Crimea - a clash of Russian and NATO interests?

Crimea and punishment? Russia has been at the centre of heavy criticism for its policies on Crimea. And while the region moves toward self-determination, the West calls for punishment and declares the will of its people illegitimate. Does Russia have the right to protect legitimate interests on its doorstep, or is the protection of interests a privilege reserved solely for Western powers with traditionally global aspirations? Oksana is joined by Dr Nina Khrushcheva, a Fellow of the World Policy Institute, to discuss these issues.

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Oksana Boyko: Hello and welcome to Worlds Apart. Western analysis of Russia's current role in Ukraine often invokes the Soviet Union and some of its militarist policies. Is it a case of old habits dying hard or rather, of an old chestnut. Well, to discuss that, I'm now joined by Nina Khrushcheva, a Senior Fellow at the World Policy Institute and a great-granddaughter of the former Soviet Premier, Nikita Khrushchev. Dr Khrushcheva, thank you very much for your time.

Nina Khrushcheva: Thank you for inviting me.

OB: Now, one of the quotes most often heard these days is the one by Zbigniew Brzezinski who said famously that without Ukraine, Russia ceases to be an empire but with Ukraine subordinated, Russia automatically becomes an empire. Do you believe that to be Russia's intentions in this current crisis, to preserve and possibly expand the vestiges of the Soviet empire?

NK: I think there are certain intentions to preserve some vestiges of the former Russian space and the former Soviet space. I wouldn't go that far as Dr Brzezinski saying that without Ukraine, Russia is not an empire. I don't think that 'empire' probably is a correct even word to be used today, but certainly without Ukraine, as without other Soviet space, post-Soviet space, Russia is not as strong as it once was and Vladimir Putin certainly would like to keep that sphere of influence and Ukraine, in this sense, probably is the most important area where he would like to keep his sphere of influence.

OB: But when we're talking about preserving the sphere of influence, are we primarily talking aboutpolitical influence, or economic interdependency?

NK: I think both. I think, certainly, economic interdependency is very important because Ukraine's economy per se depends very much on the Russian market and Russia does export its oil and gas to Ukraine, and through Ukraine to the rest of Europe, to many European countries. So, I think economically, it's a monumentally important place and, you know, since we talk about Crimea now, Russian Black Sea Fleet is stationed there, so it's not just economic but also national interests that are being discussed here, but also political. I mean Vladimir Putin likes to be in control, he likes to be in control of spaces that even technically do not belong to Russia, but at least he wants to be the first man on that bloc, and the bloc includes a lot of places of the former Soviet space.

OB: I wonder if in his desire to be in control, Vladimir Putin is any different from any other politician in any other country but, since I've heard you draw these neo-imperialist parallels between the Soviet past and Russia's current policies, you know, I understand that to many westerners, any invocation of the Soviet Union is negative, but the Soviet history was very complicated and pretty diverse. Surely, there were Stalin's purges but it was the Soviet leadership itself under your own great-grandfather that renounced that form of violence. So, the Soviet Union under Stalin was very different than the Soviet Union under Khrushchev, and they're certainly very different from modern day Russia under Putin. So, I wonder if drawing these neo-imperialist parallels is simply, I guess, a form of stereotyping that relies on very limited and sometimes very simplistic understanding of the Soviet History?

NK: I think that's certainly a very good point. For myself, I want to say that when I draw these kind of parallels, I absolutely try and do explain them, and explain how, although there are differences between the past and today, there are certain similarities because, regrettably, Vladimir Putin does use the playbook of the grand empire and it's not just the Soviet Union, its just generally the size matters, and the size matters in Vladimir Putin's mind, and the Russian glory is very important and so was the glory of first, the Russian empire, and then during the Soviet period, communism would win all. So, of course, expansionism and imperialism are throw-out words, but at the same time they certainly define certain types of behaviour and they do define Vladimir Putin's behaviour in many ways today.

OB: Well, you mentioned just two terms – expansionism and imperialism, but all these processes, they could also be described simply as integration, which is a global trend. I mean we've seen it in Europe on both political and economical levels, we've seen it in North America – President Obama just the other day visited Mexico where he was discussing a possible successor agreement for NAFTA which would expand the free trade zone from three countries to nine countries. So, just in principle, in what way do those integration processes or, you know, neo-imperialist processes in the post-Soviet space differ form what we see in other parts of the world?

NK: I agree with you, it's all the question of language. And I teach propaganda so I'm perfectly aware that, you know, one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter. So we're talking about these nuances where you stand and that depends on what kind of language you use. Well yes, Barack Obama, NAFTA, Mexico – all good points. We don't see this kind of integration happening at the barrel of the gun, so there is quite a bit of difference, quite a bit of difference here. Although I do want to say in some defence of Vladimir Putin, actually no, not defence of Vladimir Putin, in some sort of explanation of his sort of way of thinking, I believe, is that when the United States under President Bush and Vice-President Dick Cheney decided to go into Iraq in 2003, there was similarly no direct threat, no really, I mean, there was a pooled-in argument that really didn't quite exist. And, once again, in explanation to Vladimir Putin, that invasion of Iraq actually happened half way around the world and the United States, to some degree, wasprotecting its own oil investments and interests there. So, I could see how Vladimir Putin may see this, his, defence of Ukrainian Black Fleet or his interests, other interests, in Ukraine as very similar to George Bush's invasion of Iraq. George Bush wasn't a particularly democratic administration.

OB: Well, I wouldn't make quite that comparison, because Dr Khrushcheva, the invasion of Iraq cost around 500,000 lives, if I'm not mistaken, and the events in Ukraine, with some notable exception, have been non-violent so far. Now, the notable exception that I mentioned was violence in Kiev, and the nature of that violence is very tricky. I'm sure you hear about that leaked phone conversation between Catherine Ashton and the Estonian prime minister, or rather, foreign minister who suggested that, you know, that that outbreak of violence which was previously blamed on the ousted president Yanukovych and by extension, Russia, may have been the work of some of the forces within the Opposition. So, if those reports are true and if there were indeed snipers in Kiev who were shooting and killing both peaceful demonstrators and the police, I wonder what does it really say about the legitimacy of the Ukrainian revolution, and by extension the legitimacy of the current authorities in Ukraine?

NK: Thank you so much for this question, I do love how you guys use the, kind of, legalistic or an absolute sort of flip the language so very well and suddenly don't speak metaphorically but at face value. So let's start with the beginning of this. The war in Iraq cost numerous lives, yes it did. And when I was talking about this, when I was using this comparison, it was a comparison politically and geopolitically, and I haven't gotten to the lives yet.

OB: I'm sure you would agree that lives is also an important factor to consider here.

NK: I do agree that lives are very important, and that's exactly what I was trying to say – that I was referring to a political decision, a policy decision, a geopolitical decision, we hadn't gotten to lives yet. And with the conflict in Ukraine, we actually haven't seen the end of it yet. So not that I'm inviting lost lives in any way to further my comparison, I'm just saying that in political terms, in geopolitical terms, these events, and this way of thinking is very similar. George Bush was not the greatest democratic president, in fact, somewhat an embarrassment to the United States. So if this isa comparison that we want to make, I don't think it speaks well for Putin. Your second point on the snipers, I did listen to that conversation you're referring to. It was a speculation on the Estonian official's part and, in fact, I also looked at, I think it was your website that pulled out certain quotes from that conversation and then when you listen to the rest of it, it's just speculation. It's not clear, it hasn't been proven and so why don't we just keep it as something that has not been proven yet. It is possible.

OB: Dr Khrushcheva, I'm sorry for interjecting but one reason why it hasn't been proven yet is because, according to the Estonian foreign minister, interim authorities in Kiev are very reluctant to proceed with any sort of investigation into the nature of violence there, but I agree with you, it hasn't been confirmed yet, even though there have been numerous testimonies. And again, if that was to be the case, if there were indeed snipers on the streets of Kiev, and as somebody who covered both the conflict in Libya and the conflict in Syria, I think that this sort of tactic is used very often in the pro-democracy revolutions, so to say. If that information was available to the Estonian foreign minister, I'm sure it was available to Russia's president as well, and when he was considering a possibility of using military force in Ukraine, don't you think that that was something that could have legitimately prompted him to make that decision – the presence of groups who would kill people for the sake of political expediency, in a country like Ukraine, which is, I'm sure you know, very close to Russia's heart.

NK: Very good face value question, once again. You're excellent at that.

OB: I studied mass communications in the United States, so if I'm good at propaganda, as what you seem to be suggesting, ...

NK: yes

OB: I learned it there.

NK: Yes, you took your lessons very well. Absolutely, I think these tactics could be used, are used, will be used by fringe elements of protests. And of course, there've been numerous reports that same tactics have been used by the Russians as well, so let's just say that it's interesting that when this kind of information comes up when the Russians are concerned, everybody is absolutely silent, and then when this information, or potential information, comes up when the protesters are concerned suddenly, it becomes a great legalistic argument.

OB: Well, it's not just a legalistic argument. After all, it's coming not from the Russian authorities, not from Moscow, but from the Estonian Foreign Ministry, of all sources. Now, I also would like to add to that - while again this hasn't been proven, the presence of far right, ultranationalist forces within the protests movement in Ukraine is pretty evident. In fact, they are now part of the new Ukrainian authorities, and you know that some media here in Russia refer to them as fascist for, you know, the history of their collaboration with Nazi Germany. I wonder if this very hasty endorsement of the protest movement, despite the presence of some very unsavoury forces within its ranks, is a case of political opportunism on the part of the European Union and the West in general, in its bigger fight with Russia, and if you would agree with the case of political opportunism, whether it could backfire later on, because after all those forces, ultranationalist forces, are known to be not only anti-Russian but also anti-western?

NK: Oh absolutely, these forces are, but I don't think it was a case of political opportunism. In fact, they were peaceful protests until President Yanukovych, so supported by Vladimir Putin who probably doesn't stomach him, but yet supports the government that actually fled, but anyway. So until President Yanukovych signed probably, once again not proven, but probably under Putin's advice he signed the very brutal, not brutal, very stern anti-protest law. So no, I don't think so. I don't think it was used in opportunity. But, what we also have to know, and you mentioned that you covered other conflicts around the world, as you know from all this coverage of many conflicts, that prolonged revolutions, protracted conflicts do attract fringe elements and the ones you're citing are those fringe elements. What I find really interesting, that in the Russian press and on Russian today very often, they're being show as the major force in the protests, which is indeed not the case.

OB: Well, Professor Khrushcheva, I'm not sure you're correct here, because even Russian President Vladimir Putin during his news conference expressed his sympathies with the people on Maidan butit was very clear to him, and to many observers on the ground in Ukraine, that those fringe elementsyou refer to were there from the very beginning but, lets take a very short break for the moment. When we come back – it's been 60 years since the Soviet leader, Nikita Khrushchev, handed over the strategically located Crimean peninsula to Ukraine. How much is the struggle for Ukraine is really a struggle over Crimea? That's coming up in a few moments on Worlds Apart.

OB: Welcome back to Worlds Apart where we are discussing the situation in Ukraine with Nina Khrushcheva, a Senior Fellow at the World Policy Institute and a great-granddaughter of the former Soviet leader, Nikita Khrushchev. Dr Khrushcheva, this Spring marks 60 year since your great-grandfather handed Crimea, a peninsula of great historic, strategic and military significance forRussia, over to Ukraine and I know there are many theories about why he did it but, historically speaking, that was meant to commemorate the unity of Russia and Ukraine and administratively, Crimea was never supposed to be cut off from Moscow. Now, I wonder if the geopolitical battle over Ukraine that we are witnessing at the moment would have been less tense if Crimea wasn't part of the question? How strategic is it for both sides, I mean, for both Russia and the West?

NK: Well I think when Khrushchev transferred it from the Russian Federation within USSR to the Ukrainian Republic within the USSR, it as really not strategic or geopolitical in any way because all of them, it was like moving checker pieces from one part to another. I think it became very strategically important in 1991 when Ukraine became an independent country and so there was a process of figuring out how to take Ukraine back under the Russian control. I think that in some ways the fact that Ukraine, I mean the fact that Crimea, is now sort of the centre of the battle between the pro-western, as they are called, protesters and Kiev and the Russian forces in Russia, is almost a gift to Vladimir Putin because he can localise his, as we discussed earlier in the programme, and I put it in quotes – 'expansionist powers'.

OB: Dr Khrushcheva, just out of curiosity, I mean, Russia is often described as a status quo power and just before these protests broke out, you know, Vladimir Putin, didn't have any problems with either Ukrainian authorities, Ukrainian people or the location of the, or the presence of Russia's naval base. After all, the lease runs till, I think, 2042. So, I simply don't see how you would connect that instability that we are now seeing in Kiev to Vladimir Putin. He had everything going for him anyway before those protests broke out.

NK: Oh of course, he had everything going for him. He just won the Sochi Olympics, he showed the world what he can do, and I think the Crimea, I mean, he's a brilliant politician of opportunity, he really takes an opportunity and seizes on it, not that he necessarily has great strategic plans, it seems that the Crimea was that Maraschino cherry on top of ice cream. And so I think that's what realy has happened, and I think he did say though that he doesn't have problems with Ukrainian people, and I don't believe he does, but it was an opportunity for him to get Crimea back, to show that he is a uniter of former lost territories when leaders like Khrushchev or Yeltsin, Khrushchev gave it away, Yeltsin didn't claim it back, and so it adds to the greatness of Vladimir Putin and the possibility of his great Russia that he is going to rule for ever.

OB: Well, I wonder what greatness you're actually talking about because he's now under an avalanche of international criticism over all of that and, you know, you alluded to him trying to annex Crimea, as a pickled cherry on the top of his favourite Olympics, but he actually said a couple of days ago that Russia has no interest in annexing Crimea. He said it publicly and I thinkhe perfectly understands that something like that would be extremely challenging and extremely costly move given the modern day geopolitics. Now, I would like to ask you something different though. The Crimean authorities just recently announced their intention to hold a referendum on March 16th to ask their people whether they want to stay within Ukraine, so I wonder if you think there's any compromise here that would both satisfy, or rather, protect Ukraine's territorial integrity, protect Russia's national interests in Crimea, because this is after all Russia's main warm water naval base and it is strategically extremely important for the Russian Federation, but also be palatable for the West? Is there any sort of compromise here that would satisfy all three sides involved?

NK: I think it is already a compromise. I mean, as you said, he said that he doesn't want to annex. I'm so glad that you take Putin's words at face value, I don't. But I'm sure when he says he doesn't want to annex, it's exactly for that matter that he's quotable as a non-aggressor, so good for him. The second point is that I do love the fact that all these troops that are there, and I was in a show with Vladimir Pozner, a very famous Russian journalist who said 'oh we don't really know, it hasn't been proven that they're Russians because they're without insignia even if they do speak very good Russian..

OB: Well everybody in that part of the world speaks very good Russian, that's not an argument.

NK: Ah, no that's really not an argument, absolutely, but all their equipment, actually, has Russian signs and Russian plates and whatnot.

OB: Well, Russia sells equipment to that part of the world as well.

NK: OK, may I please finish, thank you so much. And I think that really gives Putin great Leeway, just as you suggested. So Crimea runs a referendum and the referendum decides that Crimea, perhaps, wants to be part of Russia, which of course is a very interesting referendum because it would be run with the boots on the ground that are technically not Russian but so obviously Russian.

OB: But, come on, the majority of people there are distinctly pro-Russian. I don't want, I don't understand, why do you make such allegations of supposedly Russian troops harassing people into agreeing, into voting, a particular way on the referendum because you know full well that they are pro-Russian by their ethnicity and by their ideology to begin with.

NK: Right, and with the boots on the ground, clearly that makes very, very, free referendum. So the referendum happens, the world screams that it's not a legitimate one, precisely because there are boots on the ground, and there probably could be a compromise with Kiev depending on how Kievan authorities continue to behave in this regard. So, there is an opportunity to make a palatable decision on this that technically has great authority from Ukraine, doesn't really disappear from Ukraine's territory but mostly would be under the Russian control.

OB: Dr Khrushcheva, you just suggested that this whole Ukrainian debacle was, sort of, Putins evil plan and I would like to offer an alternative theory here. I already mentioned that Crimea is extremely strategically important for Russia, but if we focus on the military aspect of it, if Russia were to lose its naval base there, wouldn't it be a major gain for NATO? Could that be the endgame on the part of the West here?

NK: No I don't think so. I don't think that NATO really holds Russia as a great enemy. I think it's the other way around, I think Russia holds NATO as the great enemy, and when you say there was Putin's evil plan, I'm not entirely sure...

OB: Well Russia has seen NATO creeping towards its borders so it has a good reason for that.

NK: I'm not entirely sure that Putin has an evil plan, as I mentioned, I think he's a great tactician, I don't think he's a good strategist because, in the long run, this is really not a viable solution of how to take parts of former territory, claim them back. Once again, I do believe that Russia sees NATO in a much more evil terms than NATO actually, at least until very recently, did see Russia. In fact, my suggestion all along was, when Russia was screaming hell when NATO was admitting other countries into its territory, Russia should have come with the flowers and suggested to NATO, take us in and then imagine that, NATO would have collapsed altogether.

OB: Now, I've hear you state on other TV networks that Russia and Putin in particular, have to be punished for what you call Russian invasion of Crimea. And, as one of the possible forms of punishment, you suggested a visa ban, not only for the Kremlin connected oligarchs, but actually for the entire Russian population, and that really strikes me as a, sort of, flashback to old Soviet times when the authorities really restricted the freedom of movement. It seem that the measures you're suggesting are very authoritarian, don't you think so?

NK: No, I don't. I don't think it's authoritarian in any way because I'm not suggesting as somebody who sits in the Kremlin to stop my travel, stop the travel of my citizens. It is the suggestion of an analyst, it's a suggestion of not somebody who has power sitting in the Kremlin and actually closes borders. And my suggestion for that is that the minute visas are blocked for many ordinary Russians, it could be kind of a thing that would slightly force Putin out of the Kremlin faster than anything else.

OB: Dr Khrushcheva, what you're suggesting is essentially punishing 143 million Russian citizens for the actions of one man. Even if you dislike him, regardless of whether you like him or not, it seems to be, you know, a pretty tall order to trample on the freedom of movement for such a large population. Now, Something else, I think, that you also suggested was kind of from the, you know, Soviet playbook. You said the other day, I think, in the interview to MSNBC, that Putin is essentially borrowing tricks from your own great-grandfather's playbook, and you compared the situation in Ukraine to what happened in Hungary back in 1958, and I would like just to remind you that back then, some 2500 Hungarian citizens were killed and some 700 Soviet soldiers, if I'm not mistaken, lost their lives in that Soviet invasion of Hungary, aren't you ultimately using the, sort of, the boogeyman of the Soviet Union, and by extension your own great-grandfather to make a political point?

NK: First of all, of course, in my interviews I do make this distinction that Russia is not the Soviet Union. I'm talking about the invasion to stop certain political developments that are not favourable. In 1956, Khrushchev was protecting communism around the world. He was afraid that communists, as he was told, would be hung on trees and Putin's argument today about humanitarian intervention on behalf of the Russian citizens is something very similar. And as for, let me just reply to the punishing of the whole country, look – if Russia cannot behave and figure out its relationship with its own president, I think we all should take responsibility for that.

OB: Well, I think Russia's relationship with its own president is pretty clear. You only need to take a look at President Putin's approval ratings which have been pretty consistent over the past decade or so But when you were talking about the modes of behaviour appropriate for modern day powers, or countries, I think, again, you only need look at the country where you're currently residing to see that humanitarian interventions are sometimes used pretty casually in foreign policy under all sorts of pretexts. But unfortunately, we have to leave it here. Dr Khrushcheva I really appreciate you appearing on the show, and to out viewers – please keep the conversation going on our Twitter, Youtube and Facebook pages, and I hope to see you again, same place, same time, here on Worlds Apart.