Crisis in Ukraine: Ukraine and Russia Beyond Crimean Secession

March 24, 2014

Russian and Ukrainian flags via Shutterstock

DAVID SPEEDIE: I'm David Speedie, director of the program on U.S. Global Engagement at the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs. I'm delighted to welcome back to our Ethics in Security Bulletin series Professor Nicolai Petro. Professor Petro is with the University of Rhode Island but, serendipitously for us, he is currently on a Fulbright Fellowship in Odessa in southern Ukraine. We call upon him once again to give us his impressions of the ongoing situation in Ukraine.

Nicolai, welcome back to our series.

NICOLAI PETRO: Hi, David.

DAVID SPEEDIE: Let's begin, as always, with just a general overview. It has been, I guess, a couple of weeks since we spoke. So much seems to be happening on a daily basis, if not an hourly or minute-by-minute basis. So give us just your general sense of things from your vantage point.

NICOLAI PETRO: Well, the issue in the mind of locals, as well as everyone else internationally, is the secession of Crimea, its declaration of independence and then its annexation by Russia. That proceeded very quickly.

In this area where I happen to live, in southern Ukraine, a region largely populated by Russian speakers, I'd say, as I said before, the people are not thrilled with this development. But, in addition to a certain resignation, they also tend to take the matter philosophically.

I've heard a number of times people say, "Well, Crimea was unusual and different from other regions of Ukraine, and there were obviously historical ties."

On the other hand, there are people who are equally adamant that this is an attack on Ukraine's territorial integrity and must be rebuffed. But the options that the government has for responding effectively in Ukraine are apparently very limited.

DAVID SPEEDIE: Let me just make sure I understood something. You say that Russian speakers in the south of the mainland of Ukraine are disturbed at the events in Crimea?

NICOLAI PETRO: Yes, in the sense that no one likes to have had the situation resolved in this manner. Crimea was always a problematic addition for Ukraine, and Ukrainian nationalists, in particular, seem to feel so.

I recall reading one particular columnist in western Ukraine actually refer to it as a potential fifth column that would be dragging Ukraine down from its desire to join the EU and join NATO. But that doesn't mean that they wanted to give it up.

So there's a sense in which they don't approve of how this was done, but there is a certain understanding of the historical logic of what happened.

DAVID SPEEDIE: And of course, the history, as most of our audience will know, is that the transfer of Crimea, which had been for 300 years or so part of Russia, since the days of Catherine the Great and the winning of Crimea from the Ottoman Empire, this was essentially an artificial transfer in 1954 by Khrushchev, in the sense that it was an internal transfer within the then Soviet Union. I think that tends to be forgotten in all this conversation.

NICOLAI PETRO: I was reading a little bit more carefully through some of the legal documents, and I was struck by something that doesn't seem to have been noted, although I do agree that the legal arguments are essentially moot at this point.

But there is one aspect to this that hasn't been very carefully noted, at least in the Western press, and that is that when Crimea was transferred to the Ukrainian SSR, Sevastopol was not. So Sevastopol itself was always part of Russia.

In 1992, the Supreme Soviet of the Russian Federation rescinded this decision, finding illegalities. But then, a few months later, the now-Russian Supreme Soviet passed a resolution on the status of Sevastopol reaffirming its all Russian federal status. That is actually the status that Putin today reassigned to Sevastopol. So Sevastopol was always separate from the rest of Crimea in any case.

DAVID SPEEDIE: You mentioned President Putin's speech today. Of course, a few days ago he made another speech proclaiming that Crimea was and always would be part of Russia. What do you see as the major themes in that speech? What were the major takeaways that you saw in this, both with regard to Ukraine, with regard of the Western role in Ukraine and elsewhere, and what really does Russia want?

NICOLAI PETRO: I think that this speech will be seen as a programmatic speech, much like Putin's Munich speech in 2007, a very important statement of his personal philosophy, of his view of Russia's relations with the West, and drawing some very clear contours of where Russia's interests lie.

So in the context of this being an explanation for Russia's actions in Crimea, there seem to me to have been three main themes in his speech.

The first, obviously, addresses the historical injustice that he sees having occurred with Crimea's separation from Russia, how therefore the re‑adoption of Crimea into the Russian Federation is a matter of justice, and that the referendum, in particular, ought to be considered an expression of popular will.

Another thing that he adds in that context is that if the Crimean self-defense forces had not acted and appealed for Russian assistance, he intimates that there would have been bloodshed and that Russia's response indeed prevented further bloodshed.

A second part of this speech is the narrative of what I would say is his response to what he calls "Western duplicity." This is a theme that has most notably emerged, as I said, in 2007 and has been repeated a number of times subsequently. But again, in the case of what happened in Crimea, he really sees the developments in Ukraine, namely the overthrow of the legitimate government and what happened subsequently in Crimea, as the culmination of Western policies that were, at best, thoughtless and, at worst, reckless.

Indeed, he refers to the events in Ukraine as the culmination of the development of decades of thinking in which the United States saw itself as replacing international institutions, as using force whenever it deemed it desirable, and ignoring UN sanctions—in Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya.

He also suggests that the events in Ukraine were planned ahead of time and that their objective was to prevent Eurasian integration. And indeed, he said that containment as a policy was never abandoned by the West.

Now, according to Putin, he says Russia tried to have a dialogue, but this was always met with duplicity, dishonesty, backdoor deals, and just sort of saying, "We're not interested in having a candid dialogue."

I'd like to quote here from what he says actually happened in Ukraine. He says the West "crossed the line, acted boorishly, irresponsibly, and unprofessionally." He says, "If you wind up a spring too tightly, someday it will explode."

The last part of his narrative is what does Russia actually want. Here he says: Well, what Russia actually wants for Ukraine is a stable and legitimate government and the full participation of the regions in the east and the south in national politics. What Russia does not want is a divided Ukraine, and he says that Ukrainian themselves should be interested in equality for all its citizens since only this will ensure its stability.

He does go on to say, however, that Russians and Ukrainians are, in essence, one people who "cannot live without each other." So that's the emotional component of what Russia wants.

Then he adds a geostrategic component, where he says: Crimea is a strategic territory and ought to be a source of stability in the region. Therefore, NATO forces anywhere on Ukrainian territory are unacceptable, and that's just the red line that cannot be crossed. Russia does not seek confrontation, he says, but is prepared for it. And most importantly, he says Russia has national interests that do have to be taken into account and respected.

DAVID SPEEDIE: Thanks. That's a very rich and comprehensive analysis of Putin's speech. Let me just pick up on three things and make sure that you agree with this, Nicolai.

First of all, on the question of bloodshed, there is often an analogy made to the Kosovo independence/self-determination impulses. Of course, the International Court of Justice at the time of the Kosovo decision essentially ruled that there was nothing in international law against a legitimate right to self-determination, which many of us feel also then applies to Crimea.

The difference is, of course, that there was significant bloodshed against the Serbian population, the minority, in Kosovo around and after that time, and, as far as I know, there has been very little bloodshed in this whole Crimean situation. That's point number one.

Point number two is the idea that we have to see this as a sequence of events. In Crimea, while there has been, as far as I know, some discontent with the Russian majority of about 60 percent in Crimea, over time it really was the events in Kiev that set this secessionist movement in motion. We cannot see this in total isolation.

The third point, on your point about what Russia wants, the idea that Russia is massing forces on Ukraine's borders and is ready to follow up Crimea with a move into eastern Ukraine does not seem to be a plausible outcome at this point.

Do you agree with these footnotes?

NICOLAI PETRO: Could you repeat that second point?

DAVID SPEEDIE: Just that we can't see Crimea as a sudden, unexpected, or impulsive—

NICOLAI PETRO: Right. In fact, I was reading a very interesting article by a Crimean official in Rossiskaya Gazeta, one of the leading Russian state papers. He said—and he, of course, was giving his personal perspective on this—it's important for people to realize that throughout the entire crisis of state that was taking place while Yanukovych was still in office, Crimeans were trying to hold the country together. Up until the very end, they were saying, "We need to restore law and order throughout all of Ukraine."

What's happening in the western regions—people tend to forget this now, even though it has been just a month or so—the western regions disbanded their parliaments, removed their governors, refused to pay taxes. They, in fact, effectively seceded from the Ukrainian central government. They said, "We do not recognize the authority of Kiev."

Crimea and the eastern regions at this time were saying, "If we're going to keep the country together, we need to have a common government together."

As soon as Yanukovych was removed by the Maidan and the new political forces in Kiev, they tried to meet in Kharkiv, and they actually held an assembly of all of the heads of local government in Kharkiv and tried to, again, invite the representatives of the western region. But they did not come.

At which point the entire process became one of: "Well, what's happening in Kiev is not something that we in Crimea recognize as legitimate. This puts into question our autonomy, because how do we know that if they are willing to undermine the constitution with such ease that they will respect our autonomy?"

The entire process of tit-for-tat, with the government in Crimea rejecting the authority of the government in Kiev, and the government in Kiev then trying to reimpose its authority by replacing personnel in Crimea, began to escalate.

Even at that point, however, there was only talk of the first referendum. The referendum question, as you'll recall, only asked if the population was willing to vote for greater autonomy, a return to the 1992 constitution within Ukraine. But when that was rejected, they went and added a second option, which was to join Russia. So indeed, it is in the context of how quickly things can deteriorate when the sides refuse to talk to each other.

The question now becomes: How does this affect the situation in the other regions of the east and the south?

There are protests going on pretty much daily, I can say even here in Odessa, which is a quiet region where there haven't been any casualties, thank God, so far. There are daily protests, with people protesting and asking for a referendum.

As a matter of fact, I got a leaflet today that was handed to me walking down the street with the demands of what they call "the people's alternative." The people's alternative has six basic demands: 

  • First, having the Russian language become the second state language.
  • Second, administrative and territorial reform. They don't use the word "federalism," although that's what it means, because several people here and elsewhere have been arrested for calling for federal reform.
  • Third, protection of historical monuments and cultural monuments in this region.
  • Fourth, 70 percent of finances of the region should remain locally, in local coffers.
  • Finally, rescinding pension reform, having elected governors, and new elections for the regional and city administrations, and judicial reform

Those are the main demands of the anti-Maidan forces now.

I don't see anything there that really calls for separation from Russia. But they say at the end of this particular appeal that they are calling for these demands, but if they are ignored, they intend to continue to hold meetings and to call for a local referendum on the matter, even if they can't have a nationwide referendum; and in the case if they are attacked by government forces or by the right sector, that they will defend themselves.

Well, we shall have to see whether indeed there is that will to fight, or if there will even be such attacks. So far the government locally and these protesters are having a dialogue. But it is also true that their leaders locally, here in Odessa and elsewhere, have been detained for calls for separatism.

DAVID SPEEDIE: What is interesting as you went through that list on the leaflet you were given is that—I read that Lavrov had a package of suggested post-Crimean referendum talking points, presumably with the West and with Ukraine itself, on precisely these issues: language guarantees, Ukrainian neutrality when it came to NATO, a genuine federation-type system, elected governors, and also I think in there was abandoning the armed irregular forces that are being put together from Kiev.

NICOLAI PETRO: Right, the national guard.

DAVID SPEEDIE: Yes, exactly.

NICOLAI PETRO: Basically, the forces of the Maidan being armed.

DAVID SPEEDIE: Exactly.

Since time is passing by on this, let me shift the focus, if I may, Nicolai, to the question of the longer-term implications for Russia, U.S., and Russian-Western relations.

You wrote an interesting piece for the Valdai Discussion Club, which I remember was in reference to a major speech by President Putin at one point last year. But the title basically is, "Which is more important: Punishing Russia or preserving the territorial integrity of Ukraine?" So that's one thing I'd like you to comment on.

The other is the whole question of future U.S.–Russia cooperation on important issues, such as Syria, Iran—the P5+1 talks are ongoing—and whether Russia will continue to be cooperative in that sort of an environment, the whole question of the Middle East and possible conflict over interests there, arms control, and so on and so forth.

If you could just speak as briefly as possible to these two big questions.

NICOLAI PETRO: There's a lot of focus on the sanctions and whether they will be effective and real. But it seems to me that actually the Western sanctions seem to be less significant and fairly narrowly tailored. In fact, I would almost say that it seems to me that they are largely for domestic consumption. In other words, given a couple of months, the major purchases and acquisitions and business deals that were to have gone through this month and next, like the Mistral sale in France, have simply been postponed until the fall, when presumably tempers will have cooled down. So I think there is less there than meets the eye.

Having said that, there is definitely a sense of resentment, a chill in the air. That's unfortunate, because Russia is indeed a necessary partner on the international stage and in the resolution of all sorts of common problems.

I think Putin's response to those sanctions today was to say that Russia will not respond directly, tit for tat, to America's sanctions. I think that is also a good sign that suggests that maybe we won't exactly get to business as usual. But certainly, this current friction is a bump in the road rather than a complete break in relations.

DAVID SPEEDIE: One of the more interesting suggestions that has been advanced, and I think by our mutual friend Ambassador Jack Matlock and others, is a sort of Finland solution for Ukraine. They point to Finland more than half a century ago, with things such as language guarantees for the Swedes in Finland and neutrality, refusal to join NATO, etc., etc. It may be a bit of a left field question to throw at you, but do you think there are precedents in the past for the future disposition of how Ukraine deals between the West and Russia?

NICOLAI PETRO: I think that that's certainly a possibility in the long term. But a lot of it will depend on the next government, because we should not forget that this current government is a caretaker government and is likely to be much more radical in its outlook, given its composition, given the way it came to power, than any government that is truly freely elected in Ukraine. A freely elected government in Ukraine is likely to be much more balanced toward Russia and likely to revisit some of the hostile attitudes toward Russia that the current government is assuming sort of based on events that have taken place recently.

I think we are likely to see a much more balanced approach in the future in relations between Russia and Ukraine, because they are simply, not to mention the historical and cultural ties, economically so closely intertwined. I would point out, for example, that the prime minister here in Ukraine suggested imposing visa restrictions, but then backed off very quickly from that because several hundreds of millions of dollars flow into the Ukrainian economy from Ukrainians who live and work in Russia.

DAVID SPEEDIE: Just one final question as a follow-up to that. Clearly, this would be a welcome future scenario, that a more moderate government with a more modulated response toward Russia and the important historical, geographical, and cultural ties between Russia and Ukraine, that would come to pass.

Clearly, what happened in Maidan, as you said, barely a month ago was a high degree of emotionalism. An interim agreement calling for early elections was essentially, I think, torn out of the hands of the so-called moderates.

Do you see any possibility that there would be an unwillingness of the interim more radical elements to seek power in an orderly basis and allow this to take place?

NICOLAI PETRO: That's very hard to say. But I think they would be under enormous pressure to actually hold the elections at the end of May. I think there will be further pressure after that to hold new parliamentary elections, because everyone understands that the current parliament needs to be reconfigured to allow for whoever is going to be replacing the Party of Regions as the major voice of people in the east and the south.

So while there is that temptation, I think it would be very difficult for the current government to delay holding elections, and certainly not in its interest to do so.

DAVID SPEEDIE: On that potentially welcome note, I recall at the beginning, when we first hooked up this afternoon, you said that things were relatively peaceful, perhaps even a little tedious or nothing too exciting going on. Sometimes that's not a bad thing in a situation like this.

I'm glad all is well for you, Nicolai. We, as always, greatly appreciate your insights and reflections. We may revisit at some point as things unfold.

Again, thank you so much, Dr. Nicolai Petro of the University of Rhode Island, Fulbright Scholar at the moment in Odessa, southern Ukraine. Thank you for being with us again, Nicolai.

NICOLAI PETRO: Thank you, David.

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