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Crisis in Ukraine: Crimean Stand-Off

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An interview with David C. Speedie, director of the program on U.S. Global Engagement at the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs, first published on March 4, 2014.

DAVID SPEEDIE: I'm David Speedie, director of the program on U.S. Global Engagement here at the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs in New York.

We are in another iteration of the crisis in Ukraine, and that's the subject of today's Security Bulletin. We are delighted to welcome back Professor Nicolai Petro. Dr. Petro is with the Department of Political Science at the University of Rhode Island, but, most importantly, at the current moment he is on a Fulbright Fellowship in Odessa in southern Ukraine.

Nicolai, welcome back to our Security Bulletins.

NICOLAI PETRO: Hello, David.

DAVID SPEEDIE: Well, every time we speak, we preface it by saying that it's a fast-moving series of developments, and that certainly hasn't changed as far as today is concerned. Can you give us an update, just an overview of your perspective from the south? You are close to Crimea, for example. What is happening?

NICOLAI PETRO: I think everyone is breathing a little bit of a sigh of relief because the latest news is that President Putin announced the end of the military maneuvers that were going on in the western regions of Russia, on the border with Ukraine, so the troops are being sent back. Secondly, there has so far not been any fighting and no bloodshed on Crimea itself between Ukrainian and Russian forces.

DAVID SPEEDIE: On the question of the cooling down of the military temperature, Nicolai, answer just a few clarification questions here.

There is some doubt as to how many Russian troops are actually in the peninsula, whether those are there under the treaty negotiated with Ukraine concerning the Black Sea Fleet, or whether troops have arrived from Russia, what exactly they're doing. In one case, apparently, defending the Belbek air base. It's a confusing picture. Can you cut through it for us?

NICOLAI PETRO: It certainly is confusing. I have no more specific knowledge than what I get reading several different news sources.

As I understand the text of the Black Sea Fleet accords that were signed in 1997, they stipulate that there should be no more personnel allowed on the Russian bases beyond what was there in 1992, which was a significant number. That number is not stipulated in the accords, but I have seen estimates of anywhere from 30,000 to 70,000 troops at its height. Right now there seem to be many fewer troops there, both stationed and even with the 6,000 that the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense says were in support after March 1.

But that fact of sending additional troops is disputed by Russia. In other words, they are claiming that whatever troop movements have occurred are in fact troop movements on the peninsula among troops that are already there. So there is that disagreement.

Both sides in this dispute over Ukraine are referring to the 1997 accords. Ukraine views the Russian troop movements as illegal because they were not approved by "competent organs of Ukraine," as required under Article 8 of the agreement; and, in addition, that the appeal by the government of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea to Russia does not in any case constitute a competent organ of Ukraine because it doesn't supersede Kiev's authority, and that seems logical because the government of Crimea recognizes itself as part of Ukraine.

Russia also, however, makes appeal to the 1997 accord, arguing that it is acting under Article 6 of the same agreement, which allows military formations to function in the areas of their dislocation "in accordance with the laws of the Russian Federation respecting the sovereignty of Ukraine and its laws and not allowing any interference in the internal affairs of Ukraine."

On February 28, the Russian Ministry of Defense claimed that it was strictly abiding by these terms. So there is clearly a disagreement on the interpretation of the treaty, although, if I were a lawyer, I would suspect I would have an easier time defending the Ukrainian interpretation.

DAVID SPEEDIE: On that rather nebulous phrase "competent organs of Ukraine," am I not right in thinking, Nicolai, that the Ukrainians have pointed to that terminology to question the validity of the whole Black Sea Fleet agreement that runs through 2042? That would be a pretty inflammatory thing for Russia.

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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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