Washington’s hands are tied when European allies don't want to act - Russian policy expert

Ukraine plunges deeper into unrest. The US and Europe continue with threats of sanctions against Russia, shading out all possibilities for dialogue. How much further is the West willing to harm its relations with Moscow? And who will suffer the consequences? To find this out, Sophie Shevardnadze talks to a professor and expert on Russian politics. Mark Katz is on SophieCo today.

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Sophie Shevardnadze:So professor Mark Katz, who is an author, a professor at George Mason University - you don’t like to be called an expert but you are really a long-time observer of Russian politics, foreign politics as a matter of fact - it’s really great to have you on our show today.

Mark Katz: Thank you, it is good to be here.

SS:So, I’ve read your recent article, and you are kind of warning Putin from too much success, not to get dizzy from it and so what I am wondering is that you really think Russia’s actions have been successful because other people are saying there are sanctions, they are saying there is still war in Ukraine, and there is a really hostile government in Kiev, etc.

MK: Well, I think what happened in Crimea happened so quickly and so bloodlessly. You know, usually this kind of transfer of territory when one side does not agree to it, does not happen this way. So I think in that sense it has been successful and I think that, yes, there have been sanctions but they have been minimal and I think the West has done essentially the minimum to satisfy domestic politics and it’s very clear that Europeans have no real appetite for serious sanctions and I don’t think that the US does either, so I think that he has been successful. Another question is whether I think it is good or bad; but he has been successful.

SS:We will get to sanctions, but before that I want to turn to current events, to the recent elections. In Ukraine, the president has been elected. But as we know, Ukraine is a parliamentary state so most of the power is concentrated within the parliament. Now the new man, Mr. Poroshenko, he is a tycoon, he is a man who likes to be in control. How do you think it is going to go with him? Do you think he is going to be OK with that, or do you think we could see a conflict between the executive and legislative branches?

MK: You know, I think Ukraine just has a problem. Its whole system has been unclear and I think that has been a lot of the problem that we have seen. And I think we have seen it before in countries where legislators are so very strong and executives are weak, so that it is very difficult to make any kind of policy. And I think that under the current circumstances Ukraine does need someone who is a fairly strong leader.

SS:But do you think we are going to see a change of constitution like we have seen many times before in Ukraine?

MK: I would not be surprised if we saw that. But who knows.

SS:So one out of six Americans don’t even know where Ukraine is. Why it is so important for the government, when no one in America really cares about Ukraine?

MK: You know, I am not sure of how important it really is. Obviously, America has been focused on the Middle East and the war on terror. I think it’s not so much Ukraine that is important, it’s the implication for how weak the NATO alliance is, in other words it is, you know, if Putin wants to continue annexing more territory would NATO respond? And I think that has been more shocking than anything else. Not so much what Putin has done, but that the Western response has been so minimal.

SS:Let’s talk about NATO a little bit. I mean it kept saying and warning Russia to move away its troops from the Ukrainian border. Now this is a perspective from the Russian citizens’ point of view: Russia’s troops were positioned on Russian territory even though they were on the Ukrainian border, and by the way, they were moved away. So Russians are wondering why NATO would tell Russia where to position their troops.

MK: I don’t recall that I’ve said Russia should move its troops, but…

SS:You did not, but NATO did.

MK: Yes. Certainly when we had a guest from MGIMO coming to George Mason University she made this point very strongly that Russia can put its troops wherever it wants on its territory. And I think that governments know this. They believe that the situation would be better if Russian troops moved away. I am not so sure, but I think they’re just afraid of what are these troops going to do. But obviously Russia has the right to deploy its troops wherever it wants in its own territory.

SS:Here is another thing: Russia has a civil war on its border, people are being killed, journalists are being kidnapped all the time, and it is basically having an explosion in your backyard, should it not be reacting? Is it not Russia’s business when something so big is going on right on your border?

MK: It has to react it seems to me. I think any country that is having a civil war on its border is going to have to do something. I think the question is: “Can we do something together?” I believe that Russia and America, if we work together, we can help to stabilize the situation. Even during the Cold War, one of the things that we did successfully was working together to make sure that the situations did not get out of hand. And I don’t see that happening now but it could happen, it seems to me.

SS: But I want to know an American point of view, and also of someone who knows a lot about international politics. If something similar was going on in Mexico, which is right on the border of the United States, civil unrest with some factions being clearly anti-American, what would Americans do? Would they not position their troops on the border just for the sake of it?

MK: Oh, I think we would. And I think we did a century ago during the Mexican revolution. But the problem with Ukraine is that it has been undefined space. It’s neither West, nor East.

SS:Well, the geography is geography. It is on the Russian border. So why is it okay for America to position it’s troops, even though it was a hundred years ago, and not okay for Russia to do the same?

MK: You know, to me it is not a question if it is okay. I don’t think that governments take advice from other governments in this matter all that seriously. Governments know that Russia is going to station its troops where it wants, and obviously NATO stations its troops where it wants, but clearly what we don’t want in Ukraine is a real serious conflict because we all are going to get hurt if that happens.

SS:But what happens if Kiev asks the West to intervene in this conflict? What concrete steps could we see the West undertaking?

MK: I don’t think that the West…they are not going to send troops. There is no security guarantee with Ukraine. Ukraine is not a member of NATO and it is not going to be. There is no appetite in the West. I think what the West wants to do is to make sure that this situation does not get out of hand. They will take some steps to reassure Ukraine, we want to see a prosperous stable Ukraine. But in the end, I don’t think that the West is going to do all that much for Ukraine.

SS: I want to talk just a bit more about NATO since you are saying that America’s insecurity about this whole Ukrainian thing comes down to how much NATO can protect its member states that are near Russia. So, NATO keeps telling Ukraine that it will help it out diplomatically. But how can a military organization help a country diplomatically plus a country that is not even a member state, like you have said?

MK: Well, I think this has obviously been the relationship between NATO and Ukraine, just as you know there is relationship between NATO and Russia. I think that what they are hoping to do is to make sure that things just don’t deteriorate, because if in fact we see a civil war in Ukraine, how is that going to be solved? Who is going to be able to stop that? And so I think that what we would like to see is both Russia on the one hand and the West on the other hand work together to make sure that the Ukrainian actors who seem to want to fight, don’t fight.

SS:But that seems like more self-defense sort of help than a diplomatic way out, no? What do you think?

MK: You know, I am not sure of how it should be defined, but I think that what they want to do is to indicate that they want to help Ukraine but also to indicate that only so much – in other words, they are not going to do everything Ukraine might want. In other words, that in fact we just are not going to do that much and that we hope it does not come down to that.

SS:Now when NATO is considering putting permanent garrisons in Eastern Europe, who is it protecting itself from? Russia? Are they really afraid that Russia would attack the NATO member states?

MK: No, I think it is more a question of reassuring some of the Eastern European members. Some of these countries have a negative history with Russia and they feel very vulnerable, so I think that they want some kind of troop presence. We have avoided it for the most part so far, now they would like to have some kind of a stronger troop presence. I think that what it basically does is sort of draw the line – “OK, you know, we can’t stop Russia in Ukraine but we don’t want them to go anywhere else and so we are standing our troops here.” This just raises the bar. I don’t think that Putin has any intention of doing anything like that.

SS:I don’t think anyone thinks that in reality, but the funny thing is how NATO is telling Russia and Ukraine what to do while neither of the countries are actually members of NATO. Don’t you think that is kind of funny?

MK: I think that is how life is, that people give unsolicited advice to one another all the time about how they think other people should behave, so it does not surprise me. You know, it is not so much NATO as an organization but it is obviously the leading governments within it, in other words the US government, the German government, the British government - they have preferences. Obviously the Polish government has preferences. And one of the things is that these preferences within NATO are different and one of the things that NATO is trying to do is coordinate among all these governments. There are some who really want NATO to react strongly, there are others who want NATO to do nothing. And you know part of this activity we’re seeing isn’t even so much directed at Russia, but it is coordinated among Western allies.

SS: Now, you have said in one of [the] Russian radio shows that the current expertise on Russia in America is pretty bad and people who are writing about it aren’t actually experts. Is it fair to say that the general public is misinformed about Russia? I don’t mean your students, of course…

MK: I just think that younger people – younger than me anyway – haven’t got into it. During the Cold War, the Soviet Union was all important, a lot of people studied it, but in the 1990s it was just less important, so I think that people didn’t go into this studying, and then, of course, after 9/11 people started studying Arabic or the Middle East and then, of course, China has become a major focus in America. So, unfortunately, there just hasn’t been as much attention paid, and certainly no funding for Russian studies, not nearly as strong as it used to be – so that’s the problem, and so obviously, people write articles, and many times what I think happens is that you have people who really don’t know that much history, even recent history, and so they don’t even put these things in context. I think, certainly, what happened in Crimea is a perfect example. I think that for a lot of people who are writing about it – they didn’t really focus on the historical links between Russia and Crimea, and so that was an issue, I think.

SS:But could the same thing be said about the establishment itself – like, could you say, are they basing their decisions and policy making on recent expertise, which isn’t very good, as it turns out? It does seem like America has a sort of simplistic approach towards this whole Russia thing. What are they basing their decision making on?

MK: I think the real trouble is that no one becomes president of the US based on their knowledge of foreign policy. They know how to do other things, but the job has them all for once do foreign policy, and it’s very hard to learn on the job. It so much depends on who they have around them, and, unfortunately, I think that both for President Bush and President Obama, Russia was not the top priority; we had other things we were worried about, and so I think that it has tended to be an afterthought…Now of course, as of recently, it is suddenly not an afterthought; it’s become far more important, but it makes a difference if, like in the old days of the Cold War, we had a lot of cooler heads who understood that…you know, there was tension, there was disagreement, but that ultimately we had to work together. It didn’t matter whether we loved each other or not – we had to get along to some extent, but the stakes were so very high, and I think that that sensibility, unfortunately, is not as present as it used to be.

SS:But also you do get the feeling that back then, the problems between two countries were bigger…they sort of understood each other better than right now.

MK: There was an institutionalized dialogue, I remember taking part in this – you know, there were always meetings between Soviet and American experts on everything. People met and met regularly, there were ongoing discussions, and a lot of that simply disappeared in the early 1990s and I think that now a lot of those people are no longer with us. It’s gone and the whole habit of this is gone. And so it is very unfortunate that we don’t have the same level of discussion as we used to.

SS:You are saying that Russia was not a priority for Bush or Obama, but Syria was a priority for Obama, certainly, and you know…

MK: I disagree. I don’t think it was really a priority for him.

SS:But for public show’s sake it was one of his top foreign policy priorities, and so was Iran, and they’ve made so much progress on both issues together with Russia, and now it seems like they are just throwing it all away, because of Ukraine, because they want to show a firm stance to Russia. Isn’t it such a pity?

MK: I’m not so sure that our stance on Crimea and Ukraine is that firm. I think that they have to do a certain minimum amount, but I don’t think that the US…I think Obama himself said that “we’re not going to war over Crimea.” It’s been a shock to the whole system…

SS:Not the war. What I’m saying is that everything else that has been started with Russia has been stalled right now, including Syria and Iran progress…

MK: I think that progress on Iran continues to be made, there is a sort of the dynamic there, and I think that one thing that has been interesting is that Russia and America continue to work on arms control matters, the system of inspections continues…

SS:Well, not really, because NATO has actually stalled all cooperation with Russia, all the NATO transit to Russia…

MK: I’m talking about Russian-American nuclear cooperation, that continues. With NATO – yeah, that has obviously changed.

SS: But [when] we talk NATO, I mean also talking about America, and it’s fair enough to say that’s the case. You have all the NATO goods transit through Russia that has been stalled, cooperation on Somalia and piracy has been stopped, fighting terrorism has been stopped – so who is at game here? Somali pirates and the Taliban?

MK: I think this is going to be temporary, personally. I think that once a situation stabilizes in Ukraine, then I think that we are going to start seeing these things come back. I don’t think that what we are seeing here is a permanent rift. If the situation in Ukraine can be stabilized, then I think that cooperation will resume. And some cooperation does continue, I think that we’re smart enough to do that.

SS:I’m thinking of Saint Petersburg’s economic forum that took place recently - major heads of companies and heads of state never showed up. Why not use that as a platform for dialogue instead of boycotting all of it?

MK: I think that they want to symbolically show their disapproval. But what’s interesting is that these American corporations that the White House asked not to send their heads – well, they didn’t do that, but they did send people. In other words, they want to do business with Russia. This is actually really more important than anything else, that we now have in America what we never had before, and that is that the American business does have an interest in good relations with Russia, and I think that that is actually a very hopeful sign, and I think that Russian business has interest in continuing business with America.

SS:But American business – is that what has a decisive influence on what happens between Russia and America?

MK: It’s an important influence, and I think, for example, 13 years ago when Chinese-American relations went very bad because of the airplane that was forced down, things looked very bad, but American business stepped in and told the White House: “Look, we have an awful lot at stake here, we cannot let this deteriorate,” and I think that there is less business, obviously, between Russia and America but there are important American corporations who don’t want to see things deteriorate, and Europeans have huge business with Russia – so that I think this is a very good sign, countries that trade with each other, they have an interest in stability and cooperation. That’s a good thing and I hope it continues.

SS:Like you’ve said, economy is not the biggest platform between Russia and America; there are other things that are more important. But between Europe and Russia it is huge, and now amid all these sanctions and hostility towards Russia from the West, Russia has made a historic deal with China – how much can that hurt the West?

MK: I think that deal with China was in the works anyway, it was going to happen, and it’s logical. It makes sense – two neighboring countries, one has energy to sell, the other wants energy to buy, so they are going to come to a deal sooner or later it seems to me, so I think that that’s not a bad thing at all. What I think is that in terms of sanctions, the Europeans have made clear that they are not going to go very far. The thing about America with its allies is that it really cannot go farther than they want on something like this, and so the sanctions in my view have just been very minimal, just so that they can say they’ve done something, it seems to me.

SS:Let’s say sanctions do take place, because it’s still a possibly. America is promising to fill in the energy gap in Europe with shale gas. Is that something really far-fetched? Can you really promise Europe to do that in case the Russian gas is turned away from it?

MK: It will take a few years, but this is something that’s been happening anyway, this American shale revolution. Really, in a certain sense, Ukraine, Crimea are irrelevant – this was going to happen. In other words, America was going to become an exporter of petroleum, so now we’re going to be in competition with Russia, and so in a certain sense, I think that this crisis has helped make it clear that American supplies might be available, and so we are in competition in this sense. But this was going to happen anyway, that America was going to come to export petroleum, so there we are.

SS:Alright, Dr. Katz, thank you very much for this interesting insight, for your expertise. We were talking to Dr. Mark Katz, he’s a professor at George Mason University in America. He’s an author, and I’d like to say he’s an expert in Russian politics and also in Eurasian politics. We were talking about Ukraine, a stand-off for Ukraine, and how it is damaging progress on issues of global importance, and if there is still room for talks between the West and Russia. Stay with us for the next time.