Putin and Obama discuss Ukraine and ‘Realpolitik’


In a telephone conversation with US President Barack Obama, his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin pleaded that Russian-US relations should not be sacrificed by “disagreements on individual issues”, such as Moscow's de facto annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula.

In a one-hour call during the night of 6 to 7 March, Obama urged Putin to accept the terms of a potential diplomatic solution to the crisis, which has triggered the worst crisis in US-Russian relations since the end of the Cold War.

As EU leaders did at their summit yesterday (6 March), Obama called for direct talks between Ukraine and Russia “facilitated by the international community” and the participation of international monitors who could ensure that the rights of all Ukrainians are protected, including ethnic Russians.

“Russian forces would return to their bases; and the international community would work together to support the Ukrainian people as they prepare for elections in May”, a readout of the conversation published on the website of the White House says.

The Kremlin website, however, publishes a different reading of the conversation. Accordingly, Putin says that the current Ukrainian government, “which came to power as the result of an unconstitutional coup and was not supported by a nationwide mandate”, was “imposing entirely illegitimate decisions onto Crimea and the eastern and southeastern regions of Ukraine”.

In fact, the Ukrainian authorities have lost control of the Crimea peninsula, where Russian troops without national identification on their uniforms have seized control of the institutions and where a government was elected in a parody of democracy.

Russia and the West disagree on the legitimacy of the Ukrainian government led by Prime Minister Arseny Yatsnyuk. The Ukrainian politician was received as a full partner at the EU summit held yesterday, where he said his government had been approved with constitutional majority by parliament, with 371 votes, more than a 82% majority, including votes by the Party of the Regions of former President Yanukovich.

“Russia cannot ignore calls for help on this matter and is responding accordingly, in full compliance with international law”, the Kremlin press release says.

But according to a US State Department “fact sheet”, outside of the Russian press and Russian state television, there are no credible reports of any ethnic Russians being under threat.

According to the Russian press release, Putin “stressed the paramount importance of Russian-US relations for ensuring stability and security in the world”.

“These relations should not be sacrificed due to disagreements on individual international issues, even if they are very significant”, the Kremlin states.

A possible reading of the statement is remiscent of 'Realpolitik' as it seems to advice the West to accept the Russian's de facto annexation of the Crimea peninsula, which hosts the only Russia naval base in southern seas.

“Realpolitik” is a term from the 19th century referring to states making major decisions based primarily on power, rather than moral or legalistic principles. The policy of Realpolitik was revived in the 20th century by the then US State Secretary Henry Kissinger.

Kissinger in fact published on 5 March a much-noticed article titled “How the Ukraine crisis ends”, in which he proposes a solution whereby Ukraine commits not to join NATO, while Russia accepts Ukraine’s sovereignty over Crimea and receives stronger guarantees about the status of its Black sea fleet at Sevastopol. 

Russia and the West are locked in the most serious battle since the end of the Cold War for influence in Ukraine, a former Soviet republic with historic ties to Moscow that is a major commodities exporter and strategic link between East and West.

Ukraine pulled out of a trade deal with the EU under Russian pressure last year, sparking months of protests in Kiev and the 22 February flight from Kyiv of President Viktor Yanukovich, a Russian ally.

Ukraine says Russia has occupied Crimea, where the Russian Black Sea fleet is based, provoking an international outcry.

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