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Roundtable: As Crimea Threatens Secession, Does East-West Split Hasten Ukraine’s Political Divide?

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Russian President Vladimir Putin is rebuffing warnings from the U.S. and European Union as the crisis in Ukraine threatens one of the worst east-west standoffs since the Cold War. The pro-Russian Crimean Parliament has voted to hold a referendum on splitting off from Ukraine and joining Russia. But the vote’s legitimacy has been called into question after the installation of a pro-Russian government in Crimea just last week. We host a roundtable discussion with three guests: Anton Shekhovtsov, a Ukrainian citizen and researcher at the University College London specializing in far-right movements; Jonathan Steele, former Moscow correspondent for The Guardian and author of “Eternal Russia: Yeltsin, Gorbachev, and the Mirage of Democracy”; and Keith Gessen, an editor at n+1 magazine who covered the 2010 Ukraine elections for The New Yorker.

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

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: The pro-Russian Crimean Parliament has voted to hold a referendum on splitting off from Ukraine and joining Russia. But the vote’s legitimacy has been called into question after the installation of a pro-Russian government in Crimea just last week.

This comes as President Obama and his European allies have unveiled a coordinated set of sanctions to punish Russia for occupying Crimea. In what some are calling the worst east-west crisis since the Cold War, Obama called Russian President Vladimir Putin Thursday to urge him to seek a diplomatic solution to the crisis, emphasizing that Russia’s actions in Crimea were a violation of Ukrainian sovereignty. During a telephone conversation between the two leaders, Putin reportedly said ties between their two countries should not suffer because of disagreements over Ukraine. Now NATO has said it will suspend cooperation with Russia, including a joint mission destroying Syria’s chemical stockpile.

Obama outlined the punitive measures being taken by his administration and said Secretary of State John Kerry will continue to hold talks with all relevant parties, including Russia and Ukraine.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: This morning, I signed an executive order that authorizes sanctions on individuals and entities responsible for violating the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine or for stealing the assets of the Ukrainian people. According to my guidance, the State Department has also put in place restrictions on the travel of certain individuals and officials. These decisions continue our efforts to impose a cost on Russia and those responsible for the situation in Crimea, and they also give us the flexibility to adjust our response going forward based on Russia’s actions.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Meanwhile, Ukraine’s former prime minister, Yulia Tymoshenko, has ruled out talks with Russia and urged Europe to take tough action on Crimea. Speaking on Thursday, she said the referendum is being held at “gunpoint.”

YULIA TYMOSHENKO: [translated] Today, there are well-armed Russian troops in Crimea. I want to put forward to you: What type of referendum can be fair at the gunpoint of an automatic Kalashnikov? How can this referendum shed any light? Who will count the votes? Who will give a guarantee that the will of the people is not dictated by what Russia says about a territory that today is under occupation? This is why this so-called referendum is illegitimate and it violates Ukraine’s constitution. Any such referendum that affects the future of a territory must include the whole of the Ukrainian nation.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Ukraine’s former prime minister, Yulia Tymoshenko, speaking Thursday.

Meanwhile, the Ukrainian Paralympic team is set to decide whether it’s participating in the Sochi Winter Paralympics, which open in the Russian Black Sea resort later today. Many foreign dignitaries have already boycotted the games.

For more on the crisis unfolding in the region, we host a discussion. In London, we’re joined by two guests. Anton Shekhovtsov is a Ukrainian citizen who was in Kiev and Sevastapol in January. He’s a researcher at University College London, specializing in far-right movements. WIth him, Jonathan Steele, former Moscow correspondent for The Guardian. He recently wrote a piece called “The Ukraine Crisis: John Kerry and NATO Must Calm Down and Back Off.” He’s the author of Eternal Russia: Yeltsin, Gorbachev, and the Mirage of Democracy.

Here in New York, we’re joined by Keith Gessen, editor at n+1 magazine. His latest co-authored editorial is called “Ukraine, Putin, and the West.” He covered the 2010 Ukraine elections for The New Yorker magazine.

We welcome you all to Democracy Now! Let’s begin with Anton. The significance of the Crimean Parliament voting to hold a referendum on whether to secede from Ukraine?

ANTON SHEKHOVTSOV: Yes, thank you for the invitation.

I would agree with the commentators, like former Prime Minister Tymoshenko and also President Barack Obama, that this referendum is absolutely illegitimate, for three reasons. First of all, it’s against the Ukrainian constitution to hold a referendum in an Autonomous Republic of Crimea. Second, it is not possible to hold a free and fair referendum in this situation, when Crimea is now invaded by the Russian troops and pro-Russian separatists. And third, it is not possible to hold a referendum, in technical terms, because the Central Commission of Ukraine has blocked the database of the voters, so the Crimean authorities, they don’t have access to the voter base in the Crimea, so they can’t really compose lists of the voters, of people who would take part in the referendum.

And this referendum, it will not be recognized by either the U.S. or Canada or the European Union. And Crimean Tatars are not—who are a native people in the Crimea, who were there even before the Russians and Ukrainians settled, they are not going to recognize this referendum. And this may provoke a dramatic standoff between the pro-Russian separatists and Russian troops, on one hand, and the Crimean Tatars and Ukrainians, on the other hand. And some ethnic Russians will also join this standoff on the side of pro-Ukrainian forces.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Keith Gessen, what about this issue of the referendum and the fact that you have also a central government here which itself—its legitimacy is still in question, because there was a duly elected president that was ousted in the process of these protests?

KEITH GESSEN: That’s certainly the Russian case, that Yanukovych—say what you will about him, and there’s lots of bad things to be said about him which are true—he was elected. The process of getting him out of office was a revolution. Everybody’s been calling it that. I think that’s correct. The Rada held a vote. It was held under excited circumstances, and the Russians are refusing to acknowledge that that was legitimate. The State Department, with some justice, says, “Well, the Rada did vote. They did vote Yanukovych out of office and the new government into office.” But the Russians are using this confusion and excitement to say, “Well, actually, things are indetermined yet. So, we can do what we want.”

AMY GOODMAN: Jonathan Steele, what do you think should be the response to this planned vote? You’re saying that the West should cool out.

JONATHAN STEELE: Well, I don’t think the vote is terribly important, and it’s not at all clear that even if the vote went ahead and the majority said they wanted to join Russia, that Putin would accept that. At the moment he’s saying that he doesn’t want Crimea to join Russia. So, I think it’s a bit of a sideshow.

I think the crucial issue is what’s happening in Kiev. And I agree with what Keith says, that the whole issue is the legitimacy and the viability and the representative nature of the government in Kiev. The Russians, as Keith’s pointing out, is saying it was an unconstitutional coup, and there’s a lot of evidence to say that was correct. It was a kind of insurrection by armed people. And you’ve also pointed out in Democracy Now! over the last few hours, 24 hours or so, that there were—there’s a lot of evidence now that the snipers came from the protest side rather than from the government side, people who killed police and civilians.

The crucial thing, I think, is to try and get a representative government in the Ukraine that will not frighten people in the eastern areas and the south. Literally, out of the 19 members of—ministers, rather, in that government, only two come from the east, none come from the south. The government also initially started to say that Russian would not be allowed anymore as an official language in the eastern and southern parts of the Ukraine. They’ve not acted on that; they’ve rescinded that. But still, it sent a terrible signal, psychological and political signal. And there are some efforts in Western Ukraine to ban and to make illegal the Party of the Regions, the old party of Yanukovych, which, of course, does represent a lot of people. So, there are a lot of very anti-democratic moves going on in Kiev, and I think that’s where the focus should be, trying to sort that out and get agreement between the West and Moscow on that.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to break and then come back to this discussion. Our guests in London are Jonathan Steele, Moscow correspondent for The Guardian; Anton Shekhovtsov, a Ukrainian citizen, University College London, researching far-right movements; and in New York with us, Keith Gessen, editor at n+1 magazine. This is Democracy Now! Back in a minute on Ukraine.


AMY GOODMAN: “Razom Nas Bahato,” “Together We are Many, We Cannot Be Defeated,” by the Ukrainian hip-hop group GreenJolly. That song became the unofficial anthem of the Ukrainian Orange Revolution in 2004. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I am Amy Goodman, with Juan González. Our guests, Jonathan Steele, former Moscow correspondent for The Guardian, he’s with us from London; Anton Shekhovtsov is a Ukrainian citizen from the University College London, researching far-right movements; and here in New York, Keith Gessen, editor at n+1 magazine. Juan?

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, Jonathan Steele, I’d like to ask you—you mentioned about this leaked phone call. During the protests that ousted the elected president, there were obviously not only protesters killed, but police killed, as well, and this leaked tape that has come out has bolstered claims that anti-government forces were behind sniper attacks on protesters in Kiev last month. Both sides of Ukraine’s political divide blamed the other when dozens of people were killed by gunfire in the weeks before the ouster of President Viktor Yanukovych. But in an intercepted phone call between Estonia’s foreign minister, Urmas Paet, and the European Union policy chief, Catherine Ashton, Paet says the sniper fire came from the opposition.

URMAS PAET: All the evidence shows that people who were killed by snipers, from both sides, among policemen and then people from the streets, that they were the same snipers killing people from both sides.

CATHERINE ASHTON: Well, that’s—yeah.

URMAS PAET: So that—and then she also showed me some photos. She said that, as medical doctor, she can say that it is the same handwriting, the same type of bullets. And it’s really disturbing that now the new coalition, that they don’t want to investigate what exactly happened, so that there is now stronger and stronger understanding that behind the snipers, it was not Yanukovych, but it was somebody from the new coalition.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Jonathan Steele, what about this whole issue of the democratic forces that ousted Yanukovych?

JONATHAN STEELE: Well, I think it was a huge coalition that was in the street, in the Maidan Square, for several weeks. I mean, of course, there were a lot of ordinary people one could call civilians, who were in favor of joining the EU and having the EU agreement, which Yanukovych refused to sign. But then I think there were professional demonstrators, if you like, people who are very experienced in, you know, setting up the tents, providing equipment, providing heating, providing water, food and so on. And then I think there were people who were insurrectionists, who were armed—in fact, some of them might even be called terrorists.

I mean, I always thought that it was quite possible that the snipers were coming from the opposition side, because the first day when there was killing, out of the 28 people dead, nine were police. I mean, it’s not normal in these demonstrations, when one side opens fire, and it’s usually the police, but nine of their own people die. So one was always suspicious, at the beginning.

But from this phone call that you just played, it seems that almost all the snipers were from the opposition side, which is a terrible indictment of their behavior, and also of the—most of the foreign media, which have completely suppressed this phone call, and of Western governments, who have made no reference to it. I mean, to their credit, the new authorities in Kiev claim that they’re going to have an investigation of the sniper issue, but I’ve not heard John Kerry or David Cameron coming out publicly and saying, “That’s a very good idea, and these are very disturbing suggestions.”

AMY GOODMAN: Anton Shekhovtsov, your response to that and the call?

ANTON SHEKHOVTSOV: Well, I wouldn’t really pay too much emphasis on this call. First of all, none of the—none of the—neither Catherine Ashton nor Estonian minister have really investigated what happened in Ukraine at that period. And their views are their personal views. It’s not based on evidence. It’s not based on investigation. There were rumors during the Ukrainian revolution that there was a third force who was very much interested in escalation of the conflict, and maybe a representative of that third force was shooting at protesters and at police. So we must not exclude this possibility. And again, Ashton’s and Estonian minister’s views are their own views; they’re subjective views and are not based on the investigation.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Keith Gessen, I’d like to ask you about this whole issue of Crimea itself, because obviously it’s at the center now of this—of this conflict, and neither Russians nor Ukrainians have historical roots in Crimea. Could you talk about the history of that region and how it is that it became a majority-Russian-speaking area?

KEITH GESSEN: Well, initially, going back to a few centuries, it was a Tatar region. So you have the Crimean Tatars who was there. There was a khanate of the Tatars. It was colonized by Russia back in the early 18th century, so Russia has been there for a fairly long time. Then it was transferred into Ukraine in 1954 by Khrushchev. The Soviets drew these borders. They never really thought the Soviet Union was going to fall apart, so they didn’t really care what went where. And now, of course, it’s become a very problematic area. It’s been—since the beginning of Ukrainian independence, Crimea has been the most restive, the most separatist, the area that has given the country the most problems.

AMY GOODMAN: Who are the protesters, Keith, overall? How would you characterize what’s going on right now in Ukraine?

KEITH GESSEN: I think it’s important to understand that—there’s been a lot of debate, especially on the left, about the presence of nationalists and ultra-right people in the protests. I think they’re definitely there. They’re in Parliament. Leftist activists from Russia who go down to Kiev, they tell stories about being beaten up. It’s a real—it’s been, for a few years now, a pretty tense situation. The trouble in Ukraine is, there is no left. There isn’t—it’s not Greece. It’s not Italy. There isn’t a left movement that the protests could really express. So, if you’re a young person who, you know, is very oppositional, is anti-government, you’re going to gravitate toward the right. There is no left. So, the coalition of the protests was a coalition of liberals, who want to be part of Europe, who don’t really want to have too much to do with Russia, which has become a very ugly, authoritarian regime, and these ultra-right ultra-nationalists. And it was a coalition which we see—you know, we saw this also in the Russian protests a couple years ago against Putin. It was the same sort of coalition of the right wing and liberals.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Jonathan Steele, I’d like to ask you about the role of the United States and the European Union in this conflict. You’ve been urging the U.S. to back off in some of your writings. Could you speak about that particular role, the United States’ role here?

JONATHAN STEELE: Well, I think it goes back to the expansion of NATO after the fall of the Soviet Union, which a lot of people—you know, former Russian ambassadors of the West, of U.S., like Jack Matlock, and people in Britain who had served in Moscow—realized would be a damaging move. And there was a bit of an argument, I think, over whether or not to expand NATO, but the hawks won out in the Clinton administration, so Poland and Hungary were brought in, and then came the former Soviet republics, the Baltic states, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. And then there’s always been the idea in NATO that they could expand even further to Georgia, particularly, and Ukraine. And Ukraine is so strategically important to Russia, one can understand why they feel very angry about that and upset. And this EU agreement that Yanukovych refused to sign would have been possibly a kind of backdoor towards NATO membership, because it does say that Ukraine would be part of the common security and foreign policy of the EU, which is of course linked to NATO, as well. So, I can understand why the Russians were very unhappy about that. And they liked Yanukovych because he was the first president, out of the four they’ve had since independence, who, in his election campaign, said, “We will not join NATO.” And he was elected partly on that basis, because all opinion polls have shown the majority of Ukrainians are against NATO membership.

But then, in the more recent, you know, events of the last few days, I think Kerry and Obama have overreacted, because they should recognize, as I said before, that this is a very dubious government in Kiev, and whether or not it’s constitutional or not is—can be argued, but it’s certainly not popular to people in the east, the Russian-speaking majority of the country in the east and the south. And they should try and get a more democratic government, but instead of that, Kerry just ignores that. And he’s been pressing Lavrov, in the two meetings they’ve held this week in Paris and in Rome, to recognize, as he put it, the legitimacy of the government in Ukraine. Well, that should be a matter for discussion and negotiation, not something that they just say to the Russians: “Basically, you have to accept this government, come what may.” And that’s where they’ve—the West at the moment is making a huge mistake.

AMY GOODMAN: On Monday, former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, John Bolton, appeared on Fox News. He said Putin is trying to expand Russia’s territory in the region.

JOHN BOLTON: He gave us notice of his strategy seven or eight years ago, when he said, in what is now one of the most frequently repeated quotes from his leadership in Russia—when he said the breakup of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical tragedy of the 20th century. It’s clear he wants to re-establish Russian hegemony within the space of the former Soviet Union. Ukraine is the biggest prize. That’s what he’s after. The occupation of the Crimea is a step in that direction. It shows now how Putin will negotiate with the interim government in Kiev: He’ll negotiate with it with his foot on Ukraine’s neck.

AMY GOODMAN: Jonathan Steele, do you think that’s a fair assessment? And then I want to get Anton’s response.

JONATHAN STEELE: No, I think that’s a gross overreaction and exaggeration. Putin is trying to set up something called the Eurasian Union, a kind of customs union, and he’s got Belarus and Kazakhstan to show interest in that. And he wanted Ukraine to join, too. But, I mean, the real problem is that Ukraine is divided between people who are Russian-speaking in the east and the western side, which is part of it, which was never even under the tsarist empire of Russia. So it’s a very divided country. You have to have, perhaps, eventually, a federation to prevent it breaking apart, but in the meantime, a proper national government of national unity. And I see no sense that this crisis has been created by Putin. He’s reacting to events, and one has to look at those events and not assume he’s on some forward march. We heard all this in the Soviet period: the Russians always on the expansionist march and so on. I mean, you have to look at the facts, and not just fit them into some kind of ideological, anti-Russian sort of matrix.

AMY GOODMAN: Anton Shekhovtsov, would you agree?

ANTON SHEKHOVTSOV: No, I don’t agree with Mr. Steele. Well, first of all, this is the interim government. This is the first post-revolutionary government. And it is very important to understand that in May Ukrainians will have presidential elections, and shortly after that, perhaps in autumn, Ukrainians will have early parliamentary elections in order to renew the legitimacy of the power relations in Ukraine.

As for Putin and his expansionist ideas, they’re very clear that Putin is not going to stop with occupying Crimea. He will go further. Putin himself may be a strategist or still holding those KGB views, but the ideology behind Putin and his advisers is called Eurasianism, and Eurasianism is about not only restoring the Soviet Union in its former borders, but going beyond that. And if you know Russian history, if you know contemporary Russian politics, you will see that his advisers, they are urging him to go westwards and not only defend Russian-speaking population in the Crimea—and I am, myself, ethnic Russian. I am, myself, Russian-speaking. I had to learn Ukrainian to speak it. And I oppose the Russian invasion in the Crimea. Maybe then he will try to defend Russian speaking in the Baltics, and there are around a million of them living in Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia. And maybe then he could go even further.

Putin is now destroying the whole security system of post-war Europe. He’s challenging the West, and he’s trying to undermine all the attempts at nuclear disarmament, because in 1994 Ukraine has—Ukraine voluntarily got rid of the world’s third-largest stock of nuclear weapons, and Ukraine was promised territorial integrity and sovereignty by Russia, the U.S. and the U.K. And now Russia violated that agreement. And then, the situation in the world—if the West fails to protect Ukraine and protect its territorial integrity, then a nuclear weapon, a nuclear bomb, will be the only tool and instrument for protecting territorial integrity and sovereignty in the whole world, and a new nuclear arms race will commence. And that would be a horrible, horrible development that would put the whole world in danger.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, I want to raise the issue of the European Union role. And, Keith Gessen, maybe you can respond to this. On Thursday, European Union leaders agreed to suspend visa and investment talks with Russia. European Council President Herman Van Rompuy told a news conference that the EU leaders would also freeze Russian assets and withdraw from a G8 summit, if Russia does not back down.

HERMAN VAN ROMPUY: In the absence of results, the European Union will decide on additional measures, such as travel bans, asset freezes and a cancellation of the EU-Russia summit. Any further steps by the Russian Federation to destabilize the situation in Ukraine would lead to severe and far-reaching consequences for relations between European Union and its member states, on the one hand, and the Russian Federation, on the other hand, which will include a broad range of economic areas.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: That was European Council President Herman Van Rompuy. But the reality is that Europe is very, very reliant on Russia for much of its natural gas and other resources. Could you talk about the gamble here being played between the European Union and Russia, as well?

KEITH GESSEN: Well, I mean, I would also say that, you know, that gas goes through Ukraine. One of the largest companies in Ukraine is Naftogaz, which takes care of the pipeline that takes the gas from Europe into Russia. So everybody is sort of tied together in these knots that are going to be very difficult to untie.

I think one of the things that gets lost in these discussions of the standoff between Russia and the EU, and the U.S. and Russia, is Ukraine. Right? Ukraine is being turned into a battleground for the aspirations, on the one hand, of the EU, and on the other hand, of Russia. This is not good for Ukraine. And part of the problem is that, you know, this process started in 2004 with the Orange Revolution, which brought to the government, to the presidency, Viktor Yushchenko, who was strongly nationalist, also very strongly anti-Russian. He had a very anti-Russian presidency. Relations between the two countries were very bad. And part of the reason that Yanukovych was legitimately elected in 2010 was that people were very tired of this standoff with Russia. It wasn’t good for Ukraine. A lot of people have family ties to Russia. And economically and culturally and historically, Ukraine is tied to Russia. However, the Russian regime is terrible. It’s really awful. It has—it is less democratic, by a pretty wide margin, than the Ukrainian regime. So, you have this situation where Ukraine has this natural ally and natural neighbor; unfortunately, that natural ally, natural neighbor, is Russia.

AMY GOODMAN: Just to wrap up, Anton Shekhovtsov, and then Jonathan Steele, finally, what do you think needs to happen now?

ANTON SHEKHOVTSOV: I would—I would really support all the efforts that the U.S., under leadership of President Barack Obama, and the EU are doing right now. Nobody wants a war. So I think that the West should act firmly, but try to—try all the diplomatic measures possible, including, of course, political, economic, military, but without—without any military conflict, introduce some sanctions, like visa bans and investigations about the money laundering in the West by the Russian oligarchs. So, the more diplomatic measures are introduced, the better. So, I think that Russia, it is already suffering economically, and I don’t think that people in Russia, Russian citizens, will be really interested in a situation where—when their economy declines.

AMY GOODMAN: Jonathan Steele, your final—


AMY GOODMAN: Since we’re going to have to wrap, your final comment?

JONATHAN STEELE: Well, I think there has to—there has to be agreement between the West and Moscow on this. I think they should try and find a common economic package in which both sides contribute, because the economy is really the major problem facing Ukraine. I think Putin will back off on Crimea if he feels he’s got reassurances, for example, that there will be no issue of joining either the Eurasian Union, the Moscow-led union, or the EU, the Western-led union, for the time being, that that’s all put on ice, and the character of the government in Kiev is enlarged and broadened to reassure people in eastern and southern Ukraine that they’re not going to be humiliated and discriminated against in the future. So, negotiations is the way out; compromise is the way out.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you all for being with us, Jonathan Steele, former Moscow correspondent for The Guardian; Anton Shekhovtsov is a Ukrainian citizen with the University College London; Keith Gessen, editor at n+1 magazine.

This is Democracy Now! When we come back, we go south to Venezuela. Two protesters were killed overnight. Who were the protesters? What’s happening there? Stay with us.

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