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Russia and the US: The veritable chess players
March 13, 2014, 6:03 am

What could be the consequences of all the political provocations in Ukraine on US-Russian Relations? — It Always Helps To Remember What One Wise Man Said In The 4th Century.

Let’s be clear on one thing right from the start: Relations between big countries are not prone to disintegrate or even change dramatically as a result of international crises, however serious these predicaments may be.

U.S. President Barack Obama is hosting the new Ukrainian prime minister at the White House on Wednesday a gesture aimed at rebuking Russia and cementing the West's allegiance to Ukraine's fledgling government [AP]

US Secretary of State John Kerry (left) with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. “Behind the scenes it is mostly all handshakes and smiles” writes Nekrassov [AP]

They might suffer when it comes to pats on the back in public – and other such diplomatic niceties – or from newspaper headlines and opinions expressed by international relations experts with fancy comb-overs.

But rarely do they shift beneath the surface where things continue as they pretty much always have.

Too much is at stake to make drastic changes, and too much money is involved in deals and trade to simply ignore everything and turn back on years of tough negotiating and compromise.

This brings me to the crisis in Ukraine.

Sure, the rhetoric coming out of Washington and Moscow these days in respect to the dramatic events in Kiev in February – when President Viktor Yanukovich had basically become a victim of his own double dealing game that he had been playing for several years – might give an impression that relations between the two countries are at breaking point.

But that would be a mistake.

Playing one off against the other

Mr Yanukovich was constantly telling both sides that the other was offering him a much more attractive package, trying to blackmail both Russia and the West (including the US) into giving him a better economic deal while mismanaging his country grotesquely.

It was obviously his intent to negotiate the best possible arrangement that would have benefitted Ukraine and, even more importantly, the people around him who were known as ‘the family’.

And in the meantime the Ukrainian leader had been presiding over the sort of corruption that made a mockery of the supposed ‘free market’ that we were all told existed in Ukraine.

(It actually came to the point that practically all businesses were paying ‘tax’ to the authorities which then shared the money with the people in the higher echelons.)

But the worst thing of all was that Yanukovich’s people were constantly telling the nation that it was Russia that had been causing so many problems for Ukraine by selling gas at inflated prices to Kiev.

The reality of the matter was that these were world market prices provided to Kiev with a discount; the Ukrainian companies that were controlled by the ‘family’ then inflated these prices.

(This resale is roughly similar to what the energy giants do in the West but without the money going to very few people.) Nice little earner with all the villains looking like victims.

Not to mention, of course, that payments for Russian gas were always late and behind schedule.

So it was no wonder really that when President Yanukovich’s double dealings collapsed and he had to choose between the European Union and Russia, he opted for the latter, as it was perfectly clear to him that once the Free Association Agreement with the EU would be signed transparency would start to kick in and the ‘family’ would lose its iron grip on the economy.

The deal with Russia looked more attractive, simply because no one would question the existing arrangements and the Russian money coming in could be used ‘creatively’.

Street protests no surprise

It was no surprise, really, that the Ukrainian people hit the streets of Kiev in November to protest against the government’s policies and widespread corruption.

No one at that point really anticipated regime change. And that was when the opposition in Ukraine – with guidance from the EU and the US, let’s not forget about that – portrayed the whole movement as being in favour of Ukraine turning its back on Russia to become ‘part of Europe’.

The Kremlin made a huge blunder then by staying out of it, in fear of spoiling the festive mood before the Winter Olympics in Sochi in February.

When the situation started to get out of control, with President Yanukovich looking more and more desperate, it was too late to save the regime in Kiev, elected or not.

In simple language, Washington has outplayed Moscow on the international chess board, just like Russia had outplayed America earlier in another match over Syria.

That is not to say that the US was in the right on all points when it came to Ukraine, but that was how it turned out to be.

“When I ask them ‘Do you believe you do everything legitimately,’ they say ‘Yes.’ And I have to remind them about the US actions in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya, where they acted either without any UN Security Council mandate or through perverting a mandate, as was the case in Libya,” Putin said in a recent press conference on the Ukraine crisis [Getty Images]

“When I ask them ‘Do you believe you do everything legitimately,’ they say ‘Yes.’ And I have to remind them about the US actions in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya, where they acted either without any UN Security Council mandate or through perverting a mandate, as was the case in Libya,” Putin said in a recent press conference on the Ukraine crisis [Getty Images]

President Vladimir Putin’s people suddenly found themselves in a situation when they had to tell their boss and the country at large that their initial inaction was all part of a cunning plan and that they acted with restraint and composure because it made perfect sense.

It didn’t, and if I were advising Mr Putin I would tell him to sack his team once the crisis in Ukraine goes into the stage of slow simmer.

(It won’t really go away any time soon, just like crises in the Balkans, in many places in the Middle East and North Africa, and elsewhere.)

Russia and the US need each other

But here’s the important bit.

Despite what is happening in Ukraine, relations between the US and Russia will continue; Exxon Mobile and others will keep on signing deals with the Russian oil giant Rosneft and trade between the two countries will not suffer.

The all- important exchanges about terrorist activity in the world will go on.

Because  just like with chess players, who part amicably even though one of them had lost and the other had won, the US and Russia need each other too much to put their links in danger.

This is despite the fact they still don’t really trust each other all that much.

And one last thing: Don’t pay too much attention to the rhetoric that originates from Washington and Moscow and at meetings between their high-level officials.

Trust me as a former Kremlin and government adviser: Behind the scenes it is mostly all handshakes and smiles.

Don’t forget, the world is a stage, as the Bard once said, even though he actually took it from St John the Eloquent who in the 4th Century announced that our life is a theatre and we are all actors in it pretending to be someone we’re not really.

There is upheld wisdom in both of these fine assertions.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the publisher's editorial policy.