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Why Russia is ‘flexing its muscle’ in Crimea

February 28, 2014 at 6:11 PM EST
Crimea, a former Russian-held region, is home to Russia’s Black Sea naval fleet and other important Russian assets. With Ukraine in turmoil over the future of its leadership, Jeffrey Brown talks to Angela Stent of Georgetown University and Dimitri Simes of the Center for the National Interest to get more background on the relationship and interests between the two countries.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Late today, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations proposed sending an urgent independent and credible mediation mission to help resolve Ukraine’s crisis.

However, Russian Ambassador Vitaly Churkin dismissed the idea, saying he was against imposed mediation.

Our Jeffrey Brown takes a closer look at the tensions escalating between Russia and Ukraine.

JEFFREY BROWN: And to do that, I’m joined by Dimitri Simes, president for the Center for the National Interest, a foreign policy think tank, and Angela Stent, director of the Center of Eurasian, Russian and East European Studies at Georgetown University. Her latest book is “The Limits of Partnership: U.S.-Russian Relations in the 21st Century.”

And, Angela Stent, I will start with you.

President Obama cited reports of troop movement in Ukraine, but it is a very confusing situation, isn’t it?

ANGELA STENT, Georgetown University: It is very confusing.

We do know that, in Crimea, pro-Russian forces, people and some forces have taken over local buildings. Some Crimeans would like to have a referendum to reassess the status of Crimea. On the other hand, there are other groups in Crimea that are not pro-Russian, and they support the interim government in Kiev.

We really don’t know that much about what is happening, but we do know that Russia is clearly flexing its muscle there. It has important equities in Crimea. It is the headquarters of the Black Sea fleet, and they want to make sure that they don’t lose those equities.

JEFFREY BROWN: Dimitri Simes, what does flexing its muscles mean? And one of the — the obvious question is, is an invasion or some sort of invasion under way?

DIMITRI SIMES, Center for the National Interest: Well, there is already the Black Sea fleet right there is in Crimea.

There are already Russian troops which are there, quite legally, associated with the Black Sea fleet. And clearly some other Russian units are arriving there. One element of confusion — Angela quite correctly talked about confusion, but it’s not only on who is doing what to whom, but what we are talking about, because Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov has assured Secretary Kerry, as we hear, that there would be no Russian interference.

JEFFREY BROWN: Right.

DIMITRI SIMES: Well, Russian position is, they’re not interfering, because they do not recognize the government in Kiev. They are talking about them as a so-called government.

They didn’t say that…

(CROSSTALK)

JEFFREY BROWN: Even the definition of interference is…

DIMITRI SIMES: Well, exactly.

ANGELA STENT: Right.

DIMITRI SIMES: And Yanukovych, from the Russian standpoint, is still a legitimate president. He’s in Russia.

And he stated today publicly that he fully supports actions of self-defense units in Crimea. And a definition of self-defense units is quite broad, including the units provided by the Russian Black Sea fleet.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, so, Angela Stent, when the president says, as we also heard, that there would be costs to any military intervention, what might that mean? What sort of leverage would there be?

ANGELA STENT: Well, that’s a very interesting question.

We do not have that much leverage with Russia anymore. Our relationship with Russia has deteriorated. There is not much that Russia wants from us. And so I think — and on the other hand, we need to work with Russia on the Iranian question, and the Obama administration wants to achieve an agreement on Iran, on Syria, on all of these other issues.

So there may be costs. There could be some kind of sanctions, although, even there, there is a limited possibility. So I’m not really sure what those costs would be.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, then, Dimitri Simes, there is a lot of history, obviously, with Crimea, Russia and Ukraine. For our audience, what should we know about it to help us understand this?

DIMITRI SIMES: Ukraine, of course, was a part of Russia for more than 300 years.

And it decided to secede, and everybody has accepted it as legitimate. Crimea was a part of Ukraine only since 1954. And it was given to Ukraine by Khrushchev, believe it or not, to celebrate 300-year anniversary of Ukrainian decision to join Russia. And, of course, at that time, Ukraine was a Soviet republic, an integral part of the Soviet Union. Khrushchev could not imagine in his wildest dream that that gift…

JEFFREY BROWN: He was giving them something, but he wasn’t really giving away anything, right?

DIMITRI SIMES: Let me say something, in my view, very serious that is not being discussed sufficiently.

JEFFREY BROWN: Right.

DIMITRI SIMES: Russia has a major interest in Crimea.

And unlike in Kiev, where Russia had very few instruments of power, and the West had many more instruments, in Crimea, Russia controls situation on the ground. And we have to understand that we either would have to develop a solution together with Russia, or there would be a military conflict.

And in a military conflict, the stakes would be much higher for Russia than for the United States. So who is going to blink first an interesting question. If I would be President Obama, I wouldn’t be talking about any red lines in Crimea for the United States.

JEFFREY BROWN: But explain. Fill in that. Russia controls the situation on the ground in the Crimea?

ANGELA STENT: It does have a lot of leverage there, because the majority of the population, not all of them, but majority are Russians, and they want more autonomy for their region.

And even though they did vote in 1991 to be part of an independent Ukraine, they do want a special status. I think the other thing we have to realize is, we don’t know whether this interim government in Kiev is going to be able to impose its will much beyond Kiev and the western parts of Ukraine.

And this is, I think, part of the Russian game too, is to wait and see whether this current newly formed government lasts, and, if not, what comes next, and then the situation might change again.

JEFFREY BROWN: Crimea does operate somewhat autonomously right now, correct?

ANGELA STENT: It certainly does.

But, interesting, the city of Sevastopol, where the Black Sea fleet is headquartered, actually under — supposed to be under the direct jurisdiction of Kiev. So it is even more confusing, because there are different levels of autonomy there.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, so what does all this say about the possibility of how — well, the question how far Russia might go to protect its interest to an invasion like what we saw with Georgia?

DIMITRI SIMES: At this point, I think Putin does understand that he has a major stake in the relationship with the United States, with the European Union. And he would like to control the situation and to limit the damage.

I think, at this point, it is still possible to reach a deal where new authorities in Kiev would start talking to the Russians in a more conciliatory way. Actually, that is what the Obama administration also recommends. And, in return, the referendum in Crimea, I’m sure it will take place on May 25 as scheduled. But they wouldn’t talk about independence.

They would just expand somewhat their autonomy. I don’t think that this would be a terrible deal for the United States. Having said that, if the situation continues to escalate, all kinds of unpredictable things, unthinkable things may become thinkable in a matter of days.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, what is your analysis of the possibility of escalation?

ANGELA STENT: Well, the U.S. is not going to get into a military conflict with Russia over Ukraine.

I mean, that is clearly out of the question. But things could escalate. Dimitri is right. If Moscow is worried that this new government in Kiev would revisit the lease agreement with Russia, whereby it is there until 2042 for the fleet, that would be a serious provocation. They probably won’t do that.

But everything is, at the moment, quite unpredictable.

JEFFREY BROWN: And what do you make of this international mediation mission that Samantha Power raised today?

ANGELA STENT: Well, it would be very — I mean, clearly, the only long-term solution is for everyone to work together, the United States, Russia, the European Union, and the Ukrainians, both on the economic level.

And, today, Mr. Putin signaled that Russia was willing to work with the IMF there, but on the political level too. I wonder whether it’s too early to do that now. But I guess the immediate task is to de-escalate the possibility of military conflict.

JEFFREY BROWN: Of course, as we heard, the Russians immediately said this mediation isn’t necessary, which goes to your earlier point.

(CROSSTALK)