31st May 2023

US envoy: Putin 'humiliated himself' in Ukraine

  • Mark Gitenstein (l) with US president Joe Biden in Brussels on 24 March (Photo:
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Russian president Vladimir Putin has "humiliated himself" by his conduct in the war and the West wanted to see him defeated on the battlefields of Ukraine, America's EU ambassador has said.

Speaking to the press in Brussels on Tuesday (14 June), the US diplomat, Mark Gitenstein, drew attention to the "brutality" of Putin's war, which he likened to World War 2, as well as the mentality of the Russian leader.

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"Putin has humiliated himself by the way he's acting, you know? The level of inhumanity. I mean, he [Putin] thinks he's Peter the Great. What can I say?," Gitenstein said.

Putin compared himself to the 18th-century Russian tsar in remarks on 10 June about reconquering Russian lands.

But the word "humiliated" also has resonance in EU circles after French president Emmanuel Macron said on 4 June "we must not humiliate Russia so that the day when the fighting stops we can build an exit ramp" — in remarks that prompted moral outrage in Central and Eastern Europe.

For some, the upset pointed to strategic tensions in the Western camp on how to handle Russia ahead of a series of EU, G7, and Nato summits.

But for Gitenstein, Macron's words were a "one-off" comment amid a rock-solid US-EU "consensus" on key issues, such as helping Ukraine to fight Russia and sanctions enforcement.

Sanctions would really impact Russia only in the long term, Gitenstein said, so "in the end, the military solution is to encourage the technical expertise of the Ukrainians" while "supplying the arms for them to hold the Russians accountable, which they've done quite a good job of — they [the Ukrainians] won the battle of Kyiv".

US defence secretary Lloyd Austin was in Brussels this week to "help coordinate" arms flows, the ambassador added.

"That's the way to solve the problem. There's no other solution," Gitenstein said.

Nato had made a firm decision "not to go kinetic" in Ukraine, by sending troops into the fighting, he underlined. "Nato's role was to keep the war from spreading," the US diplomat said.

But if Putin was counting on Western fatigue for supporting Ukraine's domestic war-effort, the Russian leader would be sorely disappointed, Gitenstein promised.

"Americans are big-hearted. They react exactly as I do when I turn on CNN in the morning and see the coverage — it's brutal and you want to do something," he said.

"Europeans watch this every day on TV. It's like live streaming of World War 2 and they want ... the Russians held accountable in every one of the EU countries, including France," the US diplomat said.

Meanwhile, the US and EU were coordinating efforts to get an initial shipment of 20 million tonnes of Ukrainian grain out of Odessa in Ukraine to alleviate a war-linked international food crisis, Gitenstein said.

Odessa harbour was blocked by a naval confrontation and "one of the most favourable alternatives is to move it [the grain] to Constanta or Varna," two Romanian ports on the Black Sea, said the ambassador, who was also the US envoy to Bucharest some 10 years ago.

Russia was bombing Ukrainian supply routes and stealing grain, causing the shortfalls on world markets, Gitenstein insisted, pushing back at Russian claims that the West had engineered the food crisis.

"Putin — he's responsible for it," the US diplomat said.

European leaders will discuss, at a summit next week, whether to grant Ukraine the legal status of being a candidate for future EU accession.

EU capitals are also holding quiet talks on a potential seventh round of Russia sanctions on top of a recent oil embargo in case the situation deteriorates.

The US ambassador voiced support for Ukraine's EU integration. "We'd like to see Ukraine's future as being in Europe," Gitenstein said.

But the Netherlands, Denmark, and Portugal, among other EU states, have voiced scepticism on the Ukraine enlargement step and the US ambassador added: "Whatever they [EU leaders] can get which brings Ukraine closer to Europe is good from our point of view".

Hungary, whose prime minister Viktor Orbán has friendly ties with Putin, delayed the EU oil embargo and has ruled out any bans on Russian gas.

But when asked if Europe had run out of steam on Russia sanctions, Gitenstein said that enforcing the "thousands" of those already imposed was more important than new ones.

"If they were all fully enforced they would have a devastating impact," he said, highlighting export controls on industrial technology as a crippling blow.

"We've essentially shut down their [Russia's] civilian air industry", Gitenstein said, in his example of Western tactics, because Russian airlines could no longer import items such as tyres and GPS systems needed to keep their planes in the air.

Gitenstein's embassy is located next to the Russian EU embassy in the political heart of Brussels.

But the US diplomat said he had never met his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Chizhov, since arriving there and had little intention of doing so.

"I've never met him [Chizhov]," Gitenstein said. "It's not something that I've been putting in my diary to do," he said.

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