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‘Ukraine crisis has one winner: China’

On 12 February, the leaders of Germany, France, Ukraine, and Russia, during a 15-hour dialogue, agreed on a ceasefire starting on the midnight of February 15. They also agreed on a pullback of heavy weapons from the current engagement line for Ukrainian forces and from the line set by the September 19 talks for pro-Russia and separatist rebels.

However, some issues remain unresolved, such as the status of Debaltseve, a government-held town surrounded by rebels that has seen fierce fighting in recent days. Further talks also need to be held on the demand for self-rule in parts of the Donetsk and Luhansk separatist regions because previous talks have failed to resolve the concerns put forward by the separatists.

Ambassador Jaromir Novotný, a former deputy secretary of defence of the Czech Republic, speaks about the crisis and the way forward.

This interview was conducted on 2 February 2015.

Q. The talks on January 31 (among representatives of Russia, Ukraine, pro-Russia separatists, and the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe), and a telephone conversation on 8 February between Chancellor Merkel, French president Francois Holland, and Russian president Vladimir Putin to discuss the revival of the September 2014 peace plan, have not de-escalated the violence. Will the violence continue?

Most likely, the conflict will escalate because of Russia’s efforts to persuade the European Union and the U.S. to accept the presence of Russian troops on Ukrainian territory in exchange for the guarantee of a demilitarised corridor. This is the essence of President Putin’s so-called new peace proposal of 15 January 2015.

Such a situation would be similar to the situation in Transnistria, South Ossetia, and Abkhazia, where Russian troops remained in 2008 with more or less the forced consent of Moldova and Georgia.

Q. The western media has reported that Russian air force bombers came very close to the UK´s national air space twice on January 29. Will this escalate into a war?

No, I don‘t think it will. Russia is conducting long-range air patrols. It has done this routinely in the past, except when Boris Yeltsin was president (from 1991-1999), and the country was economically weak and cancelled these patrols.

Q. The EU has increased the number of Russian individuals it has targeted under sanctions, and is preparing further action—including widening the net of companies frozen out of western financial markets—to try and halt the fighting. The U.S. is considering supplying arms and equipment to the Ukrainian army. By doing this, is the West pushing for an escalation of the crisis?

For Russia, the fall in oil prices is worse than the sanctions. A majority of EU countries do not intend to deliver weapons to Ukraine. In the U.S., they are just beginning to talk about it. But I don‘t think anybody wants to be involved in a war with Russia.

Ukraine is politically fragile, it is a failed economy with poor fiscal policies and a disorganised groups of oligarchs. Ukraine is a problem for itself. The country needs lot of money to keep running—$20 billion—and war is much more expensive.

Q. The European economy too is suffering due to the counter-sanctions imposed by Russia, and the new anti-austerity government in Greece may exit the EU. Will these factors worsen the economic situation for the EU?

Yes, the EU has still not recovered from the economic crisis, and the situation in Ukraine is not helping the recovery—in fact, it is doing the opposite.

Q. The Ukraine crisis has driven Russia closer to China. Can Russia weather the sanctions economically with the help of the Chinese economy?

The current crisis in relations between the West and Russia has one winner—China. Those who lose are Russia and the EU. The U.S. is not economically affected.

Q. Russia has for long said that the pro-EU Euromaidan protests of 2014 were stage-managed by the West. Obama, in an interview to CNN on 1 February, admitted that the U.S. was involved in the 2014 power transition in Kiev (from Viktor Yanukovych to an interim government headed by Arseniy Yatsenyuk).  Does this vindicate Russia’s stand?

Russia does see Euromaidan as the West-managed collapse of the Ukrainian state.  President Yanukovych, according to pro-Russia supporters, was duly elected president in 2010, and his ouster shows that western and central Ukraine are completely indifferent to the interests of the south and east, which is why the separatists and those seeking autonomy want security guarantees against arbitrary moves by the post Euromaidan Ukrainian authorities. The fact that Obama admitted that the U.S. was involved in the power transition in 2014 only strengthens Russia’s position.

Q. What are the likely near-future scenarios for Russia’s security and economy?

The old world order has ceased to exist and a new one that will suit the world’s leading actors has not been created yet. The rules of international law are constantly violated for the sake of political interest.  This transitional period in international relations is very dangerous—and the threats have greatly increased. Therefore, Russia will continue to modernise its armed forces. Even though it will have economic problems, Russia’s defence budget will not be reduced. The economic sanctions will have no effect on Russia’s policies—just as more than 50 years of sanctions did not change the regime in Cuba; and the same applies to North Korea. The West must take into account that Russia is a nuclear power. It is impossible to dictate to Russia.

Ambassador Jaromir Novotný is a former Deputy Secretary of Defence, the Czech Republic, and a retired diplomat

This interview was exclusively conducted for Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations. You can read more exclusive features here.

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