President Barack Obama announced new sanctions against officials in Russia and Ukraine on Monday following Crimea’s referendum vote over the weekend to secede from Ukraine and join Russia. The move comes following Russia’s deployment of military forces to the region.
Tanya Bagashka, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Houston, is an expert on Ukraine, Russia and Crimea. Her research interests include post-communist and comparative politics. Bagashka is available to discuss the ongoing crisis in Ukraine and Crimea with members of the media. She can address topics including political history, ecopolitics, and Western response including the use of sanctions.
Bagashka recently talked about the ongoing crisis in the region.
What is your take on how the situation in Ukraine and Crimea has unfolded, particularly with the presence of Russian troops on the ground?
“This development is certainly not a surprising development,” said Bagashka. “A (Ukrainian) president that could be controlled by Moscow was replaced by a much more pro-Western (Ukrainian) president, which made Moscow feel threatened in an area it considers a traditional sphere of influence. Crimea was the only autonomous subnational division in Ukraine with a Russian majority, and in addition to the people that consider themselves ethnic Russians, there are quite a few who consider Russian their native tongue as opposed to Ukrainian. There is also an ethnic minority in Crimea which further complicates things.”
What should people understand about the relationship between Ukrainians and Russians?
“Many of these officers from the Ukrainian army were educated in Russia,” said Bagashka. “There are quite a few intermarriages between Russians and Ukrainians. So, it’s hard to imagine armed conflict between the two countries.”
What is your view, when it comes to the United States or European countries responding to the situation?
“The United States and its Western partners definitely must be very cautious, because things could get out of control very easily -- unintended bloodshed, the conflict could spiral out of control,” said Bagashka. “It’s difficult to say what the optimal strategy for the United States is because, obviously, Putin felt emboldened by the placidity of the United States in the context of the Syrian crisis and before that the brief war in Georgia. I definitely think he (Putin) was counting on a very weak response by the West, and this is why he did it. Obama’s Western European partners are divided. The E.U. is divided. They cannot even agree on the level of sanctions or on how tough should they be even in their statements.”
What about the issue of Russia being a major natural gas supplier to many European countries?
“Germany is very dependent on Russia for natural gas, along with some southeastern European countries, such as Slovakia or Bulgaria,” explained Bagashka. “However, Russia sells over 30 percent of its natural gas to Europe, which means undermining this trade will hurt Russia as well. Europe is not as dependent on Russian supplies when it comes to natural gas— it is not as dependent as it used to be, even compared to 2005. And, Ukraine plays a very important role, because a lot of oil and gas pipelines pass through Ukraine.”
How about the likelihood of a military response from NATO or the U.S.?
“I think it’s clear to everybody that the United States, or the West, is not going to go to war over Crimea,” said Bagashka. “However, I do think that if Russian troops start occupying areas in eastern or southern Ukraine, there will be a response then from NATO.”
What about gas prices?
“Gas prices have already increased, by over 10 percent,” said Bagashka. “So, according to all forecasts, oil and gas prices, which are usually highly correlated, will increase.”
We’re starting to see sanctions from the West?
“Europe must be unified in its response,” said Bagashka. “Sanctions are a very, very powerful tool. Visa bans are the next stage. If economic sanctions do not succeed, freezing the assets of the Russian oligarchs are another very powerful sanction.”
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