Why Russia isn’t taking the U.S. seriously

John Judis, at The New Republic, interviews Dmitri K. Simes, president of The Center for the National Interest and publisher of the foreign policy journal The National Interest.

John Judis: So, is a civil war likely at this point? What do you think is going on?

Dmitri K. Simes: Well, I think it still is unlikely, it’s not impossible but it’s unlikely. It’s very clear that Crimea is under Russian control and that is hard to change. There is nothing anyone can do about it, except negotiate. And if Moscow uses force there, that may lead to a dangerous escalation. Still, Russia’s presence does not yet mean that Crimea will become a part of Russia. There was a hopeful sign yesterday, when the new prime minister of Crimea announced that they would postpone the referendum on their statehood. That statement was clearly coordinated with the Kremlin. So there may well be an opportunity if we want to use it, to negotiate what exactly what this referendum would be about — about a union with Russia, about full independence, about extended autonomy. That still may be negotiable. Crimea will probably not be an integral part of Ukraine any longer. As far as Russian troops moving into eastern Ukraine, I still consider this highly unlikely and avoidable, but of course it also depends on what the government in Kiev is going to do.

JJ: Russians now charge that the U.S. and E.U. interfered — they’re blaming the Americans and the European Union—how do you assess the Obama administration’s performance so far?

DKS: I think it has contributed to the crisis. Because there was a legitimate government in Kiev, led by President Viktor Yanukovych. Yanukovych is a despicable character. He also is inept. He was the principal architect of his own demise. Yet he was legally elected. He commanded a clear majority in the Ukrainian parliament. And essentially the United States and the European Union have decided to side with the protesters. Let me say, too, if they were using that kind of force and those techniques against a friendly government we would not call them protesters, we would call them rebels. We have sided with these protesters slash rebels. We used them to pressure Yanukovych to negotiate a deal, which the European governments fully endorsed, and which had the support of the Obama administration.

When the rebels used the momentum from the deal essentially to remove Yanukovych and his whole government from power, we have accepted that as if it were normal to remove a legally elected government by force. More than 100 deputies from the Rada from the former ruling party, the Party of Regions, would not come to the Rada, and those from the Party of the Regions that voted with the opposition, some of them were clearly intimidated, and others belonged to Ukrainian oligarchs who were allowed to play a role in politics. And while those deputies normally belong to the Party of Regions, actually they were controlled by the oligarchs, who were pressured by the West to change sides. So that’s what led to the new government coming to power in Kiev. You could not ignore this process if you wanted to know why the Russians decided to interfere.

Now, I understand that we favored the rebels. And I also again have to say that looking at Yanukovych, he clearly was unsavory, and unpopular, and inept, and I can understand why we would not do anything to promote his questionable legitimacy. But we have to realize, that as we were applying this pressure on the Ukrainian political process to promote those we favor, we clearly were rocking the political boat in Ukraine, a country deeply divided, a country with different religions, different histories, different ethnicities. And it was that process of rocking the boat that led to the outcome have seen. That is not to justify what Putin has done, that is not to say that the Russians are entitled to use their troops on the territory of another state. But let me say this: any Russian wrongdoings should not be used as an alibi for the incompetence of the Obama administration. [Continue reading…]

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