On March 4, Russia’s president Vladimir Putin gave his first press conference since Russian troops invaded Crimea. During the hour-long conversation with Russian journalists he tried to justify the occupation of Crimea by Russian military forces under a pretext of protection of the Russian population in the Autonomous Republic of Crimea. The Day addressed Russian and Ukrainian experts with a request to comment upon the first public appearance of the president of the Russian Federation in front of mass media after Russian troops invaded Crimea.
Lilia SHEVTSOVA, senior analyst, Carnegie Moscow Center:
“Vladimir Putin acted according to his usual tactics. First his key actors, who conducted foreign policy and propaganda, were released on the stage. They provided space for Putin’s maneuver in the most aggressive and harsh format possible, to give him an opportunity for tactical maneuvers, choice of discourse, gestures, and the range of policy. It is an old Kremlin’s tactics.
“While watching him during the press conference, I saw that he was much more nervous than usual. He was less confident about himself. But it cannot be said he lost control, at least, over himself, over the way he expressed his thoughts. It cannot be said he lost confidence that he was the one controlling the situation. His nervousness was revealed when he could not restrain from aggressiveness in his rhetoric and facial expression, as well as from some revengeful meanness while answering some questions that obviously worry him and make him react emotionally.
“The tasks Putin set in his speech are the following. Firstly, he is trying to justify Russia’s actions in Ukraine and completely repeats the rhetoric of Russia’s representative at the UN Security Council. He keeps on believing that an anticonstitutional coup and armed seizure of power took place in Ukraine, and Yanukovych is still a legitimate president. He did not move an inch away from the Kremlin’s major argument.
“Secondly, he tried to demonstrate that Russia facilitated the balancing of the dynamic with its actions. And there he tries to prove that Russia did not lose to Ukraine in Crimea, but it achieved its goals. I do not know whether he believes in this himself or just tries to imitate confidence.
“Thirdly, it is doubtlessly important that he tries to mitigate the excessively aggressive pressure of Russian actions. It is a reaction not as much to Ukrainian internal dynamic and government’s actions, as it is to the reaction of the West. He tried to scale down the enormous graveness of the conflict with his statement that there is no intention to bring Russian troops to Ukraine. But at the same time, he let it slip that it is up to Russia to decide whether there will be Russian military interference on Ukrainian territory, especially in the southeast part of the country.
“Since he gave an order to wrap up the maneuvers near Ukrainian borders, it is an argument directed at the West: calm down, we got what we wanted, there will be no more escalation. And finally, another argument: Russia has no claims on Crimea. But this is where the hypocrisy of his rhetoric and the Kremlin’s actions comes out, because almost 20,000 of Russian troops still stay there and the Crimean territory is controlled by the so-called government of the Autonomous Republic. Everything shows that Putin has chosen the role of Ukrainian ‘Transnistria’ or Abkhazia for Crimea.
“Putin continues making the rules of the game in Ukraine. By saying that the present government is not legitimate, he is basically setting conditions for Ukraine, on which he is ready to recognize Ukrainian government legitimate. And it is not just an election, but the adoption of a new Constitution through a referendum, Putin says. It is a guarantee that people in the southeast will be able to express themselves. But Putin can understand this right in a different way. Thus, it would be incorrect to say that Putin was defeated in Ukraine and is leaving, he is just letting us know that one stage in giving Ukraine dynamic is over and another one begins. And in that second stage he has arguments about which he speaks: Ukraine owes us for gas, and if you do not pay, Ukraine will owe almost two billion dollars in February.
“He also says that when raising demands, Russia already has its understanding of how Ukraine should act, he is ready to work with other Ukrainian governments after May. Moreover, he states that ‘we can work with Western partners within the framework of the IMF and others in providing aid to Ukraine.’ He does not just lay claims on the right to dictate Ukrainians the rules of the game and how they should act, build the country, what the Constitution should be like, but he actually makes Russia a moderator that will provide help to Ukraine.
“As for legitimating of Russian actions, he makes an absolutely stunning contribution to the international activity and rules of international behavior. When answering a question about the Budapest Memorandum, he said: ‘… but a revolution took place in Ukraine, and it is a new country after the revolution, and we did not sign an agreement with this country.’ If this is true, he destroys all regulations of diplomatic behavior and the system of international legal agreements. Moreover, he creates a precedent which destroys international relations.”
Can the EU and NATO influence Russia? EU foreign ministers regularly gather in Brussels, the meeting of the North Atlantic Council is taking place at the headquarters on the request.
“In terms of the picture of the Western influence until now, Washington showed some activity despite the general indifference of all Western capitals. We have to keep in mind Obama’s complete indifference towards foreign policy issues and events in our region. Obviously, Brussels and European capitals started doing something only thanks to Washington’s influence.
“If we judge by the rhetoric of minister Steinmeier, we see Germany’s open desire to use any hint from the Russian side to make it look like the situation is going back to normal. It is no wonder it was Berlin that made a number of steps that must make Ukrainians think. Steinmeier was one of those who insisted that the Ukrainian opposition should sign the agreement of February 21, which extended the term of Yanukovych’s rule till the end of 2014. Steinmeier along with other colleagues from Berlin constantly insists that Ukrainians should accept the idea of federalization. Finally, Berlin has been insisting on the idea of the triangle the EU-Ukraine-Russia to settle the fate of Ukraine. It is funny that an aggressive country will settle Ukrainian matters.
“And in the context of Germany Ukrainians must remember about the role of Angela Merkel in 2008 and who exactly blocked the Membership Action Plan, an opportunity to become a NATO member candidate in a very distant future, for Ukraine and Georgia. And what happened in Ukraine and Georgia after that?
“Still, I am not that pessimistic about Ukraine’s near future, because Ukrainian community realized its fate is in its hands. And there is no one else to rely on. I think that former defense minister Yevhen Marchuk is right when he says that the format of the Ukraine-NATO Commission gives legal grounds for the Alliance members to take control over the strategic objects, at least nuclear power stations, to avoid any provocations that are possible now. The format of the Budapest Memorandum and Ukraine-NATO Committee give grounds for such indirect participation.”
Aliona HETMANCHUK, director, Institute of World Policy, Kyiv:
“The press conference was aimed at Russian and Russian-speaking population of the post-Soviet countries. People who received information from other sources started questioning the feasibility of this campaign [invasion of Russian troops in Ukraine. – Ed.]. There was a survey carried out by the All-Russian Center for the Study of Public Opinion recently, which showed that 73 percent of Russians think that Russia should not interfere in the conflict between the government and the opposition in Ukraine. Putin had to show to the Russian-speaking population that he had enough arguments to use military intervention.
“I had an impression that Putin spoke not as the president of the Russian Federation, but as Yanukovych’s public relations manager and spokesperson. I did not comprehend the sense of this conference, since it repeated messages that were voiced by the Russian Federation multiple times. Obviously, Putin wanted to enhance them. He has an understanding that he must start acting in a diplomatic way, since the military plan did not yield the desired result.
“I think that Putin will win information war in Russia only, among his own citizens. But he lost it completely in the West. However, we understand it is a tactical defeat and there is a long and protracted war ahead. But it will not necessarily involve tanks. Putin started the diplomatic phase of the war with this conference.
“Russia does not have a clear vision of how to act in the Ukrainian issue yet. A kind of testing is in process. The first one was unsuccessful: the Russian side was expecting provocations and that the locals will welcome them with bread and salt as liberators and great peacemakers. And even if they were welcomed, it was done mostly by people sent from the Russian territory. This applies to hanging Russian flags on the oblast state administration building [in Kharkiv. – Ed.].
“Putin and his entourage are not informed enough about the Ukrainian events. They receive information from one point of view only, or use information that falls into their concept. I think they will implement other methods to spread the idea of federalization in Ukraine. This is done for some regions to be a sort of an ‘anchor’ for Ukraine’s integration in the EU and, maybe, NATO.
“I believe that the Orange Revolution taught Putin that it is not right to stake on one politician only. Today it looks absurd on their part. I think they want to leave the window open to have contact with the new government and an opportunity to carry out some sort of bargaining. And to make an offer Ukrainian government will find impossible to refuse, in their opinion. The current Russian elite’s image of the world has not change. It is based on the formula ‘money talks.’ And if money does not, ‘big money’ does.
“Russians will try to act simultaneously. On the one hand, they will present offers for the new Ukrainian government. On the other, they use tanks in the game against the US and the EU, so the latter does not want to sign the Association Agreement with Ukraine as long as it threatens the stability in the region. In 2008, when Germany refused to sign the MAP with Ukraine, one of the main arguments was the fear of the destabilization of the whole region. Obviously, the same argument can be used now as well. Russians are trying to get Germany and France to say there is no need to rush with signing the Association Agreement, because there is a risk of destabilizing the whole region and European security in general.”