Paul Kolbe is the director of the Intelligence Project at Harvard Kennedy School's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. His 25-year career in the CIA included operational and leadership roles in the former Soviet Union, and he has deep experience with the region and its people. “It's in these moments when you really do want to be in the fray, but that said, I think it's interesting to watch it from a different perspective,” he said of his current role at HKS. We spoke with Kolbe about the crisis in Ukraine, about Putin and his motivations, and about how Russians feel about a possible invasion.  


Q: Aside from the significant humanitarian concern (the international aid organization CARE called Ukraine one of the “most under-reported humanitarian crises of 2021”), why would the United States be involved in this crisis?

Our involvement is critical for a number of reasons. From a principled standpoint, if the United States stands for democracy, if it stands for freedom of nations and peoples to choose their paths, if it stands opposed to aggression and efforts to change borders by force, then this is the ideal example of exactly where we should be walking the walk and not just talking the talk. Ukraine is an independent country, recognized by the United Nations, and it is being threatened by Russia in a campaign to subvert the government, undermine the economy and force it to constrain its choices with whom it chooses to associate, what organizations it joins, and how it defines its own national security. 

No one wants a war on the European continent. It presents a global security threat, one that could easily escalate. It's an extraordinarily dangerous situation. And there is also the economic impact – an enormous disruption in the global energy markets, not just gas and oil flows to Europe, but in the exacerbation of inflation. 


Q: How does this conflict differ from the annexation of Crimea in 2014?

The Crimean takeover came as a surprise to the West. Folks were watching what was happening in Kyiv, the revolution, the violence that was taking place there. I don't know of anyone back then who said, “What’s now going to happen is the Russians will take over Crimea.” Partly it was because of the way it was done. Russia already had a huge military presence in Crimea with its Black Sea naval base. It was an operation that could be executed in a way that disguised what was really happening. It was also ready to execute because they’d been preparing the ground to do that for many years in advance. With Ukraine, the West is clearly on alert with strategic warning of what’s happening. There has also been remarkable coordination and clarity to try to address the situation to help encourage de-escalation and to find a path of incentives and disincentives, which will prevent war. 

Paul Kolbe headshot.

“I think above all, Putin will want to negotiate from a position of strength, and he may believe occupying parts of Ukraine or being in a position where folks are forced to accommodate to his will, is that strength.”

Paul Kolbe

Q: There has been so much disinformation from the Kremlin concerning Ukraine.

Yes, Russia is giving very different interpretations of what we all see is actually happening. The United States is using intelligence, which it is declassifying to help expose what it sees happening, as well as of pure open-source information. What we’ve seen in social media, in comments and postings, in commercial satellite imagery, all confirms and reinforces the facts on the ground. It’s as if a bulked-up boxer has his fist in your face, staring at you and uttering words which sound threatening and are threatening. While someone just behind him can say “nothing is going on here, there's no threat,” you know that fist could smash your face. The concern of an invasion is absolutely legitimate.


Q: What is Putin’s motivation?

The reasons behind this invasion are complex and multifaceted and include history and psychology, longstanding grievances and grudges, and a bitter resentment of NATO. History is extraordinarily important. Vladimir Putin, former KGB officer, second chief directorate based in East Germany during the collapse of the Wall and during the collapse of the Soviet Union, saw everything he was loyal to fall apart around him. He saw the chaos which followed the collapse of the Soviet Union. 

Many Russians blame the West for that. I think it’s wrong. The West was working hard and with good intentions to pour billions of dollars into Russia to help it privatize, to help stabilize it with the anticipation that Russia would emerge at the end with a vibrant economy and democracy. Neither of those played out. Democracy came to be seen as a threat. 

As for NATO, Russia believes it was lied to, that NATO poses a threat. They see USAID, different governmental and non-governmental institutions that work on democracy, even the Peace Corps, as part of plan to undermine the role of the leaders of the Kremlin. 

One of the factors that is not talked about much with this crisis is how the Russian people feel about it. Recent polling shows there is no clamor for a war of choice with Ukraine. And there has been commentary in military circles of bewilderment about why Russia would go to war. There is no threat from NATO against Russia. Ukraine certainly poses no threat. Many experts feel this aggression masks the many domestic problems Russia is facing such as the mismanagement of the COVID crisis and the struggling economy under sanctions. If a full-scale war were to break out in Ukraine, I think while there would be an initial patriotic surge to support troops in action, once the true cost of that in terms of casualties and what it means for Russia for the next decades, could mean the beginning of the end of the Putin regime.


Q: Does this mean Putin may be open to negotiations?

I honestly don’t know. I think above all, Putin will want to negotiate from a position of strength, and he may believe occupying parts of Ukraine, or being in a position where folks are forced to accommodate to his will, is that strength. But I do believe there is room for negotiation. I believe it is clearly in the interest of everyone to find a set of agreements that can lead to enduring stability in Europe over the next decades. Overall, I think the Biden administration has a done a very good job with this extraordinarily difficult problem, one that has been growing and festering for the last 20 years. Some administrations have willfully ignored the situation, and some employed a policy to sideline Russia, which is a fundamental mistake. So for now, the prospects for a peaceful negotiation may seem dim but does that mean an invasion is inevitable? No. Decisions can always be changed. Views can change, even at the last instant. 

Banner image: Ukrainian civilian volunteers and reservists of the Kyiv Territorial Defense unit conduct weekly combat training in an abandoned asphalt factory on the outskirts of Kiev, as Russian forces continue to mobilize en masse on the Ukrainian border in February 2022. Photo by Justin Yau/Sipa USA/AP

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