September 8, 2023
This article was written for ICDS Diplomaatia magazine. Views expressed in ICDS publications are those of the author(s).
It is not for the U.S. or other outsiders to define what constitutes a victory for Ukraine or the end of the war for Ukraine. The terms will be set by Ukraine, finds US Ambassador George P. Kent in an interview to Diplomaatia.
Ambassador George P. Kent was sworn in as the United States Ambassador to the Republic of Estonia on December 21, 2022, and presented his credentials to Estonian President Alar Karis on February 21, 2023.
A career member of the Senior Foreign Service with the rank of Minister-Counselor, Ambassador Kent most recently served as Deputy Assistant Secretary in the European and Eurasian Bureau at the U.S. Department of State. Previously, he was Deputy Chief of Mission in Kyiv, Ukraine. Prior to that, Ambassador Kent was the Senior Anti-Corruption Coordinator in the State Department’s European Bureau. He has also served as Director for Europe and Asia in the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement. Since joining the Foreign Service in 1992, Ambassador Kent has served in U.S. Diplomatic Missions in Tashkent, Uzbekistan; Warsaw, Poland; Bangkok, Thailand (twice), and Kyiv, Ukraine (twice). Other State Department assignments include Special Assistant to the Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs, Operations Center Watch Officer, and Thai desk officer.
Born in Connecticut, Ambassador Kent holds an A.B. from Harvard in Russian History and Literature, an M.A. from Johns Hopkins’ SAIS, and an M.S. from the National Defense University’s Eisenhower School. Ambassador Kent speaks Ukrainian, Russian, and Thai, as well as some Estonian, Polish, German, and Italian.
At the Vilnius Summit, NATO launched new regional defense plans — the process of reforming its entire defense posture in the Euro-Atlantic. What do those imply for the security of the Baltic states?
This is the second phase: leaders in Madrid [NATO Summit in Madrid in 2022] last year agreed that we needed to strengthen our regional force posture and really get back to having much more detailed plans. I would say there are sort of several lines of what’s happened over the past year.
First of all, as a result of President Biden’s commitment in Madrid, the U.S. has deployed a significantly new number of troops along the eastern flank and that includes here, in Estonia. So, if there was fairly minimal persistent presence in Estonia, now — this week — we have over 600 troops, we have HIMARS units in Tapa, we have Airborne [the 101st Airborne Division] down in Võru. That was the U.S. making its real commitment to, in this case, Estonia. And we’ve done so elsewhere in other countries: not just words but people.
Separate from that, the Supreme Allied Commander Europe, General Christopher G. Cavoli, was tasked with coming up with these regional plans. Those are contingency plans — i.e., what would happen in case of an attack. I’m not going to go into details of those plans because they’re not publicly available, but they were the plans that were developed in partnership with the military leaders. General Cavoli, who was here during the Lennart Meri Conference, had a series of exchanges with General Martin Herem, Commander of the Estonian Defence Forces. General Cavoli said to me that it was very collaborative and that he was very pleased with the interaction with Estonian defense leaders. I’ve heard from both military and civilian Estonians that they are very pleased with both the process and the end result.
Then, I think we all still have additional work to do. There’s a plan, but then the question is how the various Allies would implement a plan. This is a multistage planning — it is almost a culture in the military. You don’t just create a plan, turn it in like a term paper, and then it’s finished. It’s a living process. We’ve gone from the political commitment to the plans by planning staff at NATO SHAPE (Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe). And now, the countries are talking about how they would implement it.
Does it imply reinforcing air defense, the weakest link in the Baltic states?
Again, I’m not going to go into any details about specific elements, but I’ve mentioned the HIMARS as a capability that the U.S. has voluntarily brought here temporarily. The Estonians have HIMARS systems on order, which they had actually ordered before the wider Russian invasion of Ukraine. The presence of the HIMARS is helping Estonia understand how that long-range indirect rocket artillery would be used within the Estonian context. And that is helping accelerate their forward planning.
When you talk about air defense, there are lots of different layers: short-term, medium-range, etc. Currently, the Spanish have a system called NASAMS (advanced anti-aircraft missile system) at the Ämari Air Base— a Spanish capability similar to what the U.S. has brought in with HIMARS. Estonians and Latvians had run a joint procurement earlier this year to acquire medium-range air defense systems.
In the same way, at Ämari, we also have the Baltic air-policing initiative. And there’s talk about making it a broader and deeper effort: there were reports about Finland considering contributing to that. You have air capabilities that different NATO Allies — it’s now the Spanish, and it was the UK earlier this summer — have been providing fighter jets that Estonia itself doesn’t have; the Spanish are coming in with NASAMS and the U.S. with HIMARS. These are Allied capabilities being deployed to Estonia, with a role that both protects Estonia but also is a signal of deterrence towards Russia.
Earlier this year, when Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin visited Tallinn, he promised that if Russia invaded, additional Allied troops would be in Estonia the next day. In Ukraine, Russia has already demonstrated what it is capable of doing in one day, while the reinforcements are on their way. The Baltic states, thus, demand moving towards forward defense. If the U.S. response to a conventional attack by Russia is clear, what about a hybrid threat? Will Article 5 of the NATO Treaty hold in case of a hybrid attack?
Since I remember well, Secretary Austin was here in February, only two months after the U.S. troops had started to arrive at Tapa Army Base. They’re considerably more now. The US has continued to build up its presence here — it is not waiting for a Russian attack. Again, this was our commitment in Madrid. It’s not a matter of just deploying the U.S. forces — they’re here. I think that was Secretary Austin signaling to reassure Estonians of our commitment.
The nature of attacks varies. There are lots of different terms: the word “hybrid” is a term that Western academics have applied. It doesn’t exist in the Russian doctrine per se. “Active measures,” I think, is a term that the Russians have used since the Soviet era. Estonia has already seen what can happen when Russia employs those measures. In 2014, there was an Estonian security official who was kidnapped on Estonian territory and held for a year. There was a denial-of-service attack in 2007. So, those aren’t just hypothetical situations for Estonia, those are actual incidents that have happened in the past.
I think that overall, the Alliance is much more focused on the variety of threats. We obviously are in continual discussions within the NATO context: in Brussels, at the SHAPE military planning headquarters, as well as in the member states’ capitals.
On this side of the pond, we agree that NATO — and the U.S. — is the one and only guarantee of security in Europe. However, one can still hear that the U.S. security and defense planning is now positioned as either/or, Europe vs. the Indo-Pacific, especially given the resource shortages revealed by the Russian aggression in Ukraine. Do you see these theaters as interconnected? And if so, how would you make this case domestically?
The U.S. has treaty alliance commitments in both Europe and Asia. It has been that way for 70 years. For us, it is not an either/or — it is both. And that’s been our steadfast treaty commitment since 1949, in the European context, with the Washington Founding Agreement for NATO, the 75th anniversary of which we will celebrate next year. In Asia, the 1954 Manila Pact Treaty (the Southeast Asia Collective Defense Treaty) started the building out of similar treaty alliance relationships with Asian and Indo-Pacific allies.
We’ve always seen ourselves — in our own national security — as connected both to Europe and to Asia. There have been discussions and speculations about hard choices, but the U.S. is committed to our allies and the safety and security of our allies in both Europe and Asia.
You have touched upon NATO’s 75th anniversary coming up. Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrelius Landsbergis called this year’s Summit in Vilnius “just a bridge to Washington.” What decision should we expect in Washington in July 2024? Is NATO membership for Ukraine a viable prospect?
It is like many of these events that you are involved in — e.g., big summits or the UN General Assembly. You plan for an event, you have the event, you are exhausted, and you go to sleep. Then, you wake up the next day, and you are already thinking about something that’s going to take place in a year. In that sense, the NATO Summit rhythm is really no different.
There will be another Summit next summer. It will be — if you will — a landmark anniversary in terms of 75 years. I think it is too early to talk about actual outcomes. We are still only a month beyond the Vilnius Summit, which also made great progress in a number of areas, including the regional defense plans. On the various different tracks, there will be continued work on the details of how we would implement the regional defense plans, which really are at a level of detail that the alliance has not had for over 30 years.
Then, obviously, as a shared regional threat but also as a commitment to Ukraine, NATO’s relationship with Ukraine, of course, will be a critical part of that conversation. I would say it is really too early to predict where the war will be at that point. And so, it is also too early to predict the nature of what exactly will be discussed and agreed upon next year when we are still engaged in this intense cycle of supporting Ukraine to help it achieve victory on its own terms.
In Helsinki, President Biden said that Putin had already lost. Deadly attacks, however, continue, expert assessments of Ukraine’s counteroffensive are less optimistic, and territories remain occupied. How does the U.S. define the end of the war — Ukraine’s victory and Russia’s defeat, or vice versa?
It is not for the U.S. or other outsiders to define what constitutes a victory for Ukraine or the end of the war for Ukraine. Ukraine is in an existential struggle for its existence and defense of its territory. Therefore, the terms will be set by Ukraine. There are a lot of people outside who are engaged in theorizing, writing op-eds, and the like. They are not there, fighting; they are not defending their country. I think that any of us on the outside have to be very careful about trying to be prescriptive.
I think President Zelensky — during his recent visits to the Netherlands, to Denmark, to Sweden — was very clear on this topic that the Ukrainian people see no room to negotiate away territory. His mandate as a democratically elected leader is to regain Ukrainian sovereignty and territorial integrity. And the U.S. and like-minded allies, including Estonia, support Ukraine in that definition — i.e., internationally recognized legal borders.
U.S. officials often say that America will support Ukraine for “as long as it takes.” But it doesn’t factor in the human cost to Ukraine. How much consideration is given towards helping Ukraine win as quickly as possible vs. supporting it for as long as it takes?
At the Opinion Festival in Paide, Kaimo Kuusk, former Estonian ambassador in Ukraine, chose not to answer a question and said that it was a question for the American ambassador. I don’t think any of the American supporters of Ukraine, which I would consider myself, would have ever imagined 18 months ago that we would give $43 billion in military assistance to Ukraine in 18 months. That was even outside of our scope of possibilities and thinking. No one was proposing that. No one thought it was possible. And yet, we’ve done it. It was the question of whether the logistical lines of communication even existed to put that much materiel on planes and ships from the U.S., through Europe, and on the ground to Ukraine. Most people would have said “No,” but it has happened. I think that that is why it is sometimes unwise to make categorical predictions. Then you look back, and you see how much has happened.
Of course, from one perspective, there is a lot of regret that certain shipments could have happened a month earlier or two months earlier or that more could have been given or should have been given. But $43 billion of assistance in 18 months is difficult for most of us to even comprehend. So, that is where there is a genuine commitment, and I don’t think that anyone can question it. Some people do — they speculate. Again, I reference those people who have too much time to write op-eds, but they are not involved in the actual shipping of $43 billion of weaponry. I think it shows the genuine commitment to Ukraine winning, not just surviving.
How we go forward is a matter of discussion every day. Last week, there was an announcement of another $200 million of assistance. This is what we call the Presidential Drawdown Authority (PDA) — i.e., we find things in warehouses, and we ship them to Ukraine. Additional munitions, Patriot missiles, artillery shells, engineering equipment — all the things that Ukraine needs now for carrying on the current offensive.
Military planners plan in multiple cycles. There has been criticism about the speed of the decisions on the F16s — that we are at the beginning, end of the beginning of training of Ukrainian pilots. The Netherlands and Denmark have announced they will provide the F16s. This is not an issue for the fight today. It may not even be an issue for the fight early next year.
This is what the alliance is doing for Ukraine’s long-term security because it is not just about winning a battle in Zaporizhzhia province this month. It is about whether we are committed to Ukraine’s security. This is what the F16 discussion is about. We are talking about a very long-term, multiyear process where pilots will be continually trained because they will be part of the Ukrainian Air Force for years and decades to come. So, that is the timeline when we say we are committed to Ukraine. It is not this month; it is not just this year. We are committed to Ukraine, and that is a long-term, multiyear, multidecade process.