The Former Soviet Union has occupied Ambassador Daniel Speckhard’s professional career (and personal interest) since the 1990s. He initially served as director of policy and resources for the Deputy Secretary of State, overseeing and co-ordinating foreign aid funding. Following the breakup of the Soviet Union he was Deputy to the Ambassador-at-Large for the new independent states including Russia and Ukraine, and responsible for a range of political and economic issues. Becoming Ambassador to Belarus from 1997 gave him direct insight into the aftermath of independence, after which he was appointed in 2000 as NATO’s deputy assistant general for political affairs, covering not only the Soviet Union but also Eastern Europe (including Ukraine) and the Balkans. He is currently the CEO of Corus International, which was launched in 2020 as a parent organisation of several NGOs addressing global health and development issues. Following a recent visit to Ukraine, Open Central Asia ’s Editor-in-Chief, Nick Rowan, finds out more.

The horrific headlines emerging from Ukraine never seem to abate. As I dial into my call with Ambassador Speckhard, news has filtered through of further Russian attacks on Ukrainian infrastructure, destroying perhaps as much as 50% of the electrical power infrastructure. This threatens to plunge millions of weary Ukrainians into chilling darkness as winter approaches. If ever there was a time to pray for a warm winter, it is now.

I ask Ambassador Speckhard what his assessment of life on the ground is like, having returned recently from a trip to Ukraine’s front lines. “It’s hard for people to understand,” he starts cautiously. “They see the war pictures. All the rocket attacks and the destruction. It’s easy to feel empathy, but I don’t think people really understand the scale. There’s roughly 15 million people needing humanitarian assistance. According to the UN, 7 million people have left the country and 7 million are displaced inside. Many people forget the demographics. The reality is Ukraine is a very ageing population. When I got to Kharkiv, about 40 miles from the front, the shelters were filled with people in their 70s and 80s. Many don’t have families to go to. Many have chronic illnesses, in need of medicines.”

It is not just the physical illnesses. Speckhard continues, “The other thing I noticed is the psychological trauma. You assume that it’s there, but you don’t realise how significant it is. Many of the [elderly residents] moved to basements and stayed there for weeks, sometimes months, as they rode out the war. You can’t talk to these displaced people without them quickly falling into tears.”

Russia’s continued bombardment of crucial infrastructure such as power stations and lines, leaves a humanitarian crisis unfolding before our eyes. Many will feel overwhelmed and powerless to help, but Speckhard’s current venture, the Corus Group, aims to help ameliorate conditions for as many people as possible by giving them a place that is warm, as safe as possible and with access to proper healthcare.

“We’re creating a new NGO that we hope will be a model for the future,” he enthuses. “It is based on how you bring together specialised agencies and groups to create a technically sophisticated NGO that can take a more holistic approach to development, poverty, health and humanitarian challenges. We are trying to build capacity and knowhow with a holistic response, because what we find is that foreign aid is very stove piped. For example, money marked for health-related activities is only for health, rural development only for rural projects, environment for environment, and so on. But actually, if you go to a village, these people don’t just have one issue. If you fix the health problem but nobody has jobs, the people are still going to suffer.”

It’s a very valid point and one worth considering deeply as the world looks to rebuild Ukraine once hostilities have ended. Speckhard continues, “We’ve now got roughly five different groups working together on health, livelihoods, and humanitarian assistance. We then impact invest in companies with a direct trade group that brings products straight into us to try to reduce intermediaries and increase value back to the producers.”

“My goal is to keep knocking on enough doors so that the international community will start taking another look and see it’s really wrong to spend billions of dollars only on health. It should be allowed to be used on anything that can improve health outcomes.”

I shift back to Ukraine and the immense unity in both the Ukrainian morale in their existential fight, as well as that of the international community. This unity was hugely underestimated by observers, how come?

“What’s interesting to see is the more the Russians attack, the stronger the response by the Ukrainians is in terms of digging in their heels and not being willing to surrender. That has to do with a couple of things. Firstly, they believe their military is ultimately going carry the day. They’re throwing everything they have at it – they’re fighting to protect and save their home country.. Secondly, they have seen some progress on the battlefield that gives them a lot of extra hope, allowing them to come together as a community. That was amazing to me, just to see how everybody’s suffering, often worse than you could imagine, brought people together in the shelters, sharing what they had, openly supporting each other. Their social conscience understands resilience.”

So, what is Corus doing in the short and medium term to help? “We are focusing on the immediate needs in shelter, food and health, as well as trying to work with the ministries, ensuring that there’s good co-ordination across all the international actors. And here is the secret: trying to work within local structures and build capacity in the local systems. We’ve partnered with the Federal Trade Union, which touches the entire country and has enormous influence with different actors at the local, regional and national level. We’re using their infrastructure as a place for people to go for shelter as opposed to gymnasiums or school cafeterias. People have a little more space and dignity if they move there. Second, we’re focusing on the food, so making sure you get everybody at least one meal a day and then health, because many people have serious chronic sickness, as well as psychological trauma.”

I’m interested to understand how Speckhard’s time as a former ambassador and working in NATO has influenced the way he thinks. “The part that I worry about as a former diplomat, is the externalisation of this war. I was on an interview the other day with a member of Russia’s parliament who kept saying that this is essentially the US fighting a war against Russia. That language is really dangerous, because if Russia wanted to see a war between the United States and Russia, it would look a lot different. And nobody should want that, least of all Russia. So, we need to avoid this kind of externalisation. Clearly the US and European nations are providing military support, but it’s not US soldiers or European soldiers on these front lines.”

How does he see the war progressing? “What you see happening, is Russia looking to Iran and North Korea for more weapons. This is what to watch for in the coming months – how does Ukraine, and their supporters, try to build more symmetry into what’s happening. It can’t last forever that you can just lob rockets from a safe zone at no cost to Russia. We tried economic sanctions, but that’s not enough. My expectation is that people are going to be working very hard in Kyiv to ensure that there has to be a cost to Russia.”

In terms of how strong and sustained the West’s support has been, Speckhard is clear. “The reality is less about what the West does and more about what Russia does. Its brutal behaviour is what really keeps that solidarity. If Russia were at all pursuing a different kind of approach, like trying to propose truces and ceasefires, and maybe even having some unilateral ones for a day or two, they might change some of the perceptions of the allies that are supporting Ukraine. They have shown no desire or willingness to do that.”

So, what kind of future can we expect for Ukraine? “I think the country will stay fractured in terms of politics. I don’t think you’re going to see a pro-Russian government in Kyiv anytime in the rest of my lifetime..”

I ask briefly how Belarus’ role might play out given Speckhard’s former role as the US Ambassador to the country. “Lukashenko is walking a tightrope,” he starts. “He needs to be able to show Moscow that he is a complete ally of Russia, because otherwise he risks a similar fate as Ukraine. At the same time the Belarusian people have no interest in getting involved in this war. Belarusians have always hated war. It’s a country across which armies have marched through for the last few centuries. They have a saying there that says, ‘At least we have bread and salt.’ As long as you have bread and salt, you know you’re doing all right. So, they keep their heads down. I think Lukashenko knows that this would be a losing proposition for him with the Belarusian people. I think the Russians hopefully know as well that opening up a front along that 1,100 kilometre border is a bad idea.”

Before our hour’s call is up, and having covered so much ground, I finally ask Speckhard what he thinks Central Asia, and other former Soviet Union countries, make of the current situation and how they balance the geopolitical scales. Speckhard is hesitant at first but provides a few pearls of wisdom. “I think everybody has had their eyes opened as to the weakness of Russian conventional forces, however they have seen that there’s no weakness in terms of ability to punish civilian populations. So, these countries will be watching that side and know the brutality in terms of how Russia is willing to use artillery rockets, and other means, to destroy civilian centres and infrastructure. What I would expect them to do is be very respectful, but at the same time be working overtime to build new relationships. I would expect that wouldn’t include the United States. That’s too provocative, but certainly with Turkey, China, Middle East and Saudi Arabia.”

Nick Rowan
Editor-in-Chief at Open Central Asia Magazine