Russian-US relations have always been a fragile mix of rivalry and pragmatism. As the Ukraine crisis highlight, bursts of cooperation achieved by 'resetting' the relations are easily undone. Can the two powers find common ground on Ukraine or will their relationship continue to 'overload'? Oksana is joined by Dr. Angela Stent, director of the Center for Eurasian, Russian and East European Studies, to unravel these issues.
Oksana Boyko: Hello and welcome to Worlds Apart. With Russia and the United States at loggerheads once again, few would remember that this week marks the fifth anniversary of the reset ceremony during which Russian and American officials pledged to put their relationship on a new and more constructive footing. Is the latest overcharge a direct consequence of that reset? Well, to discuss that I am now joined by Angela Stent, director of the Centre of Eurasian, Russian and East European studies at Georgetown University. Dr. Stent, thank you very much for taking part in the programme.
Angela Stent: Well, it is good to be on the programme.
OB: Well, here we are again facing one of the biggest crises in bilateral relationships, this time over Ukraine. In your latest book “The Limits of Partnership: US-Russia relations in XXI century”, you make a point that Russia has always be extremely sensitive about the West and the Unites States in particular, acting in its neighbourhood. Now, we have never seen such a dramatic reaction from Russia before, and I wonder if this extraordinary reaction on the part of the Russian president, on the part of Russia, is also in a way a response to extraordinary actions on the part of the West and the United States in particular.
AS: Well, first of all let me just go back to the five years ago when Secretary Hilary Clinton met with Foreign Minister Lavrov. She presented him the reset button which said reset in English and it said ‘peregruska’ in Russian. And of course, Mr. Lavrov pointed out that that’s the wrong word, that’s the word for overload on English, it is ‘perezagruska’, and then I remember Kommersant had a headline the next day – ‘Clinton and Lavrov push the wrong button’. So in a sense this is relationship that has been overloaded. There have been so many issues where we have disagreed, there have been other issues where we have worked together. I see what’s happened recently in Ukraine, obviously on a number of different levels. What triggered it was the problems within Ukraine itself and the dissatisfaction of the people with their government, the failure to sign an agreement with the European Union as a symbol of that, but it goes much deeper than that.
OB: But isn’t it also true that United States and the West and Russia, to some extent, were all too eager to exploit some of the disenchantment that the population, that the people of the Ukraine felt with their authorities, and when it comes to the West it is true that many people on Maidan were dissatisfied, but that doesn’t mean that democratically elected government needed to be deposed, especially within a couple of months from the next elections.
AS: Well, I don’t think anyone of the West foresaw that there was going to be, what was going to happen, in November. I mean the EU was offering Ukraine a reasonable package, obviously not as much as President Putin and Russia offered Mr. Yanukovych later on, but the United States wasn’t really present. The United States basically was allowing or wanted the Europeans to work out their deal with Ukraine. The U.S. really only stepped in once all the demonstrations had begun and it was not very clear what was to happen. Now I understand that the Russian media have portrayed this as a something supported by the US, by the Europeans and that these are “fascist”, but you know the situation there is much more complicated and this is not something that anyone in the West wanted to see - a breakdown of governmental structures in Ukraine.
OB: Well, Dr. Stent let me take an issue what you have just said about Russian media and their portrayal of the situation. After everything we saw happening on Maidan, you know, a number of American officials showing out there with cookies and those intercepted phone conversations, it’s really hard to believe that the United States was this impartial observer but, switching gears a little bit. On Tuesday, President Putin made his first appearance before Russian media. He held a news conference which gave him a chance to explain his rational and he was adamant that the Russia’s actions were, represented a legitimate response to what he sees as illegitimate seizure of power. Now, in addition to answering questions, he also posed one and let me play it for you. I would like you to answer what he actually asked.
President Putin: For me there‘s a big question, and neither I nor my colleagues can reply to it. And you know I’ve been discussing the Ukrainian crisis over the phone with a lot of our Western partners. Why has this been done?
OB:Dr. Stent, you worked in the State Department, you understand how decision makers in Washington think. What was the point, as far as American are concerned, of siding with this unconstitutional government, or endorsing this unconstitutional change of government because I mean elections are just around the corner and, you know, it is a still an open questions how long that government will stay in power.
AS: Well let me get you back to February 21st. The agreement was signed between the various groups and the foreign ministers of Germany and other European countries and, of course, Mr. Lukin was in the room, although he didn’t sign it. Then something happened, right? Yanukovych left, nobody’s quite clear exactly how and why that happened, but that was not something that was instigated by any Western country. So than you have to deal with the reality that Mr. Yanukovych has disappeared, a couple of days. Then of course he went to Russia. And you have people in Kiev who say ‘well, we’re going to be the interim government’. I mean otherwise it would be a complete breakdown of all governmental structures, all law and order. So, the U.S. and European countries are now dealing with this interim government, which of course wasn’t elected by anyone, but otherwise there’d be a power vacuum because Mr. Yanukovych just disappeared.
OB: Well Dr. Stent, Western powers may have nothing to do with Yanukovych disappearing, but they may have something to do with emboldening the protestors to the degree that they resorted to the use of force, because we know that some of the elements within the protest movement were armed. They used force to occupy government buildings. Mr. Yanukovych in his latest press conference claimed that he was shot at by protestors, that his convoy was attacked. So, do you think Western powers share some of the responsibility for the chaos that we saw on the streets of Ukraine by emboldening protestors, encouraging them to up the ante.
AS: Well, but you know, the shootings first of all, a lot of the shooting were also by trained snipers who were clearly not protestors but they were, you know, from some different government structures. I mean, those units have now been disbanded. The West had nothing to do with arming anyone in the Maidan and so, it doesn’t bear responsible for the violence. There’s obviously a lot of different stories, but clearly there was violence on both sides. But of the 80 people who died, most of them were the victims of government related forces who were trained snipers who were shooting them. So again, I think, you know, one has to accept that there’s an enormous amount of chaos there but the West not involved in any violence.
OB: Well, the West, again, certainly was involved in any violence but it sided with the protestors from the very beginning and that, again, may have created an impression that everything goes essentially. Now, turning our attention to Russia’s actions, which provoked a lot of controversy not only in West but also in Russia, this threat of using force to restore constitutional order in Ukraine. Now, I’m sure you know that Russia has a lot of equity in Ukraine, a lot at stake in Ukraine and I am talking about the Russian base there, the possibility for Ukraine joining NATO, not to mention extensive economic, cultural, historic ties between the two countries. Now, given how much of that was threatened by this armed seizure of power and by the emergence of this far-right government, the government that is clearly anti-Russian, is it really surprising that Russia reacted in the way it did. Did it have any other options of protecting its interests there?
AS: Well, I think we have to be very careful. So, I agree with you that this interim government immediately trying to pass legislation degrading the Russian language and its use in Ukraine, that was clearly a mistake, and they shouldn’t have done it, and I guess that law is now no longer operative. I mean, I could, I understand, obviously Russia does have very important equities, it has the Black Sea base. Of course, it has a lease now until 2042. It’s not clear to me that, I am not aware of any threats that were made in Kiev that somehow they would revise the issue of the basing of the Black Sea Fleet there. No one raised that. So the question is - did Russia, in order to protect its equities there, did it need to have such a strong showing of force? I think that’s the issue. No one is questioning that Russia had the right to protect what it has in Crimea, but it’s how it did it.
OB: But Dr. Stent, what was Russia’s other option? Because, in the beginning of this crisis, Russia clearly pursued a diplomatic round. It was, you know, part of the negotiations that were taking place in Kiev, it was calling for a diplomatic solution and, you know, you don’t need to take my word for it - even some of the foreign diplomats, for example the Polish Foreign Minister, Radoslaw Sikorski, who is hardly biased towards Russia, said that when the ousted president Viktor Yanukovych was negotiating a deal with the Opposition, that he reportedly received a call from Putin encouraging him to make concessions. So, could it be also the case, that after trying to play nice and civil and abide by the rules, Moscow simply realised that this strategy was not only naïve, it was foolish? Because it essentially led to Russia, you know, potentially endangering all of its interests there, because the more concessions were made, the more the Opposition upped the ante
AS: But there was no threat to the Black Sea Fleet or to Crimea…
OB:But how do you know?
AS: From this very weak and fragile interim government. I mean, it had only been in power, if that’s the right way to describe it, for a few days. So, I guess there’s nothing that precipitated the need for this huge show of force. The issue is, you know, what appears to be to many people, at least in the West let’s say, a disproportionate use of force and a de facto occupation of Crimea.
OB: Dr. Stent, you just mentioned that there was absolutely nothing that would let us think that this government was threatening in any way Russia’s long term security interests, but you also mentioned that the first issue that this government, this interim government, preoccupied itself with, was the future of the Russian language in Ukraine and that’s at a time when half of the country is in chaos. So, that sort of show you the trajectory that government was prepared to take. But the question I would like to pose to you - obviously that measure was very controversial, I mean, it is still hotly debated within Russia, the idea of Russian troops being in Ukraine for whatever reason is highly painful for many Russian people, but leaving the moral aspect of that aside, isn’t that also true that that proved highly effective as well, because, you now, after weeks and months trying to negotiate with the opposition and trying to persuade the opposition and the West to come to some sort of compromise, here Russia has everything it ever wanted. I mean, the other day five former American ambassadors to Ukraine had an open letter published and they list pretty much everything Russia has requested so, we may not like this military option but it seems to be, it is highly effective.
AS: I agree with you, that obviously by using the military option, Russia has gained what it wanted, it’s de facto Crimea will be a part of Russia, even if it is not technically part of the Russian Federation. It’s certainly not going to have the same relationship to the Ukrainian state. You know, if Russia was wanted before to have Ukraine join the Eurasian Union, I can’t see that happening for at least a very long time. And clearly with all of the moves being announced by the United States and also by the European Union, it has cost Russia’s something politically and it certainly cost Russia something economically. I would say they are costs for Russia. They may well be outweighed from the Kremlin’s point of view by the gains, but this is not without costs as well.
OB: Well, I totally agree with you. The only thing that I would add is that Vladimir Putin made it clear he is not interested in annexing Crimea. I think it would be an extremely difficult undertaking for him to do, given the current circumstances. But let’s take the short brake now. When we come back, is the Ukraine standoff a turning point in the US-Russia relationship or rather, a point of no return. That’s coming up in the few moments on Worlds apart.
OB: Welcome back to Worlds Apart where we are discussing the stand off between Russia and the West over Ukraine with Angela Stent, director of the Centre for Eurasian, Russian and East European Studies at Georgetown University. Dr. Stent, this week marks the fifth anniversary of this famous reset, and in your book you make a point that every new American administration attempted to improve the bilateral ties but I think the feeling here in Moscow is that what Americans really mean by improving ties is essentially having a more complacent, less independent and less assertive Russia. Is there any merit to that?
AS: Well, I know that’s definitely how many Russians see that. And we’ve obviously heard that from President Putin a number of times. I don’t believe that that was the intention in the beginning. I would say that the reset of President Obama was a somewhat more realistic reset, and it’s certainly did achieve quite a lot in President Obama’s first term. We can mention new START nuclear arms control agreement, cooperation with Russia on more sanctions on Iran, we can mention cooperation now in Afghanistan - looking towards the withdrawal of forces there, Russian joining the WTO. So, there were achievements there but I think the relationship became more complicated when Mr. Putin announced his intention to return to the Kremlin because that reset was very much built on a personal relationship between President Obama and President Medvedev.
OB: Well, you mentioned some of the strategic achievements of the forth reset lead by President Obama, President Medvedev, partially President Putin. And all those issues, they’re dealing with strategic goals, with global security. I wonder if all of that was worth putting on hold, which is most likely going to happen the next few months, probably years, for the sake of endorsing a pro-Western government in one European country.
AS: Well, I would say that the relationship between the U.S. and Russia had really deteriorated even before these Ukrainian events, and I think from the U.S. point of view, the major event was the granting of political asylum to the NSA leaker and Edward Snowden. This was something that the White House argued very strenuously against. President Putin made the choice. I understand why he did, from his point of view. I am sure it was quite a rational choice. So the relationship had been on a downward trajectory anyway. But let me just say that despite all of that, the US and Russia continue, and will continue to work together on these global issues where they both have an interest, and where Russia is a very important partner.
OB: But, just of out of curiosity, I mean, you are renowned academic, you were in the State Department for a pretty long time and I know that this relationship, this partnership between Russia and the United States has always be pretty challenging and it was always limited. But when American decision makers are considering their options, considering what position they should take in any given country, surely they take into account the sensibilities of their partners, and when you deal with Ukraine, I am sure they knew well in advance how sensitive that would be for Russia, and completely discounting Russia’s interests, completely discounting Russia’s fears in seeing some of those far-right organisations, seeing some of those, you know, radical protestors taking part in those demonstrations, endorsing the unconstitutional change of government. All of that, from the Russian point of view, it’s simply very difficult to understand why would, you know, endorsing, you know this government be outweighing much more and much more important strategic issues that you mentioned earlier?
AS: If indeed what we see in Ukraine as a result of all of this is Crimea in a similar status to say Transnistria or Abkhazia or South Ossetia, in other words, a region of a country where it functions as a quasi state itself and isn’t under the control of the central government, and that really then makes the entire post-Cold War order there, more fragile. So, I think that partly has played into this. Now, you could go back and say maybe it shouldn’t have been cast as the European Union vs. the Eurasian Union, but that’s how it came to be cast. And so I think the question is are we now seeing the break down of what we thought had been achieved in Europe after the end of the Cold war.
OB: Dr. Sent, you just mentioned the issue of annexing or partitioning, annexing Crimea or partitioning Ukraine, giving Crimea some special status, and in your own book you describe Russia as a status quo power, and Russia was pretty content with the way things were going in Ukraine. Whether there was a pro-Western government of Victor Yushchenko and Yulia Tymoshenko, whether there was the government of Victor Yanukovych, though I wouldn’t describe it as pro-Russian because I think Victor Yanukovich was really trying to, you know, play both sides of the isle, but Russia was pretty content with the status quo and what Russia was really defending was the status quo, whereas, in fact, it was the United States which decided to revision, in a way, what was happening in Ukraine and again with endorsing this unconstitutional change of government.
AS: Well then I think we’d have to go into a discussion about what the status quo is. Well I think from the Russian point of view, the status quo it wants to defend is a Ukraine that doesn’t a) choose to go with the European Union and b) hopefully, from the Russian point of view, would join the Eurasian Union, or at least if not that, remain strictly neutral in a sense of not being in either of those economic bodies. And I think both sides now, you know, understand that the status quo we had in Ukraine prior to, you know, February 21st doesn’t exist anymore.
OB: Now, US Secretary of State John Kerry warned that there will be costs for Russia’s military presence in Ukraine. You also lauded to costs in the first of the part of the program, and what’s interesting is that Vladimir Putin as well said today that if indeed there will be costs, there will affect not only Russia but also the United States. How far do you think both administrations, both the Obama administration and the Putin administration are willing to go in punishing each other?
AS: Well, I think there is a limit to how much they can punish each other. First of all, in the US-Russian case, we don’t have much of an economic relationship, we’re not like the Europeans, and therefore, you know, now I think our administration is talking about freezing the potential trade and investment treaty which we might have signed during the G8 summit. And they’re talking about, you know, not pushing ahead with some business deals - we were supposed to have a delegation of Russian officials including the Energy Minister in Washington this week talking about energy deals. So, you know, you can suspend those, but that doesn’t, I don’t think it imposes a huge cost on Russia, because as I say, we don’t have much of an economic relationship. So I think that the U.S. has limited leverage.
OB: Speaking about the costs, it is clear that a move like that certainly has reputational costs for Putin personally and for Russia as a country and, you know, invoking the use of force may be fine for the United States, it does it pretty regularly, but the thing is, it is an extraordinary thing for Russia both domestically and internationally, and I think it had, you know, the decision to even threaten the use of force was extremely difficult for the Russian president, and to that effect I want to play something that he said just before this recent crises broke out. Let’s listen.
President Putin: The Olympics are very important for us, because I believe, and I would like it to be so, that the Games opened the door not only to Russia, but also to the Russian’s soul, the hearts of our people. Others could look and see that there’s nothing to fear.
OB: Now he said that just a, you now, days before the events in Crimea, immediately after the Olympics and I wonder how do you reconcile the two - his desire to show Russia as modern, welcoming nation on one hand, and on the other hand, giving orders that will clearly give plenty of ammunition to Russia’s haters in the United States and in the West.
AS: Well, I ask myself the same question and so do many of my colleagues here, because, in fact, the Sochi Olympics were very successful. I know that there was excessive criticism before the Games began in the West about a whole range of things, but you know, the evaluation of the Olympics at the end, was really pretty positive, including in, really, all of our media here. The athletes had a very good experience. So then the question is why, just so shortly after showing that Russia can host a very successful Olympic games, why then we have this militarily incursion and I mean, one can only say that, presumably, it was more important to do this militarily and to show, you know, the strong fist, than it was to continue this, you know, showing the face of Russia that everyone responded very positively to. So in some sense, a lot of the good will that was built up in Sochi has now dissipated because of what’s happened in Crimea.
OB: Well Dr. Sent let’s not overestimate the amount of good will that was created by the Olympics in the West. I think that looking at the coverage in the Western media, it was pretty meagre, but what I want to add is that the fact of incursion is still highly disputed by Russia. Russia does not recognise Western allegations of the incursion of its troops into the Ukrainian territory, but coming back to the sound bite that we just played, given how much Vladimir Putin was personally invested into the Olympics and how strongly he feels about, you know, showing the new face of Russia, doesn’t it ultimately suggest that he was cornered? That the West essentially left him with no other options? Isn’t that ultimately at the core of the question of why these resets never work - that Russia is always sort of pushed into the corner, you know, it’s interests are always betrayed or neglected when the United States or the West in general sees something of benefit for itself.
AS: I understand that that is how many Russians see the problem with the resets, that Russia’s interests are betrayed. And so I think the conclusion one draw from this is that, again, the U.S. and Russia have very different views of what drives the world and really how to evaluate the nature of the relationship. Now I think that you can certainly criticise United States, and I do it in my book, for not spending enough time and effort to understand the Russian perspective, and understanding that after the collapse of the Soviet Union, this was a very difficult period. Russia is a great power and it has been defining its new role in the world. And there should’ve been more, you know, understanding of that. But having said that, there‘s obviously clearly a very different view of when it’s legitimate, for instance, to use militarily force in the situation as we have it in Ukraine.
OB: Well, Dr. Stent, let me just, we ran out of time, but let me just say that no military force was used as of yet, you know. Speaking of democracy, I think there is no other party whose interest would be served better than Russia by democracy being exercised because having the east and the south of Ukraine vote at elections would guarantee Russia’s interest the best. But unfortunately we have to leave it here. Thank you very much for your time and to our viewers keep the conversation going on our Twitter, YouTube and Facebook pages and hope to see you again, same place, same time, here on Worlds Apart.