Six Questions About Russia, Crimea, and Ukraine

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Six Questions About Russia, Crimea, and Ukraine

Larisa Smirnova speaks on Russian foreign policy, Ukraine, Crimea, Sino-Russian relations, and more.

Six Questions About Russia, Crimea, and Ukraine
Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The Diplomat‘s Justin McDonnell spoke with Larisa Smirnova, an expert on Sino-Russian relations and professor at Xiamen University, about the crisis in Ukraine, Russian foreign policy, and more.

The people of Crimea have overwhelmingly voted to leave Ukraine for Russia. Threats have been made to sanction Russia, claiming the referendum is in fact illegitimate.  Given Europe’s economic dependence on Russia’s energy supplies, will sanctions actually come together and how might that circumvent the situation? Or will it have the opposite effect?  And how might Russia respond in turn?

It does not seem that the sanctions are going to be drastic. Nor that they are going to circumvent the situation.

I have a feeling that more and more people in Russia approve of President Putin’s action. The Russian people have had a long-term hidden feeling of shame for the collapse of the Soviet Union that they perceive as humiliating and denigrating them vis-à-vis the West. They believe that the move in Crimea helps to restore Russia’s glory. Military and diplomatic glory is what has constituted the confidence of the Russians for centuries.

Therefore, Russia is likely to ignore any sanctions and/or consider that the price is justified.

For the good and for the bad, regardless of whether this perception is grounded in reality, but this is how many Russians might now feel.

Russia cites the threat of Ukrainian banderavski in Kiev helping Russia’s enemies and the need to protect ethnic Russians. From this standpoint, Putin’s geopolitical ambitions are unlikely to end in Crimea, as nearly all of eastern Ukraine is Russian-speaking.  What is the likelihood of Russian efforts to seize further territory and the outbreak of a Ukrainian civil war? Where does the situation go from here and what will happen to former ousted president, Victor Yanukovych?

Well, first of all, throughout the crisis I have personally called for the compromise between Russia and Ukraine. My concern is exactly extremist nationalism, which I dislike: in Russia, in Ukraine, or in any other country. Things that happened around Crimea might actually favor nationalists of all kinds. Moreover, I have strong anti-war convictions, and am consistently against achieving one’s goals by force or ruse.

So said, I really don’t think that Russia has ambitions to spread its Crimean move to Eastern Ukraine.

Crimea is slightly different in a way that there was indeed a perception in Russia and in Crimea that its transfer to Ukraine by Khruschev was unfair in the first place. In 1954, when Crimea was transferred from Russia to Ukraine, no one thought that the USSR would collapse, so it all seemed to be a mere administrative rearrangement issue: it made geographic sense because Ukraine bordered Crimea while Russia did not.

It did create some grievances among the Russians. I remember hearing, when I was little, that the transfer was instrumented by Nikita Khrushchev because he was a Ukrainian.

Even the Ukrainians possibly thought that keeping Crimea after 1991 was a matter of luck: that they kind of won in a lottery…

In 1991, Boris Yeltsin was very much in a rush to disintegrate the Soviet Union, which would give him access to power over the head of Gorbachev, so he just neglected the Crimean issue.

But again, I think that agreements, even stupid ones, are agreements, and Russia could have as well promoted investment in Crimea’s tourism industry while keeping it as part of Ukraine!

Some people admire President Putin for his quick moves. People read history, watch movies, read books, play computer games after all – and that is how many heroes behave in history, movies, books, and games, right?

But I do also think that there should be some containment for “heroic,” computer game-style nature. International law, the United Nations, and even nuclear weapons are tools that we invented, and more or less successfully used for war prevention.

Those who call for wars are acting irresponsibly.

Yanukovych? I think he is out of the game. Based on his biography, he seems to be a strange guy, arguably with criminal record and fake diplomas. I don’t think many people in Ukraine regret him. I hope that the new government in Ukraine, whoever they are, will act more responsibly and more in the interests of the common Ukrainian people.

There is an argument that Russia annexing Crimea will actually favor the West because these pro-Russian voters would no longer be part of the Ukrainian electoral process.  Do you believe Ukrainians would more likely move further West toward potential EU membership, mirroring the former Soviet bloc state,  Poland?

Ukraine’s European integration will depend much on the conditions that Europe is ready to offer to the Ukrainians.

It is true that the European integration seems to be viewed by many Ukrainians as a panacea to Ukraine’s economic and social problems.

So said, the Ukrainians, like the Russians, are a very proud people. In a way, we are the same people; when I meet a Ukrainian I have no cultural or language barrier at all.

The Ukrainians, like the Russians, have a hidden feeling of failure after the collapse of USSR. They also feel that they were not treated as equal by the EU, and they will strongly protect their pride and their interests.

For example, after the Orange Revolution, the Ukrainian government unilaterally cancelled visas for the European nationals. Obviously, they expected that the EU would lift their visa requirements for the Ukrainians. But the EU didn’t, even when the government in Kiev was “pro-European.”

Eventually, the Ukrainians got disappointed in the West. Yuschenko lost the election miserably, and Yanukovych, considered pro-Russian, won.

The Russians went through the exact same process and they got to support Putin, who is considered a strong-Russian known for standing up to the West.

By the way, Prime Minister Yatsenyuk has already said that the signature of the economic part of the Association Agreement between Ukraine and the EU has been postponed so that it will not lead to negative consequences for the industrial regions in the east of the country.

Ultimately, how does Ukraine begin to reconcile the cultural-linguistic divide within the country?  

The differences are very much exaggerated. There are some issues, like when I went to Lviv in 2005 some people were reluctant to talk in Russian to me (I really don’t care, if I stayed for a few more days I would have started to pick up Ukrainian).

And they have a Dzhohar Dudaev street in Lviv (Dudaev was a separatist Chechen leader). This is so ostensibly meant to annoy the Russians so I also think we should not care.

The Ukrainians and the Russians are really the same people. I have Ukrainian friends and we do not consider ourselves as “foreigners.” A couple of weeks ago I took part in a TV show on Ukraine with a Ukrainian diplomat and a Ukrainian journalist. We talked in Russian and shared much of our analysis of the situation, actually (the show dealt with the current Ukrainian crisis).

You can have differences with your brothers or sisters, even fight with them, take over their property or bring them to court on property issues, do all kinds of annoying things to each other, but you can still understand each other better than anyone else.

Therefore, I am still very confident in the ties between the Ukrainians and the Russians…

I like what Mr. Yatsenyuk has said: “We do not see relations with the EU and Russia on an either-or principle. Despite the catastrophic worsening of relations with Russia, which was not committed through our fault, and despite Russia’s armed aggression against Ukraine, I will do everything possible to not only maintain peace, but also build a genuine partnership and good neighborly relations with Russia.”

China seems to be facing a diplomatic dilemma on the Ukrainian crisis, as it is refraining from taking any position at all, having abstained from the UN referendum vote. While it has a strong partnership with Russia that often counteracts the West in foreign policy decision-making, China is opposed to any form of intervention. How should China handle its relationship with Moscow? Will the crisis strain relations or help bolster it?    

I think China will, as it does, keep neutrality. China is like an old wise man who can be a very good friend to anyone who can appreciate him.

China understands that the Russians and the Ukrainians are brother peoples. It has advised the Russians and the Ukrainians to talk, and it will recognize whatever compromise these two brothers achieve.

Actually, China probably disapproves in its heart that Russia has bullied Ukraine recently but after all, it is a value in Chinese culture not to interfere in other people’s family, so it will encourage the two countries to figure out their relations on their own.

Moreover, both Russia and Ukraine are China’s “strategic partners” in terms of diplomacy, so it will not be willing to spoil its relations with either of them for the sake of the other.

President Obama put the relationship on “pause” last year, hoping to restore ties between Washington and Moscow.  That hasn’t seemed to work.  From Syria, to Snowden, and to Ukraine, the two countries seem unable to find any common ground and bilateral relations are again quite dismal. First, why does the U.S.-Russia relationship matter today? And what should each country be doing to mend ties and restore moderation?

I am not really an expert on Russia–U.S. relations. I can only talk as a person who has experience living in the U.S.

I think that there is some degree of misunderstanding between the two countries now.

Actually, the Russians have never been anti-American. There was anti-German propaganda in the USSR for decades after World War II, but never actually a strong anti-American propaganda. But now Germany has a very good relationship with Russia!

So, it is a shame that Angela Merkel can handle President Putin but Barack Obama cannot! I think that he probably just lacks expertise on Russia, in his career he never actually had to deal with Russia, and he might have some fears of Russia that are not grounded.

There are many good American experts on Russia who are tough but often fair — everyone defends their own interests after all. They are of an older generation: Madeleine Albright, Henry Kissinger, Zbigniew Brzezinski. They have had good relations with the Russians, including personal relations, despite all the differences in positions. Their comments are often translated and published by the Russian media and heard by experts and policy makers. Their example proves that the Russians are actually not monsters!

As someone put it already, the U.S. should perhaps invest more in growing a young generation of strong Russia experts, like they now invest in growing a generation of China experts.