Not many Americans watching the tragic events unfold in Ukraine have quite the perspective of John Tefft. The longtime diplomat and expert on Eastern Europe has served as U.S. ambassador to Russia (2014–2017), Ukraine (2009–2013), Georgia (2005–2009), and Lithuania (2000–2003), with experience ranging back to the days of the Soviet Union. He’s even been in the room with Vladimir Putin on several occasions, taking notes in meetings with former Secretaries of State John Kerry and Rex Tillerson, respectively, as Putin laid out his view of the world. Putin very clearly “had a chip on his shoulder toward the United States,” Tefft said; he was known for making little jokes and digs at American life or culture.
Tefft is not shocked by Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. But he has been “amazed but not surprised” by the strength of the resistance so far. It’s been clear to him for years that Ukraine has no interest in becoming an appendage of a new Mother Russia and that Putin badly and obviously miscalculated in believing that Ukrainians would accept his justifications for invading. As for where this is all headed—well, that’s why you need to watch, but suffice it to say that Tefft sees two Putins, the rational actor and the “street fighter” from Leningrad, and he’s not entirely sure which one we’re going to get when it comes down to it.