Ex-Ukraine ambassador offers gloomy view, sliver of hope

At a Cornell event Feb. 22, former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Bill Taylor said Russian President Vladimir Putin appears intent on provoking a “horrific conflict.”

The result, he said, will be thousands of casualties in Russia and Ukraine and economic hardship in many countries, including the U.S. But Taylor held out hope for “another path, a diplomatic path” that would avert all-out war.

Taylor, fresh from a series of appearances on CNN, offered his views in-depth and answered questions from Cornell students at an event sponsored by the Cornell Jeb E. Brooks School of Public Policy’s Institute of Politics and Global Affairs (IOPGA). The online audience numbered more than 1,000 and included current and former members of Congress and other elected leaders.

Former Congressman Steve Israel, director of IOPGA, moderated the discussion along with Nicholas Rostow, senior research scholar at Yale Law School and a visiting professor teaching international law at Cornell Law School.

Answering a question from Israel, Taylor said Putin shows no sign of backing down before sending Russian forces into contested regions of Ukraine. “It will be horrible in its effect,” Taylor predicted. “It will be horrible on people, on soldiers, families. It will be terrible.”

Taylor serves as vice president at the U.S. Institute of Peace with a focus on Russia and Europe. In 2019, he served as charge d’affairs at the U.S. embassy in Kyiv. He served as the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine from 2006 to 2009.

Taylor praised President Joe Biden’s efforts to prevent war by deterring Putin and building global alliances, a strategy he said most Americans support. He said initial sanctions on the Russian economy imposed by Biden and other world leaders are a smart approach and more severe sanctions that will have ripple effects on the U.S. economy are a possible next step.

Olaf Willner ’24 asked Taylor about Germany’s decision to halt the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline project between Russia and Germany, which Putin has long coveted. “Why jeopardize the pipeline after they put so much effort into it?” Willner asked.

“There’s no clear answer,” Taylor said, other than that Putin is willfully blind to the impact of war on his own projects and his own people.

Taylor said Putin has the option of negotiating with the U.S. over strategic weapons, with NATO over conflicts between the organization and Russia, or negotiating more broadly with European nations.

“If he were logical, if he were rational, he would take the off ramp, he would take the diplomatic route,” Taylor said. “I’m worried that he doesn’t really care about the costs to his economy. He doesn’t really care about the costs to Russian people and the suffering and the damage that it will do to their livelihoods and their families. He cares about himself and how he stays in power.”

Rostow, who has broad expertise in European conflict and diplomacy, put it even more bluntly: “Hitler did everything that Putin is doing, only it was Czechoslovakia in 1938.”

The event is the first in a planned series by IOPGA and was organized in cooperation with the Mario Einaudi Center for International Studies at Cornell.

Taylor answered questions for well over the initial hour planned for the program and seemed to especially enjoy the conversations with Willner and another student, Ella Yitzhaki ’24. Said the former ambassador: “The most important part of this is the opportunity to interact with the students.”

Jim Hanchett is assistant dean of communications for the Cornell Jeb E. Brooks School of Public Policy.

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