The Crimea Conflict: A Transatlantic Conversation


Former lawmakers from across the Atlantic and party lines, gathered on Monday, April 7th, to discuss the ongoing diplomatic crisis between the United States, Europe, Ukraine, and Russia over the annexation of Crimea. Professor Christiane Lemke, Chair of German & European Studies at NYU, moderated the panel, which was hosted by Deutsches Haus at NYU, and supported by the Jordan Center, NYU’s Russian & Slavic Studies, and the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD).

Panel members included former Representative from Massachusetts Bill Delahunt, a Democrat, and Republican Gil Gutknecht of Minnesota. Two guests from Germany also served on the panel: Harald Leibrecht of the Baden-Württemberg Parliament, and Hans-Ulrich Klose, a representative of the Social Democratic Party from Hamburg.

The panel diverged on their opinion of the best ways to address the Crimean annexation, but all members agreed that anything beyond diplomatic or economically punitive measures was out of the question.

“Even if you understand Crimea as Russian, it’s clear they went about acquiring it in the wrong way,” said Klose. He argued that Russia’s actions were indeed a violation of international law, however the best way to deal with this is rooted in understanding Russia’s perspective. Klose argued that Russia’s motivations– which he said are mainly economic and “emotional”– should be accounted for. “We have to understand the emotional situation of a guy like Putin,” Klose said. “He’s a real Russian nationalist, and when he says ‘Russia,’ he’s really talking about three countries, two of which are Belarus and Ukraine.”

Klose argued that Putin’s motive is to “restore core Russia.” He also emphasizedthe international community should be very careful in how it deals with Russia. “We don’t want to tear down bridges,” he said. A key to repairing communication is to convince the Russian leadership it is in their best interest to do what the West wants, by encouraging Russian officials to think of themselves as part of the West. However, he said that it was important to recognize differences by accepting Russia and Ukraine as being “in between,” rather than force them into a Western European paradigm.

Bill Delahunt also advocated for change in the way Western leaders approach Russia. He described the American view of Russia as one which is still informed by the containment policy. “Maybe that long term strategy should shift,” he said. Delahunt argued that Russia should be instead be “integrated with the West,” rather than seen as an adversary. He said the central question lawmakers in the United States and Europe should be asking is: “How do we attract the Russians into a new way of thinking?”

Delahunt also lamented the United States’ dismissive attitude toward Russia. He pointed to President Obama’s comments, in which the President referred to Russia as a “regional power,” as indicative of this attitude.

Klose chimed in and acknowledged: “There’s nothing more dangerous than a superpower that’s been humiliated.”

Moderator Christiane Lemke of NYU noted that it’s important to decide on a long-term strategy because, “Putin won’t be there forever.” Harald Leibrecht agreed, and said this was particularly relevant to his country, because Germany is highly dependent upon Russia’s natural resources. This colors the situation between European-Russian relations with a sense of urgency. He understood Ukraine’s desire to take their time in deciding which way they ought to go — toward European integration, or a closer economic relationship with Russia — but argued that time was in short supply in this particular situation.

Leibrecht noted that welcoming young Ukrainians into the EU is one way of achieving Ukrainian integration into the European Union, and something he’s worked for in the past. “So they can study, and learn about Democracy,” he said. He explained that these “little steps” are important, but regardless the international community should “never accept Crimea as a part of Russia.”

Former Representative Gil Gutknecht also argued for a change in the United States’ approach to Russia. “Americans need to spend a little more time listening and thinking,” he said. Gutknecht spoke of his visit to Germany, just after the collapse of the Soviet Union, where he spoke with a Bundestag member. Gutknecht asked if Germany ever expected to see repayment on a $10 billion loan they had made to Russia. “He said he didn’t know, but ‘we’re going to have to live with the Russians for at least 10,000 years.’” This statement inspired Gutknecht to reconsider his opinion of Russia.

“We of North European descent have so much more in common with Russians than we think,” he said. Gutknecht said the panel discussion today made him realize that, “Russians just want respect.”

The audience was then invited to participate in the discussion. The first question came from a man who wondered that if Russia’s takeover of Crimea was justified by historical circumstances, does that indicate the country might be looking elsewhere for expansion. “Don’t you think Warsaw and the Baltic countries became part of the Russian Empire long before Crimea did?” he asked, and implied that the EU wasn’t doing enough to check these ambitions.

Hans-Ulrich Klose argued that the situation of Poland was an entirely different matter, and that Warsaw “was never a part of traditional Russia,” and this particular assumption was “outside of history.” He said he did not think Russia’s territorial ambitions applied to any part of Europe beyond Ukraine. However, Klose said that what’s troublesome for the EU, is the fact that perhaps five member states rely on Russia for all of their natural gas. Finland is one example. He estimated that Germany received about 30 percent of its natural gas from Russia.

Klose also said he thinks Chancellor Merkel is ready to go ahead with more sanctions, but he praised her handling of the crisis thus far. Representative Delahunt agreed that negotiations and the international response to the Crimean crisis have been reasonable so far. “I don’t think there’s support in the U.S. for any kind of military action,” he said. “Putin is a pragmatist.” And therefore any kind of further expansion would be highly unlikely, he felt.

Harald Leibrecht spoke to the importance of treading lightly and ensuring that punitive measures are carried out which hurt Russia enough to regret the Crimean annexation, without damaging their relationship beyond the point of repair. “We don’t want to lose Russia as a potential partner in the future,” he said. “That’s why this is so difficult.” Though Leibrecht acknowledged he’s disturbed by the rise in nationalism in Russia.

Gil Gutknecht agreed with the other panel members, and assured the audience that Russia did not appear to have expansionist aspirations that include Western Europe. “There’s still a NATO line,” he said. “I don’t think Putin wants to cross that.” However he said that Ukraine has “enormous value,” much of it measured in potential coal and shale deposits. For economic reasons then, he believes that Putin’s territorial ambitions will expand to include Eastern Ukraine, if not the entire country.

Natalie Shure, a graduate student at NYU, asked the panel members to shed light on how Ukrainians might continue to live peacefully together, considering the divide was more apparent now more than ever. Klose said this was a “very difficult question,” and something he could only guess the answer to. However, he pointed to exchange programs offered just after World War II which brought Germans to the United States and vice versa, and aimed to promote peace and better understanding. Klose said he felt that something like this might help in Ukraine.

Leibrecht argued that the main obstacle toward peace in Ukraine is the government, which is fraught with corruption, and never fully realized democratic ambitions even after the Orange Revolution. “I think the Parliament needs to better represent the country,” he said.

One woman volunteered her perspective as a native of Lviv, a major city in Western Ukraine. She said that a “great frustration” among many Ukrainians is the lack of support they are receiving from the European Union.

Another audience membe introduced herself as an American immigrant from Western Ukraine, and challenged Shure’s assertion that Ukraine was divided, calling this a “misconception.” She said that many of the protesters who died at Maidan were from Eastern Ukraine, which is characterized as a pro-Russian stronghold. She said the major difference separating Ukrainians is language, but that Ukrainian speakers and Russian speakers have a kind of “mutual respect,” for one another. She then directed her comments toward the panel and asked: “You are talking about respecting the Russians, but what about respecting the Ukrainians?”

Leibrecht argued that, “the two are not mutually exclusive,” and said that he believes Ukraine is very much divided. He said extremists on both sides are working to pull the country apart, and polarizing groups are especially appealing to middling strata during a crisis and instability.