On March 4 the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace hosted a media call on the crisis in Ukraine with Andrew S. Weiss, vice president for studies, and Jan Techau, director of Carnegie Europe.

Listen to the call.

TOM CARVER: Okay.  Good morning, everyone.  This is the media call from Carnegie on the Ukraine crisis.  I’m Tom Carver, and we have with us on the line Andrew Weiss, who runs our Russia/Eurasia program; Jan Techau in Brussels, who runs our Europe center; and Dmitri Trenin, who runs our Moscow center, will be joining us shortly.  This is on the record and will last for 30 minutes, and so please keep your answers and questions tight.  And I just ask everyone, since we’ve got people calling in from multiple geographies and jurisdictions, to mute their lines so that everyone else can hear and to announce yourself when you want to make a question.  So I think we’ll just start, Andrew, whilst we wait for Dmitri to join.  Do you want to just give us your quick thoughts on the Putin press conference this morning?

ANDREW WEISS: Sure.  Thank you, Tom, and thank you all for dialing in.  I know everybody’s really busy this morning, so I’ll be super quick, and I want to cover two big areas.  One is obviously this press conference this morning and the dramatic appearance by President Putin after more than a week of keeping his thoughts to himself and letting his actions speak louder, and then sort of talk a little bit about the US reaction before turning things over to Jan and Dmitri.  The Putin performance, I think, is going to be the big story of the day.  I’m surprised, frankly, that the initial responses to it were to say that the temperature is being taken down and that the crisis is sort of deescalating.  

I think when folks start to digest the scale of what he did and the type of performance he gave, I think people are all gonna come back to the Peter Barepeer article from yesterday and the apparent conversation that Peter was describing between Angela Merkel and Barack Obama.  Putin, at the beginning of the press conference – and you can pull up the transcript in English on the Kremlin website.  It really lays out in, I think, the clearest form so far Russia’s official narrative of how the crisis unfolded.  But what’s really striking is Putin spoke and, over the course of this hour-long performance, he seemed to get more and more kinda emotional and lost his focus.  So whatever sort of tight narrative he was trying to put together at the beginning really sort of fell apart, and he basically sounded, as he did in sort of the private exchanges that I’ve been a part of with him in the past, far more emotional, far less kind of politic and really, really hard edged.  

And so I mean you can run down the headlines on Twitter of the reporters in Moscow who speak Russian who heard it, but for anyone who was listening in Russian, he just was like an accusation a minute.  “I have this feeling that in America these people are sitting in a laboratory and doing experiments on Ukraine like on rats.”  He accused Western intelligence services of organizing the 2004 Orange Revolution.  He suggested that what had happened in Ukraine with the collapse of the February agreement – I think it was February 21st agreement with the opposition, Yanukovych, was basically a Western plot to take over the government in Ukraine and destabilize the country.  So he just went on and on and on about how someone had organized – Western instructors had organized regime change in Kiev.  He asserted that Western forces had even trained armed groups that were active in Ukraine and involved in the seizure of power.  

He seemed to cast into doubt the Budapest Memorandum of Security Assurances that had been agreed back in ‘94 as part of the Ukrainian Denuclearization Plan.  I don’t think he fully said it was a dead letter, but he just said that there’s a new government in power, and he sort of raised questions about whether Russia felt obligated by that political document from the early ‘90s.  He also raised the question of where this crisis might turn, which is the status of the people in eastern Ukraine and seemed to indicate that he understood.  He didn’t say he supported, but he understood the desire to hold referenda on autonomy in those parts of the country, similar to what’s being planned for Crimea.  He admitted that he’d met with Yanukovych recently, but he just left no doubt in my mind how much he hates Yanukovych and anyone who sort of continues to insist Yanukovych is the Russian thought puppet here.  He indicated that Yanukovych is a political corpse.  

As far as the situation on the ground, I’ll be really quick.  I think most people should watch, if you haven’t already seen it, the videotape of the Ukrainian soldiers at the Belbek Air Force facility in Crimea trying to walk to work carrying flags and singing patriotic songs and then the Russian troops shoot over their heads after telling these unarmed Ukrainian personnel not to go anywhere.  Looks a lot like the early days of the Balkan crisis to me, where you have these sort of hapless units that are trapped in place.  It’s probably only a matter of time before they’re forced to leave.  I can’t imagine how they’re gonna be resupplied.  I don’t see any indication that there’s serious challenges to Russian military control on the Crimean peninsula at this point, but we could see something dangerous in terms of a flashpoint confrontation between Russian and Ukrainian forces.  

I think the real area where everyone needs to be surging their attention is on eastern Ukraine, where we see rent-a-mobs and sort of indications of the Russian population there being stirred up, takeovers of government buildings and the like.  That’s really – again, all of this is about will Russian provocation lead the Ukrainian government to feel it has no choice but to respond, and that would form the pretext for some sort of form of Russian military action.  I think that’s really where the attention of the world has to be, not on what’s going on in Crimea itself.  Finally, on the US response, and I’ll let Jan talk about the Europeans in a second.  I think the US response is still at the embryonic stage.  John Kerry’s just landed in Kiev and is doing what he can to sort of extend political support for the government there.  

US strategy at this point seems to have four tracks.  The first is the diplomatic one, where I don’t think the US is in the lead.  I think Mr. Steinmeier, the German foreign minister, seems to be in the lead.  He sounded very discouraged after his day or so of discussions with the Russians.  I’ll let Jan maybe characterize that, but I think the hope that a lot of us had of a diplomatic pathway starting with a contact group and the like, that all looks very, very challenged at the moment.  In Kiev, I think the US strategy is really focused on sitting on the Ukrainians and making them not do anything stupid and not falling into this Russian trap, given the grave consequences that could erupt if they do something like declare martial law or something like that in parts of the country.  

There’s a lot of talk about sanctions.  I think the question is what form they take.  Do they take the form of something similar to Magnitsky?  We can talk about that.  Or are they gonna be more broadly aimed at the Russian government and Russian state-owned institutions?  There’s challenges, obviously, given that the Europeans are simply not there.  I think it’s gonna be very unlikely to see the Europeans come around to this kind of approach unless all out conflict erupts.  

And then finally there’s, I think, gonna need to be increased focus on reassurance to NATO member countries that are on the boundaries of Ukraine and on the boundaries of this crisis.  For the past 20 years NATO’s basically been winding down its role in terms of extending security to the member states like the Baltics that are very vulnerable.  But even countries like Poland are gonna be looking increasingly to the United States to do demonstrable things that show that its security is guaranteed in the face of this very fast-moving security challenge on the continent.  So anyways, with that I’ll turn things over to Jan.  

TOM CARVER: Jan?

JAN TECHAU: Thank you, Andrew, and thanks everybody for calling in.  Perhaps two points to mention from the Brussels perspective today.  As you know, the EU has called a special summit for Thursday.  That means that they’re lifting up the entire affair from the level of foreign ministers to the level of heads of state and government.  That’s kind of the biggest gun they have in their arsenal when it comes to these kinds of meetings.  And that seems to indicate to me that they are actually serious about at least a small form of sanctions because otherwise it would make no sense to kind of get these people together in the room.  

They would look incredibly silly if they have the same things to announce that the foreign ministers have already announced.  So that, for me, is part of the kind of response that the Europeans try to create.  They’re trying to look good in the very, very weak position that they’re in, and this is the biggest gun that they can get out of the arsenal, as I said.  What I call the Steinmeier ultimatum that was issued by the German foreign minister, who’s kind of the informal leader of the EU now on this, was that Russia needs to show more and demonstrate more good will if the summit is not supposed to take some more drastic measures.  I think the gestures that they want to see is a Russian kind of green light on what the Germans call the contact group and perhaps some kind of an easing of the true pressure on Crimea.  

On the contact group, my feeling is that it’s not clearly defined what the contract group is supposed to achieve beyond just staying in touch and keeping the channels open, which some people here see as an end in itself and some people see as an encouragement of Putin that he’s actually back in the game and ____ ____ should be isolated.  Views on this diverge greatly within Europe.  On the troop removal or retrenchment, if you will, that Steinmeier has asked, very clearly Russia does not show any inclination to move away or kind of ease the pressure on Crimea, so that’s not gonna happen.  So the big question is can the EU actually pull something out of the hat.  The British position that we involuntary learned about yesterday, the question is will that kind of embarrassment that the Brits had to endure will bring them more on board.  

Britain has been an ominous player, and they’re sitting on the fence to a certain extent and not really getting involved in the EU foreign policy thing officially, perhaps informally, but not visibly, and whether the Germans can get over their own kind of inhibition and get more robust.  That’s the first thing.  That’s the special summit thing.  The second thing that I want to talk about is some of the debate that’s going on here in Brussels about worries that people here have how the situation could potentially escalate.  The worries are about, first of all, an expansion of the Russian kind of land grab, if you will.  And the second is about annexation.  

Expansion, the scenario that people here are talking about, of course, is eastern Ukraine, but on top of that it’s also the coastal stretch from Crimea all the way into the Odessa Oblast, where of course that would get very, very close to Moldova, where the EU has a very strong stake in the game.  Some people here have voiced their concerns, some EU diplomats, that this is a concern that they have and that this would kind of create facts that could much more directly affect the EU in a way.  The second one that I mentioned was annexation, and that is the question how Putin wants to play this game whether Crimea – of course we talked about this at length in other forum, whether Crimea would become part of Russia proper or whether Putin will use it as some kind of in limbo place which is nominally still Ukrainian but de facto Russian and which he can then use as a permanent kind of bingo chip, if you will, to influence Ukrainian politics vis-à-vis the West.  

The EU, of course, will not take in a new member, if you want to talk about this possibility some time down the road, will never take in a member that is internally divided, has minority issues.  So that would give Putin a permanent kind of veto power over that and also, of course, on possible NATO expansion, which I think is probably much more science fiction still.  These are the kinds of scenarios one fears, basically a ________ scenario where Russia will do informal ________, but never formal annexation and thereby become a permanent legal player in the relations and of course, also having the ability to always create domestic instability.  These are some of the scenarios that I picked up over here that I want to mention briefly, but maybe the rest in more details when the questions come in.  Thank you.

TOM CARVER: Jan, just quickly, you mentioned the Germans and the British.  Are the French or the Pols taking any wildly different line to the Germans?

JAN TECHAU: No, I haven’t seen much.  I think the Pols have taken a relatively low profile.  They understand, I think, that everybody expects them to very much being up in arms and the classic more kind of Russia-critical position that Poland often takes.  I think they understand at this point that would not be very useful, so my feeling is that they haven’t been very pronounced.  The same with the French, very much within the EU context, and basically that’s a good sign.  There is some kind of cohesiveness, and clearly Steinmeier is leading on this.  He’s the guy who’s speaking publicly.  But it’s also clear that at least the French kind of low profile could also be due to a French worry, and this is something that was discussed yesterday and over the weekend, how both the French and the British fear that if they press too hard, basically put the relationship with Russia on ice, shock frosted, that this would actually diminish their influence in all P5 scenarios, including the UN Security Council.

OPERATOR: Good morning.  This is the conference operator.  Did someone need assistance?

TOM CARVER: No, we’re fine.  Thanks.

OPERATOR: Okay.  Thank you.

JAN TECHAU: So the French and the British seem to worry that if they isolate Russia too much, they actually isolate themselves on these P5 forum.  This is one of the reasons why they take a softer course.  That’s something that I heard from inside of the conference room here in Brussels.  So I say this with a certain kind of reservation because I don’t have a second source to back it up, but it’s part of the debate here in town.

TOM CARVER: Okay.  Dmitri, are you on the line yet?  Okay.  Hopefully he’ll join.  Well, let’s open it up to questions to Andrew and Jan.  Are there any questions?  

QUESTIONER 1: Well – can you hear me?

TOM CARVER: Yes.

QUESTIONER 1: Yes.  This is _____ ______ from Norwegian ____ _____.  I have a question regarding Germany’s role in this because many say that you have to look to Germany now, they are the key players because the relationship between Russia and the US is quite bad already, while Merkel and Putin, they’re talking together.  Is that right?

JAN TECHAU: Yes.  The channel between Germany and Russia is very clearly open.  Merkel has talked to Mr. Putin a number of times, and the diplomatic channels are also there.  The Germans are talking to the Russians about this contact group thing, so it seems to be the case that the Germans are using their traditionally relatively good relations with Russia and put them in the service of the case here.  Germany is doing what it has always been doing in a way, and that is to – it’s a typical Merkel thing also to keep the door open and to build a bridge.  The Germans are of the opinion that Putin has maneuvered himself into a position that he can’t possibly find advantageous, and so in order to kind of get him back into the game, let’s leave the channel open, let’s build him a bridge.  

That’s a similar kind of strategy that the Germans used – which Merkel used very early on in 2007 during her EU presidency when the Kaczynskis in Poland were in power, were trying to massively undermine the negotiations over the EU constitution at the time.  And Merkel, no matter how ludicrous the things that the Kaczynskis said, kept on building a bridge for them.  She might not like these people.  She might even hold a grudge, but she will not isolate herself and kind of destroy the bridges.  Some people think that’s too soft.  Some people say it’s an asset because basically you serve diplomacy, but that’s the matter of the fact.  At the moment it seems to serve EU diplomacy.  The question is will it yield any results.  I’m more skeptical on that side.  

QUESTIONER 2: This is Donald _______ from Congressional Quarterly.  I was wondering if you could talk more about the implications of the difference in approach of the United State and of Europe toward Russia and the kind of role that the US is gonna end up playing here.  

TOM CARVER: Okay.  Andrew, do you want to have a go at that?

ANDREW WEISS: Sure.  I can say a couple things then maybe Jan can step in.  I think that there’s – we’re only in the early days of what’s gonna be, I think, a very profound moment in the new sort of post-Ukraine crisis world that we’re all living in.  And so what you’ve seen so far is the president only spoke to the nation on Friday evening.  You saw the Kerry talk show appearances on Sunday.  As I was trying to say at the beginning, this all, to me, looks very embryonic.  And we will have, I think, months ahead of us to deal both with the urgent threat of military confrontation between the Russians and the Ukrainians and overall question of sort of shoring up this Ukrainian government, which only took power, as you have to remember just about – now it’s, what, ten days now.  

So when they came into office, it was sort of similar to what we had in Eastern Europe in the late ‘80s, where the East German government basically disappeared overnight.  They’re a transitional government getting ready for elections at the end of the May.  I think there’s a challenge ahead in terms of all of what’s happened in Crimea will polarize the political spectrum in Ukraine.  That may make people in eastern Ukraine feel even more left out and more worried about their future.  So again, a lot of these dynamics are going to be unfolding in real time.  

It will be very hard for the US to do what it did in the early ‘90s of being kind of the quarterback of Western response to the collapse of the Soviet Union.  US and European interests toward Russia and toward Ukraine look profoundly different today than they did in 1991.  The Europeans have a deep and very intertwined set of political and economic relationships with the Russians.  The US has none of that.  The US looks, to me – and I think what’s also sort of important for people to bear in mind, the Russians are sort of less invested in relations or good relations with the United States than at any point, arguably, since the end of the Cold War.  So when the US talks about taking steps like sanctions or exhorting the Russians to pull back, I think you get a sense from the Russians of indifference, that it’s just not that important to them what Washington thinks and a deep sort of sense that the Europeans will be more either malleable or, in Russian views, pragmatic about what’s at stake here.  

So if you put yourself in the Russian shoes, they heard a lot of similar rhetoric after the August 2008 military confrontation with Georgia of, you know, new Cold War and isolation of Russia and all that.  And then within a year you had the US-Russia reset.  You had the reestablishment of all the relationships that had existed before the war and no change in terms of the military situation on the ground.  So if you’re in the Russian’s shoes, I think they look at the Western response.  They look at the divisions, and they don’t necessarily feel that they’re facing catastrophe.  If anything, they’re just sort of waiting for people to get used to this new reality and try to make some form of adaptation to the new normal.  Jan, do you want to jump in on me saying all that?

JAN TECHAU: I can add something concerning the European reaction to all of this.  The Europeans are in a dilemma because their foreign policy tools, almost all of them are foreign policy tools that can only work in the medium to long term, are designed to have an impact on the medium or long term and are very, very unsuitable or unfitting for a short-term moment-to-moment, day-to-day, hour-to-hour crisis management.  So it’s only natural that the Europeans are trying to play this in a way that caters to their strengths, that kind of gets this into a process again, you know, away from crisis management into a process again where their tools can actually work.  And the classic kind of organization, development, long-term economic relationships, these kinds of things to use their economic strength, essentially, in market access to move the counterpart, if you will.  And so this is what’s happening.  

I think the Europeans are trying to push it that way and are absolutely aware of the fact that in terms of the short-term crisis management, there is very little that they can do.  They can issue statements.  They can perhaps do a little bit of sanction here and a little bit of sanction there and perhaps a travel ban and maybe freezing of assets, even though that’s already, I think, something that would be a pretty harsh thing by European standards.  They could do all this, but that’s not gonna move anything, so they want to turn this into long-term process again.  This is why the contact group.  This is why the Germans keep the channel open.  That’s the problem that, to a certain extent, the European tools are ill fitting for the situation that we have, and they eagerly hope to move into calmer waters where their instruments are actually more fitting.

TOM CARVER: Okay.  Any other questions?

QUESTIONER 3: Trudy Rubin from the Philadelphia Inquirer.

TOM CARVER: Please go ahead, Trudy.

QUESTIONER 3: A couple of things.  Firstly, we all know that Russia has serious interests in Crimea.  They have a treaty.  It has been extended for some years to come.  In all of the thinking about how to respond to this, is anyone dealing with the fact that even if Putin were a far more agreeable figure, there are serious Russian interests that have to be considered here?  And secondly, given that it seems that no one in the West has the tools to push Putin to leave Crimea in the short term, how do you think this is going to affect other issues where the US has to deal with Russia, such as a P5+1 with Iran or the Syrian question?

TOM CARVER: Andrew.

ANDREW WEISS: I think that you’ve seen a lack of ability over the last six years to look at Russia and its neighborhood in an integrated fashion.  And what we’ve seen is in part the result of sort of a bureaucratic change that occurred at the beginning of the Bush 43 era, where Russia policy was basically put in a little stovepipe and everything else around Russia was treated as Europe.  So as this whole European outreach to countries like Ukraine unfolded and the so-called Eastern partnership effort, none of it was ever really crosswalked with our Russia policy.  And that’s been a consistent problem in the Bush 43 administration and now so too with the Obama administration.  

What you don’t know at this point, I think it’s really too early to tell, is what’s gonna be the collateral damage from this sharp deterioration in US-Russia relations and will you see the Russians become less cooperative on the P5+1 process or on Syria.  I think the odds are that with Syria, the temptation will be to write off cooperation because there really, frankly, isn’t that much of it.  With regard to Iran, I would argue that much of what’s going on is largely a bilateral negotiation between the US and Iran and that Russia’s role is on sort of either trying to position themselves for what would happen after a deal is struck or to slow down some renewed move toward military confrontation between, on the one hand, the US and Israel and, on the other hand, Iran.  So I think it’ll be very hard given the Russian desire to sort of do tit for tat and to respond asymmetrically to US pressure to keep things going on those other issues.  The US will try to contain and compartmentalize things to the extent we can, but I think the Russians will try to pay us back in scale.  

TOM CARVER: Okay.  Thanks.  Other questions?  We got a couple more minutes left.  

QUESTIONER 3: If no one is going to ask, I just would like to follow up.

TOM CARVER: Sure.

QUESTIONER 3: Just on this Crimea issue, it has struck me.  I actually have been on vacation and just come back to write about this.  But it struck me how little conversation there is in the media about Russia’s long-term interests in Crimea and the history that Ukrainian independence was only sort of accepted by Russia because of the deal on basing the fleet in Ukraine.  Does the West have to recognize that Russia has long historical interest, apart from the bureaucratic issue?

ANDREW WEISS: I think that the US and others have always seen the status of the Black Sea fleet as an issue that the Russians and the Ukrainians can address themselves.  The US has been studiously neutral about the status of the fleet basing arrangement.  You saw Kharkiv Agreement that was struck by President Yanukovych and Putin about 3 years ago that basically extended the tenure of the base for 25 years in exchange for a significant price reduction for gas deliveries from Russia.  So again, this has not been something that the US has gotten directly involved in.  I think we’ve always believed that Crimea was a special case and the Russians, for a variety of reasons, chose not to push any sort of territorial claim in Crimea.  This is going back to the early days of the post-Soviet collapse.  

I’m happy to talk to you more offline about some of the history here, but I [Break in Audio] again.  In many respects it is a nightmare scenario, and it’s been something that people have been worried about, but for the past 20-odd years, the Russians seem basically reconciled to not pressing territorial claims.  And in fact, you’ve seen countermoves in terms of the past month the finalization of the border arrangement between Russia and Estonia.  You saw about two years ago the delimitation of the sea between Norway and Russia.  These are territories that had been sort of hanging fire for decades, and the Russians were taking a much more constructive approach.  So something seems to have snapped.  Something very fundamentally has snapped in Russia’s view of its neighbors, and now we’re all gonna deal with the consequences.

QUESTIONER 3: Thanks.

TOM CARVER: Andrew, you’re going up to the Hill this afternoon to talk to people on the Hill.  Do you have a sense of where the sanctions is gonna go?  Perhaps it’s an unfair question to ask you now.

ANDREW WEISS: I think it’s very fluid.  I think folks by now I’m sure have all seen Harry Reid’s comment that the sanctions train might want to slow down until we pick up a few more European passengers.  The mood in Europe, to me, is, I think, very indicative of the uphill battle here to make some of these sanctions effective.  We can take steps like visa bans against Russian officials and that will look like we’re responding and it’ll give the administration something to point to.  The real question for all these things is are they effective tools and do they produce what we want.  I would argue that what we want is a step back from military confrontation and to leave some sort of diplomatic space for a conversation with the Russians and the Ukrainians about de-escalation.  

I’m not sure if we start firing off these sanctions bullets, we will be as effective on the diplomatic side, but I can understand that there’s gonna be tremendous political pressure to do something and to show that we’re responding.  The sort of fork in the road dilemma for the US – there’s some fragmentary stories in the papers today saying that we could see action on sanctions later this week.  There’s sort of two roads you can go down.  You can go down the road of targeted sanctions against individuals, which is basically similar to what we’ve done on Syria or the Magnitsky Bill, where you target individuals and you try to identify them as being involved in activities that would allow you to justify either asset seizure, visa bans and the like.  Or you can go down a different road where you use IEEPA or international emergency act provisions to basically go after the Russian state.  I haven’t seen any clear indication about which direction people are willing to go down.

TOM CARVER: Okay.  Jan, final thoughts before we wrap it up?

JAN TECHAU: Two final thoughts on the question on Russian interests.  I think yes, of course, we must acknowledge and realize that there are Russian interests, but it’s also only fair, I think, to question whether some of these interests are legitimate interests.  There’s a bit of a worrisome tendency when people say, “Shouldn’t we accept that the Russians have kind of interests,” that it just ends up being an argument for justification.  And I think we shouldn’t go down that road.  Yes, we need to realize what their interest are, but question them we must.  

And on the second question, I mean I want to echo what Andrew said about the effectiveness of sanctions.  We’re now doing sanctions talk because that’s pretty much the only thing that we can really envision doing.  And it kind of makes us feel good to talk about these things and to make them sound harsh and so on and so forth.  My feeling is that to a large extent, the Russian leadership has priced these sanctions already in.  Of course, they do the kind of games that they anticipate, you know, the [Break in Audio] and they define interests in a way, and they do their cost/benefit calculations in a way that none of these sanctions that I think we have mentioned would worry them an awful lot.  They have made that calculation long time ago.  I think the only thing that could potentially hurt them in a significant way would be to really hurt the financial side of this, but that would also mean hurting our own banks and hurting our own business interests, and I wonder whether we get unanimity across the Atlantic or within Europe on that.

TOM CARVER: Okay.  Thank you very much.  We’re off on time.  We want to keep these short and swift, and we will continue to do them as the crisis continues to unfold and as we think appropriate.  And unfortunately, Dmitri wasn’t able to join, but he will, I’m sure, be on the next one.  And of course, if you want a transcript of it, then Carol will be sending it out within the next hour or so.  Thank you very much to everyone who took part.

JAN TECHAU: Thank you very much.