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“We Are Speaking Very Loudly. We Are Carrying a Small Stick.”

Dmitri K. Simes on why Russia isn't taking the U.S. seriously

Alexander Nemenov/AFP/Getty Images

Dmitri K. Simes is the president of The Center for the National Interest and publisher of the foreign policy journal The National Interest.  Simes has chaired the Center for Russian and Eurasian Programs at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and was the director of a Soviet-focused program at Johns Hopkins University. He has also taught at Columbia University and the University of California, Berkeley. His writings include After the Collapse: Russia Seeks its Place as a Great Power (1999), Détente and Conflict: Soviet Foreign Policy 1972-1977, and Soviet Succession: Leadership in Transition. I asked him what he thought was happening in the Ukraine, and what the role of the United States has been and should be.

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 aboutabout 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. interferedthey’re blaming the Americans and the European Unionhow 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. European and American steps that contributed to this unfortunate outcome, and quite remarkably, nobody in this administration even seems to have been thinking about what the consequences of their previous actions could be. That’s how we got to our current predicament.

JJ: It’s amazing to me that there was a complete lack of foresight. Even someone who knew nothing about the region could see trouble was afoot. Wasn’t one of the new parliament’s first acts to eliminate the provision having Russian as a second language? 

DKS: That is exactly right. They also began removing governors in eastern provinces. These governors of course were appointed by Yanukovych, but these were ethnic Russians or at least Russian speakers. There was an impression in the eastern provinces that the new government was very hostile to the Russian-speaking population. We were told that there would be a coalition government in Ukraine. If you would look at the composition of this government, it’s not a coalition, I mean it may be a coalition between the moderate opposition and the radical opposition. But that certainly is not a government that includes any politicians representing Ukraine’s Russian speakers. A responsible policy would not trigger a process that was likely to lead to this very unfortunate chain of events.

So we got into a situation when Yanukovych was very unpopular across Ukraine including in the eastern part, including in Crimea. All public opinion polls have indicated that most people in Ukraineincluding, incidentally, in Crimea, were prepared for Ukraine to move in the EU-Atlantic direction. But that did not mean that they wanted to see all ties to Russia severed. That did not mean that they wanted an assault on their language, that did not mean that they wanted to see governors appointed by people in Kiev, whom they are considered hostile to their concerns. These were the dynamics that allowed Russia to interfere. I repeat it does not mean that Russia had the right to interfere, but the administration’s actions encouraged Moscow to go in this dangerous direction.

JJ: What do you think that Putin’s objective is right now?

DKS: Let me say that first, Putin was not sneaking around and plotting to have this outcome. I was talking to a number of sources in Moscow, some of them quite well plugged-in, some in favor of a tougher Russian position, some strongly opposed to it. And all of them were telling me how even at the end of the week before last when Putin was still preoccupied with the Olympics, they were having meetings in Moscow, senior government officials would come and they would not be able to find any kind of solution that would look acceptable to them. The decision clearly was made after the Olympics, it was made by Putin, and I think it was a combination of two things: one was that Putin found himself under pressure to do something. Clearly the way this whole process played in Ukraine was directed against Russian influence. He is a charismatic leader, he is a proud nationalist, his constituency in Russia expects him to respond. What was happening in Ukraine, along with the way that Putin’s government and Putin personally were treated by the Obama administration and European leaders, put considerable pressure on him to do something.

The second thing was, of course, that from the Russian standpoint, Crimea is a special case. It never was supposed to belong to Ukraine to start with as far as the Russian political consensus is concerned. It was given to Ukraine by Nikita Khrushchev in 1954 as a gift to commemorate the 300-year anniversary of the Ukrainian decision to join Russia. Ukraine of course had the status of a union republic in the USSR, but in fact, like all other republics, was an integral part of the Soviet Union. It would not occur to Khrushchev that he was delivering Crimea to a foreign state. The majority of the population is either ethnic Russian or Russian speakers. 

This area was conquered by the Russian empire centuries ago. Crimea was almost like San Diegoa major Russian naval base with a lot of very patriotic Russians. It became Ukrainian by default because Boris Yeltsin, when the Soviet Union was disintegrating, his first concern was to get rid of Gorbachev, to get rid of the central Soviet government, and in that struggle he considered other Soviet republics, and particularly Ukraine, his natural allies. I know for a fact from talking to Yeltsin that he had an illusion that after getting rid of the central government, the republics would recognize Russia as a kind of big brother, and that Ukrainian independence would not be for long, and certainly would not be for real. So Yeltsin did not try to raise the issue of Crimea at the time. But that always was a contentious issue. And it was possible to keep Crimea inside Ukraine as long as there was a kind of what I would call a modicum of legitimacy on the part of the Ukrainian government, and a modicum of civility between Russia and Ukraine. With all this broken, I’m sure that Putin was tempted to use this clearly very challenging situation as an opportunity to grab a piece of territory which most Russians consider their own to start with. 

JJ: Right, but his objective at this point is Crimea, it’s not the Eastern Ukraine or the entire country?

DKS: I’m sure that deep down in his heart he would like to get the whole Ukraine. But that I think is totally unrealistic and my assumption is that he is sufficiently pragmatic to realize that. Eastern Ukraine, it’s a much more difficult situation for him, because there are a lot of people in Eastern Ukraine who’d want to join Russia, or at least to have much greater autonomy from Kiev. But others are adamantly opposed to that, so I think it would be so challenging for Russia to try to use force essentially to bring the Eastern Ukrainian provinces into Russia. Where would you establish a new border? I just think that Putin is pragmatic enough not to do something like that unless the government in Kiev really launches a major offensive against these local governments in Eastern Ukraine. There are already, allegedly, according to the Russians, more than 100,000 refugees from eastern Ukraine coming to Russia. If this were to turn into hundreds of thousands or into millions, then I think it may affect Putin’s calculation. But I think at this point, both his plan and his strong preference is to not become involved in eastern Ukraine. 

JJ: Let’s go back to the United States for a moment. What about what Obama is doing now, the idea of threatening that Russia will have to pay costs if it continues to intervene in Crimea? 

DKS: This is a very serious situation for the United States. Whatever is the importance of Crimea for the United States, which I think is negligible, I think it is very clear that if you allow Crimea to join Russia, it would send a very sobering message to all other countries in the region. It clearly would be a blow to American geopolitical credibility in the region and beyond. We were unwilling to do much in Syria or to do much in the case of Iran, and now we would look willing to swallow this political humiliation in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine. So there is no question in my mind that the United States has a responsibility to act. But what Obama is doing is exactly the opposite from what should be done in my view.

First, the president likes to make rather disingenuous comments about what is in the Russian interest. He mentioned that twice in this short statement Friday. To be telling Russians what is in their interestwe should know that this is an exercise in futility. To be telling Russians that they will have to pay costs, well, of course they know that there will be costs. You’re not going to intimidate them by threatening to withdraw from G8 or to expel Russia from G8, to say nothing of just suspending preparations for G8. Russia would obviously want to enjoy the additional prestige of hosting G8 in Sochi, but that is so minor in comparison with Russian neoexistential interests in Ukraine. This is plainly not serious. We are constantly talking about economic sanctionsI have seen Secretary Kerry talking about things that we can do, I have seen a bunch of senators, particularly Senator Lindsay Graham, who after helping to bring the United States into Iraq clearly has forgotten nothing and has learned nothing. If we want to be serious, we have to ask ourselves not only what we can do to Russiaof course we can punish Russia—but also what Russia is likely to do in return. We can inflict severe economic damage on Russia. We can do things which would help to isolate Russia internationally.

But then we should not be surprised if Russia, to compensate for economic losses, and for the loss of prestige, would sign a security agreement with Iran, and would supply Iran with S-300 or perhaps S-400 missiles. You should not be surprised if Russia would do considerably more to support President Assad. And most obviously, you should not be surprised if Russia would introduce a new element of global instability by signing a security agreement with Beijing, and there is a considerable interest in Beijing in strengthening security ties to Russia. So far, Putin has not wanted to pull in that direction, because he wants to have a western option, because he wants to have an American connection. He also does not want to be Beijing’s junior partner. But if you deprive him of the European-American connection, we may alter the geopolitical balance by putting Russia closer to China. There are already discussions in Russia about how they would stop supplying their gas to Europe. They have storage facilities. They can reduce the production of natural gas. You know, this would be a situation very, very painful to Russia. But that would be a situation which may be in many respects worse than anything we have witnessed during the Cold War. We would hear the echoes of 1914. 

I think that what we need to do is to tone down our rhetoric and to think seriously about what our objectives are. I do not see how more autonomy for Crimea would affect negatively fundamental American national interests. And I do not see how providing more autonomy to eastern Ukraine, giving them essentially what we allow states to have in the United States of America, would be such a terrible thing either, and it actually would promote stability in Ukraine. I would try to approach Putin, the Ukrainian government, and I would try to negotiate a comprehensive deal. I would tell our protégés in Kiev that we want to protect them, and we would go a long way to do so. But at the same time, they have to constrain their rhetoric, and they have to start responding seriously to the eastern provinces’ requests.

At the same time, I think we have towithout issuing empty threats to Putinengage in troop movements to position some additional forces on NATO borders to deliver a sense of reality to the Kremlin, to demonstrate to them that if this situation is allowed to escalate they may find themselves in a very unfortunate predicament. So I would suggest more creativity, less talk, and more toughnessnot only with Moscow, but also with our Ukrainian clients. That’s what Kissinger, incidentally, was doing, while with Nixon’s blessing he was masterfully excluding Russia from Egypt and later from SyriaI’m talking about the 1970sand at the same time, maintaining dialogue with the Kremlin. 

JJ: So you are saying we’re speaking loudly and carrying a small stick. 

DKS: We are speaking very loudly. We are carrying a small stick. We are not really disciplining the Russians. We are not clearly defining what is important to us. We are acting like King Lear. We are issuing pathetic declarations which nobody is taking seriously. When I saw Secretary Kerry on television yesterday, I think it was a very sad performance. He was visibly angry. He was visibly defensive. He was accusing Russians using very harsh language of violations of international law. His description of the political process in Ukraine which led to this situation was incomplete and disingenuous at best. And then, after he said all of these things, he did not say, “Well, because of the Russians violating international law, threatening international security, that because of that the President of the United States is moving our naval assets in the Black Sea!” With the language he was using, that’s what you would expect him to do. But he was carrying a small stick.

Rhetoric is not policy and sounding tough doesn’t roll back Russia’s advances. The administration will have to do something that does not come naturally to it: think strategically. This means taking steps, preferably quietly, to demonstrate our commitment to the security of the Baltic States. It means considering strengthening the Ukrainian military if the conflict escalates. But it also means avoiding empty public threats, respecting Russia’s dignity and avoiding creating an impression that it’s our way or the highway. 

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