The following is an interview of Alexey Pushkov, chairman of the international affairs committee of the Russian State Duma. Pushkov spoke by telephone with Paul Saunders, associate publisher of the National Interest, on March 10. A recording of the interview can be found here.
Paul Saunders: Thank you very much for taking the time to speak to our readers of the National Interest magazine. We’re all quite interested in the crisis in Ukraine and in Crimea. Perhaps the best question to start would be a question about the referendum that’s scheduled to take place less than a week from now in Crimea. Do you expect that referendum to take place as it’s scheduled on March 16th and what outcome do you expect?
Alexey Pushkov: Well I think that there is no reason why the referendum wouldn’t take place as the date that it was set on. As for the result, as far as I can judge, there is a majority for the first question: Whether Crimea should join Russia. How large is this majority? This referendum will probably define. And of course, like in every referendum it cannot be 100% predictable. But I would say that there are high chances for the first question about the Crimea joining Russia to receive the approval of the majority.
Saunders: If that happens, I have two questions: You know, first of all, as you know, the United States and European governments don’t consider it to be a legitimate exercise. And as a result, whatever the outcome, it’s likely to be contested. In that environment, if there is a majority vote in Crimea for Crimea to join Russia, and it is contested by the United States and the European Union and perhaps others, how do you expect that the Duma would respond to that?
Pushkov: I cannot predict first the result of the referendum. Second, I cannot predict the vote in the Duma. I think that certain things will become more clear when in due time. But I would like to point out that for some reason the United States and their European allies consider the referendum which took place in Kosovo, as far as I remember, in 2002, without the agreement of Belgrade, as fully legitimate. And I don’t see absolutely any reason why this referendum should be considered not legitimate, but one: is that it does not correspond to what the ruling elite think in Brussels and in Washington. I don’t think this is enough, not to recognize the results of this referendum.
If it is allowed for the population of Kosovo to define their future by themselves, and it is considered to be a legitimate, democratic exercise, [almost] a direct democracy, so I think in this case, whatever is the result of the referendum in Crimea, it can also be seen an example of direct democracy and a expression of the will of the people. And if the West does not recognize this, it is up to the West. But I think that the will of almost three million, or I mean, of the majority of people in Crimea is definitely more important than the position that would be taken by European capitals or by Washington, especially in conditions where they have approved of such referendums before.
So I think that the United States and their European allies had set a precedent in Kosovo. And although they said at the time it is no precedent, it is a precedent. They have opened themselves the Pandora’s Box. They have said that referendums can be a way out of belonging to a country if the majority in this or that region thinks so. And so I think now they have to study more carefully the experience of the Kosovo referendum and then ask themselves the question: if they recognized the referendum of Kosovo, why they not recognize this very one?
Saunders: I’m not an American official or obviously not a European one. I expect many of them would respond to that by arguing that violence that was underway in Kosovo was on a much larger scale than has been seen so far in Crimea. But that being as it may, do you think that the Duma would take action on the referendum immediately? I mean, within a period of days? Or would it take longer than that? And how do you, as the Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee in the Duma, how would you vote, yourself personally, on the question of annexing Crimea to Russia?
Pushkov: I would like first to respond to your remark about violence in Kosovo. I have to say that the way the power was seized in Kiev was quite violent. There is evidence of killings by the insurgents, the so-called revolutionaries. Two people were killed at the headquarters of the Party of Regions when it was taken over by the insurgents and they were all from the technical staff, who did not have any responsibility. But they, one of them was shot, another one was burnt alive by the Molotov cocktails thrown at him. The head of the presidential administration at the last stage of Yanukovych presidency, Mr. Kluyev, was attacked in his apartment and was shot upon. And now he’s, with a bullet in his back, he’s in the hospital. A communist was seized in Kiev. He was tortured. He had his skull fractured, his head fractured, and so on and so on and so on. So, violence was in its place in Kiev. Not to the extent as in Kosovo, but there were quite a few examples of violence and violations of human rights. And I don’t think that the people in Crimea would like that to come to them.
There are from six to eight thousand ultranationalists armed to the teeth in Kiev who are the inheritors of the same as Ukrainian Liberation Movement of Stepan Bandera, allied to the Nazis in the Second World War. These were the people who took part in the killing of 150,000 Jews, mostly Jews, and also other people, in the Babi Yar shooting. Out of 1,500 of those who performed this crime, only 300 were German Nazis, and 1,200 were the predecessors of those who are now patrolling the streets of Kiev with SS signs on their lapels. So I think that it would be probably quite strange to wait for violence to come to Crimea before taking some actions. So I think that the Supreme Council of Crimea decided just to avert such a violence by conducting a referendum and asking Russia for some defense.
So there is some logic for this. We should not have, you know, a lot of blood to be spilled in order to come to such a decision. Especially that, as I say, the forces which are in power in Kiev rely to a large extent on pro-Nazi parties and one of those parties, which is called today the Freedom Party [Editor’s note: the Svoboda Party], initially was called the Social Nationalist Party. You would easily notice that with a slight inversion, you get the National Socialist Party as the real title of this party. And the leader of this party has been one of the partners of the Western powers. He shook hands in business with the European leaders. There are photos of him, his name is Mr. Tyahnybok, the leader of the Social Nationalist Party, with the Assistant Secretary of State, Ms. Victoria Nuland, smiling, standing very close to him. So I think there are enough grounds for fears in Crimea that this armed and radical force could come to Crimea and try to establish their order there, too. So that’s about the comparisons with Kosovo and about the potential violence.
As for the voting, I would like to stress that we have not yet the results of the referendum and we have not yet a law which would allow for Russia to take inside the Russian Federation a region from a different country that would, under certain conditions, apply to Russia in order to be accepted inside the Russian Federation. This law is not yet accepted by the Russian Duma. Although, there is a draft law which is being considered. But as I say, the plenary session will start only tomorrow in Moscow, and I cannot say when this law will, and if this law will be adopted. And in the absence of this law, and in the absence of the results of the referendum in Crimea, I think it would be premature to speak about the future votes, voting, the future voting.
Saunders: Ok, I understand. Let me go in perhaps a different direction, do you see in the remaining days before that referendum takes place any viable path forward that would involve understandings between the United States, Europe, Ukraine, the Crimean authorities, Russia, to keep Crimea as a part of Ukraine?
Pushkov: Well, I think at the stage where we are, we have to admit at least three realities: the first reality is that the government in Kiev is not recognized as legitimate by a large number of Ukrainian citizens. And not only in Crimea. It is not recognized as legitimate by the majority in Kharkiv, in Donetsk, in Luhansk, and in some other cities of Ukraine which are largely populated by Russians. Therefore, all the decisions taken by this government are considered to be illegal. And you could have probably seen, you could have probably see on the TV screens, the massive demonstrations against those decisions which are shaking eastern Ukraine. So this is something you have to take into account. This government is not recognized by all the Ukrainians. Although it is being recognized by the United States, it’s not recognized by all the Ukrainians.
The second fact is that this government has come to power through an anti-constitutional coup d’etat. The way the former president, whatever one may think of him, was deposed, was absolutely illegitimate. Under any Ukrainian constitution, there is a procedure of the impeachment of the president, unless he himself certifies in a written form that he is wishing to leave. So first, a Commission on Investigation is created, so that the Commission can come to the conclusion that the president has broken the law [with] something that is justifying his impeachment. At the second stage, the Constitutional Court should be involved, and it should give its own decision, its own judgment. And only on the third stage, the Verkhovna Rada, which is the Ukrainian parliament, should vote. The first two stages of this process were completely bypassed.
Actually, the pretext that was used to depose the president was absolutely anecdotal. It was said that he could not be found, and that it means that he does not perform his national duties. In fact, this is a lie, because Mr. Yanukovych did leave Kiev on February 22nd, but he didn’t even leave the territory of Ukraine. He was in Kharkiv, a Ukrainian city. And I am saying this, because I was in Kharkiv this very day, and I know this for sure. And from Kharkiv, it took one hour to actually depose the legally elected president of Ukraine while he was on the territory of Ukraine. And at 4:00, being in Kharkiv, he gave an interview. And this is a material fact: that he was under Ukrainian territory, and in this interview, which was broadcasted on Ukrainian television, he said that a coup d’etat was performed in Ukraine. So in these conditions, while the United States and a number of European countries have recognized the Ukrainian government, the Russian government does not recognize the Ukrainian government, because it came to power through an evident break of law, and this is the reason for turmoil in Ukraine.
Saunders: But I thought that President Putin in his interview several days ago said that he considered the Ukrainian government to be partially legitimate and that—
Pushkov: No, no, he said the Verkhovna Rada, the parliament, is partially legitimate. By this he meant that the parliament of Ukraine was elected, and so there is some legitimacy to it. But he said “partially”. And the reason for this definition is that under threats to them, either personally or to their families, a number of members of the parliament had to vote. The parliament is partially elected, and so there is some legitimacy to it. The reason for this is that under threats to them personally or to their families a number of members of the parliament had to vote and they were forced to by the opposition who took Kiev.
Saunders: But I thought Mr. Putin said that they had instructed Russian government officials to work with Ukrainian government officials?
Pushkov: No actually he said that they have to study the possibilities of economic direction with Ukraine, but until today the Russian government had no meetings with the leaders of the Ukrainian government. While in Paris when he had the negotiations with Kerry they decided to see the acting foreign minister of Ukraine and the official position of the Russian government is they do not recognize the so called new government of Ukraine.
Saunders: Alright, well perhaps getting back to my original question there, do you see any way in the next few days there to come to some referendum? Some understanding that would allow Crimea to remain inside Ukraine as a part of Ukraine?
Pushkov: Well I do not think it is up to me to define the future of Crimea, the only thing I can say on this score is that I think the responsibility of this outcome relies mostly on the Ukrainian opposition when they signed the agreement of February 21 in Kiev, with president Yanukovych. They had taken certain obligations, some of those obligations were to create a coalition government which would represent all the regions of the country even the eastern regions including all political parties. They had an obligation to disarm immediately military formations, they took an obligation to start the constitutional reform. And as you may know this was guaranteed by signatures of three foreign ministers of France, Poland and Germany representing the European Union. This agreement was forgotten, actually the day it was signed.
Actually I think that this creates a very complicated situation when I do not see how the Europeans acting as intermediates between say the people of Crimea and the government in Kiev if there is no trust or guarantees in the European Union. So in my mind the situation is in a way a deadlock, because people in Crimea do not trust either the people in the government who came to power opposing the president in an unconstitutional way and they do not trust the European Union. So it leaves us with very few options to bridge the gap between Crimea and Kiev.
Saunders: Many people in the United States expect Crimeans will vote to join Russia and the Russian parliament and executive branch will act to make that happen, and I’ve heard your own statement that you are not prepared to predict the outcome. But that is what many people in the United States expect. If that happens; based on your experience in the US Russian relationship over the past couple of decades, how do you think the United States will respond to that?
Pushkov: Well it is up to the United States to decide how they will respond. I just think that the United States should have taken into account that Ukraine is a country bordering Russia. Ukraine is a country that is very important to Russia, not only because of linguistic and cultural ties but because of economic and security reasons. Ukraine has a joint border with Russia of 1450 kilometers and so when the United States was supporting in Ukraine anti-Russian forces, when the United States immediately recognized the government when there is a high, high doubt of its legitimacy, when the US did not pay attention to the signals coming from Moscow that Russia is extremely worried with the meddling and there was evident meddling from the United States from the European Union in the internal developments in Ukraine. So did the United States think that Russia would not object to this in any way?
So I think that we have to take into account that there are security dimensions in our relationship and there are still political games that are being played with this old idea that the Bush administration has been taken over by the Obama administration with taking the Ukraine into NATO. Let’s agree that this goal of bringing Ukraine into NATO was in important goal in American foreign policy. Every time Hillary Clinton came to Kiev she would remind Yanukovych of Ukraine’s entry into NATO. So I think that it was quite weird that the United States would think that Russia would just stay aside without reacting to those events and the United States will destabilize a country that is so close to Russia and will also support an anti-Russian government in Kiev. But as I say it is up to the US government to decide how they will react. Russian worries about the institutional relationship with Ukraine were only strengthened by the role the US played in all this. And I think a big part of the responsibility in this crisis relies on the United States which got carried away with regime change in yet another country. But his is a country that is historically, culturally, economically and in security important to Russia, and I think it was not taken into account.
Saunders: Let me ask a last question, you’ve been generous with your time. As you know the US government has a different perspective on the events that you’ve described. Many Americans have a different perspective, and if you look at the reaction in the United States to events so far there has been extensive discussion here of trying to punish Russia for Russia’s conduct for violation of international norms. There has been talk of trying to isolate Russia. The United States has not made a decision on how to react to what’s happened and of course we don’t know what’s going to happen in Ukraine but if the United States reacts to what happens by imposing large scale sanctions perhaps by working together with Europe and impose costs as President Obama has stated. What kind of reaction do you expect from the Russian people and the Russian government? Do you think Russia will accept that situation or will it retaliate against the West? Will the two governments be able to keep that situation under control, or will it escalate?
Pushkov: Well there are a number of question in which you have just asked. I would first like to stress that the United States is uniquely in a place to talk about international norms and international law. And I have to tell you I am now in Paris, and in France for instance there is a large skepticism about hearing US officials remind about international law after the United States was the country who was violating international law in so many cases over the past fifteen years starting with the war in Iraq. The fact is that the United States mentions international law when they think others violated it but do not actually follow international law when their interests are at stake and when they are taking foreign policy decision. I think this is something rather evident not only for Russians but also for Europeans and the Chinese and the Indians and many others.
Now the attempts to isolate Russia I believe will fall flat. The EU and NATO are the head of 28 countries, important countries; but they arenot the whole world. And we know now that there are big important sectors of economic might outside of the Euro-Atlantic community. I think to isolate Russia is something that will be wrong on those who try isolate it. And by the way China has made it known on two occasions that it will not support strong handed approaches to Russia and to sanctions and to Ukraine. Its approach was widely shared by Russia. So I will have to say it needs to be taken into account when some talk about isolating Russia. Now what will be the reaction of the Russian people to large scale sanctions? First I think the sanctions from the United States and Europe will differ. Europe is much more dependent on trade with Russia, the volume is 460 billion dollars which is not something they easily let go in times of this recession. Europe has very important investments in Russia. And Europe is definitely interested to keep Russia as an important trade and economic partner. The ties with the US are not so important, the volume of trade is about 40 billion dollars, there are important investments of American companies in Russia but they cannot be compared to European ones. So I think the level and scale of sanctions will differ, American sanctions will be more thorough and more drastic than European.
So I think the Russian people will react differently to American sanctions than European sanctions. Anyway this will just help to consolidate the Russian population to get behind Vladimir Putin, that is the ultimate result. It will be seen as a political attack on Russia for an issue that the United States should not necessarily have such a strong voice. Because it is about the fate of a land that used to be Russian for 300 years and was attached to Ukraine in 1954. And so the whole world knows that Crimea was never a part of Ukraine in its history. And that it is by some accident of history that the dismemberment of the Soviet Union in 1991 that Crimea became part of Ukraine. So in Russia I believe the support for Crimea is very strong and the reason I’d say there is resurgence of a strong feeling of community with the Russians in Crimea and I think that sanctions will just strengthen the doubt and the suspicions towards the United States that they want to weaken Russia and create some problems for it in its immediate neighborhood.
How the Russian government will respond? Well I think the Russian government will not change its mind under the threat of sanctions. And the Russian government will also get into some arguments, there are some areas in which Russia cooperates with the United States. The so called Afghan transit, there are two roads through which the United States are going to bring their military hardware and operational facilities and whatever they want to bring by train through Russian territory through Uzbekistan to Riga to the Baltic sea and by air, through the Russian airspace. Would the United States like to see these ties severed? That is up to the United States but this is something that is already being discussed in Russia. Another issue for instance is the implementation of the New START treaty. If the sanctions that the United States take towards Russia are really far reaching then the foreign minister let it know that Russia may suspend the inspections for the implementation of this treaty. So there are a number of ways that the us and Russia have been partners and if the united states does not want to be partners with Russia anymore I believe Russia will take the same steps.
Saunders: Well thank you for that, it sounds like our governments will continue to disagree on these issues and we will see what will happen in the coming days.
Pushkov: You asked me a question about keeping the tension under control. And I think that’s a very good question, I think that if Moscow and Washington have very different views on the events on Ukraine and the referendum on Crimea that they should keep tensions under control. Because in both countries there are people who would like to use this to start a new cold war. I don’t think that it should be allowed to happen because we didn’t end the cold war just to start a new one.
Saunders: We’ll see what happens, thank you very much.
Image: Flickr/Horasis. CC BY-SA 2.0.