Russia and the U.S. in Ukraine and the Middle East
Russia and the U.S. in Ukraine and the Middle East
Interview / Europe & Central Asia 17 minutes

Russia and the U.S. in Ukraine and the Middle East

Crisis Group President & CEO Jean-Marie Guéhenno speaks to Russia Today’s “Worlds Apart”.


Russia and the U.S. in Ukraine and the Middle East.

In this interview on the sidelines of the 2015 Munich Security Conference, Jean-Marie Guéhenno, President & CEO, speaks to Russia Today's “Worlds Apart" on the role of the U.S. and Russia in Ukraine and Syria. YOUTUBE/Russia Today

Below is the transcript of the interview aired on 15 February.

Oksana Boyko, RT Russian television: The paradox of the conflict in Ukraine is that it seems to have come out of the blue and yet was also a long time coming. Will it require solutions just as paradoxical as its origins? To discuss that I am now joined by Jean-Marie Guéhenno, President and CEO of the International Crisis Group.

I know that one of the goals of your organisation, the International Crisis Group, is to provide insights and conflict resolution strategies. Are we dealing with a lack of skills and strategies that are needed to prevent or solve conflicts or, on the contrary, with the abundance of skills and strategies that helped spark them?

Guéhenno: There is a problem with the multiplication of conflicts. Every year you have more conflicts and the conflicts of the previous year don’t end, so at the top level there is just not enough time to focus on the solutions and to give the kind of critical attention that is needed. That’s one aspect. But the other aspect is that [for] most conflicts now, you need to go from the ground up, not just top down. So you need to combine the two approaches, and often you don’t.

Any conflict has some sort of local specifics to it and I think, I heard you say it at least, that in many of the conflicts of the past couple of years we also have interest of big powers playing or factoring in. How would you describe the Ukrainian conflict on that geopolitical level?

There’s a risk that Ukraine becomes a fault line between Russia and the rest of Europe, because there is not the same understanding of what a prosperous and democratic Ukraine should be. I think it is very important at this stage that Russia send signals that it wants the the international rule of law to be upheld, and that there be a de-escalation. Frankly, … a prosperous Ukraine would be very difficult to imagine if there is a confrontation between Russia and Europe.

It is very important at this stage that Russia send signals that it wants the the international rule of law to be upheld.

You just alluded to that, conceptually there are two main approaches to this issue with Russia. The central one, that we’ve been seeing displayed at the Munich security conference a lot, is that Russia is to blame, that Russia is on the offensive. The other approach, very popular in Moscow, is that it’s all the fault of the West and Russia is trying to defend its people. How do you bring those two extremes to some sort of a workable solution that would satisfy all and is it really possible at this point in time?

There are some concrete steps that could be taken. There is a conviction among the international press and among people who observe the situation on the ground that there is very strong Russian support and action in eastern Ukraine. Russia denies that. I think the best way to get over that problem is to have an agreement on a very effective monitoring of the border between Russia and Ukraine. That is essential if you want to rebuild trust. Because the present situation, where there are multiplying signals of very strong Russian engagement in eastern Ukraine, and Russia denies it, is not good. You need to establish the facts and there is no better way to do it than to have monitors.

As far as I understand the Russian position, Russia does not deny active involvement. Russia sends humanitarian aid, it does express its great concern for the safety and security of people on the ground, Russian speakers on the ground. So, it’s not about Russian engagement, Russia is engaged, diplomatically, politically in that conflict. I think, what Russia denies is active military engagement. You alluded to the international press here and I think there is not a uniform agreement [on that].

Well, there is an overwhelming body of evidence that there is Russian military support in Ukraine.

This is not an isolated conflict. We had a conflict in Syria, we had a conflict in Libya where there didn’t seem to be any problem, as far as Western mainstream thinking is concerned, about the provision of open military support, military training to guerrilla groups.

Two wrongs don’t make a right. Again, to get out of that discussion on the nature and level of Russian involvement, including military involvement, the best way to move forward is for Russia to agree to a very strong monitoring system on the border that is unchallengeable because there are independent numerous monitors that can really see what’s happening between the Russian side of the border and the Ukrainian side of the border.

[In some ways] geopolitics are not very different from everyday life … you cannot expect everybody else to be angels and in full compliance with the law. I wonder if we – in order to solve multiple conflicts that you alluded to earlier on, once and for all – if we really have to perhaps redefine the rules of behaviour on the international stage as far as the military engagement is concerned.

Well, there are rules of international law that were agreed in 1945 with the charter of the United Nations, that were reiterated in the Paris Charter of the OSCE and it’s very important to uphold those rules. Because if you don’t have those rules or they are eroded, then it becomes a very dangerous situation. So I think it’s very important that Russia and all countries agree on those rules. Then they agree to disagree on some situations, but it is very important not to accept the principle that you can change borders by force.

Absolutely, or perhaps the principle that you should not intervene in the affairs of sovereign states.

Indeed, but Ukraine has the sovereign right to decide where it wants to go and that should not be influenced by military action or support to separatists.

Ukraine has the sovereign right to decide where it wants to go and that should not be influenced by military action

I would assume that you would agree that the same goes for, for example, countries like Syria, Libya or any others.


Now, we are speaking here at the sidelines of the Munich Conference and it was here, eight years ago, that the president of Russia, Vladimir Putin, gave his famous speech in which he talked about making the principle of indivisibility of security in Europe legally binding. In other words, he wanted to ensure that all countries in Europe and perhaps around the world accept the principle that you cannot advance your security at the expense of the security of other countries. Is it something that will have to be put on the table back again if we want to secure a lasting peace in Europe?

Well, [German] Chancellor Merkel and [French] President Hollande went to Moscow showing their conviction that a European order must include Russia, that it’s important to talk, to come to solutions through negotiation, not through force or manipulation. So, this was a very important signal sent by two important European leaders … to reconcile two principles: one is that each country is free to choose its alliances, and at the same time one has to have good neighbourly relations. So, you don’t want intimidation and you want the respect of sovereignty and at the same time through talking, you can dispel misunderstanding in the sense that actions are, let’s say, antagonistic to another country. But this is more a question of how you manage relations better than formal legal commitments. Because you don’t want to limit the sovereignty of a country.

In that speech that I mentioned eight years ago, Mr. Putin – to advance his thesis – quoted U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt. And President Roosevelt was different from the current and recent American leadership in the sense that he advocated shared, rather than unilateral, decision-making on global affairs. He even put figure on to that saying that Americans have to be responsible for 51 per cent of global decision-making. Isn’t the conflict in Ukraine ultimately about the format of how decisions in the world are made, whether it is unilateral, which perhaps has been the case over the last couple of years, or whether it is multilateral, where all countries could contribute to how the world, the global system is run.

Well, I think, if you look at the past fifteen years indeed you have had examples of unilateralism, and the crisis of Iraq was an illustration of that. What is concerning is that now one sees Russia also turning to unilateralism. And so, I think because some wrong actions were taken in the past is no reason now for Russia to go that way. What is important is to go back to genuine multilateralism and to resolving problems at the negotiating table.

It’s interesting you say that because in his recent [interview] President Obama said that the United States in Ukraine brokered a deal to transition power. And he was referring to that February deal before, you know, the Crimean Affair and before the war dividing the east of Ukraine. I want to ask you as a former peacekeeper, as an academic, as somebody who studies conflict resolution whether you believe that the deal to transition power in Ukraine, brokered by the United States, and this by the words of the American president, generally reflected the interests of all political and ethnic groups in Ukraine.

Well, then there were elections which sanctioned a new dispensation of power. I think, there was an unfolding crisis in Kiev, with the prospect of blood being shed with very harsh action by the police, very dangerous –

Which is still being investigated at this point in time, there is no conclusion about who was the source of that violence –

– well, there was a pretty worrying sign from the police as it was ordered by the then government, so there was a need to de-escalate that situation …. Then there were elections. I think, again, we can look at the details of the situation, but today what’s important is to establish peace in Ukraine, to strengthen a legitimate government, to fight corruption, to find ways to make sure that everybody in Ukraine, wherever he lives, in the east, in the west, feels part of Ukraine, to protect the territorial integrity of Ukraine. That’s a program that would benefit both Russia and the Europeans. Both have a great interest in a prosperous Ukraine. If Ukraine is a complete mess, it will hurt Russian interests, it will hurt European interests.

I totally agree with you on that front. For the time being, though, we have to take a very short break, but when we come back the Westphalian system of sovereignty and non-interference sustained Europe for several centuries although not without its hick-ups, is it hopelessly outdated or, on the contrary, more relevant than ever?
Welcome Back to “Worlds Apart”. We are discussing war and peace with the President & CEO of the International Crisis Group, Jean-Marie Guéhenno.

Mr Guéhenno, we were talking about the Ukrainian issue and the critical question I think in both the Ukrainian issue and the Syrian issue that we also touched upon again is whether everybody has to submit to the power transition deals that have been decided in one capital or another. Because the Syrian issue I think is to some extent very similar to the Ukrainian issue, the template is the same, just the roles of major powers is reversed. To what extent do you think the success of conflict resolution in one of the countries will affect the conflict resolution [in]another.

Well, I think the two situations have some significant differences. I think in any country, if you want peace you need to have inclusive government. That is the problem in Syria and that was the problem in Ukraine. Now, through elections, through genuine democracy, there is possibility for all citizens of Ukraine to be part of the dispensation of power. Sadly, at the moment that does not exist in Syria.

In any country if you want peace you need to have inclusive government. That is the problem in Syria and that was the problem in Ukraine.

How can you claim that? I mean there were presidential elections in Syria just a short while ago. Sure there was fighting in some areas, but by the same token, there was fighting in some areas in Ukraine. But you still claim that all residents of Ukraine have been able to exercise that right.

Well, I think frankly when you look at the way elections in Syria are conducted you can have serious doubts on the legitimacy of those elections, honestly.

I mean the main promise of the Maidan protest was that the electoral system and the government system in Ukraine is not transparent. So you cannot assume that in just a couple of weeks it changed dramatically to be perfect all of a sudden.

No, no. There is a need to improve the democratic system in Ukraine, nobody challenged that. Actually the people in the Maidan, who, as you said, want a democratic system. But I think Ukraine, frankly, is closer to that than is Syria, so I wouldn’t go far too far in the parallel between the two situations.

Well, every situation is obviously very specific. I know that you are part of group of security specialists put together by the OSCE [Organisation of Security and Cooperation in Europe] who are tasked with coming up with specific proposals for the Ukrainian issue and on the broader issue of security in Europe. Do you have any idea what your recommendations are likely to be?

Well, we haven’t had our first meeting yet. We’ll have it this Sunday, so it’s too early to tell what the recommendations will be. As far as I’m concerned, I would very much want that group to reaffirm the importance of international law between states. That is the bottom line. That has maintained peace since 1945 and we have to go back to that. That’s very important.

And then I would say that the Westphalian system, yes it has been around now for several centuries, since the middle of the 17th century, but when it was a pure Westphalian system it was actually quite dangerous. Europe is the part of the world that has known many devastating wars and the progress that we’ve been trying to make since 1945 is to build a sense of a stronger community – not to think of international relations as a zero-sum game, not to think of international relations in terms of zones of influence where one country dominates its neighbours or tries to dominate its neighbours.

Or the entire world for that matter, right?

Well, I see you are alluding to the United States there. There was a phase maybe where there was that illusion. At the moment, in many situations you might say that you would want more, rather than less, U.S. engagement in some parts of the world.

Well, you touched upon the Westphalian system, and it was frankly never intended to be the perfect system, it was never intended to last for centuries yet it kept conflicts in Europe at bay. Can you think of any other framework that will do that other than a new rendition of the Westphalian principle such as non-interference and sovereignty?

Well, it ended the Thirty Years War, the Westphalian system. But I wouldn’t say it kept conflict at bay, and certainly not in the 20th century with two … –

 – Henry Kissinger at least says that. I’d have to trust him on that –

– … Yes, but I don’t trust him on that. When you look at the 20th century and two devastating wars, certainly Russia had more than its share of suffering during that century, so I would certainly say that a system in which the sovereignty of state is the only fundamental principle with no sense of good neighbourly relations, with no respect for a broader legal order, that’s a very dangerous system. A system which is purely based on balance of power is a dangerous system because it runs the risks of miscalculations and wars can happen by mistake.

A [Westphalian] system which is purely based on balance of power is a dangerous system

You know it reminds me of Churchill’s famous dictum about democracy that is the worst form of government except that all other forms have been tried …. Obviously, it’s not perfect, but what is better? And if you think about the alternative, perhaps that we have seen over the past couple of years, is it the West, or most precisely the U.S., defining what is good and what is bad in the world, and deciding and then acting as a disciplinarian? I’m not going to ask you if it’s fair, but is that system sustainable? Is it necessarily better than the one you dislike, I mean the Westphalian one?

Well, first, I don’t think I would agree with your description of the world, and your position [on tensions] between the U.S. and the Europeans on that. The events in Ukraine have managed to bring the Europeans and the U.S. closer, not further apart. Both sides of the Atlantic agree that it is very important to maintain an international legal order that has been challenged by Russia and that was something new and that has brought the Europeans and the Americans together. Yes, I would argue that a system that is based on cooperation on a set of shared values is much better than a system based on raw balance of power because a system based on raw balance of power is unstable and prone to misunderstanding and then tragic miscalculations .

But Mr. Guéhenno, I don’t think anyone in Moscow or, for that matter, in China or in many other capitals around the world argue that the world should be based on this system of raw balance of power. But I think there, and I heard you say many times, that there are significant disagreements within the Security Council about, again, the mode of decision-making in the world and the way of intervention in various crises. Now, I would like to ask you as a Russian journalist in all honesty: what is so objectionable to the West about the way Russia and China view the world and what is so admirable about the Western vision of it?

Well, what is good in the Western vision, which I think is shared by many Russians, and so I would not want to oppose it, is the sense that in the end, the political system [is] there for the empowerment of the individual. That is something very important and valuable, and that is what has transformed the world largely for the good since the 18th century.

One of the biggest sort of premises in the American mentality and Western mentalities is that democracies are very conducive to international peace and in order to secure global peace, you have to be active in promoting democratisation of the world. Now, this is a very prominent feature of the American discourse but I would like to ask you as an academic: has this thesis or hypothesis been supported by real evidence? The American approach that the American presidents are taking to the international system that you have to support regime change, or as President Obama calls it “power transitions”, is it actually conducive to global peace when we look at the empirical data?

Well, I think that everybody sees that democracy has to be home-grown. That this is an internal process. You can try to help from the outside but fundamentally it is for the people of every country to decide and to manage their own evolution. So, I think there, one has to be humble and recognise that indeed it is not outsiders who can dictate solutions in a particular country. But what is striking at the same time is the appeal of the ideals that exist in old democracies. People see … in those ideals opportunity for empowerment. That is what they like, but then they have to find their own path.

There is indeed a great appeal but are those ideas really implemented as far as foreign policy is concerned? That is the question.

If you had asked me that question in the middle of the Bush administration, I think it would have been more relevant. I think today, if anything, there is a great caution, there is a sense that being overambitious in encouraging change and transformation in countries is dangerous. There is certainly no risk of excessive Western engagement on that front, there is more a risk of retrenchment. So I think it’s important in that context to find the right balance.

On the Syria file, frankly, everybody is delinquent, Russia and Western powers.

It’s interesting you say that because we started this interview by agreeing that over the last couple of years the number of wars has actually increased. Those wars have become much bloodier. The death-toll is much more significant. And in all those wars we have the West staking out its position for regime change. So, when you talk about retrenchment, that doesn’t seem to be supported by what was happening.

No, I disagree. There are lots of wars indeed, they are very often fuelled by local grievances and regional rivalries and there is no consistent policy of the big powers on those issues. And so, what you see in the multiplication of conflicts is really the regional dynamics, the local dynamics asserting themselves and no concerted effort to bring them to an end. I think in the case of Syria, it would have been much better if the permanent members of the Security Council had been able to agree on a way forward, on a gradual evolution of Syria and then put pressure on the regional actors to de-escalate the conflict.

So essentially, what you are supporting here is the Russian position which – what it has been …

I wouldn’t say that because I think Russia …

 – but you are talking about transition of power and putting pressure on Assad, this is what Moscow has been …

Yes, I know, but then there has not been much evidence of Russian efforts to move, to convince the Syrian leadership to make some moves in that direction. That hasn’t been in evidence. I think on the Syria file, frankly, everybody is delinquent, Russia and Western powers.

But you would say the same about Ukraine, though?
I think on Ukraine, it’s much more unilateral actions by Russia that have destabilised the situation.

Well, we have to leave it there, I really appreciate your candour and your fighting spirit and to our viewers, please join our discussion on Facebook and on Twitter and I hope to see you again here at the same place, same time, here on Worlds Apart.

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