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“This is a low point”

Sergei Grits/AP/Press Association

An awful lot happened in Ukraine between the start of the year and the end of March. President Yanukovych was overthrown, Yulia Tymoshenko was released from prison, Crimea was annexed by Russia and dozens of people across the region lost their lives.

We thought long and hard about how a quarterly publication such as Delayed Gratification could cover such a vast, complex story which seemed to get vaster and more complex by the day.

We aim to offer analysis on the big news stories after the dust has settled, but this story didn’t appear to be anywhere close to its conclusion. And we try to investigate how big events affect people’s everyday lives, but with so many people affected it’s hard to know who we should speak to, and how we can justify such editorial decisions.

We decided to widen the scope of our coverage as much as possible and speak to eight people about eight key moments over the three months, plotted out on a day by day timeline of events.

These interviewees included a representative of the Crimean Tatars, a housewife in Sevastopol, a Maidan protester, a Russian pensioner and the Finnish defence minister, who talked about rumours of a Russian invasion of his country.

We covered a lot of ground, but a drawback of print is that we’re limited to what we can fit on the page, and some of our most interesting interviews had to be cut down. One of the most interesting interviews was with Angela Stent, a professor at Georgetown University in Washington DC, whose latest book The Limits of Partnership explores the dynamics of US-Russian relations in the 21st century.

Here’s the full interview:

Is there still a Cold War mentality when it comes to US-Russian relations?
It’s a big problem that a Cold War mentality is the default. You struggle to understand why Russia is doing what it’s doing and you do go back to these Cold War categories; for both sides now it is East vs West – it’s Europe and the US vs Russia. So it certainly sounds like the Cold War. Of course it isn’t the Cold War. It’s not a global struggle between the US and Russia to dominate the world, but Putin doesn’t want Ukraine to move into the European orbit or NATO to extend to Ukraine – and he sees it in these terms. And even though the US says it believes in win-win solutions there is no win-win. It’s being defined as us vs them which is why it feels like the Cold War.

Why is the US agitated by the Russian annexation of Crimea?
The US feels that Russia has violated all the norms by annexing Crimea. The understanding people had after the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union was that you respected the borders of these states even if you can question whether they make ethnic sense. And Russia apparently doesn’t respect these borders.

Why did the US choose to respond with sanctions?
Well, all military options were off the table so the other possibility was sanctions, and historically that’s something the US has done, not only vis-à-vis the Soviet Union. Now, the US-Russian economic relationship isn’t particularly big, around $40 billion a year in bilateral trade. There are some US firms that are very involved in Russia but not very many. The idea was to indicate that those closest to Putin would be sanctioned; the US understood that Putin is surrounded by a small group of people who own considerable assets. But the problem with the early sanctions on individuals is that most of the individuals probably didn’t have assets or bank accounts in the United States. So the actual impact on them is quite small, and we now understand that Gennady Timchenko of the oil trading firm Gunvor sold his stake to somebody else shortly beforehand. I think the sanctions were more symbolic, and a warning that there could be more sanctions in the future.

Have any of the sanctions imposed on Russian individuals been effective?
Sanctioning Bank Rossiya has had an impact because it’s meant that Visa and Mastercard transactions have now been stopped – and this is a bank close to the Kremlin. I think the longer term impact of the sanctions will be that banks and foreign firms will think twice about lending money, getting involved in debt restructuring, and future investments in Russia because the risk factor has now gone up. These things can’t be measured yet but you already hear anecdotal evidence that these sanctions are deterring future investors in Russia.

Are US-Russian relations at a low point?
Yes, I would say that this is a low point in US-Russian relations. If we go back there were two other low points: the bombing of Serbia in the Kosovo War in 1999 when the Clinton reset was over; the other was the Russia-Georgia war during the Bush administration. There were measures taken by the Bush administration in 2008 to cut off certain levels of ties with Russia. But we haven’t seen sanctions like this before. It’s a new low.

Even under Gorbachev the US-Soviet relationship was better than it is now. This new low began when Snowden was granted asylum in Russia last year; that was the end of the Obama reset on US-Russia relations. Still, there was an expectation that we could work with Russia on a number of other issues. There was meant to be a bilateral summit which was cancelled after Snowden. We’re still working on Syria, Iran, post-2014 Afghanistan, so there are areas where we’re working together. But this is definitely the worst relationship for a long time.

Read ‘Three months in Ukraine’ in issue #14 of Delayed Gratification, which is available in the DG shop.

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