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After Crimea Votes to Secede, How Will U.S. & Russia Handle Gravest Crisis Since Cold War?

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The United States and the European Union are warning Russia not to annex Crimea after voters there overwhelmingly backed a referendum to leave Ukraine. Crimean authorities say 96.8 percent of voters supported the referendum to join Russia, but many members of the ethnic Ukrainian and Muslim Tatar minorities stayed home in a boycott. The Obama administration has threatened sanctions on Russia if Crimea follows through and secedes. But Russia has vowed to approve Crimea’s bid in a parliamentary vote. On Saturday, the Russian government vetoed a U.S.-backed Security Council resolution declaring the referendum invalid. Russian forces also seized a natural gas terminal in Ukraine, just outside Crimea’s regional border. The situation in Crimea has sparked the gravest crisis in East-West relations since the Cold War. We discuss the Crimea vote and its diplomatic fallout with three guests: Oliver Bullough, Caucasus editor for the Institute for War and Peace Reporting; Nicholas Clayton, a freelance journalist who has been reporting from Crimea and covering the South Caucasus since 2009; and Dmitri Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: The United States and the European Union are warning Russia not to annex Crimea after voters there overwhelmingly backed a referendum to leave Ukraine and join Russia. Crimean authorities said 96.8 percent of voters in the Black Sea peninsula supported the referendum, but many members of the ethnic Ukrainian and Muslim Tatar minorities in Crimea boycotted the poll. Earlier today, the Crimean Parliament also voted in favor of the region joining Russia.

The situation in Crimea has sparked the gravest crisis in East-West relations since the Cold War. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said the vote in Crimea will not be recognized by the international community.

SECRETARY OF STATE JOHN KERRY: The United States position on that referendum, I must say, is clear, and it’s clear today. We believe the referendum is contrary to the constitution of Ukraine, is contrary to international law, is in violation of that law, and we believe it is illegitimate and, as the president put it, illegal under the Ukrainian constitution. Neither we nor the international community will recognize the results of this referendum. And we also remain deeply concerned about the large deployments of Russian forces in Crimea and along the eastern border with Russia.

AMY GOODMAN: On the eve of the vote, Russian forces seized a natural gas terminal in Ukraine just outside Crimea’s regional border. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov defended the referendum vote in Crimea, saying there’s a historical precedent for peoples and regions pursuing self-determination.

SERGEY LAVROV: [translated] As far as statements by our Western partners on unacceptability of the referendum, I have already explained our view on the subject. We base our position on the fact that nobody canceled the right of people to self-determination. This right is one of the main principles of the United Nations Charter.

AMY GOODMAN: Tension is also rising in other parts of eastern Ukraine, which has seen a series of pro-Russian rallies. Earlier today, the Ukrainian Parliament endorsed a presidential decree for a partial military mobilization to call up 40,000 reservists to counter Russia’s military actions. It’s also unclear what will happen to the Ukrainian military bases in Crimea. They have been surrounded for weeks by Russian forces.

To talk more about the situation in Crimea, we’re joined by Oliver Bullough from Crimea. He is the Caucasus editor for the Institute for War and Peace Reporting. His book is called Let Our Fame Be Great: Journeys Among the Defiant People of the Caucasus. Nicholas Clayton is a freelance journalist who just left Crimea. He has covered the South Caucasus since 2009. And in Moscow, we’re joined by Dmitri Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, recently published an article in The Guardian titled, “The Crisis in Crimea Could Lead the World into a Second Cold War.”

Let’s go first to Crimea itself. Oliver, can you talk about the vote, what took place, what was the atmosphere, and the response right now with this overwhelming vote for secession from Ukraine to join Russia?

OLIVER BULLOUGH: Well, the first thing about the vote is the result. The result was never in any doubt. The only option, essentially, on the ballot paper was either—well, you has a choice: to leave Ukraine or to join Russia. There was no “no” option. So, there was never any question that this would go one way. And it did indeed go that way. It went that way overwhelmingly, though, personally, I think possibly the results given are a little bit inflated. I can’t believe that the turnout was as high as 83 percent, certainly considering the fact that all the Ukrainians who live in Crimea and all the Crimean Tatars, who together make up, you know, more than 30 percent of the population, boycotted the polls. So I think the results were inflated, but essentially among—

AMY GOODMAN: Can you explain, Oliver, what the question was? What was the vote—what were the questions that were asked, the choice?

OLIVER BULLOUGH: Well, there were two. There were two choices. There wasn’t a yes-or-no question, like the ordinary referendum is. There were two choices. One was to join Russia, and the other was to return to the 1992 constitution. Now, I’m personally not entirely sure what the 1992 constitution consists of, and no one I talked to really seems to know, but that didn’t matter. In fact, only 3 percent of the people voted for that option anyway. It was an overwhelming 97 percent in favor of joining Russia.

And that’s certainly what the government here has been pressing ahead with today. They have already passed a series of laws to move to the Moscow time zone, to adopt the ruble, to accept a lot of money from the Russian budget, which will double the budget, the amount of money available to the government here. So, they’re not wasting any time in Parliament, though it should be said the mood on the street is rather subdued, I think probably because there was such an enormous party last night that quite a lot of people have got a bit of a hangover this morning.

AMY GOODMAN: And what was the atmosphere in Crimea during the vote?

OLIVER BULLOUGH: Well, you know, it was—people were turning up for the polling stations. People were casting their votes in a fairly orderly manner. But it got increasingly jolly as the day wore on and it became obvious which way the vote was going to go. And people gathered on the central Lenin Square underneath the big towering statue of the founder of the Bolshevik state. And there was a rock concert, and people gathered, waved Russian flags, chanted “Russia! Russia! Russia!” as if they were at a football match. It occurred to me about halfway through that it was like a combination of Russia winning the World Cup and the Nuremberg rally. It was a very peculiar atmosphere of sort of a degree of celebration and also as a strange and slightly disquieting sense of triumphalism that I, as a non-Russian, found a little bit weird.

AMY GOODMAN: And the attitudes of the different populations—those who were boycotting, those who were voting—the attitude of the Russians in Crimea, and also the press?

OLIVER BULLOUGH: Well, I’ve just been talking—spent quite a lot of time talking to a Ukrainian lady, and she was telling me that, for her, for Orthodox Christians, they have three mothers: They have their own mother, they have their motherland, and they have the Virgin Mary. Her own mother died last year, and she said it felt, for her, like cancer that took—cancer took away her own mother, and now cancer had taken away her motherland, and all that she had left to trust in was the Virgin Mary. That’s what she told me. She was absolutely devastated by what has happened.

The Crimean Tatars, who, as I say, are—they’re a Muslim minority here. They’re also very concerned, definitely on edge about the prospect of going to Russia. They feel that Ukraine has guaranteed their rights very well over the last 23 years, and they have no interest in joining Russia at all. However, the majority of the population here are Russians, and they’re very happy about it, not least because they’re going to move onto the Russian system of social security and social benefits, which means that pensions will, at the minimum, double, and so they’re all already counting the money. I’ve spent a lot of time in a bank this morning, and there was a steady queue of people going in to ask the cashiers when exactly it was that the new Russian benefits would start arriving in their bank accounts.

AMY GOODMAN: Dmitri Trenin, you’re in Moscow at the Moscow Carnegie Center. You’ve written a number of pieces for different publications. Your piece for Foreign Policy, “Welcome the Cold War II: This is What It Will Look Like.” Talk about this vote, from where—from your perch in Moscow right now. What is the attitude there?

DMITRI TRENIN: Well, I think that the attitude of most people in Moscow is that the people of Crimea have been able to decide their fate, and they’re joining Russia. There will be some sacrifice that the Russian people will have to pay for that, but it’s certainly worth having, because what’s been done is correcting the injustice committed about 70 years ago, when Crimea was detached from the then-Soviet Russian Republic and attached to the then-Soviet Ukrainian Republic.

AMY GOODMAN: And from the attitude, the position of—the position of President Putin, if you could explain what he sees right now and what the Russian Parliament will do?

DMITRI TRENIN: Well, I think it’s quite clear what the Russian Parliament will do. The Russian Parliament is paving the way for Crimea to become part of the Russian Federation, a republic within the Russian Federation. And they started working on that some time ago. They are pretty well advanced. There will be no delay. So I think that in terms of the Russian constitution, everything will be done quickly so that Crimea becomes part of the Russian Federation.

As I said, this is something that is widely supported by the bulk of the Russian population. Mr. Putin’s approval rating has—already very high last month, 61 percent, has increased to about 71 percent. So the bulk of the people welcome Crimea’s reintegration, reunification with Russia. This does not mean that—a lot of people disagree. Part of the intelligentsia, the opposition, especially the non-systemic opposition, those who are not represented on the Duma, they staged a march in Moscow—not a very numerous one, but a demonstration of rejection of this policy by President Putin.

Now, I don’t think that Putin pays too much attention to that. He sees himself on the right side of history. He sees himself correcting the injustices done at the end of the Cold War, the end of the Soviet Union. He sees himself supported by the Russian people. And he is well prepared, I think, to take on his opponents both domestically and internationally.

AMY GOODMAN: Eight U.S. senators concluded their trip to Ukraine Saturday after meeting with leaders of Ukraine’s interim government. This is the group leader, Senator John McCain.

SEN. JOHN McCAIN: I don’t believe there will be a reignition of the Cold War, but I do believe it’s long overdue that we understand Vladimir Putin for who he is and what he is and what his ambitions are. This is the person that stated that the greatest catastrophe of the 20th century was the breakup of the Soviet Union. This is a person who wants to restore the near abroad. This is a person that occupies parts of the sovereign nation of Georgia, that occupies the Transnistria and Moldova, that has now acted in an act of naked aggression. And again, all of us are concerned about recent reports of an additional military buildup in this area. And so, we have to treat him for what he is. And that does not reignite the Cold War, but it means we enact steps that make it clear to Vladimir Putin that his ambitions will not be realized by the great community of nations that would resist it.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Senator John McCain, just back from Ukraine. Dmitri Trenin in Moscow at the Carnegie Moscow Center, your response?

DMITRI TRENIN: Well, I think that we can debate what constitutes a Cold War, what does not. In my view, a situation in which there is more competition than collaboration is—would be my explanation and my—explanation of what the Cold War is. I don’t think that people will pay much attention—people here will pay much attention to what the senator has just said. I think they basically see him and so many others as being—trying to hem Russia in and hold Russia down, and I don’t believe that this is something new.

However, I think that the policy of Putin will not aim at actually making the confrontation more than what it will necessarily be. I think that Putin’s ambition, if you like, or Putin’s next aim, is to help Ukraine toward some kind of a federation, some kind of a system in which the southern and eastern portions of that country, mostly Russophone, enjoy a wide degree of linguistic, cultural and economic autonomy, and that Ukraine itself, as a country, does not join NATO or the European Union or become associated with the European Union. That, I think, is Mr. Putin’s—call it ambition, call it plan, call it goal, but that’s, I think, what he is aiming at at this point.

AMY GOODMAN: Dmitri Trenin, I think that’s something in the United States people don’t exactly have a very informed concept about, Russia’s attitude toward the expansion of NATO. Could you explain how Russia sees what has taken place over the last years?

DMITRI TRENIN: Well, first of all, let me clarify that. By Russia, I would mean primarily the Russian establishment—the Russian government, the Kremlin and the establishment. I think that the establishment have seen NATO’s enlargement, which began about two decades ago, as an attempt or as a project by the victorious powers in the Cold War, led by the United States, to consolidate their wins at the expense of Russia’s security. They saw NATO coming closer to Russia’s borders. And they saw their own bids—and there have been numerous bids by Russia to join NATO—they saw those bids rejected by, essentially, the United States. So having no chance to become part of the alliance, and having the alliance, which used to be the Soviet Union’s adversary in the Cold War, coming closer and closer to Russia’s borders, they certainly became very concerned.

And I think that from the standpoint of Mr. Putin and his associates in the Kremlin, Ukraine is a red line. And anyone who ventured out there had to be met with some kind of a response, which is exactly what happened after the toppling of President Yanukovych, who was, you know, someone who was neither with Russia more fully with the West, but he was replaced by a virulently anti-Russian and notionally pro-Western bunch of people. And that, to Mr. Putin and his associates, was the West crossing the red line.

AMY GOODMAN: And the attitude of the United States, when it came to what took place and Yanukovych being pushed out, calling that constitutional, but calling the referendum in Crimea unconstitutional?

DMITRI TRENIN: Well, I would say that the Russians have become used to people essentially using various standards for their own behavior and for other people’s behavior. Basically, President Putin in his press conference recently intimated that he was doing the things that basically the United States was doing. He was—he was placing the legitimate above the legal. If you need something and you need it badly, you go for it. It may not be legal, but if it’s your—if it’s in your national interest, then you go for it—except that the cases of Libya or Kosovo or Iraq, arguably, were less important for the United States’ national security interests than the issue of Crimea and Ukraine is, or was, for Mr. Putin and the Kremlin.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Dmitri Trenin in Moscow at the Carnegie Moscow Center, Oliver Bullough in Crimea with the Institute for War and Peace. And when we come back, we’ll also be joined by Nicholas Clayton, a freelance journalist who just came from Crimea, is in Istanbul. This is Democracy Now! Stay with us.


AMY GOODMAN: Pianist-Extremist, a masked figure inspiring protesters in central Kiev by playing piano on and around the barricades of Independence Square. This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report, as we continue our discussion about the vote in Crimea, the overwhelming referendum vote for secession from Ukraine to join Russia. We’re joined in Moscow by Dmitri Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, and now we’re turning to, as well, Nicholas Clayton, who is a freelance journalist just back from Crimea and Ukraine. He has covered the South Caucasus since 2009, contributed a recent piece in USA Today called “Military Tension High as Crime Holds Referendum.” Nicholas, you’re now speaking to us from Istanbul, but talk about the new leadership in Ukraine and what their response has been.

NICHOLAS CLAYTON: Well, the new leadership, it appears that they’re still very much in crisis mode, attempting to hold the country together. Many of them were not in the government before the Yanukovych regime fell. One of the more controversial things that has happened recently and one of the firmer gestures that the new government has made is saying that those advocating secession in other Ukrainian territories will be apprehended. And on one hand, this is a bit of an escalation of the rhetoric within Ukraine; however, it also represents very much the crisis mentality of the new government. As you mentioned before, there have been increasing protests in the cities of Kharkiv, Donetsk and Luhansk, where pro-Russia and pro-Ukraine protesters have clashed, and three people have died so far. There’s been accusations traded, but Kiev has claimed that a large portion, if not the majority, of these pro-Russian protesters are indeed Russian citizens that have come—been bused in from Russia, and they’re also tightening the border. It appears that they’re trying very hard to avoid any other province in Ukraine from getting the Crimea treatment at this point.

AMY GOODMAN: On Sunday, a prominent Russian state TV host, who has close ties to Vladimir Putin, warned Russia could launch a nuclear strike against the United States. The anchor, Dmitry Kiselyov, spoke with a picture of a nuclear explosion behind him and words “into radioactive ashes.”

DMITRY KISELYOV: [translated] Russia is the only country in the world that is really able to turn the United States into radioactive ashes. I don’t know if it’s a coincidence, but Obama called Putin on January 21st and probably again tried to put pressure on him. But on the very next day, on January 22nd, the official newspaper of the government of Russia published an article where it was clearly explained, in detail, how our system of guaranteed nuclear revenge works. It is called “Perimeter.” In the U.S.A., it was nicknamed “Dead Hand.” I actually advise you read the article.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s a Russian state TV host who has close ties to Vladimir Putin, speaking on Sunday. His name is Dmitry Kiselyov. Nicholas Clayton, your response?

NICHOLAS CLAYTON: Well, I mean, this obviously shows how heated the rhetoric has become. And I think, honestly, there—you know, this has to be looked at from two different ways. The whole situation is very much a crisis within Ukraine politics and also, obviously, the clash between the East and the West.

And as we’ve discussed already this hour, I do think that many in the West underestimated how strategic Ukraine, and particularly Crimea, is to Russia. The port of Sevastopol has been the base of the Russian Black Sea Fleet since imperial days, since the 18th century, and it actually is probably the best harbor in the Black Sea for a large fleet and one of the only ones that could safely hold a large fleet. It has a deep harbor, it’s very large, and it’s protected on both sides by hills, which means the wind is not a factor. If Russia were to be booted from there, it would have to drastically reduce the size of its fleet and spend billions of dollars attempting to build up facilities in one of its other ports in order to hold it. And the Russian Black Sea Fleet is the portion of the Russian navy that it uses to project naval force into not only the Black Sea, where it has significant interests, but also the Mediterranean Sea and through the Sinai and the Indian Ocean, and therefore, it’s an important portion of their Middle East strategy and their foreign policy in those regions.

And so, this really is a—what the Russians call a steel interest, something that is certainly a red line and certainly something that if Russia had to retreat from, would be very—would very much hurt their foreign policy and their ability to project power in the world. And we saw—this is partially why Russia moved so quickly in the upper house, was that many figures in the new government in Kiev did make statements saying that they wanted to basically cancel the lease that Russia has for the use of the base in Sevastopol. The current lease gives Russia the right to use that port until 2042, but there—in the past, previous governments have also tried to push Russia out, and it has been a major factor in Russia’s relationship with Ukraine since the end of the Soviet Union and very much—very much has been a huge card in the East-West battle over Ukraine, as well.

AMY GOODMAN: I mean, we saw what happened when the U.S. military was concerned that U.S. interests were being threatened in the Panama Canal when they controlled it: The U.S. invaded Panama.

NICHOLAS CLAYTON: Yeah, actually, it’s an interesting—interestingly analogous situation. And, you know—and you add to this the fact that, I mean, while Russia’s accusations of threats towards Russian citizens in Crimea and other places in eastern Ukraine are definitely hyperbolic, and there’s little to no evidence that the Russian speakers were really threatened physically by the change of government in Ukraine, there are nonetheless more serious fears and a lot of apprehension among Russian speakers in those portions of the country, absent some of this media blitz that Russia has been piping out.

I mean, to use a crude analogy for the United States, it would be as if the Occupy movement—and regardless of what you think of the Occupy movement or its politics, but if it had continued and grown in intensity to the point where it led to violence that left over a hundred people dead, including a couple dozen police officers, and took power in the United States, filling up a government with protest leaders and a mix of the more liberal wing of the Democratic Party, right or wrong, that would automatically, you know, force a very strong reaction and a lot of paranoia in the conservative portions of the country.

And the way that the Ukraine has been politically divided over this time—and this is this—we’re seeing a similar reaction, that the Ukraine has been internally and politically divided between East and West. And even a lot of Russians that didn’t necessarily fear—didn’t have specific fears about their rights, nonetheless, the fact that there was an overthrow of the government just a month ago, and all of the uncertainty that came from that, many did—you know, in Crimea, were saying that they were looking for some sort of sign of protection or stability. And in Crimea, that came in the form of Russia. And that’s why it’s really important for the Western powers, as they’ve come in, to understand that, you know, right or wrong, there are many in both Ukraine and in Russia, obviously, that do not recognize the new Ukrainian government in Kiev as legitimate.

And so, while it’s important to support that government in the short term to make sure that the Ukraine remains stable, I think it’s also important for Western leaders to understand that the Maidan movement in Kiev did not necessarily represent every Ukrainian, just like the Occupy movement was not necessarily supported by constituencies in Kansas and Utah, and that there needs to be a solution and a push for a solution that incorporates the interests of both sides and that can reduce the overall internal tensions within Ukraine.

AMY GOODMAN: Dmitri Trenin, the comparison of the U.S. and the West immediately recognizing Kosovo as an independent nation compared to the response to the referendum in Crimea, how is that seen in Moscow?

DMITRI TRENIN: Well, I think it’s ironic. It’s interesting that the West and Russia have traded places. I would say cynics would say that this is normal because their interests demand that they do so. The Kosovo independence was not—was not achieved with the consent of the Serbian government. It did not have a referendum. And yet, it was recognized by most of European countries and by the United States. The Russians did not recognize it. But now, the Russians are using the Kosovo precedent to justify their position on Crimea.

And although it is clear that the government in Kiev—the revolutionary government in Kiev, I should say—does not have an impeccable legal mandate, to put it mildly, it is clear that the—again, whatever you think of the referendum, the Russian role in it, the legality of it, the short order holding of that referendum—it is clear that the vast majority of the people in Crimea welcome the chance to be reunited with Russia, and there—the West does not recognize the referendum. So, you have—you have the West and Russia changing places depending on, essentially, their interests. This is a good illustration of double standard, I would say, on both sides.

AMY GOODMAN: Very quickly to both of you, as we wrap up, what do you think could diminish the tensions now? The U.S. is pushing for increased sanctions against Russia. Let’s start with Dmitri Trenin in Moscow.

DMITRI TRENIN: Well, I think that we will have to go through a period of heightened tensions. The question is how long this period will be, how deep the sanctions will bite, what kind of response will Russia give. I think that we’re standing at the beginning of some pretty turbulent period in international relations.

AMY GOODMAN: Nicholas Clayton?

NICHOLAS CLAYTON: Well, it’s difficult to see what—you know, what each side would be looking to get out of it at this stage. The unfortunate part is that trust has very much been undermined by several episodes within this whole crisis. And at this point, Russia likely looks at the situation like it’s gotten what it wants, and from the Western standpoint, that they seem to be putting most of their backing behind the government in Kiev, therefore they don’t want to make concessions on that account, either. So, while a federalist option and some sort of mutual compromise involving autonomy for certain regions would be certainly beneficial to the country potentially, it’s difficult to see if both sides have the willingness to really come together on that.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to leave it there. Nicholas Clayton, freelance journalist, recently reported from Crimea, now in Istanbul, most recently wrote a piece in USA Today. And I want to thank Dmitri Trenin for joining us, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center. Among his pieces, “The Crisis in Crimea Could Lead the World into a Second Cold War.” And before that, Oliver Bullough, speaking to us from Crimea, he was a Reuters Moscow correspondent, now the Caucasus editor of Institute for War and Peace Reporting.

This is Democracy Now! We’ll be back in a minute speaking with Patrick Cockburn on this third anniversary of the Syrian conflict. Stay with us.

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