A Look at the Crimean Crisis from Russia’s Vantage

April 2, 2014

Christopher Westdal, Canadian diplomat and former Ambassador to Russia and Ukraine, spoke to CGI about Russia’s suspension from the G8, Canada’s reaction to the Crimean crisis, and what the G7-Russia relationship might look like in the future. Calling for increased communication and comprehension, Ambassador Westdal questioned the effectiveness of punitive economic sanctions. His full thoughts below:

CGI: Prime Minister Harper has taken a vocal stance against Russia’s G8 membership in what observers have called a departure from the country’s usual approach of “quiet diplomacy.” Do you agree with this position?

Ambassador Westdal: No, I think there is much more hope in sustained G8 engagement—for mutual comprehension, for stability, and for progress—than there would ever be in expulsion, part of some vain campaign to “isolate” Russia.

The G8 may have already run its natural course. Its members’ collective international clout is far from what it once was. It has long since been supplanted as a political summit by the G20 (which, unlike the G8, includes the countries that account for most of the people on earth). So the G8 may eventually fade away for lack of cohesion or relevance, but the group should not be forcibly disbanded now, by throwing Russia out. If it existed only to sustain our G7 engagement with Russia, it would still be well worth having.

Realists in our G-less, multipolar world might also take note that in Beijing and elsewhere, a G7 rift with Moscow is geo-strategic good news writ large. It’s hard for the U.S. to pivot to Asia when Europe keeps calling for help to balance Russia, and deter it if need be. Given the lack of European coherence and capacity that’s been exposed in this crisis, the calls will likely keep coming. It’s instructive that when Putin wanted to talk, on March 28, he didn’t call Merkel or Ashton; he called NATO’s boss Obama.

But back to your question, I disagree with the premise of “quiet” Canadian diplomacy. Our diplomats have been quieted, which you will have noticed in New York at the UN, but our diplomacy has not been quiet for eight years, not since Prime Minister Harper came to power. His calls for Russia’s expulsion are no departure: he branded the G8 the “G7 plus One” months ago, on account of Syria. For years now, though not everyone’s noticed, Canada’s rhetoric has been the Western world’s most bellicose—whether in the Middle East, where we’ve discredited UNSC resolution 242 and rationalized an attack on Iran (by deeming a nuclear Tehran undeterrable), or in Eurasia, where we play Last Cold Warrior Standing (principally to home crowds) and where we push to have our military alliance driven ever further east. In its world view and foreign policy impulses, Stephen Harper’s Conservative government has always been more comfortable with the neocons of the early presidency of George W. Bush than with Bush’s later moderates or Obama’s liberal team.

CGI: What do you think the priorities should be for the G7 nations’ approach to Russia, and how should they achieve them?

CW: I think the top priority should be comprehension. Let me speak about just that one priority because it informs and influences all the others.

We need no reminding that President Putin is no saint, but nor is he a demon. Under Putin, Russians have just enjoyed the best 15 years in their history. Doubters should name a better span. Russians have been more secure, more comfortable materially and more free than they’ve ever been before. Nikolai Zlobin’s turn of phrase is full of insight: “It’s not Putin’s Russia; it’s Russia’s Putin.” Russians have elected him three times. Four fifths of them now approve his performance (up from two thirds post-Sochi). Western leaders and media can think what they will of President Putin’s record, but the fact remains that under his leadership Russia has regained major roles in its regions and in the world. A large part of Vladimir Putin’s legacy will depend on how well and to what ends those roles are played.

Internationally, Putin’s performance has not been quite so well received. But for me, the record of post-Soviet Russia, compared to the records of other major players and other post-Soviet states and to what might have been had Russia not recovered under Putin but instead had fallen, painfully, further apart, all brings to mind Mark Twain’s lament, “My life has been full of terrible things … some of which actually happened.” A lot of terrible things have not happened in the new Russia, which plays a role of course in Putin’s continued domestic support.

CGI: As an expert on the region, how would you explain the failure of the West to a) predict Russia’s actions in Crimea and b) have strategic recourse for such a situation?

CW: The general explanation is that we haven’t been paying much attention or thinking very clearly about the natural security perspective of the Kremlin—not the imperial Kremlin of the czars, not the Soviet Kremlin, or the wreck it was after, but the Kremlin of today’s Russia, which is effectively led, able in its region, multilaterally ubiquitous, and determined to be treated with respect as a major power in the world.

For the West, comprehension means understanding that the strategic orientation of Ukraine is of abiding security concern to any sensate Kremlin. I think it best understood that Vladimir Putin will not rest until Ukraine poses no strategic threat to Russia. In the real world, Ukrainians—and Georgians, as they learned through a war six years ago—are about as free to adopt a security policy hostile to Moscow as we Canadians are to adopt one hostile to Washington. If Ukraine’s effective neutrality cannot be achieved by negotiation, then it will be sought by Russia by other means.

The notion was and has remained naive that Russia, under any leader, would rent the Crimean base for its Black Sea Fleet from a government openly pining for NATO. Moreover, the law, even the lofty international variety, is bound to be broken if it defies reality. Security trumps all when it can—and not only in Moscow.

But back to your question: Of course, short of decisive war, the West had no “strategic recourse.” That’s the point; there never was any.

CGI: How much influence does the West actually have on Russia’s foreign policy behavior at this point? Will sanctions or NATO buildups be seen as provocations and make Putin more aggressive, as has been frequently argued, or do you think that Russia has decided upon a definite course and will carry it out no matter what the response?

CW: This has been a security crisis from its start, the crux of which is the strategic orientation of Ukraine. The battle of Crimean custody is over but the war of Ukrainian allegiance goes on—cold so far and best kept that way. Because it can’t be winner-take-all, it needs to end in a negotiated truce, with Ukraine fully involved. Ukraine needs good ties with its big neighbors and sound structure well-anchored on both sides that is flexible enough to connect them. Those needs are surely not beyond our diplomatic grasp.

As to Western influence on Russian foreign policy, NATO membership has fundamental significance that Russia can’t ignore. We’ve never promised to fight for Ukraine or Georgia. We have promised to fight for the Balts, for Poland, and for the others in our alliance. Moscow does take seriously the fresh resolve it may have stirred in NATO and would take seriously any significant, hard-to-match defense budget hikes.

Trust, suspicion, hope and fear are also the currencies of security. On this ledger, one clear cost of Crimea for Russia is the damage to its image in Ukraine, where favorable opinions of Russia have fallen off a cliff (from 70% in April 2013 (Interfax) to 20 percent (according to polls cited by front-runner Petro Poroshenko). In the upcoming presidential elections, the Kremlin’s open embrace would be a kiss of death for any candidate. So not only will Moscow not talk to Kyiv, but leaders in Kyiv, until the elections at least, will not be able to talk much to Moscow.

Ukraine has a profound interest in good East-West relations, particularly between Berlin and Moscow. Those who would escalate a Western tussle with Russia on Kyiv’s behalf should pause to remember that Ukraine has served too often as a battlefield for neighbors’ struggles. Recent history, in Iraq and Afghanistan, has been humbling. Other people’s business is hard to mind well—because the situation is always more complicated on the ground, because no one anywhere likes foreigners running local affairs, and because the attention span and the resolve of people far away never match those of local folks who have to stay.

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