Russia Direct talks with Steven Pifer, Brookings Senior Fellow and former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, to discuss the consequences of the Crimea conflict for U.S.-Russia relations. 

Participants at the rally staged in support of Ukraine's unity near the monument to Taras Shevchenko in Simferopol. Photo: RIA Novosti / Andrey Stetnin

Tensions are growing ahead of the March 16 referendum that will determine the status of Crimea. If anything, the divide between Russia and the West appears to be increasing. Russia Direct talks with Steven Pifer, Brookings Senior Fellow and former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, to better understand the implications of the crisis for Russia, Ukraine, the U.S. and Europe.

In his comments, Pifer also discusses media coverage of the Crimea crisis and offers some ideas for how to minimize the negative consequences of the geopolitical face-off so that it doesn’t turn into another Cold War.

Russia Direct: Last week Crimea's parliament voted for its accession to Russia as a subject of the Russian Federation and scheduled this issue for a vote on March 16. Can it lead Russia and the West to start another Cold War?

Steven Pifer: I am not sure if it will lead to another cold war, but it’s not a positive step. First of all, what the Crimean parliament asked to do is illegal under the Ukrainian constitution. Second, there are going to be real questions about the legitimacy of the referendum.

For example, the leadership of Crimea’s Tatars has said the Tatars will not participate. We’ve also seen that the Russian military refused to allow OSCE observers into Crimea. So, presumably, there will be no international observation and there will be questions about whether the referendum is fair.

RD: What other implications will this stance have for Russia and the world and how can this stance escalate the tensions around the Crimea crisis?

S.P.: There is no recognized right of an ethnic minority group to vote itself out of a country. In the same way, the United States did not recognize the right of the Chechens to say that ‘We should leave Russia’.

This should be subject to a negotiation. And if Russia goes ahead and supports the right of Crimea to separate, it will create a precedent when other small groups might want to leave Russia, for example. This is a mistake with negative consequences, potentially, for Russia and it may cause people in the West to question the continued support they have expressed going back to 1991 for the territorial integrity of all post-Soviet states, including Russia.  

Former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Steven Pifer at a meeting of the Russian-American section of the Valdai International Discussion Club. Photo: RIA Novosti / Mikhail Fomichev

RD: To what extent do the West and Russia can work together and what can prevent their cooperation in Ukraine?

S.P.: There is effort in the West – both in the United States and Europe – to help create a path for a dialogue with Russia, but the problem is that there has to be a conversation between Moscow and Kiev. And the Russian government says it won’t recognize the government of Ukraine.  So, it’s hard to see how the dialogue is going to begin. It can’t be just a dialogue between Europe, the United States and Russia. Ukraine has to be there as well. 

RD: According to Kommersant, who quotes Russia's diplomats, the U.S. and Europe seem to ignore the Feb. 21 deal that proposes a compromise between the authorities and the opposition.  A Russian diplomat claims the opposition didn't fulfill its commitments while implying that Russia's Foreign Ministry sees this stance as betrayal. Could you comment on this complaint?

S.P.:  I would make two points about the Feb. 21 agreement and why it collapsed. First of all, right after he signed the deal, [former Ukrainian President Viktor] Yanukovich disappeared and fled the country. He has only been seen giving a brief interview in Donetsk on Feb. 22, and then he gave a press conference a week ago in Rostov-on-Don. And no one has seen him since. He left.

The other point.  I find it a little bit ironic that the Russian government now attaches so much importance to the Feb. 21 agreement, because if you remember, in addition, to the French, German, and Polish foreign ministers as witnesses, Ambassador [Vladimir] Lukin was there as a Russian witness.

And Ambassador Lukin, after talking with Moscow, refused to sign the final agreement as a witness on Feb. 21. So, it is interesting that this attention attached to the Feb. 21 agreement, which Mr. Yanukovich broke by fleeing [from the country] and which the Russian government refused to allow Ambassador Lukin to witness on Feb. 21. And now they say it’s an important deal.  [In this context,] I find it a little bit hard to understand [Russia’s indignation].           

RD: With stakes extremely high for both Vladimir Putin and Barack Obama, what would you recommend them to cope with the Crimea crisis?

S.P.: Both sides need to exercise a degree of care, because I don’t think that either side is interested in allowing these differences between Russia and the U.S. to spin out of control.

And again while the United States is going to impose political, diplomatic and, perhaps, even financial penalties on Russia and work to persuade the European Union to do the same, it is also important that the U.S. Administration make clear that there is way out, that there is a path that leads to a negotiated solution. But again, this negotiated solution path is not going to be easy if Russia refuses to talk to the Ukrainian government.    

RD: What do you think about the coverage of the Crimea crisis by Russian and Western media? Do you find it fair?

S.P.: I think the media coverage on both sides gets things wrong, but I do have an impression that in Russia it’s a very organized – I am hesitant to use the word – but it’s a propaganda campaign. When I see Russian media describing Ukraine, it’s not the Ukraine that I see. There are mainstream parties in control in Kiev, not neo-Nazis. There is no threat to ethnic Russians or to the Russian military deployed in Crimea. 

On the Western side, the American media sometimes may get it wrong because of the complexities here. One example is when they talk about the East-West divide in Ukraine, but in fact that line is blurred and it is a much more complex situation.

RD: Do you think that U.S. economic and visa sanctions against Russia come true? What are the implications of these sanctions for U.S.-Russia relations and the achievement of U.S.-Russia reset?

S.P.: The U.S. is going to do it in a deliberate way, in consultation and coordination with the European Union to apply penalties to Russia until Russia changes its course in Crimea. That will have a negative impact on the U.S.-Russia relationship, but that cannot be helped. The U.S. government calculates that it would be a mistake not to impose some consequences on Russia.

The U.S. government will try to encourage a negotiation, but my guess is that Russia will come up with a way to retaliate for the American sanctions. This obviously will not help the bilateral relationship. 

Regarding the reset policy, it succeeded in 2009-2010, but since 2011 we have been moving to a new and unfortunately more difficult stage in U.S.-Russia relations. The Ukraine crisis is perhaps going to bring that relationship to its lowest point, comparable to where it was back to the 2008 Russian-Georgian conflict.

RD: According to some Russian media, you might be nominated to be the next U.S. ambassador to Russia. Could you comment on it?

S.P.:  Nobody in the U.S. Government has talked to me about it.