Andrei Kortunov, Director General of the Russian International Affairs Council and President of the New Eurasia Foundation discusses the referendum in Crimea and says Russians don't believe US and EU sanctions will be the end of the world.
EMMA ALBERICI, PRESENTER: The Russian President has called for a joint sitting of the Duma tomorrow, where a formal takeover of the Crimean region in the Black Sea peninsula is expected to be debated. The Russian Foreign Ministry has said it may again be forced to act to protect ethnic Russians, a phrase that's already been used as a pretext for military incursions.
Andrei Kortunov is the director general of the Russian International Affairs Council and president of the New Eurasia Foundation. I spoke to him a short time ago from Moscow.
Andrei Kortunov, thank you very much for joining us.
ANDREI KORTUNOV, DIR. GEN., RUSSIAN INT. AFFAIRS COUNCIL: Welcome.
EMMA ALBERICI: Now, word from Crimea is that close to 97 per cent of the people voted to join with Russia. How credible is that referendum result, do you think?
ANDREI KORTUNOV: Well, it's hard to tell, because of course the referendum was prepared in haste, and therefore, probably some of the details were overlooked. Besides, there is a Russian military presence in the peninsula and of course that might also have an impact on the referendum. However, having said that, I still believe that the overwhelming majority of Crimeans would prefer to stay with Russia than with the Ukraine. The sense of any Ukrainian identity within the peninsula is not strong developed and I would even venture to say that Russia is associated with a potential miracle from this viewpoint: those in Crimea are not different from those in Kiev. In Kiev they are also looking for a miracle, but in Kiev they expect the miracle to come from the EU, while in Crimea, they hope that the miracle will come from Moscow.
EMMA ALBERICI: You mean economic miracle?
ANDREI KORTUNOV: I think that first and foremost, it is an economic miracle because the economic situation in Crimea is worse than in Ukraine in general. It has been a very wealthy region in the Soviet Union. It used to enjoy high living standards and a lot of economic activities, but during the years of the Ukrainian independence, Crimea has become a subsidised region. A lot of the old Soviet infrastructure decayed, its hospitality industry went down the drain and definitely, the peninsula is in really - is in poor shape. On top of that, there is a fear of some kind of forced Ukrainisation. And it has not yet happened, but for many people in Crimea, there is a challenge of the new government in Kiev, which is perceived - rightly or wrongly - but which is perceived as very nationalistic and potentially anti-Russian.
EMMA ALBERICI: So what happens now? Does it necessarily follow that Russia will welcome Crimea into the fold?
ANDREI KORTUNOV: Well, in theory, Russia still has a choice. It might put this whole issue on hold. It might accelerate this "integration" of Crimea into the Russian Federation as yet another subject of federation. It might use the Crimean issue as a bargaining chip, dealing with Ukraine and also with Europe and with the United States. But of course, here in Moscow we can see that a strong momentum has already been developed and it would be difficult for Putin and for the Russian leadership to step back and to say that, "Sorry, guys, we're not going to let you in, you don't belong there and please try to cut a deal with Kiev."
EMMA ALBERICI: What do you think is Moscow's ultimate objective in Ukraine?
ANDREI KORTUNOV: I don't think that we have any consensus. In fact, passions fly high in Moscow and there are many ideas floating around. Many believe that to preserve the territorial integrity of Ukraine should be the main priority of Russia. Many believe that Ukraine is a failed state, that it is going to disintegrate anyway and that Russia should pick what "belongs to Russia". So I don't think that we have any kind of common denominator and we can only guess what Mr Putin thinks and what decisions he might take.
EMMA ALBERICI: The American Republican Senator John McCain has just returned from a trip to Ukraine. He says that the US has developed an international reputation for weakness in the face of aggression. Do you think that's the case and that could be part of the driver for Moscow here?
ANDREI KORTUNOV: Well, it's hard to tell of course, but I think that for many politicians in Moscow - again, rightly or wrongly - there is a strong conviction that what Russia is doing is appropriate under the circumstances, that Russia tries to protect Russians and Russian speakers in the Crimean peninsula, that the power in Kiev is not legitimate, and from this viewpoint, we cannot recognise its authority, it cannot control the situation in - not only in Crimea, but in other regions of the country, and therefore, basically Russia is right. However, I also believe that there is an expectation shared by many in this city that though we will see some kind of sanctions from the United States and from the European Union, it will not be the end of the world and somehow the dust will settle down and we will get to business as usual, a deal with Brussels and with Washington, DC. And of course, the track record of President Obama suggests that he's not a person who would easily go for some hard actions. He prefers diplomacy, he prefers negotiations and he prefers some kind of compromises.
EMMA ALBERICI: Which brings us back to John McCain, the Republican Senator in the US, who used by way of example Bashir al-Assad crossing President Obama's red line by using chemical weapons against the people of Syria and then nothing happened to him. So, the question is: do you think Russia is emboldened by those sorts of signs, if you like, of weakness by the US President?
ANDREI KORTUNOV: Well, you know, I think that it's not just about the US President; it's about the United States in general. If you look at opinion polls in America, there are not too many people who would favour a direct military engagement of the United States in Syria or elsewhere. The United States is withdrawing from Afghanistan, the United States is unlikely to interfere directly in any other part of the world. And probably in Moscow, what they think is that the old global order, which was based on the assumption of the unipolar world led by the United States, is already behind us, that this world order is not likely to get back. Therefore, Russia should not try to follow the rules of the game, which are already obsolete, which are no longer valid and Russia should rather try to somehow participate in building an entirely different global order which will not be constructed by the West alone.
EMMA ALBERICI: So what do you think would stop Vladimir Putin from taking over other parts of Ukraine and eventually Kiev?
ANDREI KORTUNOV: Well, it's hard to tell, but I think that Vladimir Putin is a realist and he understands that what he did in Crimea will not necessarily work in other parts of Ukraine. After all, Crimea is the most, "Russified" region of Ukraine and here he could expect a lot of support for his actions. But even if you get to Eastern Ukraine, I think that you will not find such an overwhelming support for Russian actions as you can find in Crimea. And many people in eastern part of Ukraine do not necessarily like Kiev, but they are not necessarily sympathetic to Moscow either. So I do hope that Crimea is a very unique situation and that Vladimir Putin would not take chances to have another kind of action in Ukraine, that he would rather try to get back to the negotiation table with both Europeans, Americans and hopefully with the new leadership in Kiev.
EMMA ALBERICI: But if Crimea becomes part of Russia and the Greater Ukraine joins with the EU and potentially NATO, how would that be seen as a win in Moscow?
ANDREI KORTUNOV: Well, as far as I'm concerned, I do believe that, paradoxically, this whole situation might be a major victory for the new Ukrainian leadership. First of all, they get rid of Crimea, which has never been pro-Ukrainian and it has always been a kind of brake on the way to the Ukrainian identity. Ukraine will be more homogeneous without Crimea. Second, now Ukraine is entitled to major economic assistance from the European Union because the European Union has certain commitments and should have a sense of responsibility for Ukraine. Definitely, this whole crisis will be a major catalyst for building a new Ukrainian identity, which has always been a problem for politicians in Kiev, because the Ukrainian identity has been very weak, very ambiguous, very unclear. Right now, they have a chance to make it much more definite.
As far as Moscow is concerned, I think that ideologically, Putin might please many Russians, because many in Russia believe that Crimea should belong to Russia. Historically, culturally, ethnically, it is much closer to Russia than it is to Ukraine. However, long-term consequences of these actions are not clear. Definitely, there'll be a serious economic toll that Putin will have to pay because of sanctions. Definitely, Crimea will require a lot of investment from Russia, a lot of technical assistance. I don't think that there is any detailed calculation of how much it will cost to incorporate Crimea into Russia, but I think that this price will be quite high. A lot will depend on the position taken by the West. A lot will depend on how serious the sanctions might be and how painful the sanctions will be as far as the Russian leadership is concerned.
EMMA ALBERICI: Andrei Kortunov, we have to leave it there. I thank you very much for joining Lateline.