Post-Cold War West poked Russian bear with a stick until it finally swiped back - David Speedie, Carnegie Council Senior Fellow

Crimea's secession has steered up a storm in the West, with flaming speeches being heard from politicians. However, there’s little real action being taken – Why? What frightens the power players? We ask these questions to David Speedie from the Carnegie Council for Ethics and International Affairs – he’s our guest on SophieCo today.

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Sophie Shevardnadze:David Speedie from the Carnegie Council for Ethics and International Affairs,welcome to our show. Great to have you with us. So, Mr. Speedie, NATO bombed Kosovo’s way to independence without any UN approval, contrary to international law. I am saying Kosovo because 15 years ago today is the day when that happened, and there are of course other examples. So how come those countries keep appealing to the rule of law?

David Speedie: Very good question, Sophie. I had forgotten, it was 15 years ago today, you are absolutely right. Clearly, there is, at least for Russia, and I think quite justifiably, a question of double standards here. First of all, in the case of Kosovo, the International Court of Justice ruled that there was no illegality or unconstitutionality in what they call the self-determination impulse on the part of Kosovo’s majority. That, as it would seem to me, does apply in Crimea. Second of all, there were no sanctions imposed on Albania for encouraging and fermenting separatism for a province that has been associated with or had been part of Serbia for over 600 years. So I think the question of double standards is raised quite justifiably.

SS: European Council President Herman van Rompuy was supposed to meet Vladimir Putin, but it’s rumored Europe cancelled it. Why, in your opinion?

DS: I cannot answer that question, to be honest with you…I am afraid that all that I can say is that there’s kind of a zero-sum game going on, where Europeans, after a fairly clumsy initial approach to Ukraine that was rebuffed by then-President Yanukovich, you know, the Europeans have not played their cards particularly adeptly in this whole scenario. Whether this has come with any communication with Washington, I do not know. I’ve not heard about the cancellation of the meeting, to be honest with you, so I don’t know the answer to the question.

SS: Sure. Now, the Russian officials have said on many occasions that they are worried about the lawlessness and the far-right movements holding sway in Kiev. I want to show you and our viewers a video of how some elected representatives in Kiev work on their media relations. Let’s take a look.

VIDEO: “I’m telling you, sit and sign your resignation. Shut up and take your hands off, like I told you. We’re telling you, this is the paper; you will sign your resignation.”

SS: So with things like this, with incidents like this, how can Moscow be expected to talk to Kiev seriously?

DS: As you say, it’s a remarkable video on many levels. First of all, the fact that it was actually taken is pretty remarkable. Second, these are elected officials, although they look rather more like what we call here “bar-room bouncers.” They’re pretty husky looking gentlemen. Why it would take five of them to convey this point that they are making to the station manager, I don’t know, but clearly they are out to convey it with force, with physical force, employed mainly by the gentleman with the ponytail and the tie, who is clearly the ringleader of the group. I think this gets us to the whole question of who some of these forces are, they are part of the official interim government in Kiev, and of course that set in motion all the events of the past few weeks, so it’s very disturbing, and it’s interesting…I’ve watched a couple of other videos from the far-right, by the way, from the Right Sector. I think the title is translated 'Resurgent Ukraine,' and these are pretty disturbing too, and I think would give Russia and ought to give us some cause for concern.

SS: Liberal forces in Kiev, of course, are clearly not happy with the far-right's behavior. Is there an internal split in Kiev’s government, do you think? And what could that lead to?

DS: Well Ithink this has been an issue since day one. In Maidan, clearly there was a motley group of protesters and those who eventually overthrew the government, where sort of a very mixed assembly of people who may have been genuinely fed up with corruption and the track on which Ukraine has been on, I think five presidents since the fall of the Soviet Union. But on the other hand there were these opportunistic forces, the guys in the black masks and the Kalashnikovs - fairly sinister looking outfit…there have been a lot of discussions of the role of Svoboda, the Freedom Party, as to whether there are people in Ukraine, whose opinions I do not dismiss lightly, who claim that they are becoming more responsible members of the interim government. On the other hand, the EU in 2012 issued an 18-point indictment of Svoboda, calling them “xenophobic, racist” and “anti-Semitic,” which was a fairly unusual step for European Parliament to take. The question of whether they are or not xenophobic, racist, anti-Semitic, whether they are in fact neo-fascists, is not really the issue. The issue is that the composition of the new government and the role that these people have in the government sends a signal to at least 50 percent of Ukraine who don’t welcome their involvement. And the appointment of several ministries to Svoboda and to the Right Sector is not a hopeful omen for democratic Ukrainian politics.

SS: But do you feel that moderates can handle the nationalists?

DS: Well, I don’t think they handled them very well on Maidan. There was an interim agreement, signed with Yanukovich, calling for early elections in December, for respecting the transition under the constitution. After all, remember, as people in Russia know better than I and people in Ukraine should know better than I, Yanukovich may have been corrupt, may have been inept, but he was an elected president, and the removal of him from office in that way was unconstitutional. In that regard, the moderates, as it would seem to me, certainly did not win the day, and that set in motion an unfortunate chain of events, so it certainly raises a very valid question as to whether the moderates, the people who want to see a democratic Ukraine, one hopes, with good relationship with both Europe and Russia – there may have been “a genie released from the bottle” here as we say in the West, that may be difficult to contain, or a set of events set in motion that could have unfortunate consequences.

SS: Now, you’ve said a couple of very valid points of how complicated things are inside Ukraine. Do you feel like the US actually gets the whole complexity of the situation?

DS: No. We’re not very good at understanding complexities in situations...there’s an old expression in English: “the enemy of my enemy is my friend,” and that means that if someone goes out and opposes your enemy, then basically they become your friends. We made that mistake in Syria, there are now anywhere between 7,000 and 10,000 trained jihad terrorists who eventually will turn theireyes to the US. I think the same is going on here, that we see pictures on TV, of people waving flags and proclaiming their antipathy and opposition to the corruption and the status-quo in Ukraine, and we assume these are all card-carrying, bona fide democrats, which, of course, clearly, they are not. So I think that that, plus the whole understanding of history of Crimea – the association with Russia that goes back centuries, the very recent in terms of history, annexation to Ukraine at the time when it was all part of Soviet Union – all of these are complexities and twists and turns of history that are not very well appreciated here, certainly in the US and probably not in the West in general.

SS: When Americans are saying that they are concerned about Ukraine – and they seem generally concerned, President Obama, John Kerry – they all come up with the statements saying that they are very worried about what’s going on in Ukraine, about its future…Do you think they really hold the Ukrainian happiness close to heart, or does it really all come down to confronting Russia at the end?

DS: That’s a good, important question – but perhaps there is an unfortunate answer. I think if one wants to be charitable, it would be a bit of both, there is genuinely a sense of concern for Ukraine; of course there’s also a not-insubstantial Ukrainian-American population in the voting public who must be taken into account. I think there is at least a recognition that Ukraine is a very important country. An American scholar described it as “keystone in the arch,” part of the essential foundation of Europe. We all hope that, again, Ukraine enjoys a good future relationship with Russia and with Europe. So I think there is a genuine concern for Ukraine, but it’s not based on pragmatic consideration of Ukraine’s history with Russia - culturally, historically, demographically and all the other ways. And then of course, again, I have to say this, the history of the post Cold-War period is a history of poking, if one may say, at the Russian bear, until he strikes back, and that’s what happened over Ukraine. This is not the first incident - from the bombing of Serbia, from expansion of NATO, from the rebuff on the missile defense – this is not the first time that the Russian interests have certainly not been taken into account, to put it charitably, and perhaps one could go as far as to say there is at least a faction in the US that has a certain interest in beating Russia.

SS: The whole Euromaidan movement started when President Yanukovich declined to sign an EU association treaty on economic grounds. Now, after all the chaos, almost 100 lives lost, the economic part of the treaty is being dropped. What was it all about? Was it all for nothing?

DS: I’ve always wondered that the economics of this whole conversation – as we know, the first offer from the EU was sort of derisorily received by Yanukovich, I think it was one billion, and that was regarded as, of course, totally inadequate, and that’s when he went to Moscow, and then, I think, the stakes were raised. President Putin came back with a 50 billion package, the Europeans have since matched that. In terms of great game of poker, they saw the hand of the Russians and threw 15 billion in. And Ukrainians, I think, have said, that that doesn’t really cover it, Ukraine needs at least 35 to 40 billion…I mean, various levels here: first of all, Ukraine as part of the EU that…as we know, there’s so many forgotten sidebar stories to this: the EU is having its own sort of soul searching at this point in time, there is significant opposition, typically in the form of the right-wing movements throughout Europe, to the whole European idea. The eurozone is in crisis, countries like Greece and Portugal, Spain, to some extent, Italy, are kind of the sick men of Europe at this point in terms of inclusion in the eurozone. Quite why Europeans would want to add Ukraine to that mix at this point would seem to be more of a political than an economic decision, and then the question is begged as to whether it is a good political decision for Ukraine. I have to say that most people, my guess would be, if they could turn the clock back a month to the events before Maidan, I think that most sides could agree that an unfortunate chain of events were set in motion, that, again, may have consequences that may be difficult to control.

SS: Now, also one of the most of the underreported parts of the saga, as you yourself put it, is Europe’s inability at the moment to help Ukraine out. Why is the EU then handing Kiev so many promises?

DS: Again, I think we come back to politics over economics. I’d love to see some polling done in the Western European countries on a bailout package to Ukraine at this point in time. I don’t think Kiev would like to see the results, I don’t think Washington would like to see the results. So, I think this, again, is the case of politics trumping economics and the follow through may be unfortunate; the political accommodation that you just mentioned in your previous question, it seems to me, may be simply a question of buying time to try to work out some of the thornier economic questions of what exactly an economic “olive branch” to Ukraine would involve. And then, of course, the whole question of Ukraine’s economic relationship with Russia. The energy supply, trade, and so on, and so forth. These are questions that I think have been forgotten in the false euphoria of Maidan, and it has consequences.

SS: But the truth is that it doesn’t seem like Ukraine has too much time on its hands, because the country is on the verge of default and it’s economy is completely ruined. So, Ukraine obviously needs foreign help to survive this crisis…so who is able to help Ukraine out then?

DS: The answer to the question is turning the clock back. There was a proposal on the table that came from Russia to have a tri-party discussion on the future of Ukraine, between Russia, the EU, and Ukraine to cover all elements of Ukraine’s future, including the economic. That, by the way, was also suggested several months back by the former foreign ministers of Britain, Germany, and Poland, as I recall, a very similar type of proposition. That was rejected, that was turned down, so I think, again, that was unfortunate. That’s another instance of being able to, if we could, turn the clock back; people may wish that had been looked at more closely. There’s also a term that's being used, of “muddling through” – whether Ukraine can “muddle through.” It has been under a series of fairly disastrous presidencies since the end of the Cold War. Unfortunately, of course, recent events have catalyzed this into something much more important…But, I think, if cooler heads could prevail and if we could back this idea of understanding that Ukraine ought to have a relationship with Europe, but also with Russia, and have some sort of, as we say, “time out,” calling a pause in the nasty diplomatic chess game that’s going on, that might be the way to have a genuine discussion of Ukraine’s future, as opposed to the “zero-sum” discussion that’s going on right now.

SS: That’s a long-term strategy. I’m asking right now, when Ukraine is hurting and badly in need of credit and money, who do you think could help Ukraine out? Because Europe obviously doesn’t have the money…

DS: That’s exactly right. But I don’t think we’re talking necessarily long-term here – you know, when Russia proposed the deal on Syria talks in Switzerland, that happened pretty quickly. I mean, again, a very different situation, but if Mr. Lavrov and Mr. Kerry were able to have a serious discussion, talks could begin next week about a temporary bailout. There’s certainly a possibility of short-term infusion of European support that might address the immediate crisis, but without a short-term move to begin to discuss the crisis, there’s no prospect for any long-term accommodation of Ukraine’s needs. Again, I repeat, I’m not an economist, so I can’t really tell whether Ukraine is about to go into default in 24 hours or 72 hours or six months, but clearly there’s a question that ought to be getting addressed rather than, as I say, the diplomatic to-and-fro between Russia and the US, placing sanctions onto individuals and so forth. That would be a much more useful discussion than sanctions at this point in time.

SS: It doesn’t seem like those bailout talks will take place anytime soon, because the West - and especially the US - are announcing one sanction after another against Russia. Now, Russia is a vital trading partner Europe, as an energy supplier. What kind of sanctions could they possibly come up with - because does it really want strained relations with Moscow? Europe right now, which has just come out of a crisis itself?

DS: I think this falls into the category of if you gave a truth test to European leaders, they would wish that this whole series of events would not happen. The front page of the Financial Times today talks about a new energy sort of plan for Europe that would decrease dependency on Russia. That’s not going to happen anytime soon as we know. So clearly there is no, I would think, any great political will to really get into any sort of ultimate confrontation with Russia over Ukraine or over anything at this point in time. Then, of course, as I said, for Ukraine itself, the question of energy supply from Russia is critical. So, again, we’re talking “long-term” against “short-term,” as you correctly pointed out. In the long term, yes, the US itself is developing a so-called “Energy Independence Plan.” There may be other sources of energy supply for Europe that can be developed, but in the short-term, that is not the answer. I can’t believe there’s any desire to have Russia turn off the energy spigot.

SS: Sure, yeah, you are talking about American proposals for alternative gas sources, the shale gas from the US among others – but, like you’ve said, it’s not short-term. What’s Europe going to do for three to four years? Because, before all of that happens, it actually takes place in Europe.

DS: Exactly. And even for the US, my understanding is that the shale gas prospects are not about to sort of eliminate our energy import needs, over the short- to medium-term.

SS: And now the Western sanctions, even with the most recent round announced by President Obama with more people affected, as well as private banks – it still doesn’t do much damage? What are they for, exactly?

DS: Sanctions are something that…it’s a great sort of weapon of choice if you don’t want to actually go to war, then you got to apply a sort of diplomatic war through sanctions. I’ve always thought that the ultimate oxymoron or contradiction in words is “targeted sanctions.” They really affect the people that they are supposed to be targeted at; except, of course, you know, we’re having a tit-for-tat exchange of individuals being prevented from travel. The latest is, I think, that Russia has prevented Senator McCain and House Speaker Boehner from visiting Russia – in the unlikely event that that was about to happen. In diplomatic terms, I always thought that it is precisely at times when things are most acutely difficult that you ought to have the diplomatic channels open, so I don’t see the point of diplomatic sanctions. In terms of economic sanctions, one of the more sensible comments that I just heard before coming in to speak to you is President Obama acknowledging that any economic sanctions would have perhaps no immediate impact on Russia’s economy, but in the long-term could have an impact on the global inter-connected economy. Again, I think there’s more fanfare, more rhetoric at this point than serious thinking through of consequences.

SS: So, like you’ve said, “diplomatic sanctions,” Russia being excluded from the G8, so I see another diplomatic corridor being shut down right there. Who will it hurt in the end?

DS: Basically, the world. I think whether Russia is excluded permanently from the G8, if it is a realistic proposition – I don’t think it is – or whether it is just a next meeting where it’s a meeting of G7, but I think we here begin the whole sort of complicated and unfortunate ball game of consequences of these developments in Ukraine and particularly in Crimea…So I think there are all sorts of fallout factors here that we haven’t taken into account. It doesn’t begin and end on the borders of Ukraine, wherever they may be, and it has a profound effect on US-Russian relations and on global economic, political, geostrategic, security factors.

SS: Now, I know that you are going to be interviewed by CNN right after this interview, and your views are obviously not black and white, but you see many shades of grey in between. When you speak your mind on American television, what are people’s reactions to what you are saying?

DS: It depends whom you’re asking. Let me put it this way, I don’t [think it's] exactly a well-kept secret that some of us like myself and Steve Kohen, my friend, and my other friend Jack Matlock, the former ambassador to the Soviet Union, of course under president Reagan – we try to represent…it’s not a pro-Russian position, it’s a position that tries to take into account Russia’s strategic, political, geographic, cultural, historical concerns. At the Council for Ethics and International Affairs, we like to court certain political philosophers, like Hans Morgenthau, who encouraged us, who exhorted us, urged us to see things from the other person’s point of view. It doesn’t mean that you are capitulating, or abandoning the US national interests or position, but you’re simply taking into account what the other side feels. And again, there has been, as I said, events since the end of the Cold War, where Russia has felt either rejected, humiliated, interests not taken into account, and I think that’s important for us to know. To answer your question directly, I’m delighted to say that people, even if they may be in the minority, people whose views I trust and value and whose opinions I hold to be important as to what they think of me and what I’m saying, they’ve been supportive – and that’s what matters to me, not necessarily the polling that may take place after I say something.

SS: Thank you very much for this interesting interview, we were talking to David Speedie from the Carnegie Council for Ethics and International Affairs. We were talking about Ukraine and what the future holds for this country, and also what effect could sanctions have on Russia – positive or negative. That’s it for this edition of SophieCo, stay with us next time.