Retired Army Gen. Wesley Clark said Russian President Vladimir Putin wants to reassemble the old Soviet Union and urged the U.S. to support Ukrainians, who he said are prepared to fight.
Clark, the former supreme allied commander in Europe for NATO, issued the warning during an appearance Monday at the Milken Institute Global Conference in Beverly Hills, California.
“We’ve got to strengthen the capacity of the Ukrainians to defend themselves, and convince Putin that this is something he can’t handle and doesn’t want to handle,” said Clark, who recently visited Ukraine.
Contrary to what he’s heard in the West, Clark said Ukrainian leaders told him there is an appetite to fight back against Russia. “I’ve found [Ukrainians] have a lot of stomach for a fight,” Clark said. “They very much are Western. They want their own country.”
Paul Wolfowitz, the former Defense Department deputy secretary who helped craft the Bush administration’s Iraq policy, appeared with Clark on the Milken panel and also called for more U.S. support for Ukraine.
“It is possible that Ukraine could do for Putin what Finland did several years ago for Joseph Stalin and demonstrate that people willing to fight for their independence are not people you should tangle with,” Wolfowitz said. “But it’s not going to happen without some encouragement and support from the U.S.”
Clark emphasized that Putin will not stop with Ukraine.
“If [Putin] gets Ukraine, Belarus comes in, Kazakhstan falls in, and the Soviet Union is reassembled,” Clark said. “It’s always been a part of [Putin’s] big plan.” He said Ukrainians believe significant Russian action in Ukraine will happen sometime between May 9 and May 11.
Clark said that although the U.S. has “no real obligation” to militarily defend Ukraine because it is not a NATO country, it is in America’s interest to be proactive. The crisis in Ukraine “will still be viewed in the context of U.S. versus Russia,” he said. “It will be taken as a litmus of America’s strength and resolve.”
He said the U.S. has not intervened in Syria and is reluctant to do so in Ukraine because Americans prioritize trade and economic development over military conflict. The same is not true of Russia, he said.
“If you talk to Russians, they see the world as a chessboard — ‘This is my country, that’s your country, this country we can fight over,’” Clark said.
The U.S. and the European Union on Monday imposed new sanctions, visa bans and asset freezes on Russian government officials and companies linked to Putin. The White House said the new penalties were in response to Russia’s involvement in recent violence in eastern Ukraine, which violates the international agreement aimed at ending the crisis.
The Obama administration has sent 300,000 meal rations to Ukraine’s armed forces, but has said it is not sending weapons for fear of escalating tensions.