On February 27 the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace hosted a media call on the crisis in Ukraine with Eugene Rumer, director of the Russia and Eurasia Program, Dmitri Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, and Andrew S. Weiss, vice president for studies.
TOM CARVER: Good morning, everyone, this is Tom Carver in Washington with a media conference call on the Ukraine. This call will last for 30 minutes and it will be on the record. We have joining us on the call Andrew Weiss, the vice president for the program here in DC, Eugene Rumer on the line who is our director for studies for Russ-Eurasia, and was recently in the National Intelligence Council, and Dmitri Trenin, who is our head of our Carnegie Moscow Center on the line from Moscow.
We have armed men taking over the buildings of Parliament in the Crimean. We have a huge economic crisis. We have an untested interim government, we have Yanukovych still saying he’s president. Andrew, do you want to kick off? Or Gene, are you there?
EUGENE RUMER: I’ll go first and very briefly, I would say that developments so far really are not encouraging. Crimea of course is a mess and it is probably where the center of gravity is because of the pronounced separatist sentiments. There are reports of clashes between various factions. Some for _____ and some committed with keeping Crimea as an integral part of Ukraine. The takeover of the government buildings that Tom just referred to, boards by some unknown individuals setting up roadblocks and video of that, although it’s not clear who exactly is doing this.
I think worrisome too is something that Dmitri will probably talk about, but feeding the tension in Crimea and around Crimea, Russian military movements, which according to the official statement have nothing to do with Crimea, but of course are perceived as such. And just most recently the declaration of the Crimean parliament to conduct a referendum on the future of the autonomy, which does not fortunately have the word independence in it, but it’s open clearly as a threat and as a marker for the future of where Crimea might go.
The other point that I wanted to stress is the emergence of the new government in Kiev, which again, based on what we have seen so far, does not really so to speak look like Ukraine, if I may use the analogy to American pronouncements about American government. It does have very much a flavor of government by victors put together by them with not a whole lot there suggesting that they’re in a mood to proceed towards national reconciliation and reassure those primarily in the east and south of the company who are concerned about the country’s westward drift.
The three most notable nominations are the head of the militant faction in the Maidan going to be the secretary of the _____ Council, and the head of the right sector, which is not a very well known kind of nationalist military organization as his deputy. And the third of course is inclusion in the government of something called a ____ation Committee, which sends a signal that people will be examined and deemed as collaborating with the previous regime or involved in the previous regime’s actions will be brought. But again, it’s not a step that is necessarily conciliatory. ________ [background noise].
DMITRI TRENIN: Well, thank you, let me highlight just a few issues that concern Russia and the Russian angle of the situation. As we all know, the Russian military have been alerted into a snap drill, and the forces of the Western military district, which is close ______ Ukrainian border and the borders of other countries in Europe is now going through a military exercise. This is not an exercise that’s focused on Ukraine, it’s not an exercise that involves the Black Sea Fleet in the first place, although it’s part of a pattern of snap military exercises that was launched by – as series of exercises launched by President Putin about a year ago. The timing of this is clearly sending a message to the people in Kiev – don’t go too far, don’t try to establish “constitutional order” in Crimea, don’t intervene by force in Eastern Ukraine. It’s also, I think, a message to Washington and NATO in the sense that Russia is prepared to defend its interests in this part of the world.
Another development is Yanukovych is surfacing in Russia and his request, which has been granted, to be given protection by Russia. This does not mean, although Yanukovych calls himself the legitimate president of Ukraine, this does not mean in my view that Yanukovych is treated by the Kremlin as a legitimate president. I think that the Kremlin has given up on him, they see him as a traitor, someone who fled from the scene, someone who is not worthy of being seen as a serious player in Ukraine. But at the same time the Russians have not recognized the new Ukrainian authorities, the new provisional government just announced in Kiev. Basically I think because they are not sure whether those people are in command, are in charge of the situation in Kiev. I think that they will take their time to see what happens in Kiev and whether the new government will actually be in charge of more than its portfolios.
The Russian Duma, meanwhile, is looking into the issue of facilitating the issuance of a task force to those Ukrainians in Crimea but also in the rest of Ukraine who want to acquire Russian citizenship. This clearly raises questions in Ukraine and suspicions, but this is something that the Duma is now working on.
In Crimea itself you see more of the activity by the local population, self defense force, they call themselves. The Russians themselves in the peninsula I think are still in the mood to avoid being drawn into the conflict. At this point I think they’re very wary about being provoked into action before they need to actually get themselves involved. In my view, a Russian involvement in Crimea can be the result of either of two things. One, a Kiev attempt to bring order to Crimea by force, or the arrival in Crimea of thousands of nationalist militants from essentially Western Ukraine. Those two developments I think would lead to confrontation, clashes and the Russian reaction.
And very, very finally, Putin has not spoken on Ukraine. He’s clearly watching the situation intently and biding his time.
TOM CARVER: Dmitri, how many troops are there in _____pol?
DMITRI TRENIN: Well, we’re talking about a fairly small compliment. We’re talking about 15,000, more or less.
TOM CARVER: Could I just remind people who are not speaking to mute their phones, because we’ve got calls coming in from many places and it’s hard to hear. Andrew?
ANDREW WEISS: I’d like to turn this over to folks’ questions. Three or four very quick points. One is, what we’re watching in Crimea is the nightmare scenario, _____ worried about the 1991 breakup of the Soviet Union. Events are moving very quickly, and if you look at Western reaction, so far NATO today, the Secretary General of NATO has spoken and called the situation there a situation where he says he’s called on Russia not to escalate tensions or create misunderstandings.
Ukraine is not a NATO member, obviously, and there’s no treaty obligation for Western countries to come to Ukraine. But when you see the rhetoric of the acting president, Oleksandr Turchynov in Kiev that Russian military movements constitute an act of aggression, was his term, we’re really again in uncharted territory here and it’s a very fluid and I’d say dangerous situation for the reasons Dmitri just outlined.
The communication lines between Western governments and Moscow are in a parlor state. The government in Moscow views what has happened over the weekend as reflecting either at best something that the West is closing its eyes to bad developments in Kiev, or at worst something that Western governments have basically organized and abetted to seek geopolitical advantage over Russia. Those are Russian terms, but again, that’s the perception. So the ability for Western governments to urge restraint or talk with the ______ is all very impaired by the Russian view that the EU and the United States have a side, they’ve picked sides in the _______.
As far as the Western response to the new government and its needs, Fred Burns is on the ground still in Kiev, he was there yesterday. Lady Ashton was there yesterday as well and the day before. It’s a very slow process to get a new government in place and to begin the discussions with financial institutions _____ systems. I think there’s going to be great tooth gnashing and hand wringing over Ukrainians terrible track record in the recent years for any kind of economic bailout. The key action may come from Moscow, which had originally offered a $22 billion dollar bailout package -- $15 billion in direct financial support, $7 billion in gas price incentives. And I think we’re looking at a situation now where the Russians will basically pull out, potentially, and hand the baby to us. And people in the West are trying, you’ve seen sort of ironic comments from senior EU officials saying to Russia, “Oh, please participate in emergency financial response to the situation in Ukraine.” And I think the Russians are already starting to back pay.
So again, we’re in a very awkward situation all around. I look forward to talking about it with the folks on the call.
TOM CARVER: Okay, let’s open it up to questions. Please identify yourself when you ask a question.
CALLER: This is Richard Engels.
TOM CARVER: Hi, Richard, go ahead.
CALLER: I was basically wondering, are we witnessing, in your opinion, the de facto division of this country with two competing parliaments, both operating on their own authority? At the end of the day are we going to see the Crimea operating on its own under Russian protection from its base in Sevastopol? Thank you.
TOM CARVER: Gene, do you want to have a go at that?
EUGENE RUMER: The short answer is, if events continue on the present course, I think you described the situation quite accurately, the situation that we are likely to see. Frankly, I think –
I’m sorry, there’s more interference on the line. Can you repeat your appeal to use mute microphones please?
TOM CARVER: Yes, there’s someone, I think just one person, with a mic that is not muted. Can people please mute their mics?
EUGENE RUMER: Anyway, I couldn't tell exactly whose question it was, but let me just repeat that I think that is the direction that we are moving in so far unless there is an improvement in the situation. And this in my view could actually be sort of a moderate not extreme outcome of events, I think it could actually get even worse, not just an ________ ______ by Russia in Crimea, but _____ instability and I’m afraid violence to other parts of Ukraine. So this would not necessarily end with “a neat partition” in a sense, the fear that it could turn out to be much worse.
CALLER: Jim Brook here again in Moscow, can you hear me?
ANDREW WEISS: I agree with what Gene said. The government of locally elected _____ in Crimea is talking about a referendum. If that kind of referendum is held it will basically lead to the de facto secession of Crimea from Ukraine, and it really sets people up for a response from the Kiev authorities. So it’s very fluid and very dangerous.
CALLER: Hi, Jim Brook here in Moscow, can you hear me?
TOM CARVER: Sure, yeah, Jim.
CALLER: Voice of America here in Moscow. Last Friday I was kind of a skunk in the garden party when I said that Putin might make a bid for Crimea, and now we see the Russian flag over the Sevastopol republican parliament. Things are moving very fast, as everyone knows. Once again, can we sharpen our thinking on where this is going. Is this potentially going to be a Kaliningrad of the South? Is it going to be some sort of statelet like Amahasia? And just quickly, I’ve been to Amahasia and Nagorno-Karabakh and Transnistria, all of them last year. They all have been ethnically cleansed. So to deal with a semi-independent [blip] in Crimea is not very successful seven years ago, they are not going to go for rule by Moscow. So I’m interested in your thoughts on this.
TOM CARVER: Dmitri, do you want to go?
DMITRI TRENIN: I think it would be wrong to ascribe the Russian flags in Sevastopol to Putin’s machinations. I think the situation is very complex for the Kremlin. I would say that this is a natural reaction by so many people in Sevastopol and in other parts of Crimea, but primarily in Sevastopol to the triumph of Western Ukraine in Kiev, something that was almost destined to happen after the toppling of government in Kiev. Ukraine, even more this revolution, was a country in the state of very delicate balance among its very different parts, and what we have seen now is this balance being undermined, actually broken. So even though many Russians would still look at Crimea as Russian land and there would be nostalgic memories of Crimea, a recent Russian public opinion poll has said that almost three-quarters of the Russians are against Russia’s direct involvement in Ukraine.
So it’s not something in my view that Putin had organized. It’s very much the reaction of many people in Sevastopol certainly and other parts of Crimea against what happened in Kiev. I would say that this is very similar in many ways, I would say even more moderate than the reaction in Western Ukraine was to the expected clamp down by expected defeat of the Maidan by Yanukovych. At that time when Yanukovych looked prevailing in the battle at Kiev, the mob in various parts of Western Ukraine stormed the government buildings, kicked out the people appointed as governors by Yanukovych and established their own People’s Power.
So you have a similar situation in the south of Ukraine in Crimea, and again, this may be pleasing to some Russian hearts, but for Mr. Putin it’s a big headache. He needs to play his cards very wisely in order not to get trapped by the situation in Crimea.
TOM CARVER: Andrew?
ANDREW WEISS: Hi, it’s Andrew here. Jim, I think folks all know that Crimea is a largely Russian enclave and its political atmosphere is dominated by the military base and the presence of active and retired Russian military personnel. There’s also a large Muslim minority who are the indigenous people of Crimea, the Crimean Tartars, who out of the two million people that live on the Peninsula they’re about 20 percent.
The demonstrations that we saw yesterday and again today have sort of an ethnic component, and I would imagine we’ll see continued steps by the Crimean community, Tartar community, to seek protection from the authorities in Kiev, given their memories of persecution and forced repatriation by Stalin. These people were only allowed to return to the Crimea in the Gorbachev era and were forcibly resettled because of their perceived disloyalty during WW2. So we have the makings of ethnic conflict already, and you saw scuffles yesterday in front of the local Parliament building.
To me what is key here is can there be some form of international engagement that might help diffuse tensions? The most obvious impact is the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the OSCE, which until the late 90s had a monitoring mission in Crimea. So the Russians are starting engagement with the OSCE. The foreign minister met yesterday with a visiting delegation from the Swiss who hold the rotating chairmanship.
We’re in a situation here where I think there has to be rather quickly a move to set up some form of international presence in Crimea that will provide both sides or all sides a forum to air their grievances and some mechanism for dialogue. That could come either from the OSCE, it could come from the UN Secretary General whose special representative Mr. Sari, the former Dutch Foreign Minister, is also in Ukraine. So again, there are some moving pieces here but I would hope that on the diplomatic front we could see rather quickly people mobilizing these groups.
Unfortunately, in the last few minutes, the sort of trash talking, the cycle of trash talking has resumed, and I see now that the Russian foreign ministry is _______ the NATO Secretary General saying that _______’s appeal “ignores the root causes of tensions in Crimea.” So we’re seeing a real public discourse that’s nasty and hostile. I think some form of international organization needs to step in and help bring the tensions down.
TOM CARVER: Okay, other questions?
CALLER: This is Jill Dougherty, can you hear me?
TOM CARVER: Hi, Jill, yeah.
CALLER: Hi there. You know, there was one very intriguing report that President Putin had spoken with Yanukovych before he stepped down. Everybody was talking about him, but the implications seem to be that Putin may have told him, “Give up, step down, get out of there,” but of course at this point, nobody knows. Do you have any idea of what Putin’s role right at the end was, because you say that they gave up on Yanukovych?
TOM CARVER: Dmitri?
DMITRI TRENIN: Well, they certainly did, and the way Yanukovych has been described in the Russian state-controlled media I think leaves little doubt as to how he’s seen by the Kremlin and by President Putin. I think that he’s certainly failed in the expectations that have been placed on him at the time that Putin was promising him a large amount of Russian financial support, of which $3 billion are now in danger of being never returned to Russia. The relationship between Putin and Yanukovych has long known to have been a very, very bad one with the Russian leader basically not having much respect for his Ukrainian counterpart. So I think that they will give him protection but he is not going to be, I think, an active element in any Russian strategy vis-à-vis Ukraine in the near future.
TOM CARVER: Other questions?
CALLER: Will ____ from Ukraine, from Kiev.
TOM CARVER: Hi, Will, go ahead, we can hear you.
CALLER: Assuming that the Ukrainians ask the Russians for him to be extradited, as well as Vahachenka and Chalkah, and assuming that the Russians don’t, how sticky does that get going forward?
TOM CARVER: Dmitri?
DMITRI TRENIN: Could you repeat the question? I didn't hear the question. I’m sorry about that.
CALLER: Assuming Ukraine asks for the extradition of Yanukovych and perhaps Vahachenka and Chalkah also –
DMITRI TRENIN: Now I get it, I didn't hear the word extradition. I think that at this point Russia does not recognize the new Ukrainian authorities. They basically talk about a coup d’état in Kiev. They do not know, I think genuinely don’t know who calls the shots in Kiev. Yes, you do have a range of ministers but are those people capable of making decisions? I think the Russians will watch and see. I don’t believe that they will be responding to the Ukrainian requests or demands soon, at this point. Later on when they see how the situation shapes up, being usually pragmatic, I think they will make their decisions, but only based on the realities that they will see on the ground in the future.
EUGENE RUMER: Can I say something on this? This is Eugene Rumer. I don’t know that there is an extradition treaty between Russia and Ukraine, and I think as we have seen in the case of Mr. Snowden, the Russians can be quite legalistic about these things. Generally on the list of problems between Russia and Ukraine right now the question of whether Mr. Yanukovych will be extradited and hence that will influence their bilateral relationship, I’d say it’s issue maybe 27 or 29.
TOM CARVER: Other questions?
CALLER: This is Luke Baker in Brussels from Reuters.
TOM CARVER: Go ahead.
CALLER: Thanks. I wonder if you could say whether you feel that up to this point Russia’s actions have been somewhat perhaps even restrained, and if they wanted to ratchet things up further, what steps do you think they could take if they wanted to escalate tensions? What would be the natural next steps for Russia to take if it did want to further raise pressure not just on Ukraine but potentially on Europe and the United States?
DMITRI TRENIN: Well, frankly, I don’t think that the Russians have an interest in ratcheting up the situation. Either vis-à-vis Ukraine or vis-à-vis the United States and Europe. I see them more responding to the rapidly changing situation in Crimea. Again, the main concern, I think, at this point, is that Kiev might decide to intervene with force by sending law enforcement people to restore constitutional order, whatever order, revolutionary order, in Crimea. That would be something that would lead to a confrontation and that would drag the Russians in, I think. Or, as I said, an informal trip to Crimea by thousands of well-armed militants. They did the trip some years ago with some success, so it may be repeated.
So those two I believe are Russians main concerns. Russia would also be terribly concerned if the new authorities in Kiev, let’s say, repealed the law of 2010 passed under Yanukovych that puts Ukraine in the position of a non-aligned country outside of military alliances. That would be seen, I think, as a very serious provocation as putting Ukraine almost on the doorstep of NATO, that kind of stuff, and that would really, really raise the alarm levels in Moscow. But I see Russia more on the receiving end, more reacting to the developments in Ukraine and Crimea than being an active player in this ratcheting up the situation, sharpening up tensions and the like.
ANDREW WEISS: This is Andrew Weiss, just real fast. There are a range of Russian levers that are out there. I agree with what Dmitri has characterized for sort of the overall picture, but in terms of putting pressure on the new government we’re already seeing a drip and drab of economic pressure and trade pressure. So, for example, it’s an open question what the Russians are going to do about the gas price. Under the emergency bailout package that Putin offered Yanukovych late last year, there was a 30 percent cut in gas prices. So we could immediately see pressure put on the Ukrainians if the Russians try to change the terms of that deal. The Russians have cut off oil deliveries to a major terminal in Odessa on the Black Sea. We’ve seen hints from the Russians of possible moves to restrict Ukrainian agricultural exports to Russia. These are all part of the same kind of playbook we saw over the course of the summer when the Russians were trying to signal to the government in Kiev, the then Yanukovych government, that they didn't want them to sign the agreement with the EU.
So these two economies are closely connected. The Ukrainian government is in no position to sort of fend off these kinds of steps, and it’s unlikely to me that the West is going to be able to step up and just suddenly provide the kind of credit facilities or other alternatives for the Ukrainian market that would be necessary if the Russians indeed start to put on new forms of pressure. So the West is going to be in a reactive mode, but our ability to counteract is quite limited, and this was a big part of the showdown we saw on the run-up to the Vilnius Summit late last year. If the Russians really decide to put pressure on Ukraine, there’s not that much the West can do about it.
EUGENE RUMER: If I could just add on this, it’s not only the West’s ability, I think there’s just no political will because Western countries have the resources. It’s a question of mobilizing the political will and explaining it to their own domestic electorate.
TOM CARVER: We are a few minutes over so I think we’ll call a halt there. Thank you very much to everyone. If you want to continue talking to Gene or Andrew or Dmitri, just contact Clara and she’ll put you in touch. And we will be doing these calls at particular intervals as the situation unfolds.