Crimean crisis: Flashpoint for a new Cold War?

In separate interviews, Russian Ambassador Alexander G Mariyasov and his Ukrainian counterpart Markiian Chuchuk discuss the crisis in Crimea with Nation TV journalist Veenarat Laohapakakul.

Alexander G Mariyasov, Russian Ambassador to Thailand

Q: Is Russia's action in supporting the referendum and accepting Crimea into Russia a violation of Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity?

A: We don't consider it so. According to international law, if people of a region cannot defend their rights [and] cannot do what they want in that country, they have the right to express their will. So it's not a violation of the Ukrainian constitution, it's more about fulfilling the right of the people.

The status of Crimea is special. It was not a province or region of Ukraine. It has an autonomous status. According to the Crimea constitution, it has a right to referendum, but that was neglected by the central government.

Q: The West says Russia is "annexing" Crimea. How would you describe the situation?

A: For Russia and Crimea, it's reunion. It was always a part of Russia. It was annexed in Soviet times when it was given to Ukraine. That was annexation because there was no referendum, no asking the opinion of the people. It was a breach of the constitution, but at that time, we didn't pay attention to that.

Q: Should the situation be reversed, say the residents of Kaliningrad wanted to break away and join Germany, would Russia allow that?

A: It's a hypothetical question. If we start to revise the results of the Second World War, it will be to the detriment of the international situation. Of course we should consider the will of the people - the Kaliningrad people don't want to leave the Russian Federation.

Q: How will Russia treat the minorities in Crimean, namely Ukrainians and Muslim Tatars?

A: It was declared by Crimean authorities that there will be three official languages -Russian, Ukrainian and the local language of Crimean Tatars. The Tatars will be given money for their resettlement in Crimea because they are returning from other places.

There will be no discrimination against Tatars. The Russian parliament has approved it. There will be guarantees for Ukrainians who live there as well. All their rights will be guaranteed.

Q: What if other eastern cities in Ukraine want to join Russia, would Russia also accept them?

A: It's difficult to say now. We are against the disintegration of Ukraine. Crimea is a special case. What we know about the situation in the eastern and southeastern regions is that they are protesting against the behaviour of central authorities. They want more rights. They want their rights to be guaranteed by the central government.

There are sentiments in favour of breaking away from Ukraine. We do not support [this]. We only ask and demand from that Ukraine authorities honour their rights and guarantee their rights. It will be the best way out.

Q: The West is imposing targeted sanctions on certain officials in Russia, do these sanctions mean anything to Russia?

A: Sanctions will be counterproductive. Right now the sanctions imposed are not very serious [travel bans and freezing of assets].

The problem will be when more serious sanctions are imposed. The situation will backfire more seriously for the EU than the US because our [EU] trade amounts to US$460 billion (S$526 billion) - 10 times more than the US.

What will happen if we impose sanctions on the EU? I don't think this is acceptable for the businesses. European businesses object to sanctions because they will suffer hugely, and economic relations will also suffer.

You can exclude Russia from G-8. That's your problem. You might not come to Sochi for the G-8 summit, but Russia wants to cooperate with Western countries in solving many problems. Russia is a very big country and without its economy and participation, it's difficult to solve many problems.

This is not a threat, but we will be obliged to answer if sanctions are imposed on us. But it is not our choice.

Q: Is there going to be a war? Everyone is talking about this as a repeat of the Cold War.

A: There will be no war. We have always lived with our Ukrainian friends and brothers in peace. That is our common history.

We share longstanding traditions and friendship with the Ukrainian population because for many years we lived in one country. We have very close interaction and ties.

Several million Russians live in Ukraine and vice versa. The families are mixed. We will never start any war against our people. But much depends on the authorities, on their behaviour.

If they have a hostile policy, we will not invade Ukraine, but we are obliged to answer their provocations. But we will never fight or go to war against Ukraine.

Q: There's no way Crimea is going back to Ukraine?

A: No. It's decided. It's the will of the people. It's already done.

Markiian Chuchuk, Ukrainian Ambassador to Thailand

Q: The interim government in Kiev and Western powers viewed the Crimean referendum as illegal but it went ahead anyway, so does Ukraine just have to accept the result?

A: Ukraine considers both Crimean authorities illegal and we consider illegal the referendum that took place in Crimea. This referendum completely violates the fundamental provision of Ukraine's constitution.

It is also impossible to ask the people about their decision in a situation of military intervention by a foreign country.

Ukraine will appeal to the international community and will also go to the international court for compensation [for actions] by the Russian Federation in Crimea.

We will use peaceful means to settle the conflict.

Q: Some 96-97 per cent voted to join Russia. Maybe Ukraine should respect the will of the people in Crimea?

A: In Sevastopol, 125 per cent of people voted in support of Crimea joining Russia. It is another confirmation that in the situation of military intervention, any referendum is not valid.

We never recognised the referendum. According to the constitution of Ukraine, territorial issues should be decided by a nationwide referendum, not a local referendum.

Q: Russia calls this a "reunion" between Russia and Crimea. What would be Ukraine's description of the situation?

A: This is a false statement by some Russian politicians. In Israel there are more than one million Russian-speaking people, does that mean that one day Russia will decide to reunite these one million Russian-speaking people in Israel?

Another side of the problem is that relations between Ukraine and Russia are based on a 1997 treaty of friendship, cooperation and partnership. In Article 2 of the treaty, both sides committed to respecting the territorial integrity of the other. Now we are seeing a clear violation of Article 2.

Q: Russia claims that it cannot ignore the call for help from the people in Crimea. What would you say?

A: I would say that this is also a false statement, because no Russians suffer in Crimea. No Russians are beaten or persecuted based on his ethnic, religious or political background. There is no need to save somebody, because there is no suffering. Nobody is asking for help.

Q: The West is imposing sanctions on officials in Russia. Do you think sanctions will help?

A: Sanctions remain only an intention of the West. [So far] these are not real sanctions because only a few people are under sanctions. I consider them as a warning from the West to the Russian side.

Q: On one side we see a huge peninsula of about 30,000 square kilometres, natural resources, a nice climate, and on the other side, sanctions against a number of people. So what would be the choice of Russia?

A: If sanctions were expanded, maybe Russia would take some steps towards negotiations.

At the moment, Russia doesn't want to negotiate with Ukraine at all. Ukraine is ready for any negotiation, but it is difficult to have negotiations after Russia finalises annexation of Crimea. We are not against any negotiations and we are prepared for them.

Q: Is there a possibility of a war?

A: What is a war? If you mean shots fired between Russia and Ukraine, well, there has already been shooting in which one Ukrainian soldier was killed and two seriously wounded. If we call that war, then it has already begun.

Q: Are you afraid that eastern and southeastern cities in Ukraine might go the way of Crimea? There are ethnic Russians living in those areas as well.

A: Ukrainians make up 75 per cent of the Ukrainian population. Crimea is the only region in Ukraine where ethnic Russians make up the majority.

So in all regions, the majority is Ukrainian, with some of them Ukrainian-speaking and some Russian-speaking, but they are all Ukrainians.

Yes, there are some protests in big cities, but I believe that Ukraine will cope with this ourselves, and there's no need for interference of external forces in our domestic affairs.

Q: What will Ukraine do with the Ukrainians and Tatars in Crimea now?

A: Ukrainian authorities have already prepared facilities for people who prefer to leave Crimea. A few hundred of Crimean people have already left for the continental part of Ukraine. We have prepared ourselves for some refugees.

However, we are against such a solution. We prefer not to urge people to move from places where they have been living for so many years.

Q: Is there still hope that Crimea might come back to Ukraine?

A: Ukraine has not recognised the separation of Crimea, so Crimea is always with us.

After all ups and downs in the shared history between Ukraine and Russia, we preserve very good relations between the two nations. Today, I can underline that Ukrainian people don't feel anger towards Russia, and we don't feel other negative feelings. We feel pain in our hearts, that's what we feel.

The full interviews will be aired on Nation TV's Mong Rao Mong Lok news show on Saturday 22 and 29, at 7.30pm.