In many ways, it seems as if history has circled back to Madeleine Albright’s own experience. Once again, a U.S. secretary of state – this time John Kerry – is attempting to talk Russia back from the brink of war in a former Soviet satellite state whose future status is a matter of heated dispute between Russia and the West. In her case, it was over Serbia and Kosovo; in his, over Ukraine and Crimea. And once again, the Secretary of State is facing a demand from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (who served his first term in the 1990s) that the United States release convicted spy Jonathan Pollard from his life sentence in exchange for a return to the bargaining table in Israel-Palestine peace talks.
The Globe’s Doug Saunders sat down with Ms. Albright, who served as U.S. secretary of state from 1997 to 2001, to talk about the position of the United States on Ukraine, the Middle East and elsewhere.
The interview took place in Toronto, where Ms. Albright was participating in the launch of the Canadian Centre for Progressive Policy, a liberal think tank.
How does it make you feel to hear Russian President Vladimir Putin citing Kosovo as anantecedent for what he’s doing in Crimea?
He has made up his own set of facts about everything, and that is also true about Kosovo. All the aspects he has raised are not true. Just for example: Kosovo [i.e. the idea of a NATO-led operation to free the former Yugoslav region from Serbian forces] had been something that had been a discussion in the international community for a long time. They had been killing, literally, and raping for a long time. There had been a United Nations Security Council resolution that had declared Kosovo a threat to peace and security. … So every single fact doesn’t make any sense.
It only makes sense in the following way, which is that Putin has deliberately – or maybe he’s just a victim of his own propaganda – made up a whole set of facts on a series of things – first of all, on everything that’s happened since the end of the Cold War. He thinks that the end of the Soviet Union is the greatest disaster of the 20th century. That itself is forgetting about the First World War and the Second World War. He thinks that the United States destroyed the Soviet Union; it destroyed itself. We tried everything we possibly could to treat them with respect and to include them in the international community. So he lives in a parallel universe, and citing Kosovo is just part of this kind of making up of his own narrative.
You’ve had your own faceoffs with Russia. Do you think there’s a way to negotiate an outcome to this that will allow Ukraine to function as a country and that will also mean that the United States and Europe don’t appear to have capitulated?
I think that, to go back to some basics, Ukraine is clearly in a complex geographical position. The idea has always been that they should be able to have a Western perspective or a Western orientation. But that doesn’t automatically make them a danger or a threat to Russia. They will always be on Russia’s border. What I think is the answer is for the people of Ukraine to be able to make their own choices – but there doesn’t have to be animosity with Russia.
I do think there is a way to work on this diplomatically if a lot of issues are put on the table. But the Ukrainians have to be at the table. … So the issue is whether there is a way for the Ukrainians to be able to make the choices about how they want to function, and to have the Russians respect that, and not try to have some other agenda, which is either to annex more parts or to ensure that Ukraine stays destabilized.
Do you think Crimea is lost? Is letting Russia have it a necessary precondition for this diplomatic solution?
The international community is not going to recognize it. What the Russians are doing already is changing its currency to the ruble and giving people raises and things like that – but the international community should not recognize what has happened.
In recent weeks two of your White House predecessors (former secretary of state Henry Kissinger and former national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski) have used the word “Finlandization” to describe the ideal political outcome for Ukraine [that is, in a neutral position between the European Union and Russia]. How do you feel about that concept?
The problem with the word is that it takes all kinds of connotations in terms of the particular situation of Finland. But I think what is important is the idea that people in Ukraine have to be the ones to make the choice, and that it is not necessarily a zero-sum game: If they are oriented toward the West and want to have a democratic system and want to have a market economy, it does not mean a loss in terms of their relationship with Russia. They have to have a relationship with Russia. But the term (Finlandization) bears too much baggage.
Would things be better off now if Ukraine had become a member of NATO a decade ago?
I think things would have been better if the European Union process had gone faster. It was a slow process – it did create a series of hurdles that were too hard. NATO is a different proposition. I think it would have been better if it had been clear that [Ukraine] can be more part of the West. … The whole thing about the associations with the EU is that there’s different levels at which they can be done. And I don’t want to blame anyone, but the bottom line is I think the European Union process was too slow.
I believe you were the last U.S. secretary of state to face an Israeli request, from Benjamin Netanyahu, that Jonathan Pollard be released in exchange for something in negotiations. Do you think this is advisable?
What’s happened now is that it’s many years later. What I understand – and I don’t have all the facts on this – is that there’s a parole for him next year. What I find interesting is that it’s come up again, and it’s come up a number of times. What is advisable is this: There has been an agreement made that the Israelis would release a set of prisoners and also that the Palestinians go back to the talks. So I think bringing all this up at this up at this moment is a diversion, in many different ways. I think Secretary of State Kerry has been working very hard to keep the talks going.
Personally – and I speak for nobody – it think it’s unfortunate that it’s come up again.
It’s different, it’s 20 years later. But what is difficult is that both these parties are facing each other, and for whatever reason it looks like each one is looking for an excuse not to go forward. The United States can only do so much. The United States cannot put a plan down. There has to be political will on the Israeli side and on the Palestinian side. So I think it’s a diversion.
But is it going to work?
I have no idea. Because part of it is how you get the Palestinians back to the table … it’s a chicken-and-egg thing … because Mahmoud Abbas has basically said he won’t go if there’s not a release of these prisoners. I think it’s just putting an extra thing on the table.
This interview has been edited and condensed