Ukraine will survive the Russian invasion - Dennis Ross

Former US Middle East envoy: Saudis believe relations with Israel are coming – it is only a question of when.

 Dennis Ross (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Dennis Ross
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Jerusalem Report logo small (credit: JPOST STAFF)Jerusalem Report logo small (credit: JPOST STAFF)

Former US Middle East envoy Dennis Ross believes that Ukraine will survive the Russian invasion, and that “the clock is ticking” for Russian President Vladimir Putin. “Don’t be surprised if after the Russians occupy all of Sievierodonetsk – assuming they are able to do so – Putin calls for a ceasefire,” he predicted in an interview with The Jerusalem Report on the sidelines of a Jewish People Policy Institute (JPPI) conference in Jerusalem titled, “Ukraine: Moral Considerations in Israel’s Foreign Policy.” Ross is co-chair of JPPI together with former US ambassador to the European Union, Stuart Eizenstat.

Will Ukraine survive? Is the world, and especially the US, doing enough to help Ukraine?

First, Ukraine will survive. That is not in doubt. Vladimir Putin failed to take over Ukraine; he failed to displace its government or take either of its two largest cities. He is trying to take a hold of a part of eastern and southern Ukraine. He can impose a great price by continuing to bludgeon the cities and civilian areas with missiles and artillery, but even taking more territory in Luhansk province will come at a steep price. And there is no guarantee that what Russian forces have taken, they will be able to hold. Russian losses are staggering in both men and equipment. The number of dead may be as high as 20,000, and while Putin can hide the losses for a while, the parents will demand to know what has happened to their family members. That means this cannot go on forever.

The problem is that Putin still wants to show he is holding more territory than on February 24, when he invaded, and is seeking to use the territory seized and the blockade of Ukrainian access to the Black Sea as leverage over Ukraine. Don’t be surprised if after the Russians occupy all of Sievierodonetsk – assuming they are able to do so – Putin calls for a ceasefire. Apart from needing to appear to have a success, regardless of the cost, he wants to reframe the issue and to take advantage of those like the Italians, French, and Germans pushing for a ceasefire. Putin may see a limited opening, given seeming disagreements among some Europeans on what the end game of the conflict must be. President Biden has done a good job of mobilizing and preserving broad unity among the NATO members toward Putin, and he will continue to have to do so. Making it clear that we will continue to raise the costs to them is essential for convincing Putin at some point that he must seek a way out. Unfortunately, he is not there yet, but the clock is ticking, and the morale of his forces is abysmal.

 Russian President Vladimir Putin gives an interview to Rossiya-1 TV channel in Sochi (credit: SPUTNIK/MIKHAIL KLIMENTYEV/ VIA REUTERS) Russian President Vladimir Putin gives an interview to Rossiya-1 TV channel in Sochi (credit: SPUTNIK/MIKHAIL KLIMENTYEV/ VIA REUTERS)
Should the US make a deal with Iran that allows them to produce WMDs?

The answer is clearly no. The problem is obviously that no one is seeking an agreement that will permit the Iranians to produce WMDs. The JCPOA was only about Iran’s nuclear program. Ask anybody in the Obama administration who had responsibility for dealing with the issue, and they will tell you the aim was to prevent Iran from acquiring or developing a nuclear weapon. In the preamble of the JCPOA, Iran committed to never seeking, acquiring, or developing a nuclear weapon. As Ronald Reagan used to say, “Trust, but verify.” I used to say “Don’t trust, and verify.” To be fair, that was the theory of the JCPOA: those who negotiated it touted it as being the most thorough and extensive verification regime for an arms control treaty ever. In a sense, those who negotiated the deal traded verification and monitoring for a real change in the structure of the Iranian nuclear infrastructure. By permitting it the right to enrich and by having sunset provisions, it ultimately allowed Iran to have a large nuclear infrastructure, with largely unlimited enrichment capabilities, after the end of 2030. In so doing, it legitimized a large nuclear program, and, by definition, preserved the nuclear weapons option for Iran. In other words, the JCPOA bought time, and Iran essentially decided to defer its nuclear weapons options in return for sanctions relief. The Obama administration saw this as the best that diplomacy could do, and believed that was a better option than using force – and basically that is how it saw the alternative. There are those who say if you just squeeze and put the right degree of economic pressure on Iran, it will give in. That was the theory of the Trump administration. Obviously, that did not produce a change, and Trump’s walking away from the JCPOA, without a plan for what would replace it, was a big mistake. It created a justification for the Iranians to walk away from all the obligations and limits – and now it essentially has a zero break-out time – meaning essentially 10 days to two weeks to be able to produce weapons-grade fissile material. That is not a bomb; they still have to turn weapons-grade fissile material into a weapon. But they have overcome the hardest technological part of the equation. What should be done? There needs to be the right mix of pressure and possibility for Iran. What I mean by that is Iran must know that if we find it moving toward developing an actual bomb, we will take out Iran’s entire nuclear infrastructure – one the Iranians have been developing and investing in for more than three decades. Economic pressure alone won’t work. Iran must see what it will lose if it continues down this path. But it should also see what it gains if it chooses a diplomatic alternative. If they know they will lose their entire investment in the nuclear program, but they also see that if they accept having only civil nuclear power, they can gain a great deal economically, then an acceptable diplomatic outcome may be possible. To achieve such an outcome, Iran must fear that the military option is quite real and their actions could trigger it. Today, Iran’s leaders don’t believe the US will use force, and that greatly reduces the prospect of being able to negotiate the transformation of the Iranian nuclear program into a purely civil nuclear one. I would like to see us change our declaratory policy, making it clear that Iran will risk its entire nuclear investment if it continues to move toward creating a weapon’s capability – and enrichment to 60% and production of uranium metal have no justifiable civilian purpose. To give the rhetoric credibility, Central Command should be conducting exercises that rehearse air-to-ground attacks against hardened targets. Iran watches our exercises and they will get the message. I have also argued for us to provide Israel the massive ordnance penetrator (MOP), a 30,000-pound bomb that could destroy Fordow, Iran’s enrichment site built into a mountain. Israel cannot destroy it now. We would need to lease it B-2s because Israel does not have a plane that can carry the MOP. Iran doubts we will act militarily, and believes we will also prevent Israel from doing so. This would disabuse that view, and thus enhance deterrence.

President Biden is planning a trip to Israel and Saudi Arabia in July. He has expressed his intention to reopen the former US consulate in Jerusalem as a Palestinian embassy, as part of his push for a two-state solution. What do you think of this plan?

The premise of the question is wrong. The Biden administration has not called for a Palestinian embassy in Jerusalem. It has called for reopening a Palestinian consulate – one that existed for every administration, Republican and Democrat, until president Trump. Because the administration is not going to reopen the consulate now, it is exploring different ways of trying to address Palestinian needs. Yes, the administration does favor two states as an outcome. As do I. The Palestinians cannot be wished away. If there are not two states, there will be one state and that is a prescription for endless conflict. Increasingly young Palestinians say, ‘Let Israel stay where it is, just give us the vote.’ Having one state in which Palestinians are denied the vote or rights is wrong, and would transform who and what Israel is. It would transform the image of Israel internationally and definitely in the United States. That said, two states is not possible any time soon. If there were a Palestinian state tomorrow, it would be a failed state, and the last thing we need in the Middle East is another failed state. Reform and institution-building with a rule of law are critical for Palestinians – and so long as Hamas controls Gaza, little will be possible in terms of producing two states.

The great irony is that Arab states don’t want to wait for the Palestinians to sort themselves out. They increasingly want to take normalizing steps with Israel because they see what they have to gain, not just in the security area but in transforming their economies, in dealing with food security, water security, health security and cybersecurity. They understand there are two pathways shaping up in the Middle East between those who want to make their countries more resilient with modernizing economies, and those driven by the Iranians in what they call the axis of resistance. It is not an axis of resistance, it is an axis of misery. It offers no hope or prospects to its people. Iran specializes in exporting militias, missiles, drones and failed states – and a coalition is emerging of those who want a different future and will counter the Iranians.

Are you surprised that the Biden administration seems to be moving toward reconciliation with Saudi Arabia?

No. We have interests in Saudi Arabia. Of course, oil matters, and will remain important as we transition over the next 20-30 years to renewables. And, with Russia’s horrific invasion of Ukraine and the need to raise the cost to the Russians, the focus on the Saudis – as the only country in the world with spare production capacity – became more acute. But we also have interests in the Middle East in countering terror, and in preventing proliferation. Iran represents a threat in both areas and is clearly a revisionist power, intent on trying to dominate the region and force all vestiges of US presence and influence out of the area. Saudi Arabia is an important part of any strategy for the region. Saudi Arabia is not a revisionist state; it is a modernizing state, and one trying to transform itself economically and therefore also socially. It is one of those states that needs to be part of the broader coalition that we must shape to compete with the Russians and Chinese. And we are seeing signs now that the Biden administration very much understands that. I have just returned from Saudi Arabia, and my overwhelming sense is that Saudis believe relations with Israel are coming – it is only a question of when. ■