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Jeffrey Sommers & John Quigley analyze the role of Russia and the United States in the Ukraine crisis

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PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay.

On Saturday, Russian troops asserted their control of Crimea in the Ukraine.

Now joining me to discuss the situation there and give us some historical context first of all is John Quigley. John is a professor emeritus of international law at Ohio State University and dealt with conflicts between Ukraine and Russia arising from the breakup of the U.S.S.R. on behalf of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe.

Also joining us: Jeffrey Sommers. He’s an associate professor and senior fellow of the Institute of World Affairs at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

Thanks very much for joining us, both of you.


JAY: So, Jeffrey, let’s start with you. First of all, many people are suggesting or accusing the Russians of violating international law. Do you think this intervention into the Crimea is illegal?

SOMMERS: Well, I think it very well could be, although I would say to some extent the point is mut. In other words, we’ve reached a stage where I think the Russians have become quite frustrated in their dealings with the United States and, to a lesser degree, the E.U. So I think that they feel that agreements that they’ve reached with especially the United States before have not been honored, and so they’re left no recourse but to take extra(perhaps)legal action if they feel [crosstalk]

JAY: But they haven’t intervened in the United States. They’ve intervened in a sovereign country called the Ukraine.

SOMMERS: Well, they have, but, you know, the situation is one in which the United States is intimately involved. I mean, this is really about, to my mind, Russia’s concerns regarding future NATO expansion, which, of course, from the perspective of the Russians, they see as coming into historically Russian territory. So from their perspective it was bad enough that NATO actually went into the former Warsaw Pact nations when they thought they had an agreement with the United States that it never would, and it was bad enough that they had to then see it actually go into the Baltic states, an area that was part of the Soviet Union itself. And then, of course, we saw that prospect with Georgia in 2008, and present perhaps here again. So I think from the perspective of Russia, this was about security concerns and of trying to reach accommodations with the United States, and to a certain extent the E.U., and not being able to.

We have to remember now that before the Russians took this action into Crimea, Putin offered the prospect of a tripartate agreement with the U.S. and the E.U. It was more or less rebuffed. I think the United States felt as if it was in the driver’s seat and it no longer needed to actually engage the Russians seriously on this matter.

JAY: John, what’s your take on this? Is this intervention a violation of international law?

JOHN QUIGLEY, PROF. INTERNATIONAL LAW, OHIO STATE UNIVERSITY: Well, I think it’s close, and it will depend on the facts. In principle it is a violation of international law to intervene in the territory of another state. But here you’ve got a special situation in Crimea, and so far it’s important to note the intervention is limited to Crimea. And that’s an area where Ukraine and Russia have bilateral treaties on a multitude of subjects, and one of those treaties requires Ukraine to ensure the linguistic and other rights of minority populations within–well, within the entirety of Ukraine, but in particular in Crimea. And arguably–and this would be the Russian position–that obligation is being violated by Ukraine, and the population of Crimea is, as a result of that violation, asking for protection from Russia, which already has troops there. So it’s not sending troops in. However, in terms of the base agreement, which they do have–and that’s the grounds on which Russia has troops there–the base agreement does–.

JAY: Just a second. Let’s explain the base agreement, ’cause this is a big deal. This is a major port, a base of the Russian Navy.

QUIGLEY: Yes. Yeah. That’s the odd situation in Crimea is that the major naval base of the Russian state is located in Crimea, and that that happens to be in the territory of Ukraine through something of a historical accident. So Russia has an interest here which is quite unusual in terms of the interest of one state in something that is transpiring in the territory of another.

JAY: Now, in terms of the–there’s kind of two ways to analyze this. There’s the geopolitics of it–and I think we should start with that, I guess, and get into it. But there’s also what the people of the Ukraine want. And I find in these discussions sometimes, we tend–we on the outside, particularly in the West, when we’re analyzing this, you know, we spend a lot of time looking at the geopolitics, and by that I also mean the manipulation, intervention, all the machinations of the Americans, but also the Germans and other in the E.U., you know, who have their strategic interests here. And let’s dig into that. But I just want to suggest we’re–also need to talk about, you know, what do the Ukrainians themselves want, because that isn’t all just an outgrowth or repercussion of the various external factors.

But, Jeffrey, start with a little more context of why this is–so much seems to be at stake for Russia here.

SOMMERS: Well, you know, actually, I just want to reference your remarks there. I mean, there is no such a thing as Ukrainians singular. You know. Ukraine is a Soviet construction. You know, there are no single Ukrainian people. The state was created from the pasting together of various territories, first, you know, beginning with Catherine the Great, but also extending to Lenin in 1922 tacked on the eastern portion of the country, which consists of largely Russian speakers. You had Stalin, who added on Galicia, which was part of Poland. This was an outcome of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. And these are where some of the ultranationalists today are coming from, this region that Stalin had actually tacked onto Ukraine. So this would consist of [incompr.] and other areas in Western Ukraine. And then, of course, you have Nikita Khrushchev 1954 attacks on the Russian terrain of Crimea.

So you have many, many divergent viewpoints on this from within Ukraine. There is no such thing as a singular Ukraine.

JAY: But I know very little about the Ukraine, even though on one side of my family, they come from there. But that being said, is not something in the range of 77 percent of the population ethnic Ukrainian?

SOMMERS: Well, yes. So, I mean, we can say that the majority of the population is ethnic Ukrainian. There’s no doubt about that. But we can also say that you have the south and the eastern part of the country, which is mostly ethnic Russian. Then, of course, you have some other minorities as well, Crimean, Tartars, and others.

But this is something that was just kind of pasted together by the Soviets. And I don’t mean to say that there’s not anything such as Ukraine. I’m just saying that the modern Ukrainian borders as they exist were more or less created by the Soviets, and they, you know, tacked on territories [crosstalk]

JAY: But that being said, if one used that argument of made-up countries as a way to say sovereignty doesn’t matter that much, geez, you could take–half of the world would fall into that category.

SOMMERS: Especially, you know, let’s say, if you take a look at the African continent. I mean, so an outcome of European imperialism there created these national boundaries which do not respect–.

JAY: Or the Middle East, or Pakistan. I mean, go on and on and on. I mean, the–.

SOMMERS: And we saw, of course, in the Indian subcontinent, after the British left we saw war. Right? So we saw, you know, a Pakistani split from India. We eventually saw Bangladesh split from Pakistan. So, you know, it’s quite common for these constructions to kind of come apart when there’s no longer a strong centripetal force keeping them together. And I’m not saying that there’s no such thing as sovereignty. I’m just saying that there’s not a Ukrainian identity or public opinion which matches the boundaries of the current Ukrainian state.

JAY: Now, John, if you try to get a sense of what Ukrainians themselves seem divided on, ’cause [incompr.] Russia is very concerned about NATO expansion. And I know, you know, in terms of when the Soviet Union was broken up, Gorbachev was told by the Americans, we’re not going to expand NATO onto your doorstep, and clearly they have. And the idea of a sort of an encirclement of Russia clearly is more or less in place. And if you listen to people like John McCain and the neocons and Romney and the people around him, if–I think we were talking off-camera just before this–if this had been a Romney presidency surrounded by that section of the American foreign-policy elite, this would be a lot hotter right now, because there’s plenty of American political forces that want real contention with the Russians.

But that being said, how do you parse what the Ukrainians seem to want (and in polling I’ve seen about 42 percent of people want to join the E.U.) and them caught in the middle of this geopolitical chessboard?

QUIGLEY: Yeah, I think what Jeffrey said is really key here, namely, that you have a population that is not cohesive, as a result of the fact that the country was cobbled together over a period of time. And that makes it very hard to talk about the sentiment of the people, very substantial sentiment for participation in the European Union, on the theory that, you know, that will make life better. You know, whether it will or not is something that can only be speculated.

JAY: Yeah, you can ask the Greeks how it’s working for them.

QUIGLEY: Exactly. And much of the economy in Ukraine is very closely tied to Russia, especially in, you know, the eastern part, which makes it difficult to have too heavy a swing towards the European Union.

JAY: Now, there’s a difference here between wanting to be part of the E.U. There’s a difference between that and the joining of NATO. I think there’s quite a difference there between what the Americans–and German, I think, are probably the two biggest players in all of this. Their strategic interest is to get the Ukraine into NATO, where the people of the Ukraine want to be in the E.U. As you said, it’s not clear whether that would be particularly good for them, but, boy, it looks good when you’re probably sitting in the Ukraine. I mean, the West always looked great to people in Eastern Europe until they found out more about it.

But that being said, there is a real domestic internal conflict here which isn’t about the geopolitics. It’s about people being fed up with their governments of various types. They’re being–they’re fed up with the way the economy’s operating. And even–if I understand it correctly, even in the Russian areas, they don’t want secession. They’re talking about, you know, having more rights. Give us just a better sense, Jeffrey, of how the domestic situation’s breaking down.

SOMMERS: Well, you know, first, just regarding and referencing your points about the E.U., I just want to say that, you know, we have to remember that it must look, again, very attractive to people in Ukraine to join the E.U. But essentially what they’re seeing is the ghost, the phantom of an E.U. that once existed but is slowly and actually now quite rapidly dissolving. In other words, that social market economy that was built after World War II which provided such widespread benefits to so many people is under assault. And so we’re seeing a very, very hard turn, of course, in the E.U. towards neoliberalism. And I think that Ukrainians are going to find themselves quite disappointed by what they’ll find if they join with the E.U. But I greatly respect their desire to remove these kleptocrats which have plagued them since the beginning of independence, and that extends, of course, to Yanukovych, who was just removed from power. So I fully, fully respect their desire to push away these kleptocrats and to move towards a better system. I just think that they’re not going to necessarily find it with the E.U. And I think what’s going to happen is that there’s just going to be an acceleration of immigration from Ukraine into the European Union. And so you already have a population in Ukraine that’s not having children, for the most part, and the very nation that they seek to build and protect may be euthanized through this process of immigration.

But regarding how they move forward and do they want to in the East join up with Russia or not? Yeah, I think you’re right. I mean, I think that, you know, what they’re really looking for is autonomy protection and not being brought into a future government that would not have their interests at hand. In other words, in the East, they don’t want to be controlled by ultranationalists in the West, and in the West they want less influence from Russia. So I just don’t see how they can resolve this matter simply.

JAY: John, does it not also have to be said that as much as they’re–you know, if they do enter the E.U., they’re really entering E.U. at this stage of neoliberalism, and if you look at what that means for Spain and Portugal and Greece, even Italy, I mean, this is not working anymore, as Jeffrey says. But that being said, the Russian oligarchs are also neoliberals. This is not like all of a sudden you’re dealing with–the Russians are something else. I mean, the Ukrainians, like in many places of the world, are caught between various oligarchs, including American oligarchs on one side and Russian oligarchs on the other. And you can throw the Germans in, too.

QUIGLEY: Yes. I think there are no really ideal alternatives. But I think that the domestic situation somehow needs to be worked out within the country, difficult as that is going to be. I mean, on the one hand, you’ve got a very strong neofascist group operating in Ukraine around the party that is called Svoboda (or Freedom), and those people are very antagonistic to the Russian speakers and, of course, to Russia itself. And it’s that element that is really seen as the most threatening by the Russian speakers. These are the people who were behind the recent action of the Parliament when it decided just a few days ago to eliminate a law that had protected the use of minority languages, and in particular the use of Russian as an official language in those sectors of the country where it is spoken.

JAY: But that was vetoed, wasn’t it?

QUIGLEY: That was vetoed, but just a day or so ago by the president. But it’s an indication of the bent of those in the Parliament that that could get adopted.

JAY: Right. Just finally, just how dangerous a moment do you think this is? I mean, it smells like pre-First World War kind of stuff. But we’re not at that kind of moment, are we?

There’s a story just broke in the United Kingdom almost as we started this interview. An assistant to the British prime minister was walking into a briefing meeting at Downing Street and holding a briefing document, and some photographer actually got a picture of the briefing document, and in the document it says that the United Kingdom will not participate in any kind of economic sanctions against Russia, and in spite of a lot of, you know, rhetoric in the United States. I mean, this doesn’t sound like it’s going to heat up to those levels if, you know, Russia essentially stays in the Crimea and doesn’t go any further. Does that sound right?

SOMMERS: You know, in East Europe, there’s nothing more than they would like to start World War III and kind of create a World War I-like situation. I think fortunately we don’t have John McCain or Mitt Romney in charge in the United States, so I don’t think we’re going to go that route.

And just as you said with Britain, I think because, you know, London essentially is the British economy and it’s an offshore tax-dumping outlaw economy in many respects, but they’re absolutely dependent on all this global oligarchic capital which is fleeing taxation in their respective home countries and they dump the money in London, and so London’s not going to do anything to scare that money off. So I think they have no taste for acting against Russia and perhaps seeing some kind of forced exit of that, repatriation of that money from pressures being brought to bear from the Russian state on its own oligarchs.

JAY: John, same question.

QUIGLEY: Yes. Yeah. I think it’s helpful, actually, that the British government is not interested in sanctions against Russia.

I think what the outside powers need to do is promote some kind of reconciliation within the country itself. I think that could probably be done most efficiently by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, which, I mean, like the E.U., is a European organization, but it has a different focus. And one of its main areas of activity–and it’s been active in Ukraine for some years–is to work on questions of national minorities and protecting their rights as a way of preventing ethnic divisions from growing into something that would threaten national security of a particular state or at the international level. And that, I think, is an organization that is looking for a role here. Its chairman-in-office, as they call it, has been calling within the last few days for some kind of a role. In fact, Samantha Power, the UN ambassador to the United States, was calling for the OSCE to be brought in as a kind of monitor to try to ascertain the facts in Crimea. But it seems to me it could play a stronger role than that.

JAY: But this is going to be worked out by the Russians and the Americans in terms of whatever the geopolitics of these are, unless the situation, you know, internally gets out of their control.

SOMMERS: I think that relations between Russia and the United States could be quite tense going forward. But in some respects it could be positive as well. I mean, I think Russia is making it very clear, especially with regards to NATO, that it’s not going to permit its continued expansion into its territory.

And so the United States might start behaving more responsibly, and hopefully some of the more extremist elements from within the State Department, people like Victoria Nuland, who made her infamous remarks to the E.U. about the need to act more aggressively towards Russia, will be curbed, and we might see a more, hopefully, respectful dialog between the United States and Russia based upon their understanding that both are going to engage each other constructively and seriously.

JAY: Okay. Thank you, gentlemen, for joining us.

SOMMERS: You bet.

JAY: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.


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JEFFREY SOMMERS is an associate professor and Senior Fellow of the Institute of World Affairs at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. He is also visiting faculty at the Stockholm School of Economics in Riga.  He is co-editor of the forthcoming book The Contradictions of Austerity. In addition to CounterPunch he also publishes in The Financial Times, The New York Times, The Guardian, TruthOut and regularly appears as an expert on global television.

Before joining the Ohio State faculty in 1969, Professor John Quigley was a research scholar at Moscow State University, and a research associate in comparative law at Harvard Law School. Professor Quigley teaches International Law and Comparative Law. Professor Quigley holds an adjunct appointment in the Political Science Department. In 1982-83 he was a visiting professor at the University of Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.

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Professor Quigley is active in international human rights work. His numerous publications include books and articles on human rights, the United Nations, war and peace, east European law, African law, and the Arab-Israeli conflict In 1995 he was recipient of The Ohio State University Distinguished Scholar Award.  He formerly held the title of President’s Club Professor of Law.