As counselor of the State Department, an under-secretary level position, Derek Chollet serves as a senior policy advisor to Secretary of State Antony J Blinken on a wide range of issues and conducts special diplomatic assignments. Chollet has earlier held positions in the White House, State Department, and Department of Defense, having last served as the United States (US) assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs, managing America’s defense policy towards, among other regions, Europe.
In the wake of Russia’s invasion, and the international community’s response, he spoke to HT on Thursday in Washington about US policy, strategy and endgame, responded to charges of US double standards, what the conflict means for Indo-Pacific, and discussed the role of India.
It’s been a week since Russia began its invasion of Ukraine. It’s been a week since the international community began its set of responses, both diplomatic and economic. Where are we right now?
Well, it’s been a very long eight days. The brutality of Russia’s actions in Ukraine, unfortunately, are only increasing and each day brings new horrifying reports and images out of Ukraine of Russia’s indiscriminate shelling of civilian areas, its bombing of hospitals and critical infrastructure, of residences. And unfortunately they seem to be on a course for that only to increase in the coming days, which is why we collectively need to be determined to stick together and keep ensuring that Russia pays a very high price for its actions. I think the international community collectively – the United States, our European partners, many Asian allies as well – have worked together to impose the stiffest set of economic measures ever levied against a major power like Russia. This has had immediate and deep painful costs on Russia.
Unfortunately, it’s not changing (Vladimir) Putin’s behaviour on the ground day to day, but we hope over time, it will – as more Russians ask themselves how this unprovoked and unjustified war is helping them feed their families or educate their children or make their lives more prosperous; as Russians and maybe some very rich Russians see that their futures are much dimmer now, and much more restricted in terms of what they can do and hope to do, that pressure will cause the Russian government to change its behaviour.
So that’s where we are. I think we have shown resolve and determination to stick together. That’s been a very, very important message to send. It is a moment, in our view, where countries should stand up and, and speak with one voice, condemn Russia’s action and uphold the principles that Russia’s actions are threatening principles like state sovereignty, inviolability of borders, the concept that you do not use force to resolve disputes, and that diplomacy should be paramount. I think those are very, very important fundamental principles that we need to act uphold.
The US used this novel strategy of releasing intelligence in the run-up to the invasion as a way to deter Putin. It did not work. You have now imposed a set of sanctions, but Russia is not a complete democracy. So public pressure is probably not going to work on the regime. So how do you think, even if there is public disenchantment, it’s going to change the incentives of the regime?
Sure. Well, first on the intelligence point, you are absolutely right. We, perhaps in an unprecedented way, used the information we had and made it available to other governments but also publicly to outline our concerns about Russia was doing. I do think that it accomplished a near-term goal of perhaps delaying some of Russia’s actions. That extra time that we were able to get was very important because it gave us more time to prepare for the measures that we have unfolded over the last eight days. It gave us more time to put some additional military force into the NATO’s eastern flank from the Baltics, in Poland down to Romania. And it also gave us more time to provide more support for the Ukrainian people and for their security assistance. That’s one benefit of the intelligence.
The other was, I think, a critical part of diplomacy. When you are asking countries to take steps that are going to be costly for them – perhaps when it comes to economic sanctions and severing economic relationships that might be important to them – that they are able to do so with, as much as possible, the benefit of the information you have about what you are concerned with. So that’s the reason why we made the difficult decision to share some of this intelligence over the previous several months. And I think, you know, that is one of the reasons why there has been such a strong coalition, in response to Putin’s actions on the issue of how this pressure might build.
It seems to us at least that there is a lot of discontent inside Russia about this situation. Russians who were not asking for this war, who were not really well informed about this war, are now seeing more Russians come back in body bags as victims of this war, they are seeing Russians in Ukraine, Russian-speakers in Ukraine, suffer at the hand of the Russian military. Kharkiv, which has been in the news a lot in the last few days because of the intense Russian attack against it, is the largest Russian-speaking city in Europe. One of the pretexts that Putin alleges is a reason why this war was necessary was because he needed to protect the rights of Russian-speakers. Well, it’s a funny way to show you’re protecting the rights of Russian speakers by shelling them with your military. So, one would think that, that as that continues, there is going to be greater public discontent. Also, we have targeted those who are closest to Putin, obviously Putin himself, some of his senior government officials, but also key oligarchs in Russia – making it harder for them to do their business, to travel, to enjoy the luxuries that they own. And it’s not just freezing those assets, but we have created the task force with European partners to actually go after and seize those assets, those luxury yachts and those billion-dollar apartments in London.
And so they are going to feel real pain. You are right Russia is not a democracy and it’s quite clear that this operation was planned by just a handful of folks. Nevertheless, I think that as we see the cost to Russia grow, economic hardship deepen, more and more Russians suffering – we don’t want them to suffer, it’s not something we’re seeking – but the reality is that ruble is essentially valueless, it’s going to be harder for people to borrow money, to pay their bills, let alone enjoy like luxuries, that they’re going to ask themselves what’s the point of this war? How is this helping Russia? And hope that as that pressure builds, that will influence Putin’s behaviour.
You want to change the incentives of the regime, or you want to change the regime?
Right now, this is about changing incentives. We are focused on ending the war in Ukraine. That’s our foremost focus,
Let me flag two criticisms from the non-Western world. One, that the West has not been very consistent on its own respect for sovereign and territorial integrity – and so why is this conflict being seen as such a defining marker? Two, there are other conflicts, crises, war that have happened or are happening across Africa, many parts of Asia have faced it. And we did not see this level of commitment from the US and other allies to taking on those who had been aggressors. So broadly, there is a charge of double standards and hypocrisy. How would you respond to that?
Obviously I reject the premise. I mean, the US, certainly in the last year that the (Joe) Biden administration has been an office, has worked relentlessly around the world to try to bring countries together to end conflicts or prevent conflicts, whether that’s the horrific situation unfolding over the last year in Ethiopia, whether it’s the coup and the incredible violence in a country like Myanmar, whether it’s the ongoing challenges in many countries in the Middle East, the US, working with partners and allies has worked tirelessly to try to end conflicts or use whatever tools we have at our disposal, the appropriate tools to try to influence the parties to find diplomatic solutions.
But Ukraine is the largest country in Europe. And Russia is largest country in the world by land. This is the most horrific violence Europe has seen since the second world war. And of course, Russia is a nuclear power. The potential of the conflict spiraling within Ukraine, getting worse in terms of the humanitarian disaster that we are seeing unfold, or leading to something worse, is quite high. This is an extremely, extremely risky enterprise. And this is also kind of a classic conflict in, in the international relations sense. This is a big country using its military to invade, cross a border and invade another country. This isn’t about civil unrest, or, you know, some other more complex contingency along the lines of what we have seen in a lot of places in the last 30 years since the end of the Cold War. I mean this is the kind of crisis we were worried about during the Cold War, a blunt use of force and increasingly an indiscriminate use of force that has led to tremendous hardship and will only lead to more hardship. It’s incredibly risky and dangerous.
Are you disappointed with India?
I don’t want to use the word disappointed. The US-India relationship is quite strong. It’s one of the bipartisan successes here in the United States in foreign policy. We have seen that going back three decades. President Biden just participated, by video, in a meeting of the Quad with Prime Minister (Narendra) Modi. We have been interacting quite intensively with Indian partners throughout this crisis. Secretary Blinken, my boss, has spoken several times on the phone or met in person with (S) Jaishankar. We understand that countries are going to have differences obviously in how they approach things. Obviously we so value the partnership and relationship with India that we will look to continue to work with India as this crisis unfolds, whether it’s bringing any kind of influence to bear on Russia to get them to change course, to helping on the humanitarian situation inside Ukraine or throughout Europe. The India-US partnership is deep. It’s strong. And it’s going to be a critical partnership moving forward.
While Quad leaders met, there has been some worry in Asian capitals that this conflict is going to distract the US from Indo-Pacific to Europe. How would you respond?
It’s a great question. It’s a fair question. And this is going to sound counterintuitive. But it’s actually strengthened our efforts around the world, even in Indo-Pacific, because this is not just a European problem right now, this is a global problem. It’s got global consequences and, over the last several months, but even in the last week, in the last eight days since the invasion, we have talking constantly with partners in the Indo-Pacific. I personally have talked to close to a half dozen Asian foreign ministers in the last eight days, Secretary Blinken has, other colleagues here at the department have, about the crisis about the way forward. Secretary Blinken, two weeks ago, did a trip to Australia and the Pacific islands. We released the Indo-Pacific strategy. The President just had the Quad meeting, and one of the outcomes of the Quad meeting was to follow up with an in-person meeting later this spring. I will be on another trip to the Indo-Pacific in a couple weeks.
What we have tried to do last year was reinvigorate and reenergise our diplomacy and the level of engagement we were having with partners around the world, create new structures or elevate structures, which had been in existence, like the Quad. Because we need to use those relationships and use those structures to try to deal with common challenges, whether it’s climate change, whether it’s the implications of a rising China, whether it’s a major crisis in the heart of Europe and, and all the manifestations of that.
It’s no question that a crisis anywhere is a time-consuming effort. But a large part of the effort has been talking to partners in the Indo-Pacific. And so I think the resources we spend, the kind of military and diplomatic and economic effort we are putting into our relationships and our interest in the Indo-Pacific will stay constant, regardless of this crisis.
So you are actually saying this crisis may in fact strengthen the American resolve in the Indo Pacific.
Yes. As I said, it sounds counterintuitive. Secretary Blinken, two weeks ago, released the Indo-Pacific strategy. That is our approach. All of that is as true today as it was two weeks ago, as it was two months ago. And I am just observing that in our approach, in our diplomatic effort, in dealing with this crisis, we have of course been talking to European partners quite a bit, but we have also been engaging intensively with partners throughout the Indo-Pacific and shown the importance of those relationships to this crisis that is in Europe, because it’s a really a global crisis. It’s not just something that’s a crisis about Ukraine.