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Zubov: The annexation of Crimea as the Anschluss of Austria in 1938

Andrei Zubov

Austrians coveted unification with Germany for nearly two decades, and that dream was finally fulfilled by Hitler. The situation in Crimea is similar, said Andrei Zubov, a former professor at the State Institute of International Relations in Moscow (MGIMO) who was sacked from his job for drawing that comparison a few months ago.

He told Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty that, for more than two decades, most of Crimea’s residents pursued unification with Russia and now Putin has fulfilled their dreams.

In an interview during the international conference "Forum 2000" in Prague, Zubov emphasized that he sticks to his position:

“I am engaged in scientific work. Therefore, I am obliged to adhere to facts, which are more than obvious, i.e. to warn of the danger of a repetition of examples and situations which backfired) for the aggressor then…Germany. I believe that the annexation of the Crimea will end very badly for Russia, too."

RFE/RL: The ceasefire in eastern Ukraine is fragile. In the meantime, the question mark is whether a political solution is in sight given the intention of Russian rebels to secede from that part of the country and to merge it with Russia. And given that there are conflicting stances about the decentralization and federalization of Ukraine.

Zubov: Time is the best cure for the current problems. When the conflict commenced in eastern Ukraine half a year ago, many local inhabitants wanted to join Russia, as Crimea itself did. However, it has become obvious it’s not an easy endeavor at all.

The EU and NATO have made it clear to Russia that any change of the borders in Europe is an unacceptable and very complicated undertaking.

I think that Putin has decided not to incorporate new areas into Russia for the time being, because it is a venture that is too expensive. Even Crimea has proven costly, not only in the huge amounts of money necessary to pour in to cement its integration with Russia, but also the sanctions, which the West imposed on Moscow over its politics towards Ukraine.

RFE/RL: Perhaps one of the reasons why Putin decides against incorporating new areas into Russia such as Donetsk is a calculation that he would lose leverage to influence Kiev’s policies…. Moreover, assuming that Donetsk and neighboring regions join Russia, then the rest of Ukraine might be admitted to NATO in an expedited procedure, in this way bringing NATO much closer to the Russian border.

Zubov: This is another area where Putin suffered defeat. He intervened in Ukraine to prevent its admission into NATO. However, half a year later we are witnessing that the North Atlantic Alliance is coming closer to Russian borders -- not in Ukraine, but in the neighboring countries-- because it has been deploying its forces in the Baltics and Poland. Even the president of neutral Finland emphasizes that it should be considered for membership in NATO.

RFE/RL: You have been ousted from the state Institute in Moscow because of your comparison between the annexation of Crimea and the Anschluss of Austria by Hitler in 1938. Many in Russia lashed out at you, claiming it’s a far-fetched, exaggerated and unfounded comparison.

Zubov: I am engaged in scientific work. Therefore, I am obliged to adhere to facts which are more than obvious. Namely, to warn of the danger of a repetition of the examples and situations which backfired on) the aggressor then… Germany. I believe that the annexation of the Crimea will end very badly for Russia, too.

I think that the comparison I mentioned is well grounded. As you know, the overwhelming majority of Austrians favored unification with Germany. The representatives of Austria raised the issue during the Versailles Conference in the immediate aftermath of World War I, requesting the victorious powers to allow its unification with Germany, but the Great Entente turned the request down.

Austrians coveted unification with Germany for nearly two decades, and Hitler finally fulfilled that dream.

The situation in Crimea is similar. For more than two decades, most inhabitants have pursued unification with Russia and Putin fulfilled their dreams. ….

RFE/RL: What does Putin want? Is his priority to prevent the expansion of NATO so as to strengthen the Russian position in the former Soviet space, or does he fear a spillover of the “color” revolutions into Russia itself?

Zubov: I think he is afraid of any parallel between Ukraine and the "Arab Spring" being drawn. The revolt against the authoritarian regime in Tunisia did spill over quickly into other Arab countries. In fact, religious and linguistic similarities in this region played a major role. It implies that the inhabitants of Egypt, Syria, Yemen, Libya and other countries could very well understand the essence of the revolution in Tunisia. The new social media facilitated the transmission of messages and experiences.

When the revolution in Ukraine broke out, Putin became frightened that it could extend to Russia given the political situation in both countries. I mean the authoritarian, corrupt regime, and the low standard of living in both countries.

Additionally, in Russia and Ukraine, the same or a very similar language is spoken. They share a common culture and the Orthodox [Christian] faith. So, there are more similarities between them than among Arab countries. Putin wishes to prevent Russia from following in Ukrainian footsteps.

Andrei Zubov and RFE/RL's journalist Dragan Stavljanin
Andrei Zubov and RFE/RL's journalist Dragan Stavljanin

Another reason is the Russian attempt to keep Ukraine in its sphere of influence, but not out of fear of NATO expansion. Namely, following the terrorist attacks of September 11, Putin spoke in the early 2000s more specifically about the necessity of creating a common security structure that would encompass NATO, Russia and Japan in order to establish an Alliance in the northern hemisphere, more precisely a system of common security stretching from Vancouver to Vladivostok. Thus, Putin then stood ready to cooperate with the West, although a special condition was attached for him to be recognized as the undisputed leader in the ex-Soviet space.

RFE/RL: However, Putin is still enjoying tremendous public support, which has been further strengthened despite the Western sanctions that harm Russia.

Zubov: I think sanctions are just beginning to create problems in Russia. The ordinary people who do not understand the macro economy very well will feel a direct pain in a half year.

RFE/RL: When the international community imposed sanctions on (Former “Yugoslav and Serbian president Slobodan) Milosevic during the 1990s, his position was strengthened rather than undermined, as the West projected at the onset. He was able to depict himself as a patriot to a significant part of Serbia’s population, defending it from external adversaries. He was overthrown only eight years after the sanctions were employed.

Zubov: Maybe in Russia it will take such a long period for a change, too. However, it’s quite possible that reforms will be accelerated.

RFE/RL: Some people believe that Putin cannot be defeated in democratic elections, but only in a kind of coup conducted from within, i.e. by his closest associates, modeled on the overthrow of Khrushchev.

Zubov: I recall that Putin came to power in 1999. President Boris Yeltsin appointed him as the Prime Minister, and then resigned. According to the Russian Constitution, the Prime Minister temporarily takes over as head of state for up to six months when elections are called under such circumstances. Thus, it is possible to imagine such a situation in the foreseeable future, because domestic economic experts argue that it is impossible for Russia to continue to function normally in an environment of such severe sanctions.

On the other hand, if Putin wants to see the Western sanctions lifted, he will have to halt the aggression against Ukraine, which, in turn, could lead to the disappointment of many Russian citizens.

A lot of ordinary people perceive Putin as a champion of the idea of a Greater Russia. Hence, if he ceased supporting irredentism in Ukraine, for many Russians it would amount to a betrayal.

RFE/RL: Does this mean that for many Russians the idea of a mighty Russia is so important? A Russia that can be on an equal footing with other great powers, especially the United States, or is democracy more important to them?

Zubov: I guess that for Serbs during the Milosevic regime, the idea of a Greater Serbia was also more important than democracy and accession to the EU.

RFE/RL: Putin recently visited Belgrade where he attended the military parade marking 70 years of Belgrade’s liberation with the help of the Red Army.

Russia is seeking to maintain its influence in the Balkans, especially in Serbia, even while Balkan countries are aspiring to EU membership. However, Serbia is trying to maintain good relations with Moscow because it depends on Russian gas and on Moscow’s support in the Security Council in blocking Kosovo’s admission to the UN. For that reason, Serbia is walking a tightrope between Russia and the EU over the Ukrainian crisis. What is the key Russian interest in the Balkans?

Zubov: I think that Serbia will not follow Russian politics in the long-term, because it and other Balkan countries are aspiring to EU membership. The specific benefits which trickle down from the EU will be more important to Serbian citizens than the idealistic dreams of some sort of a union with Putin's Russia, which cannot provide concrete assistance.

RFE/RL: However, as I mentioned, Serbia is 100 percent dependent on Russian gas. Russia has the majority stake in the Serbian oil company. In addition, Belgrade counts on Russian support, as a veto wielding power in the Security Council, to block the admission of Kosovo to the UN. It implies that Belgrade would grapple with difficulties if it attempted to break away from Russia.

Zubov: I am not so familiar with the situation in Serbia, but I think that it dramatically changed its foreign policy orientation after the fall of Milosevic, and it turned to the EU. Russian support is, of course, of great importance to Serbia, but it cannot fully substitute for cooperation with other partners in the international community, primarily in Europe.

At the same time, it should be noted that Russia has not ruled out cooperation with the EU and NATO as its long-term foreign policy orientation. The strained relations between Russia and the West right now seem more an attempt at tactical jockeying. However, in the future Moscow will certainly seek to cooperate with the EU, and perhaps even with NATO. Therefore, for both Russia and Serbia, it is in their strategic interests to cooperate with the West.

RFE/RL: It was the policy of Yeltsin and Putin at the outset. However, it seems that the Kremlin has definitely broken ties with the West, except for economic cooperation, and has turned to Asia, mainly China.

Zubov: It is an unrealistic and unfeasible option. In fact, the prospect of becoming a satellite of China and becoming a target of aggression by Muslim extremism and radicalism from the Russian South, are the biggest source of fear in Russia. These are much stronger fears than suspicion of the West. Therefore, it is in Russian strategic interests to partner with Europe rather than to become a Chinese satellite and the target of Islamic fundamentalists instead. Therefore, I believe that in the future Russia will turn to the West rather than to the East.