Former U.S. Ambassador to Russia Jon Huntsman was blunt when asked his assessment of how the invasion of Ukraine would turn out for President Vladimir Putin.
“He’s done. The Putin era is over,” Huntsman said. “The only thing we need to now understand is the level of damage he’s going to do as he goes. I think that could be substantial, and we have to be prepared for that.”
Huntsman’s prognostication about the Eastern Europe conflict came during a speech to the Economic Club of Minnesota last week.
Huntsman served in Moscow under the Trump administration for two years, from 2017 to 2019. He says Putin’s move on Ukraine was not too surprising, given what he knows about the Russian leader.
“It’s very telling when you walk into Putin’s office, and you see a portrait on the wall of Peter the Great. That’s not there by accident,” Huntsman said. “There’s a sort of emotional connection Putin feels there. He’s a man of empire — not just the Soviet empire but the Russian empire.”
The conflict between Russia and Ukraine is close to entering its third week with no end in sight. The two countries have been discussing terms for a cease-fire, but there’s not been much progress. Huntsman says he’s apprehensive because the longer the conflict drags on, the greater the chances of escalation.
“He’s [Putin] is a master of escalation. It keeps me up at night just thinking about it. Putin will continue with force, and it will get worse,” Huntsman said. “We have to be extremely careful, so this does not evolve into a confrontation where horrible weapons are introduced to the battlefield like tactical nuclear weapons.”
A major frustration for Huntsman was the lack of effort to find a diplomatic solution before the conflict began. He believes there was room for some preventive diplomacy, but it was ignored because the U.S. has adopted a “military-first” approach.
“We somehow need to get back to using diplomacy first because that’s how the rest of the world works,” Huntsman said. “We have not had a decent conversation with the Russians in a very, very long time. That’s a mistake. Could that have avoided something? I’m not going to speculate.”
There are so many factors at play that it’s difficult to predict how or when the conflict will end. Economic sanctions are crippling Russia’s economy. At the same time, a fiercer-than-expected resistance from the Ukrainian people is inflicting unexpected losses on the Russian military. That may give hope for the end of the conflict. Huntsman is less optimistic.
“Does this mean Putin begins to have second thoughts about what he’s done? No, that’s not Putin’s style. He’ll double down, and things will get rougher,” Huntsman warned. “I have feelings of tremendous unease about the days and weeks ahead hold.”
Another important consideration is what happens to Russia if Putin is removed from power. Huntsman says the damage already done to that country from the conflict is immense, leading to greater instability, and the U.S. needs to be prepared.