Cover Story

U.S. double standards

Print edition : April 18, 2014

U.S. President Barack Obama with other G7 leaders at The Hague on March 24, on the sidelines of the Nuclear Security Summit, to decide the response to Russia's incorporation of Crimea into the Russian Federation. Photo: JERRY LAMPEN/AFP

President Putin chairs a meeting of his government at his residence outside Moscow on March 19. Photo: ALEXEY DRUZHININ/AFP

Russian President Vladimir Putin with Crimea's Prime Minister Sergei Aksyonov (front left), Crimean Parliament Speaker Vladimir Konstantinov (hidden) and Sevastopol Mayor Alexei Chaliy in Moscow on March 18 after signing a treaty on making the Ukrainian Black Sea peninsula a part of Russia. Photo: Sergei Ilnitsky/POOL/REUTERS

Crimea’s overwhelming vote to rejoin Russia, assailed by the U.S., is of a piece with Kosovo’s separation from Serbia and Croatia’s and Slovenia’s from Yugoslavia, all backed by the West.

PRESIDENT Vladimir Putin, despite the loud threats of sanctions and other punitive actions by the West, went along with the wishes of the people of the Crimean peninsula and on March 21 duly signed a treaty incorporating the region into the Russian Federation. The overwhelming vote by the Crimeans in favour of rejoining Russia in the March 16 referendum had left President Putin with no other choice. Putin, in his speech to the Russian Parliament, pointed out that Crimea’s referendum was in line with the United Nations Charter, which speaks of the right of nations to self-determination. Putin reminded his Western critics that Ukraine had followed a trajectory similar to Crimea’s when it seceded from the USSR (Union of Soviet Socialist Republics). “Moreover, the Crimean authorities referred to the well-known Kosovo precedent—a precedent our Western colleagues created with their own hands in a very similar situation, when they agreed that the unilateral separation of Kosovo from Serbia, exactly what Crimea is doing now, was legitimate and did not require any permission from the country’s central authorities,” Putin said in his speech.

Coincidentally, it was 15 years ago that the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) launched its 78-day war on Yugoslavia, leading to the complete fracturing of the Yugoslav Federation and ultimately the creation of Kosovo in 2008. Before that, in 1991, Croatia and Slovenia had conducted their own referendums on the issue of secession from Yugoslavia. These referendums had the full backing of the West. In January 1992, the European Union recognised the independence of the two states. A similar referendum held against the will of the central government in Belgrade was repeated in Bosnia in 1992. The West was quick to recognise the independence of that state. These events signalled the beginning of the bloody war in the Balkans, which ended with NATO military intervention and the break-up of the Yugoslav Federation. Putin highlighted the double standards of the West, led by Washington, saying that they do not adhere to the “rule of law” but to the “rule of the gun”, believing in their exclusivity and exceptionalism. “They use force against sovereign states, building coalitions based on the principle ‘If you are not with us, you are against us’.”

Support for Russia

The international community is, therefore, not impressed with the stand of Washington and Brussels that Russia has impinged on the sovereignty of Ukraine. The BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) group, represented by their Foreign Ministers, issued a statement on the sidelines of the Nuclear Security Summit at The Hague in the last week of March that it regretted the use of sanctions as a weapon against Russia. The bloc rejected a move initiated by Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott to suspend Russia from the G20 summit due to be held later this year in Brisbane on the Crimean issue. Abbott even suggested that Putin be barred from attending the summit. The statement by the BRICS nations is a clear indication that the developing countries have no appetite for the sanctions regime that the West wants to impose on Russia.

“The escalation of hostile language, sanctions, countersanctions, and force does not contribute to a peaceful and sustainable solution, according to international law, including the principles and purposes of the United Nations Charter,” the BRICS statement said. In a pointed criticism of the Australian Premier, the statement said no single member of the G20 can “unilaterally” take a decision on behalf of the group. Russia has been getting support from Latin American countries like Argentina. Argentine President Christina Fernandez accused the United States and the United Kingdom of having “double standards”. She compared the referendum in Crimea with that held in the Falklands (the Malvinas), an island over which Argentina has valid claims. The two countries were quick to recognise the results of the referendum in the island, in which the 2,000 residents there voted to stay part of faraway Britain. “We demand that when the great powers talk of territorial integrity, that it be applicable to everyone,” Christina Fernandez said in a speech in Paris. Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai also came out in strong support of Russia’s action in Crimea.

China and India have been more circumspect. The issue of self-determination for disputed territories is a delicate issue for both governments. China has to deal with separatists in Tibet and Xinjiang and the question of reunification with Taiwan. For India, the Kashmir issue has been recognised as a territorial dispute by the international community since the early 1950s. Neither country wants Crimea to be a precedent. China abstained in the vote on the U.N. Security Council resolution condemning the referendum in Crimea and did not join Russia in vetoing it. U.S. President Barack Obama had a meeting with he Chinese President Xi Jinping on the sidelines of The Hague summit and sought to canvass support against Moscow. Xi Jinping, while voicing support for Ukraine’s sovereignty, refrained from saying anything critical about Russia’s actions in Crimea. Putin had made it a point to call up Xi Jinping and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh after the crisis erupted. He publicly thanked India and China for their understanding and support.

The new Ukrainian government itself is being viewed as illegitimate, having replaced a duly elected government by using violent means and outside support. The U.S. and the E.U. lent a helping hand in the overthrow of the democratically elected President, and Washington took the lead in condemning Moscow. Obama, in a vitriolic attack in a speech in Brussels, said Russia was “challenging truths” and added that the borders of Europe “cannot be redrawn by force”. He even whitewashed previous American military interventions, including those in Kosovo and Iraq.

E.U. restraint

European leaders have been more restrained in their criticism of Russia. Germany, the most influential E.U. member, has strong economic and energy ties with Russia. German Chancellor Angela Merkel supported the E.U.’s move to cut its long-term dependence on Russian oil and gas supplies. A former German Chancellor, Helmut Schmidt, is however of the view that Russia’s action in Crimea is “completely justifiable”.

Many Russian oligarchs have parked their funds in London, the financial hub of Europe. The E.U. does ten times as much trade with Russia as the U.S. does.

The Obama administration’s decision to target a few oligarchs and its plans to impose economic sanctions could hurt European governments more in the long run. Some Russian commentators say Putin will not be unhappy if the financial clout of the oligarchs, who made their fortunes in the days of Boris Yeltsin, is further diminished.

Russia has imposed countersanctions on U.S. and Canadian businessmen and officials.

The G7 leaders meeting at The Hague in the last week of March decided unanimously to suspend Russia from the G8. The G8 summit was scheduled to be held in the Russian city of Sochi on the Black Sea coast later this year. The G7 leaders issued a statement condemning what they termed as “Russia’s illegal attempts to annex Crimea in contravention to international law”. The G7 leaders warned that they were ready to “intensify actions” that could have a “significant impact” on the Russian economy.

In his landmark speech to the Russian Parliament on March 18 announcing Crimea’s incorporation into the Russian Federation, Putin gave an assurance that there would be no further moves to “split Ukraine” despite the growing clamour in the Russian-speaking parts of eastern Ukraine for breaking away.

In the U.S., both Democrat and Republican lawmakers are unhappy with the lukewarm steps most European nations have taken so far against Russia. The E.U. is far from united on the issue of dealing with Russia. Many European leaders realise that a showdown with Moscow at this juncture will have a negative impact on the economic recovery programmes in their countries. Portugal, Spain, Greece, Italy and Cyprus will be particularly affected if the economic warfare between the West and Russia escalates.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, speaking after a meeting with his American counterpart John Kerry at The Hague, stressed the need for the new government in Kiev to institute constitutional reforms “that would take into consideration the interests of all the Ukrainian regions”. According to Lavrov, that is the only way the current political crisis in the country can be resolved. Lavrov had a meeting at The Hague with the newly appointed Ukrainian Foreign Minister, Andrei Deschytsia. This was another strong indication that Moscow was keen to calm the diplomatic waters and that it did not intend to move militarily beyond the Crimean peninsula.

Controversial Ukraine-E.U. pact

But the interim government in Kiev is using the secession of Crimea to forge closer military and economic ties with NATO and the E.U. In the third week of March, the government, which lacks a popular mandate, signed a political association agreement with the E.U. It was President Viktor Yanukovich’s decision not to sign such an agreement that led to his being overthrown. Lavrov was of the view that Kiev should have waited for the formation of a popularly elected government before rushing into an agreement with Brussels. One of the first things the pro-Western leaders now running the government did was to call for the deployment of NATO troops in the country. The government is mobilising its army and has allotted more than $600 million to bolster its military defences. The U.S. and the E.U. are providing the necessary funding for a newly created 60,000-strong “National Guard”. The leadership of the new force will be under the neo-fascist and right-wing politicians belonging to parties like the Svoboda and the Right Sector.

There are already signs of disunity in the “interim” government. A notorious paramilitary leader of the Right Sector, Oleksandr Muzychko, who had played a leading role in the violent demonstrations in the Maidan, was killed by Ukrainian security forces in late March. The Ukrainian Defence Minister, Ihor Tenyukh, has been removed from his post, to which he was appointed only in February. He has been blamed for the fiasco faced by Ukrainian military units trapped in their bases in Crimea. In the last week of March, Ukraine withdrew all its remaining troops from Crimea.

Former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, a darling of the West, was caught on tape calling for the annihilation of Russians. She was talking to one her confidants after the Crimea and Sevastapol accession treaty was signed. “This is really beyond all bounds. It is about time we grab our guns and go kill all ‘katsaps’ together with their leader,” she was heard saying in the phone conversation which has since been uploaded on YouTube. “Katsaps” is a derogatory Ukrainian word for Russians. For good measure, she added that if she were in power “there would be no f*****g way they would get Crimea”. Yulia Tymoshenko has not denied that the voice on the tape is hers but has accused Russian intelligence of doctoring it.

NATO-Ukraine ties

NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen has pledged a new partnership with Ukraine after a recent visit to Kiev. The proposed partnership includes development of ties with the Ukrainian military as well as the expansion of joint drills. The NATO chief announced that henceforth NATO would “more actively involve Ukraine in its multinational projects regarding the development of military potential”.

Poland, a NATO member since 2004, has announced plans to form a multinational military brigade that will include Ukraine and Lithuania. There are efforts to draw in Georgia and Azerbaijan into this alliance, which will be a cat’s paw for NATO. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Erdogan has threatened to close the Bosphorus Straits for Russian shipping in case there is violence against the Crimean Tatar minority. Turkey, a NATO member, had sent its military to create the so-called Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus in 1983. Turkey had intervened on the pretext of protecting its compatriots on the island from the Greek Cypriots.

In his speech to the Russian Parliament, Putin underlined the threat posed by the Western military alliance knocking at the country’s doors. “NATO remains a military alliance, and we are against a military alliance, and we are having a military alliance making itself at home right in our backyard or in our historical territory. I simply cannot imagine that we would travel to Sevastopol to visit NATO sailors,” remarked Putin. Sevastopol on the Black Sea is Russia’s only all-weather naval base.

Obama during his visit to the NATO headquarters in Brussels stressed the need to strengthen the military grouping further in the wake of the recent events in Ukraine. He urged the European nations to contribute more to strengthen NATO. Most European nations had sharply curtailed their military budgets after the end of the Cold War. The U.S. President also referred to the importance of Article 5 of the NATO treaty, which requires member-states to come to each other’s aid in case of a military attack. The U.S. has worked for a long time to get Ukraine and Georgia to be NATO members. The U.S. has military bases in all NATO member-states that surround Russia. The ongoing effort to expand NATO and the E.U. does not bode well for lasting peace and tranquillity in Eastern Europe and the Caucasus.

Russia has many diplomatic cards to play yet. The U.S. needs Russia’s help to deal with Iran in the ongoing nuclear talks. Russia is in a position to ease the draconian sanctions regime on Iran by engaging in barter trade that would enable Teheran to sell more of its oil. Russia’s help will also be needed when American troops start withdrawing from Afghanistan and to deal with the bloody political aftermath the withdrawal is sure to trigger in that country. Russia and the U.S. are also engaged in finding a resolution to the crisis in Syria.

Though Obama has said that he does not consider the accession of Crimea to the Russian Union a “done deal”, Washington will have to reconcile with the facts on the ground and start doing business as usual with Moscow again. Russia, after all, is not the USSR and there is no great ideological divide between the two countries.