be able to win, even with the latest American aid package. Why are Ukraine’s allies unable to supply Kyiv with what it needs for victory?

Well, the United States has been providing a massive amount of assistance for three years, including military assistance, economic support funds, reconstruction funds for energy, and humanitarian needs. We have a special envoy who's working on helping to rebuild Ukrainian cities so that exports can resume and people can go home to good jobs.

I think the problem here is that, at every stage, as we and our European and Asian allies are giving more and more money and support to Ukraine, Putin is escalating the war. Putin is creating more and more damage. Putin is ginning up the Russian defense industry. He's throwing, by some estimates, a thousand Russian young men to their deaths a day in order to gain a couple of kilometers of ground in different villages.

So the requirements are growing.

But I do think that we will continue to give strong assistance to Ukraine. And the new and longer-range weapons, which I think you'll see deployed on the battlefield this summer, will have an impact. 

— Some Congressional Republicans say they want a clearer strategy from President Biden on U.S. involvement in the war. A few have even argued that continued funding of Ukraine’s Armed Forces “only prolongs the conflict.” What’s the ultimate objective of American aid to Ukraine?

Well, again, more than half of congressional Republicans, when you put the Senate and House together, did vote to support this massive aid package. And they did it because they understand the stakes, not just for Ukraine but for us, as well.

And it's up to Ukraine if and when it goes to the negotiating table.

But right now, Putin does not look sincere about relinquishing territory. His attitude towards a negotiation is “what's mine is mine, and what's yours is negotiable.”

So, the goal of the U.S. strategy has been to put Ukraine in the strongest possible position, militarily, economically, and politically, so that it can go to the negotiating table from a position of strength when it is ready, and that Putin and his military will understand that we will continue to support an independent, sovereign Ukraine for as long as we need to, and that this war has been a loser for Russia, and that Russia should settle it in its own interest, as well, and get back to building its own country rather than just pumping money into a failed venture.

— Just to clarify, are you saying that reestablishing Ukraine’s 1991 borders is no longer the ultimate objective of U.S. policy? Now the goal is pursuing peace and supporting Ukraine in the negotiations ahead?

No, I mean, it's up to Ukraine to decide what its territorial goals are. But right now, it is not strong enough to have negotiations.

All wars end in negotiation.

We would like to see Putin get out of every square kilometer of Ukraine, but we won't know what is possible unless and until Ukraine is strong enough to go to the negotiating table and Putin understands that this is a failed venture for Russia and he needs to deal.

Even though Meduza is outlawed in Russia, we continue to deliver exclusive reporting and analysis from inside the country. Our journalists on the ground take risks to keep you informed about changes in Russia during its full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Support Meduza’s work today.

— The United States will hold its next presidential election in November, and the Republican Party’s presumptive nominee, Donald Trump, has offered to end the war in 24 hours. Is that realistic?

Putin's idea of ending the war is that he gets to keep everything he's got, which does not leave Ukraine with a sustainable country.

What we've also learned is that Putin went to negotiations called Minsk 1 and Minsk 2 in 2014, 2015, and 2016, but he did not negotiate in good faith, so it became a frozen conflict, and it became a platform for him to launch a second, bigger invasion.

So, were there to be a ceasefire today, if I were sitting in Bankova in Ukraine [at the Ukrainian president’s office], I would sincerely worry about whether Putin is ready to negotiate in good faith, whether he's ready to get out of any of Ukraine. (It would just be a pause so that Putin could rest and refit and rebuild his military.) And that's not in Ukraine's interest, and it's not in our interest for him just to come back and try to get more in six days, six months, six years, as he has proven.

We need a settlement that leaves a strong, independent, democratic, and economically viable European Ukraine that is politically supportable by the Ukrainian people and that guarantees that Vladimir Putin won't do this again, which is also why half of the money that the Congress passed is not only for the war today; it's about building up a highly deterrent Ukrainian military for the future, so that — even if the Ukrainians choose to go to the negotiating table and you have a pause — Putin has to know that they're just going to get stronger during that period of pause, not the other way around.

U.S. Senate Major Leader Chuck Schumer at a press conference announcing an agreement on an aid package for Ukraine. April 23, 2024.
Annabelle Gordon / CNP / Scanpix / LETA

— What do you think might happen in a second Trump presidency? Amid rising tensions with Russia, Iran, and China, is there any chance that he’ll abandon his usual isolationism?

Well, I worry not simply about isolationism in this case, but I do worry about Trump and his inclination to pander to other autocrats and other leaders with dictatorial tendencies.

He's made a lot of statements about the dictatorial aspects that he'd institute in the United States, so I worry that he has historic tendencies to be sympathetic towards Putin's position and that if he were to do that, if he were to get elected and choose to abandon Ukraine, he would face a Putin who just kept walking west towards NATO territory, and he would endanger us and our allies as well.

I don't think Putin's ready to negotiate in good faith. I think he's always wanted a pro-Moscow, subservient government. That's what he had with Yanukovych. That's what he's had in other periods in Ukrainian history: leaders who were ready to make Ukraine subservient to the whims of Moscow and, in fact, have their own economy ripped off by Russia, have their own territory be used as a military base for Russia's external ambitions.

Zelensky is not that guy.

We will know that Putin is ready to negotiate in good faith — we will know that he understands that this war is a loser for Russia and a loser for the Russian people — when he sits down with the government that the Ukrainian people elected, instead of trying to change it or hurt it.

— Some analysts say the West has essentially pressured Kyiv over the past six months the reconsider its position on peace negotiations.

You know, I think you see on the peace-negotiation side that the Ukrainians are continuing to advance this peace formula that Zelensky had published for more than a year: sovereignty and territorial integrity of states, removal of foreign militaries, reparations for damages, return of children, all of these kinds of things. And he has gathered (at some meetings) up to 50 or 60 countries, like the meeting in Davos. Sometimes there's an inner core of countries that includes not just U.S. allies but some of the major non-aligned countries like India, South Africa, Brazil, and Indonesia.

All of these countries support those principles. 

And I think Zelensky has been very, very effective at reminding the world what a just settlement for this war would look like, not a settlement where Putin gets to subjugate Ukraine for the long term.

Volodymyr Zelensky addresses the World Economic Forum in Davos on January 16, 2024
Gian Ehrenzeller / EPA / Scanpix / LETA

— Russian Deputy Foreign Affairs Minister Sergey Ryabkov has described Russian-American relations as being in a “comatose state.” How bad really is the current state of diplomacy between our two countries?

You know, it's not just bad — it's sad.

When I was younger, when I was very young in the 90s, I would say that we had regular contact on a weekly basis with Russians all over the country and with Russians of every political persuasion, from liberals to hardcore… You know, I used to see [LDPR founder Vladimir] Zhirinovsky myself and some of these hardcore guys. That really helped us understand the views across the country better. We were able to travel, see people when we traveled, and all of that.

And what Putin has done, beginning in the aught years but steadily across his five presidencies (and we see he's being inaugurated after his most recent “selection,” I will call it), is he's slowly closed down the channels of communication. And those official Russians who we do still talk to are not allowed to negotiate. They're not allowed to say anything of substance.

You know, even in the Obama administration, when Putin wanted the U.S. involved in Minsk, he assigned a full-time negotiator, and that person and I met five or six times. that person was empowered to have a conversation. 

Now there's nobody who's empowered to have a real conversation with us. It's like talking to telephone operators. You know, long-term contacts of mine, [people I’ve known for] 20, 30 years, you go see them or you get on the phone with them, and in fact we don't meet because there's no point anymore. But even when you get on the phone with them, all they do is transmit the message and repeat public talking points. They're not empowered by Putin to engage in any kind of real negotiation or dialogue.

And that's really, really too bad and sad.

Since the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, the only place where we've had a little bit of productive work, I would say, has been when we were able to get the hostage deal on Brittney Griner, and I hope we can continue to look at those kinds of things because we have more wrongfully detained people in Russia, including the Wall Street Journal journalist, Evan Gershkovich.

And when you start locking up journalists, what does that say to your own? I can imagine how Meduza feels about that.

Prisoners Brittney Griner and Viktor Bout are exchanged at Abu Dhabi airport on December 8, 2022
Russian State Media / AFP / Scanpix / LETA
Evan Gershkovich in court in Moscow on June 22, 2023
Sefa Karacan / Anadolu Agency / Getty Images

— How far did negotiations get on exchanging Alexey Navalny? The Anti-Corruption Foundation claims that he was killed in prison because a swap was imminent, but The Wall Street Journal reports that there was no final U.S.-German agreement or any proposal from Moscow.

There have been proposals put forward by our side repeatedly over the last two, two and a half years. And the Russian side has not been willing to engage seriously in negotiations.

In the context of Navalny, I personally don't think that his death was the result of negotiations. Putin didn't need to ensure that he was killed for that. He could have just said, “Nyet.” I think it was the result of Putin not wanting him around during his election and being unhappy with some of the things he was advising Russian voters to do. We'll never know, right? 

What's paramount for us is that we save space to get our remaining Americans home.

— Can you reveal who in Washington is working on that, on these exchanges?

Senior leadership is all involved. There have been conversations at the various levels on the Russian side [through] national security channels and intelligence channels — those kinds of things. But again, nobody on the Russian side appears to be empowered to cut a deal.

— So, there seems to be little hope?

In all of these cases, we have to keep working. We have to keep trying to find the right formula, whether it's with Russia, whether it's with Iran, whether it's with China, whether it's with North Korea. Russia has now put itself in the category of all these countries that use innocent Americans as vicious trade bait, and it's just a bad practice.

— Does the United States maintain any backchannels with the Kremlin, at least in case of emergencies?

We have channels to talk about this. The Russian side knows how to reach us if they're ready to be serious.

— Many ordinary Russians have a rather negative view of the Western sanctions imposed after the full-scale invasion of Ukraine. They feel personally impacted, and it has led some Russians to support Putin even more.

We're happy to take advice from those Russians who can tell us how to make the sanctions more effective. As you know, the first wave was designed to cut Russia out of the banking sector and put pressure on the big tycoons and the oligarchs, in the aspiration that they would put pressure on Putin.

The issue with sanctions, no matter where they are applied and who's applying them, is that they have to be refreshed constantly because the targeted country is always looking for workarounds. What we saw in the last six, seven, or eight months was that Russia was very successful, first of all, at hiding the circumvention of sanctions. So, all of a sudden, imports of U.S. laptops and washing machines to countries like the UAE, Turkey, and India were going way up because those countries were then transferring them onto Russia.

It has been important to call those countries' attention to who the real end user is. Calling American sellers' attention to who the real end user is is important — because [the Russians] don't need a washing machine or a laptop; they need the microelectronics inside.

What you see now is that, over the last six months, the military-industrial relationship between Russia and China has really exploded. Now, the Chinese promised the world they wouldn't send weapons to Russia, so instead they're sending all of the inputs for the weapons — like a Lego house — and then it gets put together in Russia. This has been a very successful strategy for both countries because Russia has nobody else to trade with (except North Korea and Iran). The Chinese have discovered that, in a time of economic hardship, they can stimulate their own economy by enhancing the defense industry. So, it's very symbiotic.

We can't stop every Chinese company from talking to every Russian company. It's just too big. They change their names.

Instead, we're working on trying to close down the financing, particularly saying to Chinese banks: “If you want to have an external trading relationship with us or with Europe or with any of the Asian democracies or the rest of the world, you must not be financing these component parts, microelectronics, nitrocellulose for explosives, rocket engines, etc., to Russia.”

We'll see if that's more successful, but we have to refresh what we are doing at every stage.

And I would argue that, if there are hardships for Russian citizens, it is because Putin doesn't care about his own citizens. He cares about his war effort. And when a guy is spending 25 percent of GDP on the war rather than on the needs of his citizens, when his policies have closed Russians off from travel, from education abroad, from real news, from real participation as global citizens. He's sacrificing Russia's future and Russia's children, whether they are the 20-year-old soldiers dying on the front line or whether they are the kids in school now who are not getting that world-class technological education that we all want our kids to have. And he's doing that for the vanity of eating Ukraine, which does not help today's Russia. 

Chinese President Xi Jinping at the Kremlin on March 21, 2023
Sputnik / Profimedia

— It seems that China clearly has no intention of renouncing Russia. In fact, Xi Jinping has visited Europe and urged its leaders not to follow the U.S., telling them to adopt a policy of "pragmatism.”

 China claims publicly to be neutral. It claims so all over the world. And then, under the table, its companies are supporting the [Russian] war effort, as we just discussed.

So, I think it's imperative that we speak directly to China and say, "You can't have it both ways. Either you are a supporter of the Russian side, and you have to pay the consequences globally in terms of reputation, in terms of trade, etc., for that. Or you're going to be truly neutral."

At the beginning, the Chinese participated in Zelensky's peace format. They've stopped doing that. They also tried a little bit of shuttle diplomacy, but the negotiator they hired was a guy who had lived in Moscow for 20 years and was very sympathetic to Putin, so he didn't get much traction.

Europe, in particular, is an extremely important trading partner for China and is increasingly upset that China is helping to extend this war. And I think that European pressure on China, along with our pressure, will continue to grow [and prove] that they can't have it both ways. If they want a good relationship with Europe, they have to be truly neutral in this war, and then they'll just have to decide where they want to stand.

Interview by Lilia Yapparova

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