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Foreign Policy

The Ukraine Crisis and US-Russia Relations

Mar 28 , 2014
  • Yu Sui

    Professor, China Center for Contemporary World Studies

The crisis in Ukraine occurred partly as the result of American and Western European full support of the opposition’s violent actions at a time when the country’s economic development and people’s living had both been in deep difficulty in the transition process and the high expectation for the EU membership had failed. Various negative factors in ethnic relations, religion, history and geopolitics have played a role, rendering the upheaval both an extension of the Soviet disintegration and an upgraded re-play of the Orange Revolution in 2004. 

Yu Sui

Had the 21 February compromise agreement between Yanukovych and the three opposition leaders been observed, it would be fairly certain that the opposition would have won the presidential election on 25 December. However the opposition, having never heard of the story of “the mantis stalking the cicada, unaware of the oriole behind”, misjudged the situation, handing an extremely rare opportunity to Russia, a country that wanted Crimea back in its folds for decades. 

The Crimean question is unique. On 19 February 1954, Russian Premier Nikita Khrushchev transferred Crimea from Russia to Ukraine as a gift to commemorate the 300th anniversary of Ukraine’s merger with Russia. After the Soviet disintegration, Russia decided to declare the 1954 Soviet resolution illegal and adopted a resolution declaring Sevastopol a Russian city. Crimean leaders also declared independence from Ukraine. None of these attempts were successful, since Russia was then weak. With Ukraine increasingly pro-Western, Russian President Vladimir Putin has now seized the opportunity to take Crimea back. Even Gorbachev, who has enjoyed much Western favor, praised the recovery of Crimea. 

Putin does not like Yanukovych, who has a corrupt family but no ability to run state affairs, and has also attempted to get closer to the EU. He supported Yanukovych mostly because he was most likely to accept Putin’s concept of a Eurasian Union and could also be an agent serving Russian national interests. 

Geographical and historical factors have determined that independence and neutrality are the best choice for Ukraine. As former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger pointed out in a Washington Post article, “if Ukraine is to survive and thrive, it must not be either side’s outpost against the other — it should function as a bridge between them.” 

Sanctions are a double-edged sword. Remember, EU and Russia have very close economic ties. The various sanctions announced by the US and Europe are mostly symbolic. It is gratifying that President Obama announced that there would be no military intervention in Ukraine. And it is wise for the Ukrainian authority to not to seek NATO membership. 

The Ukraine crisis deeply affects Russia-US relations. There are some debatable popular views. 

Some people predict that Russia will contain Ukraine’s westward tendency “even at the cost of Ukraine’s secession.” This author cannot agree. The history of east and southeast Ukraine is different from that of Crimea. Moscow may use the struggle of local Russians against American and European pressure, but is unlikely to deliberately create a secession of Ukraine, which is not in Russia’s interest. 

Some other people see that the crisis will push Russia to “fundamentally lean east”. This idea much exaggerates the deterioration of relations between Russia and the West. As a Eurasian power, it is impossible for Russia to give up its all-round diplomacy. 

There are yet others announcing the “arrival of a new age of confrontation” with a comprehensive cold war between Russia on the one hand, and the US and Europe on the other in the political, economic and military fields. This is also a huge exaggeration. Such assertions also appeared during the Kosovo War, Iraq War, US attempts to promote a color revolution in former Soviet republics, armed conflict between Russia and Georgia, US deployment of missile defense systems in Eastern Europe, and the Syria crisis. We must note, however, that the warmth of economic globalization and the chill of a cold war can hardly co-exist. 

In the long run, Russia-US relations will have to go through a readjustment, relaxation and gradual improvement, which of course can not be achieved overnight. First of all, both countries need a sound bilateral relationship for their own national interests. Do they no longer need cooperation on questions related to Iran and Syria? Do they no longer need cooperation on global anti-terror efforts? Do they no longer need cooperation on a reduction of strategic weapons and prevention of nuclear proliferation? Space cooperation between US and Russia has continued since the Ukraine crisis. Since 1995, the US has been using Russia-made engines on its Atlas V launch vehicles and seemly unlikely to give it up. Putin is still invited to France for the event on 6 June commemorating the 70th anniversary of allied landings in Normandy. Furthermore, as the old saying goes, an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. There is always a limit to what can be done. If the two sides fight, both will be harmed; and if the two sides are at peace, both will benefit. This also applies to Russia-US relations. Additionally, the relationship has gone through twists and turns since the end of the Cold War. It was sometimes hailed as “a new strategic relationship” and sometimes as daggers drawn. The expediency of warming up, the inevitability of cooling down and the relativity between warmth or coolness have become the track of development for Russia-US relations.

Yu Sui is a Professor with the China Center for Contemporary World Studies. 

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