Russia's Deployment of Troops to Crimea Demands Diplomacy, Not Threats or Escalation

Posted March 5, 2014

MP3 Interview with David Kotz, professor of economics at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, conducted by Scott Harris

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The celebrations of pro-European parties and activists reflecting on their successful ouster of Ukraine’s elected president, Viktor Yanukovich, were cut short when Russian troops reportedly had been deployed to the nation’s Crimean peninsula on Feb. 28. An unknown number of soldiers said to be Russian, wearing uniforms without insignia, surrounded Ukrainian military bases and the Crimean parliament. Simultaneously, pro-Russian Ukrainian groups organized protests in the country’s majority ethnic Russian cities in the east and south, expressing opposition to the defacto government that took power in Kiev after three months of an often bloody occupation that cost more than 85 lives.

While the Obama administration and its European Union allies threatened Russia with economic sanctions and a boycott of the upcoming Group of 8 economic summit in Sochi this summer, President Putin told the Russian media in Moscow on March 4 that the soldiers in the Crimea are not Russian, calling them, “local forces of self defense." He branded the overthrow of Ukraine’s government as an "unconstitutional coup" and said he hopes that Russia won't need to use force to protect the people of predominantly Russian-speaking eastern Ukraine. Earlier, the Kremlin announced that tens of thousands of Russian troops that had been participating in military exercises near Ukraine’s border had been ordered back to the their bases.

At the same time, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry met with officials in Kiev, and announced $1 billion in American loan guarantees to assist the interim Ukrainian government. Between The Line’s Scott Harris spoke with David Kotz, professor of economics at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, who assesses the possible consequences of Russia's intervention in Crimea, the U.S.-European response and strategies for reducing tensions.

DAVID KOTZ: The Russian reaction was entirely predictable. I think, you have to ask, who made a mistake that led to this disastrous situation? And I’m afraid that has to be laid at the doorstep of the United States and the European Union, both of which encouraged what developed into an armed uprising against the elected president of Ukraine, despite the fact that the leadership of the uprising on the ground consisted of extreme nationalists who are very hostile to Russia and to Russians. Some of them are descended from a group that during World War II, during the Nazi occupation of the Soviet Union, worked with the Nazi occupiers. One of the first acts of this new parliament after the uprising in Ukraine was to end the official status of the Russian language, which is one of the two official languages of Ukraine, or had been. So once things arrived at that pass, and Russia was now facing a Ukraine that was being pulled from its position having relations both with the West and Russia – toward being completely taken into the Western alliance – I think it was inevitable that Russia was going to act.

I don’t think it was some master scheme on the part of Putin; I think it was an inevitable result of having Ukraine pulled in that direction by the West. You know, the EU agreement that Yanukovich had considered signing, but then did not sign at the last minute had two key features. One is it included harsh austerity measures that would have been very harmful for the Ukrainian people. But it also had a provision that stated that Ukraine would henceforth follow NATO in military policy. So this meant the major former Soviet states, right on the border of Russia, were going to be drawn into NATO. It was inevitable that Russia was going to react, and to see NATO as an anti-Russian force, and didn’t want to see it extend right to its border in a large state that had always been part of, or friendly to, Russia.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Professor, what do you think Vladimir Putin’s objectives are in sending troops to the Ukraine? Is it annexation or pressure to extract concessions from the new Ukrainian government in Kiev?

DAVID KOTZ: Nobody’s sure. One possibility is that Putin has stated that he favors keeping Ukraine independent in its present borders. Now, maybe he’s changed his mind; but one possibility is that by taking control of Crimea, which is overwhelmingly, I think Russian, it may be that he is trying to press the new government in Kiev to negotiate and to break its ties with the extreme right-wing nationalists.

The new government is not made up of these right-wing nationalists, but they played a leading role in the armed uprising and they have a lot of influence. I assume that’s why the parliament passed this very harmful anti-Russian language law. So perhaps Putin thinks once the new leaders realize that their actions are threatening the survival of the Ukraine state, that they will think twice and make it clear that they will respect the rights of ethnic Russians in eastern Ukraine and in Crimea. That’s one possibility.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Professor Kotz, when you look at the U.S. and European response to the Russian troops being deployed in Crimea, what do you make of the threats of economic sanctions against Russia, including a boycott of the G8 summit in Sochi this summer, and other things that are being talked about, such as deploying anti-missile systems to Poland and Romania earlier than had previously been agreed to? A lot of saber-rattling is going on right now. Is that productive?

DAVID KOTZ: I think it’s totally unproductive; I don’t know if anyone thinks it will have any impact on what Russia does in this situation. The fate of Ukraine is of essential importance to Russian policymakers, and it would be hard to believe that threats, the kind of threats being made, or that might plausibly be made and carried out, would change their actions in this.

It’s embarrassing the way the media has been treating this — as a match between two individuals, you know: Who will blink first? Obama and Putin. It’s being treated as this kind of "manhood" contest.

I think the right policy would be for the Obama administration to open negotiations with Russia to try to arrive at a compromise in which the Ukrainian government would clearly recognize the rights of all the people of Ukraine. I think that, with some kind of guarantees, for the rights of ethnic Russians as well as ethnic Ukrainians, I think that’s the way to solve the problem. Not saber-rattling, and everyone knows there's no sabers going to be drawn.

David Kotz is co-author of the book, "Russia's Path from Gorbachev to Putin: The Demise of the Soviet System and the New Russia." For more information on David Kotz's writings, visit people.umass.edu/dmkotz/KotzPapers.html.

CORRECTION/UPDATE: Extreme right-wing party activists have been appointed to key posts inside Ukraine's new interim government. See this article for details: "How the far-right took top posts in Ukraine power vacuum," March 5, 2014.

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