Former US ambassador to Russia says Crimea crisis isn't new Cold War

04/07/14 Janelle Irwin
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Tags: Crimea, Russia, Ukraine, cold war, John Beyrle


Former U.S. ambassador to Russia John Beyrle talks about Crimea to USF students and professors

photo by Janelle Irwin

A Ukrainian Navy Officer was killed during a confrontation with a Russian soldier in Crimea early Monday.

The Crimea crisis is escalating tension between the U.S. and Russia, raising speculation that the annexation of the Ukrainian peninsula into Russia may spark another Cold War. Former Russian Ambassador John Beyrle criticizes U.S. response as being too divided.

“It’s an unfortunate outgrowth of the kind of polarization and partisanization of foreign policy that I’ve seen in Washington since I’ve been back. I lived over seas for ten years and now I’ve lived back in Washington for the last two years and what is most striking to me is how much domestic politics now intrudes and distorts foreign policy to the degree that people will actually blame President Obama for what Mr. Putin did.”

During a talk hosted by the USF Center for Strategic and Diplomatic Studies last Friday, Beyrle responded to criticism from conservatives that President Obama’s foreign policy is making America look weak. U.S. Sen. John McCain called the Obama administration’s foreign policy “feckless” noting that nobody believes in American strength anymore. And Obama’s former presidential opponent, Mitt Romney, said the president should have been more proactive. Despite criticism, Obama is sticking to his promise to find a diplomatic solution with Russia that includes economic sanctions. Beyrle says the sanctions would be stronger if they were coordinated with the European Union.

“Europe does far more trade – ten times more trade – with Russia than we do. The number of Russian businesses doing business in Europe is probably about ten times, maybe twenty times the number of Russian businesses that are operating here. The banking sanctions in particular will be much more effective if we get help from our colleagues and our friends in the United Kingdom and in Germany where most of Russia’s capital in the international capital markets is funneled through.”

Beyrle was the U.S. ambassador to Russia from 2008 until 2012. He says during that time he saw a gradual shift away from totalitarianism, but Russia still has a long way to go before being a democratic society.

“Russia, unfortunately, still lacks a free and independent press that holds the government accountable and it lacks, even more importantly, an independent, strong judiciary.”

The move last month to annex Crimea into Russia from Ukraine ignited tensions as President Vladimir Putin disregarded international agreements. But Beyrle says even though the actions shouldn’t be ignored, fears that another Cold War is creeping are unfounded.

“Russia does not represent any kind of attractive ideology in the way the Soviet Union did. The Cold War was fundamentally based on that ideological rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union for influence all over the world – in Africa and Southeast Asia and in Europe. They had Eastern Europe and we had Western Europe. The world has changed too much since then and Russia itself does not have the power or the ideological attraction.”

He also points out that over the past two decades Russians have done well integrating with the international community since the fall of the Soviet Union.

“Russians now make, an average, 35 million trips abroad annually. Many Russians have children who are studying at the best European and American universities. The number of Russians who now get American visas to visit their family living in Tampa or Las Angeles or Chicago or even smaller towns is phenomenal right now. Russia has become integrated into the world since the collapse of the Soviet Union.”

Pro-Russian demonstrators who have seized some Ukrainian buildings in the eastern part of the country are calling on President Vladimir Putin to send troops into Ukraine to keep the peace. According to the New York Times, protestors say they have formed a legislature and will hold a referendum on May 11 to annex the city of Donetsk into Russia.

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