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West Needs to Decide Which is More Important: Punishing Russia or Preserving the Territorial Integrity of Ukraine

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Interviewed on ValdaiClub.com, first published on March 11, 2014

What do you think about the situation in Ukraine at the moment? Why do the West countries recognize the present authorities in Ukraine that formed a not legitimate government?

I would describe the situation as calm but tense. Even in Odessa, with its deep ties to Russia, and where everyone speaks Russian, there is considerable unease and unhappiness with Russia's intervention in Crimea. It adds an element of unpredictability to an already very complicated domestic situation.

In my opinion, the West's recognition of the present regime is more a matter of expediency than principle.  Yanukovych clearly has no chance of coming back, and the present government in Kiev is the only one available.

On the 5th of March Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said the Ukrainians need assistance to implement the February 21 accord. Do you find it possible to help Ukraine to implement the EU-brokered reconciliation deal?

I do not think it is realistic to return to the February 21st accords that restore Yanukovych to the presidency. I cannot see the present governme nt, or any of the groups associated with the Maidan, accepting that.  A government of national unity is still the most desirable option, but for it to be perceived as such in the East and the South, it cannot have people in it from parties they consider extremist.

What will be the right plan in your opinion? The plan that is good for all sides - Ukraine, Russia and the West?

Western governments need to decide which is more important, punishing Russia or preserving the territorial integrity of Ukraine. It may not be possible to do both. The disparity between the influence that Russia can exert within Ukraine compared to what the EU and the United States can exert is simply too great.

On the other hand, the current government in Kiev is beholden to the West. So one solution to the current stand off that suggests itself is for the West to press Kiev to address Russia's main concerns. Putin stated only two in his interview of March 4th: (1) that the population in the East and the South be safe, and (2) that they be part of the political process. Addressing these concerns directly would suggest that the "socio-political situation in the country is normalizing," and remove Putin's rationale for intervention.
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Don't you find that the US and EU are gripped with panic at the moment? What did they really expect from Russia in the situation with Ukraine?

Apparently, Western governments bought the rhetoric about the Maidan being a popular revolution hook, line, and sinker, and expected that once Yanukovych was removed, the situation would calm down. They did not expect that his ouster "by any means necessary" would provoke such outrage in the East, and they clearly did not expect Crimea to reject the new government in Kiev.

Another area of concern for the West is Russia's declaration of a special interest in the conditions of Ukrainian citizens. As Putin put it: "if we intervene it will in defense of the interests of Ukrainian citizens."  This is a new and very expansive doctrine of foreign intervention, the precise limits of which need to be clarified.

What do you think about the demand of the authorities in Crimea to Vladimir Putin to examine a request for their region to join the Russian Federation, which will be put to a referendum on March 16?

I think that a referendum held on such short notice, without international observers, and without the blessing of the government in Kiev, will be seen as illegitimate. I think it would be wiser for the government in Simferopol to delay the holding of any referendum until at least the end of year, so that tempers cool, and international observers become involved. This would lend any referendum much greater credibility. By the end of the year there will also be a new Ukrainian president and parliament, which might be more receptive to holding such a referendum.
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Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.


Nicolai N. Petro is professor of political science at the University of Rhode Island. He has served as special assistant for policy in the U.S. State Department and as civic affairs advisor to the mayor of the Russian city of Novgorod the Great. His books include: The Rebirth of Russian Democracy (Harvard,1995), Russian Foreign Policy (Longman, 1997), and (more...)

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This carefully balanced interview confirms the Sta... by Deena Stryker on Thursday, Mar 13, 2014 at 3:30:40 PM
What do we care what Ukraine does or doesn't do? T... by John Shriver on Friday, Mar 14, 2014 at 9:47:11 AM
I understand your sentiment. Getting involved in ... by George Masni on Saturday, Mar 15, 2014 at 6:53:47 PM