Iran Review has conducted an interview with Dr. Jahangir Karami, associate professor at faculty of world studies of the University of Tehran and Russia and Eurasia affairs expert, to talk about the crisis in Ukraine, Russia’s role in the crisis, the possibility of an armed conflict between Ukraine and Russia over the Crimean peninsula, and US and EU support of Ukraine. What follows is the text of the interview.
Q: Is [Russian President Vladimir] Putin punishing Ukraine, and now that the government of [ousted Ukrainian president, Viktor] Yanukovych has fallen, is Moscow trying to take advantage of this opportunity and take the eastern part of Ukraine, especially the Crimean peninsula, away from this country?
A: Yes. It is quite evident that Russia is punishing Ukraine. It is very difficult for the government of Russia to accept that Ukraine is drifting away from the Kremlin. The history, culture, and identity of Ukraine cannot be considered separate from Russia and the two nations have many geographical, population, and human commonalties. At the same time, more than 10 million Russians live in Ukraine and over 10 million Ukrainians live in Russia. Apart from all this, the two countries have been actually divided on the basis of a set of artificial and geographical features. Therefore, their division was not due to different national identities in each country. As a result, such realities make it very difficult for Russians to accept the loss of Ukraine. I believe that a similar situation is also present on the Ukrainian side. A public resolve and an absolute majority view of people for moving toward closer ties with the European Union in favor of secession from Russia does not exist in Ukraine. Usually every time that elections have been held in this country, the margin of difference between votes cast by opponents and proponents of secession from Russia has not exceeded 1-2 percent. At the same time, most of the people who have voted for Western-minded presidents in Ukraine during the past three decades have meant to see improvement in their livelihood and have done so under the influence of attractive slogans of election candidates. Therefore, it would not be at all an easy task to separate these two nations from each other.
Q: How serious do you see the possibility of the breakout of an armed conflict between Ukraine and Russia over the Crimean peninsula?
A: Of course, such a possibility cannot be totally ruled out. However, there are a few factors which can greatly reduce this possibility. Firstly, war and armed conflict generally have no place in the public and political culture of Ukraine. Even the incidents that took place at Independence Square [in the Ukrainian capital city of Kiev] are believed to have been the spinoff of a foreign design and plot which aimed to push the country into the vortex of violence. Secondly, religious and cultural commonalties between the two nations further serve to reduce this possibility. Russia, on the other hand, is considered a dominant military power. The country has an army with about one million troops and top-notch military equipment. Russia was once a global superpower, and in terms of military might, it is still regarded as such. On the other hand, Ukraine has only an army with a total of about 150,000 forces and that army is currently in disarray as its soldiers have not been paid their salaries for months.
Therefore, the chances for a full-blown military faceoff between Kiev and Moscow are very low. At the same time, the possibility of such a conflict cannot be ruled out altogether. The ongoing moves by Russophile forces in the eastern parts of the country like the city of Kharkov, in opposition to the interim government in Kiev, may change direction toward violence. In that case, there would be probably enough potential to give rise to domestic skirmishes. Such skirmishes, however, will be limited in scale because in the Ukrainian society, the opponents of Russia do not enjoy an absolute majority. The fact that they are just a minority has led to the public understanding that recourse to war and conflict in this regard would be of no use. The Ukrainian society has generally no special animosity toward Russia and the proportion of real opponents of Russia does not exceed 15-20 percent of the population.
Q: How ready the United States and the European Union (EU) are to offer support for Ukraine, and in case of an armed conflict between Ukraine and Russia, what position the US and EU are possible to take?
A: Up to the present time, they have only talked about political support, though they have also given promises about offering economic aid to Ukraine. We must wait and see what happens in the future. As for Russia’s military measures in Crimean peninsula, warnings have been issued [by the United States and EU] and they have even threatened to impose sanctions against top Russian officials. Although Russia has legal claims to Crimean peninsula, if Moscow intended to actually move beyond the Crimean peninsula, it would be possibly faced with more stern warning from the West. It should be noted that this would not be an easy measure because close to its own territory and in a region which is well known to Russia and whose people also support Russia, Moscow will be in a much better position to act as compared to the NATO. In addition, it would be very difficult for the member states of the NATO to reach a consensus over military action against Russia because the subsequent risks would be very high and unpredictable.
Q: If further deepening of Ukraine crisis leads to more tension in the West’s relations with Russia, what impact will it have on cooperation and interaction between the two sides on other issues, including on Iran's nuclear case?
A: As for Iran's nuclear case, I don’t believe that it would lead to a major change of course. It is true because all parties to Iran's nuclear talks, including the Americans, Russians and Iranians had common interest in the recent agreement [reached on Iran's nuclear energy program in Geneva last November]. The Iranian side has been especially determined to find a negotiated and diplomatic solution to its nuclear case. Therefore, it seems unlikely that Iran would be planning to take advantage of the new situation which is the result of tension between the West and Russia, to its own benefit. From my viewpoint, the chances for a radical change in Iran's nuclear case are very small, but such a possibility is much stronger when it comes to the ongoing crisis in Syria.
Q: It seems that the renovation of the Russian armed forces – made possible through recent upsurge in the country’s oil and gas export revenues – has made the country’s president more ambitious and aggressive. Will we see a generally more aggressive Russia from now on; one which will be more inclined toward show of force in international arenas?
A: Since 2000, Russia has become increasingly more powerful and stable and has also adopted a more aggressive foreign policy approach. At the same time, the willingness for interaction with the West has also increased in parallel. Russia cannot, and does not, want to enter into an all-out competition with the West because its officials are quite aware of possible cost of such a competition. The Russian statesmen are well aware that they cannot engage in an international confrontation with the West on a military budget which is only 1/15 of the West’s military spending. Russia does not follow a competitive ideology which may pit it against the West. Therefore, if there are differences between Russia and the West over such issues as the eastward spread of the NATO and the EU, the European missile defense shield, or West’s efforts to boost its regional influence in Ukraine or Russia, they are based on the national and geopolitical interests to which Russia considers itself totally entitled.
Russia is aware of its weight in comparison to other global powers and has no plan to enter into costly rivalries with other powers. Russia, within framework of the former Soviet Union, was once engaged in such a rivalry and saw how that rivalry finally led to the implosion of the Soviet Union. Therefore, Moscow is not willing to repeat the same experience. The current leaders in Russia are more willing to follow the same path that has been taken by the Chinese leaders. The Chinese leaders first expanded their power in the economic fields in a slow and gradual manner. Of course, the geographical and security environment of Russia and the background of its past relations with the West do not allow Russia to regulate its relations with the West exactly in the same way that China has done. However, despite the existence of rivalry, Russia is also emphasizing the need to cooperate with the West. In its national security and military documents, Russia has mentioned the NATO as both a threat and an ally in the fight against terrorism. NATO runs facilities in the Russian city of Orenburg, which have been given to it by the Russian government, and the two sides even conduct joint military exercises. Therefore, Russia is actually engaged in simultaneous rivalry and cooperation with the West on the basis of its own interests. As a result, Moscow is not willing for the Ukraine crisis to spread and spill over into other countries. However, when a country’s national interests in one of the closest geographical regions to its mainland are at stake, and that country happens to have one of the most powerful armies in the world, which is the case about Russia, it would be quite natural for that country to use the military leverage one way or another.