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About Ukraine -- an interview with the Iranian News Agency "Fars"

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The day before the Crimean referendum, I responded to the following questions prepared by journalist Kourosh Ziabari for Iran's FARS News Agency (English desk). This interview was never published.

1 - The U.S. government has accused Russia of military aggression in Ukraine. This is while Russia says that it has the right to station troops in Crimea by the virtue of the agreement it signed with the government of Ukraine in 1997 which allows it to maintain troops in Crimea until the year 2017. This agreement is mostly ignored by the U.S. media and the Obama administration officials. What's your take on that? Is the U.S. government trying to demonize Russia in order to lay the groundwork for a large-scale military confrontation with Moscow?

I think the reason for the public's confusion is rather more mundane. It is very difficult for the average observer, who has very little background about either Russia or Ukraine, to grasp why the Russian Black Sea Fleet is still stationed in Ukraine nearly a quarter century after the collapse of the USSR,   along with several thousand navy personnel and their families, and that they have a treaty that allows them to be there through at least 2042.

Having said that, on this occasion U.S. officials seem to have gone out of their way to castigate Russia, and president Putin personally. An example, which struck many observers as unprofessional, was the U.S. State Department posting ten ostensibly false claims made by President Putin about Ukraine.   Noted columnist and former Assistant Secretary of State Leslie H. Gelb even commented incredulously: " Can you believe they did that? "

Still, all the acrimony seems to be for domestic consumption, with little or no preparation being made for actual military confrontation. The Wall Street Journal even reported on March 13, with ill disguised disappointment, that the United States had turned down the Ukrainian government's request for military aid, ammunition, or intelligence.

2 - One of the complaints of the Russian authorities is that in the run-up to the removal of President Yanukovich from power and after it, a policy of alienating the Russian minority of Crimea has been underway, and one example is the declaration that Russia cannot have the legal status of a regional language in Ukraine anymore. How do you see this development?

Many observers have wondered that, with all the pressing issues facing the country, one of the first acts of the reconvened parliament was to rescind the 2012 law that allowed official use of minority languages in regions where more than 10% of the local population uses it. This affects not only Russian but, also Tatar, Hungarian, Rumanian and Polish.  The issue seemed so needlessly inflammatory that some saw it as a worrisome sign of the influence of the radical nationalist agenda in the new government.

The parliament's actions did indeed inflame public sentiment and served as a rallying cry for "pro-Russian" rallies in the East and South, though the term pro-Russian in this context does not really mean separation from Ukraine. Rather, it indicates a desire to be freely able to speak one's own language--Russian, in one's own country--Ukraine.   In fact, Ukraine is already obliged to promote minority languages do so under the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages, which it ratified in 2005.

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The speaker of parliament/acting president has neither signed nor vetoed this legislation.   It is therefore in abeyance until a parliamentary commission re-examines the issue and comes up with its own proposals. This legal limbo, however, simply adds to the uncertainty that people feel.  

3 - Do you agree with the premise that the United States and the European Union are pressuring Russia and threatening it with economic sanctions because Ukraine is an important asset and it would be a great victory for the West if Ukraine completely distances itself from Russia and joins the European Union?

As a rule, economic sanctions are a blunt and ineffective instrument of politics. If applied to the nation as a whole, in the hope that they will change government policy, the effect in the short term is very often the opposite.   The first response of nations targeted by sanctions is to "rally around the flag," which encourages precisely the behavior that sanctions are intended to prevent. The temporary boost in popularity from such a rally may even lead to miscalculations by politicians, as they try to capitalize on their ratings windfall. Whether or not economic sanctions are more effective in the long term is more debatable. I tend to be skeptical, since it is very difficult to trace policy changes that take place over the course of years directly back to sanctions.

In any case, I do not believe that Ukraine should be considered an asset or a "prize" to be divided between Russia and the West. If one side or the other were to win over Ukraine it would rend Ukrainian society, and the resulting "victory" would be an empty one.

The best way to create a stable, prosperous and democratic Ukraine is to recognize that the majority of the population is drawn to both Russia/CIS and Europe, and that Ukraine has an important role to play in both arenas.

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4 - Russia's relations with the United States have experienced serious ups and downs in the recent years, especially in such cases as the Georgia's invasion of South Ossetia, U.S. plans for installing a missile defense shield in Poland and most recently in the case of Syrian crisis. However, in none of these cases, did the United States take such a hard-hitting approach of moving to impose economic sanctions against Russia or threatening it with a military strike. What makes the Ukraine case so special and extraordinary that has embittered the U.S.-Russia relations so profoundly?

The United States is not considering military options against Russia. The rhetoric used by U.S. and European officials, however, has indeed been unusually strident, and there are several possible explanations for this.

The most conspiratorial view is that the U.S has been manipulating the agenda of the Ukrainian opposition from the outset and that, having invested more than five billion dollars in the process, does not want to lose the levers of influence it has established in Ukraine.

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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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