US Secretary of State Antony Blinken disembarks after landing at Boryspil International airport outside Kyiv, Ukraine, early Thursday, May 6, 2021. 

US will go ‘beyond mere statements’ to support Ukraine sovereignty, says former US amb

William Taylor, the former US ambassador to Ukraine, joined The World's host Marco Werman to talk about what's at stake with Secretary of State Antony Blinken's strategic visit to Kyiv. 

The World

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken disembarks after landing at Boryspil International airport outside Kyiv, Ukraine, early Thursday, May 6, 2021. 

Efrem Lukatsky/AP/pool 

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken is visiting the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, on Wednesday. 

His stated mission: "To reaffirm unwavering US support for Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity in the face of Russia's ongoing aggression."

Last month, Russia built up tens of thousands of troops along Ukraine's border.

Related: Military tension between Russia and Ukraine escalates

A year and a half ago, Ukraine was on the minds of many Americans as they watched the first impeachment hearing of former President Donald Trump. At the time, former US Ambassador to Ukraine William Taylor said: "Ukraine is a strategic partner of the United States, important for the security of our country as well as Europe. Ukraine is on the front line in the conflict with a newly aggressive Russia."

Related: GAO report says Trump violated law by withholding Ukraine aid

Taylor is now the vice president of strategic stability and security at the United States Institute of Peace.

He joined The World's host Marco Werman to talk about Ukraine and Russia and what's at stake with Blinken's strategic visit to Kyiv. 

Marco Werman: First of all, why is Ukraine such an important priority for the United States? 

William Taylor: Ukraine is important to the United States for a couple of reasons. One is Ukraine is on the front line of attacks that the Russians have been making, first against Ukraine, then against Europe, and against the United States. Not just military attacks, now, we're talking about, but rather a wide range of aggression. And just think about election meddling. The Russians meddled in Ukrainian elections in 2014. I was there observing them. They meddled in elections and referenda, and Brexit in Europe. And in 2016, as we know, and in 2020, the Russians meddled in our elections. All to say that the Russians seem to start in Ukraine, but they don't stop there. That's why Ukraine is an important country for us. It's on the front line. 

So, today, Secretary Blinken will meet with his counterpart, Ukraine's foreign minister, Dmytro Kuleba, and also Ukraine's president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy. If you were in Blinken's shoes, what would your message be? 

My message would be, we, the United States, we support Ukrainian sovereignty. And what that means is: We will support Ukraine as it defends itself against Russian incursion — attacks on that sovereignty, which they, of course, have done. The Russians have invaded militarily Ukraine, first in Crimea, then in the southeastern part of Ukraine, called Donbass, first time that any nation in Europe is attacked, another nation with the idea of changing the borders. That's World War II. So, this is serious, that the United States supports Ukraine in opposing that aggression. And if it were me, I would say that the United States will go beyond mere statements. 

And what would that active role look like when you say beyond, like when Blinken says if Russia crosses that line, the US will respond? What could that mean? 

One thing that could clearly mean is what was embedded in the phone call that President Biden put in to President Putin three weeks ago — that President Putin should back down all of his military forces that were and still are on the border of Ukraine. ... President Biden also told President Putin that in two days, "We're going to put more sanctions on you." And sure enough, two days later, the United States did. And then the third thing, President Biden suggested that they might want to get together with the clear indication, implication that if Mr. Putin were to invade Ukraine, that that summit would be off and other things would happen. There would be more sanctions. And the Russian government knows that the sanctions already imposed on Russia and its economy are not the end of the road on sanctions. There are more sanctions, more dramatic, painful sanctions that would come.

Knowing what we know about Putin, though, I mean, sanctions and summit cancelations don't seem like it would necessarily change his behavior. 

You know, Marco, I'm not sure that's true. I will argue that sanctions have changed his behavior. At the beginning, in 2014, a lot of people were concerned that President Putin might go further — might not stop at invading Crimea. It might not stop at invading Donbass. There was talk about invading all the way to Kyiv, all the way to the capital of Ukraine. They didn't do that. Why? I think because sanctions came on. So, Mr. Putin's behavior has been affected. I believe he's been constrained against going further into Ukraine. And indeed, part of that sanction effort that has changed his behavior is knowing that there are more and harsher sanctions to come. 

So, I hear some optimism there, if there is further escalation. Is there a scenario in which you can imagine boots on the ground? 

I can only imagine Ukrainian boots on the ground. Ukrainian military was in terrible shape in 2014 when the Russians invaded. That has changed. Ukrainian military today is, as they say, battle-tested. Ukrainian military has been fighting the Russian military — a formidable foe — for seven years. Ukrainian military has boots that are on the ground, on the front line, but also across the country that would oppose the Russian ... invasion strongly. Now, let's be clear, as strong and as improved as the Ukrainian military is, it's no match for the full onslaught of the Russian military if that were what would happen. But it would be very painful. And Mr. Putin knows that the Russian people are not behind — would not support — an invasion of Ukraine. 

What does this moment represent in terms of the opportunity to get Putin's attention and just budge him away from whatever aggressive moves he might have on his mind? 

Marco, I think you're right. This is an opportunity. I think Putin wants to be seen as a major player on the world stage. A summit with the United States would certainly indicate that he's a major player. So this gives President Biden some leverage to nudge him in the direction of being a more responsible player. You know, there's nothing threatening about NATO [North Atlantic Treaty Organization]. There is no interest in further worsening of tensions between the United States and Russia. If the Russians will stop invading their neighbors, stop meddling in elections, stop poisoning people, will stop human rights violations, there is an opportunity. And President Putin could take that opportunity to move toward being a more responsible player. And President Biden has some leverage to do that.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.