YouTube video

Prof. Tarik Cyril Amar and Prof. Nicolai Petro say while the legalities of the Crimea referendum are dubious, the only way out of this crisis is to accept its results

Story Transcript

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

We’re continuing our discussion on the vote on Sunday in Crimea, where the majority of people, it seems, were reported as 95 percent voted to leave the Ukraine and join Russia. And in this continuing of our interview, we’re going to discuss the geopolitical significance of all of this.

Now joining us, first of all, from Berlin is Tarik Amar. He’s an assistant professor of history at Columbia University specializing in contemporary history of Ukraine and Russia. He’s also an associate of Columbia University’s Harriman Institute.

And joining us from the Ukraine is Professor Nicolai Petro. He’s a professor of politics at the University of Rhode Island. He’s been in Ukraine since August as a visiting scholar.

Thanks, both of you, for joining us.

So, Tarik, I’m going to start with you. Talk a little bit about where we’re at in terms of Russian-American relations. Is this really a turning point, or a year from now we’ll look back and say, well, this was another Georgia, but, you know, everything got back to normal again and because the underlying economic interest of the elites of Russia and the United States are too similar, too wound up with each other, and fundamentally not antagonistic, at least not for now? Which interpretation do you go for? Or another one?

TARIK CYRIL AMAR, PROF. OF HISTORY, COLUMBIA UNIV.: Personally, my interpretation would be closer to this being a turning point. And the reason is actually with the one factor, a major player that is also here, which is the Europeans, meaning the European Union in this case.

And we have seen, especially over the last three days to five days, what I think is a clear shift inside German politics, the belief of the chancellor, of Merkel, and her foreign minister, Steinmeier, who are the main shapers of German policy in this respect and who have a very big influence also on E.U. policy here. Their position has become significantly harder. They have articulated it in public, so they cannot easily retreat from that. They have both clearly indicated now that they are fully aware that the German economy, as we know, is heavily invested in Russia, and there is substantial energy dependence of Germany on Russia, but that nevertheless they think that sanctions of the level—we are seeing them now—are absolutely called for. And they have been very decided also about the fact that a higher level of sanctions, that would then also involve costs for the German economy, could also be taken into account and could also be, in fact, accepted.

I think the European position has shifted here. And when you look back to Georgia, it was precisely the German and the European position that actually made the outcome the way we know it now. And in this case, the American and the European positions have actually, if at a slightly different tempo, but more or less in parallel, become much tougher. Plus you also have an entirely different geographical location, of course, which is very important and which brings in Poland in a way that it hasn’t been in these policies before, and of course also the Baltic states. So there are now processes within NATO and within the E.U. where the newer members, the East European members, are very clearly forming up an alliance to demand of the older members a tougher position towards Russian policies.

And I think this will have real effects, this will actually change the overall climate.

JAY: Nicolai, what’s your take on the same question?

NICOLAI PETRO, POLITICS PROF., URI, VISITING SCHOLAR IN UKRAINE: I think there is a much greater likelihood that this will be accepted by the Europeans, precisely because I don’t see German policymakers as that united. I take note, for example, of the interviews given by the former chancellor Helmut—Gerhard Schröder and also Helmut Kohl, who spoke out against taking extremely vociferous positions that back Germany into a corner.

Italy have been much more cautious.

Also of note, Japan. Japan has said it will not consider sanctions against Russia.

And, of course, one of the things to consider is that whereas the United States and Europe may indeed be involved in applying sanctions, Russia has other attractive partners that would support its overall international position. And most notable among them are China and India. And this may indeed push Russia toward much closer cooperation with the East than it has had with the West heretofore.

JAY: Tarik, The New York Times a few days ago had a piece buried—I shouldn’t say buried, but right near the end of the article there was one paragraph I thought was particularly interesting, and this was how Putin had told his oligarchs about a year ago, get your money out of the West to bring it back to Russia, ’cause you’re too vulnerable to sanctions. And The Times went on to talk about a debate going on in the official leading circles around Putin, including Putin.

But maybe the Chinese model of capitalism is a more attractive one than the Western, in other words more of a state capitalism.

You know, we’ve been having debates over the years, people we’ve interviewed on The Real News, you know, is Putin simply a representative of the oligarchs or not, and conventional wisdom was that, yes, he’s essentially their representative. But if the New York Times piece is correct, they’re suggesting that he’s now the—Putin and the Russian state seem to be more in control and able to discipline individual oligarchs. And maybe they represent oligarchs in general, but the Russian state clearly, according to this piece, has its own ambition over and above the oligarchs. In other words, the West can’t just rely on this economic interest and all the ties the various oligarchs have to the West, that the Russian state’s becoming, you know, very much its own—having its own agenda—and this may be a very nationalist one, at least so the West says. And we know the Americans and we know from WikiLeaks and such they use—the Americans use this phrase the Russians having an energy noose around the neck of Europe. So is it possible there is a line in the sand going to be drawn here to test where the Russian state is in all of this?

AMAR: I think that the idea that Putin is a representative of the oligarchs is actually wrong, and I think it has been wrong from his first term in office. I think that Putin is, of course, inside, also, networks, and he stands at the top of networked hierarchies, and he’s not entirely independent forces, of course.

But Putin’s signature has actually been to reassert the state, and that means the siloviki, that means the people who actually have the power, the guns, the police, the military, last but not at all least, of course, the secret services against the oligarchs. And I think it makes much more sense to read Putin as a firm believer in a sort of great-power state that he sees in a certain way—I think, in a way that has a lot to do, actually, with the 19th century, less with the 20th. And that state actually then deploys—or employs economic actors, and they ultimately should follow its line. That would be my take on that particular question.

There is one thing I would like to add to the discussion of the European position. I know that I would not like to give the impression that I think that a hardening of the European and American lines toward Russia will bring quick results, that there are those people who now argue that, you know, you just apply a few sanctions, you slap them on the elite, and then Putin’s system is just going to crumble. I think that is extremely unlikely, which is why, in fact, I think we’re going to see a situation where the climate will cool down significantly.

Of course the Germans are also still saying that there should be cooperation and there should be talks. They have never been in that position. But if you think in terms of Schröder, and also Kohl, both of them are former chancellors, and the men who used to represent Schröder’s line in the German government was precisely Steinmeier, the current foreign minister, who was basically Schröder’s right-hand man. And Steinmeier and /g@nold.El@/, his assistant, also handpicked by him, up until two weeks ago still stood, I think, basically for a modernized, adapted, very cooperative approach to Putin. And I think there’s a shift here.

But, you know, what I think we should add, one hardcore issue, of course, is that the energy noose is a bit exaggerated, but there is a big energy dependence on Russian energy.

However, it is not without alternative. And I think it is one of the major mistakes Putin has really made here, that he has pushed the Europeans toward finally thinking fundamentally about diversifying their energy supply. And they can actually do this. They can rely much more on Norwegian gas. It’s not as much as Russian gas, but it’s there. They can rely much more on liquified gas, which then of course would be imported partly from the United States, and they would have to build additional terminals, and so on and so on.

But in essence all of these sorts of plans for how to diversify energy supply for the West European—or, actually, more than that, for the E.U. economies—away from Russia already—exist. And I think Putin has just given them a massive boost.

JAY: Okay. Nicolai, just quickly, if it was up to you, what steps would be followed to try to resolve this crisis? What do you suggest?

PETRO: First of all, I think we should see the Crimean crisis in the context of the overall crisis of relations that the government in Kiev has with all of the East and South. And that secondary issue of what’s going to happen in the East and South of Ukraine has not yet been resolved.

So the most urgent task of the government in Kiev is to calm the fears of the population in the East and the South by promoting national unity. And I think there are some immediate steps that can be taken that would help promote national unity in Ukraine.

So the first is to publicly embrace the idea of federalism. The government in Kiev needs to get ahead of this issue so that it can turn it into a productive and civil discussion.

Secondly, it needs to build credibility with the population of the East and South and invite some of the more popular and competent governors in the East and the South into the national government. Instead, they’ve just been summarily replaced by loyalists from Kiev.

A third point—and this is a very important one—is to take the symbolic step of making Russian Ukraine’s second official language. It’s time to accept the reality that Ukraine is bilingual and to cut this Gordian Knot. No other single gesture will do more to calm tensions between the East and the South and the rest of Ukraine.

Another issue is to create a truth and reconciliation commission that can look and give a comprehensive assessment at how the peaceful protests on the Maidan degenerated into lawlessness and violence. Right now there are two very different narratives about how and why this happened, and both sides need to be heard.

Lastly—and this’ll be the most difficult of all—is accept de facto, if not de jure, that Crimea is effectively lost. Russian troops certainly enabled this decision, but its origins go back years, if not decades. I agree with Professor Graham Allison’s conclusion that the current government in Kiev can waste precious resources trying to reverse this decision but it would be better advised to focus on nation-building at this point.

JAY: Tarik, what’s your response?

AMAR: In many ways, actually, my response would be very similar, although I guess I arrive at it from different starting points. But I entirely agree that the government of Kiev, and Ukraine in general, would be very well advised to at least accept a de facto outcome as it is now. I think it is demanding too much that it would accept this de jure, but de facto, yes, it has to—.

JAY: Okay, just very quickly, define those terms for people who may not get them. Some of our viewers are younger.

AMAR: Yeah. Yeah. Well, the Kiev government, I think it is very unlikely that it would actually say to the world, we acknowledge the succession of Crimea, and if it comes to that, we acknowledge that now Crimea is part of the Russian Federation. I don’t think they can do that, and I think that’s really demanding too much.

But de facto would simply be that they would live with it in some peaceful manner. That makes a lot of sense. Part of the reason is that the Ukrainian army is an incredibly weak army. It’s even weaker than it looks on paper. That simply is a fact, and there is absolutely no fighting option for Ukraine here.

The second point about the Southern and Eastern parts of Ukraine in general, I can only also agree. It’s very important to depolarize the situation, as it were, and to signal to these parts of the country and their populations that the government in Kiev wants to be there for all of Ukraine. I would add that on the whole, the government has not made too many mistakes yet in that respect.

It did make one terrible mistake, which was playing with the language law, which they should never have done. Ultimately, they retracted from that. It is quite right that the status of Russian is important. Again, whether it can become a second state language officially or not, that’s probably going to be hard. I personally think that that option should very much be considered, in fact.

But one should also keep in mind that de facto—and I’ve lived in Ukraine for five years—Russian and Ukrainian have coexisted and intermingled very, very strongly, most of the time without conflict. Usually the language issue came up or comes up before elections, when it is, so to speak, you know, reinvigorated for political purposes.

JAY: Some people are suggesting that the new government in Ukraine has very strong, hard, hard right—some people use the term fascist—elements within it, extreme nationalists, and that, you know, given the abysmal state of the Ukrainian economy and how chaotic the politics is, maybe they don’t want a peaceful de facto resolution of all of this. Maybe they want ongoing hot rhetoric and threat of destabilization. It’s a heck of a lot easier to blame Russia for everything than have to face up to the economic problems.

AMAR: I think that that is a scenario that could, unfortunately, develop. The economic problems are massive. They were massive even in November, when this immediate crisis really started. Ukraine is completely bankrupt. And the point is that even with the Western billions now being planned to support Ukraine, they are attached to very severe conditionalities. And without even arguing about whether these conditionalities are a good idea or a bad idea, it is absolutely clear that they will have further, massive, very hard effects on large parts of the Ukrainian population. This will go through the heating costs of households, it may go through pensions, and so on and so on. So, economically, socially, the situation is probably going to get worse. And that would be a place in which far-right politicians (and I find their presence in the Ukrainian government extremely worrying, too) could actually play with this sort of circumstances.

However, I do think we have to wait until after the elections at the end of May. I think as long as we are in this transitory government situation as now, it is very, very hard to say what sort of strategies will actually be implemented and what sort will not be implemented.

One last unknown. If there should be—if there should be the catastrophe of a Russian move beyond Crimea, substantially beyond Crimea, into, say, Donetsk, Luhansk, or these eastern oblasts in general, then of course all bets would be off and Ukrainian politics would probably go into a terrible tailspin.

JAY: Okay, gentlemen, thank you both for joining us.

AMAR: Thank you very much.

PETRO: Thank you.

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


DISCLAIMER: Please note that transcripts for The Real News Network are typed from a recording of the program. TRNN cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.

Creative Commons License

Republish our articles for free, online or in print, under a Creative Commons license.

Tarik Cyril Amar is a historian of the 20th century, specializing in the history of Ukraine, Russia, and the Soviet Union. He is an associate professor in the department of history at Koç University, and was previously an assistant professor of history at Columbia University. He received his BA from Oxford University, MSc from London School of Economics, and PhD from Princeton University. Amar is the former academic director of the Center for Urban History of East Central Europe in Lviv. He is the author of The Paradox of Ukrainian Lviv: A Borderland City between Nazis, Stalinists, and Nationalists.

Nicolai N. Petro is the Silvia-Chandley Professor of Peace Studies and Nonviolence at the University of Rhode Island. He is currently joining us from Odessa, Ukraine.

He served as special assistant for policy toward the Soviet Union in the U.S. Department of State from 1989 to 1990. He has received many fellowships, including two Fulbright awards (one to Russia and one to Ukraine).

He comments frequently about Russia and Ukraine, and his latest book, Ukraine in Crisis, was published this month by Routledge.