Crisis in Ukraine: Crimean Stand-Off

Mar 5, 2014

In the latest Security Bulletin, Russia expert Professor Nicolai Petro speaks from Odessa in southern Ukraine on the ongoing crisis, with a particular focus on the strategically vital Crimean Peninsula, home to Russia's Black Sea Fleet and to a substantial ethnic Russian population.

DAVID SPEEDIE: I'm David Speedie, director of the program on U.S. Global Engagement here at the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs in New York.

We are in another iteration of the crisis in Ukraine, and that's the subject of today's Security Bulletin. We are delighted to welcome back Professor Nicolai Petro. Dr. Petro is with the Department of Political Science at the University of Rhode Island, but, most importantly, at the current moment he is on a Fulbright Fellowship in Odessa in southern Ukraine.

Nicolai, welcome back to our Security Bulletins.

NICOLAI PETRO: Hello, David.

DAVID SPEEDIE: Well, every time we speak, we preface it by saying that it's a fast-moving series of developments, and that certainly hasn't changed as far as today is concerned. Can you give us an update, just an overview of your perspective from the south? You are close to Crimea, for example. What is happening?

NICOLAI PETRO: I think everyone is breathing a little bit of a sigh of relief because the latest news is that President Putin announced the end of the military maneuvers that were going on in the western regions of Russia, on the border with Ukraine, so the troops are being sent back. Secondly, there has so far not been any fighting and no bloodshed on Crimea itself between Ukrainian and Russian forces.

DAVID SPEEDIE: On the question of the cooling down of the military temperature, Nicolai, answer just a few clarification questions here.

There is some doubt as to how many Russian troops are actually in the peninsula, whether those are there under the treaty negotiated with Ukraine concerning the Black Sea Fleet, or whether troops have arrived from Russia, what exactly they're doing. In one case, apparently, defending the Belbek air base. It's a confusing picture. Can you cut through it for us?

NICOLAI PETRO: It certainly is confusing. I have no more specific knowledge than what I get reading several different news sources.

As I understand the text of the Black Sea Fleet accords that were signed in 1997, they stipulate that there should be no more personnel allowed on the Russian bases beyond what was there in 1992, which was a significant number. That number is not stipulated in the accords, but I have seen estimates of anywhere from 30,000 to 70,000 troops at its height. Right now there seem to be many fewer troops there, both stationed and even with the 6,000 that the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense says were in support after March 1.

But that fact of sending additional troops is disputed by Russia. In other words, they are claiming that whatever troop movements have occurred are in fact troop movements on the peninsula among troops that are already there. So there is that disagreement.

Both sides in this dispute over Ukraine are referring to the 1997 accords. Ukraine views the Russian troop movements as illegal because they were not approved by "competent organs of Ukraine," as required under Article 8 of the agreement; and, in addition, that the appeal by the government of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea to Russia does not in any case constitute a competent organ of Ukraine because it doesn't supersede Kiev's authority, and that seems logical because the government of Crimea recognizes itself as part of Ukraine.

Russia also, however, makes appeal to the 1997 accord, arguing that it is acting under Article 6 of the same agreement, which allows military formations to function in the areas of their dislocation "in accordance with the laws of the Russian Federation respecting the sovereignty of Ukraine and its laws and not allowing any interference in the internal affairs of Ukraine."

On February 28, the Russian Ministry of Defense claimed that it was strictly abiding by these terms. So there is clearly a disagreement on the interpretation of the treaty, although, if I were a lawyer, I would suspect I would have an easier time defending the Ukrainian interpretation.

DAVID SPEEDIE: On that rather nebulous phrase "competent organs of Ukraine," am I not right in thinking, Nicolai, that the Ukrainians have pointed to that terminology to question the validity of the whole Black Sea Fleet agreement that runs through 2042? That would be a pretty inflammatory thing for Russia.

NICOLAI PETRO: Well, let me backtrack a little bit. The Black Sea Fleet's presence itself is a sore spot and clearly a point of weakness with respect to Ukrainian sovereignty. It's an anomaly. Because of its size, because of its importance, and because it is essentially an extra-jurisdictional entity for Ukraine, it is subject to all sorts of problems in terms of the extension of Ukrainian sovereignty over all of the territory of Crimea.

The Black Sea Fleet's presence has been condemned by a number of political forces. I think it's fair to say that the current government, which is taking a very different vector from the previous government and committed to European association to the fullest degree possible—everyone in that government, starting with the prime minister, is on record as wanting to tear up and renegotiate the Black Sea Fleet accords so that, in effect, there is no more Russian presence in Crimea.

DAVID SPEEDIE: In other words, renegotiate would mean eliminate the Black Sea Fleet, which presumably would be a severe nostalgia for Russia. There is no other warm-water port at this point for the Russian Navy to go, is there?

NICOLAI PETRO: Not in the south, right. Well, that would be Russia's problem then, sort of like, "Well, if you want to have a fleet, go build it somewhere else, in Rostov-na-Donu or somewhere else in Russian territory." That's not Ukraine's problem. Russia, for many reasons, which are emotional, historical, and just prideful, and economical obviously, doesn't want to do that.

So the scenario is a difficult one. Right now both sides are bound by the Kharkiv agreements, which extended the Black Sea Fleet agreement, which was due to expire in 2017, until 2042. That was sort of kicking the can down the road. I think it makes a lot of sense to me to ask the question of whether the presence of the Black Sea Fleet, Russia's major fleet in the south, in a foreign country really makes sense to the security of the area.

DAVID SPEEDIE: Well, yes. On the other hand, it is a negotiated agreement. The Russians could, I think legitimately, say that the government that negotiated that agreement, or at least the government that has recently adhered to that agreement, was overthrown in what the Russians, I think, would call a putsch. And, more practically, you just don't go out and build another naval base in Novorossiysk. So one would hope that the accommodation or the renegotiation might be indeed a kicking the can down the road, which in times of great tension is not the worst thing always to do.

NICOLAI PETRO: Right. But the problem is essentially a political one, not so much a legal one. In other words, there has to be the will and the desire.

One of the ways that one could interpret the significance of Russia's move in Crimea, one of the corollary benefits for Russia that it might be aiming for, is the ability to have a government in place in the peninsula that would essentially be friendly and that, if it were granted significant enough autonomy, could actually be the competent authority to extend that lease indefinitely, because, de facto, Russia pays for that fleet and it's now paying that money for the lease of the fleet into the coffers of Kiev, where it is a small drop in the bucket of a very large bucket; whereas, in the context of Crimea, it would be a much more significant, and presumably stable, contribution to the local economy.

DAVID SPEEDIE: And we're not going into history here, but this isn't so ancient history. Of course, Crimea for 200 years belonged to Russia, and then there was a sort of internal shuffling in 1954, when Khrushchev essentially transferred Crimea to the Ukrainian Soviet Republic from Russia. But of course that, as I said, was an internal move, as it were, because the Soviet Union existed.


DAVID SPEEDIE: The fact is that Crimea does have a very close historic tie to Russia and, as I think you have pointed out, there are at least 100,000 military personnel, retirees, and families living there. So this is not an insignificant business for Russia just to sort of give up on Crimea, so to speak.

NICOLAI PETRO: Exactly. But I can't help but point out its extraterritoriality is an anomaly in international relations, and in the context of any difficulty in the relationship between the countries, it is always going to be a sore spot. In general, diplomats want to avoid creating and basically remove these sorts of sore spots before they become excessively irritated.

DAVID SPEEDIE: Well, speaking of diplomats and creating sore spots, Secretary Kerry is in Kiev, or has recently been in Kiev, and apparently came bearing $1 billion in long-term loans to Ukraine. I'm no economist and I'm certainly no expert in the Ukrainian economy, but I don't think $1 billion quite does a long-term deal for Ukraine, as far as I know. What do you hear or what's your perception of the Kerry visit?

NICOLAI PETRO: Well, there was not that much on it on the 7 o'clock Ukrainian news. They promised a more extensive coverage right now, at 10 o'clock. But so far the information that they're providing, and that the Ukrainian news tends to accentuate, is that money is coming, money is in the pipeline, and this has been the promise of the prime minister, that "our friends in the West will not abandon us." Now, no one is naming figures, but he is assuring and trying to reassure the banking sector and the financial sector that there will be money forthcoming.

It is to date a very unimpressive amount, $1 billion. The minimum that the cabinet of ministers is asking for is $15 billion. The more frequently used number that they cite is $35 billion or more. They have a total external debt of $140 billion. So there's a lot to be done.

But any economic assistance that will be provided under the terms agreed to with the IMF [International Monetary Fund] will undoubtedly be tied to significant structural and economic reforms, which Ukraine in the past has not been able to fulfill. Now, they, and I think we all, should hope for the fact that the new government will be more successful than past governments in fulfilling those so that the IMF will be willing to release whatever money it pledges.

DAVID SPEEDIE: This, of course, is one of the glossed-over, or at least under-reported, elements of the whole saga, Nicolai, and that is that the European Union itself is not exactly in the most robust health when it comes to all of its entities, the crisis in the Eurozone and so on and so forth, and various "sick man of Europe," to use a phrase from the past.

How does this play out as far as you can see in what can be extended to Ukraine? I mean is Europe in the position—I read somewhere that Mrs. Merkel had been asked directly whether she would be ready to "bail out Ukraine," and was highly evasive.

Where do you see this in terms of Ukraine becoming another—obviously in the weaker end of the membership of the European Union, if that is indeed extended?

NICOLAI PETRO: It's a difficult sell within the context of EU politics. I think what EU politicians are saying is it depends on the audience that is asking the question. So if it's a domestic audience, they are indeed very reluctant to spend the good taxpayers' money for a country that is, frankly, of marginal interest to most Europeans, and they have their own problems closer to home that they would rather worry about. Ukraine is not only not even a member, it's not at this point even in association for potential membership within the European Union. So it's a very tall order.

But there is, of course, the argument that this could emerge as simply a humanitarian crisis. But the money for a humanitarian crisis is never of the kind of magnitude that is necessary for a major structural reform over several years.

But one of the interesting aspects, and it's an aspect that always troubled me in discussions with Ukrainians that I've spoken to who are members of the intellectual elite or members of the opposition that I've talked to, senior advisors to the opposition, their argument is that no doubt Europe will come up with a very significant figure.

I asked them why they think so. They say, "Well, because Ukraine is such an important part of the democratic struggle in the context of Europe." So they are really trying to argue that in the effort to transform and contain Russia, Ukraine plays a central role, and that role really has to be recognized by Europe, so Europe will have to pay for the transformation of Ukraine. That's really where they're placing their hope themselves for a more democratic future of Ukraine.

DAVID SPEEDIE: Well, it may or may not be exactly encouraging to hear terms like "containing Russia" again. That takes us back a few years, to the long telegram and so on and so forth.

Jack Matlock, the former ambassador to the Soviet Union under President Reagan, said on his blog today, basically reinforcing the point, that a future stable Ukraine simply could not exist in any sort of an antagonistic relationship with Russia historically, culturally, geographically, every other sense of the word.

Are we encouraging this? When you talk about Europe essentially seeing Ukraine as a means of containing or standing up to Russia, isn't that essentially what we are doing, we're putting Ukraine in an invidious us/them position?

NICOLAI PETRO: My sense of the coalition of forces that is currently in charge in the parliament is that they would like to have it both ways. In other words, when they were the minority and trying to replace the government and put themselves in power, then the argument and their appeal was that there is no group more radically pro-Western and basically anti-Russian imperialism than they. So they would constantly promote that view.

But once in power, they also intimated that they would be much more reasonable and then establish, as they would say, more just and equitable ties with Russia, which wouldn't be friendly at first, because the Russian government would need to rethink its relationship, which is essentially currently a colonial relationship, a big brother relationship, with Ukraine and what the new Ukrainian government, the one now in charge, would be trying to do is to change that mode of Russian thinking and, once that occurred, with Europe's help, then truly new prosperous and better relations could be established.

All of this makes a lot of assumptions about the nature of the relationship in the past and the willingness of both Russian leaders and Ukrainian leaders to have the same interpretation of political and cultural and historical events, which is a big if, rather than dealing, as most diplomats do, on a more pragmatic level of saying, "Well, what de facto agreements—we may not agree about everything, but let's leave that aside. What agreements can we actually sign? How can we improve our day-to-day relationship without needing to transform the other side into a better and more reasonable interlocutor?"

DAVID SPEEDIE: What really I think this comes down to, the absolute ineluctable truth is that this is a profoundly divided country east/west—half the country looks west, the other half looks towards Russia. I am told that in the new interim government there are, I think I read, 19 ministries and only two of these are served by representatives from the east, from Donetsk I believe, which—

NICOLAI PETRO: From Kharkiv actually. They're both from Kharkiv.


That seems to me to be something of a thorn in the side of peaceful resolution. But also, you have made an interesting suggestion in terms of what could be done by the West, and that is, and I quote you here: "provide quick and massive economic assistance to Kiev, but only on the condition that the hardcore nationalists are not part of the government. This will go a long way toward easing Moscow's fears."

Obviously, the nationalists have had a role in this from the beginning, in the events in Maidan itself, in backing away from the agreement that was reached with the French, German, and Polish foreign ministers on site, as it were. How do you do this? How can we marginalize the extreme elements here that clearly are something of, at best, agent provocateur?

NICOLAI PETRO: Right. Well, I think that is a key point, because the current alliance in the parliament relies on extreme nationalists in two capacities: one as an important coalition in the government and the nationalist Svoboda party. On December 13, 2012, the EU Parliament passed a resolution that called the Svoboda party xenophobic, racist, and anti-Semitic, and called for all of the parties in the Ukrainian parliament not to associate with Svoboda.

This Svoboda party has been rewarded, instead of being marginalized. It was given four ministerial portfolios and several governorships as well as the prosecutor general's office. So they are indeed an integral part of, especially, what's called the power bloc, the ones who control the security forces in the government. This sends, undoubtedly, a signal to the rest of the country that has not been supportive of the change in government.

And then, there is the other segment of the radical wing, which is not represented in parliament but which still continues to act on the Maidan—the Maidan which continues, by the way. The street protesters haven't gone anywhere. They continue to be present and to remind the government that the national revolution is not yet finished and they are going to be the guarantors for the people, making sure that the revolution reaches its conclusion.

DAVID SPEEDIE: Nicolai, once again a remarkably rich guide through these troubled waters. We appreciate your being with us.

Our guest has been Professor Nicolai Petro of the University of Rhode Island, but speaking to us from his Fulbright Fellowship perch in Odessa in southern Ukraine.

Thank you again for being with us, Nicolai. We will certainly keep in contact with you.

NICOLAI PETRO: Thank you, David.

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