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Russian President Putin Is Looking For Weak Spots, Ex-Ambassador Says


All right. So when it comes to President Trump and Ukraine, here's another interesting development. Both The Washington Post and The New York Times are reporting that Russia's president, Vladimir Putin, may have used Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban as something of a proxy to influence President Trump's perception of Ukraine.

Trump, over the objection of some key advisers, met Hungary's leader in May. He also spoke with Vladimir Putin by phone around that time. And let's talk about all this with someone very familiar with this region. Steven Pifer, among his other diplomatic posts, was former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine and joins us this morning. Ambassador, welcome.

STEVEN PIFER: Good morning.

GREENE: So can you take us through the logic here? What might Vladimir Putin have been trying to do?

PIFER: Well, I think if you look at Vladimir Putin and as he looks at Europe, he's looking for weak spots. He sees one in Prime Minister Orban in Hungary. But he's also worked on the Greek's leadership, on the Italian leadership. And his goal here is to weaken institutions, such as the European Union.

In the case of Mr. Orban, he's also played on the Hungarians because there are tensions. There have been tensions between Hungary and Ukraine over questions like the Ukrainian language law. And the Hungarians have been blocking developments in the NATO-Ukraine relationship. That's very much to the Kremlin's liking (ph) so Putin encourages it.

GREENE: Well, so what would Putin's motivation have been if this reporting is true and that he tried to use Orban, in a way, to plant sort of negative perceptions of Ukraine in President Trump's ear?

PIFER: Well, you've now had Russian aggression against Ukraine for more than five years. It began back in early 2014 with Russia's seizure of Crimea. And then you've had this continuing simmering conflict in eastern Ukraine, which the Russians are provoking, the Russians are providing weapons and funding for and in some case, (unintelligible) the Russian army, it's claimed more than 13,000 lives.

So to the extent that Russia has this military campaign going on against Ukraine designed to weaken Ukraine, designed to distract Ukraine - to the extent he can conduct a second front by having countries such as Hungary stymie developments in a relationship between Ukraine and NATO, that all fits together.

GREENE: So Putin would benefit, I mean, from something like what has been alleged about President Trump withholding military aid from Ukraine. Whatever the president's motivations may have been, I mean, that is something that Russia would certainly benefit from.

PIFER: Very much so. I mean, the military assistance to Ukraine serves two purposes. First, it gives the Ukrainian military capabilities that the Ukrainians probably could not procure themselves. But second, it's very important as a political message, a political signal of American support for Ukraine. And anything that Putin can do to help weaken that, to the extent that Mr. Orban, in his conversation with President Trump, was trying to undercut American support for Ukraine, that plays very much to the Kremlin's agenda.

GREENE: Explosive allegations yesterday in the impeachment inquiry from William Taylor, the acting U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, very specific, laying out what he suggested was something of a quid pro quo. You're good friends with him, right? What did you think of his testimony?

PIFER: I've known Bill Taylor for more than 25 years. If he said it happened, it happened. And I think it's very clear. We'd seen this, actually, before his testimony. But he makes it very clear, in great detail that there was a quid pro quo, that in addition to the official American policy that Ambassador Taylor was conducting, a key that was intended to advance American national interests, President Trump had outsourced to Rudy Giuliani this other effort, which was designed to advance the president's personal political interests. And those two agendas came very much into conflict.

GREENE: Former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Steven Pifer speaking to us this morning. Thanks so much for your time, Ambassador.

PIFER: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.