President Putin’s sarcasm

Have Western diplomats lost their sense of humour and missed the big picture?

Russian troops are securing Ukrainian bases, writes Nekrassov [Reuters]

After a couple of tense days, with supposedly hectic diplomatic efforts undertaken by Western governments on both sides of the pond, “the mountain gave birth to a mouse”, as they say. Washington has announced a series of “smart sanctions” targeting a number of unnamed Russian and Ukrainian officials and businessmen, who would not be issued visas to travel to the US or use their bank accounts as punishment.

US President Barack Obama has signed an executive order aimed at punishing people “responsible for threatening the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine”, as a response to the Russian “invasion” of Crimea.   

Talk to Al Jazeera – Yulia Tymoshenko: ‘Kremlin has declared war’

Amicable discussions?

Meanwhile in Brussels, Washington’s reluctant European allies made similar noises about travel bans and freezing assets, but no names were given and no specific deadlines provided. The climax of the gathering was the statement by the interim prime minister of Ukraine, Arseniy Yatsenyuk, who said that the country’s armed forces would act, if Moscow moved any further into its territory. Hardly something that will keep Vladimir Putin and his people losing sleep.          

Another drama had developed when the Crimean parliament voted to become part of Russia and moved the date of the planned referendum on the status of the peninsula by two weeks, to March 16. The Crimean government is saying that it’s pretty certain that the result would be an overwhelming “yes” for Crimea to become part of Russia. This is probably not what Moscow needs at the moment, considering that the West and Kiev would be opposed to it and claim that it is illegal.     

Meanwhile, a hectic round of phone calls continues, with Western leaders, including President Obama, Chancellor Merkel and others, calling President Putin to discuss the Ukrainian crisis. The content of these conversations is not revealed, but my sources in Moscow tell me that these are all amicable discussions, with some leaders actually accepting that Russia does have legitimate concerns and that sanctions against it are not really a great idea.

In effect, President Putin has managed to impose his style of doing things, conducting business behind the scenes most of the time and avoiding public statements, apart from the press conference on Ukraine that he gave the other day.       

At that very conference, Putin made a point about the “absence” of Russian troops in Crimea, pointing out that the people in military fatigues seen there are actually local volunteers and members of self-defence units. Putin’s sarcastic smile, as he said that, seemed to have been missed by everyone, prompting most politicians in the West to insist that the Russian leader was “lying”.

The West had labelled armed groups ‘peaceful protesters’ and neo-Nazis and extreme nationalists ‘patriots’ and ‘supporters of democracy’. So President Putin came out to journalists and told them that no, there were no Russian troops in Crimea.

Tough talk

President Obama even said that he could see through Putin’s tricks clearly, or something to that effect. This is funny in itself because when you lose your sense of humour, you start losing sight of the overall picture as well.  

Here is what happened that day. Having had a chat with his closest advisors, Putin had decided that it was time to make a point about the West’s rather strange position on the overthrow of the regime in Kiev.

The West had labelled armed groups “peaceful protesters” and neo-Nazis and extreme nationalists “patriots” and “supporters of democracy”. So President Putin came out to journalists and told them that no, there were no Russian troops in Crimea.

And if you think that this was over the top, then imagine that the current interim government in Kiev includes four cabinet ministers from a political party “Freedom”, who are closely linked to neo-fascist groups.

So President Putin’s comments about the absence of Russian troops in Crimea were – at best – mischievous, compared to the take that the West has on the present realities in Ukraine.

But of course there are Russian troops in Crimea! They are based at the Sevastopol naval base since 1999, in accordance with a treaty between Moscow and Kiev. And there are  local volunteers there as well, with the regular troops carrying out the most important tasks and making sure that the military bases of the Ukrainian army on the peninsula are not raided by enthusiastic supporters of the interim regime.

This had already happened in several cities in mainland Ukraine, in Lviv for example, where thousands of automatic rifles vanished, only to appear later in Kiev, distributed among the “passionate protesters” against the tyranny of President Viktor Yanukovich.

So the people in Crimea decided that it would be better to keep the military bases intact and asked the Russian army to see that it stays that way.

So here’s an idea from a humble former Kremlin adviser. Why don’t Western political leaders, including the ones in the US, cool off for a while, to let the situation simmer while diplomats do their thing behind the scenes, and then try to bring the two sides of the conflict in Ukraine together to attempt to resolve their issues.

Because all that aggressive posturing and tough talking doesn’t really help to solve the crisis.

Alexander Nekrassov is a former Kremlin and government adviser.