Commentary / World

Russia wants to be understood

by Gregory Clark

As Ukraine bleeds and sanctions take hold, Russia wants outsiders to come and understand its position. For me that meant having to revisit the country where I had once suffered two years of KGB (secret police) harassment simply for the sin of trying to learn the language and know the people. But when they said I could meet and talk freely with people in charge, mainly division heads in the Russian Foreign Ministry, I agreed, but at my expense.

In the Ukraine context, they are worried about the fate of the Russian-speaking minorities in the three Baltic States. In Latvia, for example, Russian-speakers are classed as “non-citizens” denied electoral, language, job and information rights. In Lithuania and Estonia they face similar restrictions. And as in Ukraine, they now also face the rise of pro-Nazi, extreme right-wing, anti-Russian movements. Complaints to the Commissioner for Human Rights in the Council of Europe get no response, they say.

I suggest some of these rights abuses are revenge for the anti-nationalist repressions that I had seen in Soviet days. My interlocutor does not deny, but insists that what the Nazis did was far worse. Today, as a result of the chaotic Soviet breakup some 30 to 36 million Russians have found themselves on the wrong side of the fence. It was not their fault. They have rights like everyone else.

I had also visited Ukraine in Soviet days. There, too, in the capital Kiev and the west of the country I had found nationalist sentiments repressed. But the east was like a little Russia. That many there would welcome some kind of autonomy once the Kiev administration began to unravel was inevitable. Most of the 1 million refugees from the fighting have not gone to Ukraine; they have gone to Russia. Denouncing as Russian aggression Moscow’s support for what initially seemed to be a move simply to gain the kind of autonomy we take for granted in Catalonia, Scotland or Quebec seemed unfair.

But with the fighting underway what comes next? The most I can get from the Foreign Ministry person is a predictable call for observing the Minsk agreements of earlier this year that separated the two sides along the line of control. Otherwise it was up to both sides to decide, he said. But that is impossible given the bad blood that has already exists.

A solution one hears is a frozen conflict situation as in Transnistria where pro-Russian separatists fought a brief war with the former Soviet republic of Moldavia back in early 1990s and ended up as a self-governing entity on a strip of land between Ukraine and Moldavia. Moscow supports this but has been careful not recognize it as an independent state. The Moldavian government calls it the “Transnistria autonomous territorial unit with special legal status” — a neat wording that could be used for any east Ukrainian solution. I ask how the Russian side would see this. Once again I am told it is up to both sides to decide.

Moscow needs to be much more active in seeking solutions. I sense an apathy — a feeling that Mother Russia has been facing attacks and crises through its history and that somehow it will muddle through this one too. They will survive sanctions too, they say, since it will force them to produce themselves the goods they used to import. But sanctions combined with falling oil prices and capital outflow could lead to crippling rounds of devaluation and inflation. Meanwhile, the longer things drag on the more the hawks in the United States and its NATO allies will ramp up the military pressure, as they are already trying to do in the Baltic states and over Ukraine. The situation is more dangerous than most seem to realize.

To pressure China the U.S. uses the principle of freedom of the seas. To pressure other people it uses sanctions that deny the principles of free trade and financial transactions painfully built in postwar years.

Crimea could be the flash point. U.S. legalists now argue that even if there is a solution in Ukraine, Moscow’s move to detach Crimea from Ukraine’s sovereignty is a clear breach of international law deserving continued sanctions. But in that case the West would be very guilty over Kosovo, where bombs were used to deny Serbian sovereignty. In Crimea they say they relied mainly on a referendum.

When I visited Crimea in Soviet days it was totally Russian. It is still very Russian, though genuine efforts are also being made to revive the Turkic language of the surviving Crimea Tartar peoples. Kiev’s brief rule saw some half-hearted attempts to encourage more use of Ukrainian (the two languages are quite similar). But the former editor of the local newspaper tells me his Russian edition always outsold the Ukrainian edition nine to one — a figure that matches the pro-Russia results of that March 2014 referendum they hark back to constantly.

Legally, too, Moscow seems to have an argument. Crimea was gifted to Kiev by then-Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, himself a Ukrainian, back in 1954 when arbitrary shifts in Soviet republic frontiers were a simple matter of bureaucratic convenience. Besides, I was told, the 1954 move was technically illegal since it never got to be ratified by the Supreme Soviet. Khrushchev also failed to exclude the port city of Sevastopol from the transfer, even though it harbors Russia’s Black Sea fleet. If only for those reasons Moscow could have been expected to try to regain control once hostilities erupted in eastern Ukraine.

On display in Crimea’s Livadia palace is the original of the February 1945 Yalta Agreement under which the U.S., United Kingdom and the Soviet Union agreed on the postwar territorial breakup. It includes the words, “The Kurile Islands shall be handed over to the Soviet Union.” Moscow continues to emphasize those words as justification for its continued ownership of the two southern Kurile islands claimed by Tokyo as the Northern Territories. For some reason it places less emphasis on the fact that in the U.S. brokered 1951 San Francisco peace treaty Japan agreed to give up all right, claim and title to all the Kurile Islands (Tokyo says the two southern islands were not supposed to be included).

The Russian Foreign Ministry people seem interested in Prime Minister Shinzo Abe — his personality, political prospects, etc. — but they are obviously not happy with his willingness to go along with U.S.-imposed sanctions. They say President Vladimir Putin will probably go ahead with his promised visit to Japan, but next year rather than this. They confirm Japanese media reports that Abe strategist Shotaro Yachi last year did in fact come to Moscow to suggest a rather strange 50-50 split of the islands in dispute (Yachi denies making this proposal).

They also tell me about a Japanese leader who simply said “Russia is big, Japan is small, so give us back the islands.” Neither understood that Russia under no circumstances can give up territory gained in World War II, I am told. The precedent created would be too dangerous.

I am also treated to a rather emotional rebuttal of claims that Russia or pro-Russian separatists were responsible for the shooting down of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 in July 2014. They say it was part of a Ukrainian plot to swing world opinion against Russia. They point to the bullet holes in the cockpit fuselage, which many of us saw in the first TV shots of the wreckage and which OSCE monitor Michael Bociurkiw has confirmed as evidence the plane was brought down by bullets rather than rockets.

They say that while the Ukrainian air-traffic control people refuse to release records, the Russian side has released radar data showing two Ukrainian fighter aircraft sent up meet the plane. They say the curious Ukrainian air traffic control demand that the plane divert 320 km north and fly over the war zone was so that pro-Russia separatists could be blamed for the planned shoot-down. They say that the U.K. still refuses to tell us what was in the black boxes. They ask why the Ukrainian side refuses to assemble the broken fuselage — standard practice after airplane crashes. They hope all this will be exposed when the international investigating committee makes its final report in October, but no doubt Ukraine will have a different story to tell.

This leads to the admission that the Russian side is often too slow and cumbrous in presenting its side of a story. The professionally run Russia Today TV channel has the potential to change things but still lacks outlets, and maybe full credibility. They agree that if Russia wants to be understood it needs to do more to invite established opinion makers to come and talk to the people in charge, as I could. It also needs to do something about reports of pervasive high-level corruption. Russia’s image today is still tainted by the image of Soviet days, which is why its case over Ukraine, Crimea and Flight MH17 still gets such little attention in the West, even when it is deserved.

Gregory Clark is a former first secretary at the Australian Embassy in Moscow who has since been active in the Japanese education system. A Japanese translation of this article will appear on