A woman walks past a destroyed tank in the town of Trostsyanets, Ukraine, Monday, March 28, 2022.

West remains divided on sanctions, weapons to Ukraine, former amb to Russia says

"The West, in order to help diplomacy, needs to help President [Volodomyr] Zelenskiy produce stalemate on the battlefield," former Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul said. He joined The World's host Marco Werman to discuss the West's diplomatic push to the end the war in Ukraine.

The World

A woman walks past a destroyed tank in the town of Trostsyanets, Ukraine, Monday, March 28, 2022. Trostsyanets was recently retaken by Ukrainian forces after being held by Russians since the early days of the war. 

Felipe Dana/AP

This weekend, US President Joe Biden delivered a fiery speech in Poland talking about the situation in Ukraine, but it was one adlibbed line about Russian President Vladimir Putin that caught everyone's attention: 

"For God's sake, this man cannot remain in power," Biden said. 

Officials with the Biden administration have been walking back the remarks ever since. But those nine words have thrown politicians and diplomats across the globe into a bit of a panic.

Related: In southern Romania, villagers are uneasy about a NATO missile defense system in its backyard

Michael McFaul served as the US Ambassador to Russia from 2012 to 2014 and currently directs Stanford University's Spangly Institute for International Studies. He joined The World's host Marco Werman to discuss the latest in the Russia's invasion of Ukraine and the West's diplomatic push to the end the war. 

Related: Former Amb McFaul weighs in on escalating tensions between the US and Russia

Marco Werman: Ambassador, does Biden's remark change the diplomatic push to end the war in Ukraine? 
Amb. Michael McFaul: No, I don't think so at all. I don't think it changes the actual substance of the war, tragically. Maybe he shouldn't have said it or not. We can debate that. But he said, I think, what millions around the world — hundreds of millions — around the world believe, that actually millions of Russians also believe. He didn't call for regime change. He said Mr. Putin shouldn't be in power, but that won't change if there's ever, in a moment for negotiations, to negotiate with Mr. Putin and ultimately remember that negotiation will be between Putin and [Ukrainian President Volodomyr] Zelenskiy. Not Putin and Biden. 
If Biden said something that a lot of people believe, but you know, the world can't really act on it, per se, let's look at diplomacy. What is the biggest weakness in the West diplomacy toward Russia at the moment? 
You know, wars end in two ways, generally: Either one side wins, or there's a stalemate on the battlefield. Right now, neither of those two conditions are true. Mr. Putin, for all of the troubles he's had and for all of the heroic fighting that the Ukrainian soldiers have done, is still making advances. And therefore, the West, in order to help diplomacy, needs to help President Zelenskiy produce stalemate on the battlefield. 
What do you make of news reports from the Kremlin that one option may be for Russia to divide Ukraine, if it turns into just a long war, like the Korean Peninsula? 
Well, Ukraine's already divided before this war. Remember, Crimea was annexed, Donbas was defacto already under control of Russia. What I do see in the military strategy is Mr. Putin trying to unite Crimea with Donbas, in particular, you know, the battle for Mariupol, which you know, one of Zelenskiy's aides called their "Stalingrad," is where he's focused his forces right now, because he wants to divide Ukraine before he sits down at the negotiating table. And I fear Mariupol will fall, and I fear that will put them in a stronger position when they finally seek to negotiate. But let's be clear, President Zelenskiy has made it crystal clear he's willing to talk about almost everything — including neutrality for Ukraine — but he is not willing to talk about changing of borders through the use of force. That is going to be a big sticking point if they ever get to a point where Zelenskiy and Putin sit down face-to-face to try to end this war. 
I wonder, though, if Zelenskiy is losing leverage every day that the Russian military kind of brute-forces its way deeper into Ukraine? 
Absolutely. That's exactly the way he feels. Every day that they lose ground makes it harder to negotiate terms of peace that are acceptable to the Ukrainian people. And that's why every day he asks for more weapons and more sanctions from the West. 
Yeah. So what else should the West do and how fast should they be doing it?
Well, with respect to sanctions? More sanctions every week. It's not enough to sustain sanctions, as some people say. It is my view, and it's President Zelenskiy's view, that there should be more sanctions every, every single week, including a focus right now on trying to put new sanctions on oil and gas exports to Europe. And then second, more weapons. President Zelenskiy said that, that they need more weapons: they need airplanes, they need tanks, they need anti-aircraft weapons, surface-to-air missiles. They're fighting a formidable army and they have fought heroically. But now they need more supplies to continue that fight. 
Who or what is holding the West back from more sanctions or more pressure?
Well, with respect to sanctions, there's a divide within the West. You know, Germany, for one, does not want to cut off its energy imports from Russia. They think it'll hurt their economy and they're right about that, by the way. I think that's a legitimate concern. With respect to weapons, different countries have different views of that, including the United States. As we learned of the United States did not want to send the MiG 29s, the aircraft fighter jets that Poland allegedly was ready to give to Ukraine, and President Zelenskiy expressed his frustration over that.
If you had your way, ambassador, would those MiGs in Poland be in the skies of Ukraine right now?
I think we should listen to President Zelenskiy when he says what he needs and not second guess him, not believe that we know what are in his military interest better than him. And if I were working in the Biden administration, yes, I would be leaning in to try to give him the weapons that he needs to stop Putin's advancing army, because if he doesn't stop the Russian army from advancing, there will not be the conditions for a peaceful settlement. 
So, the last time you came on the show, ambassador, you recounted an anecdote from your negotiations with Russia over Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula, it was around 2014 in the last days of your tenure as ambassador: "A very senior Russian official said to me, he said, 'Mike, remember two things: One, we care more about Ukraine than you do. And two, you guys have short memories. We don't. So we're going to care more. And then you're going to forget about this part of the world." I mean, the Russian official was suggesting that the US would eventually turn its attention elsewhere, but Russia would remain focused on Ukraine. Do you think that's still basically the case, this time?
Well, a lot. Yes and no. In the long run, of course, Ukraine matters to Russia more than it does to Americans. It's on their border, it will be, they have a long history. And by the way, that long history is one that both Presidents Zelenskiy and Mr. Putin have acknowledged. They just talk about it in very different terms. But I do think President Biden's trip was important so that we don't forget about Ukraine.

Related: ‘I have a need’: How Zelenskiy’s plea to Congress emphasized shared identity with the US

So, ambassador, news is coming in today from the investigative group Bellingcat that three members of the delegation between Ukraine and Russia, on the night of the 3rd to 4th of March, experienced symptoms consistent with poisoning with chemical weapons. One of the victims reportedly was Russian entrepreneur Roman Abramovich. So, as we watch what Russia is doing in Ukraine, how much does the world also have to watch what the Kremlin is doing outside of Ukraine?
Well, again, if those reports are confirmed, it underscores how evil Mr Putin is. I mean, let's just call it for what it is. And I think that should underscore the point that President Biden was trying to make in Warsaw. It is a fight between good and evil.

This interview was lightly edited and condensed for clarity.  

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