The current diplomatic squabble over the fate of Mikhail Babich, the newly appointed Russian ambassador to Ukraine, is threatening to become another flash point in an already tense relationship.
Pictured left-right: Mikhail Babich, the newly appointed Russian ambassador to Ukraine, and Russian President Vladimir Putin. Photo: RIA Novosti
At the end of July, the Kremlin dismissed Mikhail Zurabov as the Russian ambassador to Ukraine and appointed a new candidate, Mikhail Babich, to take his place. That move coincided with a broad political reshuffling in the federal government and in the regions and did not attract much attention at the time.
However, Ukraine’s refusal to accept Mikhail Babich as the new Russian ambassador now threatens to exacerbate an already difficult situation between Russia and Ukraine. At a time when Russia and Ukraine should be working on a diplomatic solution, will that even be possible if Russia does not have an ambassador in the country?
Why Ukraine won’t accept the new ambassador
In 2001, Russia's former Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin (from 1992 to 1998) was appointed ambassador to head the Russian embassy in Ukraine. Eight years later, he was replaced with Mikhail Zurabov, an important official and businessman, as well as former minister. After his appointment, Zurabov remained as the head of the embassy in Kiev for seven years. Both his and Chernomyrdin’s terms were twice longer than what had been allotted to the previous ambassadors.
For any representative of Russia abroad — and especially in such a high-profile country as Ukraine — it is important to have the full backing and support of the Kremlin. Otherwise, it’s impossible to conduct negotiations at the highest levels — diplomats from the foreign country will simply attempt to circumvent the ambassador and deal directly with Moscow.
From that perspective, Babich appears to have the background and experience for the position. Since the age of 30, he has occupied high posts. His first important position was that of deputy governor of the Moscow Region. Later, he worked in the Ivanovo Region and the Chechen Republic. In 2003, he was elected to the State Duma, the lower house of the Russian parliament, where he worked until 2011 and gained the reputation of an effective lobbyist for the law enforcement and military structures. Then he occupied the post of presidential envoy to the Volga Federal District.
In short, Babich is what can best be called an effective political manager. He has managed to adapt to a variety of political environments — including that of the volatile Chechen Republic — and build ties with regional leaders as needed.
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The problem is that embassies located in countries that are former Soviet republics — as is the case with Ukraine — face a particular dilemma: the local politicians prefer to move them aside and conduct a direct dialogue with the official authorities in Moscow.
The Kremlin has taken this into account, too. In many ways, one could argue that the ineffective work of the Russian embassy in Ukraine stems from such disregard for the former ambassador and Kiev’s desire to deal with Moscow directly.
According to Vladimir Bruter, an expert of the International Institute for Humanitarian-Political Research, there has been a shortage of regular, balanced information on Ukraine.
“Possibly, if it had not been Zurabov but a different person, the level of analysis would have been different, which would have helped avoid some mistakes,” he told Russia Direct.
But today, both the background of Babich and the whole situation surrounding his appointment make it impossible for the Ukrainian authorities to accept him.
“The very background of Babich is significant. He is an ambassador of war, not an ambassador of peace. If you look at his biographical information — that is what it tells us. In view of his biography, it is clear that he was not appointed in order to maintain peace or ease the tensions, but rather to continue the aggression,” explained Leonid Gozman, a Russian politician and a democratic activist.
Moreover, Gozman points out that the Russian side had violated the standard formal procedure for the appointment of an ambassador. This was something that could not but antagonize the Ukrainians.
“First an agreement is requested, and then the name of the new ambassador is announced. No country can skip this rule because it is about an ambassador, not a deputy minister, who can be appointed by the president just like that. Because an ambassador has great latitude and great privileges, an agreement is indispensable,” Gozman told Russia Direct.
“As it is, the cart was put before the horse, which the Ukrainian side could interpret as contempt," Gozman added. "Rejection of such an ambassador is a natural reaction. One question remains: Was it a calculated step or a sign of disrespect toward the rules?”
Principle comes first
Some experts claim that, in this context, the important thing is the format in which the proposal was made rather than the candidate himself.
“The person of the ambassador has nothing to do with the situation that has occurred. An ambassador is just an instrument, which Ukraine made clear enough,” says Bruter. “The Ukrainian side stated that, given the relations between the countries, an ambassador is not necessary. That is why the general context should be taken into account.”
Moreover, Ukraine seems to be willing to lower the level of diplomatic relations if it means defending certain principles.
“In my view, if the Ukrainians do not want an ambassador, let them not have one. Let there be a chargé d'affaires,” said the deputy secretary of the Civic Chamber and former deputy general secretary of the UN, Sergei Ordzhonikidze.
“Today, the Ukrainians are likely to take badly any proposal that we make," he told Russia Direct. "The appointment of an ambassador is a step aimed at improving relations, which Kiev does not want. In such situations, which are not rare in the international arena, the involved countries lower their level of diplomatic relations. It means that there are tensions between the countries, and one of the countries is discontented with something.”
In turn, Bruter is certain that Ukraine is going to treat this situation as grounds for further discussion.
“If they had received a command from Washington to agree to the ambassador, an agreement would have been received within 10 minutes,” Bruter argues. “But the U.S. is going to use this situation as a bargaining chip. They may put forth some proposal as a condition for their approval of the ambassador. This may or may not become a subject of bargaining.”
What to do now?
To change its ambassador now, Russia has to propose someone new. Bruter believes that a suitable choice would be Ilya Ponomarev, the former deputy of the State Duma who famously opposed the incorporation of Crimea. Ukraine would not decline such a candidate.
“Regarding this person [Ponomarev], it would be difficult for Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko to give a harsh, negative response if it were someone who is a loyal diplomat or his personal acquaintance,” the analyst said.
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In turn, Gozman believes that an ambassador to Ukraine is not relevant now — a chargé d'affaires is sufficient.
“Ukraine is in a difficult position: On the one hand, the country is in a de facto state of war with us, and on the other hand, the Ukrainian citizens come over to work in Russia,” Gozman added. "However, many people in Ukraine would like to sever diplomatic relations. But this is disadvantageous to both sides. That is why the relations have been kept in a frozen state.”
He is certain that Babich will never be accepted, and if Russia wants to show that it is willing to change its position, it can suggest another person or else keep a chargé d'affaires. According to Ordzhonikidze, Ukraine's reluctance to accept a new Russian ambassador is just "a demonstration to us and to the world that they are not willing to improve our relations.” In this regard, he mentions the example of the relations between Russia and the U.S.
“Whatever the evolution of the relationship with the U.S., their ambassador to Russia has always been there,” the diplomat said. “A lot depends on an ambassador, he may define the nuances, the decisions on some questions. For instance, Chernomyrdin had good access to the Ukrainian president. Is it that the Ukrainian authorities fear that the new ambassador may improve relations?”
Gozman points out that such uncertain relations between countries may continue for a long time. The situation can be resolved primarily by Kiev’s decision to appoint a new Ukrainian ambassador to Russia.
“When the war ends, everything will change. In diplomacy, things may continue for a very long time,” he points out.