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Russian diplomat justifies actions in Ukraine, laments crisis in bilateral ties
Diplomatic Pouch / April 3, 2015

By Larry Luxner

Relations between the United States and Russia are at their worst in years, characterized by mistrust and suspicion, says the Kremlin’s No. 2 man in Washington.

Oleg Vladimirovich Stepanov, deputy chief of mission at the Russian Embassy, said bilateral ties have been going downhill for years — a trend that has only accelerated since the current showdown over Ukraine began in early 2014.

“Our impression is that since the collapse of the Soviet Union, there has been no willingness on behalf of the U.S. political establishment to understand and see Russia as a valuable partner, with its own specific cultural and historical aspects and peculiarities,” he said. “This has caused a lot of misunderstandings and tensions between our countries.”

Stepanov spoke March 25 at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies. It was a rare chance for the 160 people in attendance — mostly political science students at SAIS — to be briefed on current official Kremlin thinking, straight from the source.

Foreign diplomats, when speaking publicly, often go out of their way to praise their country’s “excellent relations” with Washington, even if that isn’t the case.

In his talk, Stepanov did no such thing. Repeating President Vladimir Putin’s official party line, he blamed President Obama and his predecessors for destroying the goodwill that had been established following the Soviet collapse in the early 1990s.

“For years, our governments were engaged in talks on how to establish mutually beneficial strategic relations, how to build joint mechanisms. We said a lot of good words, and we claimed that we were building common spaces with no dividing lines,” he said, lamenting that such a goal never came to pass.

“Dividing lines still exist, and despite the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, what we saw in Europe during previous administrations was a constant wave of NATO enlargement,” said Stepanov, blasting Washington’s recent strengthening of missile defense systems in Eastern Europe and around the world. “In 2002, the U.S. withdrew from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, which was a strong blow to our relations, threatening the strategic balance of power that existed for so many years. For us, it’s a big concern because they can undermine our strategic arsenal.”

He added that “building such systems is also detrimental to U.S. security because it creates the illusion of invincibility.”

Stepanov, who joined Russia’s Foreign Service in 1994 and began his current job in January 2010, sees the overthrow of former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych a year ago as a coup d’etat — despite State Department pronouncements to the contrary.

“The U.S. and European Union always said it’s unacceptable to overthrow a democratically elected government. In 2010, when Yanukovych was elected president, Joe Biden called and congratulated him. The EU recognized him too,” he said. “But in 2014, when this president was overthrown by force, we didn’t hear any condemnation from the United States or Europe. More than that, both Washington and Brussels supported those people who overthrew him. This is an exercise in double standards.”

Ukrainians who didn’t support the Maidan Square revolution were beaten, he said; some police officers were killed and government property was destroyed. Anyone who disagreed with the protesters were called fascists and neo-Nazis.

“Some were even burned alive,” he said, “and we all remember the last time in Europe people were burned alive.”

Stepanov lashed out at the tough economic sanctions imposed against Russia by the United States and the 28-member EU, in an effort to force Putin to stop his aggression against Ukraine.

“Sanctions do not help to advance the peace process in Ukraine. Obviously they will not work with Russia, because you cannot isolate the sixth or seventh-largest economy in the world. To have illusions that putting economic pressure on us will make us change course or stop believing in what we believe is a bit absurd,” he said.

“More than that, they will leave a huge amount of distrust, not only between our countries. The policy of unilateral sanctions undermines the credibility of the United States as a partner in the international arena. On one hand, the U.S. claims it’s a leading for global trade, liberalization and market freedoms — and then on the other hand, you violate the same principles you claim to believe in.”

Moscow was always against violence in Ukraine, he said, insisting that Russian-backed rebels “don’t want to capture Kiev, they’re just defending their areas.”

Stepanov predicted that eventually, the conflict will come to an end.

“Realistically speaking, it doesn’t have a military solution,” he told his audience. “It can be solved only politically, through dialogue — but there has to be political will.”

Meanwhile, he complained, it isn’t easy being a Russian diplomat in Washington.

“This administration has curtailed all inter-governmental contacts. We had a very good mechanism that tried to revitalize a framework for bilateral relations, and more than 20 working groups on every topic from healthcare to counterterrorism,” he said. “But the only communications now is between our embassies and our foreign ministers. That’s it. And for us, this is not normal.”

After Stepanov’s speech, the diplomat agreed to take a few questions.

One student asked if the 2014 Winter Olympics at Sochi was worth the cost, estimated at $51 billion — making it the most expensive sporting event in history.

“Obviously the Olympics were a success, both as a show and as a demonstration of good sportsmanship. The cost was really worth it because the sports infrastructure that was built will be used for generations,” the DCM replied. “Sochi made such an effort to rebuild itself, and Russians are really proud of this.”

Another SAIS student bravely asked Stepanov what he really, truly thinks of Vladimir Putin. The diplomat thought a minute, smiled and said, “Personally, I envy him. Next question?”

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