George W. Bush’s former Special Assistant on Russia analyzes the roots of US-Russia geopolitical competition in Ukraine and considers how the current situation might play out after the Crimean referendum.

On March 16, Crimea will hold a referendum in which residents will decide if they want to be part of Russia or Ukraine. Photo: Reuters

As the March 16 referendum in Crimea draws closer, analysts in the U.S. are finally starting to acknowledge that the current crisis in Ukraine is much more complex than it may have appeared even a couple of weeks ago.

Although many Russia experts were quick to point fingers at Moscow as the key source of the current Ukrainian turmoil, as time goes by, other points of view are coming into focus that better take into account the full range of factors responsible.

Thomas Graham, managing director at Kissinger Associates, where he focuses on Russian and Eurasian affairs, recently answered some questions from Russia Direct about the rapidly unfolding events in Ukraine and their impact on U.S.-Russia relations.

Russia Direct: President Vladimir Putin doesn’t consider the new government in Kiev legitimate and believes that an anti-constitutional coup took place. President Obama and some other world leaders think otherwise. Where does this fundamental disagreement leave our two countries?

Thomas Graham: This fundamental disagreement underscores a profound difference in the way our two countries think about world order and political legitimacy. But that difference in the case of Ukraine is exacerbated by geopolitical competition. And it is difficult to determine which came first, the geopolitical competition or the disagreement about the legitimacy of the government in Kiev.

Moscow has been strongly opposed to Ukraine being pulled out of Russia's orbit, while the United States never felt comfortable with Ukraine in Russia's orbit. Those positions played a central role in shaping the way each country perceived events in Kiev and predisposed the United States to see the new government as legitimate and Russia to reject its legitimacy.

We will not come to a common view of the legitimacy of any new government in Kiev until we have managed to find a suitable balance in our geopolitical competition over Ukraine. International recognition of Ukraine as a neutral state might be one way of moderating our geopolitical rivalry so that we can both support one government as Ukraine's legitimate government.

RD: Political turmoil in Ukraine and the current crisis in Crimea have triggered threats of U.S. economic and political sanctions against Russia. Does it mean that Washington is turning to a Cold War-era containment policy towards Moscow? If so, what could be the costs of such confrontation?

T.G.: Every time a serious problem emerges in U.S.-Russian relations, someone reaches for the Cold War trope. It is time to put it to rest. The Cold-War rivalry resulted from a set of circumstances - ideological and geopolitical – that no longer exist today. What is taking place between Russia and the United States is a not so unusual rivalry between great powers. 

The Obama administration is looking to instruments well short of war or armed conflict - that is, economic and political sanctions - it can deploy to persuade Russia to alter its position on the Ukraine crisis.

But the goal is not to contain Russia, if only because the administration continues to believe that it needs Russia to advance a number of its other goals, in Syria and vis-à-vis Iran, for example. Moreover, few other countries, particularly outside of Europe, are likely to follow the United States in any sanctions, making it impossible to contain Russia.

The goal, rather, is to raise the cost to Moscow of continuing its current policies toward Ukraine, including in particular, the movement toward the annexation of Crimea. Whether Washington will succeed remains to be seen, but in general, globalization has complicated the use of sanctions.

Any sanctions cut both ways - that is, while they might raise the cost to Moscow, they will also require sacrifice in the United States - and Moscow can retaliate with sanctions of its own, as it has already warned. So far, the sanctions the United States has been willing to deploy have had no noticeable affect on Moscow 's behavior.

A pro-Ukrainian rally in Simferopol, March 6, 2014. Photo: Reuters

RD: President Obama’s critics in Washington argue that the current U.S. administration can hardly be praised for a successful foreign policy. Do you think that by sticking to harsh rhetoric towards Russia (freezing bilateral U.S.-Russia trade talks, suspending military-to-military contacts and proposing financial and visa sanctions against Russia) the Obama administration is trying to minimize domestic political pressure?

T.G.: President Obama's foreign policy, including specifically his reset policy toward Russia, has come under intense attack from his critics during the past several months. But, I would argue, that criticism has not had a major impact on his response to Russia during the current crisis. What has had impact is Moscow's actions in Ukraine. 

The key point is that President Obama believes that those actions, particularly what he has reason to believe was Moscow's use of military force in Crimea to prepare the ground for the annexation of that territory, violates international law and threatens the rules that have guided European security since the end of the Cold War over a generation ago.

That, in his mind, required a firm response, including the freezing of some aspects of bilateral relations. That response is much less than what some of his harshest critics have proposed.

RD: Would you agree with the assumption that a major confrontation between Russia and the West will benefit China?

T.G.: A major confrontation between Russia and the West would not benefit China, or any other major country for that matter. It would do significant economic harm to the global economy, including China, which is dependent on robust economic relations with Europe and the United States, and to a lesser extent Russia, to bolster its own economic growth.

RD: President Putin’s aide Sergey Glazyev recently suggested that what the U.S. is trying to do is to ignite trade, economic and political confrontation between the EU and Russia. Do you believe that the EU, which is Russia’s largest trading partner, would follow Washington in case a full-scale trade war with Moscow is unleashed?

T.G.: The EU as a whole, as we have seen during the past several days, is more reluctant than the United States to impose harsh economic and political sanctions on Russia, in large part because its economy is much more intertwined with the Russian economy than the American economy is. But the United States is not seeking to unleash a trade war, nor is it seeking to foment confrontation between the EU and Russia, as Glazyev is insinuating.

The Europeans have sufficient reason of their own to be disturbed by Russia's actions in Ukraine. They are looking for an appropriate response and believe the combined weight of the EU and the United States will have much greater effect than individual, uncoordinated actions. For the moment, the EU wants to emphasize a diplomatic approach, but that could change depending on what happens in Crimea and eastern Ukraine in the next few days.

RD: One of the first steps of the new Maidan-formed Ukrainian government was the introduction of the bill that would ban the Russian language in Ukraine as well as launch criminal investigations against several leaders of regions in Eastern Ukraine. Do you believe such steps by the new government in Kiev were appropriate?

T.G.: The Rada made a colossal mistake in repealing the language law right after Yanukovych fled Kiev, and, to his credit, acting president Turchynov refused to approve this action. A new law is under consideration, and the Rada should move carefully, giving due respect to the rights of Russian speakers in Ukraine.

It is also a mistake to launch criminal investigations against leaders in Eastern Ukraine before the current crisis is resolved. Although it is not on the table at the moment, my own view is that new Rada elections should be held as soon as possible to renew that body's legitimacy, and all controversial matters should be off the agenda until a new Rada is in place.

RD: What is your thinking on the Obama administration’s harsh critique of Moscow’s attempt to render assistance and protection to ethnic Russians in Ukraine in general, and in Crimea in particular? Why doesn’t Washington pay any attention to the will of the average people in Crimea and in other eastern regions of Ukraine that want their voices to be heard and their rights to be respected?

Preparing for Crimea's referendum. Photo: RIA Novosti / Andrei Stenin 

T.G.: Washington and Moscow have radically different assessments of what is taking place in Ukraine. While Washington would agree with Moscow that the rights of ethnic Russian citizens of Ukraine should be guaranteed and respected, it has seen no actions directed against those citizens that would justify the use or threat of military force and believes that any issues or fears that have arisen could be reasonably resolved through a political process in Ukraine.

Moscow sees a more ominous threat. What is dispiriting is that the level of trust between the United States and Russia has sunk to such levels that it is impossible to have an honest discussion of what is actually taking place in Ukraine. 

With regard to the Crimean referendum, the question is whether it will actually represent the voice of the people. Secession and entry into the Russia Federation are weighty matters, which should not be decided in the heat of the moment, before people have had a reasonable time to consider and debate the political, economic, and other consequences of such decisions. 

Moreover, the referendum is problematic when it is not clear what the rules governing it are. Given that a large number of the citizens of Crimea are ethnic Ukrainians and Crimean Tatars, it would seem that at a minimum, a qualified majority of substantial size, say, two-thirds or three-quarters, should be required to approve secession and a request to join the Russian Federation.

RD: In Russia many people suspect that the U.S. government did play a role in kicking President Yanukovych out of office by providing direct political support and indirect financial assistance (through various NGOs, for example) to the opposition, which included outspoken anti-Russian nationalists. Do you believe that the U.S. was right to commit itself to such a foreign policy?

T.G.: The events that have unfolded in Ukraine have deep domestic roots, and domestic forces are the primary factors that have shaped events. One should not exaggerate the role of outside forces. That said, the U.S. government did provide political support and financial assistance to elements of the opposition, and some likely found its way into the hands of anti-Russian nationalists. The United States could have exercised greater care in the distribution of that assistance.

RD: According to the former U.S. ambassador to Moscow, Jack Matlock, one of the misjudgments of U.S. foreign policy was the desire for Ukrainian membership in NATO. It was “an avowed objective of the Bush-Cheney administration and one that has not been categorically excluded by the Obama Administration,” Mr. Matlock recently wrote. Would you agree that alleged U.S. aspirations regarding bringing Ukraine into NATO played a role in current events?

T.G.: I have long thought that it was a mistake to seek to bring Ukraine into NATO, and the Obama administration agreed. It recognized that it was, to say the least, premature to even consider that possibility. While Moscow's concerns about Ukrainian membership in NATO might have played a role in how it understood developments in Ukraine, the struggle in Ukraine among Ukrainian citizens, ethnic Ukrainians, ethnic Russians, and people of other ethnicities, was, first, about whether Ukraine should sign an Association Agreement with the EU, and, later and more profoundly, about the character of the Yanukovych government and the rights of Ukrainian citizens. NATO was not a significant part of the equation.

RD: Do you believe that after having invaded Iraq, Panama, Grenada and several other countries, the U.S. still has the credibility to lecture other countries when it comes to the respect of sovereignty?

T.G.: I have never thought it made sense for the United States to lecture other countries on any matter, and some of its actions, as you note, have understandably raised serious questions about its own commitment to the principle of sovereignty. That said, we should find ways to have an honest discussion about a range of international matters, including the question of sovereignty.

The modern notion of sovereignty dates back to the conclusion of the Treaty of Westphalia of 1648, and for the most part has been interpreted as a right, that is, the right of a government to manage its domestic affairs without the interference of outside powers.

The question that has been raised recently, particularly in the West, is whether sovereignty should also carry obligations, such as the obligation to ensure that your territory is not used to launch attacks against other states (no harboring of terrorists, for example) or an obligation to defend and treat with respect its own population. 

The "responsibility to protect," now enshrined in UN documents, is grounded in this new concept of sovereignty. It is not clear that this effort to redefine sovereignty will make the world more stable, more peaceful, or more just - and so we should have a vigorous debate about it. But it is also clear that the old notion of sovereignty is out of step with our increasingly interconnected world - and so it too should be part of the debate.

Mr. Graham was Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director for Russia on the National Security Council staff from 2004 to 2007. He was Director for Russian Affairs on that staff from 2002 to 2004. From 1984 to1998 he was a Foreign Service Officer. His assignments included two tours of duty at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow.