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Looking at the Crisis in Ukraine through Russia’s Eyes

March 3, 2015  • Zoë Brown, Guest Blogger

Just days after outspoken Russian opposition leader Boris Nemstov was violently gunned down in the streets of Moscow, tensions between Russia and Ukraine continue to build. With all the moving pieces involved in the ongoing crisis in Ukraine, it can be difficult to keep track of the timeline, what led to what, and all the accompanying details. Add to the mix the competing narratives between Western media and Russian reporting, and it becomes a whole new challenge.

Colorado’s Honorary Consul General to Russia Deb Palmieri sought to challenge the West’s perception of the situation in Ukraine at a recent Fireside Chat and Reception at the Aspen Institute in Aspen, Colorado. “Where you stand depends on where you sit,” she said, recalling a phrase one of her college professors used to say. “Unless you understand what the other side is thinking, you’ll get it wrong every time — that goes for business and that goes for diplomacy.”

Palmieri has served as honorary consul to Russia since her appointment in 2007, and is the founder and president of her namesake Denver-based consulting firm where she provides clients with expertise on all aspects of business with Russia.

In order to understand the Russian point of view, Palmieri said, you must first understand Ukraine’s ethnic and ideological rift. The country has been divided between east and west since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. In western Ukraine, which includes the capital of Kiev, people speak Ukrainian and align themselves more with the European identity — this is where the Euromaidan protests took place in late 2013 following then-President Viktor Yanukovych’s rejection of an important agreement that would have aligned Ukraine more closely with the EU. Eastern Ukraine aligns itself with Russia — most people in the region speak Russian and many are members of the Russian Orthodox Church. The annexed state of Crimea is located in the southeastern part of the region.

And in order to understand how we got to where we are today, Palmieri said, it’s important to understand the sequence of events that have punctuated the crisis in Ukraine since its onset in November 2013.

“You cannot understand the nature, depth, and scope of this crisis unless you understand competing narratives between the two sides: US/EU/ Poroshenko’s Ukraine versus Russia. There are two completely different perspectives on the origin of the crisis, the implications, and how to resolve it,” Palmieri said. 

The Western-aligned side believes:

  • Russia is aggressive and wants to recover territory held when it was the Soviet Union
  • The Yanukovych government was corrupt and Yanukovych fled to Moscow
  • Russia seized Crimea in an act of aggression
  • Russia shot down Malaysia Airlines flight MH17

Meanwhile, Russia believes:  

  • The US has planned the destabilization of Ukraine for more than a decade
  • The West handpicked pro-Western Ukrainians and worked with them towards the violent overthrow of the Yanukovych regime
  • The US is responsible for the civil war in Ukraine
  • Kiev shot down the Malaysian airliner

In an effort to force Russia to change its policies, Palmieri said, Washington has imposed several layers of increasingly severe sanctions to “punish” and “isolate” Russia, with the EU following suit. But, she said, the sanctions haven’t worked — while Russia’s economy has been hurt, it is in no way collapsing. In fact, she went on, the sanctions have only strengthened Russia’s relationship with China.

For example, Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping recently agreed to build a pipeline from Siberia to Beijing — within a matter of years, Palmieri said, Russia will supply 40 percent of China’s gas, and China will underwrite the financing for the project. In addition, the Chinese have capitalized a new Asian Development Bank that will serve as an alternative to the World Bank, she said, so Russia and Asian countries will no longer need the World Bank.

In addition, Palmieri believes that the Western media’s demonization of Putin is a dangerous slippery slope.

“This is the first American presidency to treat any soviet or Russian leader in this manner,” Palmieri said. “I think there are a lot of dangers of the demonization of diplomacy; mainly that it closes down avenues of communication and makes problem solving very difficult, because if someone is a demon, why are you going to talk to them? Why are you going to try to work out this problem? It sends a message that there’s no desire to reach a solution.”

“This is a unique, serious crisis and costs will be high with escalation,” she continued. “I think we need to think deeply, read broadly, evaluate critically, and look at interrelationships.” As for the solution to the crisis, Palmieri thinks it’s a no-brainer.  “To end the war, we need Ukraine as a neutral state, without NATO membership, and we need autonomy for east Ukraine. We need a no-fault, no-blame truce.” 

Zoë Brown is the program coordinator of the Aspen Community Programs at the Aspen Institute.