Angela Stent, Director of the Center for Eurasian, Russian and East European Studies at Georgetown University, sat down with the Georgetown Journal of International Affairs to discuss the March 2014 Russian annexation of Crimea and its implications for future regional and international relations. GJIA: What factors in Russian domestic politics, as well as regional or global relations, motivated the recent intervention in Ukraine?
AS: There are both domestic and external reasons for why Russia annexed Crimea. The domestic one is that the Russian economy is declining and, although this is currently not a problem, Putin has to be concerned about the potential for opposition to him. This has been a tremendously popular move domestically: his popularity has gone up to over 80 percent in the last few weeks from a low of around 60 percent a couple months ago. If the economy continues to decline, the Kremlin can always appeal to nationalism and anti-American sentiments to detract from the economic pain. There is also the concern that the kind of unrest and revolution in Kyiv could happen in Moscow. Although it does not look as if it will—because Putin is so popular now—there is always that concern.
The external reason is that the most important project in Putin’s third term is creating a Eurasian Union, a closer union of the post-Soviet states. What really concerned him was that Ukraine was going to sign an agreement with the European Union in which its economic relationship with the European Union would improve and it would not become part of this Eurasian Union. Putin’s overriding goal in this crisis is to prevent any past state from the former Soviet sphere from moving West. Putin thought he had a $15 billion deal with former Ukrainian President Yanukovich in December and then the demonstrations in the square began that led to the fall of the government. Once that happened and Yanukovich fled, that deal was over. Putin realized he had to move fast in order to prevent a future territorially intact Ukraine signing an agreement with the European Union. The annexation was very professionally and competently executed; not a shot was fired, although coercive force was obviously used.
GJIA: Are there individuals or groups within Ukraine who have an interest in upsetting the interim government’s efforts to initiate political, administrative, or economic reform?
AS: There are certainly groups in the eastern part of Ukraine [involved in more recent] demonstrations who are Russian-speaking and who identify with Russia, some of whom would probably like eastern Ukraine also to be annexed by Russia. But those are the minority. All the public opinion polls show that the majority of people, even those who live in Eastern Ukraine, want to be part of Ukraine. I think some of the demonstrations one sees, the cries for wanting to join Russia, are not only locally organized. We are not sure who is organizing them. If you go back and look at voting patterns, the majority of Ukrainians voted 23 years ago to be part of an independent Ukraine and the majority of Ukrainians still would like to be part of an independent Ukraine, even those in the east.
GJIA: Is there a plausible scenario in which Ukraine could both expand ties with the European Union and maintain its close connection to Russia, or has Putin’s desire to create a Eurasian Union made the two mutually exclusive?
AS: The problem is that by annexing Crimea Putin has helped to solidify many—though not all—Ukrainians against Russia. He has created a group of people who feel much more strongly about Russia. There will be elections in Ukraine in May, unless the separatists in Eastern Ukraine disrupt them. If the new Kyiv government is peacefully elected and comes to power, it will surely seek closer relations with the European Union. The interim government has already signed a partial agreement with Brussels. It is conceivable that a future Ukrainian government could maintain economic ties with both Russia and the European Union—in fact, it would have to. But both Russia and the European Union would have to sit down with the Ukrainians and discuss this, which at the moment is not in the cards. Ultimately, Ukraine should have productive economic ties with both the European Union and Russia.
GJIA: To what extent, and with what regional and global implications, has Russia’s influence over regional energy sources become an economic and political tool for coercion?
AS: Russia has certainly has been an energy superpower for at least the last 15 years. Fifty percent of the gas exports to Europe goes through Ukraine, and Ukraine gets most of its gas from Russia. It is a powerful tool for the Russians. They just announced that gas prices could rise by 80 percent because they have given the Ukrainians a discount price. Right now, Russia still has considerable leverage. Fortunately, it has been a mild winter—not here, but in Ukraine—and they’re moving into spring and summer, but Ukraine is still overwhelmingly dependent on gas supplies from Russia. The challenge for Ukraine is to diversify its energy sources in the future and for the United States and the Europeans to help with this.
GJIA: What has been the tone and form of U.S. policymakers’ response to the Russian intervention? What factors have dictated this response, and how has it differed from that of other national or international entities?
AS: The United States, after being largely absent from Ukraine for quite a long time, got involved once the revolution began in November because it was concerned about what was happening. The United States’ response has been fairly strong. It has imposed sanctions on some of Putin’s closest associates. It has also sanctioned the Bank of Russia, which is owned by close associates of Putin. That is having some effect, but it has not changed Russian policy. In the longer run it will have an impact because you can already see investors in the United States reassessing what they are doing with Russia and thinking about not investing any more in the Russian market. We do not yet know at what point those kinds of sanctions will cause the Kremlin to rethink what it is doing. The United States does, apparently, have tougher sanctions prepared in case it needs to impose them. The Europeans have also imposed sanctions, but they have not been quite as tough as the United States’. Both the United States and the Europeans have said if there were to be a further incursion into eastern Ukraine there would be much tougher sanctions. Nobody quite knows what those sanctions would be. The Europeans are much more dependent on economic and energy relations with Russia than the United States is, however. In that sense, it is easier for the United States to impose sanctions because the stakes are lower. It appears that the April 17 Geneva agreement amongst Ukraine, Russia, the European Union, and the United States to de-escalate tensions was facilitated by Russian fears about future, tougher sanctions.
GJIA: What decision, event, or motivation could lead Russia to order an invasion of additional parts of Ukraine?
AS: The Russians are watching what happens in the election in Ukraine very closely. They have already said that Ukraine must comply with two of their demands if it wants to avoid a Russian military incursion: that it be permanently neutral and that it introduce a federal state with much more autonomy for the different regions, including eastern Ukraine -- which would presumably come under greater Russian influence. If they think there is a chance of that happening, there would not be any use of troops in eastern Ukraine, but they would use other means to persuade the Ukrainians to go along with it. If they think that is not going to happen—if, depending on the election, they see greater instability in Ukraine and think there would be a greater chance for them to acquire more territory there [via invasion]—they might move in because they realize NATO cannot respond militarily to a Russian incursion into eastern Ukraine. They would be risking much tougher sanctions, although, again, we do not know how tough they would be.
GJIA: How might Russia’s actions in the Ukraine affect U.S.-Russia relations and Russian cooperation with the European Union on matters of security?
AS: The reset for U.S.-Russia relations was certainly over by last summer when Russia granted Edward Snowden temporary political asylum, which was a slap of the face to the White House after it indicated it wanted his return. That relationship is not going anywhere. There was not much on the bilateral agenda for the rest of the Obama term, but the United States is obviously working with Russia in various multilateral forums. It will continue to work with Russia in Iran, as both nations want to achieve an agreement where Iran agrees not to have nuclear weapons and to enrich uranium only up to a certain level. In Syria, the United States and Russia did work together on chemical weapons disarmament. That has gone reasonably well, but I do not know how it [will continue] in the future. The United States has disagreed with Russia over what should happen in the Syrian civil war, obviously, because it wants Assad to go and Russia believes Assad should prevail. Assad has benefited from these events in Crimea because people are paying less attention to Syria. There are other areas like the Arctic, and sometimes counterterrorism, where the United States cooperates with Russia, and there will be some issues where it continues to cooperate with them.Post-2014 Afghanistan is another area where both countries are working together. In the near future, however, it is going to be more difficult. To some extent, the same is true for the Europeans. They will remain much more closely economically linked to Russia because, again, they get a lot of their energy, particularly in Eastern Europe, from Russia. There are 300,000 German jobs that depend on trade with Russia. That will remain. There was not going to be any agreement on cooperative missile defense once Putin returned to the Kremlin. The NATO-Russia council, at the moment, is suspended. You will not see much going on there for some time.
Dr. Angela Stent is Director of the Center for Eurasian, Russian and East European Studies at Georgetown University. Her most recent book, entitled The Limits of Partnership: U.S.-Russian Relations in the Twenty-First Century, was released in 2014.
Dr. Stent was interviewed by Zachary Burdette and Ian Philbrick on 7 April 2014 in Washington, D.C.