The Ukraine crisis precipitated yet another cold snap in Russian-American relations. And while tensions simmer over the country's future, Crimeans take to the polls to determine theirs. Is there a peaceful solution to the geopolitical game? Can the two world powers cooperate in a new multipolar world, or are we on the precipice of a second Cold War? Oksana is joined by the Director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, Dmitri Trenin, to discuss these issues.

Oksana Boyko: Hello and welcome to Worlds Apart. Residents of Crimea go to the polls today to choose which country they want to be a part of. But the final decision on the status of the peninsula will most likely be made hundreds of miles away. Can Moscow, Kiev, Brussels and Washington still reach an agreement in what has probably been the most fiery geopolitical force-majeure of the decade? Well, to discuss that, I'm now joined by Dmitri Trenin, the Director of the Carnegie Moscow Centre.

Mr Trenin, thank you very much for taking time to talk to us. I just referred to the situation, to the events in Ukraine as a force-majeure. And in legalistic terms, it means an unexpected, disruptive event that allows a party to exit a contract. And it seems that throughout this dispute, all sides involved in it broke the rules that they previously held so dearly. Do you agree with this assessment?

Dmitri Trenin
Trenin was director of the Carnegie Moscow Center from 2008 to early 2022.
More >

Dmitri Trenin: Well, I think it's a certain break in continuity. I think that this closes the books on the, what I would call the inter-Cold War period. I think this is the end of the 25-year period that started with the fall of the Berlin Wall, and now we're exiting from it. So it's hugely important, it has enormous consequences. I don't think anyone planned it, but I believe the actions of all the various parties collectively contributed to what we are seeing now.

OB: But at the same time, many of those actions have been quite contradictory, because we know that Russia has long been a very avid defender of sovereignty and territorial integrity. The West has long tried to promote and strengthen democratic institutions in this part of the world. And it now seems that in Ukraine, everything has been turned upside down.

DT: Well I think in the end, people have revealed one thing – they pursue their own interests, the way they see those interests. And I think the West has closed its eyes on a few things, on the circumstances of the Ukrainian revolution, on the revolutionaries or some of the revolutionaries themselves. And I think that Russia closed its eyes on the principles it adhered to in the post-Cold War period, or in the inter-Cold War period.

OB: If we look at both Russian and Western media, they are full of conspiracy theories that, for example, Putin concocted this whole instability to further his imperial aspirations and lay his hands on Crimea, that the West stirred tensions to establish yet another base in Sevastopol. And I wonder if you believe that any of the sides could really plan or even anticipate what has already happened, up until this point?

DT: Well I do not want to draw any direct parallels, but it's an interesting insight anyway. This year marks the centennial of the First World War. The First World War was not planned. It was the actions of various leaders – monarchs, presidents, and others – that contributed to the chain of events that led to the First World War. And I would submit to you that this new Cold War that's emerging, I think, is also the product of many actions - not planned by the various actors, but collectively they contributed to this new situation of the international system, at least in the Euro-Atlantic area.

OB: I take it from your answer that you believe that the events essentially took on a life of their own. But I wonder which of the sides, whether it is Russia or the West, which one of them handled the situation in a more pragmatic way?

DT: Well frankly I think that Putin lost his pragmatism vis-a-vis Ukraine sometime last year. I think it would have been more pragmatic for Russia to let Ukraine sign the Association Agreement with the European Union, face the consequences, go through the upheaval, have it's government removed, have no one helping them really in the West, basically, and then step forward as the saviour of Ukraine. Now this was never done. Another pragmatic step would be to let the European Union modernise Ukraine, to pump money into Ukraine, make it more civilised, make it a safer place to do business in, and then profit from it.

OB: Well it looks like this is going to happen anyway, because Ukraine seems to be getting all those contributions.

DT: Yes and no, but it's happening under conditions of a new Cold War, something like a new Cold War between Russia and the West. So I think that when Putin said that Russians and Ukrainians are one people – this is not a pragmatic statement. This is a statement of someone who believes in civilisational unity, in some values that go beyond pragmatism.

OB: But I think the other side, meaning the West, also believes in some values that go beyond certain pragmatism and certain boundaries of international law, because -

DT: I was not criticising Putin. I was describing him.

OB: I'm not defending him either, I'm just pushing the discussion forward. But if we consider the actions by the West - and this is the charge that Vladimir Putin has against the West - look what you've done, you had elections just around the corner. Instead, you supported this unconstitutional change of power. You endorsed the forces that, frankly, you would never support in your own country. What for? That was the question that he had in his news conference, what for?

DT: It depends on what segment you're looking at. The West is essentially far more pragmatic than Russians are, on average. But I think that the problem with the West was that up to pretty late in the game, the European Union did not know what it was signing up for. This Eastern Partnership thing was a joke, in many ways. They just expected things to go smoothly, and have it all for the peanuts of €600 million. The United States was thousands of miles away, literally, from what was happening in Ukraine. And those visits by politicians etc. to the Maidan, which were played up in Russia, were actually, in my view, just empty symbols. You do not put your money where your mouth is, you just send out a few spare politicians to the Maidan.

OB: But Mr Trenin, in all fairness, it wasn't just a couple of visits to the central square of Kiev. There were also intercepted conversations, there was also Victoria Nuland talking about a certain some of money being invested by the US in propping the “Ukrainian democracy”. So I think Russia has good reasons to believe that the West was interfering a great deal in Ukrainian affairs. But what I would like to ask you about is not about Western interference, but Russia's supposed non-interference. Because Vladimir Putin, all through the latter half of last year, was saying that it was up to the Ukrainian people to decide, we're not going to send our ministers there. And it looks like his strategy changed almost overnight. What do you think was that sea change that pushed him astride into action?

DT: Well I think that in 2013, Putin essentially did two things. He was, I think – everyone was interfering in Ukraine. I think Russia was interfering more passively than the West, the West was more active in its interference. But that was hollow interference, in my view. Now what Russia did was first to show the stick to the Ukrainians, in the form of sanctions and admonitions, what will happen if you sign on the dotted line. And then it rolled out this aid package, $15 billion of carrots -

OB: And then the carrots.

DT: Right, a bunch of carrots, exactly. Now, I fully agree with you that Russia's position changed virtually overnight, and we know when it changed – the night from the 21st to the 22nd of February, when the agreement between Yanukovych and the opposition, with European guarantors or witnesses, whatever – people say that they were very much on the side of the opposition, I think that that's a correct statement – that this agreement was scrapped within hours. And then the people who stepped forward basically sent a message all the way to the Kremlin, that Ukraine would not only walk away from Russia, it will be led by a virulently anti-Russian leadership. And this is what Putin heard, and this is what, I think, made him shift gears in a most dramatic way. And basically, from being somewhat passive, Russia became hyperactive within hours. And I think that the plan that Putin set in motion on the 22nd of February, was the plan I think must have been prepared for the eventuality of NATO's membership for Ukraine.

OB:I wonder if this type of thinking, if this experience, would affect Vladimir Putin's thinking in the future? Because the way that some Kremlin officials describe it to me is that, look, we tried to play by civilised, Western rules. You know, rules laid out by the West – peaceful transition of power through democracy – we did our best. But Russia played by the rules of the West, only to see that the West would abandon those rules at the first opportunity. Isn't it something that could affect Vladimir Putin's policies in the future, and foster this already existing distrust towards Western policies in this part of the world?

DT: Well I think, as I said, we are in uncharted waters. This is a new bout of, I call it Cold War, but what I mean by that is that competition will far outweigh cooperation between Russia and the West. And trust – I don't see any trust at this point between Russia and the West. None at all, whatsoever, zero. I think that Russia is seen, after its actions in Crimea, as unpredictable. It saw the West cheating at the game, but then it overturned the board, and put the iron fist on the table. Now this came as a surprise to a lot of people. Certainly it came as a surprise to me, I'm sure a lot of other people were as surprised around the world. So I think Russia will be treated as a pretty unpredictable unit on the international scene. The West will be seen as an enemy, a hereditary enemy of Russia. Well, we'll see what happens next.

OB: Now, in putting this iron fist on the table, as you describe it, Putin may have lived up to the worst image of himself, the image that is propagated in Western media - not only actually of himself, but also of Russia - as this aggressive country. And I think he tried really hard over the last couple of years to dispel this image. He even said after the Olympics that one of the reasons that we wanted to have the Games here in Russia is so that the world could see Russia in a new light, as a non-aggressive, as a welcoming country. And yet, here he is, threatening the use of force and living, as I said, up to the worst image of Russia. Do you think he had any other option to achieve Russia's strategic objective? Could he have done anything less than that to make sure that the West listens to Russia's legitimate concerns here?

DT: Well I think that's a question that you should put to President Putin. From a very much an outsider's point of view, I would say that of course, up to a certain point, you do have options. But after the President – there were two points of no return. One was when the President sought and received the authority to use force in Ukraine. That was one thing that dispelled a lot of myths, whatever, a lot of hopes about Russia. So Russia was back as people had been accustomed to viewing Russia historically. And second, when basically he sanctioned the new wording of the questions of the referendum that included secession from Ukraine and reunification with Russia. Those were two points of no return.

OB: But how do you know that he actually sanctioned that, because the decision is yet to be taken?

DT: Come on, come on, President Putin is the master of the game. This is something that can not happen without the President saying so, can not happen at all.

OB: But if he's the master of the game, I'm sure he has some unpredictable cards up his sleeve. Do you think he's that predictable?

DT: No, no, I think that now, he cannot turn back. Turning back will be betraying so many things. Turning back would be showing that he's afraid of Western sanctions. Turning back would mean that he is no longer master of the game.

OB: Mr Trenin, we have to take a very short break now, but when we come back – pundits in both Russia and the West are unanimous in their assertions that Crimea rejoining Russia is already a done deal. But is it really so? That's coming up in a few moments on Worlds Apart.

Mr Trenin, just before we went to break, you seemed to suggest that Moscow's control over Crimea is already a fait accompli. But I wonder if it's such a bad deal after all, you know, given what you've mentioned, the possibility of sanctions. You also wrote about the prospect of the second Cold War looming over us. But if you take a historic perspective, you have on the other of the scales, Russia having control, or regaining control of the territory that is so central to Russia's entire statehood, not to mention its security. So is it such a bad deal after all? A couple of years of isolation on the one side, but on the other side, having a territory that Russia held for centuries?

DT: Well, I don't think it would be correct just posing the question the way you posed it – is it a good deal or a bad deal. I think it's a bad deal, if you're talking in pragmatic terms. But we're no longer talking in pragmatic terms in Moscow, certainly not in the Kremlin. I think that the people in charge, starting with President Putin, are thinking in terms of a historic act – reunification of a part of the Russian people with the rest of the Russian people. And that outweighs any sanctions, any pragmatic calculations. So it's not about good deal, bad deal, it's the right decision – that's how they see it, I'm sure.

OB: You still believe that that is not a very pragmatic approach on the part of the Russians. I wonder if our partners in the West, as Vladimir Putin describes them, have been so pragmatic? And to that effect, I would like to quote something I saw on the Carnegie Center web site, one of the commentators said that “this didn't have to be a zero-sum game, but somebody really wanted that to be.” And if we recall the very black-and-white approach that the EU took to this issue in the beginning of the crisis – you know, either you're with us or you're with Russia – was that a pragmatic path, a reasonable path to follow?

DT: I think it was a foolish approach on behalf of the EU. I said, I wrote that the EU didn't know what it was stepping into when they offered the Association Agreement and the deep free trade agreement with Ukraine, without backing it up with tons of money.

OB: Why do you think they did it, I mean, is it because of its anti-Russian nature?

DT: Well, they thought, I think, that you can buy security on the cheap. You can not really do that. I think that a country like Ukraine had to be addressed more seriously than it was addressed in Europe. Putin could have allowed the Europeans to face up to their own bluff, and step into the unknown and fail, and then do something -

OB: Well they still have this opportunity before them -

DT: No, no, I think that now it's different. Now Ukraine will be supported, will have to be supported by the West, because it's a new situation in which Ukraine has become a tug of war between Russia and the West. Now all eyes are on Ukraine, no one can afford to fail in Ukraine, to be defeated in Ukraine, so we'll see what happens.

OB: Well I heard these same lines being spoken with regards to Libya, with regards to Syria and with regards to many other countries. And obviously they are all very far away, but it would be a great tragedy for all of us to witness something like that happening in Ukraine, which I think actually could be possible. And here I would like to refer to your own writing, because you recently wrote in one of your recent articles that one of the most worrisome by-products of the Ukrainian revolution is the fact that there are now far more guns and advanced weaponry in the hands of non-state actors in Ukraine than at any other point in its post-Soviet history. And I think that's a direct result of Western support of the opposition, those far-right groups were emboldened by the Western support to seize arms. But I wonder why would Europe be so nonchalant about that in case of Ukraine? Because Ukraine is right on Russia's borders, but it's also right on European borders. And when you have a bunch of guys running around with weapons, it's not only a proliferation issue, it is also a major security issue – speaking about buying security on the cheap, it could be pretty expensive.

DT: Yeah, it could be pretty expensive, I agree. I think that there are many people who are guilty for creating the situation that exists today. You mentioned the far-right parties. The far-right parties, as we all know, were pretty much supported by the Yanukovych administration in the early stages. So everyone – Yanukovych is just another head of that dragon, it's the same bad guy as the rest of them.

OB: But at least that dragon was forced to behave previously. Now all limits are lifted.

DT: No, I understand your main point, this was an auxillary point. The main point is there and I agree that it's pretty scary that you have so many weapons in so many hands. I think that what they're trying to do now is attempting to integrate those rag-tag formations that used to be the fighting force of the Maidan into the national guard, and they're trying to get some measure of control over those people. But to what extent it'll be successful, we'll see. Nothing good has come out of this. I mean, no one should be jubilant. But the biggest security concern right now is that we may be a shot or two away from a conflict with Ukrainian military forces.

OB: Well, speaking of which, just a couple of days ago, Vladimir Putin called for snap military drills on the border with Ukraine. Those exercises, as far as I understand, are already over. But Russia denies having regular army in Crimea. I think that what Russian officials don't deny is that they have contacts with paramilitary forces on the ground in Crimea. And I wonder if Russia isn't really falling behind here? Because those forces only appeared after the events in Kiev. And if we take stock of what actually happened in Kiev, as you mentioned – armed groups, armed not only with weapons but also with very extreme far-right ideology, people who would stop before probably nothing to achieve their goals. And we all heard the possibility of them killing peaceful protesters for the sake of creating this media uproar. So I wonder if Vladimir Putin isn't really using old-school methods here – threatening the use of military force – when what you are dealing with is something far more dangerous, and far more difficult to control? Because if you have these groups who respond to no one, I guess you cannot really deal with them with traditional military force?

DT: No, well I think that Putin acted in textbook fashion. Have you looked at those soldiers that took control of the airport?

OB: Well I haven't been Crimea recently -

DT: Yeah but have you seen the images? Do they look like a self-defence force?

OB: Well, I think nothing in this world is as it appears -

DT: Look, look, Oksana, you may give no answer, I will have to give you an answer. I served in the military for a very long time. They looked to me like a very well disciplined, very professional, very serious force. No self-defence force, no, please, let's put this nonsense to one place. What Russia did, I think, was to engage in prevention, to prevent the things that you were talking about. And in order to do that, you do not fool around with a self-defence force. You do not fool around with, you know, a rag-tag formation of Russian speakers that you assemble in a couple of days and give them a couple of rifles, and you know, send to defend the peninsula. No, you send a very professional force, and they do the stuff that you want them to do. They take control of the government buildings, they take control of the airports, they block the port of Sevastopol, they make sure that no one gets into Crimea.

OB: So essentially what you are saying, that whoever those forces really are, they did the right thing, because -

DT: No, they did things according to plan. And that was, in my view, a contingency plan. It was not hatched in a couple of days' time. It's a military contingency that exists for all the conceivable -

OB: But I think you have to give it credit, I mean, given the bloodshed in -

DT: No, no, professionally, it was done brilliantly -

OB: But not only professionally, it was politically and strategically. Look at what happened in Kiev, all those corpses on the streets in the streets of Kiev. And so far what we've seen in Crimea, it's fairly -

DT: I said that Putin changed his policy on Ukraine dramatically the night of the 22nd of February. He saw this threat that you're talking about, he saw the threat of Ukraine being ruled by virulently anti-Russian - both anti-Russian domestically and anti-Russian geopolitically - forces. And he decided that this is the time for contingencies. And he pressed the button. And what happened did happen. And then he received the authority to use military force anywhere in Ukraine to scare, to deter – this is sheer deterrence. You don't need to actually use military force in order to be able to use it politically.

OB: Absolutely, so I guess what I'm driving at is that rather than being an act of aggression, an unprovoked aggression -

DT: I'm not talking about aggression, well let's discuss this. Let's say that aggression is something that's defined by the United Nations Security Council. Which means that neither the United States nor Russia can ever be branded an aggressor, because the country in question will never agree to call itself an aggressor. So call it something else – call it an invasion, call it whatever. But that was an operation. What I'm worried about, frankly, is that having performed an operation in Crimea, having performed it well, we still don't have a general strategy. We don't have a war plan. We have a plan for a campaign -

OB: Well, but it was a force-majeure, I mean how can you have an end-game when you didn't even expect what is going to happen there two months ago. And can I put it to you, exactly what I just said, I think all sides in this conflict, well at least Russia and the West, would give a lot to sort of rewind the situation a couple of months and take stock of what happened, and try not to make some of the mistakes that each one of them made. Do you think there is any lesson, larger geopolitical lesson, that could be learned from this extraordinary situation? Extraordinary because it developed so rapidly and because it can potentially have such significant geopolitical consequences?

DT: Oksana, I would say this. The Second World War happened because of the mistakes that were made at the end of the First War and between the two wars. The second Cold War is emerging because of the mistakes that were done at the end of the first Cold War and during the inter-Cold War period. And those mistakes were made by both Russia and the West. Some of the mistakes, you would call them mistakes. Other things were unavoidable consequences of just the West being the West, Russia being Russia. But certainly, one of the big things that both sides failed to do was to find the proper way to include Russia in a security community within the Euro-Atlantic. Included in such a way that would feel comfortable within that system, and others would feel comfortable about it. And, like in all international relations, there can be no side that's fully, completely right, and no side that's fully and completely wrong. But there are always mistakes to be learnt, but as they say, history never repeats itself, but it rhymes.

OB: It rhymes. Absolutely. Well, Mr Trenin, this is all we have time for, thank you very much for taking part in the show.

This interview originally appeared on RT.