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George Friedman, chairman of Stratfor: „We should not overrate Russian power”

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American geostrategist George Friedman, founder and chairman of Stratfor, a global intelligence company, speaks to EVZ about the Ukrainian crisis, Russia’s plans and possible implications for Romania’s national security

EVZ: NATO has asked Moscow to meet, next week, for a new reunion of the NATO-Russia Council, but the Russians have not given any answer yet. The secretary general of the Alliance, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, is convinced that Russia is deeply involved in destabilizing the situation in Ukraine and that, although they said it, Russia did not withdraw its soldiers from the Ukrainian border. What do you think will be Russia’s answer, and is there any chance that this new meeting could solve some of the present difficulties in their relationship?

George Friedman: The current crisis between NATO and Russia does not result from a misunderstanding or lack of communication. Its basis is in a divergence of interests.  Russia needs to maintain a buffer zone between it and NATO. NATO wants greater permeability. While I am certain there will continue to be communication between NATO and Russia, and with NATO’s members, it is not meetings and communication that are missing. So my view is that whether this meeting takes place or not, it will not change anything substantial in the relationship.

Last week, Russian president Vladimir Putin warned European Union regarding the risk of switching off the gas pipelines for Ukraine if Kiev is not paying the debts (3,508 billion dollars). Do you think this can be an efficient pressure instrument for Ukraine or for his European allies to stop the upcoming elections in 25th of May, in Ukraine, or not to impose new sanctions on Russia?

At this stage in the crisis, each side is establishing boundaries to what they will do. I think that the elections will not be stopped by the Russians because they calculate that the outcome of these elections will create sufficient tension in Kiev to cause paralysis. They actually are comfortable with holding them. As for cutting of natural gas, the Russians see this as more useful as a threat than a reality. If they make this a reality they push the crisis to new levels, which at the moment they don’t want.

Vladimir Putin ordered his troops (40.000 soldiers near the border of Ukraine) to withdraw in their military bases, trying not to increase the tensions in region before the presidential elections. He said that before, but U.S. and NATO announced there was not a single change in the situation. Is this another way in which Putin just mimes doing the right thing, so that he can not be blamed by the international community, or this time he really means it? What happens if Russian troops will remain at the Eastern border of Ukraine, (in southern Russian regions Rostov, Briansk şi Belgorod), putting pressure on people scared of a possible invasion?

The important question is not where the Russian troops are, but where they will go.  In my opinion, the Russians will not invade Ukraine because its size is difficult to occupy even with available sources and they see other means for managing Ukrainian events. So the Russians will act as if withdrawing forces is a major issue.  If they return to their bases, they can always leave their bases again.  Where they are is less important than if they invade, and I don”t think they will.

Some of the European ex or present leaders are good friends with Vladimir Putin (Gerhard Schroeder, Silvio Berlusconi, Marine Le Pen) and they recommend not to isolate Russia, in the actual political context. Analysts warn of another possible Cold War, and some of them consider Western attitudes towards Moscow (statements and sanctions) to be exaggerated and dangerous. Do you see different opinions in the European Union as an obstacle in reaching a common point of view for acting in the Ukrainian crisis?

Obviously Putin has cultivated political allies in the West. But I think if he hadn’t cultivated Gerhard Schroeder the dynamics between Germany and Russia would be the same. They have interests in common and neither wants another Cold War. Therefore I tend to see relationships as a dimension of international relationships but not at their core.  History is influenced but not defined by such relation.

Russia warns that presidential elections in Ukraine may aggravate the present crisis, they will deepen political divisions in the country if there is no end to hostilities and a "road map" to end the crisis is not implemented. Deputy Foreign Minister Grigory Karasin’s remarks are the latest from Moscow to cast doubt on whether Russia will consider the election legitimate. What could happen if Kremlin does not recognize the results or if the Eastern regions do not take part in the presidential vote?

The issue is not whether Russia regards the election as legitimate, but whether a functioning government emerges from the election. If it does, then Russia’s options will be limited. If it doesn’t, then a failed government opens the door for Russian interests.  It is not the election but what comes out of it that matters.

Russia appears determined to at least get to the point of Ukraine’s federalization. Do you believe this literally translates into the division of Ukraine in the end?

There are many countries that are federal, including the United States. The United States fragmented during its civil war but survived because the government in Washington could assert its power. The issue of federalism is whether Kiev can assert its power.  If it cannot, then the issue of federalism is meaningless. Kiev’s power is not there.  If that power does extend, the federalism is a useful administrative tool. For Russia, the issue is not federalism, but whether a pro-western, effective government emerges in Kiev. Their actions will be defined by that.

How likely is, in your opinion, the scenario in which Russia expands its influence all the way to Danube, namely to the Romanian borders, by stoking provocations in southern Ukraine as well?

I think that this is difficult to imagine.  Russia is much weaker than the Soviet Union was when it fragmented. It has just lost the Ukraine which had a pro-Russian President and holds only Crimea and some cities in the Far East. It is bad for a fundamental element of Russia’s national security, Ukrainian neutrality. We should not overrate Russian power.

How do you assess the West’s overall response to Russia’s aggression in Ukraine? Was there any firmer alternative to the staged sanctions? In the same context, do you think economic sanctions will be adopted against Moscow amid some EU member states’ reticence?

The West must be divided into its component nation-states. Most of these nation-states lack significant military power so whatever their response, it was in words, which have limited power. The United States, which has more than words, has shown itself prepared to at least deploy some minimal forces and to begin the process of strengthening countries like Romania. Vice President Biden’s visit was a turning point in US-Romanian relations, and visits to Poland have also taken place. So I think the response from Europe has been all that is possible, rhetoric.  From the United States there have been first and crucial steps.

Read the romanian version HERE.

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